Andrew Roberts: George III was Britain’s most Misunderstood Monarch
After well over an hour frantically transcribing the words of Andrew Roberts, the distinguished and internationally published historian, I looked up for him to say: “It is rare in history for every mistake to be made. Many wars have many mistakes. In Britain [during the Revolutionary War] we made them all; naval, military, big, small, tactical, political, personal, institutional. In one fell swoop you see everything to avoid, all in one volume.”
This is the mission of his most recent work, a biography of the longest reigning King of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland – George III: The Life and Reign of Britain’s Most Misunderstood Monarch, or, in the United States, The Last King of America.
Andrew Roberts has built a reputation as perhaps the principal historical biographer of our times. His work often contains a central principle: the identification of important yet misunderstood leaders, a re-evaluation of their reputations through the use of a treasure trove of primary source material and demonstrating how these lessons have a contemporary relevance. Pouring over the chapters, it felt timely – in our current era of populism and technocracy – to have Roberts detail the shining lights and muddy depths of leadership through the ages.
George III is often dismissed as a ‘mad’ monarch, suffering from frequent bouts of mental illness that prevented him from governing effectively. Fans of the musical Hamilton may recognise this depiction of George from the iconic song You’ll Be Back, with the King portrayed as an emotional unstable jilted lover. However, reality is far more complex. In his book, Roberts reveals George as a man who meticulously studied the actions of his government, was enamoured with the simple pleasures of the nation’s countryside, oversaw Britain’s ascendancy in the Seven Years War, signed into law the banning of the transatlantic slave trade, and ruled benevolently.
Fifteen years into George’s reign, on May 26th, 1775, a ship arrived in Southampton. On board was the Essex Gazette, a paper reporting the news of the first bloodshed of the Revolutionary War, a fiscally ruinous affair for Britain. It was an existential threat followed, supposedly, by the triumph of liberty. What more is there to say?
Attentive readers will already have noticed the differing titles between British and American editions of Roberts’ book. To a British audience, the book signals a rejection of the orthodox, a call to think better of our past, by championing our longest reigning King. To an American audience, the title brings to mind the Revolution, the birth of a new nation, and the casting off of old doctrines. Faced with such enormous questions of identity and history, it can be difficult to rationally assess the legacy of a man as important as George III; but I was lucky enough to meet with Roberts personally in Brooks’s Club to discuss his book further, and how it can be applied to the strategic challenges we face today.
The war and communication
Prior to our conversation, Roberts had sent me several chapters of his book focusing on the Revolutionary War. Logistical errors, hard-headed leadership, insubordination, a lack of foresight, and general mismanagement stun the reader – for who does not like thinking they would have done better? – but so too does the ingenuity, resolve, and tenacity of America’s war heroes. It is clear from Roberts’ demeanour that the vastness of the reign of George III, and the momentous events of the Revolution, have been a joy for him to study; with relish and a smile, Roberts states he will be speaking at Brooks’s in defence of the King at a later date. Ironically, the club was a well-known haunt of the colourful (and pro-American revolutionary) Whig politician, Charles James Fox, in the late 18th century.
Roberts is also clearly pleased to explain he has sought to reject stereotypes throughout the work. A vibrant section sees a line-by-line rebuttal of the mythos of America’s downtrodden beginnings. Stating the Thirteen Colonies were amongst “the freest societies in the world” (for example, not a single American writer was imprisoned and shipped to Britain for trial), Roberts details factual inaccuracies – some may say, lies – in the Declaration of Independence. In acknowledging yet flying past its hallowed status, he enables the reader to learn more about the Declaration than simply being a masterpiece of penmanship, and to see how a lack of stakeholder engagement by British forces led to a complete rout in the court of American public opinion.
Compounding the poor public relations strategy employed by the government in London, pre-war royal governors of American colonies did not see their role as a public facing appointment; few cultivated ties with journalists, or invested in new print papers and periodicals that circulated the cities. This was a grave mistake given how remarkably literate urban America was at the time: notably, Philadelphia rivaled all cities in the Empire bar London for the number of bookshops. In contrast, British MPs and Lords were investors and supporters of the development of media at home. While British forces may have tried to win the conflict with a ‘hearts and minds’ strategy once the war started, Roberts says (referencing historian Max Boot), the pre-conflict failure to build relationships with media stakeholders or invest in pro-London newspapers meant the Loyalists started with a severe disadvantage.
In addition to their political prowess, the leaders of the Revolution were savvy media manipulators, targeting the swing vote and the wavering segment of the population. Before hostilities broke out, the American public were roughly evenly split between Loyalists to the Crown, revolutionary Patriots, and those on the fence who likely feared the damage a war would cause but felt little residual warmth to the government in London.
With this in mind through the conflict, Revolutionary imagery sought to convince those undecided Americans of the virtues of war. One memorable story, much repeated, references Washington having his troops perform Addison’s Cato when camped at Valley Forge, portraying the Revolutionaries as stoic and resolute soldiers of principle. Grand imagery and high ideals, well communicated, prevented what easily could have been the route of the Continental Army as apathy and desertion loomed.
Sympathetic journalists also helped the Patriots control how Americans learnt about the war. The Patriots’ victory of Saratoga is widely known, but few recall the great success of the British at Charleston.
With “absolutely terrible communications” between British officials and the American populace, the Boston Tea Party set the narrative rolling in 1773. Despite the fact all money raised by tax in the Americas was to be spent in the Americas, many Americans wrongly believed their taxes were being funneled across the Atlantic to London. Referencing his wife Susan Gilchrist, a global leader in professional communications, Roberts whimsically notes, “Had Britain had Brunswick [the firm which Gilchrist previously ran] in 1773 and been able to point out all the [holes in the] arguments of the Boston Tea Party then…”.
Instead, the Patriots created a mythos enduring even to this day. Launching the Tea Party movement in 2009, grass-roots Republicans lobbed tea bags over the fence onto the lawn of the White House, channelling their Revolutionary forefathers.
While the founding myth of the United States is of a unique Revolution against unjust monarchical tyranny, the true value in understanding the war – and the reign of George III – comes from a deeper realisation that America is far more special than that. History is full of rebellions against tyranny: the Dutch against the Spanish, the Polish against the Russians, the Irish against the British. America rebels for something greater. They rebel for higher ideals; to make true the belief that they were already a free and prosperous sovereign nation, which could manage its own affairs peacefully and prosperously. Yet, the conflict occurred at a time when economic and military blocs were interlinked and America’s calls for an open trading relationship with the world were radical, dangerous, and empowering – so, to make it work, the United States would need to strategise.
Strategy is a term often overused, but when a crisis occurs, overarching structures with flexibility for tactical changes are a necessity. As Roberts details, many strategic blunders were made and many more exacerbated given that travel to the colonies (and thus the transfer of information) could take anywhere from six to eight weeks.
In colonial America, agitation from a small but not insignificant set of Patriots gave warning that influential men wanted a war, come what may. With a potential crisis looming on a continent so far away, a grand strategy, a plan for the eventuality of war, was paramount. As Vegetius noted, ‘if you want peace, prepare for war’.
In painstaking detail, Roberts recounts the Germain Plan, a strategy he regards as “a good one”, crafted by Secretary of State for the Colonies George Germain. British forces would take the Hudson, splitting the North and South, and separating New England from the prosperous southern colonies. As we saw more recently, this strategy of dividing supply chains is still relevant today, with the Colonial Pipeline cyber attack allowing hackers to successfully hold the United States to ransom. In the 1770s, splitting the colonies in the first act of a possible conflict would similarly have put immense pressure on political and business leaders, with the flow of trade and information suddenly cut off. Victory however, needed strategy to be stuck to “ruthlessly to the exception of all else”. Had plans been followed by commanders on the ground, Roberts thinks it may have worked.
However, the strategy simply was not properly followed at crucial moments. Serious leaders cannot get distracted by secondary prizes, but General Howe, in a major departure from the plan, captured Philadelphia in 1777, giving the patriots who had made the city the seat of political power at points through the war a “serious morale blow”. Yet, while “every general wants to march down the street [of an enemy capital] in triumph”, the city’s strategic value was minimal. In pursuing the “easy to grab jewel” of Philadelphia, Howe neglected to take Albany, leaving British troops poorly positioned for the coming campaigning season.
Worse still, he did not practically communicate his plans to the British government, preventing a re-evaluation or adjustment of the strategy to take into account the changed circumstances. Howe initially wrote to London saying he would take Albany as agreed; he then decided to attack Philadelphia, with the city falling 10 days before his letter even arrived in London. Furthermore, in failing to warn his colleagues, General Burgoyne, who was daringly thrusting down from Quebec, was left trapped without the reinforcements he had planned to receive. Burgoyne was left facing a swarm of Minutemen at Saratoga, now regarded as a stunning calamity and a significant contributor to the Patriots’ later victory.
The lesson? “An easy and small victory” is likely to not be worth the cost, if it means abandoning your larger strategy.
As blunder begot blunder, British forces, unaccustomed to failure, began to resemble frogs in boiling water. The urgency of their situation was not understood until it was too late.
The war in the Americas was quickly followed by war in Europe. When the French and Spanish joined the conflict in 1780, Britain became totally outnumbered, and had to divert resources to defend the British Isles themselves and further colonial possessions. In the five years prior to the Franco-Spanish intervention, Britain failed to accelerate the recruitment of sailors and soldiers; instead, domestic recruitment stagnated, as the British government chose to spend money on hiring German regiments to fight instead. On top of this, the Government missed opportunities to reform the process for officers’ commissions, neglected to calculate time needed to build ships to maintain naval supremacy, and failed to rebuild the national treasury following the Seven Years War, so they could not afford to build new ships even if they had the time and the men to crew them.
Difficult times require difficult decisions. “If you are going to fight a massive existential crisis, you have to cut your dividends”. Do not wait for the crisis point, think ahead of the curve.
After the war, it was clear that change was necessary. While Parliamentarians were reluctant to raise taxes, the crises facing the government necessitated future leaders to act, with William Pitt introducing income tax to fund the fight against Napoleon twenty years later. Fiscal reform allowed Britain to command one of the strongest armies and navies in history, with the two-power standard for naval supremacy (that Britain should have a navy capable of fighting the second and third largest sea powers combined) lasting until 1900. Perhaps if this standard had been adopted earlier, the Royal Navy could have prevented the French commander de Grasse from escaping past Gibraltar to reach America, where he helped blockade Yorktown and end the war.
Personal conflict and management
Like family, you cannot choose your colleagues; all you can hope for is dependable coworkers and a competent CEO.
In the American theatre, there was no shortage of personal drama that crippled organisational effectiveness. For the British forces, the effective ‘CEO’ was Howe as Commander-in-Chief; yet he operated without formal control over other Generals in the colonies, who competed to impress George III (the Chairman of the Board, in this analogy).
Commanders on the ground feared being supplanted and fermented rivalry. Notes from one military aide detail how Clinton and Howe argued for eight hours over three days as the former begged Howe not to take Philadelphia; Howe believed Clinton wished to take Philadelphia himself in pursuit of glory. In Canada, Sir Guy Carlton hated General Burgoyne, who he believed had gone behind his back to secure command of the Northern Army (he had). The King and Germain needed a single leader with unquestioned authority – a viceroy based in New York, perhaps – to ensure clear messaging and direction from management, minimising the office-politics of glory and promotions.
Unchecked party politics similarly divided the British high command. Sir Hugh Palliser, a Tory, and Admiral Keppell, a Whig, injected their politics into their crews, leading to physical altercation inside the Admiralty. As Roberts reflects, “in a great endeavour like war or a multinational company you do not want politics”. While intelligent people will always have strong personal beliefs, a successful organisation ensures their teams prioritise a unified goal.
In stark contrast to British forces, the Patriots proved far more able in uniting and affecting change. Roberts muses that perhaps the wider socio-economic background they came from, compared to the typically Eton and Oxbridge educated Britons, may have been decisive; while many of the Brits were far from incompetent, they could not match “men of the calibre of … the wordsmith in Jefferson [or] the administrator Hamilton”, and the wider pantheon of American leaders who emerged in that era.
Far too many lessons remain amongst the pages, none so much as what George III can teach individuals about self-management. From meticulously studying maps of colonies, to auditing the Admiralty to stay abreast of UK PLC’s arsenal, Roberts’ book, like those before, shows us a figure that could serve as a role model for all those keen to work hard and be “good-natured, cultured, [and] enlightened”.