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A persuasive reassessment of the nature of the institution that was in the forefront of the American revolutionary struggle with Great Britainthe Continental Congress. Providing a completely new perspective on the history of the First and Second Continental Congresses before independence, the author argues that American expectations regarding the proper functions of a legitimate central government were formed under the British monarchy, and that these functions were primarily executive.
Originally published in 1987.
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King and Congress
The Transfer of Political Legitimacy, 1774â"1776
By Jerrilyn Greene Marston
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 1987 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
The King's Authority
I went a few days ago ... to visit the House of Lords. ... I felt as if I walked on sacred ground. I gazed for some time at the Throne with emotions that I cannot describe. I asked our guide if it was common for strangers to set down upon it. He told me no, but upon my importuning him a good deal I prevailed upon him to allow me the liberty. ... When I first got into it, I was seized with a kind of horror which for some time interrupted my ordinary train of thinking. ... I endeavored to arrange my thoughts into some order, but such a crowd of ideas poured in upon my mind that I can scarcely recollect one of them.
— Benjamin Rush, October 22, 1768
Thus did Benjamin Rush, committed republican of the 1770s, take his seat in 1768 upon his monarch's throne. Rush's feelings were not unique; many of his fellow colonists were similarly reverent when confronted with the aura of royalty. "There is something that Strikes an awe," noted one young American, "when you enter the Royal presence." The vast majority of colonists, who never crossed the Atlantic, demonstrated their sense of identification with their king in a more mundane manner through the familiar rituals that occurred regularly throughout the year. Royal birthdays were joyous holidays, royal marriages and births were celebrated with familial enthusiasm, and royal deaths were mourned, both officially and personally. A New England farmer, therefore, saw no incongruity in recording the death of a king in his journal along with other matters of importance to him:
Oct. 9. 1760. Bo't my Cart Wheels of Mr. Gove for 30 £.
Oct. 17. 1760.1 Enter'd the 43rd year of my Age. this year I tan 39 Hides & 114 Calfskins.
Oct. 25. 1760. King George the 2nd Died.
Even the son of that steadfast pair of revolutionaries, John and Abigail Adams, when asked what gift he wished his father to bring him upon returning from the Continental Congress, chose "the History of king and Queen."
As the crisis with Great Britain grew graver in the mid-1770s, radical American Whigs expressed disgust and impatience with their fellow colonists' reluctance to throw off old habits of obedience to and affection for the monarch. They incessantly warned their compatriots not to allow their political judgment to be affected by the glittering facade of the monarchy. Thus "A.Z." begged his readers no longer to be "wretchedly imposed upon by Shew and Parade." Americans should be "very cautious" about allowing the pomp of monarchy to work their "Mind[s] into a Rapture," lest they become "enamoured with we know not what, or who." American radicals constantly assured one another that they were immune to the "golden mists" that surrounded the monarch. An agent of the Boston committee of correspondence, Josiah Quincy, Jr., when recording his private impressions of the king's ceremonial opening of Parliament in 1774, made it a point to note virtuously, "I was not awe-struck with the pomps." Even as late as 1776, Charles Thomson, dubbed the "Sam Adams of Philadelphia," worried that his countrymen's minds were still "too much depraved with monarchical principles."
Patriot fears of a resurgence of "monarchical principles" did not end with independence but rather deepened to become a major political theme during the early years of the American republic. Leading American statesmen publicly and privately expressed apprehension that their experiment in republicanism would end in a return to some form of monarchy. In 1787 Hugh Williamson of North Carolina thought "it was pretty certain ... that we should at some time or other have a King." Alexander Hamilton's conclusions were well known to his contemporaries, and even George Washington seemed to share the assumption. He believed, Thomas Jefferson later recalled, that the noble American experiment "must at length end in something like a British constitution." The aged Benjamin Franklin perhaps best summarized the hopes of a few and the fears of many that "the government of these states may in future times end in a monarchy." On the basis of a lifetime's political observation and participation, Franklin wearily concluded that "there is a natural inclination in mankind to kingly government."
Such expressions raise interesting questions about the supposed ease with which Americans abandoned monarchical government after 1776. Important recent studies have explained the smooth transfer from monarchy to republic in terms of long-term developments that, prior to the Revolution, had sharply differentiated American attitudes and political institutions from those of Great Britain. Scholars have shown how Americans gradually developed greater autonomy and individuality, and among some classes became desirous of social change, characteristics that made them poor members of the rigidly hierarchical and stratified British social system. Similarly, semirepublican political institutions had emerged at both the local and provincial levels, and they progressively assumed greater autonomy and power at the expense of British imperial institutions. These developments caused British influence and institutions to wither away, such scholars imply, rendering the American embrace of republican governments after 1776 simply a confirmation of developments that had long since transformed colonial politics and society.
Such interpretations have greatly advanced our understanding of the speed and totality with which Americans at every political level — local, provincial, and continental — embraced new republican political institutions after 1776. The sincerity of the conversion to republicanism cannot be questioned. Despite often-expressed fears of a resurgence of "monarchical principles," the few Americans who seriously advocated an American king received scant consideration. In the light of such evidence, confirmed by decades of virulent attacks on monarchs and monarchy, it would be wrong to suggest that Americans after 1776 were somehow latent monarchists. Yet despite the overwhelming American commitment to a republican experiment after 1776, even the most confirmed republicans worried that Americans, if sufficiently unwary or unvirtuous, might yet return to some form of monarchical government.
What, then, was the attraction of monarchy that caused such apprehensions among even committed republicans? To answer this, one must examine the political perceptions of Americans, and those of the English political authorities upon whom they depended, about the role of the monarch in a rational system of government. Such a study reveals that while few preferred a monarchical form of government in theory, many considered it to be the most workable system in practice, because it was best suited to the fallible and imperfect nature of man. In short, political thinkers on both sides of the Atlantic accepted, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, the fact that the king, the embodiment of the principle of authority in government, fulfilled certain essential political roles that could not as certainly or durably be filled by existing republican alternatives.
Americans drew their ideas of the proper role of the monarch from a great variety of works of political theory. They were, in fact, voracious consumers of such works, stocking their libraries with the ancients and moderns — Renaissance Italians, French philosophers, and, more important, English Whigs. Within the Whig political spectrum, however, there were important differences of emphasis. At one end stood the "real" or "radical" Whigs, men like Algernon Sydney, John Trenchard, and Robert Viscount Molesworth whose decisive influence upon the colonists has been well established. These were men who had either themselves witnessed or participated in the great events of 1688 or who were close to the generation that had. Their characteristic ideological stance was suspicion of unlimited political power, the symbol of which was James II, and their characteristic political demand was for sure and certain boundaries to such power.
As the eighteenth century progressed and the threat of Stuart despotism diminished, other political theorists emerged. These men were Whigs too, for they were the inheritors and beneficiaries of the Revolution Settlement of 1689. They were not radicals, however, for they did not wish to change or alter the political settlement arrived at in 1689, but rather sought to preserve and support it. They are therefore here termed "establishment Whigs." While these men shared certain basic political perceptions with their radical colleagues, they nevertheless emphasized themes that the radicals only implied. In order to implement their goal of preserving the fruits of liberty that their Whig forbears had won in 1689, they emphasized the need to maintain a continual balance in political life between the forces of "authority" and those of "liberty," between executive and legislature, between the fallible ruler and the equally imperfect ruled. To maintain this vital balance, they were more likely than the radicals to acknowledge that the king, the embodiment of the principle of authority in government, filled certain necessary political roles in a rational system of government.
The King's Limitations
It was to the radical Whigs that Americans owed their fervent belief that all legitimate political power must have definite limits. This radical Whig conviction stemmed from a basic political belief, shared by all Whigs, in the absolute duality of political life. Throughout history, English Whigs believed, political life had been a tense struggle between the forces of liberty and those of authority, and they used certain code words to express this concept. Authority, usually termed "power," was associated with rulers, the executive, or simply the king. "Liberty," on the other hand, was usually coupled with "the people," or, in institutional terms, their representatives in the House of Commons. Since authority could not be eliminated from any government that retained the name, and since liberty could not be lost in any government that remained free, Whigs acknowledged that an uneasy opposition of the two principles was a basic precondition of all political life. As "Cato" (that is, John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon) explained the dilemma, "whereas Power can ... subsist where Liberty is not, Liberty cannot subsist without Power," which meant that liberty had "as it were, the Enemy always at her Gates."
Whigs in particular believed the situation to be dangerous, because they viewed mankind with a skeptic's eyes. "In truth," wrote "Cato," "there are so many Passions and ... so much Selfishness belonging to human Nature, that we can scarce be too much upon our Guard against each other." James Burgh, a direct midcentury heir of the radical Whig tradition, reiterated the conviction that man, "whom we dignify with the honourable title of Rational," is in truth an imperfect being primarily influenced "by supposed interest, by passion, by sensual appetite, by caprice, by any thing, by nothing." To trust such an imperfect being with unlimited power, Whigs believed, was to court disaster. Because they so feared unbounded political authority, and because they could see no way to eliminate the need for such authority, radical Whigs concerned themselves with setting sure limits on the exercise of power.
In order to limit the considerable power vested in the executive by the eighteenth-century constitution, Whigs relied on a basic tenet of contemporary political theory, the governmental contract. The idea of a contract between subject and prince is as old as the principle of monarchy itself. Many Whigs, however, believed that their notion of such a contract had come from John Locke. This may well not be true, for Locke's "contract" had been primarily concerned with an original agreement between all members of society to form a political entity; he left implicit the original and subsequent agreements between rulers and ruled that specified the reciprocal obligations of both. Locke's eighteenth-century followers, however, were primarily interested in the latter contract, between rulers and ruled, which appealed to Whigs as an ideal theoretical construct with which to limit executive authority.
The terms of the contract, as Whigs conceived them, were so simple and clear that they could be understood by the meanest member of society: The subject swore allegiance to the prince, in return for which the prince was obligated to protect the subject's person, property, and rights. The idea of an uncomplicated, mutually binding contract was so essential to Whig theory that the terms of the contract became an eighteenth-century political cliché reiterated by Whigs on both sides of the Atlantic. Thus "Cato" laid down as a political maxim "that Protection and Allegiance are reciprocal." "A true Whig is of the Opinion," Molesworth asserted, "that the Executive Power has as just a Title to the Allegiance and Obedience of the Subject ... as the Subject has to Protection." By midcentury, Blackstone had incorporated the concept into his lectures and ultimately into his Commentaries, giving semilegal status to the idea that "allegiance is the tie, or ligamen, which binds the subject to the King, in return for that protection which the King affords the subject."
In America, colonists of every political persuasion echoed their English mentors in referring to the terms of the governmental contract. "Are not Protection and Allegiance reciprocal?" queried John Adams in 1765. "In every government," Joseph Galloway answered some ten years later, "protection and allegiance ... are reciprocal duties" that are "so inseparably united that one cannot exist without the other." From their pulpits, ministers drummed the political catechism into their parishioners' heads. "The duties of Rulers and Subjects are reciprocal, and mutually imply each other," declared one cleric in a typical election sermon. "The duty of rulers and subjects is mutual," exhorted another, so that "rulers ought to love their people and to seek their welfare; and the people on their part, ought to be subject to the higher powers." With this long tradition, it is not surprising that after 1765 the idea that the ruler and the ruled were bound by mutual obligations became a standard theme in colonial resistance literature. Thus James Wilson insisted that "liberty is, by the Constitution, of equal Stability, of equal Antiquity, and of equal Authority with Prerogative." This meant, he scribbled in the margin of a speech delivered in January 1775, that "the Compact between the King and People is mutual, and both are equally bound."
The vital corollary to this theory of a contract between rulers and ruled was that if either side failed to perform its contractual duties, the contract was dissolved. If the ruler was the miscreant, the people were under no further obligations of allegiance and could legitimately resist any unjust exercise of executive authority. The right of the people to resist the illegal encroachments of the executive was thus integral to Whig political theory, and it constituted the ultimate check upon unbounded executive power. David Hume announced it to be a "general principle" that "in the case of enormous tyranny and oppression 'tis lawful to take arms against supreme power" because, as government is "a mere human invention for mutual advantage and security, it no longer imposes any obligation ... when once it ceases to have that tendency." The Americans' claim that their resistance was legitimate was buttressed, therefore, by the most influential political authorities. "They know little of the English Constitution," James Wilson declared, "who are ignorant" of "the Lawfulness of Resistance on the part of the governed against illegal Exertions of Power on the Part of those who govern."
This theory provided an effective check on the discretionary powers of the king. Any king who abused his authority by turning from protector to tyrant effectively broke the governmental contract. The king's tyranny therefore constituted a de facto abdication of his throne. After he broke the contract, the tyrant-king was to be considered a usurper to the legal title of ruler against whom resistance was not only justified but demanded. The king of England's "very attempt" to tyrannize his people, one American explained, "at once destroys his right to [reign] over them."
Excerpted from King and Congress by Jerrilyn Greene Marston. Copyright © 1987 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents
- FrontMatter, pg. i
- Contents, pg. ix
- Acknowledgments, pg. xi
- Introduction, pg. 1
- CHAPTER 1: The King's Authority, pg. 13
- CHAPTER 2: The Abdication of George III, pg. 35
- CHAPTER 3: The First Congress Assumes Authority, pg. 67
- CHAPTER 4: The Association of 1 7 7 4, pg. 100
- CHAPTER 5: Congress and Protection, pg. 131
- CHAPTER 6: Problems of Unity, pg. 180
- CHAPTER 7: Congress and Unity: Foreign Affairs, pg. 206
- CHAPTER 8: Congress and Internal Union, pg. 224
- CHAPTER 9: Congress Grants Authority for Government, pg. 251
- CHAPTER 10: A National Executive or A National Legislature, pg. 297
- A Note on Terminology, pg. 310
- Appendix: Local and Provincial Resolutions, 1774, pg. 313
- Notes, pg. 321
- Index, pg. 451