The father of our country?

Several decades after the American Revolution, George had come to be known to many of his countrymen as “pater patriae,” or “the father of his country.”

No, not that George!

I am speaking, instead, of George III, the king who had once held the loyalty of Britain’s North American colonists but who lost their allegiance when they chose independence in 1776. Americans are accustomed to seeing George III as the villain of the day—tyrannical and cold-hearted, not like liberty-loving George Washington, the father of our country. But do we need to think again?

A black plaster bust of George III depicts the king with an engaged expression, complete with open eyes and an open mouth. The bust’s base is inscribed with the latin phrase “pater patriae,” loosely translated as “Father of the Country.”

Some background

It is tempting to imagine monarchy as a well-established and stable system, but that wasn’t the case with the English monarchy in the early modern era. During the 1600s the English executed one king (Charles I) and overthrew another (James II) before they finally found reliably Protestant rulers in William and Mary in 1689. King William III and Queen Mary II agreed to abide by limits established by custom and by Parliamentary laws; they renounced the “absolutist” power that the English associated with the Catholic monarchs of France and Spain. That renunciation made them and their successors acceptable, but not necessarily beloved. A few decades later, when King George I came to power from Hanover in Germany, his new subjects did not greet him with particular affection.

The three Georges

Three different Georges ruled England from 1714 to 1820, and during that very long reign attitudes toward the monarchy changed substantially. We see that change partly in the growing number of public celebrations that revolved around the royal family—festivals on coronation days, observations of royal birthdays and marriages, expressions of thanks for healthy births or sorrow for royal deaths. Modest under George I, such events became both more common and more lavish under his successors. Equally important, celebration of the monarchy engaged more people outside of England, as Wales and Scotland became more integrated into the kingdom. Many people gradually developed a new identity as “Britons.” The monarchy provided a focus for that identity. The kings’ diminished stature vis-à-vis Parliament made it possible for Britons of different sorts to admire and celebrate them as paternal, unifying figures.

In America

Interest in and affection toward the monarchy was also evident in the North American colonies. The colonies were even more thoroughly Protestant than England, and some colonists fought on the king’s behalf in conflicts with the Catholic French and their indigenous allies in North America. Worshippers at growing numbers of Anglican churches prayed for the health of “his sacred majesty,” and tavern-goers toasted the king’s success. Shortly after his coronation in 1760, engravings of George III became available for colonial purchasers to display in their households, along with ceramic pitchers and plates decorated with the king’s arms. Those who were not affluent enough for such purchases might take part in public celebrations, dinners, and drinking parties. Historian Brendan McConville writes, “As they embraced a Protestant, British identity and the Protestant succession, provincial Americans shifted their perception of the monarch from a dreaded ruler to an object of affection who would arbitrate all imperial relationships.”

King George III is depicted in the print being thrown off his horse. In his right hand, he holds a whip terminating in multiple strings, all bearing a different weapon. A French soldier can be seen in the background holding a flag. The text at bottom of the print reads: The Horse America, throwing his Master…Published as the Act directs, August 1st, 1779 by Wm. White, Angel Court, Westminster.

The problem with George

Of course, George III lost the affection of the colonists. Ironically, he did so in part because he behaved as non-absolutist kings were supposed to behave—by supporting the sovereignty of Parliament. Since the colonists did not recognize Parliament’s authority over them, they directed their case for independence directly against the authority they did recognize. So the Declaration of Independence cast George III as the villain of the piece, indicting him for crimes of omission and commission. For many, the breaking point had come in 1775, when the king declared the colonies to be “in rebellion” and sent British and Hessian troops across the Atlantic to combat them. Patriot Americans concluded that George was despotic and heartless, simply not the father of his American subjects, who went their separate way.

An 1800s print of the Declaration of Independence that precisely recreates the original document, including its signatures.

Father of his country

While losing the American colonies did not make George III popular at home, many Britons responded to the American war by rallying to defend their system and extol their constitutional monarchy. Events of the 1790s encouraged these sentiments. Britons saw France erupt into revolution, regicide, and social and political turmoil. Some were inspired by these events, but more conservative Britons found them frightening. They cheered as British forces took on French armies under the revolutionary governments and the emperor Napoleon. By 1810, the 50th anniversary of George III’s coronation, many Britons were grateful for the constitutional stability that their nation had enjoyed. The king was not personally responsible for all that stability—he himself suffered from recurrent bouts of mental illness and yielded power to a prince regent once and for all in 1810. Despite that, many people found in George III a symbol of a certain idea of British-ness and an ideal of a patriot leader. He was seen as a modest man, fond of family and of farming, and able to rise above the partisan rivalries that caused conflict in the government. Historian Linda Colley describes the resulting celebration of the king as the “apotheosis” of George III—his elevation to a status of widely beloved, if not strictly divine.

Collage of two images. The left image is the white creamware pitcher, which is decorated with printed images on various sides. The right image is a detailed shot of one of those transfer prints. It shows George Washington, seated on a cloud and clad in robes, ascending into heaven with the help of angels while various figures look on. A small plaque at the bottom of the scene reads: Sacred to the Memory of Washington.

George and George

Interestingly, Americans valued many of the same qualities in George Washington, who was widely given the same title of “father of his country” after his death in 1799. Does this tell us anything important?

For all the differences between an elected four-year presidency and a hereditary lifetime monarchy, there seem to have been common expectations for those who filled these positions in these years. We see a common notion of a patriot leader, one who was modest and honest in his personal and domestic life, even if sometimes at the center of impressive civic ceremony. This ideal leader rose above personal gain and mere petty partisanship. He united the nation by pursuing the common good, the welfare of the entire nation rather than a particular part. While neither George may have lived up to that ideal as fully as some of their most romantic biographers would claim, both Georges took that ideal seriously and shaped their own lives and the lives of their nations by taking the ideal to heart.

A 1700s bust of George Washington depicts a red-cheeked Washington, unsmiling, clad in a brown jacket with yellow flourishes.

The two Georges’ political descendants have fared very differently in the court of public opinion. As the English royalty have ceded political power, the monarchy has become increasingly symbolic and nonpartisan, significant to British identity and unity perhaps, but less significant to policy making. By contrast, unforeseen by founders of the nation, presidents soon became leaders of their political parties, avowedly partisan to one set of interests. Yet Americans also expect their president to fill the ceremonial role as chief of state, which requires a president to act as representative of the nation as a whole. Fulfilling these contrasting expectations remains a challenge to every holder of the office. The question remains: do Americans today want or need a unifying parental figure to lead us? And how important is such a figure to our sense that we are a single people, sharing a common “country” with one another?

Barbara Clark Smith is a co-curator of the exhibition American Democracy: A Great Leap of Faith and a curator in the Division of Political History at the National Museum of American History.