The Royalist Revolution: Monarchy and the American Founding


April 9, 2015
by William Clift Also by this Author


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Book Review: The Royalist Revolution: Monarchy and the American Founding, by Eric Nelson (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2014)

The Royalist Revolution, by Eric Nelson, provides a fresh take on the American Revolution by examining motives behind the rebellion. The book explains that the war distinguishes itself from any other revolution, in that the colonists’ revolted against a legislature rather than a king. Nelson opines the colonists’ belief that Parliament possessed little to no power over British North America, leaving the patriots to insist their connections lie solely through “the person and prerogative of the king.”(page 2). In addition, Nelson explains how historiography has portrayed the patriots as radical Whigs; he, however, asserts that the colonists may have briefly turned on the king, but only as a ploy to thwart the ministry. Thus, the patriots merely sought to vindicate the supremacy of their colonial legislatures.

Nelson notes that the serious problem with the accepted narrative is the supposition that prerogativism was an ideological dead end; yet the narrative argues that this turn towards royal prerogative was the seminal moment in American constitutionalism (page 7). The same principles which began the colonists’ campaign also created a recognizably royalist constitution in 1787. Nelson understands that this argument will take some readers by surprise, but he insists that “a chief magistrate” and a monarch have much in common. The book is not intended to provide a general history of revolutionary politics; rather, it looks to trace the emergence and development, among patriot theorists, of questions regarding monarchy, prerogative power, constitutional corruption, representation, and later “republican” government (page 9).

The book begins with an extensive look at the colonists’ belief that British North America was in fact a dominion of the British Empire. Patriots felt that the only connection between the colonies and Britain was simply the person of the king, who granted charters of the various colonizing companies (page 30). Colonists maintained that the king’s prerogative crossed the ocean, Parliament’s did not; thus the only issue to be discussed was that of American trade. Nelson notes that the position of most patriots prior to the revolution was not that of a “Tory.” The narrative insists that the misuse of “Tory” stems from an uncertainty in the prerogative of the colonists due to the brashness of the Declaration of Independence. Nelson drives home this point by insisting that patriots desired to be regarded as dependent upon the king, rather than Parliament.

A key point that emerges throughout the book is the issue of representation, both within British control and after the war when the Philadelphia Convention was discussing the Constitution. Nelson explains the two conflicting theories of representative government, which stemmed from the English Revolutions of the 1640s and 1650s. The parliamentary theory argued that “legitimate representation must be a good representation or image of those represented” (page 69). Nelson clarifies that within this theory an assembly could represent the entire body of the people even if a majority did not elect the members. Thus, this theory established that the king and the House of Commons could not represent the people. In opposition to this theory, “Royalists”—as Nelson describes them—asserted that any person or agency approved by the people could be their representative. Thus, Nelson argues, this theory justified the claim that Charles I was a representative of the colonial people.

In understanding this dichotomy regarding representation, readers can acknowledge Nelson’s grand argument taking shape; in the 1760s and 1770s the British government instituted the parliamentary theory of representation, better known as virtual representation. It was the stringent use of this theory that drove the colonists towards revolution, because, as the authorization theory states, many patriots asserted that they had not given Parliament authorization to represent them. Nelson notes that the authorization theory had been designed to vindicate the representative nature of hereditary monarchies (page 71). Thus, the Royalist theory was the only way to explain why royal prerogative was not disputed against the ideology of the American Revolution.

Nelson advances the ideology of patriot Royalism and explains its importance in the creation of the Executive branch of the Constitution. As many states created constitutions in the early 1770s and 1780s, the issue of executive power produced consistent quarrels. A number of states issued their executives a “negative voice” within a single individual (page 146). When South Carolina attempted to redact the power of a veto, the Royalists attacked the fear that colonists placed in a single executive. Nelson asserted that the power of a negative voice was not merely consistent with the Royalist ideology, it was necessary to prevent legislative encroachment (page 147). It is within this context that the Philadelphia Convention created a chief magistrate grounded in “Revolutionary principles” (page 186). Nelson notes that the formation of the presidency was engrained within the long struggle of the Royalist ideology.

The Royalist Revolution is an engaging book that provides readers with a new interpretation of the American Revolution as well as the creation of the Executive branch. Nelson invigorates the historiography with a new model, or lens, to view America’s revolutionaries through. The book is a smooth read that historians will find fascinating as it provides a new thread of evidence that helps to explain the revolutionaries’ prerogative. History enthusiasts will find the book extremely informative as it explains the origins of the patriots’ defiance against British rule, as well as providing insight into the evolution of British colonial regulation. The Royalist Revolution is a necessary text for Revolutionary historians and a great read for enthusiasts who want a fresh take on one of America’s most important events.

One thought on “The Royalist Revolution: Monarchy and the American Founding

  • Great review of an interesting book. It is noteworthy that the colonists engaged in an incredible amount of legal hairsplitting in so many things; they were truly an argumentative group on so many issues. It was not just these distinctions between things like kingship and parliamentary rule as the reviewer notes, but also concerned taxation as they came to accept the need for external taxes to protect their trade interests on the seas, but declined to recognize any that reached internally on their domestic production (this was the argument that Franklin advanced to Parliament to explain to them why they were looking for trouble if they pushed on with their taxation policies).

    It would be interesting to see, if not already done, some study that looked solely at the distinctions that the colonists engaged in in their relationships with England; a factor that I suspect stems from the special light they viewed themselves as the protector of Britain’s frontier interests in this large, dark, forbidding continent. Turner’s Frontier Thesis rises once again!

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