Were Top American Leaders…Royalists?

Granger Collection
An 1829 engraving of the Sons of Liberty pulling down a statue of King George III at the Bowling Green, New York, in July 1776

The powers of the executive branch are under fierce scrutiny. President Obama’s use of an executive order to modify the enforcement of immigration laws has been opposed by twenty-four states challenging the legality of his actions, federal judge Arthur Schwab has unilaterally issued a judgment striking down the executive order, while in the blogosphere Obama is being adversely compared to the autocratic Stuart monarch Charles I.1

Over in Britain it has recently been revealed that the queen and Prince Charles, the heir to the throne, have been asked by ministers to approve or veto bills debated in the House of Commons, and that in 1999 the queen vetoed a bill concerning military actions against Iraq, a piece of legislation opposed by the government that would have removed her power to authorize military strikes and transferred it to the House of Commons.

These instances of executive interference with the processes and enforcement of legislation have had a long and contentious history in the politics of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Britain and North America. The issue of the royal “prerogative,” the special powers of the monarch to take unilateral and unaccountable action in the public interest—the right to suspend, dispense with, or veto legislation, to appoint and dismiss ministers, to make war and treaties—was at the heart of the struggles between the Stuart monarchs and their parliaments; it unleashed rebellion, civil war, and revolution in the seventeenth century. The historical memory of these bitter conflicts ran deep in the Anglophone Atlantic world of the eighteenth century and colored the struggles between the British and the thirteen colonies. For more than forty years, scholarship on the American Revolution has emphasized the close connection between colonial ideas and the beliefs and attitudes of those—the parliamentarians and the Whigs—who had opposed the crown more than a century earlier.

Eric Nelson, a professor at Harvard, in his brilliant and provocative analysis of the American Revolution, The Royalist Revolution: Monarchy and the American Founding, is equally insistent that the Revolution can only be understood in the light of patriots’ passionate commitment to seventeenth-century political ideas. But he departs radically from his predecessors, arguing that it was admiration for royal prerogative power and belief in the virtues of a strong executive, both derived from seventeenth-century precedents, that fostered the rebellion against Britain and shaped the Constitution of the new American republic. His Revolution comes out of a royalist, not a parliamentarian, tradition.

The Royalist Revolution is a book of great intellectual power: it is not just challenging but erudite (many of its abundant footnotes are brilliant short essays in their own right), and, though densely argued, is written with admirable clarity and fairness. Yet Nelson’s oxymoronic and attention-grabbing title speaks…

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