“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. 

Researching in the Round Tower: report by Georgian Papers Fellow, Rick Atkinson

Rick Atkinson, freelance military historian, was an Omohundro Institute Georgian Papers Fellow who spent last April researching at the Royal Archives. He is researching the first volume of a projected trilogy about the American Revolution and used his time in the archives to look at the role of King George III in military decisions, specifically those relating to espionage and expeditionary warfare, starting in early 1775 and carrying through the Battle of Princeton in 1777.

 

Atkinson at Henry VIII Gate, Windsor Castle, April 2016
Atkinson at Henry VIII Gate, Windsor Castle, April 2016

 

I’ve worked in some exotic locations—Mogadishu, Mali, Baghdad, Kazakhstan, Riyadh—but none more evocative than the top of the Round Tower in Windsor Castle, where I spent the month of April 2016, as a Georgian Papers fellow. The researcher’s path to this archive is steep: through the Henry VIII Gate and the Norman Gatehouse, up 102 stone steps in the Round Tower and then another 21 wooden steps to the reading room. It’s as close to time travel as I’ve ever experienced.

As an author and a military historian from Washington, D.C., I’m working on a trilogy about the American Revolution. My previous books have been about four 20th century wars, each of them expeditionary, and I’m intrigued by the challenges of waging war at great distance in the 18th century. In the official and private papers of George III, complemented by the vast trove of Treasury, Colonial Office, Admiralty, War Office, and Audit Office documents in the National Archive at Kew, the depth and breadth of those challenges comes clear. So does the extent to which the King is closely involved in all aspects of logistics, politics, strategy, diplomacy, naval affairs, and intelligence collection during the Revolution. His appetite for information is enormous. What he knows is impressive; what he doesn’t know will help cost Britain her American colonies.

The American stereotype of a tyrannical nincompoop quickly dissolves with a little exposure to the Georgian papers. I also spent time examining the correspondence and documents of Queen Charlotte and two eventual heirs to the throne, George IV and William IV. In these papers we see the worries and preoccupations of a husband and father, and of a monarch wrestling with the fretful issue of how to prepare a prince to become a king in a changing world. I also took several days to examine the military maps of George III in the Print Room and to examine some of the King’s personal holdings in the Royal Library.

I couldn’t be more grateful to those responsible for opening up the Georgian Papers and giving us a deeper look at this extraordinary period in our common heritage, particularly King’s College London and the Omohundro Institute. Oliver Urquhart Irvine, the Librarian and Assistant Keeper of the Queen’s Archive, and his colleagues at Windsor Castle, were extraordinarily generous, accommodating, and good-humored. Not least, I was in Windsor for the Queen’s 90th birthday celebration. I told Oliver that the irony was not lost on me that I had interrupted my research on the Revolution to stand on a street curb with thousands of others to sing “Happy birthday, your Majesty.”

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.