King George III
As 1976 looms nearer and nearer, one must expect a deluge of biographies, both American and English, of Washington, Franklin, Jefferson. Indeed all the Founding Fathers will be portrayed in every conceivable way in every possible medium. In this tidal wash will follow a smaller wave of biographies of those Englishmen who were directly involved in the American Revolution—politicians, military men, and naturally the monarch, George III, who was held in the Declaration of Independence as directly responsible. In American textbooks George III has rarely, if ever, enjoyed good notices: he was stupid when not mad, prejudiced when not blindly obstinate, a Stuart in wolf’s clothing, near tyrant, father of corruption, the debaser of the House of Commons, an arrogant monarch who imposed his own will with the help of corrupt politicians whom he bribed with either money or honors.
This legend started early, as early as the Declaration, and sustained its black image generation after generation. English historians—particularly Sir George Otto Trevelyan—modified the image only to a lighter shade of gray. The treatment of George III differed in English and American textbooks not in fundamental interpretation, but largely in the strength of the language used. Of course, English historians were quicker to draw attention to George III’s temperamental difficulties. It was, however, an American psychoanalyst turned historian, Dr. Manfred Guttmacher, who, in his book America’s Last King (1941), first put forward the theory that George III was a manicdepressive and, indeed, so neurotic that much could be forgiven.
George III’s long haul back into respectability—at least for his politics—had begun, however, long before the appearance of Guttmacher’s biography. The tide turned for George III in the 1920s when a young Polish scholar, educated at Oxford, who had been forced to earn his living in America, planned to devote all of his formidable scholarly energies to the American Revolution. Lewis Namier decided, however, that it was essential to investigate what English politics, and particularly the House of Commons, were like in the 1760s, which he regarded rightly as the decisive decade; for after all it was the acts of the Commons that lay at the heart of the crisis—or so the young Lewis Namier felt.
By the time Namier died in 1960 his reputation in England had soared higher than that of any other professional historian since the time of Gibbon. But unlike Gibbon, he had few readers; and for twenty years, from 1929, when The Structure of Politics at the Accession of George III was first published, to 1950, when he decided to devote the rest of his life to the history of Parliament in general and to the period 1754-1784 in particular, Namier’s work had very little impact. Neither his first book nor his second, England in the Age of the American Revolution, had more than a modest succès d’estime; indeed the second was not widely reviewed, although, quaintly enough, it was a review by …
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Royal Herring March 8, 1973