Farewell to the Log Cabin

Colin Kidd

  • The Royalist Revolution by Eric Nelson
    Harvard, 390 pp, £22.95, October 2014, ISBN 978 0 674 73534 7

The notion that toil, ability and ambition might be enough in themselves to propel the humblest of citizens from log cabin to White House is a vital ingredient in the American Dream. Indeed, it has served as a powerful anaesthetic against the inequalities of American society. But for how much longer? A rampant dynasticism – verging on royalism – threatens the efficacy of this opiate.

The tragedies that befell the house of Kennedy in the 1960s served to fend off – indeed to render distasteful – any suggestion that the unobtrusive political entitlement of the glamorous First Family might constitute an offence against the ethos of the republic. Although only John F. Kennedy held the presidency, there were several attempts to restore the family to the office. JFK’s brother Robert was assassinated after his victory in the California Democratic primary in 1968. The immediate chances of a third brother, Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, were scuppered after the Chappaquiddick incident in 1969 – when a young female aide drowned in a car he drove off a bridge. However, when it was revealed that the Democrats’ vice-presidential nominee for 1972, Senator Thomas Eagleton of Missouri, had been treated for depression, Sargent Shriver, who was married to Edward Kennedy’s sister Eunice, replaced Eagleton as George McGovern’s running mate. The Shrivers’ daughter Maria was later First Lady of California as the wife, subsequently estranged, of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Edward Kennedy thought his moment had come in 1980, when an opportunity seemed to open to topple the sitting president, a weakened Jimmy Carter, from the Democrat slate. Kennedy took 11 states in the primaries, but Carter was buoyed by incumbency and saw off the challenge.

Since 1980 members of the extended Kennedy family have held state positions in or have represented Massachusetts, Maryland and New York, but there have been no more attempts on the presidency. Not that the presidency is safe from dynastic usurpation. Two new quasi-royal families have emerged to contest the office. In 1980, George H.W. Bush, the son of Senator Prescott Bush of Connecticut, ran as Ronald Reagan’s vice-presidential running mate against Carter, succeeding to the presidency when Reagan’s term expired in 1989. Bush was a one-term president, defeated in the election of 1992 by Bill Clinton, who, though coming from humble origins himself, has founded a third dynasty. Clinton served two terms, but his own vice-president, Al Gore, lost the 2000 election in very controversial circumstances to Bush’s son George W. Bush after bitter litigation over the result in Florida. It is worthy of note that Florida’s then governor was George W. Bush’s brother Jeb. After the younger Bush’s two terms as president, Clinton’s wife, Hillary, a senator for New York, was narrowly defeated for the Democratic nomination by Barack Obama. She went on to serve as Obama’s secretary of state during his first term. The 2016 election looks as if it might see a dynastic collision between Hillary Clinton for the Democrats and Jeb Bush for the Republicans. Log cabins are so last year.

A century and a half ago real power resided in Congress, and in the decades after Lincoln a long succession of nonentities occupied the presidency. The growing importance of international affairs in the 20th century, and the rise of an ‘imperial presidency’ during the Cold War, transformed the office and its holders. A more intrusive media, preoccupied as much with personality as with policy, consolidated this shift. In addition, the outrageous costs of presidential campaigning and the importance of name recognition – not least to financial backers – reinforce the significance of dynastic connections. Surely it wasn’t meant to turn out like this? The tinselled second coming of an Old World phenomenon seems a stark betrayal of the Founding Fathers.

Until recently the most influential academic interpretation of the Founding era focused on the rhetoric of classical republicanism, whose humanist obsession with virtue rather than rights derived from the radical margins of English Whiggism, and, ultimately, via Machiavelli, from antiquity. The hitherto unrecognised ideology of republicanism excavated by a distinguished group of historians, including Caroline Robbins, Bernard Bailyn, Gordon Wood and J.G.A. Pocock, offered a compelling account of the reasons British Americans broke with monarchy and then embarked on such a distinctive constitutional experiment, hedged with an idiosyncratic Bill of Rights. For example, the curiously tangled syntax of the Second Amendment to the Constitution, which enshrines the right to bear arms, becomes meaningful only when one appreciates the amendment’s relationship to the republican ideology of participatory virtue: classical republicans celebrated militia service, which they contrasted with the illiberal threat of standing armies composed of hirelings.

There was nothing narrowly programmatic about the classical republican ‘school’. Bailyn opened his popular Harvard course on the transformation brought about by the Revolution with a lecture designed to jolt students out of their complacency. The norm within the British Empire was for colonies to follow a trajectory culminating in dominion status. Why, Bailyn asked, had America not become Canada? More unsettling still was Bailyn’s tour de force, The Ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson (1975), in which he reconstructed the early stages of the American Revolution through the eyes of Tory loyalists. Wood too, in The Radicalism of the American Revolution (1992), emphasised the abrupt discontinuity of the Revolution. The Thirteen Colonies had not developed as egalitarian proto-American societies gradually ripening towards independence; they had been just as hierarchical as the mother country. It was the Revolution itself which made America American. Indeed, a consensus has formed around the ideas of John Murrin, who has shown that Anglicisation – rather than an emergent American consciousness – was the dominant cultural trend in the decades before the Revolution. This body of scholarship checked unwarranted teleological assumptions about an America-in-embryo, but did little to subvert the classical republican thesis. Historians had found a handful of noisy High Anglican Tories in the colonies, such as John Checkley in early 18th-century Boston, but there was a reluctance to push the Anglicisation thesis to its logical destination: to confront the awkward possibility that the provincial Britons of the Thirteen Colonies had been as fervently monarchist as their fellow subjects in Britain itself.

In the past decade, however, there has been a more decidedly royalist turn in early American historiography. Brendan McConville’s The King’s Three Faces: The Rise and Fall of Royal America, 1688-1776 (2006) argues that by the time of the American Revolution colonial Whigs – far from being classical republicans – had abandoned even the ideal of contractual monarchy enshrined in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. During the reign of George II (1727-60) American Whigs, borrowing the tropes of divine right monarchy once deployed only by Tories and Jacobites, had sacralised the Hanoverian dynasty. Instead of emphasising the rupture of 1688, Whigs focused on the continuities in English history, celebrating the Hanoverians as the culmination in an unbroken line of English kings reaching back to the Saxon era. In the process they rehabilitated the Stuart dynasty: the Virginia Almanac of 1741, for instance, commemorated 30 January as the day Charles I was martyred. By the 1740s, McConville reckons, ‘Americans understood the Hanoverian monarchy to rule by a kind of benevolent divine right,’ and George II’s death in 1760 led to an outpouring of grief for the passing of a beloved ‘semi-divinity’. Indeed, McConville notes with a certain irony that some colonists attributed the Anglo-American frictions of the 1760s and early 1770s to a supposedly Jacobite conspiracy against George III, backed by his former prime minister and favourite John Stuart, the 3rd Earl of Bute.

Eric Nelson’s new book advances the royalist reinterpretation of 18th-century America a crucial stage further. Though Nelson departs from McConville’s position in important respects, The Royalist Revolution and The King’s Three Faces provide a powerful double-barrelled challenge to historiographical orthodoxy. Nelson argues persuasively that the Revolution – at least in the beginning – was not a revolt against the supposed tyrant George III, but a rebellion against the claims of the British Parliament. In fact, it was precisely George III’s failure to behave like a despot, his prim reluctance to invoke the cause of his North American dominions in defiance of Parliament, which eventually compelled American patriots in 1776 to reject the king. Why, Americans wondered, would George III not act to curb the pretensions of a despised Parliament bent on usurping an imperial authority over the colonies? Nelson carefully distinguishes the radical republican step taken in 1776 from what he calls ‘the spirit of ’75’, the initial ‘royalist’ revolution against Parliament.

The English empire in North America had largely coalesced during the course of the 17th century, and was therefore a royal creation. The various colonial charters and forms of governance – significantly – predated the Glorious Revolution of 1688 which formalised the sovereign rule of crown-in-parliament in England. But had the Glorious Revolution also transformed relations with the colonies, which, of course, had their own legislatures? By the mid-18th century, Britons at home had come to assume that the governance of the empire was a matter for Parliament. Colonial Britons reckoned otherwise. The monarchy, they believed, was the only institution that acted as the glue of empire. Alexander Hamilton, in a pamphlet of 1775, described George III as ‘king of America, by virtue of a compact between us and the kings of Great Britain. These colonies were planted and settled by the grants, and under the protection of English kings.’ A contemporary political sermon insisted that ‘the Parliament of Great Britain … were no party in the contract.’ The focus wasn’t on the British Parliament and whether or not it was a poor ‘representation’ of the people of British North America – though it was – but on questions of ‘authorisation’. The horse had to come before the cart. In the royalist theory advanced by the patriots any properly authorised institution – whether one or many – could be said to represent the people; the king alone was authorised to govern America. With an arresting coup de théâtre, Nelson flourishes the Declaration of Independence itself as unexpected evidence for his royalist interpretation of the Revolution: ‘The only “allegiance” from which the patriots claimed to be “absolved” was that “to the British crown”, because they acknowledged no other.’

Things had changed dramatically in the course of 1776. Not only had American patriots jettisoned their king and declared their independence, they had also fallen under the enchantment of a particular brand of republicanism. In January 1776 Thomas Paine published his pamphlet Common Sense, which by April had sold 100,000 copies. Paine’s bestseller changed the terms of debate over monarchy. Following the lead of Quentin Skinner, Nelson notes that early modern English republicanism was a ‘neo-Roman’ type which focused on the discretionary powers of monarchy, not on the office itself. Enslavement was a matter of finding oneself subordinated to the will of another. The nature of the prerogative was what counted, not the type of government. Indeed, neo-Roman republicanism embraced the possibility of nominal kingship fettered by republican regulation. Paine reversed the terms of debate, arguing from the Old Testament that monarchy was an impermissible form of idolatry. The offence resided in the kingly title rather than in the prerogative itself. In Nelson’s retelling of the American Revolution, 1776 was the moment when Americans began to confound terminology and substance. Not all of them, however. Some contemporary opponents of Paine noted that his skewed priorities would allow – in Nelson’s words – ‘tyrannical wolves to masquerade as republican sheep’. Little more than a century had elapsed since the rule of Oliver Cromwell, described by one of Paine’s American critics as an ‘absolute king, under the specious name of a Protector’.

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The runaway success of Common Sense served in the medium term to distract attention from the offensive substance of prerogative powers. As Nelson perceives, the abolition of ‘the title of king’ allowed Americans to ‘make their peace with kingly power’, which, he contends, is what happened at the Constitutional Convention in 1787. Despite the republican break with the British crown, Nelson believes that an influential segment of the Founding generation held fast to ‘the spirit of ’75’, and that these ‘royalists’ played a central role in establishing the unacknowledged monarchical survivals which have lurked in plain view in the text of the Constitution since 1787. Figures such as James Wilson and Alexander Hamilton, and outside the convention itself, John Adams, James Iredell and Benjamin Rush, did not comprise a party as such, indeed they had their disagreements; but they shared a set of ideas derived from the constitutional royalism of the English Civil War era. This loose cohort of politicians revived a ‘neo-Stuart defence of prerogative power’ and successfully imported one of the core provisions of post-1642 royalism into the new American Constitution – the power of veto.

In 18th-century Britain the monarch’s power of veto had fallen into abeyance. The last occasion on which the crown refused its assent to legislation had been in 1708 when Queen Anne rejected the Scottish Militia Bill. Without a veto, monarchy was a cipher, and could not claim co-ordinate authority with the other branches – Lords and Commons – of a notionally tripartite constitution. However, under the convenient veil of a notional republicanism the American champions of prerogative smuggled a unitary executive with a veto power into the Constitution. From the vantage point of today it seems like a sleight of hand. But some appalled contemporaries noticed what was going on. The most forceful critic of the royalists at the convention, Edmund Randolph of Virginia, described Wilson’s proposal for a unitary executive as ‘the foetus of monarchy’.

But neither monarchy nor republicanism emerges from Nelson’s book as an unproblematic category. The early modern world exhibited several monarchical-cum-republican hybrids, as the Founders well knew: the Dutch stadtholder, the doge of Venice, the elective king of Poland. Nor did the Latin term respublica (the state or commonwealth) have the narrow meaning of non-monarchical rule which we now associate with the word ‘republic’. The ‘monarchical republic’ of the post-1787 United States, as John Adams described it, was far from anomalous. Whereas Britain would evolve into a ‘crowned republic’ in which, ultimately, all power resided in the House of Commons, the American system fossilised into a true constitutional monarchy of the 1688 stamp. Yet noises off reinforced the crude contrast between a supposed monarchy and a purported republic. In Britain palaces and pageantry provided a screen of decency for the political nakedness of the monarchy; on the other side of the Atlantic an overtly republican aversion to the trappings of kingship – despite a brief flirtation with levées and other ceremonial fol-de-rol during Washington’s presidency – served to obscure the significant monarchical prerogatives which survived in the American Constitution.

Americans quickly became oblivious of the strange residue of 17th-century Stuart monarchy at the core of their government. But for a while a few old men remembered elements of Nelson’s story. Rufus King, who had been a delegate for Massachusetts in 1787, reminisced about the differences between the Founding generation and those who came after: ‘You young men who have been born since the Revolution, look with horror upon the name of a king … It was not so with us. We were born the subjects of a king.’ More pointedly, Thomas Jefferson looked back in 1816 to the heady days of 1776 and was overcome with an oddly wistful regret, which Nelson’s book brings more clearly into focus: ‘We imagined everything republican which was not monarchy.’

These old-timers had an advantage over academic historians today. While we have the benefit of hindsight, they had lived through the revolutionary era and could remember it as a range of possibilities rolling forward. Is the dynasticism of the Bushes and Clintons really so alien and un-American? Were the Founders the simon-pure paragons that posterity imagines? Another veteran, John Adams, Washington’s successor as president, lived to see his son, John Quincy Adams, become president after the notoriously venal election of 1824; but McConville reminds us that Washington, Jefferson and Madison ‘all lacked direct male heirs, and we might wonder at the world that would have emerged if it had been otherwise.’