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Uncommon Sense

By Charlie Kreh · September 23, 2020

A changing portrait: seeing the "Mad King" thru decades of newspapers

9 min read

by Charlie Kreh

Charlie Kreh (W&M Class of 2021) is a History major. He plans to pursue a degree in law after he completes his BA.

When I first learned of the Omohundro Institute (OI) and the accomplished scholars who work there, I knew I wanted to participate in any capacity I could. With the help of my advisor, Dr. Nicole Dressler, I found my way into one of the bi-annual guest seminars the OI holds at William & Mary. With the help of Dr. Joshua Piker, editor of the William and Mary Quarterly and a professor in the W&M History department, I found my way into an internship with the Georgian Papers Programme under the direction of Dr. Karin Wulf, executive director of the OI and also a professor in the W&M History department.

Dr. Wulf assigned me to research different newspaper databases for references to how George III was portrayed in the media both during the bicentennial and during the early 1800s. This research gave me experience researching newspapers, a medium of primary sources I am interested in using for further grad school research into Indigenous Americans. I was able to see what researching early American databases, such as the Early American newspapers database, would look like. This research convinced me searching for primary sources from the early republic period is less intimidating than I thought.  

The first part of the assignment for Dr. Wulf was to document references to George III in newspapers during the bicentennial celebration of 1976. Given that 1976 was the 200th anniversary of the United States’ independence, it is important to document how opinions on George III may or may not have changed in two hundred years. Using databases such as, I searched for George III, and sorted all the mentions I found into four categories: analogies, brief mentions, longer mentions, and longer mentions specifically about the news or historical events. To my surprise, the newspapers around the bicentennial contained a number of accounts offering sympathy to George III. According to these papers, George III had some sort of disease that warped him into the “mad King” which could explain his actions. An interesting trend I noticed from the mentions I categorized as “analogy mentions” was that many people in 1976 saw their political leaders or school officials as tyrants equal to George III. One paper from Texas likened a gym coach to George III. My hours spent researching the newspapers from the US bicentennial era showed me how public memory changes significantly over time. Rather than paint George III as evil as most papers in the 1800s had, there were several op-eds in sections of these newspapers that portrayed him as a victim of either poor advisors or bad genetics. As historians, it is important to chart these changes so there can be an accurate picture of historiographic trends.

The next part of my research helped give me a baseline for the American public opinion on George III during the latter part of his reign and compare it to modern sentiments. Dr. Wulf asked me to research references to George III from 1800 to his death in 1820, using the Early American Newspapers database. Having learned from my research into 20th century news accounts, I divided these references into two categories: analogies and sources with a longer mention or focus on George III. Rather than use the same four categories as before, I soon realized some of the four categories were not applicable enough to warrant me keeping them as categories for this set of research. I found several references to Native Americans in context with George III. Most of these references aimed to convince readers that George III had been secretly funding Native American tribes with the purpose of attacking the American frontier. There was a noticeable increase in the number of these references the closer the publication date reached the War of 1812. With further research, one might be able to argue that these publications were used to garner support for a war with Britain.

Perhaps the most interesting thing I found was the overwhelmingly negative portrayal of George III in the early American newspapers. In over six hundred newspaper sources, I only found one that painted him in a positive light. Comparing 20th century references with these sources, one can see the shifting sentiment over the nearly one hundred and seventy-year gap: most sources in the 1800s portray George III as a tyrant, lunatic, or some combination thereof whereas records in the 20th century are more sympathetic of George III and seem to excuse at least some of his actions as the result of a genetic defect.

After I mentioned this to Dr. Wulf, she suggested that I should investigate any mentions of George III’s “madness.” Using keywords including madness, lunatic, insane, mad, crazy, lunacy, and stupid, I found 36 sources that mentioned his mental state. Given the extensive debate on whether George III was truly “mad” or driven to madness by something like a genetic defect, it is surprising to me that I found so few primary sources on the topic. Despite the lack of source material, I have been able to recognize a pattern in almost all surviving sources of portraying George III in a negative light. While material on the King’s mental state is hard to find in American newspapers, one can see the beginning of the long debate about whether or not he was insane through these sources.

This research assignment, under Dr. Wulf’s guidance, helped me hone my skills both as a researcher and a historian. I learned how to effectively search through a database of primary sources and how to read newspapers from the early American republic. I’ve also increased my knowledge of the language and grammar used during the early 1800s. Having completed extensive research on the topic of George III’s portrayal in both early 19th and late 20th century newspapers, I can confidently say the American public sentiment has shifted from one of pure disdain for the King, to one of mostly sympathy or understanding that George III’s actions may not have been entirely his own. Additionally, one can see the debate of whether George III was mad stretches back as far as the early 19th century. Importantly, this shows that historical conversations are always changing and even two hundred years later, new perspectives are cropping up.

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