The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

American colonists called him a tyrant. But was King George III really so bad?

King George III, who ruled Britain from 1760 to 1820, was a shortsighted, self-centered leader who probably had bipolar disorder, but he wasn’t a bloodthirsty despot, according to Andrew Roberts. (Library of Congress Rare Book and Special Collections Division)

Distinguished biographer Andrew Roberts is a man on a mission: to prove that King George III of England was neither a tyrant nor the “royal brute” denounced by pamphleteer Thomas Paine during the American Revolution.

Roberts’s narrative challenge is gigantic. George III reigned for six decades (1760-1820), during which his world exploded with revolutionary fervor, first in North America, then across Europe, followed by two decades of desperate war with revolutionary and Napoleonic France. With insight and aplomb, Roberts completes his mission, revealing the king to have been a conventional, conservative gentleman, uxorious husband and father of 15.

This fair-minded portrait, “The Last King of America: The Misunderstood Reign of George III,” also shows the king as a man of narrow vision and modest talents who failed major leadership tests and endured five bouts of madness that were probably caused by bipolar disorder. But not a bloodthirsty despot.

Prominent among George’s weaknesses were thick streaks of self-pity and self-righteousness, along with the immovable, insular views of a monarch who rarely traveled beyond the eight “home counties” around London. Indeed, he never left England.

Under the unwritten British constitution, George’s greatest powers were to choose the men who ran the government and to distribute royal patronage in the form of titles and lucrative sinecures. His selection of ministers was decidedly spotty. He retained some far too long because he preferred their company, but he swiftly disposed of others he found tiresome. Only the emergence of a dazzling wunderkind, the 24-year-old William Pitt the Younger, brought the nation 18 years of sure-footed government.

The king carefully distributed patronage to influence factional battles, which were based on personality and self-interest, not policies. Roberts draws on the betting book maintained in the elite Brooks’s club in London — “the unofficial headquarters of the Whig party” — to illustrate the aristocratic condescension of Britain’s ruling class, showing imperial grandees casually wagering on events that upended millions of lives.

The king and his officials made little effort to understand the Industrial Revolution around them, or the political upheavals in America and Europe, or even the strife that seethed beneath the rigid British social structure. Riots rocked the kingdom in 1765 (six days; unemployed silk workers), in 1768 (high food prices, strikes by “coal-heavers,” widespread unemployment and support for political agitator John Wilkes), in 1780 (week-long anti-Catholic “Gordon riots” that killed hundreds) and in 1795 (bread riots in multiple cities).

More convulsions included a 1796 naval mutiny that nearly crippled the war effort against France and resulted in 29 hangings of mutineers, plus the United Irishmen uprising two years later, suppressed only after a pitched battle against 18,000 rebels. Then there were the four attempts to kill the king.

George’s response to these tumults was, in Roberts’s phrase, “adamantine inflexibility.” He so abhorred change that he never endorsed the abolition of slavery or civil rights for Catholics. His obstinacy helped the island realm survive the decades-long struggle with France but worked much less well during the unpleasantness with the American colonies.

The king’s blunders in “losing” America included not anticipating that other colonies would rally to Massachusetts’s aid, denying that the colonists had the stomach to fight or that France would support the Americans, and overestimating how many colonists would remain loyal to the crown. The book hastens to attribute those core misjudgments to the entire British establishment.

To rehabilitate the king’s reputation, Roberts correctly insists that the colonists objected to British policies that would have seemed not at all tyrannical to residents of nations where oppression was normal, crude, bloody and unforgiving.

Yet he pays insufficient attention to the fact that those policies represented a sharp and intended hardening of the previously lax imperial regime and that American resistance was entirely foreseeable. The posting of 4,000 British soldiers to Boston in 1768 — more than one for every four residents — calls to mind King George’s promise in the musical “Hamilton” to “send a fully armed battalion to remind you of my love.”

Although denying that the king was a tyrant, Roberts acknowledges that George’s American policies achieved a “colossal disaster” that left Britain with “vast debts, powerful enemies, no allies and even neutral powers united in hostility.”

Amid these tales of great world events, perhaps the most searing images in the book are of the king’s chronic mental suffering. In each breakdown, he endured hyperactivity that banished sleep and left him chattering incessantly (often with phantoms and once for 19 consecutive hours). Doctors treated an early episode by bleeding him, blistering his legs, applying leeches to his temples and “cupping” his back, which involved placing a hot cup against his flesh to draw blood to the spot, then draining it with an incision. Under a later, less-brutal regime, the king was bound in a straitjacket until he calmed.

George’s final decade, spent blind and deaf, lost in his mania as his son governed as regent, looms as a haunting and excessive punishment for any crimes that others (though not Roberts) might lay at his feet.


The Misunderstood Reign of George III

By Andrew Roberts
784 pp. $40