Read the Revolution
The Last King of AmericaMay 25, 2022
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Could the last King of America have predicted losing the American war for independence? In his new biography, The Last King of America: The Misunderstood Reign of King George III, historian Dr. Andrew Roberts reexamines King George III to offer a nuanced and fascinating view of a controversial monarch often dismissed as a pompous buffoon or villain. Drawing from the King’s private correspondence now digitized through the Georgian Papers Programme at the Royal Archives at Windsor Castle, Roberts challenges readers to consider this monarch’s many accomplishments. Arguing that Americans were “exceptional in rebelling for their sovereign independence against someone who was not a tyrant,” Roberts’ narrative portrait emphasizes that “the last King of America could certainly not be accused of ignorance of or lack of interest in his realm.”
King George III celebrated his royal birthday each June 4, but not all of his subjects celebrated with him. Before the American war officially began, English politician John Wilkes was repeatedly expelled from the House of Commons for attacking the King, which many Americans admired and cited in the rallying cry “Wilkes and Liberty!” This slogan was popularized on ceramics and broadsides published by Boston’s Sons of Liberty.
Read an excerpt from Chapter 9 about one particular birthday in 1771, when King George was subjected to rising unpopularity in the press and violent threats as a result of Wilkes’ activities. Then, continue to learn how sentiments had changed by 1774, after the King’s passing of the Coercive Acts, and his private perception of one of his most famous critics: Benjamin Franklin.
The Wilkes affair was reignited all over again on 9 March 1771 when the government ordered the arrest of two printers for illegally publishing reports of parliamentary debates. One of them was arraigned before an alderman of the City of London, who turned out to be none other than
Wilkes himself, who promptly released him without charge. ‘I do in the strongest manner recommend that every caution may be used to prevent its becoming a serious affair,’ the King cautioned North. He wanted debates to stay secret and that ‘this strange and lawless method of publishing debates in the papers should be put a stop to,’ but he did not want publishers arrested wantonly. Now that the Wilkes imbroglio was entering its seventh year, he was finally learning some of its lessons.
Nine days later the King was hissed at in the streets, and a rotten apple thrown at his carriage as he went to Westminster to give royal assent to some Bills. He ignored it. When a mob tried to assault the Prime Minister, George told him, ‘Believe me, the spirit you showed yesterday will prevent its being often called upon; they now know you are not to be alarmed.’ On 1 April a large crowd assembled at Tower Hill with two carts, on which, Horace Walpole recorded, ‘were figures representing the Queen Dowager and Lord Bute, attended by a hearse. The figures were beheaded by chimney-sweepers, and then burnt.’ Effigies of pro- government politicians then had ‘their supposed dying speeches cried about the streets’. On the King’s birthday, 4 June, which the Royal Academy celebrated with an illumination of his coat of arms at Somerset House, a Wilkesite mob used fireworks to ‘set fire to a part thereof and endangered the palace’. The King rose above all such popular manifestations of unpopularity, just as he did not allow his head to be turned by cheering crowds either.
Benjamin Franklin returned from a journey in northern England to attend Court on the King’s birthday. ‘While we are declining the usurped authority of Parliament,’ he wrote to his friend Thomas Cushing in Massachusetts, ‘I wish to see a steady dutiful attachment to the King and his family maintained among us.’ Franklin was toying with the idea of a North American constitution in which the Crown was sovereign and the legislative role in the Americas rested with a King-in-Council that would defend colonial rights from Parliament. In 1754 he had attended a cross-colonial conference at Albany in New York, where a proposal had been presented for a colonial union, a grand council of America under the leadership of a president-general. This scheme, apparently the brainchild of Franklin and Thomas Pownall, had come to nothing, largely as a result of the outbreak of the Seven Years War.
Franklin’s ideas were developed further by James Wilson of Pennsylvania in his pamphlet Considerations on the Nature and Extent of the Legislative Authority of the British Parliament of 1774, which argued that the King was sovereign in America but Parliament was not; this remained more or less the American colonists’ position until 1776. It was largely a political stance, however, adopted in order not to frighten American Loyalists away from the revolt against Parliament. Franklin personally despised George, and in his autobiography John Adams wrote that his colleague had almost a fixation about him and would constantly bring up his ‘severe resentment’ of the King, even when it was neither helpful nor relevant.
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The passing of the Coercive Acts led to the first real criticism of the King in America. Before their enactment, many Americans believed that the King was essentially their protector, if badly advised by corrupt or evil counsellors. There had been very little direct personal criticism of him between the repeal of the Stamp Act in 1766 and the Boston Tea Party in 1773. Once he had given his formal assent to the Coercive Acts, however, he was widely seen to have failed his American subjects. Josiah Quincy, Jr. published a savage denunciation of him in his pamphlet Observations on the Act of Parliament Commonly Called the Boston Port-Bill in May 1774, which sarcastically shredded the traditional loyal expressions of Americans towards the King, arguing that they were based on illusion.
On 13 May, General Gage arrived at Boston after a speedy twenty-six day crossing, and was commissioned as Governor of Massachusetts soon after landing. In June the previous year, a series of secret reports written for the government in London in 1768– 9 by Governor Thomas Hutchinson had come into the possession of Benjamin Franklin, who made sure they were published in the American press. They were (unsurprisingly) critical of the Sons of Liberty and the Patriots, and the resultant public outcry led to a petition for his dismissal. The North government ignored these for a year, but Gage’s return allowed for Hutchinson to be replaced.
Ironically enough, considering the events of the following year, Gage was greeted on his way from the docks to his swearing-in at the Assembly council chamber by several companies of the Massachusetts Militia. Over the next few days, as Bostonians absorbed the news of the Port Act, which had arrived just before Gage, the mood in the city changed fundamentally. Two weeks after his landing, the Virginia House of Burgesses adopted a resolution calling for a Continental Congress, and the Maryland Assembly passed resolves in support of Boston. Of course in that febrile political atmosphere no genuine tyranny would have permitted a congress of all the thirteen colonies to gather together to plot the next moves against it, yet the British government did nothing to prevent or disrupt it.
When on 19 June the City of London petitioned the Crown to refuse royal assent to the Quebec Bill, the King wrote to North to say that he would not do so. Three days later he signed the Act, going to Parliament to do so even though he could have signed it at Buckingham House, and ‘was very much insulted’ by a Wilkesite mob on the way, with people shaking their fists at him and yelling, ‘Remember Charles I! Remember James II!’ and ‘No Roman Catholic King: no Roman Catholic religion! America for ever!’ Horace Walpole claimed that ‘The King was hurt and alarmed,’ and that ‘when he came to the Lords he trembled, he faltered, and could scarcely pronounce his speech.’
Within two days of landing in England on 29 June 1774, at a Levee at St. James’s Palace, Thomas Hutchinson was presented to the King, who invited him and Lord Dartmouth to the Closet afterwards to discuss American affairs in private. (It was, as the palace official Lord Pomfret harrumphed, quite contrary to custom for such audiences to occur spontaneously.) Hutchinson, a keen amateur historian, later wrote a detailed account of their meeting in his diary.
After politely asking about his journey, and hearing an apology from Hutchinson for the way he was dressed, the King asked him how the Bostonians had reacted to the Coercive Acts. Hutchinson replied that they only knew of the Port Act by the time he had left, but that it was ‘extremely alarming to the people’. George commended Hutchinson, saying his conduct ‘has been universally approved of here by people of all parties’, adding that ‘nothing could be more cruel than the treatment you met with in betraying your private letters,’ although he then said to Dartmouth that ‘I remember nothing in them to which the least exception could be taken.’ When the King asked how the letters had got to New England for publication, Hutchinson said that Benjamin Franklin had publicly stated that he had sent them. The King was curious to know about his opponents in Massachusetts, was neither angry or vindictive; he knew the names of several of his more prominent American antagonists, including Samuel Adams, John Hancock, Samuel Cooper, James Bowdoin, Speaker Thomas Cushing and the theologian Dr Charles Chauncy. Beyond politics, Hutchinson was impressed by the King’s ‘knowledge of so many facts’ about America.
‘Where is Dr. Franklin, my lord?’ the King asked Dartmouth, and was told he was in London. ‘In such abuse, Mr. Hutchinson, as you have met with, I suppose there must have been personal malevolence as well as party rage?’ Hutchinson replied not, and added, ‘The attacks have been upon my public conduct, and for such things as my duty to Your Majesty required me to do, and which you have been pleased to approve of.’ ‘I see they threatened to pitch and feather you,’ the King observed. ‘Tar and feather, may it please Your Majesty,’ Hutchinson replied, ‘but I don’t remember that I was ever threatened with it’ [...]
Andrew Roberts, The Last King of America: The Misunderstood Reign of King George III (Viking, 2021), 215-217 and 239-240.
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Read the Revolution is published biweekly by the Museum of the American Revolution to inspire learning about the history of the American Revolution and its ongoing relevance.