Eric Nelson’s The Royalist Revolution: Monarchy and the American Founding is, to put it simply, an important book. It is perhaps, the most important book on the Revolution in almost a decade. Yet, at the same time, its argument, methodology, and importance are indicative of (one might say, testament to) the long-standing stasis in which Revolution political studies has been mired for a very long time. This post is less reviewing the book itself than exploring its relationship with its historiographical context regarding political studies of the Revolution, particularly, its origins and causes.
In his new book, Nelson argues that in the late 1760s there developed a part of the patriot movement whose ideology and interpretation of the struggle with Britain differed radically from the common perception. Nelson argues that some in the patriot movement were calling for the King to intervene on their behalf and that their arguments were rooted in the seventeenth century and the very origins of the empire itself. Using the Stuart monarchs’ approach to imperial authority, they argued that only the King, not Parliament, held jurisdiction over the colonies and they called on him directly to intervene on their behalf. Effectively, Nelson argues, they were calling on the King to exercise the same imperial authority that the early Stuarts had in the seventeenth century.
Nelson goes on to argue that this royalist ideology did not go away following independence (and the Articles of Confederation) but instead resurfaced in state constitution debates (particularly in Massachusetts) and eventually came to play an important role in the Constitutional Convention, when the same “patriot royalists”—most notably, James Wilson—infused their ideology into the new Constitution via the creation of the Executive. This, of course, is directly at odds with the “standard” interpretation of the patriots as republicans ever wary of the corrupting ability of power and committed to the legacy of the Glorious Revolution of 1688 that limited the royal prerogative. And, in terms of the constitutional conflicts of the 1770s and 1780s, these were not the product of new thinking in unprecedented circumstances, as most historians have argued, but instead were the re-manifestation of divisions within the patriot movement between patriot Whigs vs. patriot Royalists with deep roots in the seventeenth-century England.
In his review in The Weekly Standard, Jack Rakove described the use of this royalist argument in the late 1760s and early 1770s, saying: “Other scholars, myself included, have never known quite what to make of these claims. Taken at face value, they imply an ignorance of British governance so profound as to make the colonists seem like political idiots.” Rakove is correct that many historians of the imperial crisis have long been aware of these arguments and have not taken them seriously. Nelson has. And, I must admit, they appear more substantive than I had previously believed. That said, the fact that Nelson is taking them this seriously betrays his primary concern as a political scientist committed to ideas, rather than as an historian, whose primary concern might be context. Nelson has shown that, for a few men, the arguments calling on the King to reclaim the imperial authority of the Stuarts were genuine. But what role did they play in the patriot movement as a whole?
I am still inclined to see the use of these ideas beyond Nelson’s committed royalists as primarily serving a rhetorical need. That is to say, Nelson is right that the debate between patriots and Britain changed during the imperial crisis. However, unlike Nelson, I am less inclined to believe that these changes were due to substantive (and, in some sense, radical) changes in “the colonists'” political philosophy. Rather, they were rhetorical responses within a debate that was being shaped by events just as much as ideas. That, however, is not to take the Progressive view that changes in the patriots’ position were solely opportunistic. The patriot movement as a whole did develop an overriding political position that all of those changes served, i.e., the denial of Parliamentary sovereignty over the colonies. Nelson, however, argues that the “Stamp Act and the Townshend Duties changed the way that many patriots thought about politics” (27). One of the problems, however, is that Nelson is not talking about “many patriots” but rather a small number of them who are reasonably identifiable in their ideological commitment to what Nelson calls “patriot royalism.”
The Royalist Revolution is an intellectual history of the Revolution writ-large (i.e., from imperial crisis to the Constitutional Convention). And it significantly reimagines that history from our standard understanding of the politics of the period as written by Bernard Bailyn and Gordon Wood. Yet, in reading it, I got the distinct feeling that this book could just as easily have been written in 1967 as in 2014. Nelson himself says in the “Introduction” that he has an “old-fashioned” notion of the relationship between ideas and events (25). And, indeed, politics (such as it is in this book) happens largely in the reading and assimilation of rarefied texts by Montesquieu, Molesworth, and Locke. “The imperial debate,” Nelson writes, “forced participants to explore the deep tissue of their political and constitutional theories to an unprecedented degree, and it was conducted in the technical vocabulary of legal and philosophical disputation.” Actual politics, however, is nowhere to be found.
Let me be clear: I think Nelson has shown that there were ideologically committed “patriot royalists” and that they played a role in the Revolution beginning with the patriot movement in the 1760s and culminating in the Constitutional Convention. That is an important and valuable argument even if, in my opinion, he has oversold its importance to the pre-independence resistance movement. Also, Nelson’s book does indeed change the way we should think about the origins of the American presidency in a very valuable way. Hence, it provides a significant example of the importance of the colonial past in the shaping of the early republic, something which has been often ignored in the two-decade boom of studies on the political culture of the early republic. It also complicates the always problematic and monolithic consensus model of the patriot movement that emerged out of the republican synthesis (in some sense, doing for patriots what William Benton tried to do for loyalists in Whig-Loyalism: An Aspect of Political Ideology in the American Revolution Era). Similarly, it revises and reinterprets our previous understanding of the dynamics of patriot political and constitutional thought, probably for the first time in decades. On these fronts, Nelson’s book is highly imaginative and makes important (and very likely) lasting contributions to our understanding of how the Revolution played out. Indeed, this book will likely be cited for a long time to come in almost any footnote that also mentions Bailyn’s Ideological Origins or Wood’s Creation of the American Republic, and that is no small feat (even if it is largely due in no small part to the similarity in methodology).
The problem for the field, however, is that this newest major work on the politics of the Revolution is again a history of political thought and constitutionalism. And, in that sense, this book serves as a powerful reminder that studies of this kind decades ago (and the debates they spawned) were so historiographically paralyzing as to have left a gaping void in our understanding of the Revolution as an actual political event instead of a political idea.
 I say this with a full understanding that I do, in some parts of this post, review this work for what it is not rather than what it is, but I do so to say something about broader about the field.
 This question was largely hashed out in a forum dedicated to the book in The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series 68, no. 4 (2011): 533-596.
 Part of Edmund Morgan’s new interpretation of the imperial crisis in the 1940s and 1950s was to refute Progressive claims that patriot arguments changed throughout the imperial crisis, which they characterized as opportunism.
 Again, I say this fully acknowledging that Nelson is a political scientist writing a work of intellectual history, Indeed, when Nelson writes, ”The internal properties, or deep structure, of ideas and arguments can have profoundly important consequences,” I agree with him, but without a foundation in the context of events, making the connection between the ideas and the consequences can easily lead to causal fallacies (37). And I should say that I absolutely do not think he is making a causal fallacy regarding the 1780s and the Constitutional Convention. (The fact that I am making this old chestnut of a criticism is due to the stasis of work on Revolutionary politics.)
 It is worth taking a moment to ponder the notion that the American Presidency is not only the direct descendant of Charles I and James II, but also would be the object of their envy.