Thursday, June 3, 2010

For a Prince Whose Character is Thus Marked by Every Act That May Define a Tyrant… He was not such a bad guy

A review of Christopher Hibbert’s George III (1998)

(Rating: 5 of 5)

As an American citizen, I am a citizen of a very young nation. A past that stretches back only a few hundred years, unlike other nations that have national histories that go back thousands. There is some advantage to that; we can easily separate history from myth with more efficiency than some of our older brother-nations. However, it does however make our past very plain, when studying the Middle Ages the origins of our nation are on both sides of the Atlantic, but neither is really ‘us.’ Although a die-hard republican,* I have always been fascinated by the concept of monarchy. The idea of supreme power—sometimes absolute power—invested in one man or woman just by virtue of birth was always amazing to me. Occasionally children coming to the throne as small children or even infants; King Louis XIV of France was enthroned at age four and ruled for over seventy years. When I first learned of it, I wanted to know exactly how the hereditary succession worked and what all the various titles meant. Nevertheless, what I really found most interesting was how a concept of government that had lasted for over thousands of years suddenly ended.

One of the interesting facts I learned was that a good deal of these last monarchs were not solely responsible for bringing an end to their kingdoms but often they were too stupid to find a way to solve their problems. King Louis XVI**, Tsar Nicholas II, and Kaiser Wilhelm II were all stupid fools who probably did not have to lose their thrones, and, in the case of the French king and Russian emperor, their lives. Still, that ancient way of government did end, and, as a result, citizens of those nations look at monarchy as something that they use to have and is part of their past. Britain, Spain, and many other European nations still have kings and queens, although, with rare exception, they are now mostly just figureheads.

In the United States before we had our successful constitutional government, we had an unsuccessful constitutional government in the Articles of Confederation. We have no direct and apparent link to the world of kings, queens, and emperors. Yet, we were once colonies under Great Britain and other parts of the nation once belonged to Spain and Hawaii itself was once the Kingdom of Hawai’i so we do have some relationship to crowns of old. As this image from colonial Virginia stands out.

(On the top there are three images. The image in the center is of King James I of England, to his left is King James's predecessor Queen Elizabeth I, and to the King's right is his heir Charles, the Prince of Wales.(The future King Charles I))

Therefore, in a way, King George III was our last monarch and there has always been a part of me that is fascinated by the man. In the United States there are generally, five kings that we are aware of. The first is King Tut, although very few of us can say or spell his real name: Tutankhamen. The second would be King Ferdinand of Spain for being Queen Isabella’s husband and sending Christopher Columbus on his missions to the New World. The third would King Ferdinand’s son-in-law King Henry VIII, although we Americans think the number eight had something to do with the amount of wives he had—that were six, not eight—not the line of Henrys the preceded him. Generally, we know nothing about England’s other seven King Henrys. The fourth would be King James for writing the Bible and for Jamestown. Lastly, we know of King George and the American Revolution, although very few American could tell you that it was George the Third, as opposed to any of the other five Georges. Yet, he is the king who is in many ways directly responsible for who we are today, though not in a way which he would approve. Nevertheless, because of his long reign, the fate of many nations would undergo an incredible transformation. His legacy would be consistently redefined he would be lovingly called ‘Farmer George,’ angrily called a tyrant spelled out in the American Declaration of Independence, and mockingly called the ‘Mad Monarch’ due to a life time battle with mental illness.

(King Tut's death mask)

(King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella)

(King Henry VIII and his wives)

(King James I, author of the Bible.)

(King George III, who this book is about)

Hibbert captures all of this in his book. He tells the story of a very powerful but dysfunctional family in the eighteenth century British Royals. When the young prince was born his father, the Prince of Wales, and his grandfather, King George II, were not in speaking terms to state it mildly.

(King George II, grandfather)

(Prince Fredrick, the Prince of Wales, father)

Royal families, like most families, find that such dysfunction works in circles carrying down the generations. As the Prince of Wales, King George II was in consistent disagreement with King George I. When Fredrick, the Prince of Wales, dies in 1751 and new young prince—Fredrick’s son, George, was granted the traditional Prince of Wales title, the dysfunction continued. As the King, George III would prove no better a father to his heir; struggling with his son for decades as his own Prince of Wales would continue to disappoint him.

(George III as Prince of Wales)

(George, the Prince of Wales, son and successor)

“His grandfather, the King, took little interest in Prince George’s progress. He nominated him a Knight of the Garter soon after his eleventh birthday; but he did so only because he was advised that he would be harshly criticized by the Opposition for the neglect if he did not, and he seems not to have answered Prince George’s respectful and dutiful letter of thanks for the honour, merely sending it on to one of his Secretaries of State.” p.11

Hibbert describes a monarch who accepts the concept of constitutional monarchy, the king’s power having legal limits, but is determined to use the powers that are rightfully his. Growing up, he was closer to his mother and the Dowager Princess of Wales would instruct he son to ‘be a king’ not to reign but to rule. The King would rule long enough to see all that he believed in challenged both at home by Charles Fox, in his colonies by the American Revolutionaries, and across the English Channel by French Revolutionaries who deposed his hated rival King Louis XVI claiming that they would bring an end to monarchy. This would unite the monarchs of Europe like never before, King George would even go out of his way to help the Jacobite pretender, the Cardinal Henry Stuart.

“He was well aware that theoretically nothing in either the Bill of Rights of 1689 or the 1701 Act of Settlement stood in the way of his declaring war, nominating peers, appointing bishops and summoning or dissolving Parliament. But in practice he was constrained from doing so, since the Civil List Act of 1698 was intended to give the monarchy finances enough only for the Court and the civil service. It was Parliament which voted money each year for the Army and Navy and for servicing the national debt. The King, therefore, needed Parliament’s approval of his Government, and he soon came to realize that his undoubted power of appointing Ministers was qualified by the necessity of gaining parliamentary support for their measures. That requirement was not, however, such a restriction as might have been expected, since there was a widespread belief that any King’s Minister ought to be given a fair chance to prove himself and since the existence of a large ‘court party’ of office-holders in both Houses of Parliament ensured that the resignation of a First Minister was rarely brought about by parliamentary defeat.” p.76-7

However there is also a very human side to this famous king, he was in person very kind and charitable, he gave a great deal of his personnel funds to help those in need, and he could very forgiving to those had wronged him, even those who a tried to kill him.

In government, the King believed that the monarch should be beyond politics. Unfortunately, the King also felt that he should govern directly as he felt strong monarch should. Thus you have a contradiction for one cannot act in a political manner and remain apolitical***. He saw criticism of him as an attack on the state itself and any attack on the state to be an attack on him. This attitude would help drive colonists in America towards more permanent solution to their problems with Britain by declaring George a tyrant and unfit to rule them. The American Revolution broke the spirit of the old King, five years after he would have to battle to regain his senses when he lost control of his mind in 1789. He recovered but would have to battle mental illness attacks for the rest of his life.

(King George III during the American Revolution.)

King George III left a strange legacy. He was neither a bad person nor a terrible king. Nevertheless, his legacy in America is one tyranny that led to the independence of the United States; and his legacy in Britain as the ‘Mad Monarch’ would led to a tradition of the monarch being, although powerful on paper, a ceremonial figurehead who reigns but does not rule—the exact opposite of what King George wanted—and government ministers who would govern from and be responsible to the House of Commons in Parliament.

*That is republican with the little ‘r,’ politically I am a moderate left-leaning Democrat, I refer to republican as one who supports having a Republic as the best form of government.

**Technically, he was not the last king of France but essentially monarchy, as it existed, did end with his reign.

***Interestingly, the way George III viewed the monarchy is the same way George Washington view the American presidency. That is my personal view not that of the author.

{The video is from the film The Madness of King George}

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