Study Guide

George William Frederick Hanover ( a.k.a. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich) in Declaration of Independence

By Thomas Jefferson

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George William Frederick Hanover ( a.k.a. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich)

According to the Declaration of Independence, King George is basically Voldemort. But although he's depicted as the main villain throughout the document, much of the legislation that the colonies rebelled against actually came from Parliament.

George III's poor choices in ministers contributed to the problem, but due to England's constitutional tradition (developing out of the Magna Carta), the king had less direct power than monarchs in other parts of Europe, because Parliament controlled a lot of the legislative and budgetary power.

In other words, many of the policies that angered the colonists didn't come from King George III…although his inability to get along with Parliament didn't help.

Sprechen Sie English?

George III was the third Hanoverian king of England, and apparently the most attractive, which of course is always a good quality in a king.

Despite falling for a young local common lady, he chose his wife from a list of suitable Protestant brides out of a sense of responsibility (it's like The Bachelor, but the winner gets to be the Queen of England). Luckily, Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz was on that list, and they actually ended with a very happy marriage, which was pretty unusual in European monarchies. (Source)

The Hanover family was German, but had taken the British throne in 1714 because the Act of Settlement (1701) said the British king had to be Protestant. The nearest Protestant relative lived in Germany. There are a lot of events like this in European monarchies, since royals were married almost exclusively to other royals, creating a network of cousins and relatives across the continents—and in some cases, a little bit of inbreeding.

George III was, in fact, the first of the Hanoverian royal line in England to speak English as his first language. Thanks to the complicated rules of European royal succession, language skills were not a requirement for the throne…although they were probably pretty helpful.

Just Can't Wait to be King

George III became king in 1760, during the French and Indian War. At the end of that war, there were some significant changes to the finances of the British government, partly to deal with the huge war debt, including legislation that left Parliament in greater control of the governmental budget. (Source)

King George III's first prime minister was his mentor John Stuart, Earl of Bute, who really wasn't great at his job and didn't work well with Parliament. George III started off on the wrong foot with Parliament, and didn't really recover for several decades. (Source)

His choices of prime ministers took another bad turn with George Grenville, minister from 1765-1766. Remember, he's the dude who spearheaded the Stamp Act that everyone loved so very much, among other, similar policies. George's next few ministers ping-ponged back and forth between adding taxes and repealing them. (Source)

Finally, in 1770, he got Lord North to be prime minister, and North lasted until Britain lost the colonies in 1782. George III finally had a decent minister, but Parliament kept disagreeing with that minister about their right to tax the colonies (Parliament thought "yay" and Lord North was like, "nay"), which led Britain into the Revolutionary War. (Source)

If Lord North didn't have an "I told you so" moment at this point, he really missed a golden opportunity.

Although the legislation that angered the colonists came from Parliament, King George III didn't really do anything to help the case. In fact, he gave into the political system and basically bought himself some friends in Parliament through favors and gifts (presents for the cool kids). His American subjects then characterized him as corrupt, along with the whole English government.

After a few years of the Revolutionary War, King George was ideologically ready to let the American colonies go, but kept the war effort up because he worried that his other colonies would start getting ideas…and he wanted to show that Britain wouldn't just let them saunter off to become their own countries without facing a fight.

Pitt by Pitt

The political situation got a bit better for King George after the American Revolution, although he's still most remembered for losing the colonies (and his madness, but we'll get to that later). He gained popularity after defeating a bill to reform the East India Company in 1783, and made the very good decision to hire William Pitt the Younger as prime minister. (No relation to Brad—we think.)

Yes, there was a William Pitt the Elder, who was a prime minister in George III's early years and a major figure in the Seven Years' War. Pitt the Younger was his son, and the youngest prime minister in British history at age twenty-four…a fact that makes us feel really unaccomplished.

The French Revolution and the rise of Napoleon meant war with France from 1789 through 1815. The French Revolution actually united Parliament with George more cohesively than before, because the king represented the traditional system that the French were trying to overthrow.

George then battled with Pitt the Younger over the political rights of Catholics during the union of Britain and Ireland, which George III achieved in 1801, creating the United Kingdom. Pitt was pro-Catholic rights, George was against them. (Source)

(The conflicts between Catholics and Protestants have existed in Europe since the formation of the Protestant religion in 1517, and Britain has a very long history of conflict between the two. But that's a discussion for another time.)

From Monarchy to Insanity: the Final Years of King George III

The last few years of King George's reign before he fell fully into "madness" included some pretty major events, such as battles with Napoleon and the end of the Atlantic slave trade in 1807. Slavery itself had been outlawed in the British Empire already, but British ships were still often the ones transporting slaves from Africa to the Americas.

The Napoleonic Wars, including the War of 1812, were eventually a victory for the British as well, although by the time they were in full force King George III was practically blind and had become incapacitated by his illness.

Personally, George's life started to unravel in the late 1780s. His sons left him as they became adults and sometimes joined up with his political rivals. The king's strong affection for his family meant that the disappointments of his sons took a toll on him. George's first mental breakdown took place in 1788, although he recovered.

He remained capable of ruling until after the death of his beloved daughter Amelia in 1810, after which he fell apart and was declared officially insane, and his son took over as prince regent until the king's death in 1820. Looking back, many historians now believe he suffered from porphyria, which affects the blood and nervous system, but of course that can't be completely confirmed. Next to losing America, this is sadly George's III most remembered legacy, even inspiring a famous movie.

George's Legacy: Evil King or Misunderstood Monarch?

There's a lot more to the life and reign of King George III than losing the colonies and insanity. Much of his story has to do with the intricacies of British government and the relationship between king and Parliament, which may or may not pique your interest. (How much do you like learning about the balance of power in constitutional monarchies? No judgment…but the only acceptable answer is "so much.")

When it comes to the Declaration of Independence, King George is the primary target of the document and its accusations of tyranny. In reality, Parliament played a very large role in the abuses listed by Jefferson and company. George III's experience dealing with Parliament, plus the several wars that happened during his reign (Seven Years' War, the American Revolution, the French Revolution, and the Napoleonic Wars), highlight the contrast between the Old World and the New, the traditional systems of government in Europe versus the new republican format of the United States.

The U.S. government was set up, through the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, to prevent a monarch like George III from existing in the new country…even though George himself didn't really have the power to be the tyrant he was accused of being.

And he was an easy target, because he was the embodiment of the British government, and therefore the most visible enemy for the Founding Fathers.

Maybe George III isn't the Voldemort of the American Revolution, but more of a Cornelius Fudge: the leader who sometimes made poor choices and didn't pay attention to warning signs.

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