The Last King of America: The Misunderstood Reign of George III
“provides a more nuanced picture of an almost tragic figure trying to bridge the old and new political order between representative democracy and the oligarchy of the English nobility.”
George III has been the king Americans love to loath over the centuries. Whether he has been pilloried in the Declaration of Independence as a tyrant or depicted on Broadway as a singing despot, Americans have been taught for over 200 years to regard King George III as the man who lost America by being a dictator.
But in this remarkable revisionist volume, Andrew Roberts, noted biographer of Winston Churchill and Napoleon, presents a completely different picture of the last king of America. Granted recent access to the royal collection of Hanoverian papers by Queen Elizabeth II, over 85% of which were previously unpublished, Roberts presents a much subtler and more sympathetic picture of a monarch who was, in fact, much more educated and politically astute than previously understood.
To say George III had a challenging upbringing would be an understatement. Caught up in a contentious royal family that was trying to fit into two worlds between their German heritage and British upbringing, George III watched the family feud between his father and grandfather during his childhood, experience early loss when his father, the heir to the throne, died at a fairly young age, leaving George to navigate a rocky relationship with his grandfather, King George II, before ascending the throne as a very young man.
George would be considered forward thinking for his time, having a keen interest in the arts, music, and sciences, and Roberts shows that far from being the dullard portrayed by even some English historians, George had a very incisive mind and considered thoughtfully many of the burgeoning political theories of the day. He also had a considerable independent streak, conducting his own search for a suitable wife when he came of age, seeking someone he considered compatible instead of merely making a customary political marriage. His choice of a wife was acceptable to the English nobility and political powers, if somewhat uninspiring, although Roberts notes they did have a happy and successful marriage, producing no less than 15 children.
Not unexpectedly, the coming of the political crisis, war, and loss of the American colonies dominates most of the book, and Roberts offers a unique British perspective that may surprise many American readers. As many historians have noted, the successful capture of Canada and end of the French footprint in North America removed the major military threat to the colonies. Many British politicians at the time had a premonition that the security provided by the victory in the French and Indian War would loosen colonial ties, and their prediction indeed came to pass.
As one of the many missed opportunities to avoid the eventual break with England, it’s notable that neither George III nor any of his senior ministers ever visited the colonies in the 1760s to become acquainted with the growing political and economic independence of their largest trading and security partner. The persistent theory among the English ruling class that only a small minority of malcontents was stirring up trouble was, as the author notes, the biggest English foreign policy blunder until appeasement in the 1930s.
As England attempted to alleviate their crushing debt incurred during the war by passing more direct taxes on the colonies, it was almost inevitable that the growing autonomy and confidence of the colonists would conflict with the desire of England to maintain the status quo and reassert Parliamentary authority. But as Roberts notes, at key points in the burgeoning crisis, King George and his ministers were unfortunately embroiled in political infighting that diverted their attention at critical junctures. Combined with the unavoidable tyranny of distance and communication of the early 18th century, and the crisis quickly became a full-blown rebellion.
However, as the author notes, even when the colonies were declared in rebellion, the English never truly attempted to suppress the colonies with the same violence and cruelty shown to the various Jacobite rebellions during the mid-1700s. There were no large-scale massacres or burning of cities, and many of the British commanders attempted an overly conciliatory tone toward the colonists. Although there were several opportunities where the British might have prevailed, the eventual independence of America came as a shock to the entire British political establishment.
Nonetheless, George maintained the throne for almost another four decades, seeing Britain through the upheavals of the French Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars, and numerous other crises during his remaining life. Unfortunately, George’s poorly treated mental health issues, now generally believed to be a form of manic depression, combined with the gradual loss of his eyesight, led to his increasing isolation before his death in 1820 as the third-longest reigning monarch in English history.
Roberts paints a much different picture of America’s last king than that which our Founders portrayed. Although he certainly sought to maintain the political status quo and the power of his throne, he was not quite the tyrannical despot depicted in colonial propaganda and political tomes. This volume provides a more nuanced picture of an almost tragic figure trying to bridge the old and new political order between representative democracy and the oligarchy of the English nobility. Although he was destined to be the king who lost America, he was a more noble and enlightened leader than generally understood at the time who tried to bridge an impossible chasm between the Old and New World.