Was the Revolution a revolt against monarchy?
Updated: Jun 1, 2021
In these blogposts, I discuss questions and issues that students have raised in my classrooms during the previous semester. They are good springboards to classroom discussions/debates about the Revolution, American history, and history itself.
There is little evidence that American colonists were ideologically uncomfortable with or opposed to monarchy before the outbreak of the War of American Independence; certainly no more so than Britons in Old England.
Historians have identified some anecdotal evidence (in speeches and sermons) that American settlers had a negative view of monarchy in theory. But in practice, they did not view Queen Anne, George I, George II, or George III negatively, and they did not speak or act out against monarchy. As late as 1773, Boston held public celebrations on George III’s birthday and coronation anniversary every year (without any counter-protests against this practice). In New York, residents erected a statue of George III in 1770, in gratitude for his leadership in the French and Indian War and his role in repealing the hated Stamp Act. In 1775, after the battles of Lexington and Concord and Bunker Hill, Americans still referred to him as their king and asked him to protect them from Parliament’s intrusive policies. It was only when they became convinced that the king supported Parliament that they decided to secede from Britain. Their complaint about Britain’s imperial policy throughout the turbulent decade from 1763 to 1775 was never monarchy, but Parliament’s intrusive, lawless, and unconstitutional policies.
So why did Americans come to resent monarchy so fiercely?
By 1776, there was no getting around the fact that Parliament pressed forth with its agenda in America because the king allowed it or actively supported it. The king had aligned himself with his Parliament, rather than defending his American subjects. But beyond their anger at this particular king at this particular moment, Americans really did embrace republicanism wholeheartedly during the course of the war, finding fault with monarchy itself, rather than merely with George III’s conduct. This is because the conflict with Parliament brought to the fore and exacerbated colonial fears regarding arbitrary power and administrative centralization in the Empire. The Revolutionists had complained that Britain’s controversial Parliamentary legislation in the 1760s and ‘70s reflected the will of the rulers, rather than the will of the governed. Monarchy epitomized such centralized power, as it concentrated power not only in one institution, but in one person.
A similar dynamic can be observed with regard to slavery. Before the Revolution, few Anglo-Americans had displayed or expressed discomfort with slavery. Yet once the war began, the legitimacy of slavery became a matter of public debate. By the end of the war, five northern states enacted laws to abolish slavery, with three additional states following suit in 1791 and 1804. Americans, therefore, were the first to voluntarily abolish slavery in their midst. In southern states too, the future of slavery became a topic of public debate, prompting some slaveholders (mostly in the upper South) to emancipate thousands of slaves, though the institution of slavery persisted and – following the “cotton revolution” of the 1790s – even expanded.
The settlers’ political rhetoric about Parliament’s abuses shaped their moral and ideological sensibilities, casting their war as a war against concentrated, arbitrary, and unchecked power. Like monarchy, slavery happened to epitomize (and personify) such arbitrary power, as it concentrated power in the hands of one person. Thus, American efforts to boost public support for the war (for example, with publications such as the Declaration of Independence and Thomas Paine’s Common Sense) led Americans to question the legitimacy and morality of both monarchy and slavery.