Beginning with George: Rick Atkinson’s The British Are Coming

By Karin Wulf and Arthur Burns

 

The Royal Visit to the Fleet, a series of 4 paintings by German artist Dominic Serres the Elder completed in 1775, captured King George III’s review at Portsmouth in June, 1773. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

 

Does the American Revolution begin with George III?  In Rick Atkinson’s new book, The British are Coming: The War for America, Lexington to Princeton, 1775-1777, the first volume in his planned trilogy on the military history of the Revolution, it does.  It begins, in fact, with the king’s review of his navy, at Portsmouth on a beautiful June day in 1773.  A powerful navy assembled confirmed the king’s sense of Britain’s ascendance. George III delighted in his navy, in the extraordinary warships such as the Barfleur, on board which he dined that June evening.  Yet just two years later things looked very different.  In June 1775 came the Battle of Bunker Hill and in July the American Continental Congress passed a Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms.  In June and most famously July of 1776, they would declare the independence of the United States of America. The paradox of British power and loss as much as the beginnings of the United States frame The British are Coming.  

Rick Atkinson was one of the first of the Omohundro Institute’s Georgian Papers Programme fellows; he arrived at the Royal Archives at Windsor, making his way up into the Round Tower, in the spring of 2016.  It’s a particular delight to see research supported by the Programme shared through lectures and conferences — and of course, publication.

As this major volume comes to publication, we wondered about the ways that the Georgian papers come into Rick’s narrative, and how their public release might influence its reading.  Rick cites multiple of the Georgian Papers archival materials in the Prologue focused on George III. Interestingly, almost all of what he cites is not yet publicly released, though it will be in the coming years.  The private papers and calendar of George III, which Rick quotes for letters between the king and his ministers, for example, are published online up to 1772, but not yet for those crucial years (for the Revolution) of the mid 1770s and beyond.   (To see what is currently online: https://gpp.rct.uk/What.aspx)

In reading Rick’s richly detailed opening pages we see the king rowed out to inspect a naval muster so theatrical in its scale and organization that David Garrick would later recreate it on the London stage.  The reader is immersed in detail and one might be tempted to carp at what might seem an unnecessary accumulation — even a clutter — of the minutiae of places, things and people that provide the setting for the author’s introduction of key themes for the book. But to dismiss such detail as ‘antiquarian’, the term often deployed in critiquing the scholarly habits of the Victorians with their love of grand narrative coming at the cost of analysis, would surely be a mistake.

Any reader who has engaged with the contemporary materials available for characterizing and interpreting the political and policy decisions of the British elite in the age of the American Revolution, such as those we are confronted by in the Georgian papers, will know how much their own understanding of those decisions often highlighted precisely such detail. Many of the new sources and approaches that historians now have at their disposal for understanding the operations of power in this period (and which also clearly inform Rick’s work) emphasize the clear significance in this regard of the material and visual worlds experienced by contemporaries.  In fact, for this reason a trilogy written long before Rick’s, but similarly on the grand scale, J. Heneage Jesse’s Memoirs of the Life and Reign of King George III, still remains a valuable point of reference. Jesse’s work, published as long ago as 1867, was based on research almost exclusively in aristocratic memoirs and correspondence, and abounds in intricate narrative accounts of royal encounters and opinions. It conveys an exceptionally vivid sense of how the political actors observed, understood and responded to the decisions and actions of their peers. It makes clear that both the king and his subjects on both sides of the Atlantic understood each others’ deeds against a backdrop of detailed personal histories both real and rumoured which provided a frame for interpreting intent and capacity, and these details restore some of that rich texture missing in more starkly analytical works. It should be remembered that many of the historians who penned studies of the latter type in the 1950s and 1960s, the heroic age of interpretation of the politics of George III’s reign, wrote for readers whom they could assume were already acquainted with volumes that supplied the narrative, pen portraits and illustrative anecdotes which they therefore felt free to dispense with. Rick’s prologue is as beautifully written as Jesse’s, but — unlike his Victorian precursor’s — informed by an opportunity to examine the Georgian papers.  We might see Rick’s excursion into the experiences that shaped George III’s understanding in exactly this context.

But there is another important point to the inclusion of this material. One of the most remarkable features of the Georgian papers as experienced by the researchers connected with the project is the way in which the correspondence which has so long informed the work of political historians jostles for attention with the much less explored boxes containing details of the material culture of court life, the provisioning and staffing of the royal household, and the logistics not only of the court, but of those many institutions in which the king himself took a detailed interest. As Rick notes, George was not a well-travelled monarch, but — as several of our researchers have already reported, including those with a particular interest in the American Revolution, such as Andrew O’Shaughnessy and Jim Ambuske — there is ample evidence in the form of notes, lists, tables and calculations in the king’s own hand of his efforts to acquaint himself as closely as he could with the details of matérial, men and operational contexts on which the British engagement with the American crisis would depend. It was precisely through such occasions as the visit to the Portsmouth dockyard — and encounters with workers and machines that, as Rick rightly observes, made such places a more impressive manifestation of an industrial revolution than the more familiar textile mills and ironworks — that George began to construct his own sense of the capacity of his kingdom to prevail against both foreign foes and rebels. And as historians today are writing exciting new histories of ‘things’, ‘spaces’ and cultural frames, it is partly through such rich description of events and encounters that we can hope to connect histories of policy and politics with these newer traditions in the same way that we are finding them connected in the archive.

While many of the materials that Rick cites from the Georgian Papers are not yet online, we anticipate that they will be by early next year.  In the meantime, some of the densest material currently online for the period of Rick’s book, concerns the court, Queen Charlotte and her circle.  The warrant books, for example, show accounts for items purchased for the household. Queen Charlotte’s correspondence, notes, and essays, provide compelling evidence of her literary and other interests, as well, of course, as bearing and raising children, along the way highlighting another key social context in which George’s thinking was formulated, a dynastic perspective which was shared with his immediate family.

This is one of the tremendous advantages of the Georgian Papers Programme, that scholars and the interested public alike can get a vantage onto a wide range of issues, global and local, through this one extraordinary collection.  We congratulate Rick on the book’s publication, and are looking forward to many more such exciting celebrations as more of the research supported by the Programme comes to fruition. Stay tuned to the website as we add a section that highlights all of these achievements.

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