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 A King in Close-up 

September 16, 2003

When I was a schoolboy we were taught that the American Revolution had occurred because our ancestors were fed up with the tyranny of King George III. They particularly resented being taxed by a government in which they had no vote, and they adopted the slogan “No taxation without representation.” The slightest tax increase drove them to fury.

King George was pretty unpopular in England too. What galled the English was that they were taxed to pay for the French and Indian War in America, which was fought to protect the Americans. In A History of the American People, a marvelously readable book, Paul Johnson notes that in 1764, the costs of the recent war actually fell 50 times as heavily on the English as on the American colonists. The average Englishman was paying 25 shillings a year in taxes to the Crown; the average American, a mere sixpence.

Our ancestors fought a war to throw off the tyrannous yoke of a king who was taxing them in pennies. Times have certainly changed. Actually, it’s Americans who have changed. Of course sixpence in those days was equivalent to several dollars today, but that is only evidence of the way our own government has debased the currency over time.

By modern standards, George III wasn’t much of a tyrant. A rather pitiful excuse for a tyrant, really. He falls far short not only of Saddam Hussein, but of our own recent presidents.

[Breaker quote: Another look at George III]In person, George III seems to have been a cheerful, affable gentleman. There is the famous story of how he teased the historian Edward Gibbon about his monumental history of Rome’s decline and fall: “Scribble, scribble, scribble, eh, Mr. Gibbon?”

George actually had a deep respect for learning. He gave scholars access to his vast royal library and liked to chat with them. One of these was Dr. Samuel Johnson, the great lexicographer.

On one occasion, the king told his librarian to notify him the next time Dr. Johnson came to the library, so that he could meet him. This was done, and the resulting interview is recorded by Johnson’s biographer, James Boswell.

Told that the king was coming, Johnson stood respectfully. “His Majesty approached him, and at once was courteously easy.” The king asked Johnson’s opinions about various other libraries, and they conversed on this subject for a while. Boswell writes,

His Majesty enquired if he was then writing any thing. He answered, he was not, for he had pretty well told the world what he knew, and must now read to acquire more knowledge. The King, as it should seem with a view to urge him to rely on his own stores as an original writer, and to continue his labours, then said “I do not think you borrow much from any body.” Johnson said, he thought he had already done his part as a writer. “I should have thought so too, (said the King,) if you had not written so well.” — Johnson observed to me, upon this, that “No man could have paid a handsomer compliment; and it was fit for a King to pay. It was decisive.” When asked by another friend, at Sir Joshua Reynolds’s, whether he made any reply to this high compliment, he answered, “No, Sir. When the King had said it, it was to be so. It was not for me to bandy civilities with my Sovereign.” Perhaps no man who had spent his whole life in courts could have shewn a more nice and dignified sense of true politeness, than Johnson did in this instance.
Johnson later added that “they may talk of the King as they will; but he is the finest gentleman I have ever seen.”

If we hadn’t learned long ago that George III was a dreadful ogre, we might get the mistaken impression that he was a man of qualities — gracious, tactful, considerate, and quick-witted. Not that his personal demeanor can excuse wrongs he did in his capacity as ruler, but a glimpse of his human side is bound to make you wonder if American revolutionary propaganda is entirely just to him. Are we really so much better off under the sort of men who rule America today?

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2003 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
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