04 July 2018

The Glorious Revolution, American royalists and the War for Independence

One of the more fascinating books I've read recently is Eric Nelson's The Royalist Revolution: Monarchy and the American Founding. On this Independence Day it is worth recounting Nelson's argument, which differs somewhat from the conventional histories Americans are taught in their schools. The standard account has it that Americans disliked King George III and fought to free themselves from his tyranny. A surface reading of the Declaration of Independence supports this interpretation, as it charges the King with a list of offences, to wit: "repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States." In this reading, Americans are Whigs—heirs of the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which unseated King James II and established parliamentary government in the three kingdoms of England, Scotland and Ireland.

But what if the Glorious Revolution inadvertently prepared the ground for revolt in the colonies nearly a century later? What if Americans were actually Tories and supporters of the king?

That's Nelson's thesis in this book. Recall that the original colonial charters in the early 17th century were granted directly by the Stuart monarchs without the intermediary of a parliament. Kings James I and Charles I had pretensions to absolute rule, antagonizing parliament and eventually leading to the outbreak of civil war in 1642. Charles was, of course, beheaded in 1649, but his son Charles II was restored to the English throne in 1660, to be succeeded by his brother James II in 1685. When the latter was overthrown three years later, the parliaments of the kingdoms effectively took control, setting the terms of royal succession. The parliaments of England and Scotland were consolidated in 1707 with the creation of the Kingdom of Great Britain. Ireland retained its own parliament for nearly another century and remained in personal union with the new kingdom.

The stage was now set for the looming showdown with the colonies. Throughout the 18th century Parliament increased its control over the King's realms, including his American possessions. The advent of the German-speaking Hanoverian monarchs, the South Sea Bubble of 1720 and Parliament's increasing assertiveness worked to weaken the monarch and to transfer executive power to Robert Walpole, in effect the first prime minister. By the 1760s the ancient British constitution had changed to such an extent that the king was no longer taking the initiative, nor was he refusing assent to parliamentary bills submitted to him.

In the meantime, the American colonies had developed their own parliamentary bodies, beginning with Virginia's General Assembly, established in 1619. Though these assemblies were not elected by universal suffrage, the franchise was nevertheless fairly broad, reflecting widespread property ownership throughout the colonies. When the British Parliament attempted to exercise control over the colonies, especially in the wake of the Seven Years War, Americans objected, protesting their loyalty to the King and not to a parliament in which they had no representation. Their charters, they argued, were from the king, and it was the king's prerogative on which Parliament was encroaching. Right up until 1776, when Thomas Paine's anti-monarchist Common Sense was published and independence was declared, Americans were generally champions of the king over against Parliament. Their disappointment with George III had less to do with his vaunted tyrannical acts and more with his refusal—inability, really—to obstruct Parliament's unwarranted interference in colonial affairs.

Americans originally had no desire to abolish the monarchy. They saw their own polities having the same relationship to the king as Great Britain, Ireland and Hanover. George III was king in his own right of all of these realms, and the parliament of one of these had no proper authority over the others. Only when it became clear that the king would not defend their perceived interests did they decide to go it alone.

One of the striking features of Nelson's book is his exploration of the different theories of representation underpinning the respective positions of the colonies and Parliament. Despite the absence of delegates from the colonies, Parliament as a whole believed it was adequately representing the interests of Americans. On the other hand, Americans believed that Parliament's claim to represent them lacked credibility, because they had not explicitly authorized it to do so and its authority extended only over the Kingdom of Great Britain. For Americans, if protecting their own interests meant recovering an older account of royal authority, then so be it. Ironically, of course, the Americans' understanding of the separate status of the king's realms would return in the 20th century as the British Empire became the Commonwealth of Nations, ratified by the Statue of Westminster of 1931. A position that seemed outmoded by the 1780s would come to appear progressive a century and a half later.

Nelson adduces persuasive evidence in favour of his account. However, if he is right that Americans were championing the king's executive powers in the late 18th century, could there be similar evidence of Americans defending their own legislative bodies against the British Parliament? Might their professed royalism have been a cover for defending local parliamentary government? There may be another book waiting to be written.

In addition to this book, Eric Nelson is also the author of The Hebrew Republic, an intriguing account of the rising influence of the Hebrew Bible and recently recovered rabbinic literature on the development of western political thought and practice in the modern era.

A side note. I discovered nearly two decades ago that one of my apparent maternal ancestors, Captain Cornelius Howard, Sr. (c 1637-1680), my 9th great-grandfather, served in the Maryland colonial legislature in St. Mary's City. My wife and I visited the building that housed the assembly on our honeymoon. What Capt. Howard thought of the contest between king and parliament across the pond we do not know.

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