Mr. D’s History Bookshelf # 6: Can’t You Make Them Behave, King George?

A persistent problem in history instruction is the demonization of the “losers” of history.

The British were bloodthirsty savages bent on wanton destruction.

The Germans were bloodthirsty savages bent on wanton destruction.

The 1974-1976 Philadelphia Flyers were bloodthirsty savages bent on wanton destruction. (That last one may be true.)

It’s a common trap for educators.  Because of our emphasis on literacy, especially elements of fiction, we tend to view historical events through the prism of the fiction story: plot, setting, protagonists and especially antagonists.  Kids might not grasp the nuance of British soldiers assisting native tribes from encroachment by American colonists.  They do get, however, a pack of British redcoats unloading their muskets on a group of 70 minutemen “peaceably” gathering on Lexington common. 

Good guys and bad guys make a natural narrative that’s clear, convenient and memorable.  It also makes for bad history.

This has been especially true of the American Revolution, one of my favorite subjects.  I’ll be studying the revolution at UCLA at a Gilder Lehrman Summer Seminar in July, and the old “bad British” mentality does not fly in academia.  Scholars of late have attempted to rectify the prevailing narrative with research on the Iroquois campaigns of 1778-1779, the gruesome guerrilla wars between Patriot and Tory gangs in the Carolinas, and the fate of Loyalists after the war was over.

In classrooms, we are slowly coming into contact with such material.  For example, George Vs. George attempts to give a balanced account of the revolution from the two most famous “Georges”, George Washington and King George III. 

Yet my favorite of these works is an old warhorse by Jean Fritz, a master of historical narrative for children.  Can’t You Make Them Behave, King George? is an entertaining, balanced account of the trials of the British monarch from boyhood through the end of the revolution.

As in other books about Franklin, Columbus, Sam Adams, etc., Fritz uses historical facts and the events of the period to provide a very human, and surprising linear, portrait of complicated people.  George III is shown as an awkward, troublesome boy who accidentally ends up heir to the British throne.  Once in power, George endeavors to be a good king: in manners, in style, in government, and especially with his rambunctious subjects in America.

The conflict in the colonies is shown as a distant affair, a master stroke by Fritz to add realism.  Remember that the revolution was occurring 3,000 miles across the ocean.  Unless your family had someone in the army serving in America, most British subjects had the revolution in the distant background.  Fritz shows how George fit the American war in the context of his numerous duties: very important, yet not always at the forefront of his mind.  

Although a disservice to true aficionados of the period, George’s “madness” is rarely mentioned.  The audience of Fritz’ work would probably not understand George’s porphyria, his well-documented mental illness.  Thus, George is shown becoming more eccentric as the revolution progresses, when in reality those nervous tics were always part of his persona.

Older students should definitely couple this book with Alan Bennett’s play The Madness of George III, as well as its excellent screen adaptation, The Madness of King George.

Finally, the book debunks the myth created by our Founding Fathers that George III was a hardhearted monster.  On the contrary, George was in fact an incredibly involved monarch who was careful to look after the needs of his people.  Yet for any government, let alone a king, ruling a vast overseas empire is incredibly hard work, and involves leaving decisions to subordinates that may not be in the best interests of everyone.  And boy, did George have some doozies of subalterns: Lord North, Charles Townshend, Lord Grenville, William Pitt the Elder (and Younger), Lord Rockingham, Lord Bute, Charles Edward Fox, and so on.

Fritz goes a long way in showing just how difficult it is to lead the British Empire. Challenge your students to see what they would do if they were in King George’s shoes.  You may be surprised at the answers.

As for me, I’ll cut George III some slack. 

Bobby Clarke, on the other hand, has a special place in hell reserved for him.

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