A Tale of Two Kings: Charles I and George III

Portrait of King Charles I in robes of state, by Anthony van Dyck (1636). Source: Royal Collection
Portrait of King Charles I in his robes of state, by Anthony van Dyck (1636). Source: Royal Collection

Americans have traditionally viewed the War for Independence as a revolt against the authority of Britain’s King George III. That is certainly true on the surface; witness Thomas Jefferson’s words in the Declaration of Independence, in which he identified George III as the chief author of the colonists’ miseries. “The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having, in direct object, the establishment of an absolute tyranny over these states,” Jefferson proclaimed.[1] Yet what made the threat of the current king’s tyranny appear even more dangerous to Americans was the historical example of one of his predecessors. When Americans pondered their possible fate if they tamely accepted George III’s policies, they needed only to look at the career of England’s King Charles I, and they did so frequently. The specter of Charles I loomed behind the figure of George III, and made the latter appear particularly menacing in light of the lessons of history. The seventeenth-century English rebellion against Charles I also provided Americans with both a historical precedent and justification for their own revolt against a tyrannical monarch.

Literate Americans were well acquainted with the history of the English Civil War, the 1640s conflict that ended with the deposing and execution of Charles I and the creation of a short-lived republic under the commander of Parliament’s army, Oliver Cromwell. Colonial newspapers and pamphlets devoted steady attention to Civil War topics and personalities. For example, in 1737 the Pennsylvania Gazette published an essay by an anonymous author advocating free speech and a free press. Despite persecutions by earlier monarchs, the writer declared, restriction of public speech “did not arrive to its meridian altitude, ’till King Charles I began to wield the scepter.” Plotting to “lay aside Parliaments and subvert the Constitution,” Charles had attacked “freedom of speech and the liberty of the press” and only the boldest members of Parliament had dared to oppose him. Five years later, the Gazette praised the achievements of privateer captain Thomas Frankland, noting that he was a grandson of Cromwell and had inherited “the virtues of that hero, without his vices.”[2]

In 1734 Pennsylvanians could purchase a pamphlet entitled English Liberties, or the Free Born Subject’s Inheritance, which discussed “the difference between King Charles I and the Long Parliament, concerning the Prerogative of the King, the Liberties of the Subject, and the Rise of the Civil Wars.” Bostonians read the Reverend Jonathan Mayhew’s pamphlet, A Discourse Concerning Unlimited Submission and Nonresistance to the Higher Powers, published in 1750. According to John Adams, this pamphlet was “read by everybody.” Mayhew defended the execution of Charles I as essential for preserving the rights of Englishmen and attacked the Anglicans for elevating Charles to the status of a martyr. Charles, Mayhew asserted, “governed in a lawless and despotic manner,” illegally taxing his subjects and finally resorting to force to subdue them. “Resistance was absolutely necessary in order to preserve the nation from slavery, misery, and ruin,” Mayhew wrote, in terms that would be echoed by colonial opponents of British policy in the next decade. Mayhew also argued that Cromwell’s later “maladministration” should not obscure the just action of Parliament in overthrowing King Charles.[3]

Books on topics related to the English Civil War were also staples in the inventories of colonial booksellers. Biographies of key participants including Charles I, Cromwell, the Earl of Clarendon, and Edmund Ludlow were regularly offered for sale, along with reprinted editions of Clarendon’s History of the Rebellion and the writings of Algernon Sidney, who had fought for Parliament but later opposed the execution of the king and the dictatorship of Cromwell. Benjamin Franklin, who knew what would appeal to his audience, included an essay on Sidney in the 1750 edition of Poor Richard’s Almanac; he had also published a biographical sketch of Cromwell in the 1748 edition.[4]

Given colonists’ familiarity with Charles I and issues related to the English Civil War, it is not surprising that when Americans learned in 1765 that Parliament had passed the Stamp Act, they invoked the Civil War in their opposition to the new tax. Patrick Henry of Virginia was among the first to draw parallels between the earlier crisis and the current one. In May 1765, having drafted a series of resolves opposing the Stamp Act, Henry drew upon all of his oratorical skills to secure their adoption by the House of Burgesses. The first four were approved on May 30, but the fifth, declaring that only Virginia’s legislature had the right to tax the colony’s inhabitants, was too extreme for many of the burgesses. To convince opponents that this was an emergency of historic proportions that required an equally extraordinary response, Henry proclaimed: “Tarquin and Caesar had each his Brutus, Charles the First had his Cromwell, and George the Third …” At that point many legislators, recognizing the implications of Henry’s remarks, interrupted him with shouts of “treason!” Henry paused briefly, and then resumed: “… and George the Third may profit by their example.”[5]

Pamphleteers also raised the specter of Charles I’s tyranny, but did so with far more caution than Henry. James Otis of Massachusetts, in The Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved, noted that the Stamp Act was the greatest usurpation of power since the English Civil War and added that “King Charles his ship money everyone has heard of,” a reference to Charles’s unilateral imposition of a tax to fund the English navy after Parliament had refused to pass a revenue bill. In Maryland, Daniel Dulany compared colonial opponents of the Stamp Act to John Hampden, who had challenged Charles I’s ship money in court, lost, and later died fighting against the king. Dulany wrote in Considerations on the Propriety of Imposing Taxes in the British Colonies that like Hampden, Americans were resisting “an arbitrary and oppressive proceeding, destructive of the essential principles of English liberty.”[6]

Comparisons between the tyranny of Charles I and the Stamp Act extended beyond the press to everyday conversation. As he was leaving church in Boston on December 29, 1765, John Adams overheard someone say that “things go on here exactly as they did in the reign of K[ing] C[harles] 1st.” Adams grumbled that people who believed that such a situation was acceptable were “slaves in principle,” and he sneeringly denounced Charles as “that blessed S[ain]t and Martyr.” He added that John Hancock was going about Boston in Cromwellian fashion, urging that royal officials in the town be beheaded. Nor were such sentiments confined to New England. John Hughes, who had been forced to resign his office as Pennsylvania’s stamp distributor, observed in 1766 that some colonists had become “as averse to Kings, as they were in the days of Cromwell.”[7]

Parliament’s repeal of the Stamp Act in 1766 temporarily ended the discussion of Charles I and his opponents, but the passage of the Townshend Revenue Acts a year later brought renewed references to those topics. John Dickinson’s widely read series of essays, Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania, began appearing in print at the end of 1767 and frequently raised the subject of Charles and his usurpation of legislative authority. In the first Letter, Dickinson urged colonists to unite in opposition to the Townshend duties just as Englishmen of the previous century had united behind Hampden in his resistance to Charles’s ship money. Letter No. III cited precedents from English history, including the Civil War, to uphold the legality of forcible resistance should the British government attempt “to annihilate the liberties of the governed.” In Letter No. IX, Dickinson made an oblique reference to past threats to liberty in England resulting from “the arbitrary designs of the Crown,” and in Letter No. XI he openly discussed Charles I’s abuse of power and the need for the people to guard their liberty carefully. The English, he noted, had been unable to do so, and the result was the restoration of monarchical rule in 1660. Because of their lack of commitment to true liberty, Dickinson observed, “the English themselves delivered up these very rights and privileges to Charles II, which they had so passionately and … furiously defended against the designs of Charles I.”[8]

Samuel Adams contributed his own denunciation of King Charles, going so far as to approve of that monarch’s execution. In an essay in the Boston Gazette published in February 1769, Adams praised the English revolutionaries for having “called to account … and even executed the monarch himself.” Two years later Adams made another savage attack on Charles in the press, calling him a “usurper” and “tyrant” who “afforded a solemn lesson for all succeeding usurpers and tyrants;” the people had tired of his abuses and “PUNISH’D him in a most exemplary manner.”[9]

Portrait of King George III by Allan Ramsay (1761-62). Source: National Portrait Gallery
Portrait of King George III in coronation robes by Allan Ramsay (1761-62). Source: National Portrait Gallery

Attacks on the monarchy, made indirectly by criticizing Charles I rather than George III, continued in the 1770s. “For violating the people’s rights, Charles Stewart, king of England, lost his head,” exclaimed the Reverend John Allen in a 1773 sermon that was later published as a pamphlet. “And if another king, who is more solemnly bound than ever Charles Stewart was, should tread in the same steps, what can he expect?” Stewart asked.[10]

The culmination of the attacks on the British monarchy came in January 1776 with the publication of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense. Paine made only one direct reference to Charles I, noting that his fate “hath only made kings more subtle – not more just.” However, Paine’s searing criticism of the institution of monarchy in general and that of Britain in particular led many colonists to draw the conclusion that it was time to rid themselves of George III, just as their ancestors had deposed and executed Charles I.[11]

Loyalists were especially concerned by Paine’s scathing attack on the king and feared that his plan to create a republic would only lead to an even worse situation, as it had in England when Oliver Cromwell became a dictator after the execution of Charles. Writing in the Pennsylvania Gazette, “Rationalis” stated that Paine’s goal of an American republic was unattainable. The commonwealth established “after the death of the tyrant Charles … did not produce liberty,” “Rationalis” wrote. Instead, it “ended in arbitrary power … Cromwell … governed the nation with absolute sway.” A writer using the pseudonym “Cato” made a similar argument, asserting that the leaders who established the English commonwealth in the 1650s “were not themselves friends to republics;” they simply used antimonarchical rhetoric to sway the populace into deposing Charles and thus allowed Cromwell to become “the most absolute King.” “Cato” recommended the middle course chosen by Algernon Sidney, who “was as much a foe to Cromwell as to Charles the First, considering both as governing above the laws.”[12]

Some leaders of the Revolutionary movement had no qualms about freeing themselves from George III’s rule, and may have sympathized with those Englishmen who had executed Charles I. Benjamin Franklin had condemned Charles in several of his early writings, and while in England in 1726 he had visited Carisbrooke Castle where Charles had been imprisoned. He lamented the ruined condition of a site he considered a landmark of English history. Franklin is also believed to have authored the fictitious epitaph of John Bradshaw, one of Charles’s executioners. The epitaph contained the phrase “Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God.” Franklin sent a copy to Thomas Jefferson, who adopted the slogan as his personal motto and even considered it as a possible state motto for Virginia.[13]

Throughout the decade leading to the Revolution, Americans had looked to the historical legacy of Charles I for lessons in how a tyrannical monarch attempted to gain absolute sway over his subjects, and they also looked to Charles’s opponents to justify their own opposition to British policy. Charles I also served as a convenient substitute for George III when Americans attacked the British monarchy. To directly criticize the current monarch was an act of treason, and throughout most of the long dispute with Britain Americans did not seek independence, nor did they wish to depose the king. Therefore, they could not openly attack George, but by assailing the long-dead Charles I and comparing his actions to those of the current British government, they could make the point that the colonists were in danger of losing their liberties to the usurpation of power by the monarch. Americans could also look to John Hampden, Algernon Sidney, and other opponents of Charles I for political arguments and the justification of precedent for their resistance to imperial policy.

In addition to finding guidance regarding what they should do to protect their rights, Americans learned what not to do from the example of the English Civil War. Thus George Washington, despite being occasionally denounced as an “aspiring CROMWELL,” did not abuse his power as the Continental Army’s commander-in-chief or become a military dictator.[14] As Patrick Henry had unsuccessfully urged King George III to do in 1765, Americans profited from the examples of the English Civil War, and unlike their predecessors across the Atlantic, used the lessons of the past to build a successful republic.


[1] Thomas Jefferson, “Declaration of Independence.”

[2] Pennsylvania Gazette, Nov. 17, 1737; July 1, 1742.

[3] Advertisement in the Pennsylvania Gazette, Sept. 5, 1734; Adams quoted in Bernard Bailyn, Pamphlets of the American Revolution (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1965), 209; Jonathan Mayhew, Discourse Concerning Unlimited Submission, in Bailyn, Pamphlets, 222, 239-243.

[4] Booksellers’ and printers’ advertisements in the Pennsylvania Gazette, Dec. 15, 1743; Sept. 17, 1747; Sept. 22, 1748; Mar. 14, Oct. 12, Nov. 16, 1749; Feb. 6, 1750; May 30, June 13, Dec. 10, 1751; Feb. 18, July 18, 1754; Jan. 21, 1755; Feb. 22, 1759; Apr. 2, 1761; May 27, July 29, 1762; Feb. 10, 1763. This is only a partial listing of such advertisements.

[5] William Wirt Henry, Patrick Henry: Life, Correspondence, and Speeches, Vol. 1, (New York: Burt Franklin, 1969), 86.

[6] James Otis, The Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved, and Daniel Dulany, Considerations on the Propriety of Imposing Taxes in the British Colonies, in Bailyn, Pamphlets, 465, 644.

[7] John Adams, Diary and Autobiography of John Adams, Vol. 1, ed. L. H. Butterfield (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1961), 280; Edmund S. and Helen M. Morgan, The Stamp Act Crisis: Prologue to Revolution (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1953), 264-265.

[8] John Dickinson, The Farmer’s and Monitor’s Letters to the Inhabitants of the British Colonies (Richmond, VA: Whitter and Shepperson, 1969), 3-4, 12, 34, 46-47.

[9] Samuel Adams, Writings of Samuel Adams, 2 vols., ed. Henry A. Cushing (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904), 1:316-317; 2:234-235; 292-293.

[10] John Allen, An Oration Upon the Beauties of Liberty, in Ellis Sandoz, editor, Political Sermons of the Founding Era, 1730-1805 (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Press, 1991), 307.

[11] Thomas Paine, Common Sense, ed. Isaac Kramnick (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1976), 71.

[12] Pennsylvania Gazette, Feb. 28, 1776; Apr. 24, 1776.

[13] Benjamin Franklin, The Writings of Benjamin Franklin, ed. Albert H. Smyth, Vols. 2 and 8 (New York: MacMillan, 1907), 2: 25, 56; 8:44; Thomas Jefferson, The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, ed. Julian P. Boyd, Vol. 1 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1950), 677-679.

[14] Charles Royster, A Revolutionary People at War: The Continental Army and American Character, 1775-1783 (New York: W. W. Norton, 1979), 260-261.

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  • I think an important thing to remember about the American colonialist views of Charles I is that is formed from their perspective as religious refugees from persecution of the “establishment” in England.

    Charles fight with Parliament over the extent of royal power was also a proxy for a religious civil war. Charles had married a Roman Catholic and was sympathetic to English Roman Catholics.

    There was an upsurge of Puritans and other “extreme” Protestant sects in Parliament and within the landed and merchant classes. They felt the Anglicans were too close to Roman Catholics, whom they dispersed. Charles appointed a unpopular and controversial Archbishop of Canterbury.

    Was Charles really a tyrant? No, but from the views of those sympathetic to the Glorious Revolution and who are descended from the sects that supported regicide, they are bound to cling to the views that justified the cause belli of their great-grandfathers.

    Also, The Restoration led by Charles son, Charles II and his brother James II wasn’t to the liking of Cromwell’s followers and co-coreligionists…

    • You’re right about the importance of the religious dimension. This especially resonated among the descendants of the Puritans in New England, and with other religious dissenters in the colonies.

  • Most of the sources quoted in this solid essay come from political writings, and thus from the elite. The memory of the English Civil War also remained alive at the street level, at least in New England. Boston’s Sons of Liberty signed some of their public pronouncements “O.C.,” probably for Oliver Cromwell, and “Joyce, Jr.,” after an officer in Cromwell’s army. The Cromwell’s Head Tavern was a popular spot on School Street, and Whigs objected to the royal governor’s decision to hang a portrait of Charles I in the Council chamber.

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