The Real King George III

He is (after Elvis) the most famous king in American history.  Dubbed “the king who lost America,” King George III officially began his rule this week (Oct. 25) in 1760, succeeding his grandfather, George II, to the British throne.

Most history books portray him as stubborn, simple and dimwitted. Stubborn he was, and as we shall see, that stubbornness helped cost him his American colonies. As for simple, it was true he was a man of simple tastes, but given that British society at the time was so slavish to fashion that it approached caricature, his refusal to get caught up in “appearances” — he stubbornly resisted wearing a wig — seems in hindsight admirable. He was also, the later unflattering portraits notwithstanding, rather tall for his day and this side of handsome.

But dimwitted he was not — he was actually a quick learner.  Like much of royalty he was a patron of the arts, but unlike many monarchs he had an eye for quality. His favorite musical composers were Bach and Handel (although he predicted great things for the young lad Mozart), and he built an art collection that rivaled any in the world. He was also an avid reader, with a library that also was among the worlds finest.  And he was a talented artist; he could have been an architect, and he was adept at both the piano and violin.

Rare among royalty, he also was interested in science, or at least how things worked.  He collected clocks, studied the heavens through a telescope, and loved tinkering with mechanical objects.

He was also — again, unlike many monarchs — a very hard worker and felt keenly the sense of duty that came with being king.  Which is where the story of his clash with the American colonies begins.  Having watched his great grandfather, George I, and grandfather, George II, fritter away power and prestige, George was determined to reassert royal authority, and he saw America’s attempts to govern its own affairs as treasonous disobedience to his rule.

Stubbornly, he ordered the American rebellion crushed, refusing all attempts at compromise with the colonists, who were perfectly willing to cede to him control of their external affairs, such as trade, in return for self-government of their internal affairs, such as taxation.  Given that Britain’s colonial trade was 20 times more lucrative than any sums Britain could ever collect from colonial taxes, George’s intransigence was the quintessential case of penny-wise and pound foolish.

And so, foolishly, he “lost America,” although perhaps he was consoled with the knowledge that America eventually would have achieved independence regardless of what he did.  For as Tom Paine wrote, “Not forever could an island rule a continent.”