At a time when the issue of immigration deeply divides Americans, I recently came across a BBC documentary that could hardly be more timely. It’s called “The First Georgians: The German Kings Who Made Britain,” and it originally aired in Britain in 2014. It is now available in America on YouTube. The host is Dr. Lucy Worsley, chief curator of the Historic Royal Palaces and one of the most perceptive and interesting historians on television. She has made many superb historical documentaries for the BBC but the German Kings series is particularly apt for this moment in American history.
It seems safe to say that, for most Americans, the only Georgian monarch who springs to mind is George III, ruler of Great Britain during the American Revolution. Since taking Broadway by storm in 2015, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s smash hit Hamilton has brought George III back to life for American audiences. Although sadly I still haven’t seen Hamilton in person myself (even here in Des Moines, Iowa, over a thousand miles from Broadway, the local run of Hamilton sold out in less than one hour), I own the two-disk CD soundtrack and absolutely love it. The tracks featuring George III ("You'll Be Back," "What Comes Next?" and "I Know Him") contain amazingly creative, engaging, and entertaining lyrics. Lin-Manuel has turned George III (and of course, to an even greater degree, Aaron Burr) into one of the most memorable villains in the history of Broadway.
But as Lucy Worsley reminds us, the historical record of George III’s reign was quite different than popularly understood. Despite serious bouts with mental health issues, and a fairly significant misreading of American attitudes toward taxation without representation, George III was on balance a pretty good king, and so was his grandfather, George II, and great grandfather, George I. The three Georges presided over one of the greatest centuries in British history, stretching from George I’s coronation in 1714 until George III’s death in 1820. During those years, Britain emerged as the dominant global superpower, not just militarily but also politically, culturally, and economically.
Most remarkable of all, British political life under the Georgian kings permitted robust levels of freedom of speech. To an astounding degree, George I and George II broke with the long-standing tradition of rulers who demanded unquestioning loyalty from their subjects. The Georgian era saw the rise of a “loyal opposition” and the emergence of iconoclastic political writing as a central feature of English political culture, including the public dissemination of political cartoons that insulted and ridiculed senior parliamentary officials as well as the royal family itself.
The vigorous political debates and polemical pamphleteering of the Georgian era deeply influenced eighteenth-century Americans. As the legendary historian Bernard Bailyn explained in The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, the “literature of political opposition” in England crossed the Atlantic to the American colonies, eventually furnishing “the substance of the ideology” of the American Revolution. Accordingly, our free speech rights—as well as the Revolutionary spirit that inspired the Declaration of Independence—can be traced back to the remarkable tolerance for open political expression that took root in Georgian England.
But before one celebrates the “Anglo-American” tradition of free-wheeling political discourse, there is an important and ironic fact to consider: the first two King Georges weren’t even English. They were Germans. When Queen Anne died in 1714 without leaving an heir to the throne, the Parliament imported the Georgian monarchy into Britain. Both George I and George II were born and raised in Hanover, Germany and George I did not even speak English well. In fact, George I’s poor grasp of the English language prevented him from completing his coronation speech. Nevertheless, despite their deep German roots, the Georges left an indelible mark on both English and American liberty.
The story of the Georges underscores a fundamental truth: no political culture thrives in a vacuum. The influx of new ideas and new people is essential for a culture to grow, flourish, and achieve its full potential. The German kings gave England a new perspective on monarchy that helped clear the way for a renaissance in English political culture, which in turn ultimately led to revolutionary changes in American political culture (to George III's misfortune). But it’s not just political culture that benefits from fresh blood. From science to business to art, outsiders bring a new outlook and new energy that reinvigorates the prevailing culture. We Americans forget that lesson at our peril.
If you are interested in the German Kings documentary, Lucy Worsley’s outstanding 3-part series is now available on YouTube. A number of her other historical documentaries are available as well, with subjects that range from Jane Austen’s homes to the Six Wives of Henry VIII to the Romanov dynasty. We truly live in a golden age of historical documentary, and Worsley’s fantastic documentaries are one of the reasons why.