Penny-wise and Pound Foolish

April 27th, 2012
by George S. Crimmin

[private] He is regarded, after Elvis Presley, as the most notorious king in American history, celebrated historian Bruce G. Kauffman said of King George III of England.

v10-5-Speaking OutDubbed “the King who lost America,” George III officially began his rule October 25, 1760, succeeding his grandfather, George II. Many historians portray him as stubborn, simple and dimwitted. Stubborn he was, and as we shall see, that stubbornness helped cost him his North American colonies. As for simple, he was a man of simple tastes, but given that British society at the time was so slavish to fashion that it approached caricature, his refusal to get caught up in “appearances” to me seems in hindsight, admirable. He stubbornly resisted wearing wigs, which were a fashion staple of his day.

But dimwitted he was not! I believe it is salient to acknowledge that history is rarely clear-cut. Even eyewitness accounts can offer conflicting views of events. The armies, nations and people on the losing sides of wars rarely get to write the history books. Even the work of the best modern archaeologists is subject to interpretation and can often be modified or even erased by the shifting sands of time. History is basically “the propaganda of the victors.”

George III was the exact opposite of dimwitted – he was actually a fast learner. Like many royalty, he was a patron of the arts, but unlike many other monarchs, he had an eye for quality. His favorite musical composers were Bach and Handel, and he correctly predicted great things for the young lad Mozart. He built an art collection that rivaled any in the world.

To cite Kauffman again, “He was an avid reader, with a library that was among the world’s finest.” Kauffman adds that George III was also a talented artist. “He could have been an architect, and he was highly proficient at playing the piano and violin.”

I would argue that George III stood out among monarchs of his era. He had an interest in science, or at least how things worked, which was rare among royalty. He collected clocks, studied the heavens through a telescope and loved tinkering with mechanical objects. He was also – again, unlike many monarchs – a very hard worker and felt keenly the sense of duty that came with being king, which is where our story of his clash with the North American colonies begins.

Having watched his great-grandfather, George I, and grandfather, George II, fritter away power and prestige, he was determined to reassert royal authority. Upon ascending the throne, George III saw the North American colonies’ attempts to govern their own affairs as treasonous disobedience to his rule. Stubbornly, he ordered the American rebellion crushed, refusing all attempts at compromise with the colonists, who were willing to concede to him control over their external affairs, including trade, in return for self-government of their internal affairs, such as taxation, even though at the time Britain’s colonial trade was estimated to be 20-times more lucrative than what it could ever hope to collect from the colonies in taxes.

George’s intransigence was the quintessential case of “penny-wise and pound foolish.” As a result, he foolishly “lost America.”

Perhaps he was consoled by the thought that the North American colonies would have eventually achieved independence regardless of what he did or didn’t do. As Thomas Paine so eloquently wrote, “Not forever could an island rule a continent.” (It bears mentioning, however, that Britain continued to rule its North American colonies in what is now Canada for another 90 years, when they were granted autonomous “dominion” status, and Canada continues to recognize the British monarch as its head of state to this day.)

Allow me to finish with a definition of history according to American historian Barbara W. Tuckman (1912-1989): “I am content to define history as the past events of which we have knowledge and refrain from worrying about those of which we have none – until, that is, some archaeologist digs them up. [/private]

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