This is a familiar role for Roberts. His biography of Winston Churchill, Walking with Destiny—called by The New York Times the “greatest single volume biography” of a man about whom more than 1,000 have been written—counters many of the charges often leveled against Churchill, including that he was an alcoholic and a depressive. Roberts also contextualizes many other charges, such as Churchill’s stance against women’s suffrage and his role in the 1943 Bengal famine.
Yet Roberts’s biography of George III is no hagiography. His assessment of the American Revolution is not glowing. “It is rare in history for every mistake to be made,” Roberts told me. “Many wars have many mistakes, in Britain during the Revolutionary War, we made them all; naval, military, big, small, tactical, political, personal, institutional—in one fell swoop you see everything to avoid, all in one volume.”
Among the many, many British missteps was losing the PR battle. Roberts explains that pre-war royal governors of American colonies did not see their role as public-facing. As a result, few cultivated media or invested in new print papers that circulated in the key cities—Philadelphia, for instance, rivaled all cities in Europe bar London for the number of bookshops. In the UK, MPs and Lords were investors in and supporters of media, but in America, they were noticeably silent.
The Founding Fathers, on the other hand, were savvy media manipulators. They targeted those who were undecided on the question of independence—a group John Adams estimated to be as large as one-third of the population—and invoked grand imagery and high ideals in their communications. They successfully portrayed America as downtrodden and oppressed, even though Roberts argues the Colonies were among “the freest societies in the world at the time.” They played up victories—like the one at Saratoga—and downplayed losses, like the one at Charleston. They transformed events like the Boston Tea Party in 1773 into highly emotive, effective rallying calls for independence—despite the fact all money raised by tax in the Americas was to be spent in the Americas. Roberts, who is married to Susan Gilchrist, Brunswick’s Chair, Global Clients noted, “Had Britain had Brunswick in 1773 and been able to point out all the [holes in the] arguments of the Boston Tea Party, then …” he trails off with a smile.
That failure to communicate the actual facts of the situation may have cost Britain the war and its monarch his reputation. For centuries cast as an insane, incompetent tyrant, George III was in fact “a good-natured, cultured, enlightened and benevolent monarch,” writes Roberts.
Angus Gillan is an Executive at Brunswick based in London.
Photograph: Painting, Ian Dagnall Computing / Alamy Stock Photo; David Levenson/Getty Images