On this day in 1776, George III addressed Parliament and gave his first public comments on the Declaration of Independence. In some ways, the delay was understandable. It took two months for news to travel across the Atlantic under the best of circumstances and the monarch was known for his measured approach to public speaking. However, the king was not amused, making harsh comments about the revolution that he always saw as a rebellion. The History Channel sums up his comments concisely:
In the address, the king spoke about the signing of the U.S. Declaration of Independence and the revolutionary leaders who signed it, saying, “for daring and desperate is the spirit of those leaders, whose object has always been dominion and power, that they have now openly renounced all allegiance to the crown, and all political connection with this country.” The king went on to inform Parliament of the successful British victory over General George Washington and the Continental Army at the Battle of Long Island on August 27, 1776, but warned them that, “notwithstanding the fair prospect, it was necessary to prepare for another campaign.”
George III is one of the most complicated and misunderstood characters in the story of the American Revolution. For many contemporary readers of the Declaration, the lengthy list of charges leveled against George III is a perplexing catalog of indictments whose meaning (at least for most of the grievances) seems lost in obscurity. “Today most Americans, including professional historians, would be hard put to identify exactly what prompted many of the accusations Jefferson hurled against the King,” wrote Pauline Maier in her book American Scripture. Historians from past generations had a similar response. “When the Declaration is read now days at Fourth of July celebrations the audience listens with much attention to the opening paragraphs,” wrote then-noted scholar Sydney George Fisher in a 1907 article called The 28 Charges Against the King in the Declaration of Independence. “But when the 28 charges against the King are reached the audience listens only out of politeness or patriotic duty. The charges seem very dull and tiresome and mean nothing much to the modern mind except that one carries away a general impression that the King must have been a horrible monster of tyranny and cruelty against an innocent child-like and loving people.”
The list of grievances rolls over the reputation and character of George III like Doomsday, accusing him of old harms (“for imposing Taxes on us without our Consent,” i.e., “No taxation without representation,” the rallying cry of the Stamp Act Crisis of 1765) and new terrors (his decision to send Hessian mercenaries to fight Americans is called “totally unworthy of the head of a civilized nation,” no doubt because of the German soldiers’ reputation for rape and plunder). The tone of this résumé of woe is astounding. The king, once the object of paternal respect and the loyal toast, had been a popular monarch in America. Any of the love, affection, and respect George III once enjoyed from his American subjects are ashes in the fires of revolution.
George III’s comments did little to assuage those harsh feelings. Even as efforts on both sides of the Atlantic attempted negotiation during the war, the king evinced stubborn refusal to consider any settlement that would grant independence to the American colonists. He was determined not to reign during the dissolution of the British Empire. His comments to Parliament are a confirmation of the great breach that occurred whether he wanted it or not.
However, the rejection of George III in the Declaration is more than long-winded rhetorical flourish: It is the rejection of the last link of loyalty between America and a once-beloved empire. This calculated annihilation of the royal mystique that had prompted Congress to continue seeking reconciliation with the sovereign for months after shots had been fired and a war fought in earnest is jaw-dropping in its goals, implications, and results. Americans, Britons, and the rest of the world observing the Revolution would not have missed the gravity of the accusations and how they were framed – or simply that they were enumerated in print, a decision that could only be considered blatant treason.
In colonial America, it had been the custom to celebrate the king’s birthday with all the pomp and pride of subjects who loved their monarch. The fireworks, processions, sermons, and proclamations would usually end with Americans-who-were-also-Britons offering the words, “God Save the King,” often as part of a toast during the celebrations. Once the Declaration of Independence was circulated throughout the American states, there was a different toast in honor of the document: “George rejected and liberty protected.” He had been their father figure, friend, protector from unbridled power, successor to the royal line that granted the colonies their charters, and guardian against foreign enemies. In the Declaration, he is a figure of tyranny, even evil, cast as an adversary in harsh tones like those used in Common Sense. The birthday of an irrelevant king was replaced with the birthday of a nation. No other section of the Declaration contains so much poignancy when closely examined; no other section did more to convince Americans “’TIS TIME TO PART.”