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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Friday, February 10, 2017

“America is lost!” Wrote George III—or Did He?

One of the more striking documents in the hand of George III digitized by the new Georgian Papers Programme is an essay that begins:
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 Georgian Papers Programme web outpost in the United States offers images and a transcript of the document.

That page also has an essay by Nathaniel F. Holly of William and Mary, which calls that opening “surely one of the best examples of early modern clickbait.” That continues:
For an essay that begins with an exclamation, the bulk of the “America is Lost” piece seems to either be a cowed post hoc rationalization of a colonial order gone awry or a reasoned assessment of a decidedly difficult situation. I vote for the latter. For King George III, it seems that questions of commerce were more pressing than questions of governance or political power. Rather than refer to the rebelling colonies by name, the King employed commodity labels—Sugar, Rice, and Northern (read North of Tobacco). As he concludes, “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.”

If we read that line and the more famous opening line together, King George III seems to be making a reasonable assessment. And if we place this most famous of essays in conversation with some of his other writings, a new sort of Monarch emerges. One who is both deeply concerned with historical questions and who offers historians of the early modern Atlantic world a wealth of opportunities for their own inquiries and analysis.
However, across the Atlantic the home office’s page with images and transcript has an essay by Angel Luke O’Donnell of King’s College London, who notes:
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. [Specifically, the first essay of Young’s Annals of Agriculture, published in 1785. Young is shown above.] Therefore, before analysing the language of the piece, we must first determine why Young’s words appear in the handwriting of the King.

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.
O’Donnell favors the latter hypothesis. He also notes some interesting ways that the king’s version used softer language than Young’s published essay, most notably in dropping the suggestion that Britain had kept going to war across the Atlantic because “the beggars, fanaticks, felons, and madmen of the kingdom, had been encouraged in their speculation of settling the wilds of North America.”

O’Donnell’s essay appears to have prompted a new entry on the U.S. website by Justin B. Clement. However, like the king’s writings, these essays are unfortunately undated, so the give and take will soon become invisible.

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