The Goodness of King George

The Last King of America: The Misunderstood Reign of George III
by Andrew Roberts
Viking / Penguin Random House
784 pp., $40.00

Andrew Roberts is renowned for Winston Churchill scholarship, starting in 1994 with the lacerating Eminent Churchillians and culminating in 2018 with his exemplary Churchill: Walking with Destiny. But Roberts has always had other interests, too, as shown by his superb 1999 biography of Lord Salisbury, his able editorship of Art of War, featuring military commanders from Alexander the Great onwards, and his notable studies on Napoleon and the House of Windsor. With King George III, he has taken on a subject who is not only rarely examined, but also rarely admired—who even now, more than 200 years after his expiration, is still reviled on both sides of the Atlantic as a blunderer, a philistine, and a tyrant.

With the assistance of over 200,000 pages of newly-released Georgian papers from the Royal Archives, Roberts proves that George’s historical reputation has been grossly distorted by American propaganda—ranging from Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton—and by generations of British Whig, Radical, and Liberal writers. Roberts aims not just to rehabilitate the king personally, but to give the whole 18th– and early 19th-century history of the Anglosphere a more conservative coloration. The result is an impressive and overdue landmark in royalist revisionism.

George was 22 when he acceded in 1760, succeeding his grandfather, George II. George III was the first Hanoverian monarch born in Britain to have English as his first language and to have a more than nominal commitment to Anglicanism. His house’s hold on the throne was still uncertain; 15 years previously, a Jacobite army loyal to Charles Edward Stuart (Bonnie Prince Charlie) had advanced as far south as Derby before being turned back.

An inchoate sense of regnal illegitimacy in George III was not helped by Georges I and II, neither of whom had attempted to ingratiate themselves to their new, non-German subjects—or even to their own families. George I had detested his own son, and George II his—Frederick, Prince of Wales, George III’s father. Frederick broke the dysfunctional Brunswick habit, being very fond of his son, but he died in 1751. George II was so indifferent to Frederick’s fate that his corpse was left for three days to putrefy in the princely apartments. Later, the King reflected “I have lost my eldest son, but I was glad of it.” Such egregious disdain had a galvanizing effect on the teenaged George, whose married life would be a model of domesticity.

In 1748, Frederick had authored a political testament that appears to have been a guiding influence on George. Policy proposals were few—avoidance of war, repayment of the national debt, and decoupling the English throne from the electorship of Hanover—but his testament was infused by The Idea of a Patriot King, a book by the Tory philosopher Viscount Bolingbroke. Bolingbroke was accused of supporting Stuart absolutism, but he actually advocated a limited monarchy linked to the land and national church, ruling through genuine patriotic consensus and protecting the people from factions and corrupt special interests. Frederick saw not only the necessity but also the desirability of embracing his family’s new English destiny. He exhorted his son:

Convince this nation that you are not only an Englishman born and bred, but that you are also this by inclination, and that as you will love your younger children next to the elder born, so you will love your other countries, next to England.

George absorbed this advice, and when he acceded, his English identity and sincerity were accepted even by some who would be later amongst his severest critics. During his reign he never left England and hardly even the Home Counties—which impressive degree of commitment unfortunately limited his comprehension of the wider world. George had the advantages of acceding at a time when English arms were triumphing in Europe and America, and of not being his grandfather, but he also brought personal qualities. He had “a noble openness in his countenance,” gushed a duchess, and “a cheerful good-natured affability.” Edmund Burke—whose Whig prejudices would warp his views of George —originally hailed him as one who had “united all sects and all parties.” The burghers of Boston, Mass., fired celebratory cannonades and acknowledged “all faith and obedience … with all hearty and humble affection.” But unity, or even heartiness, could not last in the face of the Seven Years’ War, America’s struggle for independence, the French Revolution, and Napoleon—not to mention the terrible trauma of spasmodic “madness” (not porphyria, but manic-depressive psychosis), which, even when in abeyance, cast a penumbra over his whole reign.

In 1760, power in Britain resided in a small number of Whig aristocratic families, who had enjoyed virtually unbroken control—promoting family and friends, gerrymandering constituencies, and excluding Tories from all offices—since the Glorious Revolution of 1688. They had easily dominated the arriviste and intellectually underpowered Georges I and II, and were displeased to discover this latest George had his own ideas—and a Scot, the 3rd Earl of Bute, as chief adviser. Legendarily sybaritic Whigs found George’s abstemiousness, marital loyalty, parsimony, and rectitude risible, but these traits were also a permanent reproof.

The Hanoverians were and are accused of lacking culture, but George III played several musical instruments and was a devotee of Handel. He liked being with intellectuals like Samuel Johnson, astronomers William and Caroline Herschel, and music historian Charles Burney—father of the novelist Fanny, whose diaries are an incomparable source of information about the king and queen at home. George founded the Royal Academy of Arts and invested in artworks, amassing almost half of the 30,000 items in today’s Royal Collection. He employed the architects Robert Adam, William Chambers, and James Wyatt. He had a personal library of almost 80,000 volumes, bought cartographical works and sponsored explorations, commissioned scientific instruments, and ensured that the chronometer-maker John Harrison was paid for solving the problem of longitude. Even when one of his children died after being inoculated against smallpox, George continued to advocate vaccination. He was also famously interested in agriculture, which earned him the mocking nickname “Farmer George,” but endeared him—as did his accessibility and lack of pretension—to a still predominantly rural populace.

George’s willingness to submit to his ministers—when he could have stopped them—shows clearly that he was not the arbitrary tyrant of overheated imaginations, including that of Burke. Roberts does not render Burke favorably—not until the French Revolution shocked him into nonpartisan magnificence—but others fare worse. Readers are slightly sadistically reminded that some sainted advocates of liberty were slaveholders, whereas the allegedly despotic George had no slaves and always abhorred the trade (though he did nothing to end it). Roberts shows Thomas Paine to be a histrionic fanatic, impelled into rebellion by rejection in the Old World, and little liked in the New. The reckless rhetorician Charles Fox was “the most personally corrupt politician of the age.” The future George IV was a boastful, callous, mendacious and selfish voluptuary, who took his friends to gawp at his father when in his most pitiable bouts of madness.

Roberts admires the preamble to the Declaration of Independence, but the second part, with its specific accusations, is dismembered and almost completely dismissed. Americans were taxed much less than Britons, and revenue raised stayed in America. But on top of Stamp Act anomalies and unfair tariffs, restive Americans resented the Proclamation of 1763. It had guaranteed territorial rights west of the Alleghenies to tribes that had fought against France, yet hypocritically allowed English investors to make purchases in those areas. Many factors fed a growing yearning for freedoms, yet had George been more knowledgeable of America and less tolerant of floundering Lord North (whose frequent offers to resign he declined), the War of Independence might have been avoided. Alternatively, had he been really ruthless during the early stages of the war, perhaps rebellion could have been quashed.

George’s innate decency, restraint, and steadfastness of purpose served much better during the French Revolution and its aftermath, when England looked like a haven of ordered liberty in a disastrously disordered Europe. George was fortunate in having the political services of William Pitt the Younger for much of this period (in a rare misstep, the author says Pitt’s house was in Middlesex rather than Kent) as well as the martial assistance of Admiral Nelson and the Duke of Wellington. But by 1804, the year Napoleon anointed himself emperor, George was going blind, and his madness was returning. After 33 years of sharing a connubial bed, Queen Charlotte finally moved out.

In 1811, George IV took over as regent, and the “cheerful good-natured” and affable hopeful of 1760 lived increasingly forgotten at Windsor, deafness and senility aggravating his depression, interspersed with fits of guilty lucidity. He was little visited even by Charlotte, and after she died in 1818, by almost no one. He never even knew of the downfall of Napoleon or the birth of a grandchild, one Princess Victoria. Yet when he died in January 1820, after 56 years on the throne, it felt to many like the felling of an ancient oak. In a single sad stroke, Britain had lost her proven patriot king and gained only a popinjay son.

Top image: Oil painting by on canvas by Johan Zoffany of King George III in 1771 in his General’s coat, aged 33 years (Royal Collection / via Wikimedia Commons, Public domain)

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