Gotham Diary:
Very Stupid
5 October 2011

Now I must write a letter, something that I never do, to Professors Black and Thompson, current authorities, from what I can make out, on the history of England in the Eighteenth Century, to ask for their gloss on Professor Plumb’s retracted dismissal (you’ll see what I mean) of George I.

Very stupid and lacking interest in the arts, save music, he was nevertheless far from being a nonentity.

This assessment appears in a work intended for “popular” readers, The First Four Georges, a trim Penguin paperback of 188 pages overall that breezes over reigns stretching from 1714 to 1830. It was first published in 1956, when, as Professor Plumb himself points out in his Preface, it had been customary for generations to regard not only George but also his son, George II, as “stupid.” But I sense a shift in connotation between the “stupid” of Plumb’s Preface, which seems to mean “unintelligent,” and a somewhat waspier sense in the quoted passage, where Professor Plumb might be suggesting that George I was not cut out to be a clever Oxbridge don. As in: “not as smart as moi.”  “Stupid” is certainly not a word that comes up  in Ragnhild Hatton’s 1978 contribution to the Yale English Monarchs series, George I. On the contrary, Hatton’s George is a man almost preternaturally suited to deal with the peculiar challenges of his time and career.

As an American, I have a hard time reading Hatton without thinking of George as the son of a “man on the make,” Ernst August of Brünswick-Lüneburg. Also to think of England as a nation “on the make” during the same concluding decades of the Seventeenth Century. When George was born, his father had no territory to leave him; he ruled the Prince-Bishopric of Osnabrück, in a weird condominium with Catholic Wittelsbachs, the two families taking turns at running the smallish territory just to the west of what would, by the time George became king of England in 1714, be the very considerable (and wealthy) Electorate of Hanover. Ernst August married a granddaughter of James I, Sophia of the Palatinate, a lady who would, one fine day, head the line of Protestant Stuart heirs to the English throne, displacing 41 Catholics ahead of her, including Louis XIV’s sister-in-law, “Madame.”

Ernst August also put “Hanover” together, cobbling it together  from the duchies of Celle and Calenberg and other possessions, and garnishing it with an electoral cap granted by Emperor Leopold in 1692. (This would not be recognized by all of the otherImperial Electors until 1708, when everyone needed George’s armies to fight the French in the War of the Spanish Succession.) Ernst August’s family was “ancient,” prominent in local affairs since the Twelfth Century, but its prominence in Imperial affairs round about 1700 was quite unprecedented.

England, too, developed during this time from a fractious realm at the margins of Europe to the arbiter of the balance of power. Even before the Industrial Revolution, England was not only wealthy but handy with money. It would be grossly incorrect to say that the the monarch was a figurehead after 1688, but by 1714 it was clear that the king must deal, whether he wanted to do so or not, with the majority’s leaders in the Houses of Parliament. This was a constraint unknown in  Hanover, which was governed more “absolutely.” What emerges from Hatton’s pages — as from those of Professor Thompson’s George II — is not so much a question of the king’s having to implement laws and policies against his will, but rather one of his having to negotiate with men whom he didn’t, personally, like. Both of the first two Georges were impatient with this requirement, which they both regarded as unreasonable; but then they were cultivated European princes, brought up on Renaissance, early-Enlightenment ideas of the importance of harmony and balance. The English way of doing things must have seemed noisy and inefficient. The Georges’ failure to see the long-term effectiveness of “faction” does not mark them out as stupid, given that the same distaste haunted all of America’s Founding Fathers; indeed, it can be said with safety that almost nobody has ever liked “party politics” to this day. We’ve just learned to quote Churchill’s dismissal of democracy as the worst sort of government, except for all the others.

George of Brünswick-Lüneburg was born a landless princeling who was not without military gifts; he might have pursued a career along the lines of Prince Eugene or the Duke of Marlborough (both of whom made sure that his chances for glory during the Spanish Succession war were nipped in the bud). Instead, a whole lot of territory fell into his lap — and then, the English crown! It was an English crown that, as crowns go, was not so valuable as those of France and Spain; it was if nothing a crown that could not be put on and taken off, so to speak, without extensive consultations with leading men. An absolute ruler in Germany and a constitutional monarch in England, George muddled through in the best English fashion, by being a compleat gentleman. And gentlemen are never stupid.