The divine right of wingnuts
Harvard's Eric Nelson stokes a loopy monarchist movement in America.
Holly Brewer is Burke Professor of American History at the University of Maryland and author of By Birth or Consent: Children, Law, and the Anglo-American Revolution in Authority (2005).
On March 25 the conservative Heritage Foundation will host a “virtual event” titled “The Crown Under Fire: Why the Left’s Campaign to Cancel the Monarchy and Undermine a Cornerstone of Western Democracy Will Fail.” Announcement of the event left a lot of people wondering how and when the American right became partisans for the British monarchy. “Quite a plot twist here,” marveled Maggie Haberman of the New York Times. Writing in the liberal Mother Jones, James West scratched his head at the right “tearing up the Declaration of Independence to own the libs.”
Oprah Winfrey's interview with Meghan Markle, and the questions it raised about the monarchy's role in Britain's colonial past (and its potential racism in the present) obviously amplified the issue. But some American conservatives had already been heading in this direction for a decade. During Donald Trump’s presidency, evangelicals like Ralph Reed and Jerry Falwell, Jr., admonished the public to “Render … unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's,” a biblical construct that overlooked that Augustus Caesar was an emperor whose ascent was the death knell for that same Roman republic that the Founders strove to emulate.
Evangelicals also invoked the divine right of kings by suggesting that God had chosen Trump, however improbably, to carry out His plan. “I think God was behind the last election,” Rev. Franklin Graham said in 2019. Trump’s press secretary, Sarah Sanders, said much the same thing a few months earlier. “I think God calls all of us to fill different roles at different times,” she told the Christian Broadcasting Network, “and I think that He wanted Donald Trump to become president, and that's why he's there."
From there it wasn’t much of a stretch for Joseph Loconte, who’s set to moderate Thursday’s Heritage event, to argue on March 18 in the National Review that “a belief in mankind’s ‘natural and inalienable’ rights” was the invention of English kings, to whom Americans ought to be more grateful.
Loconte’s article, and a bafflingly monarchist speech that Trump’s attorney general, William Barr, delivered to the Federalist Society in November 2019 (“the patriots well understood that their prime antagonist was an overweening Parliament”) were both influenced heavily by the writings of a Harvard political scientist named Eric Nelson, and especially by Nelson’s 2014 book, The Royalist Revolution: Monarchy and the American Founding. Nelson’s book has become the central text for conservative American monarchists in much the same way that Common Sense by Thomas Paine (pictured above) was for supporters of the American Revolution.
Nelson earned his doctorate at Cambridge, a great university that nonetheless is situated in a country where it’s common to hear conservatives argue that the problem with the balance of power is that the monarch does not have enough. Nelson’s Harvard appointment is to its Government (that is, political science) department, which means, given disciplinary boundaries, that his arguments have attracted insufficient attention (and critique) from scholars of American history.
It’s Nelson’s view that the American colonists who fought to throw off the yoke of British rule—those colonists who counted, anyway—thought that the reviled Stuart kings of the prior century were quite wonderful. He bases this conclusion on the writings of Rufus King, a delegate to the Continental Congress and signer of the U.S. Constitution who, after the Revolution, was a high Federalist who opposed democracy, and on various anonymous pamphlets. One of these pamphlets may or may not have been written by James Wilson, who also attended the Constitutional Convention, where, according to King, Wilson agreed with King on this point: “The people of America did not oppose the British King but the Parliament.”
According to Nelson, the Founders sought only to restrain Parliament from passing more laws like the Stamp Act, which sought to impose unjust taxes on the colonists (“No taxation without representation”). They so aspired to be ruled by a benevolent king that, as forces amassed at Bunker Hill, some claimed to be “the king’s regiments” fighting Parliament on behalf of the monarchy.
You’re perhaps wondering how this squares with the Declaration of Independence, one of the most anti-monarchist documents in human history. In Nelson’s construct, the scorching criticism of King George III in the Declaration merely expresses the colonists’ hurt feelings at being forsaken by their beloved monarch. Common Sense, a pamphlet of which an astonishing 150,000 copies were made in 1776, is, per Nelson, a misguided document that misused history and biblical reference (which is more or less what contemporary Royalists said). Most crucially, Nelson argues that the American presidency was modeled on the British monarchy, quoting critics who faulted the Constitution on those grounds like Patrick Henry (who became an anti-Federalist).
Nelson’s argument falls apart on close inspection. Why were anti-monarchist statements uncommon prior to 1776? Because it was very dangerous to criticize the king openly! Depending on what you wrote, you could be found guilty of sedition or treason. Algernon Sidney was executed in 1683 merely for arguing that consent should be the basis of government. Criticizing the king or his royal governors even in conversation could subject you to heavy fines and jail, if not worse.
Even in Parliament, where the Bill of Rights protected members who criticized the king, the prime minister dismissed John Wilkes from the House of Commons at George III’s request so that Wilkes could be prosecuted … for criticizing the king. Wilkes’s constituents promptly re-elected him, extending protection to him once again and making him a hero to American colonists who read about him in their newspapers. As is often noted at July 4 celebrations, every signer of the Declaration risked prosecution for treason. The very last of the 55 signers commented that he lingered because it was so terrifying: He wanted all the others to sign their death warrants first.
There were some in the patriot camp at Bunker Hill in 1775 who flew the king’s standard. They no doubt hoped that pretending they were fighting for the king would absolve them if they were captured. It was much safer to criticize prime ministers, but even this had to be done carefully because PMs were appointed by the king. So critics of Lord Frederick North’s administration, for example, published under pseudonyms and used dashes “N---h” when they condemned him in colonial newspapers, to avoid prosecution for seditious libel.
Common Sense is an extended attack on monarchy disputing that some are born to rule and others to obey. My favorite line is a damning critique of the lineage of the English crown:
England, since the conquest, hath known some few good monarchs, but groaned beneath a much larger number of bad ones; yet no man in his senses can say that their claim under William the Conqueror is a very honourable one. A French bastard landing with an armed banditti, and establishing himself king of England against the consent of the natives, is in plain terms a very paltry rascally original. It certainly hath no divinity in it.
The Declaration of Independence was the official statement of the American Revolution, and its principles were derived, according to Thomas Jefferson, its main author, from the ideas of the executed Algernon Sidney (see above) and from John Locke. These principles were—stop me if you’ve heard this before—that government should be based on the consent of the governed, that all men are created equal, and that everyone has inalienable rights. These principles justified rebellion against a despotic monarch. Notably, the index for Nelson’s book has extensive listings under “divine right” but not a single entry for “consent.”
There were indeed debates during the Constitutional Convention over whether Parliament or the King was more to blame for the abuses of power, but these were fierce debates, not agreed-upon norms, and they were part of larger debates over how power should be balanced under the Constitution. Patrick Henry feared that the new president would be too powerful—too much like a king. Most of Nelson’s quotes against Article II of the Constitution are from anti-Federalists who favored more restraints on the executive, not fewer. Not even Alexander Hamilton, who argued in Philadelphia for a lifetime president, wanted that president to be unaccountable to the law. Hamilton was at pains, in the Federalist papers (68 & 69) to emphasize the differences between the powers of the king and those of those of the new president. The new president had executive power, modeled on the powers of royal governors and the king, but much more bounded and controlled.
This fetish for monarchism isn’t the first time that some on the right have expressed second thoughts about the Declaration of Independence. Throughout American history, there has always been a strain of conservative thinkers who were queasy about the principles that government derives its "just powers from the consent of the governed" and that “all men are created equal.” But the Heritage Foundation event demonstrates that a growing distaste for representative democracy (and the inclusion of racial minorities in that consent), which increasingly threatens electoral victories for Republican candidates, is coming out of the closet. Nelson’s book furnishes this deeply troubling conservative strain a dubious intellectual foundation to cast aside remaining inhibitions.
Correction: An earlier version of this piece stated that Nelson is not an historian. In fact, his doctorate is in history.