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 G. M. Trevelyan, the son of Sir George Otto Trevelyan, the historian of the American Revolution whom Namier thought so totally misguided, that secured him the Chair of Modern History at Manchester University. Namier was very proud of what he considered to be this very generous response to Trevelyan’s review. But he persistently refused ever to review Trevelyan’s own books. His intellectual integrity was such that had he done so he would have hacked them to pieces, so with grave pride and deep satisfaction he refused the temptation.
Indeed throughout the Thirties Namier gave up eighteenth-century history for excellent reasons. Although he had never been inside a synagogue until his twenties (his father in Poland had lapsed into Catholicism), he became not a Jew but an ardent Zionist long before the rise of Hitler. In the Thirties, desperately aware of the Nazi menace to civilization, he devoted himself to exposing the inanities and follies, as he conceived them, of the diplomacies of England and France. As he was deeply conservative, the pacifism of the Labour Party was to him only another example of its stupidity and folly, and so there was no refuge for him in direct opposition to the national government.
During the Thirties, Namier was a lonely figure, along with a few conservatives like himself who feared Germany. His prophecies and fulminations were washed into obscurity by the deluge of 1939-1945, and by the end of the war, Namier, an aging man, not so very far from retirement, looked finished. To the very few scholars, and they were very few, preoccupied with the politics of George III’s reign, his books were important and fundamental. One would have expected his reputation to have been restricted to a very limited group. Yet within ten years Namier was the most revered professional historian in England.
The political history of the first decade of George III’s reign became the stamping ground of a school of professional historians, a field of very sharp debate. Indeed any bright schoolboy of the Fifties was expected to master the growing literature. Such a boy might be ignorant of the Industrial Revolution, know next to nothing about what happened in America, but he had to know how the Whig factions divided over the Stamp Act, how baseless was the accusation that Bute was a Tory, or that George III behaved in any way unconstitutionally. He had to master the intricacies of electoral management and become an expert on the importance of the secret service fund. He could tell you the genealogy of the Shropshire Whigs or assess the importance of the Buller family vis à vis the Admiralty at East Looe. He had also to learn namier’s fundamental lesson—that the Whig and Tory parties of the 1760s were well-nigh meaningless, an illustration of his belief that ideas were of little importance when in competition with honors, places, and profits. (This might seem an odd contradiction in a passionate Zionist, but then Namier was full of contradictions, rarely perceived because of the brilliance and power of his immediate dialectic.)
When Namier’s work first appeared, his scorn for ideology and his realism about men’s hunger for honor, power, place, and profit in the 1760s were at odds with the mood of the Thirties and the ferocious clash between communism and fascism. It was the Fifties that made Namier fashionable, a time when ideologies were weakening, an era that took comfort in foggy dreams of “consensus” and in the politics of realism. The conservative forces in society were dominant, not only in government but also among academics. The closer one analyzed political history, the more one realized the unchanging motives of human nature, men pursuing power and profit, haunted and sometimes handicapped by local loyalties, at times destroyed by personal alliances, at others ruined by political ambition. Neither altruism nor dedication to principle had a place in this world.
This view helped to devalue political ideas, which are rarely conservative, and to dismiss as irrelevant or hypocritical the radical attitudes and protests of the late eighteenth-century England, many of which had been directed specifically against George III and his Court. Above all it became very easy to dismiss the Whig interpretation of history.
Namier’s work exonerated George III from charges of deliberate bribery and corruption. He showed the absurdity of the belief that there was a large party of King’s Friends in the Commons, there only to do the King’s bidding, as was claimed by Sir George Otto Trevelyan, who also saw them as a prime cause of the American troubles. George III in Namier’s hands became a hard-working king, obstinate maybe, but a man who learned to handle the politicians. Namier showed him to have had great respect for the English constitution although his interpretation was a rigid one. George III’s weakness was not his policies but his misfortune to be mentally unstable—a manic-depressive, a condition that did not have serious political repercussions until the latter half of his reign.
So George III’s responsibility for the American policy became that of his ministers, from Grenville to North. He was firm when they were firm and compromised when they compromised. Whatever his personal attitude, they made the decisions and he accepted them. However, this leans toward naïveté, for no politician was unaware of George III’s conviction that compromise was wrong and coercion the correct policy, and no politician could be uninfluenced by the King’s views.
Moreover, there was a sleight of hand in this interpretation of George III’s attitude to the constitution. Namier never asked if George III’s interpretation of what was constitutional in the 1760s and what was not was the same as that of the leading politicians, as well as of the politically conscious part of the nation. Indeed Namier dismissed public opinion as irrelevant, ignoring the endless pamphlets, squibs, ballads, and caricatures that poured from the London presses in the 1760s, ignoring even the virulent diatribes of Junius as well as the obscenities of the gutter press. Yet how can one ignore the fact that George III disturbed the political nation in the 1760s more profoundly than any other monarch had done since James II? His actions against Whig power and his blatant support of the Earl of Bute against the Whigs began to radicalize and polarize politics—of this there can be no doubt. It is intensely relevant to any study of political history.
Yet increasingly the King has been built up as a misunderstood and maligned monarch. There was still the fact of his madness, of course, a blemish on the burgeoning image of a misunderstood, hard-working, much loved, dedicated king.
In 1968 Ida Macalpine and Richard Hunter produced a huge but sweetsmelling red herring in the British Medical Journal. Analyzing George III’s doctors’ reports, they decided that he suffered from attacks of porphyria—a metabolic disturbance that affects the nervous system and, in its severe manifestations, the brain. Later, much extended to include the Tudors and Stuarts, they produced George III and the Mad Business (1969), which found porphyria widespread in the English royal family. So the King was never mad, only ill, and between illnesses quite sane. Most historians, particularly Ian Christie and John Brooke, leaped aboard the medical bandwagon. Most of Namier’s supporters followed, with only the late Romney Sedgwick keeping his cool. Unfortunately for them, the medical profession, more used, perhaps, to assessing evidence carefully and skillfully than historians, did not accept the porphyria thesis: the evidence is too scant, George’s symptoms were too ill-described for any satisfactory modern diagnosis to be made; they would fit equally other forms of mental illness.
As has been pointed out, the matter could easily be settled—the descendants of George III, of whom there are plenty because of the fecundity of Queen Victoria and her descendants, only have to be tested and porphyria would be proved or disproved. Not surprisingly, the Prince of Wales, in his brief introduction to John Brooke’s new biography of George III, shows some caution about the porphyria issue: it is a hereditary disease that the royal family would rather not be saddled with. Brooke, however, who gnashed his teeth ferociously when anyone impugned the diagnosis of porphyria when it was first made, still sticks to his beliefs. George III, as he sees him, was never mad, only ill for short periods, until old age and a lifetime of attacks pitched him over the edge in 1810.