Prelude to Disaster

George III and the Origins of the American Revolution, 1751–1763

by John L. Bullion (Author)
Monographs XXII, 380 Pages
Series: American University Studies , Volume 207


Prelude to Disaster is the most comprehensive account of the fateful decision to tax American colonists. Unlike other studies, it emphasizes the central role of the young George III in the process. Central to this examination are George’s principles of statecraft and government, his thoughts on pre- and post-war empires, his assessments of future relations with Britain’s great antagonist France, his personality and its development before and after his accession to the throne, his friendship with the earl of Bute, and his attitudes toward domestic policies and politicians, especially George Grenville.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Prologue: “A mind of his own”
  • Chapter 1. “Before my eyes these heroes stand”: Frederick and Bute
  • Chapter 2. “A very honest boy”: Augusta, Bute, and George
  • Chapter 3. “This mighty engine”
  • Chapter 4. “Points of such immense consequence”: Thoughts on Future Taxation
  • Chapter 5. “Harmony, mutual confidence, and the extension of their commerce”: The Purposes of America
  • Chapter 6. “Not sorry to be a king”
  • Chapter 7. Taxing Beer
  • Chapter 8. “A vast change for us”: January–August 1761
  • Chapter 9. Pitt’s War: August–October 1761
  • Chapter 10. Recruiting Grenville
  • Chapter 11. “The unerring evidence of figures”: October 1761–March 1762
  • Chapter 12. One Million or Two?: The Vote of Credit Controversy, April–May 1762
  • Chapter 13. The Sine Qua Non of Peace: Santa Lucia, April–July 1762
  • Chapter 14. The Reckoning: Bute and Oswald, June–November 1762
  • Chapter 15. The Politics of Peacemaking: July–October 1762
  • Chapter 16. The Crisis Resolved: October–December 1762
  • Chapter 17. Through a Glass Darkly: January–February 1763
  • Chapter 18. The King and His Army: September 1762–March 1763
  • Chapter 19. An American Revenue: Fall 1762–April 1763
  • Chapter 20. Settling the Succession at the Treasury: March–April 1763
  • Epilogue: The King, His Dearest Friend, and the Gentle Shepherd, 1763–1765
  • Index

← viii | ix →


I have been a member of two departments of history, the first at Texas State University-San Marcos, the second at the University of Missouri. My tenure in San Marcos lasted four years. At the end of this academic year I will have been at Missouri for thirty-nine years. The faculty, students, and staff at both schools have shaped my scholarship and pedagogy in ways both obvious and subtle, and they have taught me both what universities are and what they could and should be. They did not show me that departments are usually or, perhaps, ever united on means and ends, strategies and tactics, and what constitutes good history. But in moments of real crisis or opportunity they always managed to patch together useful coalitions to seize advantage or to defend themselves. I have been fortunate indeed in my professional life. For that I am properly thankful. And, particularly when I was chair of the history department at Missouri, they impacted my writings on George III and Lyndon Johnson. Departments are an ongoing seminar in small group politics; they have been a useful guide to the maneuvers and policies of America’s Last King and LBJ. After he finished his magisterial Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon observed, “the captain of the Hampshire Grenadiers (the reader may smile) has not been useless to the historian of the Roman Empire.” Nor has holding a variety of administrative posts at the University ← ix | x → of Missouri been useless to the historian of George III and the origins of the American Revolution. I do not, however, intend to identify who at Mizzou was Bute, or Pitt, or Newcastle, or James Oswald, or the several who played the role of Charles Townshend!

Over thirty years ago, Karl Schweizer asked me to contribute to a book of essays he was planning to edit on Lord Bute. Since that time he has been a magnificent advisor, collaborator, and friend. He even encouraged me to go off and work on Lyndon Johnson for a decade. I cannot thank him enough.

The same may be said of my best and dearest friend, Nancy Taube. She was my administrative assistant in the tasks I undertook in and out of the department for thirty years (and still counting). Her wisdom and good humor saved me from countless mistakes, and her editorial skills improved my manuscripts almost beyond recognition. My son once remarked that his father doesn’t really write these books and articles; he just puts words on paper and Nancy arranges them. Not literally true, I assure you. Still, Jack’s comment captures the closeness of our professional relationship accurately.

Two colleagues made crucial contributions to Prelude to Disaster. A. Mark Smith and I have had several penetrating exchanges on the pitfalls and rewards of counter factual history. Sheila Skemp provided a compelling series of examples of how to describe and analyze intrafamily relationships during times of political stress and crisis.

I also want to thank Meagan Simpson and her staff at Peter Lang. I have been fortunate in my editors, and Meagan is another in a long line. Like her predecessors, she has handled a barrage of questions from me with aplomb, verve, and patience. So did the superb staff at the Lewis Walpole Library at Yale University. They helped me find the print of a 1761 painting by Thomas Frye of the young George III, published by Act of Parliament on October 1, 1762, for the cover. The print appears there courtesy of the Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University.

As this book was being written, I was diagnosed with idiopathic lung fibrosis. Dealing with a serious chronic disease continues to be challenging for me, and I have become much more aware of the loving care of family and friends. Two of them are pets: Mel (the dog), and Miss Lemon (the cat). Their concern was obvious and touching and strikingly constant—Mel used to watch closely in case I fell while I showered! Four friends who also suffer from various chronic ailments have been inspirations to me: Lynn Wolf Gentzler, W. Phil Hewitt, Susan Ayres Marshall, and Carole Lyn Riesenberg. Their courageous effort to lead “normal” lives under abnormal conditions is a remarkable example. ← x | xi →

Words fail me when I try to describe how heavily I have leaned on my family, and how much their love, support, and confidence that this too can be managed, if not cured meant. I hope they know. From the bottom of my heart, thank you my loves, Jack and Rachel, Chandler and Chris. All of them took time from their lives to help Laura with me in the hospital and at home: their efforts were essential to my care and recovery. Jack arranged for a second opinion on the diagnosis, and went with us to Dallas to add his expertise in medical informatics to the meetings with the doctors. Chris is a nurse himself, and he was a fount of information about prescriptions and side effects. I was always ready for what might occur next. Rachel employed her impressive organizational skills to figure what needed done and in which order, a necessity to Laura and me, struggling to keep track of the myriad of things on our agenda. And Chandler gave me the gift of her poetic sensibility and her deep-rooted spirituality. None of them asked how the book was going! But all conveyed their confidence it would be done.

My wife Laura saved my life. She held me together physically, spiritually, psychologically. We have been married forty years and counting, days, months, and years of challenge and love. Because of her, this last year has been the best. From supervising my therapy to lifting my weight, from washing me up to drying my tears, she did it all. Now and always, I love you. I believe you are right that the future will hold many bright spots and far fewer dim ones.

This book is dedicated to the brightest of our blessings in the years ahead: our granddaughters Sloane and Merritt. ← xi | xii →

← xii | xiii →


“A mind of his own”

Of this George III was sure: he bore no responsibility for the independence of Britain’s North American colonies. Throughout the imperial conflict, he had “maintained a scrupulous attachment to the Rights of Parliament.” His commitment was so strong that he was ready to fight on after the defeat of the earl of Cornwallis’s army at Yorktown. It was the House of Commons itself that had given up the struggle against the rebels. This “sudden change in sentiments by one Branch of the Legislature” was to the king such a serious betrayal of his nation’s rights and interests that he momentarily considered abdicating and retiring to rule over Hanover.1 That he would even think of moving to that country, a place he had reviled as a young man, regarded as a danger to British interests as a young monarch, and had never set foot in as prince or king reveals the depths of his disgust and despair. This dark mood quickly passed. One thought that lightened it was his estimation of the American character. Since “knavery seems to be so much of the striking feature of [America’s inhabitants], it may not in the end be an evil that they become Aliens to this Kingdom.”2

Identifying Americans as knaves sprang from another of George’s reasons for absolving himself from any blame for the dismemberment of the empire. According to him, no one could honestly believe that “the laying of a tax was deserving of all the evils that have arisen from it.”3 Those evils were the creation ← xiii | xiv → of demagogues who manipulated for their own advantage the credulity and greediness of the colonists. The explanation that “the Americans were poor mild persons who after unheard of and repeated grievances had no choice but Slavery or the Sword” the king dismissed as preposterous.4 The opposite was true. British governments did not oppress the colonies; instead, they were too lenient. The unfortunate repeal of the Stamp Act emboldened the agitators to make further demands; other concessions validated their tactics, inflated their reputations, and made more defiance seem sensible and safe. “The great lenity of this Country increased their pride and encouraged them to rebel.”5 George III recognized he had played a crucial part in this during the Stamp Act crisis of 1765–1766. He had dismissed George Grenville, who proposed that tax, in 1765. Then he reluctantly agreed to the Rockingham Administration’s plan to repeal it in 1766. Both, he later admitted, had been serious errors. Still, he was sure he had made up for these mistakes by committing himself in 1774 to defending the empire and restoring British authority in America.6

Missing from the king’s narrative was any mention of the initial decision to raise revenue from Americans and what considerations led to that choice. Perhaps George simply did not recollect these details; over twenty eventful years had passed since these discussions were held and those policies determined. Given his emphasis on the mistakes of 1765–1766, obviously he regarded these decisions as less critical than his anger at Grenville and the appeasement by the marquis of Rockingham and his colleagues. He also clearly felt the decisions made in 1761–1763 were justifiable, reasonable, and constitutional then and now. The spin designing men put on them, converting them into shackles of bondage to fool the credulous, was more important to recall in his post mortem of empire. This conviction led him to overlook that the origins of the American Revolution really lay in decisions made during the closing months of the Seven Years War and the torturous negotiations with France. These led him and his advisers inexorably toward imperial taxation, which in turn sparked in colonists a determination to resist. His amnesia on these points kept him from remembering and assessing the central part he played as they were made.

This book is about the decisions that were made between the accession of George III in October 1760 and the resignation of his “dearest friend,” the earl of Bute, in April 1763. One of those choices, and ultimately the most consequential, was laying and collecting parliamentary taxes on American colonists. But taxing America was far from a spur of the moment decision; it came last in a progression of events and choices. Its roots were in the efforts ← xiv | xv → to finance and fight the war against the French in 1761 and 1762 and in the struggle to make peace with first France and then Spain during the same years.

A personal note seems useful here. I have worked on British politics and the origins of the American Revolution for decades. I began with a study of George Grenville and the genesis of the Stamp Act. That was followed by examination of the earl of Bute and the making of peace in 1761–1762. Then my interest broadened to include the development and maturation of young George III during the 1750s and 1760s. I published a series of articles and chapters on these subjects. At that point, my interest shifted to a quite different politician, Lyndon B. Johnson. I spent a decade writing a memoir of my family’s dealings with LBJ, followed by a brief biography of him. Occasionally, I wondered to colleagues what a comparison of king and president might yield, but I resisted the temptation to try. Then I was invited to collect my essays on British politics into a volume. In the course of doing this, I realized they did not form in and of themselves a narrative of events during the late 1750s and early 1760s. I also saw areas that I wanted to correct or expand upon. But my most important insight was the result of years spent with Lyndon. Writing his life without focusing on his personality and the centrality of political maneuvers and considerations in all the policy issues he struggled with brought home to me that these were the very elements largely missing from my earlier study of the British background to the American Revolution. That frankly surprised me. Over the years, I had reached the point that I knew the young George very well. I felt the same confidence in my knowledge of Grenville. As for Bute, I knew aspects of parts of his life quite thoroughly, while being less certain about his blundering political tactics in the mid-1750s and almost completely ignorant of his Scottish and scientific connections. I had never, however, applied this knowledge to an analysis of the British origins of the American Revolution. That left out a crucial, indeed determinative, element of that history. This study is an effort to remedy my prior shortcomings. It draws upon the earlier work, but is decidedly different in scope and emphasis. It provides the narrative background for the decisions, and places personality and politics at the center of the story.7

To do this, it is essential to emphasize the thoughts and emotions of three principal actors in the drama. One was Bute, the young friend’s mentor and his First Lord of the Treasury at the end of the war and the beginning of the peace. Another is George Grenville, a respected second echelon politician in 1760, and by April 1763 an ascending figure at Westminster and Whitehall. The third was the king himself. Scholars are fortunate that many of his ideas ← xv | xvi → about policy and politics are preserved in the essays he wrote as Prince of Wales under Bute’s tutelage. Equally significant is his lengthy and candid correspondence with Bute in the 1750s and early 1760s. These and other sources make clear that George was the furthest thing from a figurehead during these years. He observed events closely, insisted on being informed fully, participated regularly in debates on politics and policies, and guarded jealously his control over the area of government he regarded as his special province, the British army. Those historians who see his role as essentially passive in the construction of imperial policies during the first years of his reign are mistaken. Theirs is not an uncommon error. An excellent recent study by Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy of British politicians and military leaders during the American War of Independence succinctly articulated this view: “George III did not instigate the colonial policies that triggered the American Revolution. The government ministers, not the king, were the architects of those policies, whose origins predated his reign.”8 A much more accurate description of George at the beginning of his reign was penned by Peter D. G. Thomas. “Politicians who had sought the mere acquiescence of George II found themselves with a King eager to play a positive role in government. Instead of a septuagenarian there was a young man of twenty-two on the throne, one with a mind of his own.” He was, Thomas continued, “a busy politician, keenly interested in day to day events, with opinions on policies and personalities.”9 Given this perceptive description that Thomas failed to discern the king’s crucial role in the creation of colonial policy is surprising.10 Whatever their differences, O’Shaughnessy and Thomas shared one of the widespread features of the historiography of British politics and the American Revolution: a persistent downplaying of the king’s role. In contrast, this book will place him where he belongs, at the center of events. And it will describe him as he was: powerful, influential, a significant player in the drama. Prelude to Disaster will provide a more complete and accurate portrait of George III at the beginning of both his political life and the American Revolution than have other historians.

Focusing on George III and his centrality in events during these years also highlights an important aspect of peacemaking and postwar planning. A very small number of men participated in these decisions, and studying how they chose what and what not to emphasize is studying small group interactions and politics. Since exchanges of views were conducted more often than not face to face, the personalities of those involved and their opinions of each other were of paramount significance. Political factors and personal issues could have the same weight (if not more) as military, diplomatic, and fiscal ← xvi | xvii → considerations. There were no such thing as purely military, diplomatic, and fiscal items on agendas for decision; the participants were always aware all of these debates had political causes, implications, ramifications, and effects. And each of them shared identical attitudes toward cooperation and compromise. More often than not, cooperation was defined as persuading someone to do what you wanted him to do. If this failed, the parties to controversies over what to do next negotiated their differences, with each getting some of what he wanted and less than everything. Negotiation and compromise were accepted as the typical end of all disputes, if what was understood as cooperation failed to settle things.11

The centrality of politics and personality did not, however, mean ideas had a minor role. To the contrary; competing concepts of how to make peace, manage finances, negotiate on acquisitions, and tax Britons and Americans dominated personal and political relationships. A serious weakness of studies of British politics and the origins of the American Revolution has been the failure to consider closely how a variety of ideas affected the approach by British leaders to a series of questions about the colonies.12 In general, the discussion has been confined to looking at attitudes toward the British Constitution and concepts about the nature of the relationship between the Mother Country and her possessions abroad. This restricts examination too much, as the penetrating study by Eliga Gould on the centrality of thoughts about taxpaying and its relation to definitions of what constituted being a British subject demonstrates. Gould’s investigation of a subject with obvious implications for an understanding of reactions to American resistance to paying parliamentary taxes demonstrates the benefits of widening study of ideas, and thereby opening the subject up beyond its present confines.13 This book will take investigations of the intellectual origins of Britain’s imperial policies into new and fruitful areas.

During this period, concepts about France and the French had a significant impact on planning for the future. So did the king’s ideas about what caused the prosperity of Britain and her empire. Thoughts about how and what to tax influenced thoughts about an American revenue, as did analyses of public finance and the national debt. But no constellation of concepts had more significance for colonial issues than the efforts to wrestle with the problems of security and economy. What was necessary to insure the military security of the nation and her possessions? What was the most economical way of achieving security? Was it more important to aim for the maximum military security or to emphasize being fiscally prudent? Was it possible to reconcile ← xvii | xviii → the two, to balance two sets of imperatives that in many ways seemed to compete with each other?

The king, his friend, and Grenville had opinions on all these subjects. Those opinions guided their examinations of policy alternatives on war, peace, and the future. They did not, however, dictate specific decisions. They guided. They did not determine. Most significantly, they served as foundational principles. In the case of domestic politics, for George III they provided an implicit accountability structure to which he referred when interpreting his own or others actions. Immediate events impacted policy decisions; in these cases, the opinions did not provide answers so much as they enabled decision makers to construct the meaning of what they were experiencing.14 As will be shown, George, Bute, and Grenville used attitudes and thoughts common to all of them to help them adjust to what they perceived as rapid, kaleidoscopic changes in their country’s situation.

Neither his contemporaries nor historians ever described George as being blessed with a superior intelligence. Nor has anyone credited him with having a supple intellect; to the contrary, an adjective often applied to him was “stubborn.” During his early years on the throne, he seemed immature and overly reliant on Bute.15 In fact, his response to the many crises that occurred during that time reveals an increasing maturity, a growing capacity for creatively applying foundational knowledge he learned as a youth to the tasks of responding to new realities, and a lessening dependence on his “D. Friend.”

These developments occurred as he took up the responsibilities of ruling. His years as Prince of Wales were a time of learning, an education in the basics of politics and statecraft carried out through books and an exceptional tutor, in isolation from most people at court. George III’s concepts of politicians and policies formed during these years. At the same time, his personality was molded by what happened to him and by the few people he dealt with. This would have happened in any event, because his fate—one day he would rule Britain—and his duties—he had to learn “the true essential business of a king”—were clear to everyone, including himself.16 But in 1751 no one would have predicted that his preparation for his royal role would have any consequences in the immediate future. Nor would anyone in the political world have forecast that an obscure Scottish nobleman would swiftly become one of the most important politicians in the kingdom. The expectation was that Prince Frederick would succeed his father George II, probably sooner rather than later, given the monarch’s advanced age. Princess Augusta would become queen. Their eldest son would duplicate the experiences of his grandfather ← xviii | xix → and father, spending a long time as Prince of Wales, predictably chafing as his father had at his proximity to power while exercising very little of it himself.

These expectations were wrong. Frederick’s sudden, unexpected death from a burst abscess in his lung on March 20, 1751 made George the heir apparent as a boy. It also led directly to the rise of Bute from minor court functionary to secret mentor to open royal favorite to two of the highest offices of state. And that in turn led to the elevation of Grenville. Did the death of Frederick also eventuate in changed goals for Britain’s policies toward Europe and America? Prelude to Disaster begins by discussing some important results of Frederick’s passing.


1. George III draft message, [1783], Sir John Fortesque, ed., The Correspondence of George III from 1760 to December 1783, 6 vols. [London, 1927–1928), 5:425.

2. George III to the earl of Shelburne, Nov. 10, 1782, ibid. 6:154.

3. George III to Lord North, June 11, 1779, ibid., 4:350–351.

4. George III to North, May 31, 1777, ibid., 3:449.

5. Ibid.

6. For contemporary accounts of the king’s extraordinary meeting with his cabinet, see George III to North, June 21, 1779, ibid., 4:367; and “The King’s Speech to his Cabinet,” June 21, 1779, The Manuscripts of Captain H. V. Knox, Various Manuscripts, V, Historic Manuscript Commission (London, 1909), 260–261.

7. See A Great and Necessary Measure: George Grenville and the Genesis of the Stamp Act, 1763–1765 (Columbia MO, 1982); and George III, National Reform, and North America (Lewiston NY, 2013). The latter book is a collection of twenty-one articles on those subjects that I wrote on these subjects during the 1980s and 1990s. In the late 1990s, I began working on Lyndon B. Johnson. These eventuated in In the Boat with LBJ (Plano TX, 2001), a memoir of my family’s dealings with Johnson; and a volume in the Library of American Biography series, Lyndon B. Johnson and the Transformation of American Politics (New York, 2008).

8. Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy, The Men Who Lost America: British Leadership, the American Revolution, and the Fate of the Empire (New Haven, CT, 2013), 20–21.

9. Peter D. G. Thomas, George III: King and Politicians, 1760–1770 (Manchester, 2002), 43.

10. Thomas’s ideas about George III’s role in policy formulation are summarized in his article “George III and the American Revolution,” History 70 (1985), 16–31. For a critique of his failure to take into account the impact the constitutional fiction that the king could do no wrong had on contemporary accounts of policymaking, see Bullion, George III, 536–537.

11. Descriptions of British ideas about negotiations during Anglo-American difficulties in 1944–1945 in Rick Atkinson, The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944–1945 (New York, 2013), 194, 228 apply as well to the eighteenth century. ← xix | xx →

12. Still worth consulting on Namier’s impact on the scholarship of the American Revolution is the classic account in Jack P. Greene, “The Plunge of Lemmings: A Consideration of Recent Writings on British Politics and the American Revolution,” South Atlantic Quarterly 67 (1968), 141–175. See also the brief discussion in M. Bentley, The Life and Thought of Herbert Butterfield (Cambridge, 2011), 253–256. For a critique of Namier’s approach to George III, see Bullion, George III, 107–109.

13. Eliga H. Gould, The Persistence of Empire: British Political Culture in the Age of the American Revolution (Chapel Hill, NC, 2000). ← xx | xxi →

14. The nature of foundational principles is discussed by the sociologists James A. Holstein, Richard S. Jones, and George E. Koontz, Jr., in Is There Life After Football? Surviving the NFL (New York, 2015), LOC 1257–1265 (electronic book reference).

15. See Bullion, review, Albion 36 (2004), 529–530.

16. The quotation is from Prince George, “On methods to be used in writing a history of revenues and taxes after the Revolution” (between March 6, 1758 and March 15, 1759), Royal Archives, Georgian Papers, Add. 32/1226. For the dating of the essay, see Bullion, George III, 182.


Primary Sources

George III. The Correspondence of King George III from 1760 to December 1783, 6 vols., edited by Sir John Fortescue (London, 1927–1928), vol. 1.


XXII, 380
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2017 (July)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2017. XXII, 380 pp.

Biographical notes

John L. Bullion (Author)

John L. Bullion received his doctorate from the University of Texas-Austin in 1977. He was a member of the history department at Texas State University-San Marcos from 1974 to 1978. Since 1978 he has taught at the University of Missouri, serving as chair of the department from 1991 to 1996. The winner of numerous awards for his books, articles, and teaching, he is the author of two books on Lyndon B. Johnson; the prize winning study A Great and Necessary Measure: George Grenville and the Genesis of the Stamp Act, 1763–1765 (Missouri, 1982); and a collection of essays, George III, North America, and National Reform (2013).


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