Meeting the “humane and gracious sovereign”
by Cynthia Kierner, Omohundro Institute Georgian Papers Programme Fellow and Professor of History at George Mason University
Looking through thousands of Hanoverian manuscripts in the Royal Archives at Windsor Castle was an amazing experience that gave me a deeper understanding of the Georgian era. The letters exchanged between George III and Lord North, for instance, conveyed a real sense of how deeply involved this king—who believed in the sovereignty of Parliament—was engaged in the daily work of government. For me, however, the highlights of this vast collection were manuscripts pertaining to the personal lives of George III and his large extended family. These included letters about his children’s education, correspondence concerning the unhappy or clandestine marriages of his often troubled or troublesome siblings, rich documentation of work and consumption in the royal households, and snippets of information about the elephants and other animals in the royal menagerie. It was easy to get lost in reading about these sorts of things—none of which were relevant to my own project.
I am writing a book about the emerging culture of disaster—science, sentiment, and policy—and I came to Windsor to study disaster relief in the eighteenth-century Atlantic world. My starting point was the great Lisbon earthquake of 1755, which destroyed the Portuguese capital, killing thousands, and also gave rise to the first international disaster relief effort in world history. Britain’s King George II played a prominent and widely publicized role in that effort. When Parliament sent £100,000 in funds and provisions to Portugal at the monarch’s behest, Britons on both sides of the Atlantic lauded him as an exemplar of kingly benevolence. In the two decades after Lisbon, moreover, when disaster struck, the king’s American subjects increasingly requested and perhaps expected aid from London.
Before coming to Windsor, by reading newspapers and other sources I had determined that relief was, indeed, sometimes forthcoming from Britain, though not always from the king or from other official sources. I chose to focus my research on five significant American disasters: the Boston fire of 1760, another fire in Montreal in 1765, a flood in Virginia in 1771, and two unusually devastating hurricanes in the West Indies in 1772 and 1780. From my sources, I knew that George III personally donated £500 to Montreal’s fire victims and that Parliament sent significant aid to Jamaica after the ruinous hurricane of 1780. What I hoped to find in Windsor, then, was evidence of a royal discourse of benevolence that matched the public celebration of the gift of George II and later colonial appeals to George III as—in the words of some petitioners from Antigua—a “humane and gracious Sovereign, whose desire of alleviating affliction has ever accompanied his power of effecting so beneficent, so paternal a purpose.”
In one sense, what I found—or did not find—was hugely disappointing. The only substantive reference to any of my disasters I found was a passing mention of Lisbon in an essay written by George III. As a prince and later as king, George wrote essays on many topics, a fair number of which concerned the history of England and especially the actions and characters of his royal forebears. Perhaps not surprisingly, then, his essays included a few insightful comments about benevolence and its relationship to political power. “Authority should dignify Power,” he wrote, “and Benevolence Sweeten Authority.” Indeed, the context in which George mentioned his grandfather’s gift to the Portuguese also suggested that—whatever the public’s perception—he regarded it more as a matter of statecraft than humanitarianism. In his “Essay on revenue and Parliamentary sessions during the last year of the reign of William III, and the reigns of Anne, George I, up to the thirtieth year of the reign of George II,” George included “assisting the Portuguese” on a list of expenditures along with other items that were related primarily to military or diplomatic concerns—not surprising, I guess, given Portugal’s status as a longtime ally of Britain and the fact that, in 1755, Europe was poised for yet another massive war.
On the other hand, George III and other members of the royal family were involved in benevolence, and access to the collections in the Royal Archives led me to think about their humanitarian works in the larger context of the history of British philanthropy in a key transitional era. Most useful to me were the accounts of Augusta, Princess (and later Dowager Princess) of Wales, the daughter-in-law of George II and mother of George III, and more specifically the records of the Privy Purse, which document her personal expenditures from the mid-1730s, which included “Charity” as a category. The earliest entry listed the following recipients of Augusta’s charitable gifts for 1736-37:
Neapolitan Musick £3.3
Poor woman £10.6
Poor woman £10.6
Poor woman at Kew £10.6
Poor woman on ye common £10.6
Woman soldier £1.1
Prisoners at Windsor £10.10
Woman & child from ye City £4.4
Poor woman £10.6
Poor woman at Kensington £1.1
Charity by Mrs. Evelyn £30.0
Westminster Infirmary £31.10
Poor man yt brought picture £2.2
Poor man at Kew £10.6
Chimney sweepers £1.1
Lame man £1.1
Charity by Lady Dillon £20.0
Poor woman by Lady Torrington £2.2
Men in ye Boat at Kew £1.1
Woman at Kew £10.6
Poor woman wth. bird & cage £ 1.1
Charity by Lady Charlotte Edwin £12.12
Neapolitan Musick £1.1
Poor woman at Kew by Mrs Payne £5.5
Cheese cake woman by Ditto £1.1
Many of these were personal gifts that Augusta likely bestowed directly on unfortunate or needy individuals she encountered, such as those “at Kew” and the “poor woman” she met in Windsor Park a few years later. (The royal family had residences at both locations.) These personal gifts were, in effect, a monetized version of the ancient practice of curing by the royal touch. Queen Anne was the last British monarch to use the royal touch. One of the highlights of my visit to Windsor was seeing and touching (with gloves) her touch pieces, as well as those of the Stuart Pretenders.
But this list of Princess Augusta’s charitable gifts also includes others that are less personal and therefore more indicative of the future of British philanthropy. Some of Augusta’s gifts were mediated: Mrs. Evelyn, Lady Dillon, and others solicited donations from her, which they presumably passed on to worthy causes. The gift to the Westminster Infirmary—Augusta’s largest donation—went directly to an organized charitable entity. As time passed, more of these sorts of institutional donations appeared in her accounts. As early as 1745, for instance, the list of recipients of her largesse included four charity schools, a Danish Protestant mission society, and the fund for “Decayed Musicians,” along with the Westminster Infirmary. Augusta’s son and daughter-in-law, George III and Charlotte, were avid philanthropists whose gifts included annual donations to a home for orphan boys and to a German Protestant missionary society throughout the 1760s and 1770s.
What, if anything, does this have to do with disaster relief and with my larger interest in the culture of disaster? Assistance in the aftermath of fires, earthquakes, and floods is, after all, a subset of philanthropy. Those who aid disaster victims may have ulterior motives—George II wanted to strengthen and stabilize his Portuguese allies—but so, too, do other donors. Those who offered alms to the poor did so at least partly to prevent theft and rioting. My own pre-Windsor research on the disasters in Boston, Montreal, Virginia, and the West Indies suggested that transatlantic networks were critical to delivering relief to colonial communities in crisis. For instance, colonial governors, who often knew each other, successfully solicited aid from neighboring provincial governments; London merchants, who traded extensively with America, were prime providers of aid to disaster victims in the colonies. In most instances, the king figured at best indirectly in these efforts, primarily as a potent symbol of a benevolent imperial community.
The exceptions, as noted above, were Montreal in 1765 and Jamaica in 1780 (as well as Parliamentary aid to Charleston, South Carolina, after a fire in 1740, when that town was considered potentially vulnerable to both Spanish attacks and slave uprisings). Significantly, the fire in Montreal was, if anything, less serious than the one in Boston five years earlier, but its political context was hugely different. In 1760, Britain was at war and Massachusetts, however significant its contributions to the war effort, was a comparatively affluent and stable province with a reputation for tax evasion and smuggling. In 1765, Montreal was a recently conquered and economically devastated francophone community. Sending a £500 donation—a largely symbolic gesture, given that the city’s losses were estimated at nearly £90,000—was smart statecraft designed to help win the hearts and minds of the king’s new French Canadian subjects. A bust of George III, to be erected in Montreal’s Place d’Armes, accompanied the donation. Likewise, in 1780, Parliament’s generous hurricane relief for Jamaica can be read as either a reward for a colony that did not rebel in 1776 or as security against future rebellion.
Historians who study the British Empire believe that complementary policies of centralization and benevolence increasingly characterized imperial governance, especially after the American war. In effect, imperial officials implemented George III’s maxim of authority dignifying power and benevolence sweetening authority.
For Americans, access to disaster relief seemingly diminished in the post-revolutionary era, though not for the reasons I expected. I initially hypothesized that the ideal and practice of royal benevolence afforded colonists access to disaster relief, which would not be replicated in the post-revolutionary era when both the rhetoric of limited government and the reality of retrenchment precluded official action. In fact, in the early American republic, people were left to their own devices in the aftermath of disaster and organized relief efforts were uncommon. But that was less because of the loss of king than the result of the destruction or disruption of the networks—official, commercial, personal—that constituted what many colonists envisioned as a benevolent empire.