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“Long a Dispute Amongst Antiquarians”: How a King’s Understanding of History Changes our Understanding of a King (and History)

Nathaniel F. Holly, Ph.D. Candidate in History,
William & Mary


 

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In what is surely one of the best examples of early modern clickbait, King George III laments the loss of Britain’s American possessions with what was must have been a tortured scream of anguish: “America is lost!” But what if that was a primal howl of relief instead? Part of what makes reading the voluminous essays of King George III so refreshing is his instinct to retreat to the safe confines of historical perspective to assuage his anxieties. For the King, other “Antiquarians” were simultaneously sources of frustration and solace. While he knew, for example, that historians had long argued about whether it was the Saxons or the Normans who introduced “Feudal Institutions,” he also knew that both sorts of arguments could be correct: “we may safely aver by both to explain this.” This proclivity for perspective also provides modern historians with plenty of provender for their own projects. While the King’s essays on governance and history—which ranges from a treatment of the “Original Nature of Government” to a “Short History of England”—offer quite a bit to consider about more traditional subjects like the law, property, and politics, they also contribute to our understanding of more far-flung topics. There is even material for those like me who study topics like transatlantic Indians. But before we flesh out the possibilities of the full collection (or at least the slice of it I am considering here), let us return to the essay that shouts the loudest.

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.

As you would expect, a monarch has more (much more) to say about governance. Yet the foundation for these beliefs on governance emerge from a particular understanding of history. For King George III history is a progression. Though the “first rudiment of the state” began as a “purely domestick” affair, eventually, “When many Familys came to reside it together it could not be long before some head…gain’d Authority over the rest.” The only logical conclusion to this process, of course, was either “Monarchy, or a Republic.”  According to the King, “the world grew more civiliz’d & society more perfect & All History confirms the truth of these progressions.” Indeed, King George III draws a distinct line between the “Antient Britons” who lived like “Nomades in Tents, without Towns or Citys” and who subsisted on “Milk & roots” and more modern and “civiliz’d” peoples.

For my own research interests—southeastern American Indians—seeing this information confirmed in the handwriting of King George III allows for a more nuanced interpretation of early cross cultural encounters in the Americas. What does it mean that British officials frequently labeled indigenous leaders “Kings” instead of something less…progressive? What about the British Monarch’s meeting with indigenous peoples in the 1760s? Did he view his visitors as analogues of “tribal” Saxons? Or as something a bit more evolved? These papers offer the possibility of a perspective on those meetings that historians could have only wished for until recently. While I think King George III would lump me in with those Antiquarians who “have laid great stress” on the wrong sorts of questions, this small peek into his way of looking at the world could change things for all manner of scholars.

 


 

George III Essays Referenced:

RA GEO/ADD/32/2010-2011, Essay on America and future colonial policy, [?1784]. Royal Archives, Windsor.

RA GEO/ADD/32/914-917 and RA GEO/ADD/32/957-995, Essay and draft essay on government, [1756-1780]. Royal Archives, Windsor.

RA GEO/ADD/32/1039, An Essay upon the Original and Nature of Government, [1746-1805].  Royal Archives, Windsor.

 



 

Transcription: America is Lost! (Essay on America and future colonial policy)

Transcription provided is the raw transcription, initial product of student transcribers.  Text is not corrected nor proofed.

Download full raw transcription: RA GEO_ADD_32_2010_Raw Transcripton (pdf)

 

 American is Lost! 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 situation of the Kingdom is novel, the policy that is to govern it must be novel likewise, or neither adapted to the real evils of the present moment, or the dreaded ones of the future.

For a Century past the Colonial Scheme has been the Government. It was thoroughly known that from every system that has guided the Administration of the British Country there always exists an active emigration of unsettled, discontented, or unfortunate People who failing in their endeavours to live at home, hope to succeed better where there is more employment suitable to their poverty. The establishment of Colonies in America might probably increase the number of this class, but did not create it; in times anterior to that great speculation, Poland contained near 10.000 Scotch Pedlars; within the last thirty years not above 100. occasioned by America offering a more advantageous asylum for them.

A people spread over an immense tract of fertile land, industrious because free, and rich because industrious, presently became a market for the Manufacturers and Commerce of the Mother Country. An importance was soon generated, which from its origin to the late conflict was mischievous to Britain, because it created an expence of blood and

and treasure worth more at this instant if it could be at our command, than all we ever received from America. The wars of 1744. of 1756. and 1775. were all entered into from the encouragements given to the speculations of settling the wilds of North America.It is to be hoped that by degrees it will be admitted that the Northern Colonies, that is those North of Tobacco were in reality our very successful rivals in two Articles the carrying freight trade, and the Newfoundland fishery. While the Sugar Colonies added above three millions a year to the wealth of Britain, the Rice Colonies near a million and the Tobacco ones almost as much, those more to the north, so far from adding any thing to our wealth as Colonies, were trading, fishing, farming Countries, that rivalled us in many branches of our industry, and had actually deprived us of no inconsiderable share of the wealth we reaped by means of the others. This compartative view of our former territories in America is not stated with any idea of lessening the consequence of a future friendship and connection with them; on the contrary it is to be hoped 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, and the common open connection cut off then  American is Lost!
 America is Lost! than when they were in obedience to the Crown; the Newfoundland fishery taken into Account, there is little doubt of it.The East and West Indies are conceived to be the great commercial supports of the Empire; as to the Newfoundland fishery time must tell us what share we shall reserve of it. But there is one observation which is applicable to all three; they depend on very distant territorial possessions, which we have little or no hopes of retaining from this internal strength, we can keep them only by means of a superior Navy. If our marine force links, or if in consequence of wars, debts, and taxes, we should in future find ourselves so debilitated as to be involved in a new War, without the means of carrying it on with vigour, in these cases, all distant possessions must fall let them be as valuable as their warmest panegyrists contend.

It evidently appears from this slight review of our most important dependencies, that on them we are not to exert that new policy which alone can be the preservation of the British power and consequence. The more important they are already, the less are they fit instruments in that work. No man can be hardy enough to deny that they are insecure, to add therefore to their value by exertions of policy which shall have the effect of directing any stream of capital, industry, or population into those channels, would be

be to add to a disproportion already an evil. The more we are convinced of the vast importance of those territories, the more we must feel the insecurity of our power; our view therefore ought not to be to increase but preserve them.  America is Lost!
 America is Lost! than when they were in obedience to the Crown; the Newfoundland fishery taken into the Account, there is little doubt of it.The East and West Indies are conceived to be the great commercial supports of the Empire; as to the Newfoundland fishery time must tell us what share we shall reserve of it. But there is one observation which is applicable to all three; they depend on very distant territorial possession, which we have little or no hopes of retaining from this internal strength, we can keep them only be means of a superior Navy. If our marine force sinks, or if in consequence of wars, debts, and taxes, we should in future find ourselves so debilitated as to be involved in a new War, without the means of carrying it on with vigour, in these cases, all distant possessions must fall let them be as valuable as their warmest panegyrists contend.

It evidently appears from this slight review of our most important dependencies, that on them we are not to exert that new policy which alone can be the preservation of the British power and consequence. The more important they are already, the less are they fit instruments in that work. No man can be hardy enough to deny that they are insecure, to add therefore to their value by exertions of policy which shall have the effect of directing any stream of capital, industry, or population into those channels, would be

be to add to a disproportion already an evil. The more we are convinced of the vast importance of those territories, the more we must feel the insecurity of our power; our view therefore ought not to be to increase but preserve them.  America is Lost!

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