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“Little Gods on Earth”: Monarchs and Their Governors
Most of the men who pondered James Wilson’s motion in silence had been raised to honor and love their king. Benjamin Franklin spent his early years under a female monarch, Queen Anne, but for the rest the protector and benefactor whom they were taught to include in their prayers had been either King George I, who ascended to the throne in 1714, or his son, King George II, who succeeded him in 1727.
All but a handful of delegates were old enough to remember the death of King George II and the ascension of his twenty-two-year-old grandson, King George III. The date was October 25, 1760, shortly before the first hints of colonial unrest. The youngest, Jonathan Dayton of New Jersey, had been born just a week and two days before, while Benjamin Franklin, by far the oldest, was fifty-four years old. Respected internationally for his scientific achievements, Franklin was then in England, politicking on behalf of Pennsylvanians who were trying to limit the special privileges and power of the Penn family, the colony’s proprietors. The British Crown was a likely ally in this endeavor, he reasoned. If Pennsylvania could be changed from a proprietorship to a royal colony, it would be freed from the Penns’ grip. Thus, for the most practical of reasons, Benjamin Franklin on the eve of the Revolution was a Royalist. He broke off from vacationing with his son William to attend King George III’s coronation.
George Washington, aged twenty-eight in 1760, and his neighbor George Mason, then thirty-four, had reasons of their own to seek the Crown’s good graces. Mason held shares in the Ohio Company of Virginia, which needed the approval of the British king to stake claims in the North American interior. Washington, while serving as the company’s surveyor back in 1753, had explored its alleged holdings west of the Appalachian Mountains, and the following year he led an assault on a small party of French scouts at Jumonville Glen, a minor skirmish that by 1760 had turned into a global war. Had the king’s army not come to their aid, Virginia militiamen under Colonel Washington would have been no match for their French and Indian opponents. To acquire land and defend it, Washington, Mason, and all other colonial speculators were beholden to both the legal authority and the military might wielded by King George II or King George III or whoever else might sit on the British throne.
Robert Morris, aged twenty-six at the ascension of King George III, had spent the first half of his life in Liverpool, England. As a teenager he settled in Philadelphia, where he rose quickly to a partnership in a prominent mercantile firm, and by the time of George III’s ascension the French and Indian War was treating this merchant prince well. By selling scarce and strategic goods, and also through state-sponsored piracy known as privateering, Morris was setting himself on a trajectory that would make him the richest man in America, but he could not possibly ply his trade across the high seas without the protection of HMS Vanguard, HMS Sutherland, HMS Nightingale, and all the rest of His Majesty’s ships in the king’s navy. Robert Morris had every reason to bless the power of the British monarch.
So it went, down the line.
In 1760, James Wilson, the delegate who offered the motion for a single executive, was an eighteen-year-old student living in Scotland. Five years later, when he immigrated to America, Wilson would not have to alter his allegiance to the British Crown, for he would still be living safely within the king’s realm.
James Madison, aged nine, was being raised to believe that the British monarch was not only the head of state but also the embodiment of religious authority, the “Supreme Governor of the Church of England.” Perhaps the lad was still too young to realize how closely his family’s tobacco-producing plantation depended on the Crown’s ability to hold the British Empire together, but that would come with time.
Gouverneur Morris, aged eight, had no reason to question his privileged position in the British social order. His father was in fact a titled aristocrat, the Lord of Morrisania, which comprised much of the present-day Bronx in New York City. Although Gouverneur was not the firstborn son and would never himself become a lord, he was still greatly privileged, thanks to the traditional British hierarchy, with a monarch at the top.
Of all the delegates other than Franklin, only Alexander Hamilton, aged three or five at the time (the record is unclear), was not imbued in his earliest years with reverence for King George I or II. An illegitimate child in the West Indies, Hamilton was tutored at home by his French Huguenot mother and by a local Sephardic Jewess, neither of whom were likely to have encouraged adoration of the British monarch. For all the rest, however, professing gratitude and pledging allegiance were taught early and renewed often, at every stage of their political education.
To our modern sensibilities, the hierarchical relationship between British subjects and their monarch in 1760 might appear overly submissive, but as people viewed the matter then, subjects received as much as they gave. Sir William Blackstone, the mid-eighteenth-century jurist who defined the British polity in his authoritative Commentaries on the Laws of England, explained that allegiance was “the tie, or ligamen, which binds the subject to the king, in return for that protection which the king affords the subject.” The bond was symbiotic.
Protection took two forms. Most obviously, as commander of armies and navies, the monarch was expected to shield subjects from any and all external enemies. This was particularly apparent for British colonials in 1760, who felt they had been “freed from the invasions of a savage foe” when the king’s forces defeated the French in Canada.
Equally important, however, was the guarantee against lawlessness or tyranny within the monarch’s realm. The Crown was legally present in all courts; any violation of the law was an offense to his power and authority, to be punished accordingly. Further, the Crown was charged with guaranteeing the people’s liberties. George II, in his first speech to Parliament in 1727, proclaimed that it was his special duty “to secure to all my subjects, the full enjoyment of their religious and civil rights.”
To protect the people from foreign foes and domestic disorders, a British monarch needed to possess formidable, across-the-board powers. The monarch was the commander in chief of the armed forces, the head of state, the pinnacle of the titled hierarchy, the wealthiest individual, and the largest landowner. When new lands were added to the empire, they immediately became the king’s property, to be dispensed at his pleasure.
The monarch also headed the official state religion, the Church of England, and even with respect to the affairs of state he or she was said to govern by the divine grace of God. When King George II died in 1760, the governor, council, and house of representatives from Massachusetts welcomed his successor by “beseeching god (by whom Kings do Reign) to bless the Royal King George the Third with long and happy years to reign over us.”
But with power such as this, couldn’t the Crown also deprive the people of their liberties?
Of course it could, and it had. King James I, who succeeded Queen Elizabeth in 1603, described kings as “little Gods on Earth.” Parliament at that point in time held no force of law. It could pass bills, but it had no way of enforcing them. It was essentially an advisory body to the king, who could dissolve it at his will. Parliament did wield the power of the purse, however. Historically, it had been created to raise money for the Crown, and that was still the only real card it could play.
Throughout the 1630s, King Charles I, James’s successor, tried to rule without convening Parliament at all. During the Eleven Years’ Tyranny, as it was called by his opponents, Charles ruled with autocratic power. He arrested people who refused to comply with the increasingly doctrinaire policies of the Church of England, and he raised money by extracting archaic fees that were still on the books but hadn’t been collected for centuries. By the time he reconvened Parliament in 1640, members there were prepared to challenge his power, and they did.
A century and a half later, this was all common knowledge for the educated men in Philadelphia who held their tongues when James Wilson introduced his motion. They knew the grisly details of England’s catastrophic civil wars that stemmed from the fallout between Parliament and King Charles I: the beheading of the king in 1649, the rise of Oliver Cromwell, his conquest of Ireland and Scotland, and the transformation from a nominal republic to a dictatorship under his rule. They knew that British people had recoiled and reinstituted a monarchy in 1660, that the old rivalries between Parliament and the Crown continued, and that in 1688 the Glorious Revolution had affirmed forever Parliament’s standing as a governing body.
They also knew that Parliament, to restore security and ensure continuity, placed a new pair of monarchs on the throne, William and Mary, even as it constrained royal authority with a Bill of Rights. Henceforth, Britain would be governed by Parliament and the Crown simultaneously. By distributing power rather than concentrating it, the revolutionaries of 1688 had inoculated the British polity against tyranny.
At least that was the plan. Over the next eighty-eight years, while the American colonies remained within the British realm, two emergent political parties—Whigs and Tories—squabbled over the meaning and operation of this mixed system. Broadly speaking, Whigs viewed themselves as the upholders of the Glorious Revolution, trumpeting individual liberties and pushing back against any hint of monarchical abuse, while Tories favored the stability that comes with established hierarchies, often siding with the Crown in its inevitable tugs-of-war with Parliament.
That’s the simplistic picture, comprehensible to us today, but the men who gathered at the Pennsylvania State House in the summer of 1787 to establish a new set of rules for the fledgling United States, having been raised within this political matrix, had a much richer understanding of the complexities of Whiggism and Toryism. Although their ideas might differ on how to weight the elements, they all believed in the superiority of a mixed governmental system. Had they been asked to devise a constitution in 1760, before their quarrels with the mother country, they would no doubt have come up with a plan closely resembling the British model, which all agreed was the best in the world. Wilson’s motion for a single executive would have passed by acclamation in a moment, and they would have haggled only over the particulars. They all would have wanted to fashion their government around both a monarch—whether selected by birth, appointment, or election—and a body representing the people, something akin to Parliament.
Much had happened between 1760 and 1787, however. When Charles Pinckney, the first speaker on the subject of establishing an executive office, warned against endowing that office with powers over “peace & war &c.,” all he needed to do was utter the m-word—“monarchy.” The term that had once inspired such reverence was now the kiss of death.
The tectonic shift in political philosophy did not come easily. In fact, the Revolutionary generation—the “rebels” of the 1760s and 1770s—were so deeply imbued with the notion of monarchy that they refused to renounce their allegiance to the British Crown until the bitter end, long after empirical evidence had proved the king an adversary. For more than a decade, colonists blamed all their troubles on Parliament, the king’s ministers, and their “Tory” allies in America, while excusing the king himself.
On August 14, 1765, when a Boston crowd hung a straw man and a giant boot from an elm tree at the south end of town, they identified the figure with the initials “A.O.,” signifying Andrew Oliver, the local official who would be collecting money for the stamps that Parliament required on all colonial court documents, contracts, licenses, news- papers, almanacs, and even playing cards. The boot needed no explanation; everyone knew it represented the Earl of Bute, nicknamed Jack Boot, the former tutor to King George III who had now become his chief adviser. The sole of the boot was painted green, an oblique reference to the British prime minister George Grenville, author of the infamous bill. Even in the most provocative street theater, the king was excused. In the minds of the protesters, the Stamp Act was thrust upon colonial Americans by his advisers and by Parliament, and it was to be executed by appointed officials, but King George III, who presumably had been duped into supporting the measure, lay blameless. Indeed, when the act was repealed the following year, colonial protesters sang his praises for releasing them from the burden imposed by Parliament. One New England minister told his congregation that when the king signed the repeal, he said that “if he had known it would have given his good subjects in America so much uneasiness, he never would have signed the former act.”
In 1767 John Dickinson, in his influential Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania, urged colonists to apply economic pressures to force the repeal of a new round of taxation, but he simultaneously entreated them to eschew any measures that would alienate them from their mother country, and in particular from their king. “We have an excellent prince, in whose good dispositions toward us we may confide,” he wrote. Even if the king was momentarily deceived “by artful men,” he would not become “cruel or unjust,” and his “anger” would not be “implacable.” “Let us behave like dutiful children who have received unmerited blows from a beloved parent,” he concluded. “Let us complain to our parent; but let our complaints speak at the same time the language of affliction and veneration.”
Through the late 1760s and early 1770s, as Parliament continued to thrust taxes on American colonists, and as colonists continued to resist, not even the wildest rebel dared question the king himself. In part to prove they were patriots rather than traitors, protesters continued to profess allegiance, to celebrate the king’s birthday and the anniversary of his coronation, and to begin all their raucous toasts with a drink to his health. Patriots believed that if the king would only cast away his devious advisers and listen to the colonists’ complaints without prejudice, he would side with his American subjects. At least publicly, they had to profess that belief; otherwise, they would be challenging the very heart of British government and culture.
With each new round of repression, colonists selected appropriate scapegoats. In 1768, for instance, the villain of choice was Earl of Hillsborough, the newly elected secretary of state for the colonies, who ordered a clampdown on those resisting the Townshend duties. When crowds covered the doors of Tories with dung, they labeled it “Hillsborough paint.”
In the Tea Act controversy of 1773, colonials directed their ire at Parliament, Prime Minister Lord North, the East India Company directors, and the agents who expected to sell tea in the colonies, whom they reviled as “political bombardiers.” When thousands upon thousands of citizens met in Boston’s Old South Church to protest the three boatloads of tea anchored in the harbor nearby, their angry speeches never tied King George III personally to the Tea Act, the East India Company, or any foul deed, even though he certainly had been a willing partner and active agent.
Even in September 1774, as citizens throughout Massachusetts cast off all British rule outside of Boston, and as they riddled their protests with such rancorous phrases as “ransack our pockets,” “the parricide which points the dagger to our bosoms,” “numberless curses of slavery upon us,” and “unparalleled usurpation of unconstitutional power” (these quotations from the Suffolk Resolves), their resolutions always included a deferential disclaimer, offered at the beginning. Again, from the Suffolk Resolves:
That whereas his majesty, George the Third, is the rightful successor to the throne of Great-Britain, and justly entitled to the allegiance of the British realm, and agreeable to compact, of the English colonies in America—therefore, we, the heirs and successors of the first planters of this colony, do cheerfully acknowledge the said George the Third to be our rightful sovereign, and that said covenant is the tenure and claim on which are founded our allegiance and submission.