Only a few months indeed passed before the quarrel was re-opened; for no sooner had the illness of Lord Chatham removed him in 1767 from any real share in public affairs, than the wretched administration which bore his name suspended the Assembly of New York on its refusal to provide quarters for English troops, and resolved to assert British sovereignty by levying import duties of trivial amount at American ports. The Assembly of Massachusetts was dissolved on a trifling quarrel with its Governor, and Boston was occupied for a time by British soldiers. The remonstrances of the Legislatures of Massachusetts and Virginia, however, coupled with a fall in the funds, warned the Ministers of the dangerous course on which they had entered; and in 1769 the troops were withdrawn, and all duties, save one, abandoned. But the King insisted on retaining the duty on tea; and its retention was enough to prevent any thorough restoration of good feeling. A series of petty quarrels went on in almost every colony between the popular Assemblies and the Governors appointed by the Crown, and the colonists persisted in their agreement to import nothing from the mother country. As yet however there was no prospect of serious strife.
In America the influence of George Washington allayed the irritation of Virginia. Massachusetts contented itself with quarrelling with its Governor, and refusing to buy tea so long as the duty was levied. In England, even Grenville, though approving the retention of the duty in question, abandoned all dream of further taxation.
But the King was now supreme. The attack of Chatham in 1770 had completed the ruin of the Ministry. Those of his adherents who still clung to it resigned their posts; and were followed by the Duke of Grafton. All that remained were the Bedford faction and the dependents of the King; these were gathered. under the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, Lord North, into a ministry which was in fact a mere cloak for the direction of public affairs by George himself. " Not only did he direct the minister," a careful observer tells us," in all important matters of foreign and domestic policy, but he instructed him as to the management of debates in Parliament, suggested what motions should be made or opposed, and how measures should be carried. He reserved for himself all the patronage, he arranged the whole cast of administration, settled the relative place and pretensions of ministers of State, law officers, and members of the household, nominated and promoted the English and Scotch judges, appointed and translated bishops and deans, and dispensed other preferments in the Church. He disposed of military governments, regiments, and commissions, and himself ordered the marching of troops.
He gave and refused titles, honours, and pensions." All this immense patronage was steadily used for the creation and maintenance in both Houses of Parliament of a majority directed by the King himself; and its weight was seen in the steady action of such a majority. It was seen yet more in the subjection to which the ministry that bore North's name was reduced. George was in fact the minister through the twelve years of its existence, from 1770 till the close of the American war; and the shame of the darkest hour of English history lies wholly at his door.
His fixed purpose was to seize on the first opportunity of undoing the "fatal compliance of 1766." A trivial riot gave him the handle he wanted. In December 1773 the arrival of some English ships laden with tea kindled fresh irritation in Boston, where the non-importation agreement was strictly enforced. A mob in the disguise of Indians boarded the vessels and flung their contents into the sea. The outrage was deplored alike by the friends of America in England and by its own leading statesmen; and both Washington and Chatham were prepared to support the Government in its looked-for demand of redress. But the thought of the King was not of redress but of repression, and he set roughly aside the more conciliatory proposals of Lord North and his fellow-ministers. They had already rejected as " frivolous and vexatious" a petition of the Assembly of Massachusetts for the dismissal of two public officers whose letters home advised the withdrawal of free institutions from the Colonies. They now seized on the riot as a pretext for rigorous measures. A bill introduced into Parliament in the beginning of 1774 punished Boston by closing its port against all commerce.
Another punished the State of Massachusetts by withdrawing the liberties it had enjoyed ever since the Pilgrim Fathers landed on its soil. Its charter was altered. The choice of its Council was transferred from the people to the Crown, and the nomination of its judges was transferred to the Governor. In the Governor, too, by a provision more outrageous than even these, was vested the right of sending all persons charged with a share in the late disturbances to England for trial. To enforce these measures of repression troops were sent to America, and General Gage, the commander-in-chief there, was appointed Governor of Massachusetts. The King's exultation at the prospect before him was unbounded. " The die," he wrote triumphantly to his minister, "is cast. The Colonies must either triumph or submit." Four regiments would be enough to bring the Americans to their senses. They would only be "lions while we are lambs." " If we take the resolute part," he decided solemnly, "they will undoubtedly be very meek." Unluckily, the blow at Massachusetts was received with anything but meekness. The jealousies between State and State were hushed by the sense that the liberties of all were in danger.
If the British Parliament could cancel the charter of Massachusetts and ruin the trade of Boston, it could cancel the charter of every colony and ruin the trade of every port from the St. Lawrence to the coast of Georgia. All therefore adopted the cause of Massachusetts; and all their Legislatures, save that of Georgia, sent delegates to a Congress which assembled on the 4th of September at Philadelphia. Massachusetts took a yet bolder course. Not a citizen would act under the new laws. Its Assembly met in defiance of the Governor, called out the militia of the State, and provided arms and ammunition for it. But there was still room for reconciliation. The resolutions of the Congress had been moderate; for Virginia was the wealthiest and most influential among the States who sent delegates; and though resolute to resist the new measures of the Government, Virginia still clung to the mother country. At home, the merchants of London and Bristol pleaded loudly for reconciliation; and in January 1775 Chatham again came forward to avert a strife he had once before succeeded in preventing.