NEITHER DUNCE NOR TYRANT
By Prof. Amos C. Miller:
Among British monarchs none has been judged more unfairly than George III. The novelist William Thackerey pronounced him “a dullard brought up by narrow-minded people,” but added “the cleverest tutors could have done little to expand that small intellect.” Even George’s acknowledged domestic virtues became a source of ridicule.
The strain of fidelity to an ugly wife and performing his conjugal duty with her were alleged to have been major factors in his mental breakdown. But if George felt the slightest repulsion towards Queen Charlotte, he kept it a dark secret from her. With Charlotte, he had fifteen children, twelve in the first fifteen years of marriage; a record in the history of British monarchy.
As to his mental capacity, George was clearly not an intellectual or reflective man, but he possessed average intelligence and above average practical ability. He received an excellent education and had a variety of interests and skills, especially in science and technology. He loved Handel’s music and played the flute, harpsichord and piano.
The falsest charge against George, however, was that he revived the absolutist claims of the Stuart kings. His tutors had carefully taught him the limits of royal power. In a schoolboy essay, he wrote: “The pride and glory of Britain is political liberty.”
Yet the prestige and authority of the monarch were far greater than today. In George’s presence it was said that even the great William Pitt bowed so low that his long nose projected between his legs. The king still chose his own ministers and could exert considerable influence over policy. He also enjoyed patronage power to offer posts in the royal household and army to members of Parliament who voted as he and his ministers directed. Though he occasionally behaved like a “constitutional bull in a china shop,” George became an able politician who used these powers with skill and determination.
Nevertheless, he well understood that by the end of the 17th century a basic constitutional change had occurred in England. No king or ministry could pursue a policy that did not command a majority in Parliament. This is why it is impossible to blame him for the disastrous policies pursued by the English government that led to the American Revolution.
In believing that Parliament had a sovereign right to tax the American colonists, George agreed with the great majority of his subjects inside Parliament and out. Had he pursued any other course he would have violated his obligations as a constitutional ruler. The justice of such taxation seemed all the clearer since it was levied for defense of the colonies themselves after a war with France in which many colonists profited by trading with the enemy. John Hancock, who “signed the Declaration of Independence in letters so large that King George could read them without his spectacles,” had 500 indictments for smuggling against him.
Unfortunately, like most Englishmen, George underestimated the fighting ability of the colonists. Perhaps he recalled the comment of General James Wolfe concerning those who served under his command against the French: “Americans are, in general, the dirtiest, most contemptible cowardly dogs you can conceive. They fall down in their own dirt, and desert by battalions, officers and all.”
In defense of their own liberties, however, Americans soon learned how to fight and Britain found itself locked into an unwinnable conflict. Once the war ended George accepted defeat with his usual blunt honesty. To John Adams, the new American ambassador, he said: “I was the last to consent to the separation, but the separation having been made, I have always said that I would be the first to meet the friendship of the United States as an independent power.”
Five years later George was afflicted with a strange malady that inspired a fine film, The Madness of King George. His body was racked with pain and his urine turned dark purple, now recognized as a symptom of a hereditary disease called porphyria. Even more disturbing was George’s personal behavior. He talked incoherently and incessantly, and assaulted several people, including his eldest son. Once, in his wife’s presence, this normally pious and prudish man became violently amorous towards a beautiful lady-in-waiting.
The doctors, in turn, became violent towards him. When he misbehaved, he was strait-jacketed or gagged. Nevertheless, George regained his health and functioned normally for more than ten years. Then the disease reappeared, and he passed his last decade as a blind, deranged old man. Yet it was during the final half of George’s reign, when he lived under the shadow of sickness, that he won lasting affection and respect for the courage and dignity with which he faced his misfortune.
He had always been known for his pleasant demeanor. The king, said John Adams, combined “the affability of Charles II with the domestic virtues of Charles I.” But George’s greatest pleasure was to go out and converse with ordinary citizens about their daily lives, and sometimes give help in cases of need. So it is not surprising that his popularity was greatest with ordinary people.