Saturday, December 31, 2011

sovereignty and the american revolution: new research

I was surprised to see that the Legal History Blog didn't link to this symposium in the William and Mary Quarterly on "patriot royalism" during the American Revolution, since one of the cornerstones of the debate is the question of what it meant to be legally and ideologically separate from Britain. It kicks off with an intriguing paper by Eric Nelson, an up-and-coming political historian from the Harvard Kennedy School (he received his PhD from Cambridge University in 2002). Heavyweights such as Gordon Wood weigh in, with a hard criticism of the work. Unfortunately, ungated copies of the papers are not available.

But here's the abstract to Nelson's paper:
'Patriot Royalism' makes the case that American patriots of the early 1770s became the last Atlantic defenders of the early Stuart monarchs. Their constitutional argument—that America was “outside of the realm” of Great Britain and therefore to be governed not by Parliament but by the royal prerogative—had famously been made by James I and Charles I in their acrimonious disputes with Parliament over colonial affairs in the 1620s. Most patriot writers were fully aware of the provenance of this new position and enthusiastically embraced its ideological implications. In the process they developed a radical, revisionist account of seventeenth-century English history. A proper reckoning with the story of patriot Royalism should allow us to appreciate the true drama of the republican turn in 1776, as well as to understand the persistent allure of prerogative powers in the formative period of American constitutionalism.
In his response to Nelson, Wood downplays the idea of patriot royalism because he has argued, for many decades now, that the Revolution is characterized by a more radical ideological break from Britain. Nelson, in establishing a bit more nuance to the story, is drawing some fundamental interpretations in how we understand the nature of the American Revolution -- specifically trying to show that an undercurrent of conservative British principles of government runs through Revolutionary rhetoric. The study may in fact lead to a more radical questioning of the consensus view that the Revolution itself was so thoroughly libertarian, in place of a more nuanced view of the ideology of the elites who came to power in the years immediately following the Revolution (and leading up to 1789).

Of course, this debate must stay faithful the available historical evidence, which is not exactly on the side of Nelson (at least in terms of quantity of rhetoric in his favor) -- but do read through Nelson's paper if you have the opportunity, as he remains convincing throughout the debate. Another important point in the debate between Wood and Nelson worth considering is how to accurately trace the relative impact of certain speeches or treatises which were being circulated in the early 1770s. Very interesting stuff and highly recommended.

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