Few British monarchs played a greater role in popular culture than George III. From the splashy comedy action presented in the musical Hamilton who promised to the colonists’ “friends and family to remind them of his love, of the simplicity of classical British histories on the big-screen rendition of a weak monarch haunted by madness, the descendants were not friendly with the third of the Hanoverian kings.
But do we miss the real George? Andrew Roberts thinks so. While most historians attribute Queen Victoria to the creation of the modern British monarchy, Roberts places the rise under her grandfather’s rule. George III was committed to faithfully carrying out the responsibilities of the office, and placed great emphasis on duty and honor. He was strongly protective of his own constitutional authority, but also willing to wage war to defend the powers of parliament as well, against threats at home and abroad.
Roberts uses a truly extraordinary amount of archival information to provide a comprehensive understanding of a rather tragic, thoroughly misunderstood king. Far from the faintness of traditional narratives, George was a generous patron of the arts, music, science, and literature. He carefully compiled enormous libraries and scientific repositories and then made them available to scholars, rather than storing them as symbols of wealth. He was fascinated by history, languages and architecture, and enjoyed the company of learned men.
On a personal level, George was devoted to his wife and family, mindful of his own morality and a conscientious Protestant. His rather boring reputation stems from his tendency to judge politicians for their more flexible morality. Perhaps his real sin was that he seemed too dull at a time when scandalous affairs and extreme gambling habits were the talk of London society. Readers will be impressed that many of George’s most desirable qualities would be more respected today than during his own time.
Roberts makes two particularly valuable contributions through the lens of George’s life. First, he builds on recent science about the revolutionary war (or the war of American independence as the British tend to call it), which is the low tax rates imposed on colonists and relatively light restrictions imposed by kings and parliament , public. Roberts suggests that colonies became mature political states with de facto independence; they were simply too economically and politically advanced and powerful to remain colonies.
Instead of real tyranny, delays in communication and a lack of understanding on the part of ministers and king over the conditions on the ground blinded them to the true nature of discontent. Although they could understand the growing colonial frustration with better contact, the attention of the ministry was distracted by events closer to home. Roberts poses an enticing, if unanswerable, question about how events could have gone if the king or his ministers had visited the colonies.
The book’s other major contribution is the careful and modern approach to mental health. Roberts systematically makes the case that George suffered from an extreme case of bipolar disorder, rather than the former explanation of porphyria. Backed by extensive studies and the testimony of medical experts, Roberts describes the symptoms, treatments, and how physicians often exacerbated the disease. The most powerful part of this story is the king’s awareness of his own mania and incredible bravery in the face of horrific treatment.
Over the course of more than 700 dense pages, Roberts returns to several key themes: George’s commitment to the British constitution and national honor, his decades-long struggle against bipolar disorder, near-constant cabinet chaos, and the loss of the North American colonies that British Empire refocused on its territorial possessions in the east, especially India. These themes are often at odds with each other as Roberts wage war against unfair descriptions offered by both George’s contemporaries and generations of scholars. Roberts indeed provides so much information that the reader is sometimes unsure what argument to make.
The alternative title used for the American edition, The Last King of America: The Misunderstood Reign of George III, reveals Roberts’ internal conflict. Roberts clearly wants to speak to an American audience that is still in love with the megalomaniacs authoritarian George presented in the musical Hamilton. He attempts to introduce them to a monarch who was far more reasonable and admirable than the tyrant Jefferson described in the Declaration of Independence.
Yet he also intends to dispel long-standing myths about George as either a simplicity or a cabinet novel. While I do not want anyone to speak ill of my countrymen, most Americans will not be able to keep up with the regular cabinet evolutions, and the changing titles and names involved. I’m not sure both of Roberts’ goals are complementary.
Despite these challenges, one cannot read George III without getting away with a better, more sympathetic appreciation for its subject. Roberts begins the conclusion by writing “the people who knew George III the most loved him the most”. His book ensures that love will continue.
George III: The life and rule of Britain’s most misunderstood monarch by Andrew Roberts, Allen Lane £ 35, 784 pages; in the US as The Last King of America: The Misunderstood Reign of George III Viking, $ 40
Lindsay M Chervinsky is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University and author of ‘The Cabinet: George Washington and the Creation of an American Institution
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