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”.
In short, American patriots of the 1760s and 1770s wanted to turn the constitutional clock back more than 100 years by separating the king from his Parliament and so restore the ancient prerogatives of the Crown. Despite what Nelson terms their “impeccably Whig upbringing”, they found themselves taking the royalist side in the disputes that had divided king and Parliament from the 1620s onwards. It was “only after the death of King Charles the First,” one American pamphleteer wrote, that “the Commonwealth Parliament, which usurped the rights of the Crown, naturally concluded, that by those rights they had acquired some kind of supremacy over the Colonies of America.” It had after all been the Long Parliament that had passed the Navigation Act of 1651.
To establish his case, Nelson indulges in an extremely learned discussion of 17th-century theories of representation. This is certainly not the sort of thing one would want to tackle after a copious Boxing Day lunch and a couple of bottles of Chassagne-Montrachet. The point is, however, that royalist theorists — to their own satisfaction at least-developed a theory of representation according to which an hereditary monarchy could perfectly well act as a representative of the people, and it was this theory that American patriots took up in defence of their liberties. Parliament, American patriots argued, had no jurisdiction over the colonies. In effect, America was to be seen as a private dominion of the Crown.
So what went wrong? In brief, George III had no intention of remaking himself in the image of James I and Charles I. And when therefore he issued his own proclamation of August 1775 declaring the American colonies to be in a state of rebellion his American subjects, in the words of Nelson, “turned on their king with unprecedented ferocity and began to pursue independence”. Indeed, they turned against kingship itself.
Here again Nelson treats us to an erudite examination of the anti-monarchical arguments advanced by John Milton and Tom Paine. Paine, it seems, was not above establishing the providential connexion between the 13 tribes of Israel and the 13 American colonies. But even though the ideological wind had changed and state after state endorsed democratic constitutions that placed the executive firmly under the control of the legislature, many persisted in rejecting these Hebraic arguments against monarchy.
More than this, according to Nelson, the leading theorists of royalist patriotism did not alter their theoretical commitments nor did they revise their analysis of the origins of the American crisis. Rather, in Nelson’s words, they attempted to realise “the anti-Whig vision of independent prerogative power on behalf of which so many Americans had rebelled”. Accordingly, they set themselves against the first democratic state constitutions, fearing the appearance of a renegade parliament and the advent of elective despotism, and resolved to tame any embryonic American Long Parliament through the institution of a prerogative-wielding chief executive. The challenge, in the words of Mercy Otis Warren, was to create a “Republican form of government, founded on the principles of monarchy”.
The first moves in this direction were already visible by the late 1770s. The state of New York, for example, adopted a new constitution providing for the popular election of a governor with “qualified” powers over legislation. But it was arguably this precise institutional arrangement that emerged out of the Constitutional Convention of 1787. To that extent, according to Nelson, the federal Constitution with its indirectly elected President was not a repudiation of the principles of the Revolution but their apotheosis.
Of course, this involved some nimble intellectual footwork on the part of the new Constitution’s supporters. James Wilson, for example, felt compelled to remark that “all know that a single magistrate is not a King”. In the pages of The Federalist Papers Alexander Hamilton adopted the artful strategy of stressing the weaknesses of the powers of the President relative to those of the British monarch.
Not everyone was reassured. Edmund Randolph of Virginia, for example, spoke before the Convention of a Constitution containing “the foetus of monarchy”, adding that Americans had “no motive to be governed by the British government as our prototype”. Those who remained wedded to Whig principles, such as Roger Sherman of Connecticut, saw the Constitution as a repudiation of their most basic commitments. The executive, Sherman argued, had to be “absolutely dependent” on the legislature. Once again both sides offered contrasting descriptions of the English constitution and its discontents.
The curious thing is what happened next. The Americans flirted with monarchy and royal pageantry, and so much so that George Washington, the Republic’s first President, thanked Divine Providence that he had no heirs. When Washington travelled he did so with liveried servants and in an elaborately ornamented coach, bands playing “God save the King”. The many state portraits of him were infused with the iconography of European monarchy. Ceremonial levees were established. His birthday was the subject of public celebration.
As for how to refer to this august personage, anything but plain “President” would do. For a brief moment the leading candidate was “His High Mightiness, the President of the United States and Protector of Their Liberties” but “Highness”, “Elective Highness” and “Excellence” were all considered. Fortunately James Madison got his colleagues to see sense and to settle for the simple republican title of “President of the United States”.
There was however no escaping the fact that, for all Americans would never again be reconciled to the pomp of kingly office, the new federal Constitution with its strong executive President moved America back towards the model of English monarchy. As Nelson wryly concludes: “On one side of the Atlantic, there would be kings without monarchy; on the other, monarchy without kings.” One senses that he thinks that America got the worst of the deal.