In the splendid biographies of George Washington and Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow the leitmotif that bursts into a glorious finale is that Washington truly was one of the noblest of men and Hamilton, in some ways the son that Washington never had, was a stunning genius and no less entertaining as a character. Jefferson and Adams come off somewhat lesser and venal in contrast. Sometimes Washington seemed like a superior schoolmaster controlling all these gifted men as they squabbled among themselves—somewhat like Eisenhower corralling the generals and prime ministers in World War II. The instinctive majesty of republican Washington justifies myth, and even exceeds it and, to their credit, all of the Founding Fathers, formed by classical virtues, transcended their differences when unity was needed to attain their chief goal.
All this is preface to the fact that the most misunderstood player on that stage was King George III himself. When the 4000 pound statue of him dressed as Marcus Aurelius on Bowling Green in New York, was torn down on July 9, 1776 (part of the tail may be admired in the New York Historical Society, while Tories saved the head and sent it to the Townshend family in London), George Washington, who had been a soldier of the King, complained the next day in his orderly book about such disorderly rioting. I find it convenient, if unconventional, whenever Independence Day approaches, to take note of this much put upon monarch.
King George was not unworthy of the toga of that enlightened Aurelian emperor, if only for his intellectual bent. He founded the heart of the national library with a collection that impressed even Dr. Johnson, established numerous academies of arts and science, was an informed agriculturist and horologist and tinkerer with gadgets, and built the world’s largest telescope for Herschel who first named the planet Uranus for his king. A line in his diary early in his reign was Stoical enough to be worthy of Aurelius: “I am born for the happiness or misery of a great nation and consequently must often act contrary to my passions.” One of his passions was anger and in an attempt to control it, he spent long hours in prayer and spiritual reading, not only from the received texts of ambiguous Anglican divines, but from the Scriptures and Patristic writings, and began a lifelong practice of giving half his income to charity. These ways were instilled in him by his pious mother, the Dowager Princess of Wales, instilling a piety which served him in controlling the other passion for which monarchs of his day usually indulged by an assumed right. The King’s brother the Duke of Cumberland and Strathearn was a flagrant adulterer and set the mood for much of the court.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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King George read in the “Georgics” (evidently and appropriately his favorite work of Virgil since he loved rural life, especially pig breeding, and thus enjoyed the sobriquet “Farmer George”) the line “Casta pudicitiam servate domus” for which his Latinity needed no translation, for all his Hanoverian forebears on the throne of England, if incapable of English itself, were fluent Latin speakers. Pitt the Elder’s own Latin helped to get him his job. But George III also knew Dryden’s version (the King admired Dryden, if not approving his refusal to take the oath of loyalty to William III): “His faithful bed is crown’d with chaste delight.” King George astonished many by his total fidelity to Queen Sophia Charlotte of Mecklenberg-Strelitz, and was what we would now call “pro-life” by fathering and loving fifteen children. Understanding himself as father of his people, he promoted moral order, culminating in the 1787 “Proclamation for the Discouragement of Vice” which included a long list of details on the subject.
Across the ocean in the 1770’s, the issue of duties on commodities, most famously the “Stamp Tax” was more than contentious, although no one could cogently argue that the colonies should not have been obliged to pay some of the expenses for government and defense. Eventually the duties were relieved, save for the symbolic tea tax which some colonial extremists, including the Sons of Liberty who were a thorn in the side of the more reasonable colonial patriots, famously exploited. The King himself was sympathetic to appeals in these matters, and did not hesitate to remove advisors such as Lord Grenville when he realized that they had given him unhelpful advice. The tax burden on the Americans was much less than that on the King’s subjects in Britain, and in fact the lowest rates in the entire Western world, and very much less than what is exacted today in the United States. But the King was tone deaf to the real complaint, which was taxation without representation in Parliament, although he would most likely have reached some accommodation as he had with the Irish representatives. In 1795, he founded for Irish Catholics—not with alacrity or enthusiasm but with resolve—the seminary at Maynooth, which had more students then than now, and which still has a large statue of him.
In matters of religion and race, King George was more expansive than many of our Founding Fathers. A careful reading of the Declaration of Independence will find its signatories complaining that the King had defended the rights of “merciless Indian Savages.” Six years earlier, His Majesty had chartered Dartmouth College for cultivating both the local Indians and “English gentleman” in the Christian religion and liberal arts. Thus the College was not conspicuous in rebelling against its King and never ceased to grant degrees throughout the Revolution, which is why it has the longest uninterrupted succession of commencement ceremonies in the nation. Sympathetic to the anti-slavery movement, though suspicious of some of the politics of Wilberforce and the Wesley brothers, the King consulted the converted former slave trader John Newton (author of “Amazing Grace”) and, responding to the tensions of slave rebellions in the West Indies, approved a boycott of sugar. With glaring hypocrisy, Thomas Jefferson’s original draft of the Declaration excoriated the King for condoning the slave trade, although Jefferson was a slave owner and the King was not. His Majesty proposed emancipation of slaves in Virginia who supported the royalist armies, much to the horror of some of the revolutionaries. On March 25, 1807, the issue became imperial in scale and the Royal Assent was give to the Acts of the Abolition of the Slave Trade. King George III was the Great Emancipator fifty-six years before Abraham Lincoln.
The Crown’s restrictions on public Catholic worship were little different from the prohibitions against Protestantism in Catholic countries including the Papal States. Religious freedom was thought to be an eccentric and even dangerous concept, and had no Papal support. Inclined to mitigate encumbrances on religion, King George told Pitt that he felt nonetheless honor bound to keep his coronation oath. His expressed intent to lift some restrictions, was not supported with enthusiasm by many English Catholics themselves, who had reached some sort of working relationship with the Crown and feared that pro-Catholic legislation might stir up a hornets’ nest. This in fact did happen with the Gordon Riots, which were no minor distraction during the American rebellion. The King interviewed the fanatical anti-Papist Lord George Gordon and dismissed him as an impossible humbug. In the Quebec Act of 1774 King sustained the official privileges of Quebecois Catholics as an astute political calculation, inciting near hysteria in some of the thirteen colonies. Anti-Catholicism was rife among the Signers in Philadelphia, among whom only one, Charles Carroll of Carrollton, was a Catholic.
Thomas Paine condemned both King and Pope, although his railings against religion altogether were an embarrassment to reasonable people of all religions. This did not stop his “Common Sense “ from being a bestseller. Its fulminations would find more sympathy among the terrorists of the French Revolution. Unlike some of the Founding Fathers, conspicuously Jefferson, who tried to justify the Terror, King George granted refuge to thousands of Catholic priests and laity, and soon afterward he worked closely with the Holy See against Napoleon. In Windsor Castle, in the great Waterloo Chamber, hangs a portrait of the Papal Secretary of State Cardinal Consalvi, who was a close friend of Viscount Castlereagh, who led the government in the Commons during the ministry of Lord Liverpool after 1812. One of the King’s sons, the Duke of Sussex lived in Rome from 1790 and was on cordial terms with Pope Pius VI. King George granted an immense annuity of several thousand pounds to the last of the Stuart line, Cardinal Henry Benedict Stuart. His heir, George IV (whose illegal marriage to the Catholic Maria Fitzherbert was declared valid by Pope Pius VII in 1800) helped pay for Canova’s monument to the Catholic Stuarts in St. Peter’s Basilica.
It is likely, but not irrefutable, that the long descent of George III into insanity was caused by Porphyria. His antecedent Mary, Queen of Scots, may have suffered from the same enzyme disorder inherited from her father James V. It may explain the erratic behavior of other rulers diverse as Nebuchadnezzar and Dracula, Vlad III the Impaler, whose neurological aversion to daylight may have given rise to the legend of vampires shrinking from the sun. Even those who mocked King George admitted how the wan and bearded figure in long black robe and matching skullcap strained to maintain his dignity to the end.
There is an artful scene in the HBO miniseries “John Adams” showing the King receiving Adams, the first United States ambassador to the Court of St. James. The tension is palpable, and even the diction is faithful as possible to the period. The words are the actual ones spoken by the King: “I will be very frank with you. I was the last to consent to the separation; but the separation having been made and having become inevitable, I had always said, as I say now, that I would be the first to meet the friendship of the United States as an independent power.”
Previously, when the royal court painter and Pennsylvania native, Benjamin West, told the King that George Washington had relinquished all power to return to his farm, the reply was astonishing: “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.” No small man said that.
Editor’s note: The image above is a detail from a painting of George III painted by Allan Ramsay in 1762.