- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 2, 2006

GEORGE III: AMERICA’S LAST KING

By Jeremy Black

Yale University Press, $35, 448 pages

A ROYAL AFFAIR: KING GEORGE III AND HIS SCANDALOUS SIBLINGS

By Stella Tillyard

Random House, $26.95,

384 pages

REVIEWED BY JAMES SRODES

One has to be careful about overloading analogies. But there are some uncanny similarities

involving George Bush II and Britain’s King George III.

Both are heirs to political dynasties that were successful but never overwhelmingly popular. Both were exposed to educations that, while they were far from unintelligent, left gaps in their understanding of the world and their responsibilities. Both came to power determined to bring honesty and reform to their domestic policies only to be engulfed in wildly unpopular military struggles in far off places.

Both found it hard to take advice from outsiders and thereby were overly dependent on the counsels of personal favorites. Both deserve better than the reputations they currently endure.

While President Bush will have to wait history’s judgment, British historian Jeremy Black serves us well with a literate and carefully crafted portrait of the well-intentioned man who was our last sovereign ruler.

What is especially poignant about George William Frederick of the House of Hanover is that he really did try to bring honesty and good government to his empire and nowhere more so than to his American colonies, which were the apple of his imperial eye. One finds oneself, with Mr. Black’s keen political eye as guide, sighing as George makes mistake after mistake, almost always out of good motives and moral judgments.

King George’s problem, from the moment he succeeded his grandfather in 1760 at the age of 22, was that Britain was changing faster than he could bring his reforms to bear. He would live until 1820, even though his reign was effectively ended by madness and the regency of his son in 1811.

But in that time Britain went from a vulnerable, largely pastoral collection of unhappy ethnic divisions at home and an ever-changing array of rival monarchies abroad to being a huge industrial and politically united country, dominant over an incredibly prosperous global empire.

Other points that come through Mr. Black’s narrative are that things could have been a lot worse if George had not become king when he did. And that something simple as a ball can affect history.

There is some confusion as to the nature of the ball. Some histories say it was a court tennis ball, others a cricket ball. But what is certain is that in 1751, when George was 13, his father, Frederick Louis, the Prince of Wales, was injured during a ball game, developed an abscess, seemed to recover, and then suddenly died.

Frederick had been popular (think Fredericksburg, Va., and Frederick, Md.) but was so loathed by his father, King George II, that the king at one point considered having his son kidnapped and shipped off to exile in North America. Princes-in-waiting are always a threat to parental monarchs and Frederick had openly quarreled with George II and turned his own court into a center of opposition to the king and the Whig party ascendancy that supported him.

Both George I and George II had been creatures of a fractious political coalition of merchants, church, military and new aristocrats who had come to power through the Civil War of the previous century and the more recent struggles against bids to restore the Catholic Stuart monarchy backed by the Scots and many of the old nobility.

Born and raised in Germany, George I spoke very little English and gloried more in his title as Elector of Hanover. George II, the last British king to lead troops into combat, actually preferred drilling troops back in Hanover but was more dedicated to his London responsibilities. Both were dependent on a Whig majority in Parliament and in key ministerial posts that became more corrupt and less popular as time went on.

As a boy, the future George III was indolent and unhappy to the point of paralysis. Bereft of a father and kept at a distance by a pious mother and stern grandfather, he became an emotional dependant, first on his able tutor, a Scot named John Bute, and most significantly for America, upon his principal prime minister, Frederick Lord North.

Although portrayed by our historians as cold and indifferent, North was exceptionally able, honest and a skilled member of the House of Commons who brought political coherence to King George’s attempts to bring financial management and sound government in the face of his main party’s vehement opposition.

When George ascended to the throne in 1760, Britain was broke, tangled in yet another war with France, riven by religious and sectional disputers. The last Stuart uprising had occurred in 1745, just 15 years before. The young king’s first acts were to welcome back into royal favor and political involvement many of the old Tory families who had been politically exiled.

George’s first mistake, then, was to style himself “The Patriot King” who would rule a nation in which party factionalism would have no role. The second mistake was that he began to gather about him his own party — old Tories, reformist Whigs and talented commoners whose very presence threatened the old ministerial dominance. He was cursed with a succession of prime ministers — chiefly William Pitt, the Elder — who were mutually estranged from their king.

George commendably sought to end the latest war with France but then sought to bring reform to Britain’s tottering finances by imposing unprecedented taxes on those colonies — chiefly North America — where fresh money could be found. It just made sense to the king and he remained unaware for a long time how the taxes and trade restraints were such threats to colonial sensibilities.

To George it was part of a larger plan to reorganize imperial rule and bring the disparate possessions into some kind of coherent administration from London. Who could object?

There is the temptation to find echoes in current events. King George and Lord North had implicit faith in their own good intentions, in the skill of their military leaders to shock and awe the rebellious Americans. Counterinsurgency at long distance is always problematical especially when a ruler is faced with rising opposition at home by even more radical reformers than he. Britain, as noted, was changing and faster than George could adapt to. The rest, they say, is history.

But not the whole story. In “A Royal Affair,” Stella Tillyard, an Oxford-based historian, brings us George, the head of a family as dysfunctional as anything on cable television. Vexed with sons who sought dissipation out of boredom, and daughters kept in a virtual nunnery, George had the added burden of five younger siblings who produced a steady rumble of scandal and tragedy that distracted everyone from the king’s attempts to be a model monarch.

Faced with secret marriages, scandalous divorces and even more dangerous liaisons by his sons, brothers and sisters, George sought control by constructing the Royal Marriage Act, which bedevils the royal family to this minute. Sunk in his mental illness and isolation, George ended his days alone in Windsor Castle while his heirs tried hard to undo popular respect for themselves and his legacy.

In one of his comedy sketches, Mel Brooks as King Louis XVI disentangles himself from the embrace of one of his ladies-in-waiting and observes with satisfaction, “It’s good to be the King.”

Sometimes it isn’t.

Washington author James Srodes’ latest book, “Franklin, the Essential Founding Father,” was chosen as the City of Philadelphia’s One Book award for 2006.

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