Imagine the glee with which the Blitzers and O’Reillys and other yapping heads will regale us with every eyeball-clawing detail of the Jeb Bush-Hillary Clinton matchup. Will the Yorks rule us, or the Lancasters? A mere 550 years have elapsed since the last Wars of the Roses; the question continues to burn in the hearts of men.
But wait—are we not small-r republicans in our bones, deeply committed from the earliest stirrings of the nation to the idea of popular sovereignty and against hereditary privilege? Didn’t John Adams and George Washington rise up against the illegitimate power of the English monarch and declare that “We the People” were going to do thus and so?
A curious article in the London Review of Books suggests we might not only toss some chilled refreshment on that notion but that in fact the Founding Fathers were a good bit less upset with George III than with the supposedly democratic forces arrayed in Parliament. Colin Kidd writes (in a review of The Royalist Revolution by Eric Nelson):
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 compelled the American patriots to reject the king.In this reading the early rebellion of the colonists was not against royal power at all, but in support of it and against the parliamentary ‘usurpation’, if you will, of the royal prerogatives by such things as imposing the tax on tea and all the rest. After all, the colonies were formed from land grants awarded by kings, well before the 1688 Glorious Revolution that had formalized the constitutional nature of the British monarchy. As late as 1775, Alexander Hamilton (no less) could write of George III as ‘king of America’ and speak of a ‘compact’ between the colonists and his royal personage.
Things had changed a year later, and the Declaration of Independence severs the relationship between the colonies and the king for good. But it does so without even as much as mentioning the British Parliament. In the interim, Thomas Paine had stirred the soup vigorously with Common Sense, painting the monarch in Old Testament terms as a modern Baal, and the title of king was quickly anathemized.
Not, however, royal-ish prerogatives, which survived in the concentrated power of the presidency and obviously has metastisized like radiated marigolds ever since. While we know George W resisted any attempts to reify a royal ambience within his hugely prestigious person, Kidd notes that the power of veto given the presidency in the Constitution is arguably monarchical in nature:
Is the dynasticism of the Bushes and Clintons really so alien and un-American? Were the Founders the simon-pure paragons that posterity imagines?President #2 John Adams’ son J.Q. became president #6 just 24 years after his dad, and other political scions could easily have emerged had Washington, Jefferson, or Madison produced (white) male heirs. Like so many things we are so sure we’re against these days, a scratching of the surface reveals that they might have been there all along.