The Last King of America: The Misunderstood Reign of King George III

BOOK REVIEW: The Last King of America: The Misunderstood Reign of King George III by Andrew Roberts (New York: Viking, 2021)

In 1774, a colonial lawyer wrote an anonymous pamphlet summarizing the political relationship between Mother England and her North American colonies. He urged King George III to use his kingly prerogatives in support of his colonial subjects against Parliament’s attempts to legislate for them, a practice he called “foreign to our Constitutions and unacknowledged by our laws.” The author, Thomas Jefferson, closed by pleading to his monarch, “Let not the name of George the Third be a blot in the page of history.”

In his latest work, a magnificent full-length biography of George III, historian Andrew Roberts is anything but subtle or cagey. Titling the American edition The Last King of America: The Misunderstood Reign of George III, Roberts argues that George is nothing less than “the most unfairly traduced sovereign in the long history of the British monarchy.” The still-popular portrait of an unfeeling monarch indifferent to his colonial subjects frames much of Roberts’ narrative as he carefully evaluates George’s life and kingship.

Acknowledging that this view of George has a long and distinguished pedigree on both sides of the Atlantic, Roberts has worked closely with scholars from all fields, usefully exploiting the resources of the invaluable Georgian Papers project. The result is a well-written, engrossing examination of British politics at the time before, during and after the American Revolution that sheds much light upon the British handling of political and military developments in North America.

Roberts makes excellent use of George’s earliest writings while he was studying history and the English constitution. Reading essays written for his tutors, we can easily see that the traditional belief that George was determined to restore monarchical authority is little more than the fancy of politically motivated Whig historians. George’s understanding of the British Constitution was a highly conventional one for an educated Englishman of the eighteenth century. It was not, in fact, a desire to restore lost kingly prerogatives but rather an obsession with his nation’s growing national debt that would drive much of his foreign and colonial policy once taking the throne. Political economy, rather than political theory, lay behind much of his views on foreign and colonial policy.

For American readers, Roberts’ account is highly useful in understanding the state of the British monarch’s powers, what George understood that he could and could not do as monarch in relation to Parliament. In his thorough discussion of court politics, Roberts allows us to view George’s decision-making through a different lens than merely Revolutionary politics and his actions can appear much different as a result. For instance, the British monarch enjoyed the very real ability to appoint and fire the Prime Minister and cabinet. While there were practical constraints (could that person command a majority in Parliament?) the authority was acknowledged to be the Crown’s. Decisions that appeared to colonials as a response to their own activities often had more to do with the politics and personalities on the English side of the Atlantic. Roberts notes that at one critical point George was on the verge of replacing Grenville with Pitt the Elder, which could have changed the course of history. Yet, it did not come about at that time because Pitt wanted concessions on issues unrelated to America that George was simply unwilling to make.

In carrying out these duties, George often showed himself to be very opposite of the “tyrant” he would be later be accused of being. For example, the Quartering Act, so despised by Americans, actually prohibited the use of private homes for quartering soldiers. George believed that permitting such a practice would violate his American subjects’ rights and refused to grant his assent to the act until the prohibition was included. Robert cites many other examples of George’s tolerance of his subjects’ liberties and his support for the rule of law consistent not with tyranny but constitutional monarchy. He also spends much time on George’s love of learning in the arts and sciences, and his great support for the enlightenment project, something that will likely be news to most American readers.

Roberts’ zealous defense of George can occasionally lead him astray, however, when telling the Revolutionary story. For instance, there is no evidence that Lord Mansfield’s ruling in Sommersett generated significant support for independence among slave holding Americans. Nor was Solicitor General Alexander Wedderburn’s accusation that Benjamin Franklin had purloined the letters of Thomas Hutchinson with the intent to publish them and further push America towards independence true as Roberts alleges (he did intend that their contents be shared among a few leaders to convince them Hutchinson, not the British government, was to blame for their misunderstanding of the situation in America). His view of the Patriots’ motives seem to be largely shaped by the lens through which he views George as unfairly labelled a tyrant.

A more fruitful line of inquiry might have been to consider why Americans viewed themselves as the victims of George’s tyranny given all Roberts’ evidence to the contrary. Long treated with “salutary neglect,” and left largely to fend for themselves for many years, they fought alongside their peers from across the sea during a global struggle with the French. Afterwards they found themselves cut off from the fruits of victory, the lands west of the Appalachians, and subject to serial attempts to extract funds from them in a manner novel to their experience to enforce such an edict. From their point of view, if Parliament could tax and regulate them at all, what would stop it from going to extremes given their lack of representation? In their minds, it was the King’s role to protect them, and from their vantage point he failed to do so. This may not make George the tyrant they thought, but their subjective perception may be more comprehensible than Roberts allows. As historians such as Jack Greene have chronicled, very different understandings of the British Constitution after the Glorious Revolution had developed on each side of the pond. By dismissing all criticism of George as a tyrant as mere propaganda, though, Roberts largely short circuits what could have been a more fruitful path of inquiry.

In his conclusion, Roberts quotes the current Prince of Wales as hoping (in 1972!) that Americans would one day afford George a more generous understanding. While that has not happened even fifty years later, Roberts is largely successful in acquitting George against charges of tyranny (and completely so of any notion that George was the malicious or uncaring ruler of legend). At worst, his antipathy towards partisan politics and rejection of adroit politicians whose conduct was not in line with his somewhat puritanical morality led him to often back ineffective governments until Pitt the Younger emerged. But if George cannot be said to be a tyrant from an English or European viewpoint, his failure to seek imperial reform and push back harder on his ministers’ pursuit of what Justin du Rivage calls “an extractive empire in an era of enlightenment,” and his relentless pursuit of military victory in America, will likely leave him forever understood as one in America. For while George may not have been a tyrant, he was on the “wrong side of history” when it came to the Revolution in their view

When Americans teach the period leading up to and during the Revolution, events in England are often related in the isolated context of how things were playing out in the colonies. As a result, Americans’ understanding of the Revolution can suffer greatly; once English and European politics are brought into the picture, things can appear quite different. Roberts’ rich and thoughtful account of George III’s life and reign is therefore highly recommended to students of the Revolution as well as English history.

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3 Comments

  • Excellent review! Thank you! This one has been on my Christmas list since it was announced. Now I have to cross my fingers that Santa delivers. My great January dilemma will be deciding which book to read first!

  • Readers will also be enlightened to read of the colonists’ underestimated fighting capacity armed as they were with “an assortment of long barrelled hunting muskets with which they were highly adept” not least because “half of the military age militia men were veterans of the Seven Years War.”

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