Role of King George III During The American Revolution

George III (June 4, 1738 – January 29, 1820) was the King of Great Britain from October 25, 1760 till his death in 1820. His reign saw a number of important events including the American Revolution, which lasted from 1765 to 1783. To recover costs of the French and Indian War in North America, King George decided to tax the 13 British colonies in the continent. This became a major point of contention between Great Britain and the colonists. The colonists protested to the taxes, not because they were high, but due to the fact that they were being taxed by a British Parliament to which they elected no representatives. King George and the British Parliament refused to give up their right to tax the colonies and this in turn made conflict unavoidable. In the American Revolutionary War that followed, George III refused to give in to pressure and continued the war at all costs. However, the surrender of the army of Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown in late 1781 ended all hopes of a British victory and the Parliament forced King George III to recognize defeat in 1782. Here is a summary of the role of King George III in the American Revolution.

Seven Years War

In 1760, at the age of 22, George III ascended the throne of Great Britain after his grandfather George II died suddenly. At the time of his ascension, the Seven Years War was going on between a coalition led by the Kingdom of Great Britain and a coalition led by the Kingdom of France. In America, the French and Indian War happened around the same time pitting the British colonies in America against New France, area colonized by France in America. Great Britain won the French and Indian War as well as the larger Seven Years’ War. However, this came at a huge cost. Moreover, Britain decided to place a standing army of 10,000 men in America to oversee its newly acquired territory from France.

King George III
Coronation portrait of King George III by Allan Ramsay

Stamp Act

George Grenville was George III’s prime minister at the time. He looked at the 13 British colonies in America as a source of revenue. He reasoned that since British troops were needed in North America to protect the Americans, they should pay for it. King George agreed with the reasoning and supported the passage of the Stamp Act in 1765, which for the first time imposed direct taxes on the colonies. The colonists protested to the taxes, not because they were high, but due to the fact that they were being taxed by a British Parliament to which they elected no representatives. This grievance of “no taxation without representation” was one of the focal points of dissent between the colonists and the Britishers. Due to widespread protest of the colonists, the Stamp Act was repealed on March 18, 1766 by King George III.

American Revolution taxation protests cartoon
Cartoon depicting protests against taxation in the colonies

Townshend Acts

Though the Stamp Act was repealed, the Townshend Acts were imposed in 1767. These put an indirect tax on various items, including glass, lead, paints, paper and tea, all of which had to be imported from Britain. The Townshend Acts proved equally unpopular and the colonists responded by boycotting all British goods that were subject to taxation and carrying out widespread protests. The British Parliament repealed most of the taxes from the Townshend Acts in March 1770 but the import duty on tea was retained. In the words of George III, it was “one tax to keep up the right [to levy taxes]”.

Charles Townshend
Charles Townshend – After whom the Townshend Acts are named

Boston Tea Party

On May 10, 1773, the Tea Act was enforced by the British Parliament to aid the financially struggling British East India Company. The Act allowed the Company to sell tea in American colonies without paying taxes except the import duty under the Townshend Acts. The colonists responded to this through the Boston Tea Party, an event in which a group of Americans boarded the East India Company ships and dumped all 342 chests of tea, worth £10,000, into the Boston Harbor. Prior to the Boston Tea Party, the primary responsibility of for the escalation of conflict between Britain and its American colonies laid with the British Parliament. In this period, George II acted as a constitutional monarch supporting the initiatives of his ministers.

Depiction of Boston Tea Party
Boston Tea Party – Iconic 1846 lithograph by Nathaniel Currier

Intolerable Acts

The Boston Tea Party convinced George III that the troubles in America were due to the leniency of British policies. He thus argued for strong measures to be taken against the colonists. He declared it his duty to stand fast against the Americans in “the battle of the legislature” and “withstand every attempt to weaken or impair” its sovereign authority throughout the empire. Accordingly, the British Parliament introduced measures, which were called the Intolerable Acts by the colonists. The first was Boston Port Act, which closed the port of Boston until the colonists paid for the destroyed tea. The second was the Massachusetts Government Act, which altered the Massachusetts charter bringing it under the control of the British government. The third was the Administration of Justice Act, which allowed royal officials to be tried back in Great Britain. The last and the most controversial Act was the Quartering Act which applied to all colonies. It allowed a governor to house soldiers in unoccupied houses and buildings in towns.

Olive Branch Petition

Instead of subduing the colonists, the Intolerable Acts united all the colonies against King George and the British Parliament. 56 delegates from 12 of the 13 colonies met from September 5 to October 26, 1774 at Carpenters’ Hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The First Continental Congress was thus formed. After much debate, it decided that the colonies would boycott all British goods beginning on December 1, 1774 unless the Intolerable Acts were repealed by the British parliament. The First Continental Congress also sent a petition to King George III outlining the grievances of the colonies to the King and asking for repeal of the Intolerable Acts. This became known as the “Olive Branch Petition” and it indicates that the colonies were still willing to reconcile with Britain. Despite repeated requests from Prime Minister Lord North, George III refused to receive the Olive Branch Petition. Instead, in February 1775, he declared Massachusetts to be in a state of rebellion.

Olive Branch Petition
Signature page of the Olive Branch Petition

Revolutionary War

American Revolutionary War began with the Battles of Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775; and on August 19, 1775, George III proclaimed that the colonies were in “open and avowed rebellion”. After losing Boston, the British did well in the war to capture New York; and then the American capital Philadelphia. However, the defeat at Saratoga was a major blow to the British cause. It gave France the confidence that America could win the war and resulted in the formal Franco-American alliance in 1778. The United States and France were soon joined by Spain and the Dutch Republic while Britain had no major allies of its own. Thus, by 1799, it was apparent to many British officials that the war was a lost cause.

Surrender of General Burgoyne by John Trumbull
Surrender of General Burgoyne – At the center John Burgoyne (in red) and Horatio Gates (in blue)

Peace of Paris

The primary role of George III during the Revolutionary War was prolonging it even when Lord North had lost all confidence that it could be won. The King saw victory over the American Colonies as vital to the survival of the British Empire. According to a prominent historian, war with America became a personal contest for George III which he refused to lose. However, the surrender of the army of Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown in late 1781 ended all hopes of a British victory and the Parliament forced King George III to recognize defeat in 1782. Post Yorktown, George III drafted an abdication notice, which was never delivered; he accepted defeat at the hands of the American colonies; and authorized peace negotiations. War in America was brought to an end with a set of treaties known as the Peace of Paris, which were signed in 1783 and 1784.

1783 Treaty of Paris
Signature Page of the 1783 Treaty of Paris


George III was blamed by earlier historians as being obstinate in keeping Great Britain at war. In the words of the British historian George Otto Trevelyan, the King was determined “never to acknowledge the independence of the Americans, and to punish their contumacy by the indefinite prolongation of a war which promised to be eternal.” However, later historians defended him by pointing out that no king of that time would willingly surrender such a large territory; and that George III was less ruthless than contemporary monarchs in Europe. George III officially reigned until his death in 1820. However, in later life, he experienced bouts of insanity and, from 1811 till his death, his eldest son George IV served as regent.

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