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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
The first twenty years of George III’s reign were a public and a personal failure. He had done his duty conscientiously. He had tried, according to his lights, to put the government in the hands of tried and able men. The ills which assailed his country, he sincerely believed, were not of his making. Scarcely a man pitied him; the majority thought he had only himself to blame when disaster came. Yorktown ended his hopes that the tide might turn, and finished North.
During the long years of British defeat, the Old Corps of Whigs, now led by the Marquis of Rockingham, had developed a new view of the role of kingship; and their great publicist and philosopher, Edmund Burke, had persuasively pleaded for a new attitude to party and to politics. When, at last, the failures in America led the independent members of the Commons to desert North, and thereby compelled the King to send for Rockingham to take over the reins of government, George found Rockingham’s terms hard to accept: freedom for America, peace with France, and, hardest of all, no say in the appointment of his ministers, which he regarded as the darling prerogative of the Crown.
The King, despite himself, now had to accept what the Whigs offered him—a revolutionary action that cut at the root of royal power. He had been broken by forces that his poor brain could not understand. And, perhaps not without justice, he was held to blame for England’s defeat in America by contemporaries in both countries, and by generations of historians, though justice would also demand that the short-sighted, quarrelsome, ignorant, power-seeking politicians who had made policy toward America as changeable as the British climate should be held equally responsible. We, at least, can feel pity for him—ignorant, stupid, conscientious, prejudiced, a victim of his own inadequate temperament. Had George III died or abdicated in 1782, his reign would have been one of the most wretched in English history and he one of the greatest failures to sit on the English throne.
Twenty years later, hatred had turned to admiration. His foibles were forgiven; his prejudices respected; his inadequacies tolerated. The reasons, as before, were partly personal, partly public. Once peace was achieved with America and France, the sense of crisis passed and the need to invade royal prerogatives became less urgent. And the Rockingham Whigs overplayed their hand. George III hated these men with all the stubborn obstinacy of his nature. He was determined to get rid of them, and he would grant them nothing in the way of favors and honors. Desperate, they attempted to seize control of the government of India so that they, and not the King, could exploit its patronage, and so be able to gratify their friends without dependence on royal favor. Their rivals saw their chance. The King, who had learned the game of party politics, dismissed them. Now he took the bravest step of his life. He exercised his royal prerogative and sent for William Pitt, aged twenty-four, to be his Prime Minister—a breath-taking choice. Only a stupid, insensitive man could have taken such a risk.
Pitt proved a fabulously able politician—adroit, wise, cool. He ignored his initial defeats in the Commons, planned a general election with meticulous care so that every ounce of government and royal influence would be deployed to his maximum advantage, and goaded his opponents into such extravagant attitudes that they alienated not only men of good will but also the electorate. The election result was over-whelmingly in favor of Pitt. For the next sixteen years Pitt managed his king with ease and handled the House of Commons with brilliance. At last George III’s long search was really over. He had found a Prime Minister whom he and the nation could safely trust.
No sooner was Pitt solidly established than the French Revolution plagued England with war for a generation, and the Crown became a symbol of unity and resistance. Tribulations, disasters, defeats, high taxation, starvation, repression, visited the land; but no one, not the most prejudiced radical, could hold George responsible; age and sickness had lifted him beyond the day-to-day struggle of parliamentary politics, or even the conduct of the war. It was, however, the King’s personal life that turned the hatred which the public felt for him in 1780, to pity if not love.
The King wobbled on the verge of madness. His rapid manner of speaking—a torrent of questions to which he rapidly supplied the answers**—and his extreme restlessness were the physical expressions of a deep-seated excitation. Fortunately he lived a quiet, domestic life, and his farming and love of music helped to calm his spirit. Apart from a short attack just after his marriage, he remained sane until 1788 when he got out of his coach in Windsor Park and addressed an oak tree as his talented cousin, Frederick the Great of Prussia. From that time the King began to talk faster and faster. At one point he talked for twenty-four hours without stopping; sleep seemed impossible for him. The Prince of Wales was sent for. The King tried to throttle him. He was put in a strait jacket. His death was hourly expected. The Prince, fully dressed and wearing his decorations, awaited the moment of his accession for two days and nights.