America’s Once and Future King

My new translation of and commentary on Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws has been recently released (Anthem). I prepared the work upon the consideration that it would be only the third English translation of this seminal work in 275 years. Imagine my surprise, then, very recently to discover that it is actually the fourth. What is arguably the first, loose but thorough, translation is that of young George Hanover, Prince of Wales, soon to be King George III of England and the United Kingdom!

That thunder bolt sent me scurrying to re‐think not only George III but also the American Revolution. For even a cursory reading of George’s vigorous and extensive reading (810 autograph pages!) reveals a mind‐set of liberal reform.

After George ascended to the Crown not many years after this prodigious accomplishment, the vision of liberal reform finally gained traction and began the process of putting to rest the ‘Robinocracy’ of George’s grandfather, George I, and his vice‐regent, Robert Walpole. The Enlightenment principles George III embraced re‐fashioned the extended British Union to very good effect, altering politics fundamentally by making the Prime Minister no longer an instrument to represent the monarch’s commands to Parliament but, instead, to represent the Parliament to the King. In the latter role they gained in executive authority, the monarch ultimately became presiding eminence (i.e., ceased to act by command in a general sense), and the Union came to rest firmly on the authority of the ‘members of the community’ represented by the monarch.

The fundamental liberal reform, accordingly, was to re‐fashion politics with command subject to and not united with authority. On that basis, the Union grew in strength and stability, as was well illustrated in the long‐subsisting inclusion of Canada in the Union (full independence not accomplished until beyond the middle of the 20th century).

But that reality poses the question of what happened with respect to the thirteen colonies of British North America. Why were they not incorporated with equal success? The frequent response that the geography was too imposing is dispelled by the story of Canada. It seems, rather, that factors revolving around the transient de‐stabilizing constitutional transition in England had more to do with the failure to retain the colonies than any ‘tyranny’ of George III. He had his hands full in the attempt to shape administration along new lines, in which forcing ministers and members to formulate policy was all important. Thus, the inconstant, herky‐jerky and sometimes impetuous policy making (beginning with the proclamation to prohibit westward expansion beyond the Appalachians, despite the pledged compensation to colonials who fought in the Seven Years War) simply impeded approaching the colonies with the same architectural vision in England. In the nature of things, once such liberal reforms begin, the devil is in the implementation. Errors do occur. Such errors, however, do not necessarily mean that the intended objective or principle was erroneous. The loss of America might well have more to do with efficient than final causes. And since George III was otherwise successful in transitioning the Kingdom, it would be erroneous to repudiate his liberal vision merely to identify the particular errors that affected America. In fact, it may even be considered worth the price of America to get things right in England.

The semi-quincentennial of the Declaration of Independence in the United States revives reflection about what actually happened during the Revolution. The Declaration, as is well known, identifies the tyranny of King George III as triggering the rebellion. These new disclosures cast severe doubt on that argument. The 250th commemoration in 2026 might well declare the Declaration ‘fake news’ at least with respect to that central charge.

This revisionist perspective emerges from the fairly recent opening to public view of the archives of George III. It turns out that seventeen‐year‐old Geroge Hanover, Prince of Wales, was no intellectual slouch and not innocent of broad visions of constitutional reform. It has long been known that he reigned as a ‘constitutional monarch’, but it has been seldom noticed exactly what that means and why it may most significantly be said that he founded constitutional monarchy in the United Kingdom. Prior to his time and despite the earlier political settlements dating from 1689 and Acts of Union, the monarch was not properly a constitutional monarch (albeit limited by the concession of parliamentary control of revenue).

King George III ascended the throne in 1762, and in the ensuing decade churned through six prime ministers. He gained the crown as the country was at war with France – a war he terminated in the Paris Peace Treaty of 1763. And this is the context in which we can see unfold the influence of his administration both on constitutional monarchy and the looming revolution in British North America.

To understand those developments, however, one must turn back to 1755, when the 17‐year-old George, Prince of Wales, included in his studies the Enlightenment philosophy of Charles de Secondat, Baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu, in his careful and painstaking study of The Spirit of the Laws, from which he confirmed several principles that lay at the heart of modern politics. To wit:

  • Rejection of the divine right of kings
  • Recognition of natural basis of society in the family
  • Recognition that the people are ultimate sovereign in the society
  • Determining that government is primarily representative
  • Accepting that the rule of law is the fundamental basis of the political architecture of a decent society
  • Recognition of the centrality of the liberty of the citizen and its connection with the political liberty of constitutionalism
  • Rejection of slavery as unjust

George’s vision flowed from the realization that while society was natural (and not an artifact of contractual agreement among wandering savages), the political coherence of society could only ensue from an explicit architectural vision of political coherence or unity that could serve to sustain the peace and prosperity of the society. That vision is so near the vision that animated the eventual Constitution of the United States, it could happen in 2026 that Americans will learn to sing, ‘Long Live the Memory of George II!’