When the News of a Royal Death Arrived Slowly, it Changed American HistoryRoundup
tags: British history, American Revolution, Queen Elizabeth II, King George III, colonial America
Helena Yoo Roth is a PhD candidate in history at the Graduate Center, City University of New York and 2022-2023 David Center for the American Revolution predoctoral fellow at the American Philosophical Society.
The world will be able to watch live coverage of Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral, which will be broadcast and live-streamed to millions of viewers. Likewise, news of her death spread instantaneously Sept. 8. Within minutes of the initial word from the @RoyalFamily Twitter account, a BBC newsreader appeared in a black suit and tie to solemnly announce the queen’s death. Within the hour, the new king, Charles III, made his first public statement on his mother’s death. At the White House, reporters interrupted press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre in the middle of a briefing to inform her of the news and get an on-the-spot reaction. Messages and tributes — from heads of state and ordinary people alike — began to pour in from around the world.
For Americans, of course, the death of Elizabeth is a major news story, but not a political crisis. By contrast, the death of her ancestor George II in 1760 had a profound impact on his subjects across the Atlantic. What’s more, the slow and uneven way that news about his death reached the world — profoundly different from the minute-by-minute reporting of Queen Elizabeth II’s demise — helped set the stage for the 13 American colonies to choose independence.
In 1760, George II was America’s ruler, London was its capital and British colonists in North America still thought of England as “home.” When George II died at age 76 on the morning of Oct. 25 that year, it was therefore as much of a crisis for the colonies as it was in Great Britain itself. What’s more, at that time, the American colonies were a central theater in the Seven Years’ War, the struggle for commerce and empire that Britain was waging against France across North America, the Caribbean, West Africa and Asia. There was no news more important during an imperial war than the death of the king.
As a legal matter, it was more than simply shocking news. Every facet of government — from Parliament, the Privy Council, judges, sheriffs and down to the local jailer — acted in the name of the sovereign. The king’s death nullified all of their authority. In theory, it left no one in power to make laws, resolve disputes, levy taxes (and collect them) or keep prisoners in confinement until empowered by the new king, George III.
In Britain, successive governments had adopted various administrative techniques to smooth the transition of power. By law, for six months following the death of the king, Parliament would continue in session and officials appointed by the previous king would remain in their positions.
But this was not so in the American colonies, where the laws on the transition of royal authority were varied, inconsistent and, in some colonies, totally absent from the books.
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