Magazine article The Spectator

A Driving Sense of Duty

Magazine article The Spectator

A Driving Sense of Duty

Article excerpt

GEORGE III: A MERICA'S LAST KING by Jeremy Black Yale, £25, pp. 475, ISBN 0300117329

The American Revolution is the gorilla in the corner of the room.

Some used to pretend that it was safely dead, merely a stuffed gorilla. Others argued that it was inherently friendly. Others again thought it safely distracted by its banana. Alas, it was none of these things, as recent events show. The American Revolution produced a wholly novel society. Its potential for action will dominate our century, as German unification dominated the early 20th. Yet we prefer to pretend that nothing much has happened.

So the British still edge round this momentous question by discussing instead King George III. Nineteenth-century Whigs blamed the loss of the colonies on the king alone, mad or tyrannical or both.

In the 20th century, the British bought US involvement in two world wars by subscribing to the American myth of origins.

Today, historians are slowly admitting that the world's most powerful nation is equipped with a self-image that bears only a tangential relation to historical realities.

Black records his visit to Philadelphia:

I knew it a nonsense when the guide in Liberty Hall referred to George III as a tyrant, but I could not help but be moved by the quest for liberty that this fine city represents.

That is a tactful way of putting it; but George's stock steadily rises in this learned biography, even though it cautiously concludes that 'the existing consensus on the king is overly favourable'. George emerges with positive virtues, as well as political failings. His library put him ahead even of Jefferson; his personal modesty contrasted with Washington's vanity and ostentation.

Archival detail reveals 'the roles of chance and perception'. Nothing had to happen as it did, neither American independence nor Britain's survival of defeat.

Without the 'underlying causes' once so beloved of historians, Black emphasises character and conduct, above all religious belief and duty, as George's guiding principles in the face of contingency.

His deepest commitment was 'to restore and maintain the moral order of society, a position that greatly influenced his attitude towards disaffection in the American colonies'. Here Black is drawn two ways: it is hard to see the king's policy on the American issue as 'successful adaptations to change'; yet the king defended legal authority and territorial integrity as any monarch would have done, and as Frederick the Great did in the Seven Years' War. …

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