William Knox papers   1757-1811
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Collection Scope and Content Note

The Knox papers comprise a significant resource for study of the pre-Revolutionary and Revolutionary turmoil engulfing Britain's North American colonies between 1766 and 1782, as seen from deep within the heart of the colonial administration. An arch-administrator, empowered as Undersecretary of State, Knox maintained a consistent line articulating a theory of imperial power based upon an evangelically-tinged system of paternal power and filial obligation. His correspondence, including letters from political titans such as Grenville and Shelburne, and prominent figures such as Henry Ellis and William Henry Lyttelton, maps out an intricate perspective on imperial theory and colonial administration, and provides insight into the British conduct of the war as viewed from the Colonial Office.

Between 1757 and 1765, Knox operated as provost marshal, council member, and later colonial agent for the colony of Georgia, living in Savannah between 1757 and 1761. The correspondence surviving from this period is incomplete, however a number of interesting and important letters regarding American affairs remain, particularly in Knox's correspondence with Ellis and Lyttelton. Knox was responsible for the management of supplies for Britain's Indian allies, and the papers therefore contain a limited record of arms and presents given distributed among Indians in the colony, and he maintained a close eye in particular on relations with the Cherokee and Creek Indians.

The collection provides better coverage of Knox's activities during the later 1760s, the years when Knox's political star began to rise and the colonies plunged into revolution. Especially after his appointment as Undersecretary in 1770, Knox's correspondence provides an informed, but essentially myopic perspective on the war in America, facilitating Germain in his overly optimistic assessment of the progress of the war. During the Revolution, he received regular, second-hand accounts of the course of military campaigns and news of the frustrations and failures of British efforts to quell the troubles, but managed in nearly every case to see such signs as temporary and of limited significance.

Knox's attention during the post-Revolutionary years was divided largely between Irish and Canadian affairs. Knox gathered information on Loyalist interests in eastern Canada, opinions on the fisheries issue in Newfoundland, and several documents outlining the state of the provinces of Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick. Maintaining his suspicion of American intentions, Knox was repeatedly incensed by American behavior, particularly during the embargo of 1807-1809, and by their thinly-disguised designs on Canadian lands. Approximately 100 items relate to Irish affairs, mostly concerning Knox's desire to promote prosperity in Ireland through trade reform, using his experiences in Georgia as a model, believing that prosperity would be the best guarantor of imperial allegiance. For similar reasons, Knox maintained an interest in Catholic emancipation, supporting Catholic desires to be placed on the same footing as Protestant dissenters.

At the end of the collection are a series of interesting personal anecdotes and memoirs of Knox's political experiences, including fascinating commentary on Knox's first experiences in America, the first (1776) attempt at peace negotiations between Britain and America, and his reminiscences of George Grenville, William Henry Lyttelton, Lord Rockingham, William Howe, Lord Hillsborough, William Eden (Baron Auckland), George Germain, and others. Among the most interesting miscellaneous items is a lengthy letter from an elderly Knox to the great astronomer, William Herschel, regarding the motion of the planets and soliciting his ideas on the physical location of heaven in the new Copernican universe. Herschel's reply, also included, is as judicious as it is evasive.

Although the Historical Manuscripts Commission calendared the Knox Papers in Various Collections 6 (1909), pp. 81-296, 120 items in this collection were not listed.

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