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Tara Helfman Reviews Eric Nelson's "The Royalist Revolution"
Michael Ramsey

In the Harvard Law Review, Tara Helfman (Syracuse): Crown and Constitution (reviewing Eric Nelson, The Royalist Revolution [Belknap Press 2014]).  From the introduction:

Professor Eric Nelson’s provocative new work, The Royalist Revolution: Monarchy and the American Founding, represents an important contribution to our understanding of the framing of the Article II powers of the Presidency. It argues that these powers found their earliest iteration during the imperial crisis of the 1760s and 1770s, when the very people who would eventually become leaders of the Revolution sought relief from the excesses of parliamentary rule in the revival of royal authority. Nelson argues that from the Stamp Act Crisis of 1765 through the final months leading to the Declaration of Independence, “patriot royalists” such as John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, and James Wilson urged George III to revive the prerogative powers of the Stuart kings in defense of the colonies. They called upon the Hanoverian king to do as his Stuart predecessors had done — to treat the colonies as his personal dominions and exercise the royal negative to reject bills that violated their traditional rights. According to Nelson:

[T]he turn to the royal prerogative was the formative moment in the history of what would emerge as American constitutionalism. The very same principles that had underwritten the patriot campaign to rebalance the imperial constitution in favor of the Crown demanded in 1787 the creation of a recognizably Royalist constitution for the new United States. This constitution would exclude the office of king — . . . the particular brand of republican political theory that had been unleashed in the colonies in the early months of 1776 required as much — but it would assign its rechristened chief magistrate far more power than any English monarch had wielded since William of Orange landed at Torbay in 1688. (p. 7)

In this sense, President George Washington had more in common with King Charles I than with King George III, and this was by design.

This Review begins with a brief overview of the way historians have treated the ideas of the American Revolution, noting how Nelson’s thesis challenges the prevailing view, advanced most notably by Professor Bernard Bailyn, that the American Revolution was essentially republican in character. It then discusses what Nelson terms the “Neo-Stuart” account of the British constitution, which emerged in the colonies during the 1760s and 1770s. On this account, the crisis of empire could be resolved by restoring to the monarchy the discretionary powers enjoyed by the early seventeenth-century Stuart kings. The Review then considers Nelson’s arguments regarding the impact of eighteenth-century republican theory on patriot-royalist theorists. Finally, it concludes by examining the way arguments over the proper role of the King in the British constitution shaped the framing of executive power in the Constitution of 1789. It attempts throughout to do justice to Nelson’s sophisticated account while bearing in mind the particular interests of the law review readership.

Professor Nelson has a response here,which begins: "I am deeply grateful to Professor Tara Helfman for her rich and generous review of my book. Indeed, she has explained the historiographical issues at stake with such skill that I am left with scarcely anything to say in reply. I do, however, wish to address briefly the two reservations that she offers at the end of her essay."

And here is a description of Professor Nelson's book from Amazon:

Generations of students have been taught that the American Revolution was a revolt against royal tyranny. In this revisionist account, Eric Nelson argues that a great many of our “founding fathers” saw themselves as rebels against the British Parliament, not the Crown. The Royalist Revolution interprets the patriot campaign of the 1770s as an insurrection in favor of royal power―driven by the conviction that the Lords and Commons had usurped the just prerogatives of the monarch.

Leading patriots believed that the colonies were the king’s own to govern, and they urged George III to defy Parliament and rule directly. These theorists were proposing to turn back the clock on the English constitution, rejecting the Whig settlement that had secured the supremacy of Parliament after the Glorious Revolution. Instead, they embraced the political theory of those who had waged the last great campaign against Parliament’s “usurpations”: the reviled Stuart monarchs of the seventeenth century.

When it came time to design the state and federal constitutions, the very same figures who had defended this expansive conception of royal authority―John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, James Wilson, and their allies―returned to the fray as champions of a single executive vested with sweeping prerogatives. As a result of their labors, the Constitution of 1787 would assign its new president far more power than any British monarch had wielded for almost a hundred years. On one side of the Atlantic, Nelson concludes, there would be kings without monarchy; on the other, monarchy without kings.