Mourning Thomas Jefferson’s Estranged Father

By James P. Ambuske

Dr James Ambuske is Digital Historian at the Fred. W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington at Mount Vernon and a former GPP Fellow


On 29 January 1820, Thomas Jefferson’s last king died in Windsor Castle. George III was a shadow of his former self by the time he expired just after nine o’clock in the evening at age eighty-one. Blind, deaf, and suffering from a bout of mental illness that began a decade earlier, the monarch who Jefferson decried in the Declaration of Independence as a man ‘unfit to be the ruler of a free people’ died a king in name only.[1] He spent the last years of his life secluded in the castle while his son, George, Prince of Wales, ruled as Prince Regent.

A mezzotint by Samuel William Reynolds depicts the decrepit king with long, flowing hair and a lengthy beard. He has the appearance of a man about to play King Lear on stage, a striking contrast to the image of youthful vigor seen in Allan Ramsay’s portrait of George III in his coronation robes a generation — and an colonial rebellion — earlier.[2]

American newspapers began reporting George III’s death in mid-March. Accounts of his mental state in his final years, anecdotes of his life, and descriptions of his funeral quickly followed.[3] The Genius of Liberty, a Republican newspaper, reprinted a commentary speculating that the king’s death ‘will probably not be productive of any political consequences in England’ since he ‘has been politically dead so many years’. [4]

For the British, who would mourn one king and soon celebrate the ascension of another, ‘Corruption will be the oil which will keep the wheels of government agoing.‘[5] Americans on the other hand, who had committed symbolic regicide in the mid-1770s, would carry on with their experiment in republican self-government.[6]   

In fact, Thomas Jefferson never forgave his former sovereign for failing Americans as their imperial father. He was the ‘king, whose reign, ab inito, was that very tissue of wrongs which rendered the Declaration [of Independence] at length necessary’.[7] He blamed George III for the original rupture in the 1770s and on-going tension between the United States and Great Britain well into the nineteenth century.          

Jefferson’s ardent republicanism can only go so far to explain his visceral hostility toward the king during the American Revolution and in the years after. In many ways, it was personal. To be sure, Jefferson felt slighted by George III and Queen Charlotte’s ‘ungracious’ treatment of him while on a diplomatic errand to London in 1786, but the king’s inability to ‘Open his breast…to liberal and expanded thought’ during the imperial crisis wounded him on a more fundamental level.[8] Jefferson wanted George III to be a Patriot King, a monarch who rose above faction to rule as the father of a united people, something to which George III himself aspired. [9] The British and the Americans ‘might have been a free & great people together’, as Jefferson wrote in his draft of the Declaration of Independence, but Parliament’s persistent infringement of American rights and the king’s defense of the imperial legislature’s authority made that unity impossible. The Declaration became ‘necessary’ when the Hanoverian monarch fell short of the Patriot King ideal. Instead of a benevolent father, he was a ‘Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant’.[10]

What Jefferson never fully appreciated was that George III felt he had a moral and legal obligation to defend the British Constitution and the dignity of his crown. As Andrew O’Shaughnessy has explained, the Revolutionary War lasted as long as it did because George III willed it so. The rebellion threatened the natural social order that bound a king to his subjects as well as Parliament’s constitutional authority. George III was the ‘last to consent to separation’ because he believed his coronation oath demanded it of him. He even contemplated abdication at the end of the war for his failure to preserve British America.[11]

Nevertheless, peace in 1783 did not prevent Jefferson from prosecuting the war by other means. One of the more striking ways that Jefferson extended the rebellion was in his attempt to purge American law of Georgian influences. As part of his broader efforts to reform American law, Jefferson urged law students, lawyers, and judges to stop relying on English legal authorities active during George III’s reign. The writings of jurists such as Sir William Blackstone and Lord Chief Justice Mansfield infected the American legal mind with Tory thought, he argued, making them closet monarchists and Anglophiles who strayed from republican principles. Jefferson advised law students to study the teachings of Sir Edward Coke, the seventeenth-century Whig jurist, and structured the legal curriculum at the University of Virginia to promote republican orthodoxy. Law students at his new university were encouraged to embrace the ‘illimitable freedom of the human mind’ so long as they arrived at the correct republican conclusions.[12]

Jefferson continued his assault on George III well into the final decades of his own life. He reminded one correspondent during the War of 1812 that the king had cost the British people ‘a great & flourishing empire’ in America.[13] To John Adams, he charged the king and his ministers with indebting the British public in order to lavish money ‘on sinecures, salaries, pensions, priests, prelates, princes and eternal wars’.[14]

What Jefferson felt upon learning of George III’s death in the spring of 1820 is uncertain. Perhaps he quietly acknowledged that another member of the revolutionary generation had passed away. By Christmas, however, his feelings about the demise of his last king were clearer.

In a letter to the Liverpool abolitionist and botanist William Roscoe, Jefferson expressed regret for the ‘circumstances [that] have nourished between our kindred countries angry dispositions which both ought long since to have banished from their bosoms’. An ‘obstacle’ had stood in the way of better Anglo-American relations. It was ‘the obstinate and unforgiving temper of your late king’ and the ‘prejudices kept up from habit’ during his final illness that had divided the British and American people.[15]

Perhaps the death of Jefferson’s estranged father offered the chance to begin the world anew.


[1] For the king’s illness, see Arthur Burns and Karin Wulf, “George III: The Eighteenth Century’s Most Prominent Mental Health Patient: A Virtual Exhibition,” Georgian Papers Programme.

[2] Samuel William Reynolds, [George III], c. 1820. The Royal Collection Trust, RCIN 604480; Allan Ramsay, George III, c. 1761-2. The Royal Collection Trust, RCIN 405307. 

[3] See, for example, “Windsor Castle, January 29, 1820.” Manufacturers’ & Farmers’ Journal, Providence and Pawtucket Advertiser (Providence, Rhode Island) I, no. 22, March 16, 1820: [2]. Readex: America’s Historical Newspapers; “[Majesty King; George; Dr. Mayhew’s; Sermon; George].” Hampden Federalist & Public Journal (Springfield, Massachusetts) XV, no. 11, March 15, 1820: 43. Readex: America’s Historical Newspapers; “[George; Africa; New-England; New-York; Pennsylvania].” New-Hampshire Patriot & State Gazette (Concord, New Hampshire) II, no. 20, May 16, 1820: [3]. Readex: America’s Historical Newspapers; “Anecdotes of the Late King.” New-England Galaxy & Masonic Magazine (Boston, Massachusetts) III, no. 130, April 7, 1820: 104. Readex: America’s Historical Newspapers; “The King’s Coffin.” Hampden Patriot (Springfield, Massachusetts) II, no. 15, April 5, 1820: [4]. Readex: America’s Historical Newspapers.

[4] “From the Democratic Press, March 13.” Genius of Liberty (Leesburg, Virginia) IV, no. 11, March 28, 1820: [2]. Readex: America’s Historical Newspapers.

[5] Ibid.

[6] On examples of fictive regicide in the American Revolution, see Brendan McConville, The King’s Three Faces: The Rise & Fall of Royal America, 1688-1776 (Chapel Hill: Published by the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture and the University of North Carolina Press, 2007), Chapter 10.

[7] Thomas Jefferson to John Tyler, 17 June 1812, Founders Online, National Archives, accessed September 29, 2019,

[8] Thomas Jefferson: Autobiography, 6 Jan.-29 July 1821, 6 January 1821,” Founders Online, National Archives, accessed September 29, 2019,; Jefferson, A Summary View of the Rights of British America (1774), The Avalon Project: Documents in Law, History and Diplomacy, accessed January 28, 2020,

[9] On the concept of the Patriot King and its importance to George III, see Jeremy Black, George III: America’s Last King (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008), 10-12.

[10] III. Jefferson’s “original Rough draught” of the Declaration of Independence, 11 June–4 July 1776,” Founders Online, National Archives, accessed September 29, 2019,; V. The Declaration of Independence as Adopted by Congress, 11 June–4 July 1776,” Founders Online, National Archives, accessed September 29, 2019,

[11] Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy, “”If Others Will Not Be Active, I Must Drive”: George III and the American Revolution.” Early American Studies 2, no. 1 (2004): 1-46. Accessed January 29, 2020. John Adams to John Jay, 2 June 1785,” Founders Online, National Archives, accessed September 29, 2019,; RA GEO/MAIN/5367/30, George III, Draft of a message of abdication from George III to the Parliament, [28 March 1783?], accessed January 28, 2020,

[12] See James P. Ambuske and Randall Flaherty, “Reading Law in the Early Republic: Legal Education in the Age of Jefferson” in The Founding of Thomas Jefferson’s University, ed. by John A. Ragosta, Peter S. Onuf, and Andrew J. O’Shaughnessy (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2019), 224-257.

[13] Jefferson to Madame de Tessé, 8 December 1813,” Founders Online, National Archives, accessed September 29, 2019,

[14] Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 25 November 1816,” Founders Online, National Archives, accessed September 29, 2019,  Jefferson makes similar claims in his letter to Samuel Kercheval, 5 September 1816,” Founders Online, National Archives, accessed September 29, 2019,

[15] Jefferson to William Roscoe, 27 December 1820,” Founders Online, National Archives, accessed September 29, 2019,

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.