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
Thus the first ten years of George III’s reign passed in political chaos; slowly, however, he learned the devious ways of politics, the price of men, and above all the necessity for a man who could manage the Commons in his interest. In 1770 he discovered Lord North, the eldest son of the Earl of Guilford; North, whose association with the King was to prove so disastrous for England and so fortunate for America, was an odd character. An excellent administrator, a witty and practiced debater, full of good humor and charm, he always pleased and soothed the members of the Commons; nevertheless his soft, fat, rounded body and full, piglike face bespoke an indolence that bordered on disease, a physical incapacity that made his laborious days an intolerable burden on his spirit. Time and time again he begged the King to release him from office. The King would not, for North reverenced as he did the mystical power of monarchy and thought as he did on the two grave political problems which vexed his country—Wilkes and America.
Without North, he could see only ruin for himself and his people. The constantly changing ministries and the bitter factional strife of George III’s first ten years had bedeviled both problems. John Wilkes, wit, libertine, master tactician, raised fundamental issues concerning the liberty of the British subject. None of the cases in which he was involved was clear-cut; in each the ministerial cause was handled with massive ineptitude. Wilkes divided the Whig groups in Parliament as effectively as he united the discontented in London. George hated “that devil Wilkes,” and let this hatred be known to all and sundry. Thus Wilkes’s supporters could talk of royal despotism and get others to believe them. In America Wilkes’s name became a byword for liberty and for resistance to royal tyranny from Boston down the seaboard to Charleston.
America proved a graver problem than Wilkes; and the effect of ministerial changes far worse. After the great war with France which, through the Treaty of Paris, deprived her of Canada, the majority of Englishmen, and, indeed, many colonists, felt that some of the expenses of the conflict should be borne by the Americans. Each ministry from 1760–70 differed in its views as to how this should be done, and each had a separate solution for assuaging the bitterness aroused in the Americans by the inept attempts to get revenue. Acts passed by one ministry were repealed by its successor, and party maneuver became more important than the fate of America. Nor was it the question of revenue alone that infuriated the colonists—the British constantly betrayed their ignorance of American needs and American aspirations. They tried to restrict settlement beyond the Allegheny Mountains, took Indian affairs into their own hands, attempted to suppress paper currency, renovated oppressive customs laws, and restricted trade with the West Indies. No Englishman realized that the American colonies were moving toward a rapid expansion in trade, wealth, and power, just as no American could conceive of the huge expense of war that arose from Britain’s vast imperial connections.
By the late 1760’s, hope for compromise was probably a delusive dream of men of good will such as Chatham and Franklin. But whether it had a chance or not, there can be no doubt that the known attitude of the King made matters worse. George III revered, naturally enough, the concept of kingship. Kings were God’s immediate servants. Their duties were clear—to pass on all the rights, obligations, powers, territories, undiminished, to their heirs. The constitution was sacrosanct and unchangeable. And so absolutely did George III identify himself with the English Crown that any criticism of monarchical powers, any suggestion of reform or change, he regarded as a personal affront.
The King was so stupid that he could not distinguish between himself as a person and his constitutional position as ruler. Although he accepted the American policies—either of compromise or coercion—with which his ministers presented him, placing his signature first on the Stamp Act and then on its repeal, his heart was always with the physical-force party, and he moved with uttermost reluctance to the idea of compromise, which, he thought, would infuriate as well as ruin Britain.∗ Those politicians, therefore, who were prepared to bring the “American rebels,” as the King called them, to their senses were the recipients of his warmhearted loyalty and devotion. In the small world of English political society, the King’s views did not go for nothing. He was the fountain of patronage, the ultimate executive authority, the man who could make and break ministers and ministries. In consequence, the King’s attitude began to polarize new attitudes in politics. He became the symbol of conservatism and reaction; his opponents, the men who thought that the liberties for which Wilkes and the Americans fought were essential, too, for all Englishmen, began to take a more radical attitude not only to the Crown but also to the very structure of English society. Naturally, the first effect of this was to disrupt the old political alignments; Whiggery began to break up into two groups, a right and a left wing; the Tories, who had been in opposition since 1714, now felt that they could support George III body and soul. It took many years for these new forces to push their way through into public consciousness, redefined, but George III’s own personality—his meddling interference and his blind, obstinate conservatism—sharpened many men’s intention to reduce the powers of the Crown even further.