This article is taken from the December 2020 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.
Over the past six years, Penguin have been publishing their excellent Monarchs series in which a leading historian writes a 30,000-word book on a king or queen from Athelstan to Elizabeth II. There are now 45 of them (including David Horspool on Oliver Cromwell, who sneaks in despite the monarchical rubric, and Jonathan Keates who reasonably enough lumped William III and Queen Mary together). These extended essays are attractively produced, can be read in a couple of hours, and many are true gems, from historians such as Tom Holland, John Guy, Tim Blanning, Norman Davies, Roger Knight, Jane Ridley, Richard Davenport-Hines, David Cannadine — you get the idea.
Now Professor Jeremy Black gives us a full-throated defence of the monarch who is only really generally known as the king who went insane and who lost the American colonies, and who now prances around in the camp-yet-sinister show-stopping song in Hamilton: The Musical. “When considering George III’s mistakes,” Black argues, persuasively, “it is important to assess the parameters of the possible and to consider comparisons.” With his expertise in eighteenth-century European history, Black is able to place George III in the wider context of contemporary monarchs such as Catherine the Great, Frederick the Great, Louis XVI and Napoleon.
“In contradiction to the Whig and American image of George as a tyrant, or at least a would-be tyrant,” Black states, “he had a strong conviction of the value of limited monarchy and was a willing student of the lessons of the Glorious Revolution and the subsequent Revolution Settlement.”
Black brilliantly demolishes the paranoiac Whig view of George as trying to accrete powers to himself unconstitutionally. The George who emerges is a far more attractive figure than the Whig historians depicted, let alone Thomas Jefferson with his 28 histrionic and inaccurate accusations against George in the Declaration of Independence, and especially Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hilarious but profoundly historically incorrect caricature.
Instead, Black portrays a monarch with “a strong religious faith, a passion for hunting and an interest in art, architecture, music, astronomy and exploration”. He was a Renaissance man with an Enlightenment viewpoint, although Black also lists his failings, which were obstinacy, self-righteousness and a certain amount of priggishness when young. Black calls him a “fogey”. These were hardly cardinal sins, and a world away from the lust for dictatorship of which he has been accused.
Jeremy Black — who is fast becoming a national treasure in his own right, having written well over 100 books — takes a refreshingly unmodish stance towards George (as you might have guessed from listing hunting amongst the king’s attributes). “His qualities are easier to understand for those who prize commitment, duty, and integrity,” he concludes, “than in a modern age when scorn and satire, even hatred of the nation’s history, are often prominent.
Understanding George and his reign is crucial to our post-progressivist consideration of the history of patriotism (and nationalism), and of how we think about the people or nation, then and now. Far from being an archaic throwback to or relic of the British ancient regime, George III was a significant figure who played a key role in shaping the future of modern politics.
George did this by bringing the Tories back into politics for the first time in decades, while promoting the “ideas and ideals of non-party government”. These ideals ultimately failed because the politics of the day were just too “adversarial, institutional, populist and legalist”. As well as this book’s deep scholarship, the writing is excellent; Black describes John Wilkes as “a libertine MP and entrepreneur of faction”. George’s personal responsibility for the loss of America is not underplayed, but neither is it easy to discern at any point that he was decisive, since there were plenty of British politicians at the time, including George Grenville, and Lords North, Rockingham, Germain and Hillsborough — let alone the generally dreadful generals and admirals — who were far more personally culpable. The 13 colonies were more than capable of existing successfully as an independent nation by the 1770s, especially as Britain’s victory in the Seven Years War relieved them of any serious external threat.
Similarly, George can no longer be blamed for the severe manic depression that sent him mad on at least four occasions, and for the last ten years of his life. In the past, this has been blamed on his own suppressed lust, or “bad blood” among the Hanoverians, and for the last half-century on the disease porphyria. (The last misdiagnosis was used by Alan Bennett in his historically inaccurate play The Madness of George III, which was later made into an amusing but equally inaccurate movie.) Black correctly argues that the symptoms point to a mania brought on by manic depression, and he depicts how a gag, straitjacket and restraining chair were used to try to calm the poor man of the over-excitement that the doctors thought caused the derangement.
George recovered from one of the bouts in early 1789, just in time to be sane when the Bastille fell. He saw the French Revolutionary and subsequently the Napoleonic Wars as essentially moral struggles rather than merely military ones, which gave him an advantage over those politicians who mistakenly made peace with Napoleon in 1802-3. What is rightly condemned as the king’s “perseverance, stubbornness and inflexibility” that had prevented an early peace with America worked to Britain’s advantage when the same qualities sustained the government of William Pitt the Younger only a couple of years later. His weaknesses turned into his strengths.
Nobody could have been better qualified to write this book, as Black is the only person alive today who has written a full-length biography of George III, which was published in 2006 subtitled America’s Last King. At one point in the present book he tells us that George appointed someone called William Robertson as Historiographer Royal for Scotland. A grateful national ought now to make Jeremy Black the Historiographer Royal for Britain, especially as in this extended essay he has scored an Alpha Double Plus.
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