The Sadness of King George: A Fourth of July Letter

Dear King George III,

I am not accustomed to writing to anyone of importance, of royal lineage or otherwise. And I cannot in good conscience address you in terms that you are usually used to, with all the attendant royal flourishes. And, in this case—on this day—I obviously cannot go against my democratic principles, as a native-born American, in addressing you like that. However, courtesy and decorum requires civility, which I usually do my best to abide by, and I will do so now. But on this day, my thoughts go back 238 years ago, when my country—the United States of America—was called into being by a group of brave and great (yet, imperfect) men assembled on a hot, humid day in Philadelphia.


As you were undoubtedly aware, a momentous piece of parchment lay on the table in the State House, awaiting the assent—and the signatures—of those 56 men that comprised the Continental Congress of what you considered your “colonies.” Written by a young red-haired Virginian by the name of Thomas Jefferson, it was a great state paper of the emerging democracy. It summarized what was wrong with the relationship between colonies and mother country. Despite repeated attempts to alleviate the discord and discontent (usually on our part), the response was continual rebuff by you and your ministers (which was glaringly apparent on your part). No doubt you and your ministers had a kingdom to run and bills to reconcile. And who doesn’t have bills to pay? I’m sure those royal undertakings must have moved your Chancellor of the Exchequer to reach for the headache powder, or whatever was used for nervous strain in those days. Come to think of it, taxes were the reason for the imbroglio in the first place. Anyway, were you to be around today and saw all the bills that need paying, you would be sure to flip your powdered wig and quite possibly reassess your position on the Tea Party, as well as other things…

I’m sure that when you read all those reports and dispatches concerning your American “cousins,” you probably saw them as an ungrateful, opinionated bunch. (It will no doubt surprise you that after all this time, we Americans are still opinionated!) I’m often reminded of what that famous Irishman, George Bernard Shaw (he was not British, not matter what they say), once said about our two countries—that Britain and America were two countries divided by a common language.

Unfortunately, divisions ran deeper than just language. And it was the English language that was one of our weapons in the fight for freedom from you. (People don’t often remember this, but it was the Americans who sent the English language into battle long before Mr. Winston Churchill did in the Second World War.) It started with some “Common Sense” and culminated in a document that was most appropriate: The Declaration of Independence. And when the time came for signatures to be affixed, a Mr. John Hancock (who was the President of the Continental Congress) wrote out his name in very large and bold letters: “There!” he is purported to have said after he put down the quill, “the King can read that without his spectacles!”

You must understand that I’m not writing this letter to “rub it in,” to make you feel any worse than you did when you learned that the gig was up in Yorktown and the royal musicians played “The World Turned Upside Down” and the whole thing made George Washington look like something from the gods—though you yourself later said that if Washington gave up the Presidency after two terms, he would be the greatest of men in the annals of history. (I will be fair—I give you credit for saying that.) No, I’m not writing to you to refight the Revolution and punctuate you with the point of one of those decorative swords. I’ve always wondered about you and why you and your ministers allowed things to escalate as they did to the point of separation. Even Benjamin Franklin began as a conciliator in London, only to get back on the next ship and sail homeward to America after repeated humiliations—there’s only such much hubris we Americans can take. And that’s where things went wrong.

As you’ve undoubtedly been following in the hereafter, the United States of America has become a nation of consequence since it declared independence from you that July of 1776, when it was just a loose confederation of thirteen states, with an unprotected border, a ragtag of an army and just a few boats. I won’t go into the details of our history to you (undoubtedly you know it all already) but suffice it to say what America has become would never have been countenanced by the Founding Fathers at the time—and certainly not by your ministers—or by you, with your arms resting on your throne in your palace over there in the British Isles. Yes, you were a monarch of what was then considered the greatest nation on earth, with an imperial reach that knew no bounds. But for all your power and all your brilliance, you couldn’t reckon with a more powerful force—the desire to be free.

You must think it strange, maybe a little impertinent, for someone to be addressing you about this concept of freedom, but I think it is appropriate and necessary to do so on a day like this. And you may think it stranger still for me to be quoting on the Fourth of July a French-Algerian Pulitzer-prize winning author named Albert Camus, but I think his thought sums up what this day is all about. Said Mr. Camus: “Freedom is nothing but a chance to be better.”

As I’ve said earlier in this letter, my country was called into being by a group of brave and great (yet imperfect) men. Truth to tell, it’s still that way: we Americans are brave and great, and yet—imperfect. We know that. The most important thing to know about us, King George, is that we wanted nothing more but a “chance to be better.” That’s what we tried to tell you back then, to your eventual regret. The loss of this part of your Empire might have led to your eventual madness—I don’t know—but it certainly gave you reason for sadness. As learned a man as you were, surely you must have begun to realize that the wars of your day were but a precursor of the future’s demand for freedom—even among those peoples from within your own Empire (especially in my ancestral home of Ireland).

I must end this letter. These are just some random thoughts on very profound things. But before I close, I recall what you said in what was surely an emotional and awkward audience you gave to the first American minister to your Court after hostilities ceased. You said to Mr. John Adams, who appeared before you: “I wish you sir, to believe, and that it may be understood in America, that I have done nothing in the late contest but what I thought myself indispensably bound to do, by the duty which I owed to my people. I will be frank with you. I was the last to consent to the separation; but the separation having been made, and having become inevitable, I have always said, as I say now, that I would be the first to meet the friendship of the United States as an independent power.”

That was a gracious thing for you to say, considering the strife everyone went through. However, you’d be bemused to know that while Britain is not as “great” as in your time, and the American states aren’t as “united” as we like to believe, we are both still here and our nations are friends and allies in this messy modern world. That ought to give you something to sound the royal tattoo about. And holiday or not, this 238-year-old nation is still working for the “chance to be better.” And, you know what, King George? That is all worth celebrating with a round of fireworks on a hot and humid summer day on the Fourth of July.

Joseph McAuley is an assistant editor at America.


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