The Last King of America: The Misunderstood Reign of George III
By Andrew Roberts
(Viking, 784 pages, $32)
Published on November 9.
“George the Third/Ought never to have occurred./One can only wonder/At so grotesque a blunder.”
This clerihew (by the inventor of the verse form, E.C. Bentley, and illustrated by G.K. Chesterton) sums up the general view, on both sides of the Atlantic, of a man who reigned longer, yet has been more unjustly maligned, than any other king of England.
There are two obvious reasons for the low esteem on which this well-meaning but unfortunate monarch is generally held. They can be summed up in the title of a popular 1994 film, The Madness of King George (directed by Nicholas Hytner and based on an Alan Bennett play) and the title of this magnificent biography, The Last King of America.
Not even the most sympathetic biographer, as Andrew Roberts is, can deny that George III was mad for extended periods and that the American Revolution was directed against him. “The loss of the American colonies was,” as Roberts puts it, “the greatest geostrategic catastrophe to befall Britain between the loss of the Angevin lands in France in the fifteenth century and the fall of France in 1940.” The king felt the loss acutely and blamed himself, even though the mistakes were mostly those of others, primarily his ministers and generals.
Yet there is a case to be made for George III and Roberts makes it con brio. On the question of “the King’s malady,” he is in no doubt that the commonly accepted diagnosis of porphyria — a rare hereditary metabolic disease, known to have afflicted other members of the British royal family — is false. Roberts wisely confines the medical opinions on which he bases his judgement to an appendix, but interested readers will be fascinated to compare the meticulously recorded symptoms of the royal patient with the clinical analysis by two eminent British psychiatrists, Drs. Peters and Wilkinson. They demonstrate beyond reasonable doubt that the king could not have had porphyria — indeed, that this theory was based on ignorance and possibly dishonesty.
Rather, the king suffered from severe bouts of bipolar disorder, the cumulative effect of which would ultimately incapacitate him for the final decade of his reign. Needless to say, the medical profession had no comprehension of the condition, let alone a cure. Their treatments only aggravated and extended the periods of manic depression, especially as the doctors ignored the views of the only people who knew George well, such as his wife Queen Charlotte, who warned against moving him out of the familiar surroundings of Windsor. During his five manic episodes, George was well aware that he had, as he put it, lost his mind. For the other four or five decades of his reign, however, Roberts argues that he was as competent a head of state as any and more cultured than most.
Why, then, did he lose the allegiance of America? In a magisterial analysis of the Declaration of Independence, Roberts demonstrates that the king was innocent of the 28 charges brought against him by Congress. Even more tellingly, he shows that Thomas Jefferson, whose work the Declaration principally was, must have known that the accusation of tyranny was false. He gives full credit to Jefferson for the timeless prose with which Congress declares its aspirations, but the indictments which make up the bulk of the document are nothing but propaganda. “The Declaration of Independence is simultaneously grotesquely hypocritical, illogical, mendacious and sublime,” he concludes.
Many of the charges blame the king for provoking the uprising with measures that were in fact a response to rebellion. The Declaration hardly dwells on the original grievance — no taxation without representation — and in any case the taxes were relatively light, while no other colonies elected members of Parliament. In reality, Americans were well represented in Westminster by the Opposition: the Whigs largely supported their cause, led by such luminaries as Charles James Fox and, until he fell victim to a stroke immediately after giving his last speech, the Earl of Chatham, better known as Pitt the Elder.
The truth, as Roberts readily concedes, is that Americans wanted independence because they felt able to stand on their own. After the British had defeated the French in the Seven Years’ War, removing the main transatlantic security threat, the Patriots saw their opportunity and seized it. George, who had never exceeded his constitutional powers, was indignant, but even after hostilities commenced, he remained open to negotiations. Certainly, he did not prosecute the war ruthlessly like the despot he was accused of being. Had he done so, as Roberts points out, the British might have won.
After Saratoga, however, the cynical intervention of the French and Spanish transformed a continental conflict into a global one. The British won the war against their old rivals, just as they would win the even more titanic struggle that followed the French Revolution. If it is fair to accuse George of losing America, then it is also fair to say that he won all three of the world wars that were fought during his reign. It is true that the Seven Years’ War was all but won by the time he ascended the throne, while his role in defeating Napoleon was necessarily limited by his mental and physical health. Yet there is no doubt that George took a keen interest in every aspect of the superhuman efforts required to keep armies in the field and the Royal Navy at sea during these epic campaigns.
No genius himself, George was quick to spot it in others, promoting Pitt the Younger to be prime minister at the tender age of 24, ennobling Horatio Nelson after his victories over Napoleon and offering patronage to Handel, Haydn, and Mozart, among many other artists and scientists. Nicknamed “Farmer George” for his agricultural improvements, he also took a benign interest in the early stages of the Industrial Revolution and the abolition of the slave trade. A natural conservative and a stickler for convention, he nonetheless presided over perhaps the most dramatic transformation of politics, society, and culture in the whole history of mankind. More even than Queen Victoria, he modernized the monarchy and thereby preserved it for posterity.
In Andrew Roberts, George has found his Boswell, but one with the wit and erudition of a Johnson. Britain’s most misunderstood monarch he may have been, but this biographer has entered into this conscientious king’s troubled mind with more than customary empathy. His superb concluding chapter is a paean to “the nobility of George III.” To American readers, more accustomed to depictions of King George as mad, bad, or merely dim, such a revision may come as a shock. Yet the citizens of this greatest of republics are surely capable of reappraising a reluctant antagonist who meant their ancestors no harm. George III was in many ways an ordinary man, but he rose to the challenge of his extraordinary times like the true English gentleman that he was.