Ever since I was a little boy I’ve been in love with history, especially American history, and my favorite holiday has been the Fourth of July.
It has everything a little boy could want—heroes, like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson; and villains, like that awful King George III.
I was never quite sure what he did that was so bad, actually. But it must have been really terrible to deserve that long laundry list of abuses detailed in the Declaration of Independence, including, “He has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.” And that’s the image of George III that I bought into for most of my youth, which included earning a Yale history degree.
Then I went to law school at Cal, where I met a great professor named Nelson Polsby, who taught me that that there are usually at least two sides to any story, and that there can never be a final, objective truth to history because everyone is constantly spinning the past to justify their version of the present.
And so, I discovered, was the case with George III.
The Brits don’t remember him as a tyrant, the way we do. They affectionately call him “Farmer George,” in tribute to his simple lifestyle—an anomaly in an age when every other monarch was going for the bling. The main reason they love him is that he was a big improvement on the two kings who came before him and the one who came after—all named George, too.
The poet Walter Savage Landor summed up the first two Georges with this couplet: “George the First was always reckoned/Vile, but viler George the Second.”
But the vilest of all was George IV, the Prince of Wales (nicknamed “Prinny”), who—when he served as Regent during his father’s intermittent attacks of insanity—made the term “Regency England” a byword for debauchery. Prinny was so lazy, he refused to turn his head in bed to look at the watch hanging beside his pillow. Instead, he’d ring for a servant—up to 40 times, if necessary—to come in and tell him the time. In time, he grew so fat, people called him the Prince of Whales, but only behind his back.
He treated his wife, Caroline of Brunswick, with a brutality that made the marriage of Prince Charles and Princess Di look like a love fest. When Napoleon died in exile on St. Helena in 1821, a courtier rushed into Prinny’s room and breathlessly exclaimed, “Sire, I have the honor to announce that your greatest enemy is dead!”
“Is she, by God?” said Prinny.
He was such a nasty piece of work, he even managed to convert the radical republican John Wilkes, formerly such a severe critic of George III that he spent time in prison for it, into a monarchist of sorts. Ultimately the mere prospect of Prinny as the future king gave Wilkes an appreciation for the value of keeping George III on the throne as long as possible. Once, when Prinny and Wilkes were at a banquet, Wilkes astounded everyone at the table with this toast: “God save the King.”
“God bless me!” said Prinny. “How long have you been so loyal as to give that toast?”
“Ever since I became acquainted with your Royal Highness,” replied Wilkes.
By contrast, George III was a model of respectability. Unlike George I, II or IV, who were notorious philanderers, he never cheated on his wife, Charlotte of Mecklenburg, with whom he had a loving marriage even though they met for the first time on their wedding day.
They had 15 children: nine sons, whom the Duke of Wellington called “the damnedest millstone about the necks of any government that can be imagined,” and six daughters, who called Windsor Castle “The Convent” because their father couldn’t bear to let them marry and leave him.
Unlike the other Georges, he didn’t put on airs. His simplicity charmed the great lexicographer Samuel Johnson, who expected to meet a snob but found an unpretentious guy instead. “Sir, they may talk about the King as they will,” he told his biographer, James Boswell. “But he is the finest gentleman I have ever seen.”
That view was echoed by a stable lad at Windsor Castle whom the King met and asked what he did and how much he was paid.
“I help in the stable,” said the boy, “but they give me only my food and my clothes.”
“Be content,” said the King, patting his head. “They give me no more.”
Yes, he was the king who lost America—or, at least, that part south of Canada. But he was also the king whose armies beat Napoleon, which was a much bigger deal at the time. And as far as the British were concerned, losing those 13 American colonies, which were really more trouble than they were worth, was a drop in the bucket compared to gaining the infinitely greater riches of India, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Hong Kong, and a large chunk of Africa—a domain so vast, people said, “The sun never sets on the British Empire.”
That empire was made possible by three advantages Britain enjoyed over everyone else: a navy that literally ruled the waves, a booming economy fueled by an industrial revolution, and a scientific revolution that made possible the industrial one. (James Watt built his first steam engine in 1792.) And all three were enthusiastically supported by the King.
One of his best friends was the astronomer William Herschel, discoverer of the planet Uranus, which he first named Georgium Sidus, or George’s Star. The King funded the construction and maintenance of Herschel’s 40-foot telescope, the biggest ever built at the time. Then he invited the Archbishop of Canterbury to view the new instrument, saying, “Come, my lord bishop. I will show you the way to Heaven!”
His generosity wasn’t confined to science. He aided the Royal Academy of Arts with large grants from his private funds and may have donated more than half of his personal income to charities. He also made some savvy art purchases that are now in the National Gallery, including Vermeer‘s “The Music Lesson.” But it was as a book collector that he made his most lasting contribution. His huge library was open and available to scholars during his lifetime and became the foundation of the National Library after his death.
Nobody is sure what caused the bouts of madness that afflicted him, on and off, for the last 22 years of his life. Some think it was a genetic disease called porphyria. Others suspect arsenic poisoning from the paint lining the vessels containing his favorite snack, sauerkraut and lemonade.
Stories began circulating about his bizarre behavior, such as getting out of his carriage in the middle of Windsor Great Park to shake the limb of an oak tree under the impression that he was shaking hands with Frederick the Great. But some modern scholars are beginning to doubt their veracity, since they were circulated mainly by Prinny and his friends.
Whatever, there is no doubt that his worst affliction was not the madness but the ministrations of his doctors, who put him in a strait jacket and tied him to his bed, among other tortures. But his sufferings only further endeared him to his people.
Besides, for all his madness, he never deluded himself into thinking he was anything more than a spectator to the great events of his time, unlike his supposedly sane son George IV, who, by the time he became king, had convinced himself that he was not only present at the Battle of Waterloo, but that he even led the winning charge—an assertion he would repeat at every banquet, with more embellishment each time. Then he would shout down the table to the Duke of Wellington, “Is that not so, duke?”
“I have often heard Your Majesty say so,” Wellington would tactfully reply.
George III, on the other hand, had a real sense of history. He admired George Washington, especially after the war when Washington rejected attempts to make him a military dictator and resigned his commission, instead.
“Why, if he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world!” the King exclaimed when he heard the news.
And he was that rarity in politics: a good loser. After the war, the Americans appointed John Adams to be ambassador to Great Britain. It was a provocative choice because Adams had been the floor manager at the Continental Congress who pushed the Declaration of Independence to passage, and he was a little nervous about being presented to the King. But George III quickly put him at ease.
“I was the last to consent to the separation,” he told Adams. “But the separation having been made and having become inevitable, I have always said, as I say now, that I would be the first to meet the friendship of the United States as an independent power.”
So, as we celebrate Independence Day on Saturday, three cheers—well, two, anyway—for our former foe. I’m sorry I misjudged him. As monarchs go, the Brits could do worse than Farmer George. And they often do.