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George III’s Battle to Save an Empire

The American uprising sparked fear of a crumbling monarchy

By Todd Cohen


In 1776, the Declaration of Independence denounced George III as a tyrant who was “unfit to be the ruler of a free people.” And in the nearly two centuries since his death, his reputation often has been tarnished by focusing on the mental illness that afflicted him much later in life.

But as a newly released trove of his public and private papers makes clear, the British monarch was a passionate champion of the rule of law who embraced the fact that he shared power with Parliament and that his authority was not unlimited, said Pulitzer Prize-winning military historian Rick Atkinson.

Indeed, it was George’s belief that the Americans were “spurning the rights of Parliament,” which he considered fundamental to British law, that helped drive his aggressive prosecution of war against the Americans, said Atkinson, who was among the first scholars granted access to George’s newly available papers. And there is “no evidence that the illness of his later years affected his performance as monarch in 1776-77,” he said.

Next year, Henry Holt and Co. will publish a new battle history by Atkinson on the first two years of the American Revolution. The final chapter of the book, tentatively titled The British Are Coming, focuses on the Battle of Princeton, which marked a turning point in the Revolution. George Washington’s victories in late 1776 and early 1777 at Trenton, and then Princeton, revived American morale and dampened British confidence.

Atkinson said his research for the book, which will be the first volume in a planned trilogy on the American Revolution, left him with admiration for George III while reinforcing many of the stark lessons he has learned in writing about the U.S. Army in World War II, the Vietnam War, the Persian Gulf War and the invasion of Iraq.

“First principles about who we are and where we came from are to be found in war,” said Atkinson, a former newspaper reporter who won a Pulitzer Prize in journalism and later won a Pulitzer Prize in history for the first volume in The Liberation Trilogy, his three books on World War II.

“We are a very violent people and the violence didn’t begin in the American Revolution, but it did bubble up there in earnest,” he said. “More Americans died in the American Revolution, per capita — compared to the overall population — than any of our wars other than the Civil War.”

The Georgian Papers

The papers of George III — an estimated 350,000 documents located in the Round Tower at Windsor Castle — generally have not been widely available since he died in 1820. In April 2015, Queen Elizabeth II opened the papers to scholars. As a fellow at the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, Atkinson spent the month of April 2016 examining the archives in the Round Tower. The Institute and the College of William & Mary are the main U.S. partners in a collaboration between King’s College London and the Royal Collection Trust to digitize, disseminate and interpret the papers.

Until late in life, when he began to go blind, George served as his own secretary. “He writes everything himself and even makes many of the copies,” Atkinson said. “There are not many filters between him and his correspondents. He did not have much of an office staff. He was very hands-on. Fortunately, he has very good handwriting, so it’s easy to read.”

And there’s a lot to read.

George was a polymath, Atkinson said, with interests ranging from horticulture and astronomy to music and the gadgets of the dawning industrial age. He was devoutly religious and deeply devoted to his family. And he immersed himself in military matters, from grand strategy to logistics and supplies.

“He was involved in everything from the transatlantic shipment of arms for his army and navy fighting in the New World to receiving copies of letters opened by the Royal Mail of espionage agents looking for intelligence,” Atkinson said. “He makes notations on them when he receives the letters.”

The papers reveal a monarch who is “extremely well-informed about what is going on, both in the grand strokes of the war and in the nitty-gritty,” Atkinson said.

“He reads the dispatches very carefully, has his own channels of information — people writing to him from the front, from America.” He also kept detailed lists of regiments and British navy ships. “He’s a great list-maker.”

God, country, family

George III became king at age 22 after the death of his grandfather. Unlike his German-born grandfather and father, George was born in England and was “deeply English,” Atkinson said. English was his native language, and he also spoke German.

“He was proud to be English, proud of Britain’s unique monarchy,” he said. “He was part of a system that had evolved over 600 years, particularly in the 80 years before he became king. You see in George somebody who is as robustly British as most people could hope for in a monarch. And that’s one of the reasons he’s so gung-ho for prosecuting the war against America.”

George believed he was “God’s instrument,” although, unlike the French monarch, he did not assert the divine right of kings. And his embrace of the fact that he shared power with Parliament also had a pragmatic side, requiring that he pay careful attention to both the House of Commons and House of Lords, Atkinson said. “Among other things, they gave him a lot of money,” which was essential for waging war with the Americans.

At age 22, having become king, George needed a bride and married Charlotte only six hours after he met her. They had 15 children. “He was a very domestic guy, with admirable qualities,” Atkinson said. “He loves his wife, is faithful to his wife. He loves his kids. He spends a lot of time worrying about them, especially the two who will become king — William IV and George IV. There’s a lot in the personal correspondence about how they’re being groomed.”

Protecting the empire

Since before the American Revolution, George had subscribed to an 18th-century equivalent of the “domino theory” that U.S. leaders embraced starting in the 1950s to explain the escalation of U.S. military presence and then war in Vietnam, Atkinson said. They argued that, like a series of falling dominoes, the loss of South Vietnam to Communists would lead to Communist takeover of other countries in Southeast Asia.

George believed that “if the American Colonies began to slip away, it’s the beginning of the end of the British Empire,” Atkinson said. “But it’s not going to happen on his watch. He believes that if America goes, Canada could be next, then Ireland, India and the rich sugar islands in the West Indies. This is a worldview he shares with his closest advisers. It is really a critical factor in understanding why they’re so determined to fight 3,000 miles away for eight years.”

Under the British system of government, George did not play the role of commander in chief, Atkinson said, but he was a “war hawk of the first order” who was “intimately involved in every aspect of this expeditionary war the British were going to be waging for eight years. He was deeply involved in discussions about grand strategy, always keeping an eye on the French and European implications of the war against the Americans.”

George was keenly aware of and approved senior leadership changes, anointing commanders and government leaders who shared his strategic goals, Atkinson said. “He approves the generals who are sent out, the admirals who are sent out.”

When Lord Dartmouth was replaced as Britain’s secretary of state for America in the fall of 1775, George endorsed the appointment of George Germain to succeed him, “knowing full well that Germain shares his hard-line view on how the war should be prosecuted,” Atkinson said.

And throughout the war, George worked “hand-in-glove with his childhood friend Lord North, the First Minister [equivalent to today’s prime minister],” Atkinson said. “It was part of George’s task to keep Lord North bucked up, to keep him steady, to keep him enthused.”

Compared with Abraham Lincoln, who during the Civil War famously spent a lot of time in the telegraph office in the War Department next to the White House reading telegraphic reports from the battlefield, George lacked a strategic gift, Atkinson said. “But in terms of his involvement, in terms of his commitment, his belief that the stakes couldn’t be higher, that it’s an existential struggle, he shares the responsibilities of any leaders, like Lincoln or Roosevelt or anybody else in that position.”

In reading the papers of George III, Atkinson said, he was surprised by the “depth of feeling he’s got about the treasonous behavior of his subjects in America, the personal sense of wounding he clearly evinces.”

‘Bold and desperate’ move

George III was not particularly involved in any of the individual battles of the American Revolution, and often learned about them many weeks or even months after they occurred, Atkinson said. Because of the slow pace of transatlantic communications, he said, George was “always late in understanding battlefield realities.”

The final chapter in Atkinson’s 22-chapter book focuses on the Battle of Princeton. The reality for the Americans in December 1776 was grim, Atkinson said. The British had run George Washington and his Continental army out of New York and chased him out of New Jersey. American enlistments were expiring, illness was spreading among the ranks and the fledgling country was disheartened.

Needing to do something “bold and desperate,” Atkinson said, Washington and his army on Christmas night crossed the Delaware River, caught the enemy garrison at Trenton by surprise and killed or captured more than 900 Hessians, German mercenary allies of the British who had begun arriving in America the previous summer and made up nearly the entire garrison.

After routing the Hessians, Washington crossed the river back to Pennsylvania, then decided to double-down and crossed again, returned to Trenton and took it, “knowing it will lure the British, with the Hessians,” Atkinson said. The second battle of Trenton was “fairly bloody, with intensive fighting.” Then darkness fell.

Washington then headed east to Prince-ton, 16 miles away, where a small garrison of three British regiments had been left behind. “He catches them unawares and routs them,” Atkinson said. “He’s always two steps ahead of the British, who are chasing him. Instead of going back to Pennsylvania, he goes north to Morristown, where the terrain is such he knows the enemy cannot get at him. He stays five months. Those are his winter quarters.”

These battles helped turn the tide, Atkinson said. Washington “slapped them around at Trenton, at Trenton again and then at Princeton, with substantial British and German casualties and modest American casualties. It revives the spirits of the Americans. It gives them hope that maybe Washington is a genius, that the cause is not lost and that the spring campaign will go their way.”

In late February 1777, when news of the battles arrived in London, it was “a shock because they believed the war was all but over,” and George had hoped to hear at least that the British had occupied Philadelphia, Atkinson said.

But the news showed the British that “these guys are much tougher than we’re giving them credit for, and this isn’t going to be easy. They’re resolved and pretty good on the battlefield, even though they make mistakes and have shortcomings, and have difficulty getting gunpowder and decent weapons.”

George was told by Gen. William Howe, his senior commander, that the war would continue for at least another year and he needed more ships and soldiers. George already had been worrying about escalating costs and now could see that 1777 would be expensive, Atkinson said.

With the unsettling news about Trenton and Princeton, he said, George realized the British would need to redouble their effort to crush the rebellion. While his cabinet was compliant, George faced a “noisy, boisterous opposition,” as he had from the start of the war. “Trying to keep public opinion on the side of the war parties is something George III will have to take into account as the government is thinking about where to go next and what to do next.”

From pride to precariousness

Atkinson opens his book with a prologue, set in 1773, with King George riding in a coach, leaving Kew Palace just outside London for Portsmouth, where he will review the British fleet to mark the 10th anniversary of the end of the Seven Years’ War, also known as the French and Indian War.

“It was the war that made Britain great,” Atkinson said. “They got Canada, a billion acres in America. They got Florida from Spain. They got additional sugar islands in the Caribbean. They got India. We see him effectively as the captain-general of the British forces in this very proud moment when the sun never sets on the British Empire. We take his measure and get a good look at him.”

In an epilogue, set in March 1777, Atkinson returns the story to Portsmouth. “A lot has happened, much of it bad, in the war,” Atkinson said. “There seems to be no end to it. It’s expensive and bloody. Ironically, things in England are good — another fine harvest and nearly full employment. England is feeling its oats as a great power, the greatest sea power the world has seen. But he senses something is not right. What’s been happening in America is worrisome. There’s a precariousness that is unsettling.”

A 1762 portrait of King George III engraved by Richard Purcell after a work by Thomas Frye. (Colonial Williamsburg Collections)