George III was neither mad nor bad. The U.S. Declaration of Independence filed 28 charges of misgovernment against the British king who lost the American colonies, but recent scholarship argues that his detractors on both sides of the Atlantic got him wrong.
Far from being an enemy to liberty, George III was a sound constitutionalist and the first British monarch known to oppose slavery.
Yet on theater stages around the world, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s award-winning musical, “Hamilton,” presents George as a pompous, homicidal maniac. The king’s first song sets the tone, “When you’re gone, I’ll go mad/So don’t throw away this thing we had/’Cause when push comes to shove/I will kill your friends and family to remind you of my love, da dada da!”
It’s rousing entertainment, but bad history. The Founding Fathers may have been titans, but they had their flaws, too, and their opponent, the king, was not a villain. Americans today deserve a more nuanced account of their nation’s origins, just as the British need to come to terms with the crimes and glories of their empire. For the historical record is more interesting than the caricature.
David Armitage, professor of history at Harvard University, recently discovered a youthful essay written by George III condemning the slave trade. Published this month in the Times Literary Supplement (which I edit), George’s essay, contained in a 200-page manuscript entitled “Of Laws relative to Government in General,” argues that slavery is “equally (sic) repugnant to the Civil Law as to the Law of Nature” and dismisses excuses for the vile institution as “sufficient to make us hold this practice in execration.”
No one in the English-speaking world at that time, apart from two American Quakers, “had so thoroughly debunked pro-slavery ideology,” says Armitage.
The discovery will please his descendant and admirer Prince Charles, who went to Barbados last month and made a speech condemning “the awful atrocity of slavery which forever stains our history.” Charles’s daughter-in-law, the Duchess of Sussex, has also urged that “the uncomfortable history of the Commonwealth must be addressed.”
Ironically, the Virginian slaveholder Thomas Jefferson’s first draft of the Declaration of Independence blamed the king for the slave trade, so “violating the sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him.” The charge was dropped when Jefferson realized 41 out of the 56 signatories were also slaveholders.
Yet echoing the propaganda of Jefferson and Thomas Paine, two of the most brilliant polemicists of the age, U.S. media and popular culture vilify George to this day as a bloodthirsty tyrant, punished with madness for his crimes.
In fact, the British king suffered from what we would now call bipolar disorder, a recurrent manic-depressive psychosis, not porphyria, a physical illness. According to a new biography of George III by Andrew Roberts, author of previously acclaimed books on Winston Churchill and Napoleon, it was the mental incapacity of the king’s once-great prime minister, the Earl of Chatham, not the king’s own personal troubles, that hamstrung ministerial policy toward America in the late 1760s.
The Whig party in Britain and the revolutionaries in the colonies accused George III of subverting constitutional government. That was malicious libel. The king favored “a limited monarchy,” Roberts argues. “There is nothing that the young George wanted more for his people than life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Another British historian, Jonathan Clark, also describes George as “generous, good-natured, an avid collector of books, an enthusiast for music who played three instruments, a patron of architects and scientists … and but for the denigration he suffered would be remembered as a philosopher king like Frederick the Great.”
So how did such a well-meaning monarch get a reputation for tyranny?
The American revolutionaries needed a hate figure to rouse up their followers. It was easy to portray George as a throwback to the old Stuart kings from whom their ancestors had fled when they first crossed the Atlantic in search of religious freedom.
The British Whigs hated George III too, because he ended the decades-long monopoly of power they enjoyed under his grandfather, George II. By no coincidence, it was Horace Walpole, the gossipy son of Britain’s first and longest-serving (Whig) prime minister, Robert, who circulated the rumor that the king was secretly plotting to bring about an absolutist monarchy.
History is written by the victors. The triumphant American revolutionaries and their sympathizers, the historians of a later Whig ascendancy in Britain, had the last word.
Of course, George III was no plaster saint. He made many mistakes; he could be self-righteous and was often badly advised. Later in life, he opposed interfering with slavery in the colonies, although he signed the 1807 act which abolished the trade. But more often than not, he was a victim of his good intentions.
Britain had signed treaties with Native American nations in order to secure their help in fighting its French colonial rival in the long war to protect the Thirteen Colonies. The king thought he should honor them. This infuriated natural leaders like George Washington who had invested their hopes in taking land from the Natives and settling the West. The monarch was a hindrance to America’s “manifest destiny.”
George III also wanted the colonies to pay for a regular army after the war against France, but it was for their defense not their repression. It would have cost two shillings and three pence per colonist per year (a couple of dimes). This was the tiny spark that lit the fuse of revolution.
With hindsight, only a great statesman might have reconciled the colonies with an impecunious motherland thousands of miles away. However, none was available in the 1770s. Although his prime ministers bungled the policy, it was the king who naturally took the blame.
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s George III concludes, “Soon you’ll see/You’ll remember you belong to me/You’ll be back/Time will tell/You’ll remember that I served you well.” Americans won’t be coming back any time soon, but perhaps a younger generation is ready to learn that George III didn’t serve them so badly after all.
Martin Ivens was editor of the Sunday Times from 2013 to 2020 and was formerly its chief political commentator. He is a director of the Times Newspapers board.