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Our Last King
Cursed by ancestry,bedeviled by his posterity, beset by forces he could not grasp, George III is usually remembered as the ogre of Jefferson’s Declaration. An eminent English historian reassesses that strange and pathetic personality
June 1960 | Volume 11, Issue 4
Poor George III still gets a bad press. In their famous television talk in London, the Prime Minister of Great Britain suggested to the President of the United States that the kind of colonial policy associated with the name of George III still distorted the American view of the nature and function of the British Empire, and Mr. Eisenhower smilingly agreed. It is not surprising. Since Jefferson’s great philippic in the Declaration of Independence, few historians, English or American, have had many good words to say for him. True, he has been excused direct responsibility for many items of the catalogue of enormities that Jefferson went on to lay at his door, but to the ordinary man he remains one of England’s disastrous kings, like John or the two Jameses.
Actually, as we shall see later on, toward the end of his life and immediately after it his reputation improved, and even the writers of American school textbooks did not at first hold him personally responsible for the disasters that led to independence. They held his ministers responsible. It was after the publication of Horace Walpole’s Memoirs in 1845 that George III began to be blamed. Walpole’s gossip appeared to give substance to Burke’s allegations that the King deliberately attempted to subvert the British constitution by packing ministries and Parliament with his personal party—the King’s friends—a collection of corrupt politicians bought with place and with pension.
Later historians held that these Tory incompetents, bent on personal government for their master, pursued a ruinous policy that ended only with the breakup of the first British Empire and a return of the Whigs to power. Historians reminded themselves not only of the disasters in America, but the failure of parliamentary reform in England, of the oppressions of the Irish, the Catholics, the Dissenters; they remembered the treatment of radicals at the time of the French Revolution; they recalled the merciless suppression of trade unions; the violent opposition to the abolition of slavery. It all added up to a huge indictment of George III and a magnificent justification for Whig doctrine. Here and there a scholar urged caution, but was little heeded. What the great historians formulated, the textbook writers cribbed. When English historians found so much to condemn, why should Americans lag behind? In 1954, two American historians—Leon Canfield and Howard Wilder—could write:
In 1760, George III mounted the throne. A young man of twenty-two, he was unwilling to accept the idea that the King’s power should be limitecl. His mother had always said to him: “George, be King!” When he became ruler this obstinate young man put his mother’s advice into swift action. He set out to get his way not by ignoring Parliament but by building up a personal following. He made free use of bribes and appointments, and presently the King’s friends were strong in Parliament.
The increase in royal power drove the wedge of misunder-standing deeper between England and the colonies.
In 1959, an English historian, Jack Lindsay, was still writing in much the same vein. These views, however, are no longer fashionable. The greatest living English historian of the eighteenth century, Sir Lewis Namier, has hammered at them for thirty years. His friend, Romney Sedgwick, with a more caustic pen and no less scholarship, has subjected them to ridicule in review after review, sinking his verbal darts into reputations as skillfully as a savage at his blowpipe. Professor Herbert Butterfield has not only traced the origins of the myths of George III’s tyranny but has also shown how the now-fashionable view of George III was held by historians and textbook writers long, long ago in the early nineteenth century. So the wheel has come full circle. Will it turn again? Or will blame and justification give way simply to understanding? Shall we at last have a balanced portrait of America’s last king?
On one thing historians are agreed. To understand the part played by George III in the great tragedy of his reign, one must begin with the King’s own personality and with the environment in which he was reared. David and Absalom provided the pattern of family relationship of European monarchs and their sons and heirs in the eighteenth century, except that most of the monarchs were less controlled than David. Peter the Great of Russia had his son Alexis executed—slowly and painfully. The Elector of Prussia, Frederick William, insisted that his son, whom he had kept in close confinement, watch the death of his dearest friend for what only a madman could call treason. So it is not surprising to learn that George III’s grandmother wished that her son, Frederick, father of George III, were in the bottommost pit of hell or that she became almost hysterical on her deathbed when she thought he might inherit some of her personal possessions. The Lord Chancellor had to be sent for to lull her fears.