George III: why his reputation as the mad king who lost America needs to be re-evaluated
King George III has long been cast as the crazed despot who squandered the 13 American colonies. Yet, argues Andrew Roberts, this grim characterisation is the result not of hard facts but a historical stitch-up...
The words ring down the ages: “A prince, whose character is marked by every act which may define a tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.”
Thomas Jefferson’s description of King George III in the Declaration of Independence has been taken virtually as holy writ in the United States, where scarcely a day goes by when George is not described as a tyrant, despot or dictator in some newspaper or website. In Britain the verdict is predictably less harsh, but he is still primarily known as the mad king who suffered from a rare disease of the blood called porphyria and lost the American colonies, probably because he was mad.
Thomas Paine, one of the greatest propagandists of the 18th century, called George the “cruellest sovereign tyrant of this age”, a “butcher” and “that wicked tyrannical brute (nay worse than brute) of Great Britain”.
This theme was picked up by the Whig historians of the 19th century: George Otto Trevelyan described George as “a ruler who cherished every abuse in church and state”. Not to be outdone, his son George Macaulay Trevelyan, in his hugely influential History of England, castigated “the attempt of George III to recover the powers of the crown”, and put Britain’s defeat in the American War of Independence entirely down to “the unbending stubbornness of George III”.
Today, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s brilliant and award-winning Hamilton: An American Musical portrays George III as comic yet cruel, camp yet sinister. “You’ll remember you belong to me,” a sardonic, preening, pompous monarch sings in his cameo appearances, and: “I will kill your friends and family to remind you of my love.”
Far from being a brute, George III emerges as an enlightened monarch, devoted to the constitution, and almost a Renaissance prince when it came to his patronage of the arts and culture
All these negative portrayals of the king are wildly inaccurate historically, as the ongoing release of more than 200,000 pages from the Royal Archives, thanks to the magnificent Georgian Papers Programme, proves. Far from being a brute, George III emerges from them as an enlightened monarch, devoted to the constitution, and almost a Renaissance prince when it came to his patronage of the arts and culture.
Moreover, his five bouts of mental illness – the last of which lasted a decade – did not derive from porphyria. And since he was not afflicted with “The King’s Malady” at all between 1765 and 1788, it could not have affected the American War of Independence, which broke out in April 1775 and ended in 1783.
Listen: Andrew Roberts discusses his landmark new biography of King George III and takes on some of the myths that have surrounded the monarch, on this episode of the HistoryExtra podcast:
Was George III really a tyrant?
Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary defines a tyrant as either “An absolute monarch, governing imperiously” or “A cruel despotic and severe master”, and George was none of those. The American colonies were among the freest societies in the world in the 1760s and up until the Boston Tea Party in December 1773.
The overwhelming majority of their laws were created by Americans themselves in their provincial assemblies, and assented to by an (often-absentee) royal governor and (often American-born) lieutenant-governor. The colonial press was, as the American historian Richard Brookhiser recently put it, “the freest in the world”, and the presence of the British State was minimal – one colony had only 17 officials in the pay of the king.
The Stamp Act – a revenue-producing measure on paper products, designed to fund the defence of the 13 colonies – was meant to raise between £45,000 and £60,000 each year from 1.9 million American colonists, a miniscule amount.
If Thomas Jefferson had wanted to see true tyranny and despotism, there were plenty of contemporaneous examples from which to choose. The Spanish crushed an uprising against their rule in Louisiana in 1768 and executed the rebel leaders. In Poland, which was partitioned between Austria, Russia and Prussia in 1772, liberty was entirely extinguished.
The Russians’ bloodthirsty campaign of savage executions and reprisals in the regions affected by the Pugachev Uprising against Catherine the Great in 1773–75 ended when Pugachev himself was beheaded and dismembered in Moscow in January 1775, something that George would never have done to Jefferson, John Adams, George Washington or Thomas Paine. Indeed, the British were desperate for a peaceful solution to the crisis even long after the initial bloodshed at Lexington and Concord.
Nor was George even primarily responsible for the remarkable series of policy errors made by British governments in the 1760s and 1770s, except insofar as he appointed the prime ministers who perpetrated them.
“The king,” the cabinet minister Lord Hillsborough told Thomas Hutchinson, the hardline former governor of Massachusetts, in February 1775, “always will leave his own sentiments and conform to his ministers, though he will argue with them, and very sensibly; but if they adhere to their own opinion he will say, ‘Well, do you choose it to be so? Then let it be.’ And sometimes he had known him add, ‘You must take the blame upon yourself.’”
These are not the words of a tyrant. Part of the reason that historians reached the conclusion that George was a driving force behind the Coercive Acts (four acts of parliament designed to punish Massachusetts for the Boston Tea Party) was that in 1867 WB Donne published only his side of the correspondence with Lord North, not both.
Only when the letters from the king are read in conjunction with the ones from North does it become clear that the king was following, supportively, initiatives from the government, and not the other way around.
What lay behind the king’s madness?From the mid-1960s until 2010, it was generally believed that “The King’s Malady” from which George III suffered in 1765, 1788–89, 1801, 1804 and 1810–20 was the rare blood disease porphyria. This was a consequence of a theory vigorously promoted by Dr Ida Macalpine and her son Dr Richard Hunter in their book in the late sixties.
The theory gained lasting popular traction in large part from its repetition in Alan Bennett’s 1991 play The Madness of George III, and the subsequent movie adaptation in 1994, in both of which porphyria was presented as the concluding diagnosis of “The King’s Malady”.
It is now clear that the porphyria theory was wrong. It was based on a large number of misconceptions and a highly selective use of evidence; it contained factual errors, flawed reasoning and the ignoring or downplaying of evidence that contradicted the authors’ thesis. Macalpine and Hunter had no clinical experience in diagnosing or treating porphyria, and presented an intellectually disingenuous case that the illness was physiological rather than psychological. This was a thesis that broadly aligned with various other theories they had expressed regarding mental illness in general, but crucially it did not fit the facts of George III’s actual condition.
The diagnosis of George III
Modern medical opinion has concluded that in fact the king experienced recurrent manic depressive psychosis. A study undertaken in 2013 by the Operational Criteria in Studies of Psychotic Illness Programme confirmed that the king’s symptoms in the 1788–89 episode were consistent with mania with psychosis.
Moreover, neurology professor Peter Garrard, from the specialist health university St George’s, University of London, used a computer analysis of the language of the king’s letters to argue that he experienced periods of acute mania – a hyperactive condition akin to the manic phase of bipolar disorder. Garrard and his team programmed a computer to make comparisons between the letters written when the king was mentally sound and those written when he was ill. These exposed a set of significant linguistic differences.
“Making retrospective diagnoses in historical figures is fraught with difficulties, especially in the field of psychiatry, but the case for bipolar disorder rather than one of the porphyria diseases, is compelling,” states Sir Simon Wessely, regius chair of psychiatry at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neurosciences, King’s College London. Wessely believes that the porphyria diagnosis put forward by Macalpine and Hunter was more a reflection of some of the schisms within psychiatry in the 1960s than a convincing account of the illness of George III.
He concludes: “The evidence of elation, handwriting change, pressure of speech, disinhibited behaviour, occasional violence, disorders of thought (that is, psychosis) and so on all point toward acute mania, which is part of what we used to call manic depression, but now more often is referred to as bipolar disorder.”
What role did George have in the American Revolution?
If George had held dictatorial tendencies, he would surely in the almost 60 years of his reign have vetoed a parliamentary bill of which he disapproved – but he never once did, despite having the constitutional right to do so. The descriptions of George as a “dictator” abated somewhat in the 1930s, when politicians and historians were given a close look at what dictators genuinely looked like, but have reappeared in recent years.
- Read more: Founding fathers, the men who made America
The fundamental reason the American colonies broke away was that by the end of the Seven Years’ War in 1763, they had developed to such a stage of political maturity that they could thrive as an independent state. Freed by Britain from their fear of the French and Native American threats, they saw their chance and opportunistically took it.
That they did this was in fact a tribute to the Americans’ understandable – and by then perfectly reasonable – desire for independence from their mother country. It was not, however, for greater “liberty” and “freedom” as individuals, which they already enjoyed far more of than almost any community on the planet at the time.
Fighting to retain his American colonies did not make George a tyrant, since there was no major country in the world at that period in history that would have allowed 13 of its colonies simply to secede without a fight
It is perfectly true that George tried to prevent the colonies from breaking away, but which 18th-century monarch would have acted in any other way? Fighting to retain his American colonies did not make George a tyrant, since there was no major country in the world at that period in history that would have allowed 13 of its colonies simply to secede without a fight. Indeed, the United States’ own experience with 11 of its Southern states over 80 years later in the American Civil War underlines the point.
It was not until Norway split from Sweden in 1905, the United States gave independence to the Philippines in 1946, and Britain to India the following year that countries began to go through such processes of separation without recourse to open conflict.
George did what any constitutional monarch would have done during the American Revolution, which was to support his government in their belief that parliament had the right to impose taxes on the colonies in order to pay for part of their own protection. If he had opposed that, he would rightly have been denounced as a dictator, riding roughshod over the elected legislature at Westminster.
The right to tax America was generally accepted in Britain at the time by the king, but crucially also by the prime minister, cabinet, the vast majority of peers and MPs, the law officers of the crown and the American department of the civil service. Moreover, it was confirmed in two general elections in 1774 and 1780 to be the view of the British electorate.
Could George be blamed for losing the war?
Similarly, just as George was let down by his ministers, and especially his prime ministers, in the period leading up to the American war, subsequently he was even more disastrously served by the senior British generals who were sent out to fight that war.
These military men – Sir Henry Clinton, Thomas Gage, Lord Cornwallis, John Burgoyne, Sir William Howe and his brother Richard, Lord Howe – were upper-middle and upper-class Whigs who followed the policy of conciliation wherever possible, trying to win hearts and minds. Cornwallis believed for much of the war that if the British adopted what he called the “gentlest methods which the nature of this business will admit of”, the loyalism to which he believed most Americans still ascribed might have won out. Yet militarily, loyalism was never the decisive factor that British generals hoped it would be.
Much of the blame for losing the war must lie with General Sir William Howe’s failure to carry out Britain’s overall strategic plan to split New England from the rest of the colonies by controlling the Hudson River. This was meant to be achieved by General John Burgoyne marching down from Canada to Albany in New York State, while generals William Howe and Henry Clinton moved up the Hudson from New York City.
Disastrously, Howe instead decided to capture Philadelphia, leaving Burgoyne stranded at Saratoga, near Albany, where he was captured along with his whole army in October 1777. This colossal mishap encouraged France to enter the war on the side of the Americans, turning the colonial struggle into a full-scale global war.
None of that can be blamed on a monarch more than 3,000 miles away.
Timeline: how Britain lost its grip on the American colonies23 March 1765 | The British parliament passes the Stamp Act to try to help pay for the cost of stationing troops for the protection of the American colonies in the wake of the Seven Years’ War
March 1766 | Repeal of the Stamp Act after protests by American colonists
June 1767 | Introduction of the Townshend Duties on goods imported into the American colonies
16 December 1773 | The Boston Tea Party, which sees 45 tonnes of tea thrown into Boston harbour by American self-styled “Sons of Liberty”
5 September – 26 October 1774 | The First Continental Congress of the American colonies meets at Philadelphia, with representatives of each colony except Georgia
19 April 1775 | First shots are fired at Lexington and Concord, after which British general Thomas Gage comes under siege in Boston
4 July 1776 | The Declaration of Independence is printed in Philadelphia, having been passed two days earlier by the Second Continental Congress
26 September 1777 | General William Howe occupies Philadelphia in a strategic blunder, rather than adhering to Lord George Germain’s plan to split New England from the rest of the colonies. This directly leads to the events of 17 October
17 October 1777 | General John Burgoyne capitulates with his entire force to the American general Horatio Gates at Saratoga. This encourages France to enter the war in 1778, Spain in 1779 and the Netherlands in 1780
19 October 1781 | Lord Cornwallis surrenders at Yorktown. This leads to Britain eventually recognising American independence on 3 September 1783
How else should George be remembered?
There is a central irony that had George III indeed been the ruthless despot that he was made out to have been by Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence, Britain would have had a much better chance of winning the war.
If the British generals had been willing to cause social chaos in the south by arming enslaved people; or wreak havoc in the west by arming a Native American alliance; or to raze Boston and Philadelphia in the way that Rear Admiral Cockburn and Major-General Ross were to raze Washington DC in 1814, when Britain was fighting the US during the War of 1812; or to treat American prisoners in the same harsh manner that the Duke of Cumberland had treated Scottish Highlanders in the aftermath of the 1745 Jacobite rebellion, then the war might have gone differently. The British both precipitated the revolution and lost the American War of Independence in part because George was not a tyrant.
There is a central irony that had George III indeed been the ruthless despot that he was made out to have been, Britain would have had a much better chance of winning the war
Nor was he a “brute”. George founded the Royal Academy, still the premier institution for artists in the UK. He set up electrical experiments at the Pantheon; ensured John Harrison was paid for measuring longitude; worked on thousands of pages of essays for Lord Bute, exploring topics such as constitutional theory, political economy and moral philosophy; paid a pension to Rousseau; and discussed Voltaire and the Encyclopaedists with Monsieur Otto during the Peace of Amiens.
We know from the politician Lord Glenbervie that: “The king spends most of his time in it [his library] when he is in town.” This library held 65,250 books, 19,000 tracts and pamphlets, and over 40,000 maps, which were presented to the British Museum after his death.
In the 1750s, George wrote essays on the political philosopher Montesquieu, approving of his refutation of the reasons being given by anti-abolitionists of slavery. “The propagation of the Christian religion was the first reason,” he noted of their arguments, “the next was the [Indigenous] Americans differing from them in colour, manners and customs, all of which are too absurd to take the trouble of refuting. But what shall we say for a European traffic in black slaves, the very reasons urged for it will be perhaps sufficient to make us hold such practice in execration.”
George never owned, bought or sold a slave, and signed the legislation abolishing the slave trade in 1807 – but he did not campaign for the abolition of the practice, despite being a devout Christian. When in 1776 Jefferson, who was a slave-owner, suggested inserting a clause into the Declaration of Independence criticising George for not abolishing the slave trade, it was struck out, presumably on the grounds of gross hypocrisy.
George never owned, bought or sold a slave, and signed the legislation abolishing the slave trade in 1807
George was a humorous, good-natured and immensely cultured person. He had his faults like everyone, in his case a certain self-righteousness that must have grated on his prime ministers. But he was a generous enough figure to describe George Washington as “the greatest character of the age” in March 1797.
When he met John Adams, the first American ambassador to Britain, he said: “I will be very frank with you. I was the last to consent to the separation; but the separation having been made, and having become inevitable, I have always said, and I say now, that I would be the first to meet the friendship of the United States as an independent power.”
Of the Continental Congress’s libels against the king in the Declaration of Independence, former Massachusetts governor Thomas Hutchinson wrote of how, “A tyrant, in modern language, means, not merely an absolute and arbitrary but a cruel, merciless sovereign. Have these men given an instance of any one act in which the king has exceeded the just powers of the crown as limited by the English constitution? Has he ever departed from known, established laws, and substituted his own will as the rule of his actions? Has there ever been a prince by whom subjects in rebellion have been treated with less severity, or with longer forbearance?”
The questions were intended to be rhetorical, but even with the benefit of two and a half centuries’ hindsight, the answer is still no.
Andrew Roberts is a historian, journalist, broadcaster and author of George III: The Life and Reign of Britain’s Most Misunderstood Monarch (Penguin, 2021)
This article was first published in the November 2021 issue of BBC History Magazine