Reading the Field from a Book: Some Thoughts on Eric Nelson’s The Royalist Revolution

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.[1]

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?[2]

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.[3] 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.[4]

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.[5] 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.


[1] 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.

[2] 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.

[3] 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.

[4] 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.)

[5] 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.

18 responses

  1. Hi Michael,

    Many thanks for your thoughts on this book. I’ve not read it, merely about it ( including Jack Rakove’s fairly critical review that you reference).

    From the description of the book in both the HUP catalog and your own excellent summary, I’m really at a loss to understand “what’s new” here.

    The point that the colonists looked to the King and argued that their loyalties went directly to him and not parliament (in their understanding of the Imperial Constitution) is well documented in Jack Greene’s work.

    I’m really at a loss to understand what’s new here except the stuff about the Patriots somehow adhering to monarchical principles in creating the presidency. None of them understood themselves to be doing this – no one said “yes, you’re right” when critics accused them of that. Indeed they created an executive with many monarchical prerogatives, but subjecting him to elections seems to eliminate the notion that the created a monarch. If you’re elected, you pretty much aren’t a monarch.

    In short, to quote the old saw, what seems to be true here is not new, and what is new isn’t really true. At least that’s the way it seems to me, but again I’ve not read it.

    • You’re right in a sense, Alec. The argument for the King to intervene based on imperial precedents set in the seventeenth century is decidedly not new. What is new is that Nelson is indeed claiming that the small number of “patriot royalists” did indeed “understand themselves to be doing this” in the Constitutional Convention. And you do hit on a major criticism of the presidency argument which is that the weight of his argument does not correspond with the weight of the restrictions placed on the Executive in the Constitution. Deciding whether or not you buy the argument is up to each individual reader. As I said in the post, I don’t buy the importance of it pre-1776, but I was more open to the CC argument. That said, it might just be because I think it is a creative leap that he made and I am sympathetic to anyone who is willing to undertake large-scale reinterpretations.

  2. I first heard about this book at a New-York Historical Society conference for teachers, at which Sanford Levinson of the University of Texas praised it to the skies; I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, because I could not take this book seriously. Now that I’ve read Michael Hattem’s thoughtful essay on it, I still cannot take this book seriously. I have one reason for my conclusion and that is historiographical.

    The general historiography of the American Revolution, even the intellectual history of the Revolution, still has not followed the advice of Jack P. Greene way back in the 1980s (see his 19856 review essay in SOUTH ATLANTIC QUARTERL) to take the legal historians and their work seriously — in particular, the work of John Phillip Reid.

    Reid has argued in a series of pugnacious, well-argued, amazingly-well-researched monographs and a large, four-volume synthesis (CONSTITUTIONAL HISTORY OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION []1986-1993; one-volume abridged ed. 1995]), that there were two competing visions of the unwritten English constitution at the core of the argument between Great Britain and her colonies in British North America. One vision was the eighteenth-century British vision of the constitution as enshrining the supremacy of Parliament. The other vision was the seventeenth-century vision (which Americans still embraced and sought to vindicate) of the constitution as a restraint on arbitrary power, from whatever source. That mean that, whenever the Americans saw Parliament as acting arbitrarily, the Americans would both counter Parliament’s arguments and seek to enlist another part of the British constitutional system to check what Parliament was doing — that is, the Crown.

    (Jack P. Greene has offered an amendment to this vision of the constitutional dispute — he sees the point of contention as a third, imperial constitution that ideally both British and Americans were constructing together, but which ultimately caused wrangling and disputation between Britons and Americans. See his THE CONSTITUTIONAL ORIGINS OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION [2012].)

    But, in light of this history, it does not make the Americans royalists, monarchists, or Stuart sympathizers for them to seek to enlist the Crown against Parliament. This is the kind of misunderstanding that I usually associate with otherwise intelligent British historians such as P.D.G. Thomas, who accused the Americans of hypocrisy when in 1775 they appealed to George III (Olive Branch Petition) and then in 1776 turned on him, in the Declaration. Nelson seems not to understand what Thomas did not understand.

    So, too, Nelson does not understand that, rather than being some sort of monarchical turn in American constitutional argument about the nature of the Empire, the conception of the empire as a set of polities held together by allegiance to a symbolic head of state is actually a minimalist conception of the Empire as a constitutional and political system, one taking full account of the difficulties of projecting government power across vast territories in an era with systems of communication and transportation unable to sustain the demands of active governance.

    I hope that this contribution to the discussion sheds light rather than generating heat.

    • Having read Alan Rogers’s comment above, I only want to add a few thoughts.

      (1) Most executive institutions known to the Americans were monarchical or appointive by monarchs. It is not surprising that monarchical models were at hand in designing the Presidency.

      (2) That said, it is unconvincing to say that the Americans were seeking to adapt a monarchy to republican conditions — that’s too simple, and too derivative. (That may be what John Adams thought in 1787-1788 when he was writing the DEFENCE OF THE CONSTITUTIONS, but he wasn’t right.). Rather, they were creating an American chief executive, blending elements dran from monarchic and republican precedents -=- the monarchic precedent being the English crown and the republican precedents being the state governorships, notably those of New York and Massachusetts. See Ralph Ketcham, PRESIDENTS ABOVE PARTY, and Ray Raphael, MR. PRESIDENT.

      (3) In THE FEDERALIST No. 69, Hamilton gave a very convincing and careful refutation of the idea that the presidency was a mere adaptation of the British monarchy. To be sure, in making that case, he used Blackstone’s COMMENTARIES as the basis fro his sketch of the constitutional powers of the monarch — the most extreme royalist/Tory vision of the monarch’s powers easily available — to show the presidency as clearly republican by comparison.

    • Richard, thanks for your thoughtful comments. I didn’t have the space here to get into the particulars of imperial organization. Nelson’s reading of texts is too highly decontextualized (whether or not that is the product of being a political scientist rather than a historian is up to the reader). And he is apt to take these texts at their word and as being unquestioning evidence of the writer’s (and, more problematically, his readers’) thoughts. I find it highly problematic that one would read resistance writings in this way.

      He is arguing that this is a constitutional conflict based on competing perceptions of the imperial constitution, but you are especially right that it lacks the subtlety of the multiple constitution notion of Greene and Reid. The fact that they would turn to the monarch also does not seem to me to be hearkening back to the 1640s so much as 1688, since if either the King or Parliament proved unresponsive, the whole notion of King-in-Parliament makes it logical to approach the other for redress (as you said above).

      Greene’s “third” constitution was effectively the colonies’ own perception of their constitutional relationship to the empire and the metropol. Nelson fails to reckon with the fact that the colonists very much believed that they were not simply a part of the empire but a privileged part of the empire requiring different constitutional arrangements than both Britons at home and other parts of the empire, particularly in Asia.

      • I disagree with your reading of the third constitution identified by Greene, and I also disagree that the colonists sought a privileged position within the Empire beyond that occupied by subjects residing in the mother country. John Phillip Reid has shown us that the argument of what he calls “isonomy” — equality of treatment — was at the core of colonists’ arguments with the mother country. Again, I read that “third” constitution as an imperial constitution that, in the best of all possible worlds, was to be the joint construction of Americans and Britons but instead became the principal bone of contention between them.

        I should shut up now. I’m starting to sound like the guy I’m writing a book about.

        • I’ve always thought of Greene’s three constitutions as based on perception:

          1) British Constitution = as it applied at home to Britons
          2) Imperial Constitution = King-in-Parliament’s relationship with the empire as a whole
          3) colonial constitutions = colonists’ perception of their specific constitutional arrangement with Britain (i.e., salutary neglect).

          That may not be exactly as Greene argued but that’s how the structure of his argument structured my own thinking. You are right that they sought equality of treatment with native Britons there is a sense of privilege there, for example in James Otis’s comment, “The colonists are entitled to as ample rights, liberties, and privileges as the subjects of the mother country are, and in some respects to more.” I, however, meant to say privileged place within the empire. That is to say they believed they had the right to be treated differently than other kinds of colonies in other places.

          • My own understanding is that the British Constitution was, as Michael says, essentially the process by which the British governed itself. The Colonial constitution were the rules under which they governed themselves. The imperial constitution was the RELATIONSHIP (please pardon the all caps for emphasis) between England and its colonies (all of them).

            The conflict largely arose as a result of the British confusion (to the colonists) of the British and imperial constitutions:

            “the British political nation had not, before the 1760s, developed any explicit concept of an imperial constitution. Indeed, the tendency within Britain was to conflate the British constitution with the imperial constitution.”

            Greene, Jack P. (2010-08-01). The Constitutional Origins of the American Revolution (New Histories of American Law) (p. 50). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.

            as opposed to the Americans’ notion:

            “The colonists, therefore, as Barbara Black has argued persuasively, could reasonably develop a sense that the colonies were primarily “the king’s dominions” and that Parliament’s involvement with them was “essentially conciliar” – that is, advisory to, reinforcive of, and operating through the Crown – much as it had in the medieval empire.”

            Greene, Jack P. (2010-08-01). The Constitutional Origins of the American Revolution (New Histories of American Law) (p. 51). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.

            • Well, according to Reid the conflict arise from the clash between the constitution of Parliamentary supremacy and the constitution of restraint on arbitrary power. The following is from a book I’m trying to finish now:

              “England (after 1707, Britain) was governed by an unwritten constitution – a form of government comprising statutory law, customary law, common law, great documents of legal and constitutional significance such as Magna Carta, custom, and usage. The problem was that such an unwritten constitution could have multiple meanings depending on who was interpreting it and for what purpose.”

              • Very interesting. I’ve not read Reid.

                I think it may be possible to bridge this with Greene by saying that the constitution of Parliamentary Supremacy was the essence of British Constitutionalism by the mid 18th century, which the British took to be identical to what Greene calls the Imperial Constitution. In other words, they would not have understood there to be a difference.

                To the American colonists, there were limits although they perhaps differed on the source and nature of them. Each had their different organic documents depending on whether they had been royal colonies, proprietorships, etc., but in each case there was some source that restrained what could be done to them.

                At some point, from the actions the British begun to take, it slowly dawned on them that the British view was that Parliament could do whatever it wished without such restraints. This is where the panic begins to set in – when they realized that the British theory was that of complete domination and the only restraints were self imposed. It was a shock to a people that had always thought of themselves as having some legal protections from arbitrary power.

  3. The American Revolution is at least three things, at least as I teach it (influenced as I am by Reid, Greene, BaIlyn, Wood, Commager, and Morris:

    (1) a constitutional dispute that raged within the undefined and unstable crucible of the English constitution;

    (2) a constitutional dispute that morphed into the revitalization of cosntitutionalism in America, first at the state level through “the age of experiments in government” (Jefferson) or “the age of revolutions and constitutions” (Adams) and then at the American, interstate, or national level;

    (3) a “cautiously transforming egalitarianism” in the realms of society, politics, and law (Richard B. Morris, THE FORGING OF THE UNION, 1781-1789), that laid the groundwork for future attempts to bring democratization to American society, politics, and law (sounding like Wood’s RADICALIZATION, but more nuanced and less celebratory).

    I honestly don’t see how Nelson’s book contributes to our understanding of any of those things; it seems to be a typical political-science book pursuing an iconoclastic agenda that ignores historical, political, constitutional, and legal context.

    • I think those are about right (as is your comment about the book). For my money, it’s also about the politicization of non-elites and a cultural as well as political break with Britain over the course of the eighteenth century (contra to Murrin and Greene). But I think number 1 is key… the situation is created by a lack of definition (and therefore conflicting self-definitions by both the colonists and Britain) of both the English constitution AND the British empire.

  4. All three things create the situation that leads to the Revolution, though they assert themselves with different strengths and at different times. Some would argue that the cautiously transforming egalitarianism that RBM wrote about included that politicization of non-elites and a cultural as well as political break with Britain. For example, the colonists’ willingness to engage in boycotts of British goods strongly suggests a cultural impetus to cut economic and cultural (fashion, etc.) ties with Britain; the boycotts would not have worked as well as they did unless the colonists found within themselves a willingness both to do without British goods, fashions, etc., on a crass economic and socio-cultural level and a more abstract willinngess to sever their habits of consumption from the seductive pull of British luxuries.

    • Absolutely, Richard. We get that also, of course, from T.H. Breen’s Marketplace of Revolution. But that argument seems yet to be fully fleshed out. Indeed, my own work at the moment is focused on another cultural break with Britain prior to independence. That said, the standard line at the moment is that the cultural break with Britain was not something that occurred prior to independence (as I contend) but that it was a still a major problem standing in the way of the development of a genuinely American nationalism in the early republic (see Kariann Yokota’s Unbecoming British and Sam Haynes’s Unfinished Revolution).

  5. Great summary. I’m surprised Brendan McConville’s “The King’s Three Faces: The Rise and Fall of Royal America, 1688-1776” hasn’t been mentioned yet. I see Nelson’s work very much influenced by that book.

  6. Pingback: Have Cultural Historians Lost the American Revolution? « The Junto

  7. Pingback: The Origins of the Revolution: Definition, Periodization, and Complexity « The Junto


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