Book review: The Royalist Revolution by Eric Nelson

In recent years there has been a renewed interest in executive power on both sides of the Atlantic. In January 2017 the Supreme Court had to decide whether the United Kingdom’s EU membership withdrawal notice could be given by Government ministers without Parliament’s prior authorisation. It could not. The royal prerogative was insufficient. [1] In August 2017, President Trump controversially used the power granted to his office to pardon former law official Joe Arpaio. [2] He could. The President has the “Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offenses against the United States”. [3] Eric Nelson’s ambitious and provocative book The Royalist Revolution: Monarchy and the American Founding successfully demonstrates that these events are in a way deeply connected by uncovering the historical link between the British royal prerogative and the powers of the presidency.

Nelson’s main thesis is that the American revolution was “for a great many of its protagonists – a revolution against a legislature, not against a king”. (2) Nelson builds up his argument in five chapters, structured both thematically and chronologically, stretching from the colonists’ struggle to refute the alleged distinction between the Stamp Act and the Townshend Acts in 1768, to the creation of the office of the Presidency at the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Its originality lies in the fact that Nelson shows a continuity between monarchist arguments made by some of the revolution’s protagonists in the first phase of the imperial crisis and the viewpoints they expressed at the Constitutional Convention.

This makes the Royalist Revolution very much an intellectual history, and it is quite unabashedly so: pitting Nelson’s work first and foremost against Charles Beard and his heirs, who consider the US Constitution as primarily the result of the economic interests of its drafters. [4] Nelson is very upfront about this, clearly outlining his assumptions “about how ideas interact with transformative events” (23-28). Even within interpretations favouring the intellectual, Nelson’s characterization of the American revolution as a “rebellion in favor of royal power” (2) is still an obvious challenge to historiographical orthodoxy. (6) The nowadays mainstream intellectual historical account of the revolution emphasizes the impact of republican thought upon American political ideas and institutions. This strand is most famously articulated in Bernard Bailyn’s The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (1967), Gordon S. Wood’s The Creation of the American Republic, 1776–1787 (1969) and J.G.A. Pocock’s The Machiavellian Moment (1975). As a matter of fact, Nelson’s thrown gauntlet was picked up by none other than Gordon S. Wood himself, resulting in a rather fierce polemic on the interpretation of the American Revolution. [5]

Whilst the book’s argument is indeed convincing, perhaps the phrasing of its main claim and especially the classification ‘royalist’ is a slight overstretch. Whilst the Stuart pedigree of the ideas of James Wilson, Alexander Hamilton and other “royalist patriots” has been clearly shown, that does not render them royalists as such, at least not in the sociocultural sense of the word. At the risk of sounding whiggish, following Walter Bagehot’s distinction between the dignified and the essential parts of the constitution could have cleared up the ambiguities contained in the term ‘royalist’. [6] Moreover, The Royalist Revolution left me wondering whether the ideas the “royalist patriots” held could not have (partially) found their origins outside of the British context. Could it be that revolutionaries with monarchist sympathies looked beyond the Stuarts? If so, ancient political philosophy – in which the Founders so often found inspiration – qualifies as a potential candidate, as it often stood quite sympathetically towards monarchy. [7] This is of course not so much an omission as it is an indication that further research along the lines opened up by Nelson would be most welcome.

From the outset, Nelson is clear about the scope of his work. He only offers a partial story, and by taking The Royalist Revolution as its title, he does not intend to imply that “all of those who rebelled against Britain in 1776 shared a single ideology that should be classified as ‘Royalist’”. (8-9) If we take that to be sincere, and also interpret the 1787 US Constitution as having established a mixed government with monarchical, aristocratic and democratic elements, The Royalist Revolution merely consolidates the genealogy of the monarchical element. This is still very much an impressive scholarly feat, and read in such a way, The Royalist Revolution is still – pardon the pun – revolutionary. Simultaneously however, this reading renders the book less antithetical to the mainstream account of the revolution than its critics claimed it was. Conceived as such, The Royalist Revolution could in fact possibly be included in a renewed republican synthesis. Of course only time can tell whether Nelson will stand on equal footing with Bailyn, Gordon Wood and Pocock as authors to be read by those interested in the intellectual history of the origins of the United States, [8] but in any case I can definitely recommend picking up a copy of The Royalist Revolution.

[1] Miller & Anor, R (on the application of) v Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union (Rev 3) [2017] UKSC 5 (24 January 2017).

[2] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/25/us/politics/joe-arpaio-trump-pardon-sheriff-arizona.html.

[3] U.S. Const. art. II, § 2.

[4] Charles Beard, An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States, New York: Macmillan 1913.

[5] See Gordon S. Wood, “Revolutionary Royalism: A New Paradigm?” in American Political Thought 5 (2016): 132-154 and Nelson’s response “Flipping his Whigs: A Response to Gordon S. Wood”, http://scholar.harvard.edu/files/ericnelson/files/nelson_response_to_gordon_s_wood_.pdf.

[6] Walter Bagehot, The English Constitution, London: H. S. King 1872, p. 44.

[7] See e.g. the works of Aristotle and Plutarch.

[8] For a more panoramic overview, see Robert Middlekauff, The Glorious Cause, Oxford: Oxford University Press 2007.

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About Simon van Oort

Simon van Oort read US History, and Jurisprudence and Philosophy of Law at the universities of Oxford (MSt) and Leiden (LLM). He wrote his MSt dissertation on the origins and uses of the phrase 'Founding Fathers' (supervised by Dr. Gareth Davies) and his LLM dissertation on the history of the Dutch constitutional ban on judicial review (supervised by Prof. Andreas Kinneging). He currently works as a trainee legislative adviser and writes in a personal capacity.
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