- Royal Touch:What Charles I Can Teach Historians of the American Revolution
As I read Eric Nelson’s engaging and contentious monograph, the old adage about not judging a book by its cover kept intruding on my thoughts. Although the allure of monarchy in early America, before 1776 as well as after, is a familiar theme, Nelson explains why with grace and erudition.1 Proceeding through the introduction, five meticulously researched chapters, and the conclusion, I found much to admire. Yet try as I might, I could not stop thinking about the title, especially the words “Royalist Revolution.” In their adherence to monarchical principles, Nelson contends, a number of leading Founders were latter-day Royalists, the predominantly Anglican and Catholic party that supported Charles I during the English Civil War. Then as now, Royalism carried intimations of government by divine right, of a king who was head of church as well as state, and whose touch could cure a host of nasty ailments, notably scrofula. To say the Stuarts were a model that even a few Americans wanted to emulate is provocative. It is also, I think, revealing. That Nelson would package an otherwise fine study this way says quite a lot both about the book that he has written and, indirectly, about the state of the field that it is meant to address.
To understand what is controversial about Nelson’s book, let me begin with what is not. In an insight often attributed to Charles M. Andrews, historians have long recognized the central role of the monarchy in Britain’s imperial constitution before the Revolution.2 Two points from the imperial school are particularly important to Nelson’s argument. First, although the Crown and Parliament jointly governed England and (after 1707) Scotland, Americans believed that the colonies were dominions of the Crown alone—what Nelson aptly terms the “dominion theory” of the British Empire (p. 30). Second, until early 1776, when Thomas Paine’s Common Sense convinced them otherwise, Americans held that their quarrel was only with Parliament, which had overstepped [End Page 235] its authority by attempting to tax the king’s subjects in the colonies in the same way as it did subjects in Britain. Insofar as the colonists thought about George III, they hoped he would ride to the rescue as the defender of their liberty. In his oft-quoted Summary View of the Rights of British America (1774), Thomas Jefferson famously called on the king to “resume the exercise of his negative powers” and veto Parliament’s destructive laws.3 Similarly, during the first year of the Revolutionary War, George Washington referred to himself as the king’s most loyal subject and to the redcoats opposing him as the parliamentary army. “I love my King,” he wrote Martha on June 24, 1776, ten days before Congress declared independence.4 The American Revolution, in other words, started as what John Pocock memorably called a “revolution against parliament.”5 When he says Americans were never more “wrapped up in their king” than on the eve of independence, Nelson is in good company (p. 108).
Although others have made this argument before, Nelson executes it very well. From this, he moves (in what is probably the most original part of the book) to a perceptive analysis of republicanism, which Americans embraced as they realized George III was not going to break with Parliament. He then makes an intriguing connection between the appeals to the king by Congress in 1774 and 1775 and the support of Federalists, in particular, for a “strong, prerogative-wielding chief magistrate” during the Constitutional Convention in 1787 (p. 185). Again, it is not exactly news that the Founders envisioned the President as a kind of elective monarch. By the time Washington took the oath of office in 1789, he had become the “father of his people,” which is how King George’s subjects thought of him in England. John Adams, for one, proposed using “your majesty” when addressing the new head...