J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, December 29, 2016

“George, be King”

John Nicholls (1744-1832) was a Member of Parliament from 1783 to 1787, and again from 1796 to 1802.

Politically, Nicholls leaned to the left, opposing Edmund Burke and then the younger William Pitt and eventually his early ally Charles James Fox. He saw good in the early French Revolution, opposed British war measures, and championed electoral reforms.

Nicholls’s father had been physician to George II, so he was privy to court gossip from an early age. But of course his political views colored how he interpreted gossip about that monarch and his grandson and successor. In his Recollections and Reflections Personal and Political as Connected with Public Affairs during the Reign of George III, published in 1820, Nicholls profiled the new king this way:
The young King (for he was at that time little more than twenty-two years of age) was of a good person, sober, temperate, of domestic habits, addicted to no vice, swayed by no passion—what had not the nation to expect from such a character? . . .

I recollect the expression used to my father by Mr. [Charles] Pratt, at that time Attorney General, afterwards better known by the name of Lord Camden, within four months after the King’s accession: “I see already, that this will be a weak and an inglorious reign.”

I recollect also the relation which a friend of my father’s gave to him of a conversation which he had had with Charles Townshend: “I said to Charles Townshend, I don’t want to know any state secrets, but do tell me what is the character of this young man?” After a pause, Charles Townshend replied, “He is very obstinate.”

It was also observed that the Princess Dowager of Wales had kept the young Prince from having any confidential intimacy with any person except herself and the Earl of Bute: the pretence for this was the preservation of his morals. In truth, they had blockaded all approach to him. A notion has prevailed, that the Earl of Bute had suggested political opinions to the Princess Dowager; but this was certainly a mistake. In understanding, the Princess Dowager was far superior to the Earl of Bute; in whatever degree of favour he stood with her, he did not suggest, but he received, her opinions and her directions. The late Marquis of Bute told me, that at the King’s accession, his father, the Earl of Bute, had no connexion beyond the pale of Leicester House [the late Prince of Wales’s residence]. He added, “I never lived with my father, nor did any of his children.” Could such a man be fit to be a minister?

The Princess Dowager of Wales was a woman of a very sound understanding, and was considered as such by all who had occasion to converse with her. But she had been educated in the Court of her father, the Duke of Saxe Gotha. . . . When the Princess of Wales came to the Court of St. James, she found the British Sovereign a very different character from that which she had seen at Saxe Gotha. She found him controlled by his Ministers, indulged in petty gratifications, but compelled to submit to their opinions on all important subjects. We cannot be surprised that she was disgusted at this; and it is well known that she ever impressed upon the King from his early years this lesson, “George, be King.”
In his History of the Life and Reign of George IV (1831), William Wallace cited Nicholls and repeated his analysis, but turned that quotation from the Princess Dowager into “George, be a king.”

George III indeed tried to influence the ministries that governed under him. But he also sincerely believed in the British constitutional notion of Parliament’s sovereignty. After Gen. Cornwallis’s defeat at Yorktown, he accepted the defeat of Lord North’s ministry—a major step away from monarchical supremacy.

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