Review

History Un-Whigged

George III (1738-1820), Queen Charlotte (1744-1818) and their Six Eldest Children (1770), a 104.9 x 127.4 cm oil on canvas by Johan Joseph Zoffany (1733-1810).

Photo: The Royal Collection Trust.

Posterity has not been kind to King George III (1738-1820). For more than two-hundred years, the take of historians on George has been fairly unanimous: he was a mad, brutish tyrant who bullied and then lost the American colonies. This view, however, is both uncharitable and false (except for the part about the King habitually going insane, although these episodes did not become a problem until long after the American Revolution).

Andrew Roberts demonstrates as much in his myth-busting biography, George III: The Life and Reign of Britain’s Most Misunderstood Monarch. Roberts displays typical mastery of the source material and adopts a well-paced, elegant, and amusing style. Tackling George III must have felt like light work for Roberts, whose previous two books were cradle-to-grave biographies of Napoleon and Churchill. That said, Roberts has had to wade through centuries’ worth of hostile, malicious, rumour-mongering scholarship, only then to dissent from it. This cannot have been easy, although it will be harder for subsequent historians to dismantle the solid results of Roberts’s work.

King George III has been condemned as a brute, despot, and ignoramus. Whig historians, following the Whig politicians of the Georgian era, have consistently painted the King as a dictator who repudiated the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688 and wished to restore absolute monarchy to the throne. American historians have claimed that it was this same tyrannical mentality on the part of George that forced their ancestors to seek independence from the British Crown in 1776. In fact, George’s adolescent essays show that he was taught to revere the constitution of 1688, which the young Prince routinely praised for rescuing ‘the nation from the iron rod of arbitrary power.’

It is true, says Roberts, that the young George took to heart the Tory philosophy of Lord Bolingbroke, the English politician and author of The Idea of a Patriot King. Having once supported the Jacobite rebellions, Bolingbroke later rejected the Stuart claim to the throne and accepted the Hanoverian succession. Toryism had long been a dirty word to the Whig aristocrats who ran Britain for the first half of the 18th century. Bolingbroke’s achievement was to give Toryism a new purpose consistent with the settlement of 1688. He conceded that limited monarchy was a brute constitutional fact. Nevertheless, Bolingbroke made a case for a patriotic King who, while honouring the rights of parliament, would push back against the nepotism of a Westminster Whig oligarchy and govern as the common father of his people. 

As such, George later exercised his royal prerogatives, as Roberts tells us, “to rule through a wider group of ministers than the same families who had run Britain almost uninterruptedly since the Glorious Revolution.” Decades of entitlement can make redressing the balance begin to feel like persecution, and Whig grandees lashed out at George accordingly. But George never once overstepped the legitimate powers of the Crown, always governing with the consent of a Prime Minister who could command a majority in the House of Commons.

George’s reign from 1760-1820 spanned six of the most turbulent decades in world history. Roberts’s narrative is therefore told against the backdrop of the Seven Years’ War, the American battles for independence, the French Revolution, the rise of Napoleon, the Napoleonic Wars, the fall of Napoleon, and the Congress of Vienna. Of course, it is for King George’s role in the American crisis that he is best—and, as Roberts maintains, falsely—remembered.

Roberts presents innumerable sources to show that, despite the impression one gets from Hamilton: An American Musical, Britain in fact grew more conciliatory as the American colonists hardened in their desire for independence. This only changed after the Boston Tea Party in 1773, following which King George finally agreed to Lord North’s proposals for tough action. The King was certainly no blood-sucking, despotic imperialist. George can, however, be accused—along with his Prime Ministers—of short-sightedness. He failed to appreciate the radical transformation in American public sentiment that had occurred after Britain’s victory in the Seven Years’ War. There is no doubt that Parliament had the formal right to tax its colonies, including America; but it was not one which Americans, having reached an advanced stage of social cohesion and political development by the 1760s, were willing to tolerate any longer.

The Stamp Act and Townshend Acts were part of an attempt by British lawmakers, with the support of the King, to make up for the blood and treasure that had been spent in the Seven Years’ War. After all, the colonists had been the principal beneficiaries of victory over the French, who were expelled from North America, and it was regarded as fair that they should contribute to their post-war security. Indeed, the revenue generated by these taxes was to be spent not in Britain, but in the American colonies themselves.

Still, these Acts proved to be politically explosive. According to Roberts, the Stamp Act, which imposed a small tax on printed paper, “had the great disadvantage of hitting precisely those people such as lawyers, merchants and journalists who could be guaranteed to be most vocal in complaint.” It was also an internal duty, as opposed to one of the external taxes on trade which were more common and less likely to cause discontent in America at that time. But the King and his ministers lacked the foresight to see anything wrong with it and, throughout the 1760s and ’70s, found themselves dragged into political confrontations about sovereignty and then eventually into war.

What could the King have done differently? Before revolution broke out, many Americans—including James Otis and Benjamin Franklin—had suggested that George separate his colonial crown from his British one, becoming constitutional monarch of America (in rather the same way that Elizabeth II is today Queen of Canada and Queen of Australia). This would have booted Westminster out of the picture, enabling the Americans to govern their own affairs while keeping George—who was in fact respected in America until very late in the day—as their sovereign. This may even have pacified the colonies as late as 1773, given that it was only after the coercive response to the Boston Tea Party that American opinion turned decisively against George.

That George never considered pursuing this route, says Roberts, “was a testament to his constitutionalism.” He was not willing to elbow Parliament to one side. Far from being an arbitrary despot, if anything the King was too stubbornly attached to the parliamentary sovereignty which he had sworn to uphold in accord with 1688; as Roberts put it, “It is ironic that Whig historians attacked George for trying to subvert the constitution when in fact it was his unshakeable respect for it that helped him lose America.” The King made his motives clear when he addressed Parliament in November 1774: “You may depend upon my firm and steadfast resolution to withstand every attempt to weaken or impair the supreme authority of this legislature over all the dominions of my Crown, the maintenance of which I consider as essential to the dignity, the safety, and the welfare of the British Empire.” These may be the words of a politically inflexible monarch. They are not the sentiments of a tyrant.

It is also not true that George could have offered the colonists seats in Parliament as a way around the tax problem. ‘No taxation without representation’ was a catchy battle-cry, but Roberts claims the slogan was “essentially meaningless.” As early as 1765, the Stamp Act Congress had made it clear that “the people of these colonies are not, and from their local circumstances cannot be, represented in the House of Commons in Great Britain.” It is hardly constructive for a group of people to chant ‘No taxation without representation’ if they have already agreed among themselves that the offer of representation, if made, should be turned down.

Even after the Coercive Acts, George and Lord North were eager to avoid bloodshed. They began drawing up a de-escalation plan, known as the Conciliatory Proposal, suggesting no taxation by Westminster if the colonists would “make provision … for contributing their proportion to the common defence … and shall engage to make provision also for the support of the civil government and the administration of justice…” Tragically, the first shots of the American War of Independence had already been fired by the time London’s proposal had sailed across the Atlantic. In the late 18th century, there was a six-week delay in communication between Britain and North America. “In those days,” writes Roberts with characteristic flair, “the tyrant to whom all were subject was not King George but distance itself.”

43,000 men were killed in the war with America and, having cost £80 million, Britain’s National Debt increased from £127 million in 1775 to £232 million by 1783. This was orders of magnitude more than the £60,000 that London had wanted to raise by levying the Stamp Act in the first place. By any cost-benefit analysis, Britain’s policy in America had been a catastrophe. But it had not been malicious, and nor was it the sole responsibility of King George, whose short-sightedness was typical of the governing elite in London at the time.

George showed admirable dignity in defeat. When diplomatic relations had been secured between Britain and the United States, the King struck a magnanimous note while meeting John Adams, the first American ambassador to London: “I was the last to consent to the separation,” King George stated, “but the separation having been made, and having become inevitable, I have always said, and I say now, that I would be the first to meet the friendship of the United States as an independent power.”

Roberts does not refrain from criticising George, both for his political missteps and for his tendency to be slow in acknowledging them. But overall, Roberts has painted a masterful portrait of a patriotic, diligent, and cultivated monarch who was periodically struck down by mental illness, worst of all during the tragic last decade of his life.

King George III was a happily married, life-long Christian who—unlike George I and George II—was always faithful to his wife. He would give the greatest scholars of the age, such as Dr. Samuel Johnson and even the radical republican dissenter Joseph Priestley, the run of his magnificent royal library at Buckingham House. He was also an enthusiastic patron of the arts and sciences, founding the Royal Academy in 1768 and providing William and Caroline Herschel with financial support for the forty-foot astronomical telescope they used to discover Uranus in 1781.

This new biography is a treasure-house of detail. In an age that remains tempted by lousy slogans and questionable grand narratives, Roberts is here to remind us that the particulars matter. The book is full of fascinating facts about all manner of things, from George’s relationship with giants like William Pitt and Edmund Burke to the nuances of the King’s private opposition to slavery. Personal reputations should not rise or fall on the say-so of propagandists, especially when they have been dead for two centuries. George III is an engaging, humane, and at times beautiful testament to the importance of giving our ancestors a fair hearing.

Harrison Pitt is a writer for The European Conservative. Based in the UK, he has also been published in The Spectator, Quillette, Spiked-Online, The Critic, and others.

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