It’s October 26, 1775, and King George III of England rides to the Houses of Parliament to address the war in America, a British colony which is fighting for independence. Thousands watch him as he rides in his gold chariot, followed by soldiers. George embodies the splendor of the British Empire itself, an empire that includes much of North America.
In the late 18th century, British society subscribes to the idea that the king is the infallible, semi-divine embodiment of Britain’s supreme might. The Revolutionary War will challenge this idea.
George III ascended to the throne of England at the age of twenty-two. He’s a man of plain taste, at least for a king, and many people secretly find him dull. However, he’s also handsome, and sincerely loves music and architecture.
History remembers George III as a “mad king,” but in 1775 he—like the British Empire itself—seems impressive and even invincible.
In the Houses of Parliament, George III discusses the war with the American colonies, and points out that the colonists outnumber the British. Many of the MPs (members of Parliament), such as Lord Sandwich, First Lord of the Admiralty, assure George that the Americans don’t pose a serious threat because they lack discipline. Other MPs, such as the intellectual Edmund Burke, have previously voiced support for the American cause. King George has sent military reinforcements to America, led by three generals: William Howe, John Burgoyne, and Henry Clinton.
Many of the powerful British politicians of this era did not support military action in America. In fact, much of the intellectual support for the American revolution against Britain was itself a product of British political philosophy.
The war with America began earlier in 1775, in April, with bloodshed at Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts. George Washington of Virginia is the commander of the American troops. However, it takes a month before England learns of the war, since it takes about that long to travel across the Atlantic Ocean. In July, George III holds an emergency meeting of Parliament and sends 2,000 troops to Boston. In the earliest battles of the war, the British forces take victory, but also suffer heavy losses. The battles wreak havoc on American cities. The king’s supporters flee, while other Americans lose all their property in the chaos.
The British victories in Lexington and Concord establish a pattern that will persist for the rest of the Revolutionary War: the British army is larger and more powerful than the American army, meaning that the British can declare victory even if they have technically suffered greater losses.
George III remains popular in England despite the war. And yet many of the English newspapers characterize his military action in the war as being “unnecessary” and “unjust.” George sends William Howe to command the British troops in America. Around the same time, Lord North, a prominent MP, arranges for German princes to hire mercenary troops to be sent to America. George’s handling of the war is controversial, but as he rides to Parliament in October 1775, he’s never seemed more popular.
In 1775, there are signs of the instability of George III’s position, such as the criticism he receives in certain newspapers. However, George III and the British military still seem invincible. Few people would have predicted that, only a few years later, George III’s military action in America would fail.
In Parliament, George III delivers an address that will go down as one of the most important in English history. He denounces the Americans as traitors, and suggests that Washington and his peers are trying to establish their own empire. To put a “speedy end” to their plotting, George III announces that he’ll send additional forces. In short, he declares America to be fighting for its independence—something that American leaders themselves haven’t publicly declared yet. George III falls silent after twenty minutes of speaking, and leaves Parliament.
George III’s speech is rash and disorganized. By accusing America of trying to break away from the British Empire, George arguably empowers the most radical American revolutionaries and silences the Americans who simply want to return to the status quo and be a loyal, autonomous colony of Britain.
After George III’s departure, the House of Lords (which consists of the aristocratic MPs) debates his speech. Some argue that his measures are reckless. Many are opposed to the idea of fighting the American colonists, whom they still consider to be British. Others wonder why George III thinks the rebels are fighting for independence. The Duke of Grafton, a former Prime Minister, surprises everyone by vehemently declaring his opposition to the king’s plan. He supports a milder program: repealing the Stamp Act of 1765, the legislation that arguably first prompted a rebellion.
Many of the MPs find George III’s measures to be foolish and counter-productive. There’s no reason to pursue an all-out war with America, Grafton suggests, when milder measures could bring about a resolution. The Stamp Act of 1766, which placed heavy taxes on paper products, is often regarded as one of the first pieces of legislation to have provoked the American revolutionaries. This passage raises the possibility that, if it were not for George III’s aggression, there may never have been a Revolutionary War, and America might have remained a British colony.
In Parliament’s House of Commons (a lower House than the House of Lords, consisting of publicly-elected MPs, some denounce George III’s speech, but some come to the king’s defense. One MP, John Dyke Acland, who’ll go on to fight in America on the British side, declares that Britain’s army is the most powerful in the world. John Wiles, Lord Mayor of London, declares that if Britain fails to win its war with the colonies, “the grandeur of the British empire” will pass away. Another member, George Johnstone, praises the colonists for their bravery in fighting British troops.
One reason why many MPs agree to support military action against the Americans is that they fear that the might of the British Empire itself is at stake. Unless Britain immediately and decisively quells the uprising, it’s argued, its status as a powerful empire will come into question.
The MPs continue to debate George III’s resolution well after midnight. Two powerful speakers, Charles James Fox and Edmund Burke, oppose military action in America. At the time, Fox is a young man, but already a great thinker and orator. Fox denounces Lord North’s military efforts in America, and North calmly agrees to step down from his military post. However, North also announces that British forces will sail to America and offer the Americans “mercy upon a proper submission,” though he doesn’t explain the terms. In the end, both houses of Parliament vote in favor of George’s measures.
British military action is opposed by thinkers on the right (such as Edmund Burke, one of the founders of modern Conservatism) as well as the left (such as Charles Fox, who also supported the French Revolution, and was expelled from Parliament for doing so). Nevertheless, the MPs vote for military action partly because of George III’s influence and partly because they fear a threat to the British Empire’s credibility as a military force.
One MP who remains silent during the debate is Edward Gibbon, a friend of Lord North. At the time, Gibbon is finishing his monumental History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. He’s confident that Britain’s “conquest” of America will be successful. In November, George III appoints to the war effort Lord George Germain, an experienced soldier and politician, who’s previously claimed that American colonists need to be dealt a “decisive blow” from Britain.
In his book, Gibbon posits that the Roman Empire collapsed as a result of overextending itself—an interpretation that makes his confidence all the more puzzling, since the same interpretation could also be applied to Britain’s military action in America. Nevertheless, almost nobody in Parliament, even the people who oppose military action, thinks that the Americans have a chance of defeating the British military.