The Royalist Roots Of The American Presidency?


Jack N. Rakove ponders Eric Nelson’s new book The Royalist Revolution: Monarchy and the American Founding, in which the political theorist advances a contrarian take on how American colonists viewed the British monarch. Nelson argues that “[r]esistance leaders and the Continental Congress repeatedly urged George III to take their side in the struggle against Parliament’s assertion that it possessed unlimited authority to enact laws governing the colonies” – in short, a number of American leaders had become “patriot royalists.” How this sympathy impacted the presidential office they’d construct after the revolution:

[I]t is important to say “executive” rather than “royal,” because none of the authors of the U.S. Constitution—not even that purported quasi-crypto-monarchist Alexander Hamilton—seriously imagined an American king or hereditary ruler. But the same “patriot royalists” who wanted the king to nullify Parliament in 1774-76 remained advocates of a republican executive armed with independent prerogatives (such as the presidential veto) that hardly conformed to the weak models of executive leadership that Americans had once favored.

Here again, Nelson brilliantly uses 17th-century English sources largely neglected by American scholars to illuminate another critical debate. American ideas of political representation, it is often argued, rested on a belief that election by the people in constituencies mapping the real distribution of the population formed a sufficient basis of political legitimacy. Architects of the revolutionary constitutions conceived of a representative assembly as a “miniature,” “mirror,” “portrait,” or “transcript” of the larger society. If these images were accurate, the demand for active consent was adequately satisfied.

But arguments like that had also appeared during the English civil war of the 1640s, to be countered by the idea that the king also embodied the national interest. If the executive was adequately authorized to serve that function, advocates for this claim held, the theory of exclusive legislative supremacy grew weaker. A space might be cleared in which the claims for executive prerogative—for an independent capacity to recognize and pursue the public interest—would complement, or even counter, the republican orthodoxy of 1776.

Andrew O’Shaughnessy further explains Nelson’s case:

Following the repeal of the Stamp Act in 1766, colonial authorities, in Mr. Nelson’s telling, began to contemplate the idea of a more powerful and independent monarch at the helm of a re-configured imperial government. The doctor and future spy Edward Bancroft was at the forefront of this movement with a 1769 pamphlet arguing that “Though the King’s Prerogative extends, indiscriminately, to all States owing him Allegiance, yet the Legislative Power of each State, if the People have any Share therein, is necessarily confined within the State itself.” Alexander Hamilton wrote a more expansive version, “The Farmer Refuted,” in 1775, and other important proponents of this royalist ideology included John Adams and two future Supreme Court justices, James Wilson and James Iredell.

Mr. Nelson acknowledges that such ideas about prerogative were for a time overshadowed by Tom Paine ’s assault on the mythology of monarchy in “Common Sense” (1776). But they were revived in the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 (drafted by Adams), and a broad resurgence of monarchial enthusiasm thereafter culminated in 1787 with the creation of the strong presidency in the “recognizably Royalist constitution for the new United States.” Mr. Nelson concedes that the presidency could never possess all the pomp and trappings of kingship but notes that the Constitution assigned “its rechristened chief magistrate far more power than any English monarch had wielded since William of Orange landed at Torbay in 1688.” He quotes the historian Mercy Otis Warren complaining in 1788 that the new constitution created a “Republican form of government, founded on the principles of monarchy.”

(Image: Allan Ramsey’s portrait of King George III, 1762, via Wikimedia Commons)