On the Origins of the American Revolution: Colloquium with MU’s Rachel Banke
Most of us know—just as most of colonial America knew—George III by the sometimes diametrically opposed caricatures of him that emerged around the time of the American Revolution: He was either bull-headed or the pliable shill of his advisors. Either “Farmer George” or a courtly man of gadgets. In her November 30 talk at the Kinder Institute, however, MU Postdoctoral Fellow in History Rachel Banke laid out an earlier, pre-caricature vision of the British king as a young, naïve, not-yet-stubborn ruler who was committed to developing a strain of domestic and foreign leadership that was defined by its quality of enlightened absolutism.
Central to this vision was John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute and tutor to a young George III, who had a heavy hand in shaping the future king’s political philosophy. Elements of this philosophy, Prof. Banke noted, began to become clear in “The Essays,” a series of historically contextualized notes and musings on principles of governance. For example, George III was critical in “The Essays” of James I, particularly for how he rooted his notion of royal prerogative in contempt for the people. By contrast, George III presented Queen Elizabeth in his writings as a gold standard of governance for how she raised the kingdom to glory via constitutional knowledge and compassion for her subjects, both at home and abroad.
From Elizabeth’s model came the broad tenets of George III’s own enlightened understanding of absolutism: that the constitution constrains only those actions which negatively impact the public good, for example, or that sovereignty is best vested in a virtuous king. As Prof. Banke detailed, the practical manifestations of this understanding took various forms under George’s leadership (and with Bute’s behind-the-scenes direction). He rid the court of self-serving, often deceitful attendants, who acted out of personal ambition rather than principled commitment to the people. He also promoted a balanced treasury and maintained military presence throughout the British empire’s colonies. This last act of monarchical justice is especially telling when it comes to George III’s particular conception of enlightened absolutism. If, on the one hand, it was an act designed to ensure security, it was likewise an expression of how reforming government in the best interests of the people implied, for the king, the prerogative to steer the state without interference.
As a case study of the king’s enlightened governance, Prof. Banke examined the crown’s presence in Quebec after the conclusion of the Seven Years’ War. Provincial Governor James Murray, she showed, sowed social stability and good will through cultivating relationships with, and preventing British persecution or exploitation of, the defeated French-Canadians. Most notably, he extended French civil law and demanded not only toleration of but also benevolence toward the province’s Catholic population. The result was twofold: civic harmony in Quebec but resentment and outrage in the Thirteen Colonies, where, particularly after the 1774 Quebec Act, Murray’s protection of the rights and interests of French-Canadians increasingly came to be seen as coming at the expense of British liberties (and British merchants). And though Bute had been retired from politics for some time in 1774, he nonetheless became the target of colonists’ ire, serving as something of a proxy for George III in pre-Revolution political cartoons that represented British reforms as designed to disempower the colonies and that foretold the conflict to come.
Rachel Banke was awarded her Ph.D. in American history from the University of Notre Dame. Her research interests include colonial American political economy, British imperial political culture, and the origins of the American Revolution. Her book project, provisionally entitled Bute’s Empire: Reform, Reaction, and the Roots of Imperial Crisis, puts the colonial reforms of the 1760s into an imperial context, tracing how George III’s Enlightenment political philosophy became an absolutist threat in the colonial imagination. Her work has been supported by the Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture’s Georgian Papers Programme at Windsor Castle, the Huntington Library, and an upcoming Society of Colonial Wars Fellowship at the Fred. W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington at Mount Vernon. She is a Postdoctoral Fellow in modern British history in the Department of History and joins the Kinder Institute as an affiliate faculty member for the 2018-2019 academic year.