George III (1738-1820)

George III

George III was the King of Great Britain and Ireland during the American Revolution. The death of his father, Frederick Lewis, the Prince of Wales, in 1751 meant that the 22-year-old prince succeeded his grandfather, George II, to the throne in 1760. The first royal heir born in Britain in 130 years, George III's reign as a patriot king was intended to mark a new chapter for a British monarchy that had been criticized as more interested in matters in Europe than at home. He emphasized the break from his predecessors in his first meeting of the Privy Council, when he called Britain "this my native country." Hoping to mend a fractured political nation, George III ended the decades-long ban of Tories from national and local office and broke the hold of latitudinarian moderates on the Church of England, both of which had long-term impacts on political and religious life in the British Atlantic.

Although many Americans, such as Thomas Jefferson, placed the blame for the Revolution squarely on George III's shoulders, no British monarch in more than a century was in a constitutional position to exercise any real responsibility. The policies that created disaffection and fomented rebellion in the colonies-such as the Stamp Act (which George III thought "abundant in absurdities") and the Townshend duties-were generated by successive British ministries. Horace Walpole, a severe critic of George III, explained that the King "seemed to resign himself entirely to their conduct" before 1774. The King understood that Parliament was the true sovereign in Great Britain.

That is not to say that George III did not contribute to the causes of the American Revolution. His inexperience and overreliance on his childhood tutor-John Stuart, Earl of Bute-for advice on political matters helped trigger the instability of British ministries in the 1760s. The Duke of Devonshire, a senior member of the Privy Council, was shocked to learn that the two knew "so little" about the affairs of the world and it was widely feared on both sides of the Atlantic that Bute, whom one senior British official called "the greatest political coward" he ever met, was the real power behind the throne. He appointed Bute first minister at his earliest opportunity in 1762, but Bute's government failed to command a majority in the House of Commons and lasted less than a year. George III then went through a string of ministries before settling on Frederick, Lord North, in 1770 and then refusing for the next 12 years North's annual requests to resign.

George III also personally influenced the character of the transatlantic conflict after news of the Boston Tea Party reached London in early 1774. Convinced that the troubles with America derived from the lenience of British policies (and not shifting British ministries), the King argued for strong, coercive measures against the recalcitrant colonials. He declared it his duty to stand fast against the Americans in "the battle of the legislature" and "withstand every attempt to weaken or impair" its sovereign authority throughout the empire. Consequently, he was thrilled that the Coercive Acts passed almost unanimously and celebrated the returns of the parliamentary election of late 1774 that elected an even wider majority of members who opposed conciliation. The Coercive Acts finally drove the colonies into unified opposition, and the King proclaimed to Lord North in November 1774 that "We must either master them or totally leave them to themselves."

Lord North, however, quickly developed doubts that any victory would be worth the cost. He and Lord Dartmouth, his step-brother and Secretary of State for the Colonies, hoped for something like a negotiated settlement that would return calm to the British Atlantic. North's Conciliatory Proposals, which failed to move the Americans, were considered by Parliament in February 1775 and clearly showed the growing divide between supporters of the King's position and outright opponents of military action such as Edmund Burke, Charles James Fox, the Earl of Chatham, and the Earl of Camden. The King was convinced that "the Deluded Americans" must be brought to "feel the necessity of returning to their Duty" and quickly grew tired of continued debates on the matter. By early 1775 he refused to receive petitions-including John Dickinson's "Olive Branch Petition," adopted by the First Continental Congress-asking for his help in resolving the dispute between Parliament and the colonies, despite North's earnest requests that he at least hear them. The outbreak of war in April 1775 at Lexington and Concord gave the King precisely what he wanted: the opportunity to expressly proclaim the colonies in "open and avowed rebellion," which he did on August 19, 1775. The proclamation also did something that had not previously been a dimension of America's polemical attacks on Britain — it brought George III into the debate as a legitimate target of blame and abuse. As New Jersey's John Witherspoon would later recall, prior to 1775 "greater insults were offered to the sovereign, within the city of London then ever were thought of . . . in any part of America." The publication of Thomas Paine's Common Sense in 1776 lambasted the King as "the royal brute," and Jefferson's Declaration of Independence was the last straw in the collapse of George III's American legacy when it fictively ascribed to the King a long list of acts as evidence of a personal campaign of tyranny against the colonies and the constitution.

George III's primary role in the war was in prolonging it well after North lost all confidence that it could be won once news of Burgoyne's surrender at Saratoga reached London in late 1777. The King came to see victory over the United States as critical to the survival of the British Empire-and for that he firmly believed that the war must go on and that North must remain in office to counter the virtual traitors, such as Chatham and the Marquis of Rockingham, who were willing to countenance the disgrace of defeat. They, like the rebellious Americans, were gentlemen "who pretend to be Englishmen" (the King had long since dropped the references to Britishness reflected in his 1760 accession speech--likely written by the Scottish Bute--that he gloried "in the Name of Briton") and therefore could not be counted on to properly understand and defend the glory of its constitution. North began to think more and more of accommodating America and ending the war before France's entry, arguing with the King that Britain would then "suffer more in war than her enemies" by its immense cost, "which will ruin her." The King ignored him, declaring in the late summer of 1778 that "farther concession is a joke." As one prominent historian has explained, the American War for Independence "became a personal contest" for George III, one that he refused to lose until Parliament forced him to recognize defeat in 1782 after Cornwallis' surrender at Yorktown. Only then, when the King had no choice, did he finally allow North to resign, his ministry to fall, and peace negotiations to begin. George III saw North's action as a personal betrayal, "disgraceful to me and destruction to my kingdom, and Family."

The King's dependence on North and on North's ability to command majorities in the House of Commons reveals the limits of George III's influence on the character of the war. He lost that influence at Yorktown, along with Cornwallis' army, even if the King naively saw the surrender as only a minor setback. He remained intent on continuing the war and was mortified, even baffled, by the collapse of North's government. Being forced to admit defeat pushed George III to the ultimate expression of political despair: his abdication. In March 1782, with "much sorrow," the King found that he "can be of no further Utility to His Native Country which drives Him to the painful step of quitting it for ever."

George III, of course, did not abdicate the throne. Rather, he grudgingly accepted a government he did not want (headed by Rockingham) and a peace he could not abide, although he cordially accepted John Adams in a brief audience in June 1785 as the first United States Ambassador to the Court of St. James's. He reigned until his death in 1820, although the Regency Act of 1811 placed royal authority in the hands of his son for the last nine years of George III's life. The serious illness and derangement that accompanied it, which have come to define him for many as "Mad King George," did not first appear until 1788, and so had no role in his conduct during the time he was America's last king. However, in his final years the loss of the colonies appears to have occupied his troubled mind as he was occasionally found arguing with the one person he continued to hold responsible for it: Lord North.

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