Understanding the American Revolution using George III’s archives
Professor Andrew O’Shaughnessy was the first Sons of the American Revolution (SAR) Visiting Professor in 2016. The generous support from the Sons of the American Revolution (SAR) enables visiting professors to bring new perspectives to the study of texts uncovered by the Georgian Papers Programme (GPP). Here Professor O’Shaughnessy reflects on the highlights of his research during his professorship.
The objective of my research project was twofold. Firstly, it aimed to explain the significance of the archives of George III and the Georgian Programme for our understanding of the American Revolution. Secondly, it examined the personal role of George III in the formulation of strategy in the Revolutionary War.
Why are George III’s archives significant for understanding the American Revolution?
The papers of George III are fundamental to interpreting the British side of the American Revolution. The King was a critical figure because he enjoyed considerable power under the constitutional system of the 18th century. The monarch was still actively involved in politics, selecting both the Prime Minister and members of the Cabinet. The King also had much influence over the independent country gentry who made up the majority of members of the House of Commons. This was augmented by the patronage of individuals known as placemen and direct control of some constituencies.
The correspondence of George III was edited and published in 1927-28 as a series of six volumes covering the period of the American Revolution by Sir John Fortescue, who was the royal librarian at Windsor Castle. His later papers were edited and published in five volumes by A Aspinall between 1963 and 1971. The majority of historians therefore did not use the original archive because of the availability of the published letters and the difficulty of obtaining permission to obtain access to the papers at Windsor Castle.
However, the archive is important for historians since it contains a significant volume of information that has not been published. Furthermore, it is always necessary to consult original documents since they may reveal much more with alterations and deletions. It is also possible to identify documents in which George III meticulously listed military information, including details of the French fleet. There were additionally several categories of unpublished papers, important for our knowledge of the American Revolution.
Highlights from the archives
(a) Letters not included in the papers published by Sir John Fortescue:
Fortescue omitted some letters that are in the archive but not in the published volumes. Andrew Beaumont at Hertford College, Oxford, has been examining the correspondence of George III to Lord North for a biography of Lord North. He has certainly found that some of these letters were not included in the printed correspondence. My own investigation was for the correspondence of the actual war years in which the military intelligence and reports of spies were for some reason not included in the published papers by Fortescue. These included the letters of Aristarchus, who reported directly to George III. It may indeed have been the pen name of more than one individual while his reports were clearly based on many sources, especially in Britain and France. There is a book of reports from Brest in France about the activities of the French navy in the late 1770s – ‘George III Secret Intelligence 1779-1782’, which is handwritten and contained in Box 4121-4448. The naval intelligence ultimately failed the British in the months prior to Yorktown. This period is covered in the reports.
There is additionally a memoir by William Knox – former agent to the colony of Georgia and deputy secretary of state for America under Lord George Germain – entitled ‘Anecdotes and Characters of the late Administration 1782’. It is a wonderful source on the personalities of Lord North’s government and the debacle at the Battle of Saratoga.
(b) The letters of Admiral Sir Samuel Hood:
Admiral Sir Samuel Hood was second in command at arguably the most important naval battle of the 18th century, which is known as the Battle of the Chesapeake Capes off Virginia. It was lost by the British and proved decisive in the fate of Lord Cornwallis in Yorktown. Hood wrote regularly to one of the King’s courtiers and officeholders, General J Budé. These documents are unique and have not been examined by the various biographers of Hood. They are not part of those of his papers published by the Naval Records Society. They include important accounts of naval affairs and of the Battle of the Chesapeake Capes.
(c) The correspondence of William, Duke of Clarence:
Prince William was the third son of George III, who assigned him to the navy at the age of 13 in 1778. He was witness to several major naval engagements, and later served under Admiral Sir Samuel Hood. His correspondence includes accounts of British-occupied New York, naval battles and the war in the Caribbean.
(d) George III private papers (undated):
There are miscellaneous volumes of letters that were not included in the papers published by Fortescue. These included personal matters relating to his family, but also include his drafts requesting German mercenaries to the various princes in Brunswick, the Landsgrave of Hesse and Hesse Cassel. There is also correspondence with the admirals, often relating to Prince William.
(e) Maps, engravings and plans:
The maps are not formally part of the digital project of the Georgian Programme, however it was possible to consult them while working at Windsor Castle. They are not for the most part known to historians even though copies have long been available on microfilm at the Library of Congress. They include plans of battles, including one for the Battle of Bunker Hill and the siege of Charleston and are only just in the process of being indexed. They represent possibly the richest trove of unpolished materials for military historians.
What was George III’s role in the strategy of the American Revolution?
My second objective was to attempt to evaluate the role of George III in the strategy of the Revolutionary War. It was apparent to me that some of his language was repeated by Lord George Germain, the Minister most responsible for the war in America. He certainly had a role in the continuance of the war by refusing to countenance the appointment of a ministry committed to peace with America. Indeed, he became a driving force of the war in 1778 in the absence of leadership by Lord North. He threatened even to abdicate rather than permit a government that would not continue the war. He personally wrote to and negotiated the contracts for mercenaries with the princes of various states in Germany.
The research project hoped to find additional correspondence with those members of the government most responsible for the war. The outcome was indecisive. There were no letters that had not been published to Germain and the Earl of Sandwich. However, it is very likely that they were regularly meeting in person with the King, but unfortunately we do not have a source that lists his meetings. It was significant, though, that he copied, in his own hand, many of the military documents that he consulted, including lists of the ships in the respective fleets and the logistics of the British army in Boston in 1775.
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