Return of the King? Monarchy in American Thought

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By Zach Bates

This is a companion essay to the author’s “The Idea of Royal Empire and the Imperial Crown of England, 1542–1698”, published in the January 2019 edition of the JHI.

Into the twenty-first century, it has been a commonplace that Britain and its soon-to-become independent North American colonies diverged on ideological grounds (exacerbated, of course, by revolution and independence).  This division appears dialectical, and has been expressed in multiple ways: a revolutionary Atlantic opposed to a conservative/loyalist Atlantic; or a republican America (sometimes restricted to the United States; other times encompassing many of the new nation-states in the Americas) against a monarchical Europe. These approaches can be found in Bernard Bailyn, J. C. D. Clark, and Carla Gardina Pestana (see The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution; The Language of Liberty; The English Atlantic in an Age of Revolution).  Though ostensibly exorcised from the United States in the late eighteenth century, monarchy is far from a banished (or condemned) concept: Its imagery, symbolism, and constitutional vestiges (at least in the form of the executive branch as established in the United States Constitution) persist in American popular and political culture.  Despite the apparent ideological divide, American ambivalence about monarchy has been a recurrent feature throughout colonial and national history.  This companion piece to my recent article in the Journal of the History of Ideas will focus on showing the continuities in thinking about monarchy from what we might consider the monarchical culture of the Anglo-American world of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries – that is, a political community throughout the Atlantic that referred to itself as the British Empire and included Britain and its overseas colonies – to an American society that has often identified itself as republican and modern.

Two strands of recent scholarship have reoriented our understandings of the Crown’s legal role in governing the American colonies and colonists’ relationship to their monarchs.  Work on the seventeenth century has shown that the Crown had an important supervisory legal role and a symbolic role for its American subjects – inclusive of both Europeans and indigenous peoples (Ken MacMillan, Sovereignty and Possession in the English New World; Jenny Pulsipher, Subjects unto the Same King).  Brendan McConville has argued for the continued importance of the monarchy in American culture after 1688 up to 1776, and argued against the importance of republican ideas during this period. According to his study, colonial America was enthusiastic and steadfast in its support of the monarchy, and this was only sundered by competing visions of the king (The King’s Three Faces).  Eric Nelson has extended this line of thinking to the Revolution and composition of the Constitution; he argues that royalist ideas were influential in the opposition to King George III and the push for a strong executive in the early U.S. (The Royalist Revolution).  These recent studies have led to a royalist revival in scholarship on the monarchy’s place in American legal thought during the seventeenth century and its cultural and intellectual heritage in colonial America and the early United States (for a study of continuing British cultural influence in the U.S. during the early nineteenth century, see Elisa Tamarkin, Anglophilia: Deference, Devotion, and Antebellum America).

My recent article seeks to link this recent scholarship that emphasizes the importance of monarchy in colonial America to the intellectual history of the British Empire.  The eighteenth century is viewed as a key period for the development of identity (Linda Colley, Britons) and ideology (David Armitage, The Ideological Origins of the British Empire) within the British Empire.  This approach fits in with earlier scholarship on this imperial entity as one that was acquired in “a fit of absence of mind” during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and that was only recognized as an expansive political community by eighteenth-century contemporaries (see J. R. Seeley, The Expansion of England; C. H. Firth, “The British Empire,” pp. 185-89; Richard Koebner, Empire).  My article repositions the argument by emphasizing an intellectual means for seventeenth-century subjects of the English (sometimes considered “British”) to view themselves as members of a political community, at times referred to as a “royal empire,” that spanned the Atlantic possessions of the Stuart monarchs (and sometimes extended into Africa and Asia).  Much as the scholarship on colonial America has discovered for eighteenth-century colonial populations, allegiance to the Crown was a way to politically identify oneself with others across vast geographies in the seventeenth century – and, as Steven Ellis has argued, even between Ireland and England in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries (Steven G. Ellis, “Crown, Community and Government in the English Territories, 1450-1575,” pp. 187-204).  With this in mind, my article suggests that the classical formulation of the British Empire as protestant, commercial, maritime, and free should be amended to include that it was royalist.

Monarchy was integral to the ideological origins of the British Empire and a vital cultural and intellectual force in colonial America. It has also had afterlives in the republican United States.  There is, of course, a continuing fascination in popular culture with kings and queens: One needs only to think of the anointing of one of the best basketball players of our generation – LeBron James – as “King James”; the adoption of a monarchical gimmick and kingly imagery by the professional wrestler Triple H from 2006 into the present; the continuing spate of films centered on monarchs such as Elizabeth (1998), King Arthur (2004), The King’s Speech (2010), and Mary Queen of Scots (2018); and the interest in the details of each and every royal wedding.

Current political discourses retain several of the features from the seventeenth and eighteenth century debates regarding the benefits and potential pitfalls of monarchy.  One such fear was that of an overmighty executive who could corrupt the Constitution and make slaves of citizens.  The trend of increasing executive power in the United States has long been recognized by scholars, receiving the attention of academics since the 1960s and its own nomenclature, “The Imperial Presidency” (for the classical articulation of this term, see Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., The Imperial Presidency).  This accumulation of power is often levied against both Democratic and Republican Presidents – though often the accusations of executive tyranny and unconstitutional exercise of power takes a partisan tone  In any case, the increasing power exercised by the American executive has prompted comparisons to monarchy – sometimes arguing that the US has long been an “elected monarchy” without a literal crown and title (David Cannadine, “A Point of View: Is the US President an Elected Monarch?”); other times appropriating the language of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to claim that the President has become an absolute monarch and a tyrant, thus affirming the fears of the Anglo-American world of living in a corrupt society (see David Armitage, “Trump and the Return of Divine Right”; for an example of the potential for increasing executive power in a British political context, see Thomas Poole, “The Executive Power Project”).

However, there are also current arguments for the inherent stability and effectiveness of monarchies.  In a New York Times op-ed from 2016, Count Nikolai Tolstoy argued for the creation of a monarchy in America, based on the current Canadian model, and that “democracy is perfectly compatible with constitutional monarchy” (“Consider a Monarchy, America”).  Tolstoy is the Chancellor of the International Monarchist League, which seeks to “support the principle of Monarchy.”  For monarchy in the United States, the Center for the Study of Monarchy, Traditional Governance, and Sovereignty was formed to further bolster the position and study of monarchies.  Monarchists have gone so far as to argue that a monarchical system of government, if instituted in the United States, “would be not just a salve for a superpower in political turmoil, but also a stabilizing force for the world at large,” and point to a study showing that, according to economic measures, monarchies outperform other forms of government (“What’s the Cure for Ailing Nations?  More Kings and Queens, Monarchists Say”).  One response to a certain 2016 presidential campaign was to “Make America Great Britain Again” and re-admit the British monarch as the sovereign of the United States – one is left to wonder how flippant this slogan was meant to be.  Indeed, one columnist at the New York Times has argued that Americans have been prone to “clamoring for a king” (Ross Douthat, “Give Us a King!”).

It seems unlikely that any American head of state will wear a crown anytime soon, but it is also difficult to deny the continuation of royal culture in the United States and the increasing relevance of monarchical rhetoric and discourses when discussing its leaders and the state itself; think of our references to the Clintons and Bushes as “dynasties,” the Trump administration being composed of “courtiers,” and the resurgence of scholarship that discusses America in the context of its being an empire (see especially A. G. Hopkins, American Empire: A Global History).  Taken together with the recent scholarship that excavates the importance of monarchy in colonial America, my article attempts to develop the intellectual history of monarchy in the English-speaking world and provide this concept with a more nuanced etiology.

The author wishes to thank Mary Bates, Christine McLeod, and Derek O’Leary for reading earlier drafts of this piece and for their suggestions and comments. 

Zach Bates is a Ph.D Candidate at the University of Calgary.  His current dissertation project is a study of the political thought of Scottish colonial administrators in the Atlantic British Empire from 1710 to 1770.  He has been awarded fellowships at the New-York Historical Society, the Library Company of Philadelphia, and the Huntington Library.  In addition to his work on the intellectual history of the seventeenth and eighteenth century British Empire, he also has an upcoming article on the Sudan in British film during the first half of the twentieth century.  You can reach him via email: zachary.bates@ucalgary.ca.

12 comments

  1. Great post and article Zach! It’s interesting to me how similar these ideas of monarchy sound to later ideas present in eastern Canada but what different trajectories the countries(/colonies) ended up on… Also, I feel like the seventeenth-century is generally underrated, so I’m with you!!

    1. Many thanks for giving it a read – and yes, the seventeenth century in British history is often studied either in isolation or as a payoff for the events of the sixteenth century. I sense that we both agree that linking the seventeenth century to the centuries before and after is integral for historical scholarship.

    1. Very happy that you enjoyed the companion piece, Mary. Thanks for taking the time to give it a read.

  2. It is always interesting to see how the 17th-c English world has continued to reverberate to the present day and has occasionally left its mark in unexpected places. Well done!

    1. Yes, James, it is quite interesting and the ghosts of the past haunt much of our present discourse – whether popular or political (the two seem increasingly combined in the twenty-first century, though I do think a distinction between the two does have some merit in some cases) – in ways that can be surprising.

      My dissertation research is an attempt to extend some of the arguments in both the article and companion piece into the eighteenth century (or at least to see how they were translated and transformed in different political communities and environments). Thank you for giving the companion piece a look, and I appreciate the kind words.

  3. I remember reading somewhere a theory that suggested all government forms can be be divided into two groups: Totalitarian or oligarchy, with constitutional monarchies and democratic republics basically boiling down to the same thing: rule by the few, the elite, and the powerful–i.e. oligarchy. Your article pointed out the concerns of some who say the U.S. executive(both parties) is a little too kingly for comfort. Also, no surprise we cling to symbols of monarchy. It reminds me of Israel demanding that Samuel give them a king. Despite God’s warnings that a King would take their their sons to plow the fields and fight the wars (1 Samuel 8), the people insisted. It does seem we have a fascination with monarchs! I enjoyed this article very much! Great job!

    1. Thank you for the thoughtful reply, Michelle. I will also stress that the bond between subject and monarch was integral to the ordering of society in the past; if the relationship between subject and (kingly) sovereign is of interest, I highly recommend Hannah Weiss Muller’s recent book, Subjects and Sovereign: Bonds of Belonging in the Eighteenth-Century British Empire (2017). Residues of that bond remain, perhaps, in the minds of some citizens in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries who feel particularly connected to a President.

      While I did not have the space to discuss this in the companion piece, there is a religious angle to many of the debates over monarchy in the seventeenth century: In fact, one of the primary pieces of evidence that I use certainly grounds its argument on the divine ordering of the world while also issuing warnings over “democratism” and “presbyterianism.” Fears of popular government – sometimes derided as “rule by mob” – may be familiar to modern audiences (and I will leave it to readers to decide what to do with such observations).

      I will also point out that you are right about the importance of Scripture in political thought, especially as it concerns the seventeenth century. With this in mind, I do recommend some relatively recent scholarship for those interested in such topics: See Alister Chapman, John Coffey, and Brad Gregory (eds.), Seeing Things Their Way: Intellectual History and the Return of Religion (2009); Eric Nelson, The Hebrew Republic: Jewish Sources and the Transformation of European Political Thought (2011); and John Robertson, The Sacred and the Social: History and Political Thought, 1650-1800 (upcoming, so not available just yet but Robertson’s other recent work may be of interest).

  4. Excellent read, provoking reflection and questioning of assumed outright rejection of monarchy in 18th century America. So often it’s assumed our governments today have progressed and resemble very little of the past monarchies, but this article comes to question just how different are they today? Well done.

    1. Thank you for reading and commenting, Kelsey. And yes, I think it is an important point to nuance and complicate historical approaches that rely on the binary divergence between republics and kingdoms.

  5. From a layman’s perspective, I would have name-checked Elvis before LeBron James and Triple H as examples of “kings” in pop culture. 🙂 More seriously, the stuff about the Clinton and Bush dynasties (not to mention earlier stuff like the Adams and Roosevelts, or the Dalys, Cuomos and Longs in local politics) seems more relevant than op-eds calling for a figurehead monarch. Good article, tho!

    1. Many thanks for giving this a read, Chris. The various contenders for “Queen of Pop” may also lodge a complaint against me, but your comment reinforces the point that their are various examples of monarchical imagery that persist in American culture (“King of Pops,” anyone?).

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