2010-07-18 - In this month of patriotic celebrations . . .
Stephen Decatur's toast, "Right or wrong, our country!" was qualified by the German Catholic immigrant Carl Schurz: "Our country, right or wrong - when right to be kept right; when wrong to be put right." In this month of patriotic celebrations, we give thanks for the great blessings enjoyed by our nation at the cost of much sacrifice. "The love and service of one's country follow from the duty of gratitude and belong to the order of charity." (Catechism 2239) In the order of charity, and of justice, it is well to avoid rhetorical excess about our nation's history, and to deal carefully with clichés. For example, from a Catholic perspective, the unthinking disparagement of King George III, as some sort of tyrant should itself be disparaged.
The first English monarch since Queen Anne to speak English enjoyed a civility which fostered a golden age of science, letters and art that included Catholics like Alexander Pope. King George was what we would call "pro-life." He fathered fifteen children whom he adored, and he was faithful to his wife, Queen Sophia Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, eschewing mistresses, in glaring contrast to the practice of most contemporary sovereigns, whose illicit assignations were tolerated by ecclesiastical officials. The King, sometimes referred to as "Farmer George," was also a "green" lover of a simple ecological life, caring for livestock, especially pigs.
The tax burden on American colonists was much less than the one on his subjects in Britain itself, and far less than ours today. In 1776, taxes in the colonies were the lowest in the civilized world. The Declaration of Independence actually faulted King George for protecting the rights of Native Americans, whom the Declaration called "merciless Indian savages."
The King chartered Dartmouth College for the education of "the Indian tribes and English gentlemen." He ordered Lord Dunmore to emancipate loyalist slaves in Virginia, and the Declaration called this a crime: he "excited domestic insurrections among us." King George would abolish the slave trade in the British Empire 56 years before our Emancipation Proclamation.
After the Revolution, King George called George Washington "the greatest man in the world" for having refused to be an autocrat, and told John Adams, the first U.S. ambassador accredited to his court: "I will be very frank with you. I was the last to consent to the separation; but the separation having been made and having become inevitable, I have always said, as I say now, that I would be the first to meet the friendship of the United States as an independent power."
From any humane perspective, King George's opposition to Catholic emancipation in Ireland was wrong, but it was no different from the restrictions on religions in Catholic countries, and, as he told William Pitt, he was bound to it by his coronation oath, which he tried to mitigate whenever legally possible. He granted toleration to Catholics in Canada, for which he was called a "Papist" by some of our own Founding Fathers. He built and paid for the Catholic collegiate seminary of Maynooth. Thomas Paine condemned the King and the Pope in the same breath.
While some of our Founding Fathers defended or ignored the Reign of Terror, King George was singular in fighting against the French Revolution. He granted refuge to thousands of Catholic clergy and laity, and he later cooperated with the Holy See in opposing Napoleon. His Prime Minister Castlereagh was a close friend and host of the Papal Secretary of State, Cardinal Consalivi, whose portrait hangs in Windsor Castle. The King's relations with the Pontiffs were benign. He funded the Stuart memorial in St. Peter's Basilica, and in 1807, he granted Cardinal Henry Benedict Stuart, last of his line, the immense annuity of £4,000. In 1787, the King gazetted the Proclamation for the Discouragement of Vice, against "excessive drinking, blasphemy, profane swearing and cursing, lewdness, profanation of the Lord's Day and other dissolute, immoral, or disorderly practices."
The courage King George showed during his lengthy illness, from porphyry poisoning, with its consequent insanity, deafness and blindness, was a testimony to his pro-life philosophy. It is symbolic that the house in which he was born in 1738 became the Allied headquarters during the North African campaign and D-Day planning in World War II, when many other governments were not as strident in their opposition to real tyrants. In short, he was far from perfect, but he would be far more in accord with the moral Magisterium of the Catholic Church than many Catholic politicians two centuries later, who are not held to account.