Story of England - S. B. Harding

George III. and the American Revolution


Dates of George III.'s reign; his character; why Pitt resigned; the party of the "King's friends"; purpose of George III.

The case of John Wilkes; action of Parliament against him; outcome of the struggle; why the people sympathized with Wilkes; Edmund Burke attacks the corrupt influence of the Crown.

Condition of England's colonies in America; why England passed the Stamp Act; its repeal; the "Boston Massacre"; the "Boston Tea-Party"; War of the American Revolution begins.

Attitude of the English people towards the war; Fox and Pitt oppose the war; independence declared; course of the war; France aids the colonies; death of Pitt; Cornwallis surrenders; terms of the peace of 1783; what England learned from the War.

George III. came to the throne in 1760, and reigned until 1820. His reign covered a period of sixty years, which is longer than any other English sovereign has ruled, except Queen Victoria. It was a very important reign because in it occurred many great changes.

[Illustration] from The Story of England by S. B. Harding

George III

Unlike George I. and George II., who were more German than English, George III. took deep interest in British affairs. In his first speech to Parliament, he said:

"Born and educated in this country, I glory in the name of Briton."

Unfortunately, his mother and his teachers had filled his mind with the idea that he must really rule as well as reign—that is, that he must impose his own will upon the government, rather than be guided by the heads of the great Whig families who ruled Parliament. If he had been a strong and wise man, this might have been an improvement. But although he was a good man, he was rather dull, and stupid, and very obstinate; and during the latter part of his reign he was insane most of the time. The result was that, as a great historian of England says: "He inflicted more profound and enduring injuries upon his country than any modern English King. He spent a long life in obstinately resisting measures which are now almost universally admitted to have been good, and in supporting measures which are as universally admitted to have been bad."

When Pitt, who had won such victories for England against France, found that his advice was no longer followed, he resigned his office, saying:

"I will not be responsible for measures which I am no longer allowed to guide."

The Tories, who before had longed for a King of the Stuart line, gave their support to George III. The King also built up, in the House of Commons, a party of "the King's friends," upon whom they could rely. To those who promised to support him, and to their friends, he gave rich offices; Some members were bought by giving them profitable contracts for government supplies. Others were bribed outright, with gifts and money. In the elections to the House of Commons the King used all his influence, to see that persons who would support his measures were elected.

All this was according to the evil practice of that time; but it was a new thing for the King  to build up support by this means. It enabled him to get a party in the House of Commons which was numerous enough to make its support necessary to any ministry. When it suited the King's pleasure, his "friends" in the Commons voted against his own ministers, so that he became their master in fact as well as in name. George III. was like Charles I., in his desire to rule according to his own will. Unlike Charles, however, he did not attempt to override Parliament, but controlled it by corrupting its members.

One of King George's great mistakes was in urging his ministers to prosecute a Whig member of Parliament named John Wilkes. In No. 45 of a magazine which he published, Wilkes had declared that a passage about the peace with France, in the King's speech to Parliament was false. Everyone knew that it was the practice for the ministers to write the speeches made by the King, but George III. took Wilkes's statement was an attack upon himself. Wilkes was accordingly arrested, but in such a way that the court released him, on the ground that the arrest was illegal.

At the next session of Parliament, the House of Commons expelled Wilkes, and caused a copy of No. 45 of his magazine to be burned by the hangman. Wilkes now fled from England, and for four years lived in France. When the next elections to Parliament took place he returned, and was elected from Middlesex, the county in which London is situated. The people showed that they were on his side by chalking the figures "45" everywhere—on street doors, on carriages, and even on the boot soles of the Austrian ambassador, whom they dragged from his carriage for that purpose. Benjamin Franklin, who was then in England, said that there was scarcely a house within fifteen miles of London that did not have this number marked upon it.

Still, Wilkes was not allowed to take his seat in Parliament. The House of Commons again expelled him; and when he was again elected they declared that he should never be capable of sitting in that body. However, in the end, Wilkes was victorious. Some years later he was permitted to take his seat; and then, nearly twenty years after the struggle first began, the House of Commons erased from its journals all the votes which it had passed against him. It was not because of his character that Wilkes triumphed, for he was a man of bad character. It was because he opposed the arbitrary acts of George III.'s government, and because he stood for personal liberty and the freedom of the press.

These were not the only complaints that the people had against the government. Meetings were held to protest against the corrupt means by which the King secured support in Parliament. In 1780, a great Whig orator, named Edmund Burke, introduced a bill to abolish a large number of useless offices, and to reduce the amount of money which the King's government might spend without giving an account of it. His object was to make it less easy for the King to corrupt Parliament. The bill was not passed, at this time. But the discussion of it resulted in the passage of a resolution, in the House of Commons, which declared that—

"The influence of the Crown has increased, is increasing, and ought to be diminished."

Two years later, another reform bill, based on the same principles as that which Burke had introduced, passed the House of Commons, and became law.

In spite of "the King's friends" George III. had lost a great share of that arbitrary power which he had built up so carefully. In part, this was due to his action against Wilkes; but it was due in a still larger part to the unwise measures by which, meanwhile, he lost the Thirteen American Colonies.

The Seven Years' War had freed the American colonies from their French enemies, and given them a great western country into which their settlements could spread. It had also given them a knowledge of their own strength, and loosened the ties which bound them to the mother country. With the danger of French attack removed, they had no further need of British protection. The French Minister saw this, and, soon after the close of the war, he said:

"England will, one day, call upon her colonies to contribute towards supporting the burdens which they have helped to bring upon her; and they will answer by making themselves independent.

The colonies had mines of iron and coal, forests, navigable rivers, and excellent harbors, and were fitted by nature not only for agriculture, but also for manufactures and commerce. Many people, therefore, engaged in the building of ships and in trade. England's treatment of its colonies was very much better than that which any other country gave to its colonies at this time, and even such laws as did limit their commerce were, for a long time, allowed to remain unenforced. Thus the colonies flourished, and grew strong.

But, after the war with France, the ministers adopted a new policy. They determined to enforce the old trade laws, which were intended mainly for the benefit of the British merchants, and not for the benefit of the colonists. They also proposed to leave some troops permanently in America for the defence of the colonies and called upon Parliament to tax the colonies to support the troops, and to help pay the cost of government there.

Parliament accordingly passed a Stamp Act for the colonies, like that still in force in Great Britain. This provided that every legal paper written in the colonies should be on stamped paper, to be bought from the government; and that every newspaper must be printed on stamped paper. At best, this act would not have raised much revenue; and, as it was, the people in the colonies made a great outcry against it. They refused to use the stamped paper; they held meetings to protest against it; and they sent representative to a "Stamp Act congress," at New York, which declared that "taxation without representation is tyranny."

Many of the leading Whigs in England also opposed the Stamp Act. When the colonists refused to allow the stamped paper to be sold, Pitt said:

"I rejoice that America has resisted."

The next year there was a change in the ministry, and the Stamp Act was repealed. But, at the same time, Parliament declared that it had power to make laws for the colonies "in all cases whatsoever." Pitt and Burke opposed this declaration, not because they believed that Parliament did not have such power, but because they thought that this declaration would only anger the colonists.

Soon after this, Parliament passed another law, which laid tariff duties on several kinds of goods, including tea, when brought into the colonies. The colonists resisted this law also, and formed associations which pledged themselves not to use any goods on which the tax had been paid. Little by little the trouble grew, until some British troops in Boston, who were attacked by a mob, fired upon the crowd and killed several persons. This was the famous "Boston massacre,"—the first blood shed in the quarrel.

In 1773 a special effort was made to collect the tax on the tea, and several shiploads were sent over, at a cheap price, to tempt the colonists to buy. Almost everywhere, they refused to take the tea. At Boston, there occurred the famous "Boston Tea-Party," when a number of men, disguised as Indians, boarded the tea-ships and threw the tea into the harbor. Of this, the American poet, Oliver Wendell Holmes, humorously wrote:

"No! ne'er was mingled such a draught

In palace, hall, or arbor,

As freemen brewed and tyrants quaffed

That night in Boston harbor!

.   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .

"Fast spread the tempest's darkening pall,

The mighty realms were troubled,

The storm broke loose—but first of all

The Boston tea-pot bubbled!"

To punish Boston, its port was closed—that is, ships were forbidden to land goods there, and its trade was stopped. The Massachusetts charter was taken away, and a military governor was placed over the colony.

These acts not only angered Boston, but aroused the other colonies. In 1774, they came together, at Philadelphia, in the First Continental Congress, to form a united resistance.

War broke out between the mother country and the rebellious colonies next year, when a small body of British troops was sent from Boston to capture some ammunition which the colonists had collected at Concord. At Lexington they were met by American "minute men," and several of the Americans were killed. The troops kept on to Concord, and destroyed the ammunition. But a larger body of minute men quickly gathered, and there, at Concord bridge, as the poet Emerson says:

"The embattled farmers stood

And fired the shot heard 'round the world."

On the return, the minute men lined the stone walls along the road, from behind which they fired upon the wearied troops. Next day, the whole country rose. Boston was besieged; men flocked in from the neighboring colonies; and soon George Washington was sent by the Continental Congress as commander-in-chief of the American forces. The war of the American Revolution had at last begun.

The people of Great Britain generally supported their government in its policy. Edward Gibbon, a great historian and member of Parliament, wrote before the war broke out:

"I am more and more convinced that we have both the right and the power on our side. We are now arrived at the decisive moment of persevering, or of losing forever both our trade and empire."

After the fighting had begun, he wrote: "I have not the courage to write about America. The boldest tremble, and the most vigorous talk of peace. And yet not more than sixty-five rank and file have been killed." And again: "The conquest of America is a great work; every part of the continent is either lost or useless."

On the other hand, Charles James Fox, who was now one of the great leaders of the Whig party, never lost an opportunity of showing his sympathy for the American cause, and rejoicing at its victories. He and his little band of followers adopted as their colors those which Washington made the uniform of the Continental army—buff and blue.

When the British government hired Hessian soldiers for America, the great Pitt said:

"You cannot conquer America. If I were an American, while a foreign troop was landed in my country, I never would lay down my arms—never, never, never!"

At first, the American colonists fought only for relief from oppressive laws and had no intention of seeking independence. But gradually their ideas grew larger, and on July 4, 1776, the Continental Congress adopted a Declaration of Independence. After giving the reasons for their separation, this document declared that—

"These united colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states."

It was a hard struggle upon which the colonists had embarked. They drove the British from Boston, but were themselves driven out of New York City. Then the British captured Philadelphia, and made ready to separate New England from the other colonies by sending an army under General Burgoyne up the Hudson, to meet one which was to come down from Canada. Fortunately for the American cause, this attempt failed, and Burgoyne was obliged to surrender his 7,000 men at Saratoga, in October, 1777.

This was a great victory for the Americans. Nevertheless, their army spent the next winter at Valley Forge, in Pennsylvania, amid terrible hardships. General Washington, who never spoke carelessly, said that many of his men were "without clothes to cover their nakedness, without blankets to lie on, without shoes, for the want of which their marches might be traced by the blood from their feet." Unless help came from abroad, the colonies would surely be conquered.

But help did come. The French had long been watching for an opportunity to take revenge upon their old enemy, England. They had secretly helped the Americans, before this, by sending them money and supplies, and by letting French officers, like Lafayette, come over to assist them. The victory over Burgoyne now encouraged the French government to come out openly, in aid of the colonists; and, in 1778, a treaty was made, by which France recognized the independence of the United States, and agreed to renew her war with Great Britain. More money and supplies were sent to the Americans, and French soldiers and French fleets came to their assistance. The next year Spain also made war upon Great Britain; and two years after that, Holland did likewise.

In England, the news of Burgoyne's surrender was for a time helpful to the government. Instead of discouraging the people, it made them more determined than ever to subdue the colonies. But the news of the alliance between France and the colonies caused a change. Pitt proposed that the soldiers should be called back from America, that the colonies should be allowed to have their way in everything except out-and-out independence, and that the two parts of the Empire should then unite in a common war against France.

Many people at this time demanded that Pitt should be restored to power. But he was now an old man, suffering from a painful disease. One day (in 1778) he had himself carried to the House of Lords, of which he was now a member as Earl of Chatham; and he spoke passionately against a motion to grant independence of America. He was opposed, he said, to "the dismemberment of this ancient and noble monarchy." The effort was too much for him, and he fell senseless to the floor. He was carried to his home, and four weeks later he died. Perhaps it was well that he did not live to see the dismemberment of the great empire which his genius had contributed so much to build.

In 1780, the British changed the seat of war and attacked the southern colonies. After much fighting, Lord Cornwallis, who was at the head of their army marched north into Virginia, and took up a position at Yorktown, on Chesapeake Bay. Here he was surrounded by a French and American land force, under Washington. A French fleet succeeded in beating off the British fleet, and Cornwallis was forced to surrender (October, 1781). This was the second great disaster which the British experienced in this war.

It was, indeed, the real end of the war, so far as America was concerned. For a time, fighting continued between the British fleets and those of France, Holland, and Spain. But, in 1783, a peace was made, at Paris, between all parties. England gave up some territory to France—an island in the West Indies, and some African coast lands; while to Spain she surrendered Florida. Most important of all, she acknowledged the independence of the United States. The boundaries of the new nation were to be Canada and the Great Lakes on the north, the Mississippi river on the west, and Florida on the south.

At the beginning of the war, Great Britain possessed, in America, not only what her own colonists had founded, but also what she had taken from France, and from Spain, in 1763. Now, she was left with Canada alone—a vast and important domain, but cold and inhospitable.

The loss of the American colonies seemed, at the time, a great calamity. But the British Empire has become greater and more powerful, since the separation, than it ever was before; and in America there has developed a great nation, of kindred speech and institutions.

England learned many lessons from this war. One of these was how to rule colonies without oppressing them, and so to keep them a source of strength. Another and greater lesson was this; that the government must obey the will of the people, and not that of the King. The war not only brought independence to the American colonies; it formed an important step, also, in the process by which greater political liberty was gained by the people of Great Britain.


  1. Compare George III. with George I. and George II.; in what ways were the latter better Kings than the former?
  2. Find out what you can about Edmund Burke; about Charles James Fox.
  3. Make a list of the causes of the American Revolution.
  4. Were Fox and Pitt patriotic when they sympathized with the Americans? How can you justify their course?
  5. Make a list of the territories that England gained and those that she lost between 1689 and 1783.