The succession of failures in America, culminating in Cornwallis's surrender at Yorktown in October 1781, wearied the nation, and at length the persistent and powerful attacks of the opposition began to tell. "At this time," wrote Burke, in words of manly self-assertion, thirteen years afterwards, "having a momentary lead (1780-1782), so aided and so encouraged, and as a feeble instrument in a mighty hand - I do not say I saved my country - I am sure I did my country important service. There were few indeed at that time that did not acknowledge it. It was but one voice, that no man in the kingdom better deserved an honourable provision should be made for him." In the spring of 1782 Lord North resigned. It seemed as if the court system which Burke had been denouncing for a dozen years was now finally broken, and as if the party which he had been the chief instrument in instructing, directing and keeping together must now inevitably possess power for many years to come. Yet in a few months the whole fabric had fallen, and the Whigs were thrown into opposition for the rest of the century. The story cannot be omitted in the most summary account of Burke's life.
Lord Rockingham came into office on the fall of North. Burke was rewarded for services beyond price by being made paymaster of the forces, with the rank of a privy councillor. He had lost his seat for Bristol two years before, in consequence of his courageous advocacy of a measure of tolerance for the Catholics, and his still more courageous exposure of the enormities of the commercial policy of England towards Ireland. He sat during the rest of his parliamentary life (to 1794) for Malton, a pocket borough first of Lord Rockingham's, then of Lord Fitzwilliam's. Burke's first tenure of office was very brief. He had brought forward in 1780 a comprehensive scheme of economical reform, with the design of limiting the resources of jobbery and corruption which the crown was able to use to strengthen its own sinister influence in parliament. Administrative reform was, next to peace with the colonies, the part of the scheme of the new ministry to which the king most warmly objected. It was carried out with greater moderation than had been foreshadowed in opposition. But at any rate Burke's own office was not spared.
While Charles Fox's father was at the pay-office (1765-1778) he realized as the interest of the cash balances which he was allowed to retain in his hands, nearly a quarter of a million of money. When Burke came to this post the salary was settled at £4000 a year. He did not enjoy the income long. In July 1782 Lord Rockingham died; Lord Shelburne took his place; Fox, who inherited from his father a belief in Lord Shelburne's duplicity, which his own experience of him as a colleague during the last three months had made stronger, declined to serve under him. Burke, though he had not encouraged Fox to take this step, still with his usual loyalty followed him out of office. This may have been a proper thing to do if their distrust of Shelburne was incurable, but the next step, coalition with Lord North against him, was not only a political blunder, but a shock to party morality, which brought speedy retribution. Either they had been wrong, and violently wrong, for a dozen years, or else Lord North was the guiltiest political instrument since Strafford. Burke attempted to defend the alliance on the ground of the substantial agreement between Fox and North in public aims. The defence is wholly untenable.
The Rockingham Whigs were as substantially in agreement on public affairs with the Shelburne Whigs as they were with Lord North. The movement was one of the worst in the history of English party. It served its immediate purpose, however, for Lord Shelburne found himself (February 24, 1783) too weak to carry on the government, and was succeeded by the members of the coalition, with the duke of Portland for prime minister (April 2, 1783). Burke went back to his old post at the pay-office and was soon engaged in framing and drawing the famous India Bill. This was long supposed to be the work of Fox, who was politically responsible for it. We may be sure that neither he nor Burke would have devised any government for India which they did not honestly believe to be for the advantage both of that country and of England. But it cannot be disguised that Burke had thoroughly persuaded himself that it was indispensable in the interests of English freedom to strengthen the party hostile to the court. As we have already said, dread of the peril to the constitution from the new aims of George III. was the main inspiration of Burke's political action in home affairs for the best part of his political life.
The India Bill strengthened the anti-court party by transferring the government of India to seven persons named in the bill, and neither appointed nor removable by the crown. In other words, the bill gave the government to a board chosen directly by the House of Commons; and it had the incidental advantage of conferring on the ministerial party patronage valued at £300,000 a year, which would remain for a fixed term of years out of reach of the king. In a word, judging the India Bill from a party point of view, we see that Burke was now completing the aim of his project of economic reform. That measure had weakened the influence of the crown by limiting its patronage. The measure for India weakened the influence of the crown by giving a mass of patronage to the party which the king hated. But this was not to be. The India Bill was thrown out by means of a royal intrigue in the Lords, and the ministers were instantly dismissed (December 18, 1783). Young William Pitt, then only in his twenty-fifth year, had been chancellor of the exchequer in Lord Shelburne's short ministry, and had refused to enter the coalition government from an honourable repugnance to join Lord North. He was now made prime minister.
The country in the election of the next year ratified the king's judgment against the Portland combination; and the hopes which Burke had cherished for a political lifetime were irretrievably ruined.