“Awesome, Wow”: King George III in the American Popular Imagination

Karin Wulf (Director, Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, Professor of History, College of William & Mary)

As we consider the range and depth of materials emerging from the Georgian Papers Programme it’s clear that any number of historical subjects will be newly framed or newly illuminated.  And it’s likely that a more subtle perspective on King George III will be among the project’s outcomes.  Historians have interpreted eighteenth-century attitudes to the English king who last ruled North America differently, with some arguing for a more benign view of the monarch and a harsh view of his ministers, and others finding an intensity of opposition to the monarch himself as well as monarchical rule.  And though he ruled Britain for a long time, one way or another Americans usually encounter George III in the context of the prelude to, war for, and conclusion of the Revolution.  In this context it’s useful to think about how and why the monarch Americans most closely associate with the American Revolution is imagined in popular culture.


Americans have a trove of popular images of King George III on which to draw, but some are more accessible than others.  A key cultural text is an import: The Madness of King George, the film adaptation of Allan Bennett’s play starring Nigel Hawthorne and featuring Helen Mirren and Rupert Everett.  The film advances the (now-discounted) theory that the king suffered from porphyria, and grapples at times sensitively with his increasingly fragile mental health.  The film was well reviewed, with Hawthorne and Mirren’s performances as King George and Queen Charlotte particularly praised.  Despite the central theme (the king’s madness and his relationship with the Prince of Wales), the New York Times reviewer focused on American independence.  In the review titled “Going Mad without Being a Sore Loser,” Janet Maslin pulls out a key reference to the American problem: “We must get used to it,” King George eventually sighs about the nation formed from his American colonies. “I have known stranger things. I once saw a sheep with five legs.”


But Americans also have a large fund of home-grown images of King George. The king is often a key figure in brief children’s histories of the American Revolution.  For example, prize-winning children’s author Jean Fritz’s marvelous book, Can’t You Make them Behave King George? originally published in 1977 and illustrated by the prolific Tomie dePaola, is a favorite.  Fritz has written a host of quaisi-political histories of early America for young readers, including And then What Happened Paul Revere (1973) and Shh! We’re Writing the Constitution (1987).  Her biography of America’s last king begins with his childhood and ends just after the Revolution.  A sympathetic reading of the king’s rule, Fritz emphasizes his (well-documented) desire for order and sense of responsibility.  The Revolution arrives, then, as an affront to both.  In dePaola’s emblematic cover illustration the king slumps in resignation.


All of these and more have been overwhelmed in the last year by the brilliant, cheeky, counterpoint character of George III in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s blockbuster hip-hop musical, Hamilton.  Plenty of Americans have been exposed to Hamilton in any number of online venues including a live performance at the 2016 Tony awards, a clip of Miranda performing the first song at the White House in 2009 back when he was still developing what would become Hamilton, and the ever-popular Ham4Ham shows, a short burst of performance held weekly outside the Broadway theater and posted on Youtube.  On October 21 a PBS documentary about the musical, “Hamilton’s America,” will air, the musical opened in Chicago last month, and will arrive in London’s West End next fall.


Played originally on Broadway and on the cast album by Jonathan Groff, the role of King George III draws a sharp contrast between the inheritor of a kingdom and the “bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman,” Alexander Hamilton.  Miranda’s lyrics especially, but also the music and staging, urge Hamilton’s audience to think about how history is made in the moment but more significantly in the later telling.  “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?” is one of the key refrains.


By means of affect, accent and posture Groff offered a modest variation on Fritz’s more gentle children’s story.  The king feels entitled, in every sense of the word, and his values and goals are diametrical to those of the young revolutionaries–but he’s also a canny judge of people and circumstances.  Although he’s on stage for fewer than 10 minutes, and singing for not quite 7, King George has some of the musicals’ best lines.  In essentially the same melody, in a style evoking an early Beatles ditty, his three songs  trace the arc of the revolutionary conflict. In the first, what Miranda has described as a sort of creepy break-up song, the king reminds the colonies that “Oceans rise/ empires fall/ We have seen each other through it all.” and that “when push/ comes to shove/I will send a fully armed battalion/ to remind you of my love! Da da da da dat…”


Unlike other musical numbers, King George always sings alone.  His second appearance takes place after the Battle of Yorktown when he wonders how the new nation, now decisively independent, will function.  “You’re on your own,” he sings in his faux posh accent, shifting then to interject a stylized American “Awesome, Wow!” before querying “do you have a clue what happens now?”  In Hamilton the Revolution (2016), the book that Miranda authored with Jeremy Carter offering an inside look at the origins and making of the musical, he suggests that the third song was unplanned.  Some characters insist on their place on stage.  This third song jumps ahead fifteen years to contemplate transitions in American leadership: “They say/ George Washigton’s yielding his power and stepping away/ ‘Zat true?/ I wasn’t aware that was something a person could do.”   And then he relishes the notion of John Adams as Washington’s successor: “Oceans rise/ Empires fall/ Next to Washington, they all look small/ All alone/ Watch them run/ They will tear each other into pieces/ Jesus Christ this will be fun.  Da da da dat…”


Groff was nominated for a Tony for his performance, one of three from Hamilton nominated in the same category; the award went to Daveed Diggs, who originated the dual roles of the Marquis de LaFayette and Thomas Jefferson.  When Groff and two actors who played King George off Broadway or as stand-ins lip-synched “the Schulyer Sisters” in Hamilton’s famous pre-show, Ham4Ham, as “the Schulyer Georges” the subversion wasn’t just in the gender-bending.  This song is a bit of Destiny’s Child era Beyonce on Broadway—three sisters of the wealthy Schuyler family play a key role in the musical.  One of them marries Hamilton, and another is his intellectual soulmate.


Having Groff appear as the senior sister, the brainy Angelica Schuyler, makes an even more compelling counterpoint for George III than Hamilton himself.  Schuyler’s lines invoke revolution beyond the aims of the revolutionaries:  “I’ve been reading Common Sense by Thomas Paine/ So men say that I’m intense or I’m insane/ You want a revolution? I want a revelation!”  It’s not only a revolution against monarchy, but patriarchy she’s aiming for.  Groff’s King George/ Angelica: “So listen to my declaration/ We hold these truths to be self-evident/ That all men are created equal/ And when I meet Thomas Jefferson/ I’m ‘a compel him to include women in the sequel!”   This is a King George that American millennials –and maybe their British counterparts, too–can love.


The Georgian Papers Programme will likely bring a more nuanced view of George III into view.  Though he, too, loved an intellectual woman, and fresh perspectives about Queen Charlotte are likely to be a key aspect of new research in the Georgian Papers, it’s unlikely we’ll see a version of the king that approximates either the role Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote or the one Jonathan Groff has performed (on stage and on Youtube).  Still, it’s important to appreciate the distinctive place of America’s last king in its popular culture.


This post and others also appear on our sibling GPP site at the Omohundro Institute. 

Professor Vincent Carretta on his research visit to Windsor

Professor Vincent Carretta, University of Maryland, was an Omohundro Institute Georgian Papers Fellow who spent last November researching at the Royal Archives. 

I was delighted to have been chosen the Inaugural Senior Fellows from Omohundro Institute to participate in the George III Papers Project, which is co-sponsored by the Institute and King’s College, University of London. For the past thirty years or so I’d fantasized about what the Royal Archives, Royal Library, and Print Room at Windsor Castle contain that might be relevant to any of my research projects.

I’ve spent the last two decades editing the works of, as well as writing about, English-speaking authors of African descent before 1800. Many of them claimed, or were said to have had, some connection to the Georgian Court, whether in person or by correspondence. The Omohundro fellowship gave me the chance to dig in the holdings at Windsor Castle to try to discover evidence of those connections. My earlier work on those authors enabled me to appreciate the significance of any relevant material that was hitherto undiscovered.

Ideally, the relationship between a researcher and an archive is symbiotic: each benefits from the encounter with the other. I luckily had that experience at Windsor Castle. One example of such good fortune was the copy in the Royal Library of Quobna Ottobah Cugoano’s abolitionist book, Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil and Wicked Traffic of the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species, published in London in 1787. I knew from a holograph letter by Quobna Ottobah Cugoano, alias John Stuart, in the Gloucestershire Record Office that Cugoano had given a copy of his book to the Prince of Wales, the future Prince Regent, and later George IV. And there it was!

The Royal Library now has my transcriptions of all of Cugoano’s known surviving manuscript letters, one of which is addressed to King George III. I also explained why I thought that Cugoano probably presented a copy of his book to the Prince in person in 1787: as the servant of Richard Cosway, who had been appointed the Prince’s Primarious Pictor (Principal Painter) in 1785, Cugoano had frequent access to the Prince. And I was able to add some information to the Print Room by identifying Cugoano as the black servant in Cosway’s rare etching in its collection of Mr and Mrs Cosway at their Pall Mall House after painting of 1784

Mr and Mrs Cosway at their Pall Mall House, by Richard Cosway (bapt.1742 d.1821), RCIN 653010.
Mr and Mrs Cosway at their Pall Mall House, by Richard Cosway (bapt.1742 d.1821), RCIN 653010. Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2016

I’m very grateful to the Omohundro Institute for having given me the opportunity to spend time in the holdings at Windsor Castle, which I think was mutually beneficial.

This post and others also appear on our sibling GPP site at the Omohundro Institute. 

James Ambuske on researching George III’s papers in the Royal Archives

James Ambuske, University of Virginia, was the inaugural Omohundro Institute Georgian Papers Fellows and spent last September researching at the Royal Archives. 

In 1768, the Philadelphia physician Benjamin Rush toured the House of Lords during a visit to London. He persuaded his guide to allow him to sit upon George III’s throne, an experience that deeply moved him. I lay no claim to Rush’s brilliance, but I did share in his sense of awe each morning as I climbed the stone steps leading into the Round Tower at Windsor Castle, sat down at a simple wooden desk, and read through the papers of America’s last king.

My dissertation explores how Scottish emigration to the colonies in the era of the American Revolution shaped perceptions of the British Empire’s purpose amidst a transatlantic constitutional crisis. Much of my research centers on how American proprietors, Scottish landlords, promoters of emigration, and the King’s ministers contested the broader imperial implications of this phenomenon. George III’s position, although often hinted at in the correspondence of government officials, consistently eluded me. Serving as the Omohundro Institute’s inaugural Georgian Papers Project Graduate Fellow, in conjunction with the Royal Archives and King’s College of London, gave me the opportunity to rummage gently through George III’s personal letters and private thoughts about British America.

I found some of the answers that I sought and discovered material in the archive, the Royal Library, and the Print Room that raised new questions about the American War for Independence. Within the King’s calendared correspondence, for example, there exist copies of nearly 100 unpublished enclosures detailing the ministry’s mobilization and intelligence gathering efforts in the summer of 1775. The letters illuminate the government’s struggle to send Major General Thomas Gage sufficient cash and provisions, and augment British forces with Hanoverian troops, in order to crush the rebellion swiftly. Their presence in the collection point to George III’s intense interest in this process and the role he played in prosecuting the war.

The most rewarding finds were the materials that humanized the regal portraits of Georgian women and men. The tender affection that Queen Charlotte and George III felt for one another pervades their correspondence, as does her great intellect and the self-doubt that they both expressed as parents. Should you have need for a “gout cordial,” require “soap for the hounds,” or have guests expecting “giblet soup” and “ginger bread nutts” for dinner, then you will find these recipes and more among the Georgian Papers. We’ll be skipping the Christmas ham this year in favor of “Green Pea Soup without Meat or Water.”

But the chance to collaborate with the Royal Archivists made my tenure in Windsor especially meaningful. We discussed the future direction of Georgian studies and strategized about capturing digital metadata during many conversations in the reading room or over a pint of ale. This sense of partnership encouraged me to create a simple calendar of the above-mentioned enclosures for the archivists that I hope will benefit the project as well as future scholars.

I am grateful to the Omohundro Institute for the opportunity to study in Windsor Castle.

This post and others also appear on our sibling GPP site at the Omohundro Institute.