It’s ironic that Americans think King George III was mad when they’ve been going mad over the “last king of America” for over 200 years. The two Thomas’ started the mania. First, Thomas Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense, published in January 1776, called George III the “Royal Brute of Britain” who had “athirst for absolute power” (1). Then, Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, which blustered twenty-eight charges against King George, twenty-six of them unable to stand in terms of history, politics, natural law, or logic (1, 306). Ever since, Americans have thought of George as a pompous, cruel tyrant who also happened to be crazy. But how should Christians remember George III? Before that question can be answered, we have to consider the person, the position, and the power of George, none of which are presented in the typical American History textbook.
George developed his devout Anglican faith as a boy, an occurrence all the more remarkable when you consider that neither his father, grandfather, nor great-grandfather was serious Christians. “Indeed, among the whole Hanoverian dynasty, from George I to William IV, stretching over more than a century, George was the only uxorious husband and pious Christian” (48). This was a day and age when the nobility, including the royal family, lived in open sexual sin. This made life difficult for George, since nearly everyone in the ruling class, including his brothers, showed no restraint to wanton sexual proclivity. In June of 1786, George issued a royal proclamation encouraging piety and virtue while discouraging licentiousness and pornography. While a few people, such as William Wilberforce, supported the movement, for many it was a source of jokes. Many in the ruling and royal class emphatically did not live a virtuous lifestyle (495f).
It was for this reason, plus a few others, that George waited for George II (his grandfather) to die before getting married. He didn’t want his grandfather to choose his wife for him. George was determined to have a happy and faithful marriage. He finally married Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, a Protestant princess who was smart, cultured, pleasant, and uninterested in politics (65f). They managed something truly rare in that day: a close, devoted, happy, and fruitful marriage. Their many shared interests included reading, theatre, music, science, and philanthropy (79). “The King’s favourite charitable cause was imprisoned bankrupts, whom he helped financially at his numerous jubilees and at other times.” The King thought this was part of his royal responsibility (83). Regarding slavery, George was horrified when people justified the slave trade in the name of Christianity (29). Most slaves in the modern world were the result of kidnapping, which the law of God treated as a crime worthy of the death penalty.
George kept a physically grueling schedule, rising at 6 a.m., going to bed at 11 p.m. or midnight, and keeping a full itinerary in between. There were as many as four levees a week, sometimes lasting four or five hours, where George was on his feet the entire time, taking a personal interest in everyone present. He was daily involved in political work, exchanging letters and meeting with the cabinet. “The King and Queen went to the theatre on Thursdays (where Charlotte occasionally had to restrain George from laughing too loudly in the royal box) and to the opera on Saturdays.” They were also regular concertgoers. When at home, they listened to music and played cards, and most of their friends were devoted Anglicans and happily married. George III enjoyed long walks, was a skilled horseman and hunter, and played backgammon with Colonel Goldsworthy and Colonel Ramsden, often detaining them for hours at a time to continue the game. Outside of the strict etiquette of formal settings, the King happily made conversation with the people he met, even regular people. At Buckingham House, George invited intellectuals, musicians, artists, and architects, picking their brains on their areas of expertise. Buckingham House had five libraries, open to any scholar who asked to use them, even his political enemies (79-91).
George’s reputation is largely shaped by the fact that he filled the monarchy during the American War for Independence. Americans know the argument for the war, articulated in the 1760s by James Otis, then carried forward by Patrick Henry and most notably Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence. The British Parliament had levied taxes against the colonies that they had no constitutional right to levy. Each colony had its own lawful authorities—In Virginia, the House of Burgesses, for example—that had the right to tax. The “Declaration and Resolves” of October 1774 argue “That the foundation of English liberty, and of all free government, is a right of the people to participate in their legislative council … the English colonists … cannot properly be represented in the British Parliament” therefore “they are entitled to a free and exclusive power of legislation” provincially. Jefferson’s seventeenth charge in the Declaration of Independence asserts that the colonists cannot be taxed without consent, and the twenty-second charge disputes Parliament’s ability to legislate for the colonies. Each gets to the heart of the American argument, summarized in the catchy phrase, “No taxation without representation” (306).
Yet there are two sides to every argument and this is no different. George admired the British constitution and was educated deeply in politics. “At the time it was taken for granted that Parliament also had the right to tax Britain’s colonies if necessary” (28). Going back centuries, the Crown-Parliament consensus was that Parliament had the right to legislate for the entire empire, and this was broadly accepted in the early days of the North American colonists (104). Nevertheless, by the mid-eighteenth century, the American colonists were the freest people on earth (108). In the King’s eyes, the development of the American colonial legislatures didn’t nullify Parliament’s legal right to tax, and this was also the general view at Westminster (111). Sir William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England—used in legal studies on both sides of the pond for centuries—was published in 1765. Blackstone’s Commentaries convinced George “that the American case for self-government had no standing in English law” (133). Nevertheless, George showed moments of sympathy for the colonists, for instance when an early version of the Quartering Act was floated in Parliament, the King thought it violated the colonist’s privacy and the claim at issue was withdrawn (142).
By 1769, the King, the Prime Minister, the Cabinet, a majority of Parliament, the law officers of the Crown, the military, and the bishops of the Church of England agreed about America. There was a small minority in America rabble-rousing and the resistance would collapse with a show of force. This, perhaps, is where things went wrong for the British government (202).
After the Boston Tea Party in December of 1773, George’s cabinet still assumed that Britain had an “undeniable historical sovereignty over all her North American colonies, which included the right to tax.” Even those who stood on opposite poles of British politics believed in the constitutional hierarchy that placed the colonies under the governing hand of the mother country (232).
In 1775 the Second Continental Congress published the Olive Branch Petition (OBP), asking George to intervene and stop Parliament’s actions. Why did the King refuse to accept the OBP? The OBP, as George’s lawyers pointed out, asked the King to act against Parliament. But this was the one thing George could not constitutionally do since he was legally “the King-in-Parliament” (269). The Americans failed to understand that constitutionally, the King was the executive agent for Parliament’s authority, thus a division between Parliament and Crown was only in the imagination of American protest rather than the precedent of British law (276). The Privy Council eventually replied to the OBP by saying the colonies were in “open and avowed rebellion” (275).
Ostensibly, therefore, the War for Independence was because of a constitutional dispute. In truth, “the underlying issue was not taxation, or indeed representation: it was about sovereignty, independence and self-government” (113). Edmund Burke argued that the policy of Prime Ministers Walpole and Pitt was one of “salutary neglect.” The colonists, thousands of miles away, were churning out wealth for themselves and England. Why mess with that? So for one hundred years before the War for Independence, the colonists experienced the freedom of self-government. This trained the colonists to desire independence because they had lived in a world of de facto independence for multiple generations (203). The mistake of the British government, George included, was that they didn’t yet have a category to imagine letting a colony break away. They were afraid this would start a trend and upend the entire British Empire, including the lucrative trade economy.
The King couldn’t imagine a peaceful break that stipulated ongoing trade between the British and the newly formed American Nation. Why couldn’t he imagine such a thing? The typical American thinks it’s because George was groomed to be a tyrant. In reality, it was because of his constitutionalism (132).
Hamilton: An American Musical, depicts George as a cruel, sinister killer (1). Paine and Jefferson accused him of being a tyrant. Nevertheless, Andrew Roberts reminds us that “If Americans wanted to see what genuine ‘tyrannic principles’ looked like in the eighteenth century, there were plenty of examples.” The Austrian Netherlands practiced torture when people revolted. The Spanish brutalized those in New Orleans who wanted to return to French rule. The Spanish also savagely executed Peruvians. The French war against Corsican independence from 1768-1770 was a barbarous demonstration of dealing with an uprising. The Russians killed tens of thousands of people during the Pugachev peasant Cossack uprising in 1773-1774. Austria, likewise, had a murderous response to local uprisings in Transylvania and Bohemia in the 1780s. Eighteenth-century Europe is filled with examples of genuine tyranny. In contrast, the British didn’t arrest “a single participant in the Boston Tea Party” (250f).
It’s precisely because the King wasn’t a tyrant that America had a chance to win the war. Rather than rule like a ruthless despot, George worked through the Cabinet and Parliament, demonstrating moral and ethical restraint even though the cost of losing the war was historical scorn for a thousand generations. The typical heavy-handed monarch of the eighteenth century would have fought a scorched-earth campaign to subdue the colonists. George, that civilized, Christian monarch, was unwilling to inflict such chaos on the colonists. “It is partly because George was not a tyrant, therefore, that he lost the war against his own so-called tyranny” (308f).
So we come back to the question: What should Christians think of our fellow Christian, King George III? We will never get the answer right if we don’t appreciate the complexity of the War for Independence. It’s not as simple as “no taxation without representation,” as formidable an argument as that was. Americans today, including American Christians, tend to dismiss George as a mentally unstable tyrant. But it is far knottier than that. We may count ourselves as patriots, but is it accurate to label George III as an unpatriotic bully? I for one, wish that two hundred years from now, my brothers and sisters in Christ don’t just casually call me names when I’m merely trying to be obedient to the Lord in service to my nation.
Jason Cherry is an elder at Trinity Reformed Church in Huntsville, Alabama, as well as a teacher and lecturer of literature, American history, and economics at Providence Classical School in Huntsville. He graduated from Reformed Theological Seminary with an MA in Religion and is the author of the book The Culture of Conversionism and the History of the Altar Call, now available on Amazon.
 The title of Andrew Roberts biography of George III is The Last King of America: The Misunderstood Reign of George III (New York: Viking, 2021). All page numbers referenced come from Roberts’ fine book.
 The King’s special committee of expert advisors.