America is Lost!

Dr Angel Luke O’Donnell, Teaching Fellow in North American History, King’s College London


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The ‘America is Lost!’ piece was a short essay written by George III reviewing the causes and effects of the American Revolution. It potentially provides a fascinating insight into the thoughts of King George about the future of the British Empire after the loss of America; however, researchers need to be cautious about how they approach the essay. The words of the essay substantively replicate a published essay by Arthur Young, a leading British agricultural theorist who shared George’s passion for improving farming techniques. Therefore, before analysing the language of the piece, we must first determine why Young’s words appear in the handwriting of the King.

George III’s essay on the loss of the American colonies RA GEO/ADD/32/2010. Royal Archives/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017

There are two likely explanations for this situation. In one case, Young may have shared with George an earlier draft that the King copied and possibly amended. The second explanation is that George copied Young’s published essay then adapted the words in order to help him make sense of them, a conventional eighteenth-century process for learning called commonplacing. Each scenario prompts a slightly different interpretation of how the words reflect George’s thoughts on the British Empire. If the first scenario proves to be the most likely explanation then it suggests George may have corresponded with Young about his ideas in ways that have been overlooked until now. If the second scenario proves more plausible, then George’s editorial changes may indicate how the King imagined the future of the British Empire. To answer the question fully, researchers will need to work through the material emerging out of the Georgian Papers Programme. We will need to understand the relationship between George and Young better, especially to look for letters between the men discussing this or other drafts. It is also important to think about the essay in the context of other pieces emerging from the archive to understand how George used essays and notes to make sense of the world around him. Whatever the outcome, further study into the King’s essays promises to reveal something about George and his thoughts on the British Empire.

My own conclusion about the ‘America is Lost!’ piece is that George copied and edited the words of Young’s published essay. Commonplacing was a common occurrence and there are other examples in the archive where the words of published texts appear in George’s hand. By copying and revising Young’s published essay, the King’s editorial decisions can provide insights into his thoughts on the British Empire, even though the words were not his. George was very selective about the passages he copied from Young. Young’s essay was seventy-eight printed pages and George’s essay was just over three handwritten pages. This act of condensing the original was an intellectual process that merits attention. Moreover, though George generally copied Young’s words verbatim, there are significant omissions and rephrasing that suggest George edited the essay to suit his own needs. George’s version of ‘America is Lost!’ actually stands up as an essay in its own right. It is not clear where George has deleted or adapted passages in Young, nor does the King indicate that he is quoting from another source. Ultimately, George changed Young’s argument by abridging it, converting Young’s pessimistic forecast about the British Empire into something more optimistic. The key difference between the two versions is that Young argued for agricultural development in Britain by emphasising the inevitability of colonial rebellion, in America as well as in Canada and India; whereas, George deleted these passages to concentrate on Young’s assessment of the American Revolution and the need to preserve, rather than increase, the territories of the British Empire.

The essay George copied from Young was the first essay in the first volume of Young’s influential Annals of Agriculture. Young argued that Britons could create immense wealth by cultivating the wastelands throughout Britain by using the best agricultural practices. In effect, the essay justified the need for Annals as a journal for sharing agricultural research. As part of his argument, Young claimed that the money Britain spent on developing lands in the colonies would have been better spent on improving British lands. Not only would the investment have contributed greatly to the national income, but as demonstrated by the American Revolution, the dividends from investing in British lands were also more secure than colonial improvements. Young distinguished between the southern and northern colonies. The southern and Caribbean colonies contributed toward the British national income by trading sugar, tobacco, and rice, commodities that could not be grown in Britain. The northern colonies—Pennsylvania, New York, and Massachusetts—had long been trade rivals rather than colonies. In fact, Young asserted the northern colonies were more valuable as trading partners. Young argued that unless a colony produced cash crops, like tobacco or sugar, then they were only useful as commercial partners. Significantly, he believed that this trading relationship worked to dissolve the imperial relationship. He applied this same logic to the rest of the Empire. He believed that the Indians would throw out the rapacious and corrupt East India Company to the detriment of Britain generally. He also argued that Canada would either remain a poor colony and therefore useless to Britain, or it would grow rich and eventually revolt against the crown. Young believed the most secure form of wealth was to make British agriculture as efficient as possible by experimenting with enlightened farming methods. The message of Young’s essay was that after American independence, Britain needed to militate against the loss of the remaining colonies by improving British land.

George made a number of subtle editorial changes to Young’s piece that significantly altered the essay’s argument. Firstly, George rephrased and removed passages in Young that exaggerated the differences between British and colonial people. For example, George often moderated Young’s language, such as when Young wrote: ‘The wars of 1744, 1756, and 1775 were all entered into, because the beggars, fanaticks, felons, and madmen of the kingdom, had been encouraged in their speculation of settling the wilds of North America.’ George wrote instead: ‘The wars of 1744, 1756, and 1775 were all entered into from the encouragement given the speculation of settling the wilds of North America.’ The King kept Young’s argument that land speculation in America had prompted war, but removed the incendiary idea that it was the felons and undesirables of Britain that created the land speculation. Furthermore, throughout the original essay, Young discussed his participation in longstanding public debates about the profitability of the colonies to Britain. Young condemned rival British commentators who had argued that the colonies were the source of Britain’s wealth. He claimed these commentators had ‘deceived’ Britain and ‘mislead themselves’. George removed the references to these debates. Likewise, George did not copy out the citations and footnotes Young used to argue that revenue generated within Britain contributed more to the national income than the contributions from colonies. George avoided explicitly endorsing Young’s argument by deleting these segments. For Young, disproving the commonly held belief of colonial profitability was crucial to his argument for investing in British wastelands, but George’s deletions imply he did not wholly agree with Young that national wealth rested on the domestic British economy. Young accentuated the differences between Britain and its colonies, while George seemed to resist the distinction. Taken together, these changes suggest that while Young predicted the end of Empire, George was more optimistic.

This more sanguine view of Empire is evident in the final paragraphs of George’s essay. The King condensed a three-page section from the original into a short conclusion that reframed Young’s argument about a declining British Empire. Over the three pages, Young described how he foresaw the end of Britain’s relationship with its colonies. He argued that though the Caribbean islands and India added to the fortunes of the Empire in a way the northern colonies never had, the ‘East and West Indies’ were both destined to split away from Britain. A naval alliance between the newly independent US and France would make British occupation of the Caribbean islands untenable, and in India, Young said the East India Company’s abhorrent behaviour in the region would mean ‘one day must come. — It ought to come’ when they would throw off British authority. Finally, though the 1783 Peace of Paris that ended the war preserved Canada as a British colony, for Young, it was so poor as to be worthless. He continued that as soon as Canada became economically profitable it would revolt like the other American colonies. Ultimately, Young argued the British Empire was doomed because the internal strength of the colonies was insufficient to keep them British and only the Royal Navy could keep them within the Empire.

Rather than building a bigger navy, Young believed that British colonial policy should aim at preserving rather than increasing the Empire. The implication was that Britain would effectively turn inward and use colonial profits to grow the domestic economy until the remaining imperial outposts eventually became independent. In the following sixty-seven pages of the original essay, Young discussed the advantages and profits of developing Britain’s agriculture. However, George stopped copying Young at the idea of preserving the Empire. Moreover in the concluding paragraph of George’s essay, the King significantly rephrased Young. Compare the original with George’s editing:

That they are insecure no man can be hardy enough [George: ‘No man can be hardy enough to deny that they are insecure’]: to add therefore to their value by exertions of policy that shall have the effect of directing any stream of capital, industry, or population into those channels, would be to add to a disproportion already an evil. The more we are convinced of the vast importance of these territories, the more we must feel the insecurity of our power. If they were of such a magnitude as to be essential to our political existence, it would be no paradox to assert, that the misfortune would be yet greater. Our view therefore out not to be to increase but preservation [George: ‘our view therefore out not to be to increase but preserve them.’]

 

The first and last sentences reflect George’s preference to simplify Young’s phrasing without substantially changing the meaning. However, the deleted sentence changes the tone of the conclusion. Both Young and George agreed that investment in the colonies was insecure and the bigger the colony then the more insecure the investment. Young stressed this point to say that if the colonies were essential to Britain then its political existence was under threat. Yet Young inferred that the colonies were not essential to Britain’s political existence and therefore colonial policy should not be about expansion and the exertions of capital, industry, and population should be directed inward within Britain. By removing Young’s conditional sentence, George implied that the colonial policy should be about preserving rather than increasing the Empire. As such, George’s essay becomes a reflection on how to preserve the Empire after the loss of America by changing the British approach to Empire.

The original essay proposed that Britain should turn inward away from the Empire. By contrast, while George used most of Young’s words and agreed with his assessment of the Revolution, the King arrived at a different conclusion. Young foresaw the end of the British Empire, but George largely edited out this pessimism to leave behind a more constructive essay about the causes of the Revolution and the solutions to preserving the colonies. In answer to the opening questions, after the loss of America Britain had to improve its use of resources to ‘repair the mischief’ and preserve the Empire. Ultimately, this short commentary on the ‘America is Lost!’ essay is a suggestive conclusion from looking at just one text. There are still many more items in the Royal Archives to identify, analyse, and evaluate. In isolation, the essay prompts many interesting questions that are central to understanding the King’s attitude to the loss of the American colonies. I look forward over the next years to returning and digesting this material still further. Particularly, I want to study whether the King had a consistent editorial style. Perhaps by analysing the other essays then we can discern recurrent themes or preferred modes of expression. Perhaps the King generally avoided disputes between authors. Perhaps he disdained to copy out inflammatory or divisive language. Editing is a creative process just like writing. It is a series of meaningful decisions that demonstrate an editor’s purposeful engagement with the ideas in the text. King George seems to have been an avid copyist, and I believe his editorial style can provide new insights into his private reflections and a broader context to his correspondence.


Transcription

Transcription provided is the raw transcription, initial product of student transcribers.  Text is not corrected nor proofed.

Download full raw transcription: RA GEO_ADD_32_2010_Raw Transcripton (pdf)

America is Lost!

America is lost! Must we fall beneath the blow? Or have we resources that may repair the mischiefs? What are those resources?  Should they be sought in distant Regions held by precarious Tenure, or shall we seek them at home in the exertions of a new policy?
The situation of the Kingdom is novel, the policy that is to govern it must be novel likewise, or neither adapted to the real evils of the present moment, or the dreaded ones of the future.

For a Century past the Colonial Scheme has been the  system that has guided the Administration of the British Government. It was thoroughly known that from every Country there always exists an active emigration of unsettled, discontented, or unfortunate People who failing in their endeavours to live at home, hope to succeed better where there is more employment suitable to their poverty. The establishment of Colonies in America might probably increase the number of this class, but did not create it; in times anterior to that great speculation, Poland contained near 10.000 Scotch Pedlars; within the last thirty years not above 100. occasioned by America offering a more advantageous asylum for them.

A people spread over an immense tract of fertile land, industrious because free, and rich because industrious, presently became a market for the Manufactures and Commerce of the Mother Country. An importance was soon generated, which from its origin to the late conflict was mischievous to Britain, because it created an expence of blood and

and treasure worth more at this instant if it could be at our command, than all we ever received from America. The wars of 1744. of 1756. and 1775. were all entered into from the encouragements given to the speculations of settling the wilds of North America.

It is to be hoped that by degrees it will be admitted that the Northern Colonies, that is those North of Tobacco were in reality our very successful rivals in two Articles the carrying freight trade, and the Newfoundland fishery. While the Sugar Colonies added above three millions a year to the wealth of Britain, the Rice Colonies near a million and the Tobacco ones almost as much; those more to the north, so far from adding any thing to our wealth as Colonies, were trading, fishing, farming Countries, that rivalled us in many branches of our industry, and had actually deprived us of no inconsiderable share of the wealth we reaped by means of the others. This compartative view of our former territories in America is not stated with any idea of lessening the consequence of a future friendship and connection with them; on the contrary it is to be hoped we shall reap more advantages from their trade as friends than ever we could derive from them as Colonies; for there is reason to suppose we actually gained more by them while in actual rebellion, and the common open connection cut off them

America is Lost!

than when they were in obedience to the Crown; the Newfoundland fishery taken into Account, there is little doubt of it.

The East and West Indies are conceived to be the great commercial supports of the Empire; as to the Newfoundland fishery time must tell us what share we shall reserve of it. But there is one observation which is applicable to all three; they depend on very distant territorial possessions, which we have little or no hopes of retaining from this internal strength, we can keep them only by means of a superior Navy. If our marine force sinks, or if in consequence of wars, debts, and taxes, we should in future find ourselves so debilitated as to be involved in a new War, without the means of carrying it on with vigour, in these cases, all distant possessions must fall let them be as valuable as their warmest panegyrists contend.

It evidently appears from this slight review of our most important dependencies, that on them we are not to exert that new policy which alone can be the preservation of the British power and consequence. The more important they are already, the less are they fit instruments in that work. No man can be hardy enough to deny that they are insecure, to add therefore to their value by exertions of policy which shall have the effect of directing any stream of capital, industry, or population into those channels, would be

be to add to a disproportion already an evil. The more we are convinced of the vast importance of those territories, the more we must feel the insecurity of our power; our view therefore ought not to be to increase but preserve them.

America is Lost!

 

Reflections on ‘Essay on Public Opinion’

Dr Emrys Jones, Lecturer in Eighteenth-Century Literature and Culture, King’s College London


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It may be stating the obvious to point out that what was understood as constituting ‘public opinion’ in the eighteenth century bears little resemblance to the culture of opinion polls and click rates that often accompanies the term in today’s usage. It rarely offered the prospect of absolute excoriation or vindication that it does for us. Though with hindsight we may feel confident in identifying its shifts and its impact at particular moments in the century, for those living at the time it was an ill-defined thing, hovering at the edge of political relevance. Periodical essays and satirical cartoons could be taken as expressions of public opinion, of course. So could riots and revolutions. But it was generally simpler and safer to interpret events with reference to warring factions or individual interests. To do so was to sidestep the awkward questions of who the public actually was, how its opinion could be accurately gauged and what currency it would acquire if it ever were.

Rowlandson cartoon satirising public opinion, on the issue of the pay of a child actor. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017

It is in relation to these questions and the general ambiguity of the concept that the ‘Essay on Public Opinion’ (GEO/ADD/32/1064-70) is particularly informative. If George III was the author of this piece, then it provides a valuable perspective on his attitude to his subjects, his apparent faith in a reasonable alignment between public opinion and the good of the nation. However, the work is intriguing regardless of our speculations on its authorship. It reflects both the uncertainty of its era concerning the practical implications of public opinion and a nagging sense that we should be able to account for what the public feels, tracing the logic behind who is revered and who is forgotten. For in the terms of this essay, public opinion is responsive in nature. Its principal business is not the alteration of policy, but the crafting of reputations and the custodianship of cultural memory.

The essay begins by defining public opinion, implicitly and loosely, in contrast to the agendas of individuals on one hand and ‘private Societys’ [sic] on the other. All three varieties of opinion are reassuringly guided by self-interest, but the nature of such self-interest naturally varies in each instance. The public, according to the author, occupies itself with matters of general concern – ‘Politics, War, Legislation, Arts & Sciences’ – though in doing so it is prone to celebrate mediocre and accessible talents over exceptional and remote ones.

This is a fairly convenient distinction but not necessarily a false one. It is startling how closely the language at this point in the essay anticipates current debates about the value of expertise in public life and the ease with which highly specialised knowledge can best be communicated to the public as a whole. We might assume based on the opening of the essay that its author is building towards a dismissal of the public’s good judgement and a condemnation of its influence on political life. The essay notes the distorting effects of public favour, the tendency to elevate ‘colossal Figure[s]’ that appear ‘monstrous’ when examined more closely. Later in the essay, the author highlights particular blind spots in the way that public opinion identifies its champions: the fact that it claims to care about virtues like honesty and heroism, but locates these less in actions themselves and more in relation to ‘the importance of the Action, & the advantage the Society receiv’d by it’. The essay is filled with examples of the public getting things wrong. However, the intention of the work in its entirety is not to rubbish the force of public opinion because of these lapses. On the contrary, it is to argue for the sound, self-interested basis of the public’s judgements, to insist on its fundamental rationality and to assert the proper value of public opinion when it is effectively balanced against other considerations. For the time, this seems an impressively sophisticated and enlightened view to adopt; not to claim that the public is always right, but to acknowledge that its opinions are at least derived, logically and inevitably, from its sense of its own interests rather than from thoughtless partiality.

Towards the end of the essay, the author considers why the public generally esteems architects more highly than builders and the ‘Art of Agriculture’ more highly than the ploughman who puts it in practice. The reason is not that the public is oblivious to its own needs, but that it considers some people replaceable whereas others are not. As modern readers, we may well be appalled by the blunt, mercenary logic of this argument, but at its heart is a surprisingly useful and progressive idea: that public opinion, however vaguely defined, might be appreciated for its discrimination and its insight without its dictating the entire structure of society.

Transcription

Transcription provided is the raw transcription, initial product of student transcribers.  Text is not corrected nor proofed.

Download full raw transcription: RA GEO/ADD/32/1064_1070_Raw Transcription (pdf).

As individuals generaly judge of persons & things from selfinterestd motives, so to private societys so do the public but the public judgements & that of particular Societys are different; the public have for objects, polities, War, legislation, Arts & Sciences; tho these concern every individual; yet they are but slightly esteemed, compard with those ideas that regard immediately the particular interest of each Society, such as its taste, liking, aversions, projects, pleasures, from hence it follows that a man who has acquir’d many ideas of this last kind, will be greatly esteemed by the Societys he frequents, but in the eyes of the public whether he exerts his talents in

a great Office or in writing, he will not meet with great admiration from the public.

But whoever on the contrary occupys himself in ideas that are more generaly interesting, he will be look’d on by the Public as a superior genius, but to the particular Society in which he lives, he will be rather dull & disagreable, the first is a minature picture you must look at near & at a distance not to be distinguished; the last a colossal figure that appears monstrous if you approach it.

To please the World a superficial knowledge of many things in all that is necessary without being master of any, but to procure the public esteem, a person must have made himself thoroly master of the object he turns

his mind to;

Besides in the first case a person is oblig’d to mix extrem’ly in the world, to adopt all its little interests & prejudices, while the last passes his time in silence & solitude; we would not be understood by this to propose a Hermits life, no a Scipio, a Hanibal, a Marlborough all liv’d in the World but without mixing in what we call its occupations.

Thus much of public & private judgement in general; let us now examine it with regard to particular Virtues or accomplishments.

I. Of Probity

Probity with regard to a particular society consists in nothing more than in actions useful to that society in all its judgements such a society is determined solely by its own interests

the public in the same interested manner never bestows the names of honest, great heroick, proportionally to the force of mind courage or generosity with which the Action was attended; but to the importance of the action, & the advantage the society receiv’d from it; let one man fight against three ’tis an action thousands of our soldiers are capable of performing & would never be thought worth recording in History; but let the fate of an Empire depend on the combat, the Victor becomes like Horace immortal; Sapho & Cartius both leap’d into a Gulph, the first from disapointed love, the latter to save Rome, Philosphers may brand these actions with the common name of folly, but the public judging in another manner & whilst Sapho is a fool Cartius is a Hero.

As with probity so it fares with

sense & understanding, the public will ever estimate according to its interest. it will not proportion its esteem to the number & suttlety of ideas necessary to succeed in this or that business, but to the advantages it acquires by it;

The most able Lawyer or most excellent painter will never be regarded like an able Politician, or a Succesful tho ignorant general,the reason is plain, the public has more occasion for Politicians than Lawyers & Painters & let a man of very middling tallents, favour’d by circumstances, do great things in a high office, he will ever posses superior to one; who tho possesing ten times his parts, is in a lower Office presented by unforeseen events from executing any thing considerable.

In time of great calamity but small degree of merit opens the way to the highest praises, how immensely was Terentius Varo extoll’ed for no other reason that that he did not despair of the public; had Camillus defeated the Gauls at the Battle of Allia instead of doing it at the foot of the Capitol, he never would have been call’d the second founder of Rome.

After what we have said it should follow that the memory of these great men, Generals, Politicians, & c. should far out live that of their cotemporarys, who exercis’d their tallents in Arts & Sciences the public drew no utility from; ’tis however far otherwise & the reason is plain; if we except a few great Men who have invented & perfection’d the Military Arts; or

others who have by their negociations at a fortunate crisis sav’d a falling Country, all the next ceasing at their death to be useful to the Public, share no longer its graditude or esteem; Authors on the contrary never cease to live, their Works demand esteem as long as they continue useful. how much more [deletion] respectable is the name of Confusius [deletion] than of any Chinese Emperor, why are so many Kings deefy’d when living forgot then dead; why is Hordie & Virgil join’d to the name of Augustus, for the self same reason of being useful, while those in oblivion are no more so.

What we have said with regard to time, will also hold with regard to distance of place; Newton is reverenc’d where the name of Cecil is unknown, & Descartes is equaly famous

amongst those who never heard of a Sully nothing is more just the Works of Newton & Descartes are useful to all Europe.  Cecil & Sully were only serviceable to their respective Countrys.

It may be urg’d that as the Public in their judgements only consults interest, the labourer & Ploughman ought to go before the Historian, Poet, Mathematician; to this we must observe that Public esteem is an imaginary treasure demanding a very wise & cautious distribution to make it of real Value, it must not therefore be lavish’d on work every man is capable of, grown common it would lose its imaginary Virtue, would no longer animate men to great & glorious undertakings; the public therefore wisely esteems the Art of Agriculture & not the

Artist, besides is things otherwise equal as to utility, ^ public esteem is ever proportion’d to the difficulty attending them; a Stone Cutter furnishes the materials for building & without him an Architect would be useless, but every man is capable of quarrying Stone, few have a genius for fine Architecture, as it fares with Authors, one Single original problemn of Newton, a play of Home’s gains more applause than a Compilation of many Volumes in Folio like Gronovius’s Antiquitys, Historical Dictionarys & c.

Any contradictions therefore that may seem to arise between the Public’s interests & judgements are only in appearance they in reality ever go together

As Individuals generaly judge of Persons & things from selfinterested motives, so do private Societys, so do the Public; but the Public judgements & that of particular Societys are different; the Public have for objects Politics, War, Legislation, Arts, & Sciences; tho these concern every individual, yet they are but slightly esteem’d, compar’d with those ideas that regard immediately the particular interest of each Society, such as its Taste, Likings, Aversions, Projects, pleasures, from hence it follows that a Man who has acquir’d many ideas of this last kind will be greatly esteem’d by the Societys he frequents, but the eyes of the Public whether he exerts his talents in a great Office or in writing, he will
not meet with great admiration from the Public;

but whoever on the contrary occupys himself in ideas that are more generaly interesting, will be look’d on by the Public as a Superior genious, but to the particular Society in which he lives, he will be rather dull & disagreable; the first is a minature Picture that must be look’d at near, & at a distance not to be distinguish’d; the last a Colossal figure that appears monstrous if You approach it.

To please the World a superficial knowledge of many things is all that is necessary without being Master of any; but to procure the public esteem, a person must have made himself thoroughly master of the object he turns his mind to; besides in the first case a person is oblig’d to mix extrem’ly in the World to adopt all its little interests, & prejudices, while the last passes his time in silence & solitude; we would not be understood by

this to propose a Hermit’s life, no a Scipio, a Hanibal, a Marlborough, all liv’d in the World but without mixing in what we call its occupations.

Thus much of a Public & Private judgement in general; let us now examine it with regard to particular Virtues or accomplishments.

I. Of Probity

Probity with regard to a particular Society consists in nothing more than in actions useful to that Society; in all its judgements such a Society is determin’d solely by its own interests.

The Public in the same interested manner never bestows the names of honest, great, heroick, proportionably to the force of mind, courage or generosity with which the Action was attended, but to the importance of the Action, & the advantage the Society

receiv’d from it; let one Man fight against three ’tis an action thousands of our Soldiers are capable of performing, & would never be thought worth recording in History, but let the fate of an Empire depend on the combat, the Victor becomes like Horace immortal; Sapho & Curtius both leap’d into a Gulph, the first from disapointed love; the latter to save Rome, Philosophers may brand these actions with the common name of folly, but the Public judging in another manner, & whilst Sapho is a fool, Curtius is a Hero.

As with Probity so it fares with Sense & Understanding, the Public will ever estimate according to its interest, it will not porportion its esteem to the number & subtlety of ideas necessary to succeed in this or that business, but such to the advantages it acquires by its this the most able Lawyer or most excellent Painter will never be regarded like an able Politician, or a successful tho ignorant General,

the reason is plain the Public has more occasion for Politicians than Lawyers & Painters & let a man of middling tallents favour’d by circumstances do great things in a high Office, he will ever pass as Superior to one, who tho possessing ten times his parts is in a lower Office prevented from unforseen events from executing any thing considerable; in time of great calamity but small degree of merit opens the way to the highest praises, how immensely was Terentius Varo extoll’d for no other reason than that he did not despair of the Public; had Camillus defeated the Gauls at the Battle of Allia instead of doing it at the foot of the Capitol, he never would have been call’d the second founder of Rome.

After what we have said it should follow that the memory of these great Men, Generals, Politicians & c. should far out live that of their contemporarys

who exercis’d their tallents in Arts & Sciences the Public drew no utility from; ’tis however far otherwise & the reason is plain; if we except a few Great Men who have invented & perfection’d the Military Art, or others who have by their negociations at a fortunate Crisis sav’d a falling Country, all the rest ceasing at their death to be useful to the Public, share no longer its gratitude or esteem; Authors on the contrary never cease to live, their Works demand esteem as long as they continue useful; how much more respectable is the name of Confusius than of any Chinese Emperor; why are so many Kings Deefy’d when living, forgot when dead; why are Horace & Virgil join’d to the name of Augustus; for the reason of being useful, while those in oblivion are no more so.

What we have said with regard to time will

also hold with regard to distance of place; Newton is reverenc’d where the name of Cecil is known, & Descartes is equaly famous amongst those who never heard of a Sully; nothing is more just the Works of Newton & Descartes are useful to all Europe, Cecil & Sully were only serviecable to their respective Countrys.

It may be urg’d that as the Public in their Judgements only consult interest, the labourer & Ploughman ought to go before the Historian, Poet, Mathematician; to this we must observe that Public esteem is an imaginary treasure demanding a very wise & cautious distribution to make it of real Value, it must not therefore be lavish’d on work every man is capable of, grown common it would lose its imaginary Virtue, would no longer animate Men to great & glorious undertakings; the Public therefore

wisely esteems the Art of Agriculture & not the Artist, besides in things otherwise equal as to utility, Public esteem is ever proportion’d to the difficulty attending them; a Stone Cutter furnishes the materials for building, & without him an Architect would be useless, but every man is capable of quarrying Stone, few have a genius for fine Architecture; so it fare with Authors, one single original problemn of Newton, a play of Home’s, gains more applause than a compilation of many Vollumes in Folio, like Gronovius’s Antiquities, Historical Dictionary’s & c. therefore any contradictions that may seem to arise between the Public’s interests & judgements, are only in appearance they in reality ever go together.

The Abdication Speech of George III

Professor Arthur Burns, Vice Dean for Education, Faculty of Arts and Humanities, Professor of Modern British History, King’s College London


There are few more dramatic incidents in the recent history of the British monarchy than the abdication of Edward VIII on 11 December 1936, not least because the act was captured in such a vivid manner in the speech Edward delivered the same day on the radio. The occasion is often referred to simply as ‘The Abdication Crisis’, no doubt partly because such renunciation of the throne has been a rare occurrence in the history of the British monarchy. In Scotland Mary Queen of Scots had been forced to abdicate in favour of the thirteen-month old James VI (later I of England) in 1567.  It was convenient for some of his subjects to believe that James II of England had abdicated the throne in 1688, but this was a legal fiction designed to disguise the constitutional implications of his deposition. In fact no English monarch had voluntarily relinquished the throne since Anglo-Saxon kings such as Centwine (king of the West Saxons 676-85) and his successor Caedwalla (685-8) had done so for religious reasons, the former to enter a monastery, the latter to seek baptism at Rome.

There was at least one other monarch who contemplated voluntary abdication, however, and more than once, in the course of his 59 years on the throne: George III. The first occasion on which George seriously considered abdication came in 1782, when the king got as far as drawing up a terse declaration of his intention to abdicate for delivery to parliament.[1] This followed crushing blows related to the war with America: first the military disaster of the surrender of Lord Cornwallis and the capture of his army following the Battle of Yorktown in October 1781; secondly the passing in the House of Commons of a motion against the further prosecution of the war on the 27 February 1782, signalling the doom of Lord North’s administration (North would resign as First Lord of the Treasury on 20 March) and indicating the lack of support in the House for the king’s preferred policy of resisting American independence at all costs. No decisive evidence has yet been found of precisely why or when the king changed his mind, although his Lord Chancellor Edward Thurlow for one certainly sought to dissuade him and instead to accept the unwelcome inevitability of a ministry headed by Charles Watson Wentworth, marquess of Rockingham, whose supporters not only sought an end to the war and the concession of American Independence, but also promoted measures designed to curb what they saw as the undue influence of the monarch in parliament.

It was not long before George was once more driven to consider his position. The following year Lord Shelburne, who had succeeded Rockingham as premier on the latter’s unexpected and sudden death in July 1782, offered his resignation on 24 February 1783 following a defeat in the Commons over the terms of the peace then being negotiated. There followed five weeks which the historian John Cannon correctly identifies as ‘one of the most protracted cabinet crises in British history’.[2] Shelburne’s fall had been a consequence in part of the formation of a new and remarkable political alliance between George’s estranged former premier Lord North, and Charles James Fox, a leading figure in the Rockingham party — and a politician personally offensive to the king, hated on account both of his apparently malign influence on the prince of Wales and his vituperative critique of Lord North’s American policy. Until the end of March the king desperately sought to form a new administration that could save him from humiliation: the creation of a ministry from the unnatural and hostile coalition of Fox’s and North’s followers, ‘men who I know I cannot trust’ and who, by imposing conditions for taking office, would make him ‘a kind of slave’.[3] He finally conceded defeat and allowed Fox and North to kiss hands on 2 April 1783.

Fragment of ‘Draft of a message of abdication from George III to the Parliament’ (1783?) RA GEO/MAIN/5367. Royal Archives / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017

The draft of an abdication speech in the king’s hand reproduced and transcribed here was written during the endgame of this process (it is undated, but historians concur in attributing it to the last week of March 1783; on the 28th the king told Thurlow that he was perhaps only a couple of days away from delivering it).[4] He had already countenanced the thought earlier in the month, telling John Dunning, Lord Ashburton, that he had prepared an abdication address ‘without assistance’.[5]  The seriousness of the proposal is underlined by the survival of a contemporaneous draft letter to the prince of Wales in which George spoke of ‘a cruel dilemma’, leaving him ‘but one step to take without destruction of my principles and honour; the resigning of my crown’.[6] Just how cruel a dilemma it was is in turn emphasised by the fact that George was prepared to see the prince of Wales, not yet come of age, prematurely promoted to his throne despite the serious reservations the father entertained about his fitness to rule. (Indeed he wrote to Thomas Thynne, Viscount Weymouth, that he envisaged that, were this to come to pass, his son would become ‘the puppet …. the House of Commons [is] not disinclined to see their sovereign’.)[7] The king was, however, eventually persuaded that there were better options by Thurlow and William Pitt the Younger’s cousin Thomas, MP for Old Sarum, the key argument being perhaps that, if the king systematically and visibly starved his new government of patronage and support, it would soon be rendered sufficiently unpopular that it would not long survive.[8]

If we examine the text of the speech itself, a number of things strike the reader. That care was taken in the writing is apparent from the corrections made to the draft.  Given the context in which the proposed abdication is usually mentioned – the loss of America – it is worth noting how little of the speech is directly concerned with this issue. The casual reader might wonder why this was not the public justification for abdication at this moment: either because George could not persuade politicians to resist the concession of defeat; or simply from defeat in the cause which he had to such an extent made his own. But this would be to underestimate the importance of George’s providential understanding of history and his own life, articulated in the final paragraph with reference to the future of the kingdom under the prince of Wales. At a certain point the loss of America had to be acknowledged as a providential outcome rather than resisted or ignored. The address reflects the fact that by this point George had finally come to accept defeat.

Such an understanding, however, did not preclude – indeed it necessitated – a clear understanding of the course of events which had led to this outcome. The speech very clearly sets out the analysis, both short and long-term, at which the king had arrived by March 1783. He was clear in his belief that, as he stated near the start of the speech, ‘Unanimity … must have rendered Britain invulnerable though attacked by the most powerful combinations’. Therefore the fact that it had proved only too vulnerable could be attributed to the absence among the governing political class of ‘the first of public Virtues, attachment to the Country’, this having been replaced by ‘selfish views’. This development in turn George attributed to the decline of a proper ‘sense of Religious and Moral Duties in this Kingdom’, to which ‘every Evil that has arisen owes its Source’.[9] And here we see George placing the immediate context of the loss of America within a much longer timeframe, one bringing into consideration the whole history of the high politics of the nation since his accession in 1760 and indeed before. In particular, he located the actions of leading politicians in the cabinet crisis within a much broader interpretation of the actions of a political class who had collectively frustrated the ambitions which he had set out for himself as monarch on his accession, and indeed trespassed upon his royal prerogatives. His efforts to recruit the brightest and the best to his government had been continually obstructed by politicians’ refusal to serve unless in particular combinations (of factions or parties) or on particular conditions regarding policy or personnel. Here ‘the powerful party that has long publicly manifested a resolution not to aid in the service of their country’ clearly fingered the Rockinghamite branch of the whig tradition and Charles James Fox. At key moments, moreover, he felt himself to have been abandoned by those who should have felt an obligation to continue to serve as long as their king desired it: here Lord North was clearly in the firing line. It was thus the internal crisis of the British polity, identified by both George and his opponents in parliament, but attributed by the latter rather to his own attempt to redefine the position of the monarch, which was for George the main justification for the threat of abdication, not the loss of America, which he understood as its consequence.

The sense of disillusion here is underlined by George’s proposition that, on his abdication, he should retire to Hanover, ‘my electoral dominions [and] the original patrimony of my ancestors’. This was of course in one sense the obvious place for ‘exile’ – but it was nevertheless clearly a pointed remark from a king who explicitly recalled that, in his accession speech in the same venue as he intended for this address, he had announced that ‘Born and educated in this country, I glory in the name of Briton’ above his association with what he had once called the ‘horrid electorate’. Several historians have in fact identified what amounts to a ‘Hanoverian turn’ in George III’s orientation during the mid-1780s, crystallised in 1785 in his negotiating independently of his ministers regarding involvement in a north German Fürstenbund (league of princes). One should not underestimate his engagement with Hanover even before this, but it may be that this British constitutional crisis played a part in any reconfiguration of his priorities.[10]

This document has usually been considered in the context of George’s struggles with party politicians or as part of the fall-out from the crisis in America. This may explain why one interesting question it provokes has received insufficient attention. Where did George get the idea of abdicating from? The fiction of James II’s abdication would clearly not have been a welcome precedent, quite apart from the fact that it was taken to apply equally to James’s heirs, leaving parliament to determine the succession, whereas George explicitly designated this for his son. In that George spoke of retiring to Hanover, his proposed abdication had more in common with the action of another monarch presiding over a multiple kingdom, the abdication on his accession to the Spanish throne in 1759 of Charles III from the monarchies of Naples and Sicily in favour of his son. However, in this instance not only was the relationship between the status of the positions involved the inverse of that between the British monarchy and the electorate of Hanover, but there had been no hint of monarchical failure in the rationale. We’ve already seen that there were no other English precedents. Did it come from the classical precedents of the emperor Diocletian or dictator Sulla? If nothing else, the proposal underlines the significance for understanding George III as monarch of the various essays he composed as a young man and which form part of the first release of documents under the Georgian Papers Programme. In these he reflected on forms of government, the constitutional history of Britain and Europe, and on politics. This was a king who had thought long and hard about what it was to be king, and who in the document before us instinctively referred back to his understanding of that role at the point at which he had ascended the throne in 1760. George was also clear that he knew what it was to be a good king; and it was against this measure that, in 1783, faced by what appeared momentarily an irresolvable crisis, he judged that he could no longer be of ‘utility’ to his kingdom. In that circumstance, his own understanding of what it meant to be a good king meant that it was time for him to go.


TRANSCRIPT OF RA, GEO/MAIN/5367[11]

Note: In this transcription, the underlinings of the document are reproduced; these appear to represent intended deletions. The text in italics and square brackets indicates material that has been added between the lines of the original text in the document. Spelling, punctuation and capitalization follow the original.

Page 1 of 4 of Draft of a message of abdication from George III to the Parliament, RA GEO/MAIN/5367. Royal Archives/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017

The original document is available online here.

I cannot at the most serious, as well as most painful moment of My Life, go out of this Great Assembly, without communicating to You My Intentions, not asking Your Advice.

The first time I appeared as Your Sovereign in this place now above twenty two years, I had the pleasing hope that being born among You, I might have proved the happy Instrument of conciliating all Parties and thus collecting to the Service of the State the most respectable and most able Persons this Kingdom produced. Of this object I have never lost sight, though sad experience now teaches Me that selfish Views are so prevalent that they have smothered the first of public Virtues, attachment to the Country, which ought to warm the breast of every Individual who enjoys the advantage of this excellent Constitution, and the want of which Sentiment has prevented that Unanimity which must have rendered Britain invulnerable, though attacked by the most Powerful Combinations.

My own Inclination to alleviate the Distresses of my People, added to the Change of Sentiments of one branch of the Legislature which rendered the real object of the War impracticable, made Me undertake the arduous task of obtaining the Blessings of Peace, rendered indeed more difficult by the Resolution above alluded to. I cannot sufficiently acknowledge the candour with which the Courts of France and Spain have conducted themselves during the Negociation of the Preliminary Articles, which greatly accelerated that desirable Work.

Circumstances have since arisen that might make those Courts more doubtful of the stability of the Councils of this Country, in forming the Definitive Treaties. I have therefore again attempted to collect the most efficient Men of all Parties that [who] under My Inspection the completion of Peace might be speedily and effectually concluded. [might with dispatch  and confidence proceed on forming the Definitive Articles.] But this Patriotic attempt has proved unsuccessful by the obstinacy of a powerful party that has long publicly manifested a resolution not to aid in the Service of their Country, but if employed to have the exclusive management of this Country and who has on[ce] again declined any assistance but agreeable to its own ambitious views, And the [the Empire, unless the whole Exclusive management of Affairs is thrown entirely in its hands, and from which it has not on this Occasion departed; at this same time] want of Zeal prevents others from standing forth at this critical conjuncture; to become the tool of a Party neither My Duty to the Station I hold among you nor to[o] my own Character will permit. [My obedience to the Oath I took at my Coronation prevents my exceeding the powers vested in Me, or submitting to be a Cypher in the trammels of any self created band.]

I must therefore to end a conflict which certainly puts a stop to every wheel of Government make a final Decision, and that I think my self compelled to do in this Assembly of the whole Legislature.

A long Experience and a serious attention to the Strange Events that have successively arisen, has gradually prepared My mind to expect the time when I should be no longer of Utility to this Empire; that hour is now come; I am therefore resolved to resign My Crown and all the Dominions appertaining to it to the Prince of Wales my Eldest Son and Lawful Successor and to retire to the care of My Electoral Dominions the Original Patrimony of my Ancestors. For which purpose I shall Draw up and Sign an Instrument to which I shall affix my Private Seal. I trust this Personal Sacrifice will awaken the various parties to a Sense of their Duty and that they will join in the Support and Assistance of the Young Successor.

You may depend on my arduous attention to Educate My Children in the Paths of Religion, Virtue and every other good Principle that may render them if ever called in any Line to the Service of Great Britain, not unworthy of the kindness they may hereafter meet with from a People whom collective I shall ever Love.

May that All Wise Providence who can direct the inmost thoughts as well as Actions of Men give My Son and Successor not only every assistance in guiding his Conduct, but Restore that sense of Religious and Moral Duties in this Kingdom to the want of which every Evil that has arisen owes its Source; and may I to the latest hour of my Life, though now resolved forever to quit this Island, have the Comfort of hearing that the Endeavours of My Son, though they cannot be more Sincere than Mine have been for the Prosperity of Great Britain, be Crowned with better Success.


[1] Sir J. Fortescue (ed.), The Correspondence of King George the Third, 6 vols (London, Macmillan, 1927-8), v. 425, no. 3601 [March 1782]:

‘His Majesty during the twenty one years he has sate on the throne of Great Britain, has had no object so much at heart as the maintenance of the British Constitution, of which the difficulties he has at times met with from his scrupulous attachment to the rights of Parliament are sufficient proofs.

His Majesty is convinced that the sudden change of sentiments in one branch of the legislature has totally incapacitated him from either conducting the war with effect, or from obtaining any peace but on conditions that would prove destructive to the commerce as well as essential rights of the British nation.

His Majesty therefore with much sorrow finds he can be of no further utility to his native country which drives him to the painful step of quitting it for ever.

In consequence of which intention His Majesty resigns the crown of Great Britain and the dominions pertaining thereto to his dearly beloved son and lawful successor, George Prince of Wales, whose endeavours for the prosperity of the British Empire he hopes may prove more successful.’

[2] John Cannon, The Fox-North Coalition: Crisis of the Constitution, 1782-4 (Cambridge, University Press, 1969), p. 65.

[3] George III to Prince of Wales, draft, Mar. 1783, reproduced in A. Aspinall (ed.), The Correspondence of George Prince of Wales, 1770-1812, i. 1770-1789 (London, 1963), no. 71.

[4] See e.g. Cannon, Fox-North Coalition, p. 79 fn. 2. A pencil date of ‘1782’ on the reverse is a later addition.

[5] Cannon, Fox-North Coalition, 72 fn. 2 plausibly suggests that this draft is that preserved as Royal Archives,  GEO/MAIN/5366, reproduced as Fortescue (ed.), Correspondence of King George, vi. no. 4259.

[6] George III to Prince of Wales, draft, Mar. 1783, in Aspinall (ed.), Correspondence of George Prince of Wales, no. 71.

[7] George III to Lord Weymouth, 25 Mar. 1783, no. 447 in Fortescue (ed.), Correspondence of King George, vi.

[8] The king would, however, once more at least mention the possibility of abdication, in a letter to Pitt the Younger as the latter struggled to form a ministry over Christmas 1783: see Cannon, Fox-North Coalition, p. 153, citing Geo III to Pitt, 23 December 1783, British Library, Add.  MS. 42772, fo. 3.

[9] Four years later George would issue a ‘Proclamation for the Encouragement of Piety and Virtue, and for the Preventing and Punishing of Vice, Profaneness and Immorality’ which explicitly linked this to avoiding divine retribution on the nation as a whole.

[10] See on this e.g. the work of Torsten Riotte, esp. ‘George III and Hanover’, in Brendan Simms and Torsten Riotte (eds.), The Hanoverian Dimension in British History 1714-1837 (Cambridge, University Press, 2007), pp. 58-85.

[11] Published as Sir J. Fortescue (ed.), The Correspondence of King George the Third, 6 vols (London, Macmillan, 1927-8), vi. no. 4260 [?28 March 1783].