Thursday, March 29, 2012


A review of Jeremy Black’s George III: America’s Last King (2006)

(Rating 5 of 5)

Jeremy Black has written a very good biography of one of the most important monarchs in world history: King George III. I think in the end George III was a good king, just not great one. He might have been able to be a great one but his mental health stood in the way of any possible greatness. George III did however provide precedence for the monarch as a ceremonial figurehead of unity rather than an active ruler. He was a person of great abilities and great flaws.

Unlike a lot of his contemporary monarchs of the same time period George III accepted the concept of constitutional monarchy. During this period Gustav III of Sweden suspended his country’s constitution, Louis XVI tried to undermine the constitution forced upon him, and Russians dared not challenge the rights of the Tsar. King George III was not only loyal to the British constitution, but he actually loved the idea of the British system. George III understood that his family’s very claim to the throne of Great Britain was dependent on the very idea of revolution and he was committed to the British ideal.

(King George III)
Unlike his immediate predecessors George III was very British. The Royal Family for the bulk of the last century had been what we would now call an immigrant family. Like most immigrant families after a few generations they embrace their family's adopted home over mother country. George I and II were German princes who were Kings of Great Britain; George III was a British prince. George however had several problems. The first of these problems was even though he believed in his constitution, his constitution was unwritten. Today in the United States we often debate about what our written constitution means, imagine debating what the unwritten one is suppose to mean. And it seems that everyone’s interpretation of this unwritten constitution is the interpretation that gives their political group the most power. George knew he was King and as King he had certain rights under the constitution to govern his country under the law and traditions established.

(King George III, older)

I have some sympathy with George, although I do not agree with monarchy, if you are going to have one does it not make sense to let the monarch do his job? It seems throughout his reign King George would try to his job as the unwritten constitution defined it, only to be criticized as a Stuart want-a-be. He thought he had to job to do, tried to do it, and was criticized for undermining the constitution that he actually loved.

(King George III with a nice hat)

He also had a hard time accepting any change what so ever. He could not see that the House of Commons need to be reformed, he could not listen to the needs and legitimacy of the plight of the American colonists, and he needed to be nudged into supporting the abolition of the slave trade. Most importantly he saw the emancipation of Catholics in Britain to be a betrayal of the Glorious Revolution that brought his family to power.

(What George would like to forget.)

His last major problem was his battles with mental illness. This problem would undermine his reign and destroy his attempts to make an active monarchy. He would have to accept a more ceremonial figurehead role during the Napoleonic wars, although in that role he would have his greatest rise in popularity.

An ironic twist in King George III’s career is although he most known for losing the thirteen American colonies that became the United States of America, under King George III, Britain actually underwent a very large expansion of its imperial borders.
“In 1779, firmly stating his resolution never to grant American independence, George claimed that such a measure ‘must entirely fix the fall of this empire.’ Instead, on the global scale, the reach of British power provided one of the most lasting legacies of George’s reign, and one that, in the shape of political culture, survived the end of the British empire. As a result of this reach, this chapter is necessarily eclectic, but it reflects the range of activities and topics in which George was engaged as a result of the spread of the empire, and the very different ways in which he was of real or symbolic importance. One of the most enduring aspects was naming which marked British imperial expansion with the royal presence. The process of naming is still readily apparent, especially in areas where the end of imperial control was not accompanied by a determination to reject the legacy of the past. The royal nomenclature of place indeed is the most persistent for the Hanoverian period, when empire was largely a case of North America and the West Indies: Georgetowns and Charlottes testify to the reach of British power and the determination to identify colonies with the crown and the royal family.” (p.329)
When he ascended to the throne of Great Britain he had two goals. The first goal was to restore the monarch to a more active role in the government from the more a supervisory role of his grandfather and great-grandfather. The second was to make the monarchy above politics and a symbol of unity. On first point he failed and the second he succeeded. The reason for this is these were contradictory goals. You cannot act political and be above politics.

Jeremy Black wrote a very great book about a very difficult ruler. I only a have few quibbles, for example why is words ‘king’ and ‘king of Great Britain’ not capitalized but the words ‘Elector’ and ‘Elector of Hanover’ are. Also there is slight error; George Washington never preferred the title ‘His Mightiness, President of the United States and the protector of their liberties’. That was John Adams, Washington rejected that, although everything else Black said about Washington is true. Other than those two things the book is perfect.

{Video is from the movie The Madness of King George}

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