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  • The King’s Three Faces: The Rise and Fall of Royal America, 1688–1776
  • Stephen Saunders Webb
The King’s Three Faces: The Rise and Fall of Royal America, 1688–1776. By Brendan McConville . Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006. ISBN 0-8078-3065-8. Photographs. Illustrations. Notes. Index. Pp. ix, 322. $39.95.

Celebrity is bad for kings. Persons "well-known only for their well-knownness" have insubstantial claims on the loyalty of a fickle public. One or two missteps and celebrities become has-beens. Such was the fate of McConville's George III. The king was celebrated for a time. His royal cipher was baked on slipware. His portrait hung in innumerable homes and in every public building. He was even worshipped: prayed for in churches and addressed as "his sacred majesty." But a few mad ministerial decisions—a stamp tax here, a Quebec Act there—and the royal celebrity became an object of republican derision: "the nascent revolutionaries appropriated the rites that established emotional ties to the king, or simply stopped them from being performed. In this way, the king began to die in the hearts of his subjects" (p. 286). With the collapse of royal celebrity, British control of America evaporated because the American colonists did not comprehend the sovereignty of parliament—the collectivity of king, lords, and commons—as it had developed after 1688. "For colonists," McConville writes, "the monarch apart from Parliament, became the primary and common imperial link, the empire's living embodiment" (p. 8). Benjamin Franklin put it pithily: "the sovereignty of the crown I understand. The sovereignty of parliament I do not understand."

But the crown, the imperial executive, does not appear in these pages. McConville's king does not wield the sword of state or use the scepter of command. The author admits (in no particular order, for this is history without chronology) that government in general, and land titles in particular, derived from the doctrine of royal discovery. Elsewhere, it appears that all civil rights and privileges were the gift of the sovereign to his colonists. That war, declared and directed by kings and queens, had something to do with monarchy, is noted without elaboration of either the fact or the royal role. The king ruled as well as reigned over the British empire but his writ does not run in McConville's Royal America. Rather, his monarch is what he himself deplores, "another academic abstraction created by a wilful reading of eighteenth century print culture" (p. 100), here with a frosting of iconography and such detritus of royalty as coffee mugs and waxworks. These artifacts, McConville declares, "enabled" provincials to "problematize imperial institutional control" (p. 137) and so, ultimately, to reject it. The "commodification" of the monarch made eighteenth-century America like one of the "East Asian societies today—we see political-religious cults of political personality in polities with dynamic commercial growth" (p. 140).

The fatal flaw in this Anglo-American tiger was that the cult of royal personality had no room for the expanding provincial elite. Provincials sought places or, as McConville puts it, "Americans wanted more patriarchy and more empire, not less" (p. 147). Failing to get into the empire, "a Washington very different from the one we know . . . a provincial man with aspirations to rise in the imperial structure [p. 111] commanded the army that cast down the statue of King George on 9 July 1776." Here, at last, is a tidbit for readers of this Journal. For the rest, The King's Three Faces is about rites, not royalty, celebrity, not power.

Stephen Saunders Webb
Syracuse University
Syracuse, New York


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Print ISSN
pp. 1233-1234
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2010
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