By guest writer Rebecca Seward, Metadata Editor
It is pretty generally believed by candid men, that the late monarch of the British empire, was, on the whole, one of the most respectable sovereigns, whom Europe has seen in modern times. It has never been contended that he was a great man; but he had a good share of common sense...1
King George III has gone down in British history as the ‘Mad King’ who lost America for the British empire. The musical Hamilton depicts him as an ostentatious authoritarian, flaunting his military powers and his eccentricities. His reputation endures as a cartoonishly simple, stubborn, pious tyrant.
But how fair is such an assessment? The ProQuest archives seemed like the perfect place to conduct some fact-checking and explore alternative perceptions.
“Whether George III was ever loved by his people is doubtful; that he was not lovable is certain,”2 noted writer George Dangerfield in a 1941 New York Times review of the biography, America’s Last King.
“The book is no defense of George III. The king was politically indefensible,” Dangerfield acknowledged, but credits the author, Manfred S. Guttmacher, M.D., a psychiatrist, for humanizing his subject.
The image that emerges is one of a monarch plagued by insecurities and frustrated with his inability to live up to his own impossibly high standards. "His private life was dull, frugal and religious," Dangerfield wrote. George III was an extremely religious man who was determined to do his duty and show his people what a good Georgian family could and should look like. “Unlike his predecessors he was a faithful husband and an affectionate father,” Dangerfield added.
Born on the 4th of June 1738, to Frederick, Prince of Wales, and his wife Princess Augusta of Saxe-Gotha, George III was the first of the Georgian Kings born in England. As such, he saw himself as a true patriot to Great Britain and worked resolutely for the betterment of his country and its peoples. According to the obituary in The Literary Chronicle and Weekly Review3:
The prince had completed his twenty-second year, when, on the death of his grandfather George II on the 25th of October, 1760, he ascended to the throne with brilliant prospects for him and his dominions. The British arms had triumphed everywhere. The nation was in buoyant spirits; and the new sovereign had qualities, personal and mental, of a nature to enhance the popularity which awaited his ascension.
Great things were expected of George III and while history focuses on the independence of America and the mental illness that blighted his reign, the king did in fact achieve great things. He was very popular when he ascended to the throne. However, by the time he was crowned, the royal family’s power had been greatly diminished.
George III attempted to reclaim some of that power, but members of Parliament were not going to give up their relatively newly acquired authority.
An 1820 article from the British periodical The Panoplist and Missionary Herald noted that King George III “was remarkable for conscientiousness, for his hatred of persecution, his respect for his conscientious scruples in others...”4
Known for his diligence in matters of state and rigorous contemplation of issues, King George was often disparaged by his ministers for being slow acting and obstinate, but his rigor meant he was far more informed and involved than either of his Georgian predecessors had been.
In matters of religion, “the king was no bigot,” the Panoplist observed. “He loved good men whether they belonged to the Episcopal Church, established in the south, or the Presbyterian church, established in the north. The Dissenters under his Majesty’s reign have had their privileges repeatedly extended.”
The article included an example of when “a certain individual of narrow views” proposed a bill in Parliament which would “limit the licensing of dissenting preachers,” King George III responded, “If the Bill should pass through both houses, it shall not obtain my sanction, as there shall be no persecution in my reign.”
It may come as a surprise to many, considering an entire war was fought with Americans seeking to secure their individual liberty during his reign that George III strongly believed in the fair treatment of his dominions. He was responsible for removing the judges from under the influence and authority of the crown. In doing so, he fortified the British legal system with a level of judicial independence not seen in most countries, as the Literary Chronicle and Weekly Review noted:
…his Majesty having been pleased to declare that ‘he looked upon the independence and uprightness of the judges as essential to the impartial administration of justice, as one of the best securities of the rights and liberties of his subjects...5
After America won its independence, George III accepted the situation for what it was and showed no animosity when meeting with representatives of the newly formed country. The special relationship that continues to be shared by the U.S. and Great Britain can be traced back to George III and his willingness to accept and move forward with a new relationship:
When the war was over, however he greeted the new American Minister, Adams with great politeness, and the words that he spoke on the occasion, ‘Let the circumstances of language, religion and blood have their natural and full effect’ – are being borne out today.6
While King George was vehemently opposed to American independence, he was not directly responsible for many the events that spurred the American people to revolt. The controversial taxes and other contested policies imposed on the colonies were devised by the British Parliament.
The king, however, “sincerely believed that democracy and reform were the engines of the devil."7 He was against liberties like universal suffrage and stood against such policies in Britain and all of the empire.
George III was also known for his interest in the sciences. The first monarch to be educated in science, he built a well-stocked library and had the Kew Observatory erected so he and his wife could see the transit of Venus.
The king knew it would be hundreds of years before the event would occur again and, being a studious man with consideration of the future, he organised to have the event thoroughly recorded. King George even dispatched observers to various countries around the world to measure distance and time by recording at what point the observers were able to see what he was seeing in the Kew Observatory.
According to E.E. Fournier D’Alba writing in The Observer newspaper in 1927, “King George III personally took observations, and was the first to see the penumbra of Venus touch the edge of the sun's disc.”8
Not only a proponent of astronomy, King George was also passionate about physics, chemistry and mathematics. He collected, as well as commissioned, an array of apparatus and instruments now housed in London’s Science Museum. The King opened his extensive royal book collection to scholars and eventually donated to it to the British Museum, where a special room – now the oldest in the museum – was especially built for them in 1827.
The last decade of King George’s reign was blighted by what was referred to as mania, now commonly (though controversially) believed to result from the genetic disorder porphyria; meanwhile, other researchers suggest the King battled bipolar disorder and dementia.9
George III’s behaviour would swing from withdrawn to out of control and inappropriate, and his actions would often confuse or offend other members of society and upset his own family. His speech would often diverge off into the nonsensical and his frequent delusions made it clear the King was no longer fit to rule. King George’s eldest son took over as regent and the “Mad King” went into seclusion until his death in 1820.