The Broadway Musical ‘Hamilton’ has been an absolute smash hit. Even if one isn’t familiar with the historical context of the production, you may well have heard one of the catchy songs from the musical itself. Tickets for Hamilton are certainly not cheap - demand for seats has far exceeded supply! Along with appearances from Alexander Hamilton himself, the production features three comical songs from British King George III, who reigned from 1760 to 1820, directed at his troublesome colonial subjects on the other side of the Atlantic.
For many, this may well be the first time they have encountered George III as an historical actor. He did indeed support the raft of Parliamentary legislation aimed at bringing the American colonists to heel, notably under his Prime Minister Lord North in the turbulent 1770s. In this period, the Boston Massacre, the Tea Act, the Boston Tea Party and the ‘Coercive Acts’ heightened tensions and galvanised the wrath of American Patriots in the Thirteen Colonies towards British rule. Moreover, Thomas Paine labeled George III as a ‘royal brute’ in his 1776 pamphlet ‘Common Sense’, while the Declaration of Independence accused him of trying to establish an ‘absolute tyranny’ in British America. All in all, a pretty damning critique!
The validity of these claims is of course subject to debate. Hamilton has certainly brought these issues back to the forefront of public and historical consciousness. But, there was more to King George III than America and tyranny.
He was the first of the Georgian monarchs to style himself as a proud British - as opposed to a Hanoverian - King. English was his first language, not German, unlike George I and II. Infact, he never even visited Hanover. He took a great interest in the art of Kingship, writing numerous essays on the topic as a youth. He had a penchant for farming and an interest in the system of enclosure that was engulfing England at the time. In 1769, his thirst for knowledge resulted in him building the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, which he took great pleasure in. He was by all accounts committed to his large family and his wife, Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, who lent her name to Charlotte, North Carolina (which, incidentally, Lord Cornwallis labeled a ‘hornets’ nest of rebellion’ during the American Revolution). George III may have been the last King of America, but he was also the first King of Australia. He reigned over his Kingdom during a time of vast social, economic and industrial change. He was a ‘hands-on’ monarch, who took great pride and an intense interest in the ruling of his realm. He is Britain’s third longest reigning monarch, behind Victoria and Elizabeth II. He was, perhaps, the last British monarch to exercise bona fide executive power. His son, the Prince Regent and subsequently George IV, was certainly a great deal less popular with the people than his father had been during his prime.
Mental illness incapacitated George III for the last years of his life - a fact which is directly referenced in the songs by George III in Hamilton the musical. However, hopefully the musical itself will serve to inspire those interested in the production and historians worldwide to learn more about the ‘Mad King’. There was - whatever your opinion on George III - certainly more to him and his reign than just America and mental illness.
I would love to hear your thoughts!
Patrick O’Shaughnessy (@historychappy)
Co-Editor of Versus History