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Mechanical experiments as moral exercise in the education of George III



In 1761, George III commissioned a large group of philosophical instruments from the London instrument-maker George Adams. The purchase sprang from a complex plan of moral education devised for Prince George in the late 1750s by the third Earl of Bute. Bute's plan applied the philosophy of Frances Hutcheson, who placed ‘the culture of the heart’ at the foundation of moral education. To complement this affective development, Bute also acted on seventeenth-century arguments for the value of experimental philosophy and geometry as exercises that habituated the student to recognizing truth, and to pursuing it through long and difficult chains of reasoning. The instruments required for such exercise thus became tools for manipulating moral subjectivity. By the 1730s there was a variety of established modes in which the Newtonian philosophy might be used to argue for the legitimacy of Hanoverian rule. The education of George III represents a less recognized iteration of this relationship, concerned not with public apologetics, but rather with the transformation of an ‘indolent’ youth into a virtuous monarch.



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1 This collection will be familiar to BJHS readers through Morton, Alan Q. and Wess, Jane A., Public & Private Science: The King George III Collection, Oxford: Oxford University Press in association with the Science Museum, 1993.

2 In recent articles, John Bullion has discredited long-standing, negative interpretations of the two men's friendship. For a review of literature on their relationship see Bullion, John L., ‘The prince's mentor: a new perspective on the friendship between George III and Lord Bute during the 1750s’, Albion (1989) 21, pp. 3455, 34–40. Since Brooke's, JohnKing George III, St Albans: Panther Press, 1974, biographers seem to agree that Prince George was a fairly ‘normal’ youth. For a reassessment of Bute's political and cultural attainments see Schweizer, Karl W. (ed.), Lord Bute: Essays in Re-interpretation, Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1988. For his support of the arts see Russell, Francis, John, 3rd Earl of Bute, London: Merrion Press, 2004.

3 Royal Archives (RA) GEO/ADD/32/1769–1963.

4 Bute paid for the instruments on the king's behalf, using a dedicated account at Campbell and Coutt's bank. See Russell, op. cit. (2), p. 59.

5 For the uses of natural philosophy and its instruments in the formation of polite identities see Walters, Alice, ‘Conversation pieces: science and politeness in eighteenth-century England’, History of Science (1997) 35, pp. 121145.

6 For his mother's desire to keep George isolated from the children of the nobility, on account of their vices and bad education, see Bullion, op. cit. (2), p. 36.

7 For a summary of appointments and dismissals see the ‘Introduction’ to Waldegrave, James, The Memoirs and Speeches of James, 2nd Earl Waldegrave (ed. Clarke, J.C.D.), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988, especially the table on p. 57. For Bute's friendship with Frederick, Prince of Wales, and his later involvement with Prince George, see Russell, op. cit. (2), pp. 18–22; and McKelvey, James Lee, George III and Lord Bute, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1973, pp. 3345.

8 Bullion, op. cit. (2), p. 40.

9 Bullion, op. cit. (2), p. 40.

10 Sedgwick, Romney (ed.), Letters from George III to Lord Bute, London: Macmillan, 1939, p. 13.

11 Sedgwick, op. cit. (10), pp. 3, 14.

12 Russell, op. cit. (2), pp. 3–5.

13 Cairns, John W., ‘Importing our lawyers from Holland: Netherlands influences on Scots law and lawyers in the eighteenth century’, in Simpson, Grant G. (ed.), Scotland and the Low Countries, 1124–1994, East Linton: Tuckwell Press, 1996, pp. 136153, 139.

14 Cairns, op. cit. (13), p. 138.

15 For the history of taxation from the Norman Conquest to the Glorious Revolution see RA GEO/ADD32/1087-1098 and GEO/ADD32/1099-1115. For revenue and taxes since the Glorious Revolution see RA GEO/ADD32/1149-1193, GEO/ADD32/1194-1219, GEO/ADD32/1233-1420, GEO/ADD32/1421-1449. For taxes granted by Parliament between 1701 and 1756 see RA GEO/ADD32/1531-1647. For Crown revenues see RA GEO/ADD32/1648-1691; and for the Sinking Fund see RA GEO/ADD32/1692-1696. Prince George and Bute saw reducing the national debt as part of their larger project for moral reform. Bullion, John L., ‘“To know this is the true essential business of a king”: the Prince of Wales and the study of public finance, 1755–1760’, Albion (1986) 18, pp. 429454.

16 For the ‘moderate literati’ see Sher, Richard B., Church and University in the Scottish Enlightenment, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1985; and Phillipson, Nicholas, ‘The Scottish Enlightenment’, in Porter, Roy and Teich, Mikulás (eds.), The Enlightenment in National Context, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981, pp. 1940, 19–20.

17 Roger L. Emerson, ‘Lord Bute and the Scottish universities, 1760–1792’, in Schweizer, op. cit. (2), pp. 147–179, 150–151, 152–159.

18 Mount Stuart Archives, BU/98/1/27-30, 32. I am grateful to Barbara McLean, archivist in the Mount Stuart Collections Department, for this information. Oz-Salzberger, Fania, ‘Ferguson, Adam (1723–1816)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004, online edn, October 2009, at, accessed 17 May 2011.

19 Rivers, Isabel, Reason, Grace, and Sentiment: A Study of the Language of Religion and Ethics in England, 1660–1780, 2 vols., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991–2000, vol. 2, pp. 154159.

20 Mackenzie, Henry, ‘Account of the life of Mr John Home, Esq.’, in The Works of John Home, Esq. (ed. Mackenzie, Henry), Edinburgh: A. Constable & Co., 1822, p. 146, quoted in Russell, op. cit. (2), p. 41.

21 RA GEO/ADD32.

22 ‘Some short notes concerning the education of a prince’, RA GEO/ADD32/1731. A note on the last sheet suggests that the handwriting is Bute's. The author was not a clergyman (f. 15), which disqualifies all George III's preceptors between 1744 and 1756. The plan is for the education of a prince in his mid-teens (f. 4), but its idealism and emphasis on academic study show that it was not the work of Lord Waldegrave, Prince George's governor between 1752 and 1756 (for Waldegrave's approach see Waldegrave, op. cit. (7), pp. 63–64). These circumstances make Bute the most likely candidate, but most compelling is the fact that Bute and Prince George acted fully upon the programme of historical study detailed in ‘Some short notes’ (ff. 6–10) in the years after 1755. See Brooke, op. cit. (2), pp. 107–108, and the great number of essays on the history and present state of English law, government and finance, and the histories of a dozen other European states, in RA GEO/ADD32. It would be bizarre to suggest that Bute, himself so interested in education, would have delegated responsibility for drawing up such a plan.

23 ‘Some short notes’, op. cit. (22), f. 1.

24 When Bute's own collection was sold after his death in 1792, it included ‘A mahogany folding table, and a very curious collection of instruments, models, machines, &c. &c. … all made from and according to the Mathematical Elements of Natural Philosophy, of W. J. Gravesande … which contains figures and explanations of all these articles'. All this sounds strikingly similar to George III's mechanical apparatus. See Turner, G.L'E., ‘The auction sales of the Earl of Bute's instruments, 1793’, Annals of Science (1967) 23, pp. 213242, 239. The collection of Bute's uncle, the third Duke of Argyll, is also of interest. See Emerson, Roger L., ‘The scientific interests of Archibald Campbell, 1st Earl of Ilay and 3rd Duke of Argyll (1682–1761)’, Annals of Science (2002) 59, pp. 2156.

25 Dollond & Son to the Earl of Bute, 21 October 1760, Bodleian Library Special Collections (BLSC) MSS North A.4, f. 310.

26 George Adams to the Prince of Wales, 14 January 1757, BLSC MSS North A.4, f. 58.

27 For Chambers, Kirby and the role of drawing in George III's architectural education, see Watkin, David, The Architect King: George III and the Culture of the Enlightenment, London: Royal Collections Publications, 2004, Chapter 2.

28 For history books see BLSC MSS North A.4 at ff. 67, 94, 126, 222; for geography, f. 95; for antiquity, f. 82; for architecture, ff. 67, 86, 93; for mechanics, f. 92; for experimental philosophy, ff. 82, 93; for gardening, f. 123.

29 Russell, op. cit. (2), pp. 35–36.

30 John Cobb and William Vile to the Prince of Wales, 25 June 1757, BLSC MSS North A.4, f. 80; bills from Vile & Cobb for 1761–1763 are in the Lord Chancellor's Bill Books, National Archives LC 9/306, bill no 306; LC 9/307, bill no 56; LC 9/308, bill nos 8, 22; LC 9/309, bill nos 35, 54.

31 Russell, op. cit. (2), p. 59.

32 ‘Some short notes’, op. cit. (22), f. 11.

33 For an account of this correspondence from 1741 to 1765 see Gunther, A.E., An Introduction to the Life of the Rev. Thomas Birch, Halesworth: Halesworth Press, 1984, pp. 3539.

34 Thomas Birch to Philip Yorke, 28 August 1762, British Library (BL) Add MS 35399, f. 339, original emphasis. See also Morton and Wess, op. cit. (1), p. 18.

35 George Lewis Scott to Andrew Stone, 20 November 1752, BL MS Add 32730, ff. 308r–309.

36 Willem ’sGravesande, Mathematical Elements of Natural Philosophy, Confirmed by Experiments: or, an Introduction to Sir Isaac Newton's Philosophy (tr. John Theophilus Desaguliers), 2 vols., London: W. Innys et al., 1747. This English edition was published after the deaths of both author and translator. ’sGravesande's final Latin edition of 1742 was completed by his friend Jean Nicolas Sebastien Allamand, and Desaguliers's translation was brought to press by his son, also J.T. Desaguliers. Allamand, J.N.S., ‘Histoire de la vie et des ouvrages de Mr ’sGravesande’, in Oeuvres philosophiques et mathematiques de Mr G. J. ’sGravesande, Amsterdam: M.M. Rey, 1774, pp. xxviii, 281.

37 Morton and Wess, op. cit. (1), pp. 291–372.

38 Morton and Wess, op. cit. (1), pp. 247–290.

39 Morton and Wess, op. cit. (1), pp. 247–290, 291–372. A collection of comparable size was sold by Benjamin Martin to Harvard University in 1765; see Millburn, John R., Benjamin Martin: Author, Instrument-Maker, and Country Showman, Leiden: Noordhoff International, 1976, pp. 128148.

40 The original reads, ‘plusieurs armoires en deux grandes pièces pleines d'instrumens, de machines et de livres’. Le Français de Lalande, Joseph Jérôme, Journal d'un voyage en Angleterre: 1763 (ed. Monod-Cassidy, Hélène), Oxford: Voltaire Foundation at the Taylor Institution, 1980, p. 72.

41 Millburn, John R., Adams of Fleet Street: Instrument Makers to King George III, Aldershot: Ashgate, 2000, p. 98.

42 Morton and Wess, op. cit. (1), pp. 18, 243–246. Versions of these manuscripts are held in the Science Museum Library at Swindon, and bound, fair copies are in the Royal Library at Windsor Castle.

43 For the function of the experiments in relation to abstract ideas see ’sGravesande, op. cit. (36), vol. 1, p. viii. For ’sGravesande's collection of instruments see Allamand, op. cit. (36), pp. xxviii–xxxi; and de Clercq, Peter, The Leiden Cabinet of Physics, Leiden: Museum Boerhaave, 1997.

44 Riskin, Jessica, ‘Amusing physics’, in Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent and Christine Blondel, Science and Spectacle in the European Enlightenment, Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008, pp. 4364, 47.

45 Desaguliers, John Theophilus, A Course of Experimental Philosophy, 2 vols., London: W. Innys, 1745, vol. 1, p. ix.

46 ‘Some short notes’, op. cit. (22), ff. 5–6.

47 The definitions of body, extension, solidity and vacuity, attraction, repulsion and motion in ’sGravesande, op. cit. (36), vol. 1, pp. 82–108, are the foundation of his system of philosophy, just as the definitions of point, line and superficies are those of the Euclidean system of geometry. Compare Scarburgh, Edmund, The English Euclid: Being the First Six Elements of Geometry, Translated out of the Greek, Oxford: Printed at the Theatre, 1705, pp. 19.

48 ’sGravesande, op. cit. (36), vol. 2, pp. 19–38.

49 William Vream, A Description of the Air-Pump, London: for the author, 1717; Desaguliers, op. cit. (45), vol. 2, pp. 19–38. See also Morton and Wess, op. cit. (1), p. 245.

50 See John Locke, Some Thoughts Concerning Education, London: A. Ward et al., 1745, pp. 65–66.

51 John Locke, Of the Conduct of the Understanding (ed. Paul Schuurman, PhD thesis, Keele University, 2000), p. 156.

52 Locke, op. cit. (51).

53 Jones, Matthew L., The Good Life in the Scientific Revolution, Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2006, pp. 2829, 189, 235.

54 Kirby, Joshua, Dr. Brook Taylor's Method of Perspective Made Easy, London: for the Author, 1765, p. vi.

55 Bermingham, Ann, Learning to Draw: Studies in the Cultural History of a Polite and Useful Art, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000, p. 45.

56 George III, ‘Elementary problems & theorems in geometry, part 1’, RA GEO/ADD32/1825-1829. There are similar exercises on sheets GEO/ADD32/1885-1898 and in ‘Problems of practical geometry useful in Fortification’, GEO/ADD32/1919-1921.

57 Jones, op. cit. (53), p. 9.

58 RA GEO/ADD32/1732. This plan was extracted from a printed eulogy of Louis, dauphin of France (1729–1765), which actually recommended the Port-Royal Logic, Locke, Descartes and Thomas, Malebranche. M., Eloge de Louis, Dauphin de France, Paris: A. Regnard, 1766, p. 10.

59 Leechman, William, ‘The preface’, in Francis Hutcheson, A System of Moral Philosophy (ed. Leechman, William), 2 vols., Glasgow: R. and A. Foulis, 1755, vol. 1, pp. xxxxxxi.

60 ‘Some short notes’, op. cit. (22), ff. 5–6.

61 Ascham, Roger, The Scholemaster or plaine and perfite way of teachyng children, to vnderstand, write, and speake, the Latin tong but specially purposed for the priuate brynging vp of youth in ientlemen and noble mens houses …, London: John Daye, 1570, p. 5. For Ascham as Elizabeth I's tutor see O'Day, Rosemary, ‘Ascham, Roger (1514/15–1568)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004, at, accessed 4 January 2014.

62 James, I and VI, Basilikon doron. Or His Maiesties instructions to his dearest sonne, Henrie the prince, London: Richard Field for John Norton, 1603, p. 94.

63 Bettam, John, A Brief Treatise of Education, with A Particular Respect to the Children of Great Personages. For the Use of His Royal Highness, The Prince, Paris: P. Lauren, 1693, p. 5. For Bettam as James Stuart's tutor see Gordon, Peter, Royal Education: Past, Present and Future, London: Frank Cass, 1999, pp. 9293.

64 Jones, op. cit. (53).

65 Fontenelle, Bernard, ‘A translation of part of Monsieur Fontenelle's preface to the Memoirs of the Royal Academy at Paris, in the year 1699’, in Miscellanea Curiosa, 3 vols., London: R. Smith, 1708, vol. 1, sig. A4v.

66 Watts, Isaac, ‘The improvement of the mind’, in Watts, The Works of the Late Reverend and Learned Isaac Watts, D.D., (ed. Jennings, D. and Dodderidge, P.), 6 vols., London: T. and T. Longman et al., 1753, vol. 5, pp. 185358, 261.

67 Watts, op. cit. (66), pp. 185–358, 261.

68 See Ramsay, Andrew Michael, Plan of Education for a Young Prince, London: J. Wilford, 1732, pp. iiiii.

69 See Hutchinson, John, ‘An abstract from “The religion of Satan, or Anti-Christ, delineated”’, in An Abstract from the Works of John Hutchinson (ed. Horne, George), Edinburgh: A. Kincaid and A. Donaldson, 1753, pp. 231244; Johnson, Samuel, ‘John Milton’, in The Lives of the English Poets, 3 vols., Dublin: Wm. Wilson, 1780–1781, vol. 1, p. 174; and Horne, George, Memoirs of the Life, Studies, and Writings of the Right Reverend George Horne, D.D. (ed. Jones, William), London: G.G. and J. Robinson et al., 1795, p. 304. For Hutchinson and Horne see Cantor, G.N., ‘Revelation and the cyclical cosmos of John Hutchinson’, in Jordanova, Ludmilla and Porter, Roy (eds.), Images of the Earth, Chalfont St Giles: British Society for the History of Science, 1997, pp. 1735; Wilde, C.B., ‘Hutchinsonianism, natural philosophy and religious controversy in eighteenth-century Britain’, History of Science (1980) 18, pp. 124; and Leighton, C.D.A., ‘Hutchinsonianism: a counter-Enlightenment reform movement’, Journal of Religious History (1999) 23, pp. 168–84.

70 Cheyne, George, An Essay of Health and Long Life, London: George Strahan, 1724, pp. ivvi.

71 For these debates see the essays in Force, James E. and Hutton, Sarah (eds.), Newton and Newtonianism: New Studies, Dordrecht and London: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2004.

72 George III, ‘Essay on duty’, RA GEO/ADD32/1964-2007, at 1984; see also Hutcheson, Francis, An Essay on the Nature and Conduct of the Passions and Affections, London: W. Innys et al., 1756, pp. 209210. For English moral philosophers’ ongoing argument with Hobbes see Rivers, op. cit. (19), Chapters 2–3. For Hobbes's battle with the early fellows of the Royal Society over the forms of knowledge that could properly be called natural philosophy see Shapin, Steven and Schaffer, Simon, Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985, especially Chapters 34.

73 Clarke, Samuel, A Discourse Concerning the Being and Attributes of God, London: John and Paul Knapton, 1738, p. 190.

74 Clarke, op. cit. (73), p. 206.

75 George III, ‘Essay on duty’, RA GEO/ADD32/1964-2007, at 1988–1990. For the source of this argument see Hutcheson, op. cit. (72), pp. 215, 250–251.

76 ‘Some short notes’, op. cit. (22), f. 5.

77 For a useful summary of Hutcheson's position see Rivers, op. cit. (19), pp. 206–207.

78 ‘Some short notes’, op. cit. (22), f. 6.

79 Earl of Bute to the Prince of Wales, 1756[?], BL ADD MS 36797, f. 63v.

80 Earl of Bute to the Prince of Wales, op. cit. (79), f. 64r.

81 Earl of Bute to the Prince of Wales, op. cit. (79), ff. 64r–v.

82 For the moral sense, see George III, op. cit. (72), at 1975; and Hutcheson, op. cit. (72), pp. 3–6. For its natural operation see George III, op. cit. (72), at 1980; and Hutcheson, op. cit. (72), p. 2. For its status prior to ‘instruction, Art or Volition’ see George III, op. cit. (72), at 1981; and Hutcheson, op. cit. (72), p. xvii.

83 For the moral sense and public affections as the sources of virtue see George III, op. cit. (72), at 1991; and Hutcheson, op. cit. (72), p. 218; for the public affections enumerated see Hutcheson, op. cit. (72), p. 30.

84 For the dynamic balance between the public affections and the private passions see George III, op. cit. (72), at 2000–2001; and Hutcheson, op. cit. (72), p. 55.

85 Hutcheson, op. cit. (72), p. 29.

86 George III, op. cit. (72), at 2001.

87 Hutcheson, op. cit. (72), p. 183.

88 George III, op. cit. (72), at 2001.

89 For this account of La Mettrie's moral philosophy, I have relied on Wellman, Kathleen, La Mettrie: Medicine, Philosophy, and Enlightenment, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1992, pp. 132134, 216–223.

90 Hutcheson, op. cit. (72), pp. 229, 55.

91 For the centrality of virtue in princely education see, for example, James I and VI, op. cit. (62), pp. 61–62; and Bettam, op. cit. (63), p. 9.

92 Shapin, Steven, ‘Of gods and kings: natural philosophy and politics in the Leibniz–Clarke disputes’, Isis 72 (1981), pp. 187215.

93 Shapin, op. cit. (92), pp. 202, 207–210.

94 Desaguliers, John Theophilus, The Newtonian System of the World, the best Model of Government: An Allegorical Poem, Westminster: A. Campbell for J. Roberts, 1728, p. v.

95 For Caroline's Hermitage see Colton, Judith, ‘Kent's Hermitage for Queen Caroline at Richmond’, Architectura (1974) 2, pp. 181189.

96 Colley, Linda, Britons: Forging the Nation 1707–1837, London: Pimlico, 2003, p. 229.

97 Shapin, op. cit. (92), p. 202.

A version of this article was presented at the British History in the Long Eighteenth Century seminar at the Institute for Historical Research. My thanks go to Ludmilla Jordanova, Jane Wess, Jim Bennett, Stephen Clucas, Niall O'Flaherty, Anna Maerker, Janet Nelson, Tim Hitchcock and Penelope Corfield, who have all commented on various stages of this work. I am also grateful to Allison Derrett of the Royal Archives and Barbara McLean of the Mount Stuart Collections Department for their assistance. Material from the Royal Archives at Windsor Castle is reproduced here by permission of Her Majesty the Queen.


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