by Karin Wulf
Hamilton, a quintessentially American story, has arrived in London. While many American commenters and historians have focused on the “Ten Dollar Founding Father without a Father” and his compatriots, the racial politics of the founding period and the intentional casting of the musical, and the gendered politics of the Schuyler sisters and the Reynolds Affair, with Hamilton in London there is no ducking the significance of that central, summarizing character: George III. Michael Jibson is the first English actor to don the crown and play the role of the king that was inaugurated on Broadway by Jonathan Groff. How apt, when the Georgian Papers Programme is bringing renewed attention and unparalleled access to the last king of America.
As popular as it has been with audiences who have watched, and the many more who have listened, the musical about early America has taken early American history by storm. An extraordinary session at the annual conference of the Society of Historians of the Early American Republic (SHEAR) in New Haven, Connecticut in 2016 included a film of Lin-Manual Miranda answering questions from organizers Joanne Freeman and Brian Murphy. Freeman may be the most beloved of Hamilton experts (sorry, Ron Chernow); an active and avid Tweeter, she answers queries from scholars, teachers and the public alike about her work on Hamilton, including her monograph on the culture of dueling, Affairs of Honor, and two Library of America editions of Hamilton’s fuller and Essential writings. She also made a comment on the PBS documentary, Hamilton’s America, that was bleeped by the censors. Plenty of conference panels, blog posts, articles, and now nearly a score of scholars has combined for a volume from Rutgers University Press, Historians on Hamilton. In short, phew.
This intense popular and scholarly attention has focused on the core American characters, yet there is so much to be learned from the Greek chorus that is the petulant, pithy monarch. There is a rich American popular culture around George III, but little as powerful as the character that holds court in Hamilton. The Georgian Papers illuminate the subjects of three songs at the apex of the musical’s Revolutionary arc. “History Has its Eyes on You,” “Yorktown (The World Turned Upside Down),” and “What Comes Next?” follow Washington’s reflection on what it might mean should the war turn in the Americans’ favor—or not, the decisive Battle of Yorktown, and George III’s reckoning with that loss. For those who have seen or listened to the music, the wistful tone of “History Has its Eyes on You” will be instantly recognizable as both foreshadowing the coming American victory, but also the political challenges that will follow. This is the introduction of a key theme, and the title of the musical’s final song, “Who Lives Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story,” in which history is itself a character. History watches, assesses, and promises to hold the ensemble accountable. “Yorktown” allows the climactic (and historio-fictional) reunion of Hamilton with his buddies, LaFayette, Laurens, and Mulligan, as they triumph and find the “World Turned Upside Down.” Despite the exultant end to that song (“we won, we won, we won, we won!”) it is George III who provides the summary of the situation. He reviews his own response to the Americans’ victory (“I’m so blue”), encapsulates the conceptual value of colonialism (“you were mine to subdue”) and then moves right on to the Americans’ peculiar challenge as the face creating a national government: “Do you have a clue what happens now?” Lin-Manuel Miranda even seemed to give George III the last word on the American experiment in self-government when the king responds to George Washington’s farewell to the presidency: “Good luck.”
In fact, the Georgian Papers have something to say about Yorktown and the king’s reactions to American independence. That crucial battle was preceded by the Battle of the Chesapeake, in which the failure of the British navy to stop a French fleet meant General Cornwallis’s army couldn’t be supported or evacuated. As Jim Ambuske and others have pointed out, the responsibility for that failure was bitterly contested. Accounts from Admiral Sir Samuel Hood, we now think, reached the king via his Swiss aide de campe, Major General Jacob de Budé. Highly critical of his colleagues in the navy and in the intelligence service, Hood described being left “in the dark” in the crucial period just before the failed naval engagement in the Chesapeake Bay. The presence of this correspondence in the king’s materials suggests the reach of his intelligence gathering, and more of what he might have known about the denouement at Yorktown. Hood reported that he had planned that
“we should gett into the Cheseapeak to the succour of Lord Cornwallis, if possible, but what I was afraid it was out of our power, as doubtless [the French commander] De Grasse would most effectually bar the Entrance against us, which was what human prudence Suggested, we ought to have done, against him.—“
So while Hamilton’s celebrants are focused on their victory, in the papers of George III we see precursor and context. And we also see how the king reacted after Yorktown. Dubious of the American experiment in self-governance, he was also driven to consider the twilight of his reign as monarch. First in 1782 when the House of Commons refused to further prosecute the American war and he began to feel that he could “be of no further utility,” and then again in the very next year, George III drafted abdication statements. His draft of abdication in 1783 in the Georgian Papers is, as Arthur Burns noted, just one piece of evidence of the king’s ongoing struggle in the wake of political crisis at home. George III was not considering abdication solely because of the American loss, but was placing “the immediate context of the loss of America within a much longer timeframe, one bringing into consideration the whole history of the high politics of the nation since his accession in 1760 and indeed before.”
Is it accident, coincidence, or karma that Hamilton arrived in the same year as the Georgian Papers Programme? The show’s final song is its meta-theme: “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story” narrates Elizabeth Schulyer Hamilton’s long life and efforts to establish her husband’s legacy. The larger message is about how material archives and the currents of popular interest mix with political circumstance to create some outsized and some downsized historical characters. Having burned their letters to one another, Eliza Hamilton and the Hamiltons’ marriage have been more elusive historical subjects, but because of a complicated mix of the materials and the moment, Alexander Hamilton is a cross-generational founding favorite. But can he cross the Atlantic?
It doesn’t matter, because the king who has a spare 9 minutes in the musical, from which he scolds, scoffs and arches a skeptical eyebrow at the American upstarts, surely has the home field advantage now. The Hamilton App already references freshly released materials in the Royal Archives at Windsor in a news feature on “5 Fun Facts about King George.” Who Lived to tell George III’s story? His archives did.