The Royalist Revolution: Monarchy and the American Founding
by Erik Nelson
Belknap, 390 pages, $29.95
It was appropriate that I read Eric Nelson’s The Royalist Revolution this summer while on a research trip to Great Britain, since the book is a study of political ideas that bounced between England and her colonies and the effects they had on the shape of the new American nation.
One issue lies at the center of this dense study of the founding, that of “royalism.” Nelson defines Royalism as a defense of the king against Parliament, the ability for kings to use prerogative, and the royal right to veto acts of legislation. He holds these ideas up against an arrangement of legislative supremacy, whereby representative powers are vested entirely in Parliament or Congress.
Nelson recounts the debates about Royalism, including how Americans interpreted their British heritage. Nelson believes Royalism as a theory developed in the crisis years of 1765-1775, when Americans objected to the overreach of Parliament. To counter that reach, Nelson claims, influential American writers—John Adams figures prominently—defined a theory of government that strongly supported the King against Parliament. In fact, they reached back to reclaim attacks on Parliament lodged by the supporters of Charles I during the English Civil War of the 1640s. This theory was useful until King George III rejected American claims and forced independence. Inspired by Tom Paine’s Common Sense and other republican writings, the years of the War for Independence and Articles of Confederation saw Royalism “in the Wilderness.” Only in the Constitutional moment and Ratification Debates of the late 1780s did Royalism reemerge with the creation of an effective presidency.
Nelson has traced an intellectual trajectory that is contrary to most recent historical writing on the American Revolution. Although scholars of the Revolution have disagreed on many things, the past fifty years have witnessed strong agreement that one significant aspect of the ideas motivating the American Revolution was the Whig or Country party beliefs which supported the Glorious Revolution and then resisted the growth of monarchical power in the eighteenth century. Nelson would subvert these categories and turn many Revolutionaries into the strongest of Tories before the Revolution and crypto-Tories after Independence.
It’s a provocative thesis, but there is a problem: it opens an unbridgeable divide between “Royalists” and “Whigs,” one not entirely accurate to the dynamic American situation. It strikes me that the attacks on Parliament before Independence were not on an elected institution per se, but on the specific Parliament that colonists believed were unjustly oppressing them. Historically, we can also see that individuals—Adams, again—might simultaneously support the King in this battle while having been deeply influenced by Whig thought, a love of British liberty and self-government. Royalism and Whiggery could coexist, even in the same person. Categorical lines should not be drawn so neatly and cleanly, not in the American colonies of the 1770s.
Still, Nelson has written an interesting monograph, and the book causes us to reflect on larger themes.
First, the debates of the period underscore the benefits of an executive branch, as opposed to legislative supremacy. An executive with a veto provides a positive check on democratic inclinations. It consolidates a national voice, as Gary Gregg has argued. Further, historical experience shows the value of an executive having some prerogative to act beyond his strict authorization, in times of immediate opportunity (the Louisiana Purchase) or immediate danger (the perilous position of Washington, D.C. during the Civil War). Thus we might conclude that Adams and his Federalist associates were not off the mark.
Still, the executive must be limited. In the words of Harvey Mansfield, the Prince must be tamed so that his prerogative is neither boundless nor beyond review. The perils of executive power did not end with Nixon’s exit from the White House. In our day, we might point to far-reaching presidential Signing Statements, the decision to edit the interpretation and enforcement of laws after they have been signed, and the discretion given to bureaucracies and entrusting them with their own prerogatives. Republics demand accountability and checks from other governmental branches.
Finally, the book serves as a reminder to beware of Tom Paine, even in the Revolutionary period. Paine is often lionized for his attack on monarchy in Common Sense, even if he is repudiated for his later anti-Christian writings. Nelson reminds us that individuals even in 1776 saw problems with Paine’s approach. John Adams wrote, “His arguments…were ridiculous, but whether they proceeded from honest Ignorance, or foolish Supersti[ti]on on the one hand, or from willfull Sophistry and knavish Hypocrisy on the other I know not.” Paine’s extreme vision of full democratic participation led to the confusions of the new, single-chambered Pennsylvania legislature.
Hence Nelson rightly pays careful attention to the debates over political principles in the American founding, as well as the innovations those debates produced. Still, it is a mistake to see these founders as not Whiggish, or not holding onto the ideals of British liberty which they themselves claimed. With Independence, these statesmen had to find a way to secure liberty that balanced popular engagement with a national structure, held together under a rule of law. It is a balanced vision that our own day needs just as much.
Jonathan Den Hartog is Associate Professor of History at the University of Northwestern, St. Paul, Minnesota, and is the author of Patriotism and Piety: Federalist Politics and Religious Struggle in the New American Nation (2015).