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Monarchy Without Kings
January/February 2015


The Lansdowne Portrait: Gilbert Stuart’s 1796 painting of George Washington

Somehow I doubt that Eric Nelson's The Royalist Revolution found its way onto the Christmas lists of many Standpoint readers; but it is a fine book nonetheless. Moreover, for anyone interested in the founding of the American Republic it is indispensable reading.

As Nelson writes, "Few historiographical orthodoxies have proven more resilient than the view that the Constitution of the United States embodied a fundamental repudiation of the principles of the American Revolution." Seen from within this orthodoxy, the political ideas of American patriots were firmly embedded in the radical Whig ideology that had arisen out of the great constitutional crises of the English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution of 1688. This Whig perspective detailed two primary threats to political liberty: the moral decay of a people and the encroachment of executive authority — in effect, monarchy — upon the legislature and the consequent overturning of the protections afforded by mixed government. On this view, by the mid-18th century the English constitution had become hopelessly corrupt and the British state was exceeding its legitimate authority with the express intention of destroying American liberties. Monarchy, Thomas Paine told the many readers of his Common Sense, was "the popery of government".

And so, after all calls for redress had failed, the Americans had no alternative but to declare independence and begin their momentous experiment in republican government. Sovereignty was to lie in the people and democratic political institutions were to be fashioned in what amounted to a confederation of 13 sovereign states.

But, the argument runs, amid a growing mood of dissatisfaction with the working of Congress, many came to believe that their earlier idealism had been misplaced. The American Revolution, it was feared, had unleashed social and political forces that threatened the very essence of the republican revolution. It was then in a mood of disenchantment that the Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia in 1787 and it was here that the democratic tide was turned back. The most eloquent expression of this new conservative disposition, as is well known, came in the form of The Federalist Papers, penned by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay.

Eric Nelson tells an altogether different story. He begins with a remarkable quotation from James Wilson of Pennsylvania. "The people of America," Wilson proclaimed in June 1787, "did not oppose the British King but the parliament — the opposition was not against an Unity but a corrupt multitude." In short, Nelson's thesis is that the American Revolution, unlike the two 17th-century English revolutions, was a rebellion against a legislature, not against a king. It was, he writes, "a rebellion in favour of royal power".

The problem the American patriots faced therefore was an English Parliament that claimed the right to legislate on all matters, and in particular on all matters to do with America. Their response was to argue that Parliament possessed no jurisdiction whatsoever over British North America and, moreover, to insist that the only connection the 13 colonies had with Britain was through the "person and prerogative of the king".

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