George III was neither mad nor wicked. The United States’ Declaration of Independence laid 28 charges of bad governance against the British king who lost the American colonies, but recent studies claim that his critics on both sides of the Atlantic were wrong.
Far from being an enemy of freedom, George III was a strong constitutional scholar and the first known British monarch to oppose slavery.
Yet on stage stages around the world, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s award-winning musical “Hamilton” features George as a pompous and murderous maniac. The king’s first song sets the tone: “When you’re gone I’ll go crazy / So don’t throw away that thing we had / Because when the going gets tough / I’ll kill your friends and family to remind you of my love, da dada da!
It’s exciting entertainment, but a bad story. The Founding Fathers might have been titans, but they also had their flaws, and their opponent, the King, was no villain. Americans today deserve a more nuanced account of their nation’s origins, just as the British must come to terms with the crimes and glories of their empire. Because the historical account is more interesting than the caricature.
David Armitage, professor of history at Harvard University, recently discovered a youthful essay written by George III condemning the slave trade. Published this month in the Times Literary Supplement (which I edit), George’s essay, contained in a 200-page manuscript titled “Laws Relating to Government in General,” argues that slavery is “also (sic) repugnant to civil law as to the law of nature “and rejects the excuses for the vile institution as” sufficient to make us hold this practice in abhorrence “.
No one in the English-speaking world at that time, other than two American Quakers, “had debunked pro-slavery ideology so much,” says Armitage.
The discovery will appeal to his descendant and admirer, Prince Charles, who visited Barbados last month and delivered a speech condemning “the horrible atrocity of slavery which forever sullies our history”. Charles’s daughter-in-law, the Duchess of Sussex, also insisted that “the uncomfortable history of the Commonwealth must be addressed”.
Ironically, the first draft of the Declaration of Independence by Virginia slave owner Thomas Jefferson blamed the king for the slave trade, “thus violating the sacred rights to life and liberty of a people far away. who never offended him ”. The charge was dropped when Jefferson realized that 41 of the 56 signatories were also slave owners.
Yet echoing the propaganda of Jefferson and Thomas Paine, two of the most brilliant polemicists of the day, American media and popular culture vilify George to this day as a bloodthirsty tyrant, punished with madness for his crimes.
In fact, the British King suffered from what we would now call bipolar disorder, a recurrent manic-depressive illness, and not porphyria, a physical illness. According to a new biography of George III by Andrew Roberts, author of previously acclaimed books on Winston Churchill and Napoleon, it is the mental incapacity of the king’s former prime minister, the Earl of Chatham, and not the king’s personal problems , which crippled ministerial policy toward America in the late 1760s.
The Whig Party in Britain and revolutionaries in the colonies accused George III of overthrowing the constitutional government. It was malicious libel. The king was in favor of a “limited monarchy,” argues Roberts. “There is nothing that young George wanted more for his people than life, freedom and the pursuit of happiness.”
Another British historian, Jonathan Clark, also describes George as “generous, good-natured, an avid collector of books, a music enthusiast who played three instruments, a patron of architects and scientists … like a philosopher king like Frederick great.
So how did such a well-meaning monarch gain a reputation for tyranny?
American revolutionaries needed a hateful figure to wake up their supporters. It was easy to describe George as a throwback to the ancient Stuart kings their ancestors fled when they first crossed the Atlantic in search of religious freedom.
The British Whigs also hated George III, as he ended the monopoly on power they had enjoyed for decades under his grandfather, George II. It is no coincidence that it was Horace Walpole, the chatty son of Britain’s first and longest-serving Prime Minister (Whig) Robert, who circulated the rumor that the King was secretly plotting to establish an absolutist monarchy.
History is written by the victors. The triumphant American revolutionaries and their sympathizers, historians of a later Whig ascendant in Britain, had the final say.
Of course, George III was not a plaster saint. He made a lot of mistakes; it could be sufficient and was often badly advised. Later in life he opposed interference with slavery in the colonies, although he signed the law of 1807 which abolished trade. But more often than not, he fell victim to his good intentions.
Britain had signed treaties with Native American nations in order to obtain their aid in the fight against its French colonial rival in the long war to protect the thirteen colonies. The king thought he should honor them. It infuriated natural rulers like George Washington who had invested their hopes in taking land from the natives and colonizing the West. The monarch was an obstacle to America’s “manifest destiny”.
George III also wanted the colonies to pay for a regular army after the war against France, but this was for their defense and not their repression. It would have cost two shillings and three pence per settler per year (a few cents). It was the little spark that lit the fuse of the revolution.
In hindsight, only a great statesman could have reconciled the colonies with a poor homeland thousands of miles away. However, none were available in the 1770s. Although his prime ministers missed the policy, it was the king who naturally took the blame.
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s George III concludes: “Soon you will see / You will remember that you belong to me / You will come back / Time will tell / You will remember that I served you well. Americans won’t be back anytime soon, but maybe a younger generation is ready to learn that George III didn’t serve them so badly after all.
Martin Ivens was Editor-in-Chief of The Sunday Times from 2013-2020 and previously was its chief political commentator. He is a director of the board of directors of Times Newspapers. This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners. Copyright 2021 Bloomberg LP distributed by Tribune Content Agency.