William Knox papers (1757-1811)

Collection processed and finding aid created by Rob S. Cox
Manuscripts Division, William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan

Summary Information

Title: William Knox papers
Creator: Knox, William, 1732-1810
Inclusive dates: 1757-1811
Extent: 3.75 linear feet
The Knox collection is 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.
Language: The material is in English
Repository: William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan
909 S. University Ave.
The University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1190
Phone: 734-764-2347
Web Site: www.clements.umich.edu

Access and Use

Acquisition Information

1931. M-161.

Access Restrictions

The collection is open to research.


Copyright status is unknown.

Preferred Citation

William Knox Papers, William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan.


The collection is organized into four major series, corresponding to the organization of the collection when kept by the family (as surveyed by the Historical Manuscripts Commission). These are:

  • Correspondence 1757-1811, chronologically-arranged (vol. 1-8)
  • Miscellaneous manuscripts (vol. 9)
  • Indian presents, reminiscences, and anecdotes (vol. 10)
  • Dr. Skelton's letters; Irish affairs (vol. 11)


William Knox began life in Ulster as the precocious child of a strongly evangelical Anglican family, and throughout a long career spent in service to the crown, he girded himself with his faith and a dogged allegiance to imperial authority. As the quintessential Anglo-Irish power seeker, Knox always remained something of a political outsider, even while enjoying a positions of great prestige and influence in colonial circles. Never afraid of controversy, quick to publish, and not infrequently differing with administrative positions, he never shrank from a defense of imperial privilege and power. Instead, Knox came to articulate an intricate imperial theory, vested in a spiritually charged paternalism and a philosophy of paternal power and filial obligation.

Although little is known about his formal education, Knox is known to have attended Trinity College (Dublin) for a time, where he fell under the sway of the noted Anglican scholar Philip Skelton. But it was America, rather than Ireland, that became Knox's pole star. Under the political aegis of Richard Cox, the young man attracted the attention of Lord Halifax, and when Henry Ellis was appointed governor of Georgia in 1757, Knox followed with a seat on the colonial council and with the position of provost marshal. Ever attentive to his political interests, Knox inculcated himself into a network of powerful southern colonial officials, including Ellis, William Henry Lyttelton (Governor of South Carolina and later Jamaica, not to mention godfather to Knox's son), and Charles Garth, colonial agent for South Carolina. During Knox's four years residence in Savannah, the colony prospered, and Knox ensured his personal prosperity through the acquisition of extensive land holdings in Georgia and the Carolinas and by carefully nurturing the fragile commercial interests of the colony. On the eve of the Revolution, his American estates had swelled to almost 8,400 acres under rice cultivation, worked by 122 slaves.

A committed evangelical, Knox saw little conflict between his religion and his status as a slave-holder. Over the course of his career, he developed an early version of the "positive good" argument for slavery, best displayed in an open letter to its principal evangelical opponent, William Wilberforce. As far as the physical condition of slaves was concerned, Knox remarked, they were no worse off in colonial slavery than in the Africa, but because Christianity was offered them in the colonies, their moral condition was far superior. While he asserted that Africans were innately dull witted, he insisted that they were nonetheless spiritually capable, and concluded that the paternal authority that structured slavery offered the most effective means of spreading Christianity among Africans. Consistent in his beliefs, he argued that Indians, more quick witted, could also be brought to Christianity if it were presented in a way that would not seem to threaten their cultural integrity.

Knox's departure from Georgia in 1761 initiated an incremental rise in his status within the circles of imperial power. In London, he cultivated Lord Grosvenor as friend and patron, and through him, obtained an entree to George Grenville, who was to become his political idol and ultimately, close friend. Winning appointment as Colonial Agent for Georgia and East Florida during the colonial crises of the early1760s, Knox emerged as an uncompromising supporter of the administration, though he appears to have harbored a limited sympathy for the colonists among whom he had lived and amassed his estate. Although Knox initially opposed Grenville's proposal to enforce the Stamp Act, arguing for concessions to the colonists provided they acknowledge the authority of Parliament, his overriding concern was that Parliamentary authority remain unabridged and preferably uncontested. He went to considerable lengths to lobby among his fellow colonial agents to draft petitions against the Act that did not question parliamentary authority, and his efforts may actually have contributed to repeal of the Act in 1766. But at the height of the controversy in 1765, he published two pamphlets underscoring his refusal to side with those opponents of the Stamp Act who questioned parliamentary authority, and providing a step by step demolition of arguments for colonial immunity. His pamphlets so enraged the Georgia Assembly, that they dismissed him from office.

Soon after the creation of the secretaryship for America in 1770, Knox was appointed undersecretary, serving under Hillsborough, Dartmouth, Germain, and Welbore Ellis until the office was dissolved in 1782. As a supporter of the North ministry's American policies, Knox consistently mirrored and reinforced Germain's belief that the rebellion could easily be defeated provided no concessions were made, though in his own mind maintaining a perspective on American affairs that attempted to preserve the imperial relation through a careful balance of concession and coercion. To encourage American commitment to British rule and discourage democratic impulses, he proposed the creation of a colonial aristocracy and the inclusion in parliament of representatives from the American colonies. The timing of his proposal, however, could not have been worse. Shortly after its appearance in 1777, news of Burgoyne's surrender at Saratoga reached London, effectively squelching any calls for such "concessions." A second consequence of the defeat at Saratoga was a shake-up of the Colonial Office, resulting in the dismissal of undersecretary Christian D'Oyley, who had been charged with overseeing the military aspects of colonial affairs. Knox survived the purge, and in the wake of the turmoil, grew increasingly in Germain's trust, rewarded with an ever increasing burden of responsibilities.

Knox's optimism about the course of the war grew disconcertingly stronger after 1780, and as late as the middle of 1781, he remained confident that Cornwallis' campaign in Virginia would result in an overwhelming victory for British arms. For this reason, the defeat at Yorktown was all the more devastating, and when Germain resigned from office early in 1782, Knox knew that his head would soon follow: as a particularly vocal advocate for prosecuting the war, he stood out as a particularly visible target. The new ministry, headed by Lord Shelburne, offered him a brief reprieve, but by April, 1782, he was out of office, the office itself abolished.

With his estates in Georgia confiscated, his finances impaired, and his hopes dashed, Knox became an intransigent opponent of reconciliation with America or recognition of its independence, hoping somehow to restore some vestige of the imperial relationship that he had struggled so hard to preserve. Partially out of self-interest, he turned his considerable energies to protecting the cause of the Loyalist refugees, and during the last twenty years of his life, he became deeply engaged in Loyalist interests in Canada, recognizing in them the realization of his own commitment to a paternalist system of authority and deference. The province of New Brunswick was established largely at his suggestion in 1784, and its lands were granted to Loyalist refugees from New York and New England. Furthermore, he served as attorney for the claims of the Georgia Loyalists following the death of James Wright in 1786. Not surprisingly, Knox also maintained a deep interest in Irish affairs from at least the mid-1770s, advocating a program that might be seen as paralleling his vision for America, featuring a restricted Catholic emancipation and liberalized trade in Ireland in the interest of strengthening imperial power there. He died in Ealing, near London, on August 25, 1810.

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.

Subject Terms

  • Great Britain--Colonies--North America--Administration.
  • Great Britain--Colonies--North America--Commerce.
  • Great Britain--Foreign relations--United States.
  • Great Britain--Politics and government--18th century.
  • Indians of North America--Southern States.
  • United States--Foreign relations--Great Britain.
  • United States--History--French and Indian War, 1755-1763.
  • United States--History--Revolution, 1775-1783.
Genre Terms:
  • Memoirs.

Contents List

Container / Location Title
Correspondence [series]
Box   1  
Box   2  
Box   3  
Box   4  
Box   5  
Box   6  
Box   7  
Box   8  
Box   9  
Miscellaneous manuscripts,  1757-1809 [series]
Box   10  
Indian presents, reminiscences, and anecdotes [series]
Box   11  
Dr. Skelton's letters; Irish affairs,  1765-1791 [series]

Additional Descriptive Data

Partial Subject Index

  • American Loyalists
  • Astronomy
  • Auckland, William Eden, Baron, 1744-1814
  • Boston (Mass.)--History--Siege, 1775-1776
  • Canada--History--19th century
  • Carib Indians
  • Catholic Church--Ireland
  • Cherokee Indians
  • China--Commerce--Great Britain
  • Creek Indians--Georgia
  • Downshire, Wills Hill, Marquis of, 1718-1793
  • Embargo, 1807-1809
  • Fisheries--Newfoundland
  • Florida--History--18th century
  • Fort Ticonderoga (N.Y.)
  • France--Foreign relations--Great Britain
  • France--Politics and government--18th century
  • Georgia--History--18th century
  • Great Britain--Colonies--North America--Administration
  • Great Britain--Colonies--North America--Commerce
  • Great Britain--Commerce--China
  • Great Britain--Foreign relations--France
  • Great Britain--Foreign relations--Spain
  • Great Britain--Foreign relations--United States
  • Great Britain--Politics and government--18th century
  • Grenville, George, 1712-1770
  • Heaven
  • Indians of North America--Commerce
  • Indians of North America--Southern States
  • Ireland--Commerce
  • Ireland--Commerce--18th century
  • Ireland--History--18th century
  • Jamaica--History--18th century
  • Lexington, Battle of, 1775
  • Lyttelton, William Henry Lyttelton, 1st baron Westcote, 1st baron, 1724-1808
  • Marriage
  • New Brunswick--History--19th century
  • Newfoundland--History--18th century
  • Philadelphia Campaign, 1777-1778
  • Prince Edward Island--History--19th century
  • Rockingham, Charles Watson-Wentworth, Marquis of, 1730-1782
  • Russo-Turkish War, 1768-1774
  • Sackville, George Germain, Viscount, 1716-1785
  • Saint Vincent--History
  • Shelburne, William Petty, 1st Marquis of Lansdowne, 2nd earl of, 1737-1805
  • Slave-trade
  • South Carolina--History--18th century
  • Spain--Foreign relations--Great Britain
  • Stamp Act, 1765
  • Thurlow, Edward Thurlow, baron, 1731-1806
  • Townshend, Charles, 1725-1767
  • United States--Foreign relations--Great Britain
  • United States--History--French and Indian War, 1755-1763
  • United States--History--Revolution, 1775-1783
  • United States--History--Revolution, 1775-1783--Causes
  • United States--History--Revolution, 1775-1783--Participation, French
  • United States--History--Revolution, 1775-1783--Participation, Spanish
  • United States--History--Revolution, 1775-1783--Peace
  • West Indies--History--Revolution, 1775-1783
  • Wilkes, John, 1727-1797

Related Materials

The Knox Papers bear an intimate relationship with numerous other manuscript collections in the holdings of the Clements Library, particularly the papers of William Henry Lyttelton, Charles Townshend, Lord Shelburne, George Germain, Thomas Gage, and Henry Clinton.

Knox, William. The claim of the colonies to an exemption from internal taxes imposed by authority of Parliament... (London, 1765). C2 1765 Kn

___________. A letter to a member of Parliament, wherein the power of the British legislature and the case of the colonists, are briefly and impartially considered (London, 1765). [often, but incorrectly attributed to Knox]

Devotion, Ebenezer. The examiner examined. A letter from a gentleman in Connecticut... in answer to a letter from a gentleman in London... intitled, the claim of the colonies... examined (New London, Conn., 1766). C2 1766 De

Bancroft, Edward. Remarks on the review of the controversy between Great Britain and her colonies (London, 1769, reprinted in New-London, 1771).

Knox, William. The present state of the nation..., 1st-4th eds. (London, 1768). C2 1768 Kn

___________. Three tracts respecting the conversion and instruction of the free Indians, and negroe slaves in the colonies (London, 1768). C2 1768 Kn.

___________. An appendix to the present state of the nation... (London, 1769). C2 1769 Kn

___________. The controversy between Great-Britain and her colonies reviewed... (London, 1769). C2 1769 Kn

Lee, Arthur. Obsverations on the review of the controversy between Great-Britain and her colonies (London, 1769).

___________. The interest of the merchants and manufacturers of Great Britain... (London, 1774). C2 1774 Kn

___________. The justice and policy of the late act of Parliament, for making more effectual provision for the government of the province of Quebec, asserted and proved... (London, 1774). C2 1774 Kn

___________. Helps to a right decision upon the merits of the late treaty of commerce with France (London, 1787). C2 1787 Kn

___________. Considerations on the present state of the nation... (London, 1789). C2 1789 Kn

___________. Extra official state papers. Addressed to the Right Hon. Lord Rawdon... (London, 1789). C2 1789 Kn

___________. Observations upon the liturgy. (London, 1789). C2 1789 Kn

___________. A letter from W.K. esq. to W. Wilberforce, esq. (London, 1790). C2 1790 Kn

___________. Considerations on the present state of the nation..., 3rd ed. (London, 1791). C2 1791 Kn


Bellot, Leland J. William Knox: the life and thought of an eighteenth-century imperialist (Austin, Tex., 1977). 950 Be

Bellot, Leland J. "Evangelicals and the defense of slavery in Britain's old colonial empire." Journal of Southern History 37 (1971), 19-40. 950 Be

Cashin, Edward J. Governor Henry Ellis and the transformation of British North America (Athens, Ga., 1994).

An important Knox manuscript is published in "William Knox Asks What Is Fit to Be Done with America?" ed. Leland J. Bellot, Sources of American Independence; Selected Manuscripts from the Collections of the William L. Clements Library (Chicago, 1978).