- Historic Sites
George III: A Picture Portfolio Of A Long And Troubled Reign
June 1960 | Volume 11, Issue 4
The schoolboy myth about George III is that he aimed to be a tyrant. Actually he reverenced the “beauty, excellence, and perfection” of the British constitution with all the ardor of his limited soul, exercised no illegal powers, and respected the separate status of Parliament, and particularly the predominant Commons. This is not to say that this ancient, quarrelsome, and, on occasion, sublime house—which we can observe at right, taken in action in George III’s time by the biting brush of Thomas Rowlandson—was a democratic body, let alone a really representative one. Perhaps only a fifth of the Commons were popularly elected. A limited suffrage in the country sent many more, traditionally from the same few county families; about one third sat for pocket boroughs, owned, inherited, or bought by a handful of powerful figures. There were great men in all groups, and venal ones. Few men of that time thought it wrong to govern, as George’s ministers did, by alternately cajoling, brow-beating, and bribing legislators, and the King himself acquired great skill in that art. He was sure he was right, by God’s guidance, as sure as any Grand Inquisitor of Spain or hanging judge of Massachusetts. It was a few liberal aristocrats, not the people, who opposed him and his American war and his other follies. The vote in the Commons for coercing America in 1775 was 304 to 105, and it was cheered in the streets no less than the bloody proceedings at Toledo, Salamanca, and the town of Salem.
With his unerring instinct for the wrong man and the wrong policy, George III put the government in 1770 into the hands of Frederick North (left). Lord North then had a courtesy title, since his father, the Earl of Guilford, was still alive, and North sat in the Commons as member for Banbury. Save for North’s wit and lack of malice, he and the King were two peas in a pod: plump, lethargic men with a startling physical resemblance, occasional playmates in childhood, both moral family men, both imbued with the same mystical belief in the justness of the King’s cause.
After more than a decade of failure and defeat, the news of Yorktown was brought to North, who paced up and clown, moaning, “Oh God, it is all over, it is all over.” Then, and many times before, North had tried to resign, but he remained, as Macaulay says, “only because he had not sufficient fortitude to resist the entreaties and reproaches of the King, who silenced all arguments by passionately asking whether any gentleman, any man of spirit, could have the heart to desert a kind master in the hour of extremity.”
But fall North’s government must, for all the frantic King could do, and the independence of America must be recognized. Later on, George made himself civil to American representatives, but he was never really reconciled. After an attack of madness in 1788, when North, now blind and a private citizen, enquired for him, he said:
“… he, poor fellow, has lost his sight and I my mind. Yet we meant well to the Americans;—just to punish them with a few bloody noses, and then make bows for the mutual happiness of the two countries. But want of principle got into the Army, want of skill and energy in the First Lord of the Admiralty and want of unanimity at home. We lost America. Tell him not to call again, I shall never see him.”
King and Countryman
“They had the simplest pleasures [says Thackeray]—little country dances, to which a dozen couples were invited, and where the honest King would stand up and dance lor three hours at a time to one tune; after which delicious excitement they would go to bed without any supper … or the Queen would play on the spinet—she played pretty well, Haydn said—or the King would read to her a paper out of The Spectator, or perhaps one of Ogden’s sermons. O Arcadia! what a life it must have been! … a model of an English gentleman’s household. It was early; it was kindly; it was charitable; it was frugal; it was orderly; it must have been stupid to a degree which I shudder now to contemplate. No wonder all the princes ran away from the lap of that dreary domestic virtue…”
The loss of the American colonies, a long, undignified battle with the rabble-rousing John Wilkes, anti-Catholic riots which filled London with street-fighting, the profligate behavior of the King’s own heir, the collapse of his ministries and his policies—many misfortunes indeed had brought the reign of George III to a low ebb by 1783. He had seriously considered abdication. But of this sixty-year reign barely a third had passed, and now a strange thing happened: George III made one brilliant move. Forgetting all his dislike of Lord Chatham, he made Chatham’s twenty-four-year-old son, William Pitt the Younger, his Prime Minister. This was the man who, Macaulay said, “became the greatest master of the whole art of parliamentary government that has ever existed.” Where Bute and North had been weak, Mr. Pitt was heart-of-oak itself. The aging King, beset by his inadequacies and his recurring seizures, gave over trying to rule, and left most of the great business of state to his Prime Minister. He did supremely well.