"Our Common Father": The Image of George III in Colonial America
By Juan José López Haddad '22
Advised by Professor Michael A. Blaakman
I. Introduction: A Nation in Need of a King
In 1785, John Adams arrived in England to serve as the first minister plenipotentiary from the United States to Great Britain. On the first day of June, his coach delivered him to St. James’s Palace. The antiquated Tudor brick structure was deemed outdated at the time, as the king found it small, cramped, and uncomfortable.1 Nevertheless, it remained the ceremonial center of a monarchy that was frugal in relation to the great powers of continental Europe. After being led through an enfilade of increasingly restricted state rooms, Adams finally found himself in the presence chamber, the inner sanctum of this modest temple of empire. Before him stood King George III.
After performing the customary three reverences, Adams presented his ambassadorial credentials and addressed the monarch, declaring: “I think myself more fortunate, than all my fellow Citizens, in having the distinguish’d Honour, to be the first to Stand in your Majestys Royal Presence, in a diplomatic Character.” With an affected and tremulous voice, the British king replied, recognizing the “extraordinary” circumstances of their audience. He made clear that while he was “the last to consent to the Separation” he would be “the first to meet the Friendship of the United States as an independent Power.2
The account of this remarkable encounter between two former adversaries is still fresh in the minds of many today, in part due to its dramatization in the eponymous HBO miniseries John Adams. Astonishingly for a piece of popular historical fiction, the scene depicting this encounter adheres almost entirely to the script laid out in Adams’ correspondence. There is only one exception: as Adams (played by Paul Giamatti) exited the scene, King George III said the following closing words: “I pray, Mr. Adams, that the United States does not suffer unduly from its want of a monarchy.”3 While this line was the fictional work of a screenwriter—possibly intending to inject dramatic flair into what could be seen as a stale diplomatic reception—the sentiment behind the king’s final declaration was so faithful to the times that it might as well have been spoken by George III himself.
During the struggle for independence, the thirteen American Colonies had rejected the sovereignty of the British monarch. However, they had not done so out of disdain for the institution of kingship or the character of George III. In truth, before formally declaring independence in 1776, the thirteen colonies were deeply monarchical societies, where the king was celebrated as an integral part of their government and identity.4 The colonies’ break with their royalist sensibilities came to be only a few months before the Declaration of Independence was issued.5 Their newfound “want”—or lack—of a monarchy profoundly affected a society that had previously depended so strongly on the figure of the King.
George III was the monarch that presided over the period that would result in the colonies’ separation and reconstitution into the United States. The text of the Declaration of Independence has immortalized him in popular history as a tyrant, seemingly despised by the always proto-republican colonists. This portrayal influenced historians’ perspectives for centuries, resulting in a much-maligned version of a king who was universally scorned among his colonial American subjects.6 However, the truth of the matter was quite different. From his accession to the throne in 1760 to the very last moments before independence was formally declared in 1776, King George III commanded the love and veneration of many of the American colonists. His popularity west of the Atlantic was in fact even greater than in his homeland, where apathy toward the monarch had become the norm since the entrenchment of parliamentary sovereignty after the Glorious Revolution.7
While historians have investigated colonial attitudes toward British monarchy, no work has yet closely explored how George III was conceived by the imagination of imperial America. This shall be the goal of the present study. By examining the rich tradition of popular printed media in the American colonies, as well as the epistolary record of some of its most prominent figures, this paper will reveal a colonial landscape that was captivated by the figure of George III. Provincials revered George III not only as a king but also as an individual, paying great interest to the personal qualities that earned him both love and hate in his native Great Britain. Furthermore, this paper will show that as the imperial crisis worsened, loyalty for George III did not wane, but rather increased substantially. Displays of love and admiration—both official and communal—soared among the colonists as they fought the levies and measures that started with the Sugar Act of 1764 and the Stamp Act of 1765, and proceeded into the 1770s until independence. While this increase in demonstrations of loyalty could have been a façade to justify their rebellion, the colonists’ constant deference to the king’s name and their repeated appeals to his character, both in public and private, suggest a genuine attachment to their monarch. By the mid 1770s, the provincials’ trust and respect for parliamentary authority had all but vanished, and these “reluctant revolutionaries” clung to their loyalty to George III as a last link to their trans-Atlantic motherland—a bond they were unwilling to sever.8 This paper will aim to contribute to the better understanding of politics and society during colonial America, showing a land that was not proto-revolutionary, but rather a bastion of monarchical loyalism—an atmosphere that prevailed until independence became imminent. While not being an apology for George III, this study seeks to contribute to the recent wave of scholarship directed at correcting the historiography surrounding the last king of America—a figure much derided by whig historians and national mythologies from both sides of the Atlantic. As a conclusion, this study will discuss how the colonists’ attachment to George III and their abrupt rejection of his authority shaped their conception of the United States’ newly formed republican government.
While the study of attitudes toward royalty in colonial America is a relatively nascent effort, the most comprehensive work on the subject has been carried out by Brendan McConville. In The King’s Three Faces, McConville chronicles the emergence and ultimate downfall of a staunchly Protestant and almost regressive vision of monarchy in the colonies. Many of the early English settlements in North America started as havens for radical Protestants seeking to flee a Church of England corrupted by Catholic influences. However, McConville argues that the Glorious Revolution of 1688 proved a turning point away from an attitude of distrust toward the king and his Church. By expelling the openly Catholic James II—brother of the tyrannical Charles II who had converted to Catholicism on his deathbed—“William and Mary… had saved Englishmen everywhere from ‘Popery, Slavery and Arbitrary Power.’”9 The Glorious Revolution’s establishment of firmly Protestant rulers made the highly reformist colonists in America more willing to develop stronger ties with their mother country. This was also in the interest of Great Britain, which sought to increase its administrative control over the colonies in a conscious effort toward statebuilding—an area in which the previous Stuart monarchs had failed. Furthermore, while the colonies opened their doors to royal authority and imperial culture, they were oblivious to the doctrine of parliamentary supremacy, which had taken hold in Britain after 1688. In many ways, colonists clung to a regressive idea of the king as the source of sovereignty. As McConville remarks, “It was not that a royalized core controlled a latently republicanized or democratic fringe, but rather that the imperial fringe’s enthusiasm for Protestant monarchy contrasted sharply with the metropolitan center’s apathy toward the monarch.”10
To reap the benefits of a strong Protestant settlement brought about by the Glorious Revolution, the first families of Virginia, the Anglo-Dutch of the mid-Atlantic, and the Puritan elites of New England were forced to share their domains with imperial administrators they did not entirely trust.11 It was especially challenging for New Englanders and their puritanism. For those that had settled in the colonies in hopes of founding a “new Jerusalem” modeled in thoroughly reformed theology, government and religion were inseparable aspects of life. With this new arrangement of religious diversity, the king was their political head, but only a religious authority to those who practiced Anglicanism. This disjunction in the king’s leadership forced those colonists to rethink their relationship with the Crown. It moved from being a “covenant” of divine transcendence to being a “contract” based mainly on protection, though not entirely devoid of religion.12 Thus, imperial institutions imported the political theology of the king’s two bodies—the body natural, finite and corporeal, and the body politic, legal and infinite— to aid in bridging this religious gap.13
Nevertheless, the religious dimension of royal rule in the colonies always remained important, even more so when the Protestant Stuart line died out with Queen Anne. The throne then passed to the distantly related house of Hanover, an electorate of the Holy Roman Empire in present-day Germany. The crown landed on the head of George I, great-grandfather to George III, after skipping over more than 50 Catholic relatives who were disinherited by the Act of Settlement of 1701.14 George I and subsequent Hanoverian monarchs found themselves in an uncomfortable position in terms of legitimacy. Their claim to the throne relied almost exclusively on their Protestantism, so they leaned into it increasingly. As McConville writes, “provincial pulpits, a primary source of information and means of communication, celebrated these Protestant kings.” However, due to the lack of religious uniformity in the colonies, relying on church institutions was not enough. To create civic and emotional attachment to the monarchy, imperial officials instituted holidays that celebrated the monarch and the empire.
Initially, William and Mary had decreed three annual holidays: the monarch’s birthday, coronation day, and Pope’s day—now known as Guy Fawkes day. But by 1740, during the reign of George II, “public spectacles celebrating the monarch and the empire, involving local elites and military display, occurred at least six times a year in major population centers, while modest activities occurred on twenty other days.” These rituals, despite being more civic in nature, still emphasized Protestant virtue, as exemplified by one of the most widely celebrated of these holidays: Pope’s day. This festivity occurred every fifth of November, where the people commemorated the failure of the “Popish Plot” to blow up parliament and the king was commemorated by the manufacture, parade, and burning of an effigy of the Roman pontiff. This celebration also frequently possessed strong political elements, as effigies of the Catholic Stuart pretenders and other enemies of the king were often burned in accompaniment. This annual, state-sponsored, and widely popular display of anti-Catholic and anti-Stuart zeal reaffirmed Protestantism as the one true faith of the colonies, and the house of Hanover as the one true royal dynasty. While some still objected to these celebrations as being unchristian—such as the Puritan Samuel Sewall—these dissenters conformed eventually. Sewall even came to celebrate many of these festivals, noting so in his diary. The institution of these “red letter days,” as these holidays were called, was effective in creating a nation of ardent monarchists. Such was the case that “by 1740, colonials saw the king as a caring figure who expressed his affections to them in royal proclamations, in political rites, and in his behavior as reported by the colonial newspapers.” This emotional attachment became the key tie between provincials and the Crown.15
II. New Beginnings: The Promise of a Patriotic King (1760-1764)
Accession and Coronation
But who is HE, whose youthful Form proclaims
The Majesty of Empire? Wisdom guides,
And Valour guards his reign, the favour’d Muse
Shall eternize his Fame in grateful Lays.
Hark! the fell genius of ensanguin’d War,
Fast bound in brazen chains, reluctant raves.
Returning Peace shall glad the widow’s land,
Exulting Commerce fill her copious horn,
Fair Science flourish ‘mid her learned groves.
Religion’s hallowed fires shall beam around,
and kindred Virtue catch the heavenly flame.
But oh! what wonders destiny unfolds!
Visions of Glory! spare my aking Eyes!
Too bright for mortal view, a while recide!
Hail! Princely Youth! may guardian powers defend
Thee, Britain’s safety; and to distant times
Transmit the honours of thy lengthen’d sway.
-Signed Æ* C** (Anonymous). Boston News-Letter, January 1, 1761.16
News of the death of George II on October 25, 1760, reached the colonies in late December and early January of the following year, after the usual two months’ journey across the Atlantic. The first to hear of the king’s demise were the colonists of Massachusetts Bay, which possessed the highest number of print shops and newspapers in British North America.17 As the town heralds proclaimed the death of the late monarch and the accession of his grandson, George III, printers rushed to disseminate the news.18 Their papers constituted one of the most important sources of news for most colonists, and limited only by their weekly schedule and the speed of a horse, they carried the news from one colony to another.19
Apart from news, newspapers also featured literary compositions, such as poetry, a genre that abounded in print as momentous occasions were marked. The example above was penned by a “Gentleman” from Boston, who most likely paid the Boston News-Letter to insert it in their issue bearing the news of the accession.20 In this lyrical piece, the grief caused by the death of the late king is dissipated by the glorious, young figure of George III. The dawn of his reign is portrayed as the beginning of a new age, where the majesty of the empire is preserved by the young king’s wisdom and valor. In George III’s realm, peace triumphs over war, commerce fosters economic prosperity, science flourishes, and most importantly, religion and Protestant virtue illuminate the path forward. The publication of this poem was not an isolated phenomenon, however. Multiple odes to the new king were similarly submitted to other colonial papers, such as the ones penned by “an ingenious young Gentleman” in New York, and by two other authors in New Hampshire.21 The laudatory language of these poems, coupled with the fact that their authors had to pay to get them published, bears testament to a new king that was sincerely esteemed by members of colonial society. The prophetic language employed by the Gentleman of Boston—and its specific predictions of peace, prosperity, scientific advancement, and religious revival—signal a great anticipation for the reign of a young monarch who would somehow stand out from his predecessors. George III was indeed different, and his subjects across the Atlantic were just as aware of this fact as those in Britain.
As Linda Colley notes, George III differed from his homonymic predecessors “because he had grown up in a much safer and grander political world than his forebears, exposed to new circumstances and new ideas.”22 The young man who would become America’s last king was raised without having to worry too much about the issues of legitimacy that had largely occupied the mind of his two predecessors. Therefore, and with the help of his father, Frederick, Prince of Wales (1707-1751), he realized what was wrong with the model of monarchy that was current in his realm. With the entrenchment of parliamentary supremacy, politicians had made the monarchy in Britain subservient to their will, and its prestige had severely diminished—both because of its willingness to engage in political bickering and due to the tight hold exerted by Parliament on the royal purse.
As a result, George III consciously endeavored to be different from his forebears in these and various aspects. He refused to become a tool of the Whigs, and instead picked his friends and allies from all political factions.23 He also renegotiated royal finances with Parliament, which granted him a steady income in exchange for the revenues of the Crown lands.24 Furthermore, he placed high value on personal and religious virtue, being notably faithful to his wife—unlike his womanizing predecessors—and displaying a high degree of frugality and Protestant piety. The young king also took a keen interest in literature, history, science, and agriculture, the latter of these which would eventually earn him the nickname “Farmer George” later in life.25 But most importantly, George III had been born and raised in England, with English as his mother tongue. This was contrasted to the Georgian kings that had come before him. Both were German princes born in Hanover, with thick German accents, and who never quite managed to be perceived as anything other than outsiders. George III willfully capitalized on this very important trait; in his first speech to parliament, he declared, “born and educated in this country I glory in the name of Britain.”26 George III firmly cemented his character on being a true patriot king. Despite being oceans away, the American colonies were aware of the young king’s reputation. Mired in war with the French and their Native American allies, and suffering from the economic and social consequences of this conflict, the colonies were anxious for a change.
Almost one year after his accession, in September 1761, the coronation of George III was celebrated. Notwithstanding the fact that it was a distant event, the colonists anticipated and closely followed the event. Some prominent provincial citizens even journeyed to attend it. Colonial newspapers gave extensive coverage to the solemnity, beginning with notices such as the one published by the New-York Gazette the day before the coronation: “To-Morrow his present Majesty George III is to be crown’d King of England, Scotland, France, and Ireland, in the City of London, as by his Declaration made on the 8th July.”27 When accounts of the actual event arrived months later, the papers described it in thorough detail. Newspapers such as the Boston Evening-Post devoted the entire first page of four successive issues to almost verbatim retellings of the ceremony.28 These written renditions of the coronation included processional orders, the text from the breviary, and excerpts from sermons preached at the event. These descriptions were made in a language deeply reverential to the king, exalting the glory of his person and the grandeur of the service. Through these stories, even the most distant colonist in rural Massachusetts could feel close to the grandeur empire and its center, the king.
However, these extensive renditions were not enough for the colonists. To supplement this demand for royal news, reports of the king’s first opening of Parliament were also printed by both the Boston Post-Boy & Advertiser and the Boston News-Letter.29 Advertisements for the sale of prints of “A Sermon preached at the Coronation of King GEORGE III… By Robert Lord Bishop of Salisbury” were also run by the Boston Post-Boy and the Evening-Post for an entire month.30 This best-selling sermon exalted the king and the institution of monarchy as it spoke of the “[divine] Providence, by which all Kings reign, and all Princes decree justice.” It also focused on the divine origins of kingship, highlighting the famous phrase from the book of Romans: “the powers that be, are ordained of God.” Curiously enough, at the end of the sermon, the printed version sold in America contained a small postscript. Among other things, it assured that despite being supreme governor of the Church of England, the king “in no respect interferes with the spiritual concerns of the Church,” and that “at his coronation, [the king] entered into a solemn compact with his people for the maintenance of the Protestant reformed religion.”31 This disclaimer seems to have been aimed at appeasing the religious sensibilities of the colonists, who often feared the loss of their Protestant way of life. Nevertheless, the popularity of this print, suggested by its persistence, reveals a society that embraced George III's divine right to rule.
However, not all colonists had to experience the events of the coronation vicariously through the pages of newspapers. Distinguished individuals such as Benjamin Franklin and his son, William, made a conscious effort to witness the great solemnity in person. While in Utrecht, on September 14, 1761 the future founding father wrote to his wife, Deborah, saying: “We are now on our Return to London, where we hope to be next Saturday or Sunday, that we may not miss the Coronation.”32 After witnessing the event, in October of the same year, William Franklin wrote to his sister, Sarah, an extensive account of the coronation. While most of the letter has regrettably been lost, the beginning of his narration shows remarkable enthusiasm, as he eagerly related not using his old ticket, having been given a better one which enabled him “to see the whole Ceremony in the Hall, and to walk in the Procession quite into the Abbey.”33
The excitement conveyed in these letters might surprise those who are accustomed to the image of Franklin, the revolutionary. In truth, it should not. Apart from being a keen traveler, Benjamin Franklin was an ardent and loyal monarchist for much of his life. Furthermore, he admired George III deeply, as evidenced in many of his writings from the king’s early reign. In June 27, 1763, writing from New York, Franklin told his English friend John Whitehurst of his disappointment with those in England who opposed the Treaty of Paris of 1763, which ended the Seven Years’ War. In recounting his happiness that the war had ended, Franklin praised the king: “The Glory of Britain was never higher than at present, and I think you never had a better Prince.” Nevertheless, being aware of the low levels of popularity enjoyed by the king in Britain, which contrasted his esteem in America, Franklin added: “Why then is he not universally rever’d and belov’d? I can give but one Answer. The King of the Universe, good as he is, is not cordially belov’d and faithfully serv’d by all his Subjects.”34 By comparing George III to God, and his unpopularity to the faithlessness of some people, Franklin not only elevated the image of the king to a quasi-divine status, but he also completely absolved the king of any fault for what his subjects thought of him. Much like his fellow countrymen, Franklin was more than willing to talk of his king using strikingly beatific language. Franklin genuinely loved and admired his king, not only for his high office, but also because of his personal qualities.
The king’s personality could be a divisive issue, but colonists tended to be fond of it. In December of 1763, the ever-well-connected Franklin received a letter from another of his friends from London, the printer and politician William Strahan (1715-1785). In his letter, dated August of the same year, Strahan informed Franklin of the king’s persistent unpopularity in London, and called him a man “not possessed of any striking Talents, or any great Degree of Sagacity.” Furthermore, Strahan complained of the king’s interest in science and architecture, which he called “trifling Amusements.” He attributed these to the king’s education by Lord Bute (1713-1792), the prime minister at the time, whom he termed “a Man who is himself ignorant of the World.”35 In his reply, Franklin disagreed. He first praised the king’s scientific and artistic interests. Then, to address Strahan’s worry that Lord Bute’s ministry would stain the king’s reign, Franklin declared:
On the contrary, I am of Opinion, that his Virtue and the Consciousness of his sincere Intentions to make his People happy, will give him Firmness and Steadiness in his Measures, and in the Support of the honest Friends he has chosen to serve him; and when that Firmness is fully perceiv’d, Faction will dissolve and be dissipated like a Morning Fog before the rising Sun, reaving the rest of the Day clear, with a Sky serene and cloudless. Such, after a few of the first Years, will be the future Course of his Majesty’s Reign, which I predict will be happy and truly glorious.36
Indeed, Franklin’s highly metaphorical and extolling language—as well as the private nature of this correspondence—attest to a man who truly held deep monarchist convictions, and who regarded George III with particular fondness and esteem. Though maybe still influenced by the joy caused by the end of the Seven Years’ War, at this point Benjamin Franklin’s admiration of George III’s public and private virtues was wholly genuine. Perhaps Franklin’s affection was also augmented by his own affinity for science and tinkering, which the king also enjoyed.
However, interest and admiration for the king’s personal virtues and pursuits was not restricted to well-travelled people like Dr. Franklin. Colonial society in general enjoyed reading accounts of the king’s habits. Shortly after his accession, many newspapers such as the Boston Gazette and the New-York Gazette published an article from London detailing the king’s daily routine and his many virtues. The article began by confidently stating that “very few princes in the world have ever so many virtues, or much wisdom as his present majesty king George the third.” It proceeded to recount a day in the monarch’s life, stating that he “riseth at five o’clock every morning” and takes care of most of his morning affairs—such as getting dressed—by himself.37 This was in stark contrast to the decadent, highly ceremonial levées popularized by Louis XIV and widely practiced in the Catholic monarchies of the continent.38 After he was done getting ready, the king would go to the chapel to offer morning prayers “in the most religious manner.” Following these devotions, the king received petitions, rode on horseback, and read “some religious or moral book.” When his ministers would come to him for advice, he would be “very ready to give directions and answers, knowing the constitution of all his dominions exceedingly well.” At the end of his day, the king had dinner, which he “eateth temperately.” The report also highlighted how the king was “remarkably respectful and loving to his mother… whom he visiteth every afternoon,” and how he also was “very affectionate and generous to his brothers and sisters… [and] all his household.” The article closed by documenting the king’s distaste for gambling, and his prowess as “a very good mathematician, and a most elegant architect.”39
The emphasis on Protestant piety and virtue was sure to appeal to the religious attitudes of the colonists. Moreover, portrayal of the king’s constitutional knowledge could have provided provincials with reassurance that their rights and freedoms would be defended by the monarch. Furthermore, emphasis on George III’s temperance and relatively simple lifestyle was meant to contrast him both with his predecessors and other monarchs in Europe, exalting him as the ideal model of dignified, yet limited, British kingship. The article’s numerous reprints suggest a widespread interest, and belief, in the king’s character. Even if London was not charmed by the upright monarch’s habits, the colonists in America arguably esteemed the values espoused by the king’s lifestyle, which largely reflected their own.
George III’s influence upon the lives of the American colonists was not merely limited to fanciful anecdotes from a distant land. The figure of the young king was present in almost every aspect of civic life, and he even stood prominently in many of the provincials’ private lives. During every official procedure, his name was constantly invoked. The “red letter” royal holidays—the king’s birthday, his accession, and his coronation—were celebrated every year. These events tended to be massive, attracting large crowds who would witness the commemorative military maneuvers, and would then gather to feast and drink the king’s health.40 Privately, the name of George III would be present in the personal prayers of each family, encouraged by a widespread genre of devotional books which contained prayers for the king. These existed across several Protestant denominations, such as German Baptists and Congregationalists, and were not limited to Anglicans.41 This made the king a permanent fixture of the religious routines that regimented colonial life. The figure of the king would also be used for the education of boys and young men, who were taught to write bonds and debts referencing the present year in the reign of the king.42 This real but largely ceremonial presence of the king in civic and private life—as attested by the large number of printed materials—formed a constant if not fundamental part of the identity of the 18th century American colonist. Regardless of one’s colony of origin or religion, all were united in their allegiance to the king, and the presence of George III in their lives was one of the few factors these diverse communities had in common.
The Face of The Nation
Royal iconography in the colonies is another useful window into the provincials’ interest for the figure of George III. In a way, the model of monarchy practiced by the British Empire relied on images to enshrine the sovereignty of the king at home and to project it in the faraway dominions. Images of the monarch augmented the power of his figure by giving him a sort of omnipresence throughout his empire.43 At the same time, the availability of the ruler’s likeness might have given even the most distant populations a sense of closeness with their sovereign. By examining the material culture that surrounded pictorial representations of George III in America, one can appreciate a monarch that was venerated both officially and privately, with imagery highlighting qualities that distinguished him from his predecessors.
The craze for images of George III started at the very beginning of his reign. At that time, as it is presently, it was customary to mint commemorative medals for milestones in the monarch’s reign. The first medals to be produced marked his accession. These were struck by the Royal Mint and sold to serve as mementos, as well as to showcase the loyalty of the owner. Despite being produced in faraway London, the colonists did not miss out on a chance to own this token with the royal likeness. On June 22, 1761, an advertisement for “Sundry Medals of his present most Sacred Majesty GEORGE III” appeared in the Boston Gazette. Besides presenting “an exact Portrait of His Majesty,” the reverse of the medal displayed a remarkable motif. The back was adorned with “a Heart encircled with Oak and Laurel Branches” and “the Motto, Entirely British.”44 By surrounding the king’s heart with oak and laurel—symbols of Britishness and victory—and by the very explicit motto, the king’s distinctive patriotic origins were exalted above all else. This medal was a commemoration of the accession, but also the celebration of a king with a heart true to the victorious people of Britain and the empire.
The significance of this medal’s presence in the colonies cannot be understated. Since it was produced by the Royal Mint, the dies used to strike the coin would not have been distributed as to prevent forgeries. Therefore, these medals had to be imported by sea, an arduous process that involved months of journeying, not to mention limited space that could be used for other, more desirable goods. These medals had to be worth shipping, and the savvy merchant that sold them probably anticipated their popularity. Notably, he relegated the rest of his merchandise to a brief footnote: “Also, sundry other Articles.” Curiously, the posting also described the medals as being “struck on a fine white Metal,” yet the versions that survive are made of silver and bronze.45 If the “white metal” had been silver, the advertisement would surely have noted it. The absence of this medal in silver is understandable due to Britain’s prohibitions on exporting bullion to its colonies.46 Production of these tokens in a third metal implies that the Royal Mint recognized a colonial market for these objects, and possibly struck them specifically for exportation. This exemplifies the colonists’ strong desire to obtain images of the new king and participate in celebrating his remarkably British provenance. The lack of surviving examples of this particular version might be due to the iconoclasm that ensued during the revolution.
The consumption of images of George III was not limited to numismatic artifacts. Pictorial depictions of the king were commonplace in colonial America. These could be painted or, more commonly, printed. Starting during the beginning of the young king’s reign, several advertisements selling pictures of George III ran in many newspapers. A posting in the Pennsylvania Gazette alerted readers of “A CURIOUS Collection of PRINTS,” emphasizing portraits of “His Majesty King GEORGE the Third.”47 Another advertisement promoted “a few Pictures of his present Majesty King GEORGE the Third… painted by an eminent Hand, from original Pictures.”48 A similar notice was also posted in the Providence Gazette.49 Most of these mass-produced, commercially sold prints were imported from Britain.50 This was typical of the colonists’ reliance on British manufactured goods—especially those that involved a complex production process, such as mezzotint prints.51 However, demand seems to have been high enough to warrant some production of images in the colonies. An advertisement in the Boston Evening-Post pointed to images of the king “Engrav’d and Sold by Nath. Hurd.”52 The abundance of notices of this sort signals the wide market that these images enjoyed.
The large size of the market for royal images is a strong indicator of the colonists’ personal attachment to the figure of the king, and not merely of a state-sanctioned distribution of iconography. At the time, foreign travelers noted that the provincials had a tendency to decorate their homes with portraits of family and friends. Printed images of the king were hung alongside depictions of dear relatives and companions, often occupying a place of honor.53 This presence of the king’s image in the private life of many colonists, adorning the intimacy of their dwellings, attests to a personal admiration for the figure of the monarch. George III was especially popular in that regard. Another instance of the provincials’ private veneration of George III is found in the aforementioned portraits engraved in America. These were made “for Gentlemen and Ladies to put in their Watches.”54 If the home was already an intimate place to keep an image of a faraway monarch one had never met, the inside of one’s watch was even more special. Only the wearer would have seen this picture, and they would have carried it in their person constantly, like a loved-one’s face in a locket. Furthermore, pictures of the king would often be sold alongside portraits of individuals admired not for a hereditary office, but for their deeds. Such was the case of several of the advertisements mentioned before, which also included likenesses of prime minister William Pitt and General Wolfe, both heroes of the Seven Years’ War.55 Even when grouped together in this batch of notables, the king’s name was given precedence in the advertisements, and presumably his picture was as well. This places admiration for the king’s person on a level more profound than mere imperial convention. The fact that colonists willingly purchased and kept representations of George III in such a manner shows a sincere desire for closeness to their distant monarch, and genuine affection for him.
The image of George III also occupied a prominent place in public and civic life. Buildings that housed important colonial institutions, such as state houses, often displayed finely painted portraits of the king and queen, which were shipped from London. The arrival of these objects was frequently celebrated with demonstrations of joy. Such was the case when numerous New England newspapers, the Newport Mercury, the Boston News-Letter, and the Essex Gazette, among others, circulated a story detailing the governor of Rhode Island’s reception of full-length portraits of the king and queen.56 These portraits were hung in institutional buildings for everyone to admire. Furthermore, the likeness of the king also featured in public places that were less solemn and more
quotidian, such as taverns and public houses. An advertisement in the Pennsylvania Journal informed the reader of a twenty-shilling reward for the return of Elizabeth Stewart, who had “Eloped from her husband… with one John Smith.” The notice instructed that the reward could be cashed by bringing both of the lovers to a tavern marked by a sign with King George III’s face.57 Inns of this sort were important landmarks and served a major role in their communities. Apart from providing a place to drink communally, their innkeepers usually served as points of contact for their patrons, as suggested by the aforementioned advertisement. The king’s coat of arms, though more commonly used to represent his authority in places like courthouses, was also occasionally employed as a tavern sign.
The likeness of George III also featured in traveling exhibitions of curiosities. In four successive issues, the New-York Gazette advertised exhibits of wax figures of the king and queen.58 Another posting by the New-York Journal also publicized another, different exposition of royal wax models.59 As these advertisements show, the image of George III permeated public space, both in solemn and mundane locations. The use of his image by taverns and inns signals George III’s assimilation into the daily culture and identity of the colonists. The frequent exhibitions of his wax effigies show provincials’ desire to bridge the geographic distance separating them from the king, allowing them to “meet” him in a way. More broadly, the conspicuous presence of these images was the mark of a people that widely accepted George III as their sovereign, enjoyed seeing him frequently throughout their day, and wished to infuse even the most common elements of their lives with his royal appearance and prestige.
III. Renewed Zeal: George III and the Imperial Crisis (1764-1766)
The Stamp Act
Unrest over British rule started in America during the mid 1760s with the imposition of levies on certain goods traded by the colonies. These taxes were highly unpopular beginning with the Sugar Act in 1764.60 But it was the Stamp Act of 1765 which truly drew universal condemnation from the colonists, prompting major protests and revolts in an attempt to eliminate the act.61 This tax affected printers and those at the top of colonial society especially, as it required all printed materials to be produced on expensive stamped paper imported from Britain. This included items such as legal documents, magazines, playing cards, and newspapers.62 As soon as information of its royal assent arrived from London, the papers started printing articles criticizing the act. This was highly significant, as newspaper printers tended to avoid political critiques in an era where sedition and libel laws could easily shut down a paper.63 To mitigate this, printers adopted neutrality as the best business model, publishing pieces from all perspectives. Nevertheless, the Stamp Act was perceived as an offense so injurious that many of these papers abandoned any pretense of impartiality and strongly opposed the Stamp Act.64 In spite of this, as defiance and criticism of the new taxes increased, popular affection toward George III soared. While the reputation of Parliament and prime minister Grenville sank, demonstrations of loyalty toward the king—both during imperial holidays and on the daily—experienced a dramatic rise. This was evidenced in newspaper reports across the colonies, as well as in the content of other popular printed media.
Increased displays of loyalty to the king start to be seen with the celebration of his birthday on June 4, 1765. The previous month, news had already arrived to the colonies of the Stamp Act’s assent into law. While by this point of the king’s reign it had become commonplace to report his birthday with just a few lines, in 1765 coverage was expanded, taking the form of large columns. Emphasis was given to descriptions of elaborate military exercises attended by governors and colonial dignitaries. Papers such as the Boston News-Letter also chronicled sumptuous dinner parties held after the conclusion of military ceremonies. In these “his Majesty’s and other loyal Healths, were drank.”65 Reports like these abounded throughout the colonies. The Georgia Gazette spoke of similar celebrations culminating in “illuminations, bonfires, &c.,” Stories of this sort were also found in the New-York Mercury, the Boston Post-Boy & Advertiser, among others.66 This increase in celebration not only signals a desire to strongly project loyalty, but also shows a people that were depositing their trust and taking refuge in the image of George III during nascent times of crisis. Some of these demonstrations of allegiance were essentially acts of private devotion, as was the case of the “illuminations” reported in several towns. This practice involved placing expensive candles in all the windows of one’s home, often shining through transparencies depicting famous scenes in British history.67 This is a clear demonstration of personal admiration, and a continuation of the trend of commemorating the king intimately at home.
Another manifestation of citizens’ personal expressions of loyalty toward George III could be found in the opinions published by colonial newspapers. Citizens would pay printers to publish their written opinions anonymously, hiding their identities by pseudonyms that alluded to notions of liberty.68 While some pieces defended the Stamp Act, the majority of them strongly condemned it. However, all had a common feature: grand statements of allegiance to George III, often preceding the substance of their arguments and serving as closing words. Boston, the epicenter of unrest over the new taxes, was also the center of publication of these laudatory declarations. An article published by the Pennsylvania Gazette under the pseudonym Amicus Publico devoted almost half its length to a paragraph wishing the King long life and a wise council.69 This particular piece seems to have gained notoriety, as it was reprinted by the Boston News-Letter.70 Many more Boston papers published similar letters. An example printed by the Boston Evening-Post closed its argument by proclaiming “love, veneration and esteem for our rightful sovereign King GEORGE the Third.” It then lengthily described his protection of the rights of Englishmen, and his glorious ascendency. Some of these letters were so long that they took two consecutive issues to publish in full, as shown by another article in the Boston Evening-Post. This gigantic opinion piece ended by assuring that the king would “not be deaf to the voice of so great a body of his faithful subjects.”71 While some of these could have been penned by the printers of each paper themselves—as Benjamin Franklin frequently did with his Pennsylvania Gazette—the bulk of these were submitted by the paying public.72 The fact that these writers paid to publish these pieces, often occupying extensive space in several issues, attests to a society that revered the king and deposited their hopes for change in him. Virtually no paper at the time published remarks that were even subtly critical of the king. While ministers and Parliament were repeatedly scorned by these articles, the figure of George III occupied an inviolable, sacred space. While these declarations of loyalty could have served as a safeguard against retribution, it is unlikely that this was the primary motivation for their composition. Anonymity already went a long way in protecting these authors, a condition that printers maintained faithfully.73 Moreover, if imperial authorities discovered the author of a damning piece of criticism, it was implausible that a few words of flattery would spare them punishment.
Declarations of loyalty also saw a marked increase in official and civic settings, starting with the resolutions that many colonial and town assemblies issued in protest of the Stamp Act. Similar to the opinion letters published in the papers, these assemblies produced documents that proclaimed loyalty to the king and rejection of the new taxes. Declarations of fidelity to George III occupied an entire article in these resolutions, which was often the first, and they were widely circulated by the newspapers. An example could be found in the pages of the New-York Mercury, where an account of an assembly of “the Freeholders and other Inhabitants of the City and County of New-York” began by stating their “warmest Sentiments of Affection and Loyalty to his present Majesty King George III.”74 This language and format was standard in these proclamations, with similar statements issued in Essex, New Jersey; Talbot Country, Maryland; Windham, Connecticut; among others. Resolutions like these were also issued by the colonial assemblies of Massachusetts and New York.75 These writings, while showing a populace opposed to the British ministry at the time, expose a society eager to preserve their ties with their king.
Another avenue for the civic display of loyalty lay, paradoxically, in protests and civil disobedience. A group that arose to organize public dissent were the famous Sons of Liberty. This organization originated in Boston and was crucial in coordinating opposition to the Stamp Act across most of the colonies. Their leadership consisted of prominent men from colonial society, and their followers included significant portions of the populace.76 But despite their fervent defiance and their modern reputation as radical proto-republicans, each of their events commonly featured extensive shows of reverence to George III. At a meeting in Springfield, New Jersey, the Sons of Liberty opened their session by declaring “true Allegiance to King GEORGE the IIId” adding that they were “as ready to defend his Crown and Dignity, as we are to protect our own Lives and Properties.” As a conclusion to their business, they toasted the health of the king and the royal family.77 This meeting format was standard, and similar assemblies occurred across the colonies in Philadelphia, Newport, New York, Williamsburg, North Carolina, among others.78 The song that served an anthem for the Sons of Liberty also professed fidelity to the king, with one of its stanzas reading:
To King George as true subjects, we loyal bow down;
But, hope we may call Magna Charta our own:
Let the rest of the world slavish workshop decree,
Great-Britain has order’d her sons shou’d be Free.79
Notable figures of the American Revolution were also enlisted in these displays of royal affection. In a letter to John Adams, Thomas Crafts asked the Massachusetts lawyer to write an inscription “with Encomiums on King George Expressive of our Loyalty” for the Sons of Liberty.80 The overabundance of rhetoric loyal to the king serves to show that even the most radical movements at the time were unwilling to distance themselves from the king. They derided the Grenville ministry. They even questioned Parliament’s authority to tax the Colonies. However, they never doubted the sovereignty of George III, who had their unwavering support.
Other shows of affection for the king were plenty in more popularly organized protests. Notably, a colorful incident occurred in Boston, where a local drove “two extraordinary large fat oxen” to town. One ox bore a flag which read “King GEORGE and Pitt forever! LIBERTY and PROPERTY and NO STAMPS.” It seemed to gain enough notoriety to make it to the New York papers.81 Examples like this show that, much like the sons of liberty, colonists did not let their strong dislike of the Stamp Act interfere with their loyalty to the king. He was still admired and grouped with other heroes such as Pitt. The literature consumed by the colonists also exposes a prevalent sentiment of allegiance to George III, seeing him as a benevolent and merciful figure.
A Curious Play
During the time of the Stamp Act, a number of pamphlets expressing opinions on the crisis circulated widely. Most of these adhered to the convention seen before, sparing the king of criticism. One of them was particularly remarkable, both by its format and by the intensity of the message it proclaimed. Titled O! Justitia. A complete trial, this pamphlet took the form of a morality play depicting a fictional trial. It was printed in Philadelphia in 1765. The accused was a character by the name of “Saucy Alias Swaggering John.” This conspicuously named figure faced trial for having “Curse[d] the most sacred Person of his Majesty King George the Third,” in a public setting. The jury was composed of men named with similarly vivid names:
Mr. True Heart,
Mr. Hate Bard,
Mr. Love Good,
Mr. See truth,
The witnesses of the case were “Mr. Yes and Nay, Mr. Faithful,” and “Mr. Trusty.”
As each witness gave testimony, all of them agreed that the accused was guilty of his purported crime. Mr. Faithful even reported the accused had a history of saying “he would sooner be tossed from Post to Pillory, and from Den to Penn, than submit to be under the King’s Government.” The accused then tried to defend himself by claiming that their testimony was made out of spite. This was to no avail, as the virtuous jury unanimously declared him guilty. He was sentenced to public shaming by being tied to a post for several days with egg yolks on his face—the whites serving as his only sustenance. However, at the last minute, the king’s attorney intervened. He insisted that, though guilty of treachery, Swaggering John should be shown mercy, and given a more lenient punishment. His face would no longer be covered with eggs. Moreover, he would also have access to food and water, as well as the care of an official.82
The distribution of this play in the colonies implies that the need to defend the king’s name from all disloyalty was a prevalent sentiment. It is unlikely that this piece was the product of government propaganda, due to its highly satirical tone and the numerous jokes at the expense of the government itself. The piece, while serving as an enjoyable piece of satire, brought an important message: the king is to be respected, and those who fail to do so are rightfully condemned. The reliability of the conviction is left to no doubt, as indicated by the names of witnesses and jurors. However, the most important takeaway seems to have been that, while those that derided the monarch deserved punishment, the king was a fair and tempered man who preferred mercy. One could be tempted to think that the extravagant lack of subtext and the conspicuous names might suggest that the text should be read with more irony, and that it does not really intend to show the king in a good light. The pamphlet extinguishes all impulse to believe this by its conclusion. The fictional account itself ends with a solemn “GOD SAVE THE KING,” and the last page of the pamphlet presents the reader with charming couplets:
The Duty of all Parent’s with the Rod’s
To train their Children in the fear of GOD
And like the Bee, to use it as their sting,
To learn them how to pray for George their King.83
This final piece of verse makes it abundantly clear that the play intends to educate each subject of the king to be loyal to him. It also takes the message even further, adding to it a religious dimension that was sure to speak to the immensely pious, Protestant colonists. To obey the king signified not only civic allegiance, but religious devotion. It was the duty of every parent to make sure their children—and presumably, their neighbors— understood this. This was very much in line with custom at the time, as it has been previously noted that most of the popular family prayer books included prayers for the king. This sentiment did not seem to wane during the time of the Stamp Act. If anything, the emergence of new formats like this denotes an increase in royal religious zeal. It was abundantly clear: in times of injustice such as the ones they were living, the king was the source of all justice. And his justice was the one of God.
In 1766, Parliament moved to repeal the much-hated Stamp Act. Its enforcement had failed, and the unrest it provoked was deemed a price too high to pay for a tax that was ineffective.84 This measure received the full support of George III, who had grown impatient with Grenville.85 When news of the repeal reached the colonies, public rejoicing immediately erupted. While the colonists celebrated their victory with exuberant festivities, the figure of the king took center stage in every display of joy. At Salem, May 21 was decreed a day of public rejoicing. The colors were flown at Fort William and cannons were fired in commemoration at the climax of the celebration, an oration thanking “His Majesty King George the Third, whom God long preserve,” was read. Subsequently, his health and that of the royal family was toasted.86
Commemorations of the repeal of the act were not limited to a single day, but continued throughout the year, often being infused with the traditional Imperial holidays. The celebrations for the king’s birthday in 1766 were the most lavish found in any record. In Boston, ships were dressed in flowing colors. In honor of the king, the town elite dressed themselves with fine new English suits, donating all of their locally made clothes to the poor.87 In New York, two oxen were slaughtered and given to the populace.88 The sheer scale of these festivities was also noted in private correspondence.
In Philadelphia, Thomas Wharton wrote to Benjamin Franklin, who had been in London lobbying Parliament, mailing him a paper which described the king’s birthday celebrations. The newspaper recounted how “a large number of the inhabitants of Philadelphia” ate “a mammoth public dinner at the banks of the Schuylkill.” There was also a display of illuminations, and toasts were drunk in honor of the king.89 While colonists were commemorating their victory over unjust taxation, they offered up their rejoicing to the figure of the monarch. These shows of exhilaration denoted the prevalence of a sense of gratitude toward their sovereign. After all, when the act had been in effect, they had appealed to him personally on multiple occasions to be the defender of their rights. These appeals having been fulfilled; it was only just that the king be honored at every opportunity. This sheds light on the depth of the colonists’ attachment to their patriot king, whose name they frequently associated with their Englishness and their rights as Englishmen. The repeal celebrations, besides revealing profound sympathies for the king, served to solidify the king’s dear place in the hearts of his American subjects. Even as George III faced one of his worst waves of unpopularity at home, in his colonies his reputation peaked.90 A year later, when the anniversary of the repeal was observed as a folk holiday, orations and toast still centered around praising the name of King George.91
IV. More Acts and More Loyalty: The Prelude to Independence (1766-1775)
Public rejoicing would not last long. While the Stamp Act was no more, Parliament remained unmoved by the colonists’ claim against taxation without representation. This was made clear with the passage of the Declaratory Act in 1766, which reaffirmed Parliament’s authority to tax the colonies and to legislate over them.92 Moreover, other laws like the Quartering Act of 1765 remained in effect, and the following years would see the passage of many more acts imposing taxes and measures that the colonists deemed in violation of the English constitution.93 Nevertheless, with each legislative blow that Parliament dealt to the colonies came a spike in public loyalty to the King. As Westminster’s legitimacy decreased, the colonists ascribed an increasing amount of power to George III, in hopes that he would deliver them from the acts. This confidence in the king would also be short-lived. By the end of the 1760s and during the early 1770s printed media critical of the king started to become commonplace. However, a considerable amount of esteem for the monarch would remain until the final moments before independence.
During the period of 1767-68 several more acts were passed by Parliament targeting the colonies. The Townshend Acts included taxes on many goods such as paint, lead, glass, paper, and tea. They also included measures to coerce colonies into complying with the Quartering Act, and provisions that gave customs officials broad powers to enforce the acts.94 As soon as news of each of these laws reached the colonies, demonstrations of loyalty by the public and by officials intensified, serving as integral part of any form of protest as they did with the Stamp Act. Freeholders in town meetings passed several resolutions with fervent reiterations of their fealty to the king alongside arguments against taxation, which they based on legislation from William and Mary.95 These conventions and the documents they produced were widespread throughout the colonies. Their arguments—as well as their praise of George III—were soon emulated in resolutions by the House of Representatives of Massachusetts and other colonial assemblies.96
Many prominent colonial men also continued engaging in this language of praise toward the king. John Adams instructed Boston delegates “to maintain our loyalty and duty to our most gracious Sovereign.”97 During his travels to France, Benjamin Franklin recounted to Mary Stevenson his meeting with the king. In this private letter, he reaffirmed his preference for his own monarch, remarking “No Frenchman shall go beyond me in thinking my own King and Queen the very best in the World and the most amiable.”98 In newspapers, letters to the editor continued being published. “Legipotens” declared that those who imposed the new taxes would “feel the weight of the law,” but that the colonists maintained their “undivided affection” to George III.99 The king also preserved his religious importance, featuring as the chief protector of Protestantism in anti-Catholic sermons.100 These displays suggest that even under the pressure of several unpopular acts, the majority of the populace still believed in the just character of George III. This shouldn’t be surprising, as affection to the king had been a natural part of colonial life for decades. Furthermore, such increases in zeal toward the monarch coupled with protests had seemed to pay off during the time of the Stamp Act.
However, as the tenure of these acts grew long, the first cracks on the provincials’ confidence toward the king began to show. Novel newspapers started appearing that were profoundly polarized. It was through them that some of the first critiques against the king were published.101In the Essex Gazette, an article was published stating that George III would participate in a new “running-mede,” comparing him to the medieval King John’s capitulation in Magna Carta.102 Another of these newly-born papers, the Massachusetts Spy, printed a series of maxims deriding the king.103 Nevertheless, even with these articles circulating among the public, they were still relatively rare, outnumbered by letters, poems, and reports that professed fealty for the king. While this is still significant, as it signals the appearance of large numbers of royal skeptics, a large amount of the population still supported the king. This was seen during the imperial holidays of the year. George III’s birthday commemorations in 1768 were particularly extravagant, especially in Boston, and the anniversary of his Coronation was dutifully observed in 1770.104 Moreover, even the new, more partisan newspapers still shied away from total partiality. The Essex Gazette published a letter advocating for reconciliation between Americans and Britons, in which George III was called “our common Father.” This sort of loyalty would remain widespread until moments before independence. Still, as violence became more frequent the number of royal dissenters would grow.
The Boston massacre of 1770 proved a turning point for the opposition to British rule in Massachusetts, as well as for the public’s perception of the King.105 This attack on the people seriously damaged British esteem in the colony, causing royal prestige to suffer. The Boston papers started to publish more critiques of the king, posting satires about the monarch, a letter claiming he had “lost America,” and an article denouncing the number of petitions during the king’s reign.106 However, outside of Boston, levels of loyalty to George III seem to have remained largely unchanged. In New York, a statue of the king was erected in Bowling Green. In Virginia, an ode to liberty ascribed to George III was reported and celebrated in the newspapers. In Pennsylvania, several towns declared their allegiance to the king.107 Even in Massachusetts, some voices still desperately clung to the figure of the king. Charles Chauncy, the Congregational minister, preached a sermon affirming Massachusetts’ loyalty to the Crown.108 Some even questioned the ability of any legitimate government to form in an independent America. The author of an opinion letter held that true sovereignty came only from the King.109 Many of these acts, which necessitated large amounts of community involvement and public exposure, serve as a reliable barometer of the king’s enduring popularity. It is logical that Massachusetts became the epicenter of the king’s growing unpopularity, seeing its status as the most rebellious—and therefore most punished—colony.
However, with the occurrence of the Boston Tea Party in 1773 and the passage of the Intolerable Acts designed to punish this rebellion, another wave of proclamations of loyalty surged, though this time coupled with criticism toward the king. Facing the closure of the port of Boston, the House of Representatives of Massachusetts yet again reaffirmed its fealty to George III. This was widely reported by newspapers in Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, New York, and others.110 The image of the king’s face still seemed to retain some currency, as a new tavern opened in Salem with George III’s sign.111 However, his actions were now being openly scorned. An article in the Maryland Journal called George III “ten thousand times more arbitrary than Lewis XV” for his assent to the Quebec Act.112 This law had expanded Catholic religious freedom in Quebec and abolished the requirement for a loyalty oath to serve in colonial administration. This was seen by the colonists as facilitating the spread of Catholicism, the greatest evil in their eyes.113 This deep polarization surrounding the king’s image, while creating a sector of royal dissenters, still preserved a large population that remained attached to the monarch. The king’s birthday and his other holidays were still celebrated, and popular objects such as almanacs were still printed with his face on them.114
It is then left to address whether these increased displays of loyalty were true or merely a façade. While a desire to avoid trouble and return to the metropole’s good graces motivated these declarations, this does not necessarily deprive them of sincerity. It is apparent that at the same time, many provincials still paid to have their pro-royalist opinions published. Furthermore, pictures of the king were still integral to daily life, appearing in new tavern signs and almanacs, with no record showing their defacement. But perhaps more notably, if the colonial assemblies’ shows of loyalty had been disingenuous, it would have made little sense to still engage in them. Either the assemblies would have known they would have no effect—as the past few years had shown them—or they would have been resolved toward independence, an effort which necessitated the abandonment of imperial imagery to succeed. It is possible that there was some ambivalence between these two mindsets, but it would be unreasonable to attribute all displays of fealty to this. Truly, it was very difficult for a majority of the population to abandon their affections for the king, a feeling they had cultivated their entire lives. During the moments preceding independence, desperate attempts were made to preserve America’s ties to its British sovereign. However, even these would fail, and aversion toward the monarch would only come to dominate after a direct, egregious refusal to listen to the colonists’ plights.
V. The Body Politic Shattered: The Dawn of Royal America (1775-1776)
John Adams and the King’s Two Bodies
John Adams’ rise to politics had been a reluctant one, but by 1774 he had become a leading voice in Massachusetts’ struggle against punitive British acts. He had secured a seat as a representative in the Continental Congress and would soon become its foremost advocate for independence.115 Nevertheless, before he pushed for the colonies’ definitive separation from Britain, Adams penned in 1775 one last pledge of allegiance to George III. Even so, this statement of loyalty was unlike the ones issued by other individuals, town meetings, and colonial assemblies. Writing under the pseudonym “Novanglus”—a latinized way of saying “New Englishman”—Adams expressed how he conceived royal authority over the colonies. He wrote that the colonies owed
no allegiance to any imperial crown, provided such a crown involves in it a house of lords and a house of commons, is certain. Indeed we owe no allegiance to any crown at all. We owe allegiance to the person of his majesty king George the third, whom God preserve. But allegiance is due universally, both from Britons and Americans to the person of the king, not to his crown: to his natural, not his politic capacity.116
Adams then went further, characterizing the relationship between subjects and their king strictly as a personal “contract.” In this statement, Adams went against the political theory that had defined monarchies for centuries. The idea of the King’s Two Bodies—one natural and mortal, and one political and immortal—stipulated that the king’s sovereignty came not from his person, but from the perpetual body politic that was passed down from each monarch to their successor. It was this undying identity that was endowed with sovereignty by God, and which the monarch personified as the embodiment of the entire nation.117 This doctrine, which was preserved in the Common Law by jurists such as Blackstone, would certainly have been fundamental for Adams’ education as a lawyer. Yet, by changing the object of allegiance from the body politic to the natural—and by transferring the origin of sovereignty from God to the people’s contract with the monarch—Adams turns this widely accepted legal doctrine on its head. While the provincials had already conceived of their relationship with the king as a “contract,” as McConville argues, this was still backed by a protestant notion of divine right.118 This idea, which prevailed well into the unrest that preceded independence, was utterly abandoned by Adams. It is clear that the alternative model proposed by him reflected the enlightenment ideas of republicanism that had started to gain hold as Massachusetts suffered under the British Crown. However, Adams’ reluctance to part with the king was so great that he desperately tried to reconcile these ideals to his own attachment to George III—even if it involved overturning legal wisdom passed down through the ages.
An Olive Branch Denied
John Adams’ radical redefinition of monarchy would not do much to save the image of George III. By 1775, loss of confidence in the king had taken hold among the colonial elites. Benjamin Franklin, once a hopeful supporter of the young and intellectual king, now satirized him in the papers, with songs such as “The King’s Own Regulars” which mocked the monarch and his troops.119 Franklin's hopes in the monarch had disappeared after his unsuccessful mission in London to lobby for the colonies’ benefit.120 Even Adams himself came to lose all reverence for George III, but only after the last effort toward reconciliation, the Olive Branch petition, was rejected by the king. This message proclaimed the colonies’ continued allegiance to George III, despite the fact that war had already erupted by then. It was the last effort of a considerable loyalist faction of the Continental Congress to avoid further conflict with Great Britain. While Adams had previously tried to preserve America’s ties with the king, he saw this petition as pointless given that war was already underway.121 Nevertheless, after news arrived of the king’s refusal to read the petition, and of his formal declaration of rebellion upon the colonies, Adams seemed to have lost all respect for the once-esteemed monarch. In a letter to John Thomas, he decried George III as a “Poor, deluded man!”122 Such was the attachment built toward the figure of the king—cultivated for decades in the colonies by provincials and imperial officials—that it required the most direct, explicit, and scornful show of abandonment for Adams and other loyalists to finally break their allegiance to George III.
The general public had also abandoned much of their affection for the king by 1775. The year prior, crowds that had once eagerly celebrated imperial holidays began to refuse to participate in their commemoration. In 1775, the king’s birthday in New York was marked with festivities, but very few attended. When ships fired their memorial cannonades no civilians cheered, and that night no houses were illuminated. Throughout the colonies, royal holidays went by unnoticed, jurors refused to be sworn in the king’s name, and rumors of George III’s secret Catholicism—inspired by the passage of the Quebec Act—started to become mainstream.123 These allegations signified the worst type of indictment that one could suffer in a deeply protestant society. While these demonstrations of disillusionment were not all caused by the Olive Branch petition, by the time it was rejected they had become widespread throughout the colonial population. However, the colonies’ ties to George III had not yet been completely severed. That moment came when independence was imminent.
Iconoclasm and Damnatio Memoriae
When independence was declared in July 1776, the image of the king very literally came crashing down. In New York, an angry crowd toppled the statue of George III “which tory pride and folly” had raised in the city more than five years prior.124 A royal iconoclasm of unprecedented scale had started. Also in New York, a portrait of the king was torn and buried.125 In New Hampshire, images of the royal family were pulled down or defaced. Throughout many colonies, coins bearing the face of the king were refused. At Savannah, Georgia, the king’s effigy was buried in front of the courthouse.126 The arms of the king were removed everywhere they were displayed, and the newspapers denounced him for waging war against the colonies.127 John Adams had anticipated this wave of royal rejection, recommending in April of 1776 that Massachusetts remove the king’s name from all official documents and proceedings.128 However, while some such as Adams had started erasing George III’s name before independence, the fact that most instances of iconoclasm occurred after the passage of the declaration attests to the power and permanence of the king’s image. Colonists’ attachment to the king’s image, both literal and figurative, was so strong that the renouncement of his likenesses only came when independence was imminent. The delay in the destruction of these images attested to the power they held as links to King George III.
VI. Epilogue: A New King George?
On December 5, 1782, after years of war had raged through America, George III headed to the Palace of Westminster to address both Houses of Parliament. Sitting on his throne, dressed in robes of state, and topped by a royal crown, the king delivered the speech that acknowledged the independence of the United States. According to Elkanah Watson, an American merchant present at the occasion, when the king read the words “free and independent states” he did so with a hesitant and “constrained” voice. The year prior, British troops had surrendered definitively after their defeat at Yorktown. Although the king had seen this as a minor setback, the rest of his ministers gave him no option but to accept defeat. The king was, in effect, forced to acknowledge one of his greatest defeats while in his grandest appearance. This juxtaposition of high and low perfectly encapsulated the process that his image underwent in America. George III started his reign with great esteem in the colonies, embodying the ultimate protector of Protestantism on which the provincials had long relied, but also the uniquely virtuous and patriotic monarch that they had desired. The Colonists soon developed a fondness for the king as a monarch, but also as an individual. During the imperial crisis they increased their displays of loyalty with each blow, wishing to preserve their relationship with their king. While toward the end confidence in the monarch fractured, the colonists’ attachment was so strong that only definitive independence could make them banish George III from their towns and homes. Nevertheless, the break was not easy. Despite enthusiastically destroying their images of the monarch, the absence of a kingly figure left the colonists unsure of what type of leadership would rule their independent states. The anxiety of a kingless people would manifest itself in their treatment of one of the key figures in securing independence: General George Washington.
Curiously, Washington shared many similarities with the former king of America: Both had the same name and were of similar age. Both were of high birth and carried an air of solemn respectability. Both men possessed great domestic virtue, being affectionate to their families and loyal to their wives. Both were also keen agriculturalists and were highly knowledgeable in the military arts. Whether or not these commonalities had anything to do with it, it is not surprising that many suggested that Washington assume the mantle of king. Even when the famously modest man rejected such offers, multiple individuals still insisted on treating him like a monarch. Once Washington became president, a great number wished him to remain in power for life, but he limited himself to two reluctant terms.129 John Adams even tried to attach regal dignity to Washington’s office, by suggesting that the president be addressed with titles such as “His Highness” and “His Elective Majesty.” Washington, however, was content with the simple honorific of “Mr. President.”130 Rather than showcasing Washington’s virtue in rejecting them, these constant offerings of royal glory reflect the ideological void that George III had left behind. Having accepted a republican form of government, the United States still desired to go back to the old times: being led by a long-reigning ruler that embodied the nation and the values they treasured. Whether this arrangement would have survived Washington is doubtful. Monarchy depended not only on allegiance to a charismatic individual, but in fealty to the immortal institution of the Crown—the body politic. This institution had been shattered by the revolution. Nevertheless, the rejection of the king deeply affected the minds of many colonists as they struggled to devise their new government. This sentiment persisted beyond the formation of the republic, and motivated the colonists-now-citizens to search for a model of leadership that could fill the gap left behind by the image of George III.
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Upper image: Silver, from the British antique Dealers’ Association. Lower image: Bronze, from the British Museum. Designed by John Kirk.
Caption: “His most sacred majesty George III, King of Great Britain, etc. / / Frye ad vivium delineavit, William Pether, fecit.” (Drawn from life by Frye, printed by William Pether). 50 x 35.1 (plate), 60.1 x 45.4 cm (sheet). Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.