Blogs > Cliopatria > John Fea: Review of Brendan McConville's The King’s Three Faces: The Rise and Fall of Royal America, 1689-1776 (University of North Carolina Press, 2006)

Aug 20, 2007 11:50 pm

John Fea: Review of Brendan McConville's The King’s Three Faces: The Rise and Fall of Royal America, 1689-1776 (University of North Carolina Press, 2006)

[John Fea teaches American history at Messiah College in Grantham, PA. He is the author of The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Enlightenment in America (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008).]

If this book were published in the 1920s, Brendan McConville would have been likely accused of treason. In the wake of World War One, the Bolshevik Revolution, and the first Red Scare, scholars who dared to suggest that the thirteen American colonies were culturally “British” were often labeled as unpatriotic. In 1928, Charles Grant Miller, a writer for the Hearst newspaper syndicate, exposed such historians in The Poisoned Loving Cup: United States School Histories Falsified Through Pro-British Propaganda in the Sweet Name of Amity. His book attacked prominent students of America’s past—Albert Hart Bushnell and David Saville Muzzey took most of the heat-- for suggesting that before the Stamp Act crisis of 1765 ordinary colonists were “proud of being Britons.” Miller was incensed by this Anglocentric view of American history and he accused Muzzey of interpreting the eighteenth century “through King George’s eyes.” His call to arms was quickly heeded by patriotic organizations such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the American Legion, and the Sons of the American Revolution.

One can only imagine how Miller might have responded to McConville’s The King’s Three Faces, but it certainly would have been harsh. The Boston University history professor has written a devastating critique of the Whig interpretation of the American Revolution. No historian to date has set out with such thoroughness—and such force—to dismantle this sacred cow of American historiography.

So what has gotten McConville’s interpretive sensibilities in such a tizzy? Namely the way most of us have learned early American history. He argues that the narrative of eighteenth-century life we have come to embrace is too “forward looking,” too “liberal-capitalist,” too “democratizing,” and too driven by the American Revolution. He describes the latter as the “scholarly vortex that sucks all that came before it into its deterministic bowels.” McConville’s gripe is with a form of teleological history that fails to interpret colonial America on its own terms. If we forget that the American Revolution happened we can see the thirteen colonies for what they truly were—strong bastions of British royalism where most ordinary people held a deep affection for the monarch well into the 1770s. The actual American Revolution was not the inevitable result of decades of Enlightenment-inspired anti-British sentiment. It was rather a sudden, abrupt, heart-wrenching break with England that was driven more by anti-Catholicism than ancient or contemporary ideas about politics.

The kind of historical narrative McConville finds disturbing just happens to be the one that most undergraduates bring with them to the college lecture hall. For example, I like to start my undergraduate course on the history of early America by asking students what appears to be a fairly straightforward question: Why is it important to study the colonies? Without fail, my students answer by saying something about how the main reason for learning about colonial America is so that we can better understand the American Revolution and the larger history of the United States.

Such answers, of course, contain some truth. The American Revolution did not occur in a historical vacuum and we have to know something of the colonies to make sense of it. But the way that my students initially approach the history of pre-revolutionary America is utterly ahistorical. They are caught in McConville’s vortex. When pushed, they all believe that the seeds of democracy, republican government, and capitalism were planted in the soil at Jamestown and Plymouth, watered over the 169 years of British colonization in America, and blossomed in that glorious Philadelphia summer of 1776.

This approach to the American past has always had a stranglehold on the nation’s historical imagination. Public schools, in their quest to use history to produce good members of society, have canonized this view. The social studies movement has done little to help the cause of responsible historical thinking since it interprets the past as a means toward an end—the shaping of young democratic minds. History is little more than the background information needed to teach a larger lesson about citizenship. Social studies pick and choose from the past in an attempt to, as Bernard Bailyn has described it, “indoctrinate by historical example.”

But this is not how historians should think. We are not intellectual imperialists who treat the past as something to be conquered and reshaped into our own image. While we always need to learn from the past and occasionally pass judgments upon it, pedagogical and moral lessons must be taught only after we have explored these lost worlds in all their complexity. It is for these very reasons that all students of American history should read The King’s Three Faces. It is a model of the kind of historical thinking that we need. McConville refuses to be taken in by a presentist Whig agenda. He introduces us to a past that most Americans would consider strange—a “foreign country,” as David Lowenthal has described it. The historian’s job is to serve as a tour guide through this unfamiliar terrain and McConville, as a first rate practitioner of his discipline, is up to the task

The King’s Three Faces begins in 1688 with the Glorious Revolution and the ascendancy of William and Mary to the throne. American colonists—especially Protestant dissenters-- were not thrilled with the new monarchs’ commitment to the Anglican Church, but at least William and Mary were not Catholic. Their Protestant religion was a comfort to those in America who feared that James II, the ousted King, would have used his power to overturn the English Reformation. Over the next several decades, as British wars with the French continued to threaten the Protestant future of the colonies, the inhabitants of America developed a contractual relationship with their monarchs, particularly those of the new Hanoverian line (George I, II, and III). This contract was not rooted in the Lockean political philosophy that has long been a staple of Whig historiography; but was rather based on faith in the King as a Protestant ruler who would protect the colonies against Catholic encroachments on their religious and political liberties.

After 1688 the people fell in love with their Protestant monarchs. A host of new holidays enhanced the emotional ties between the King and his subjects. McConville makes a compelling argument—one that is contrary to much of our received wisdom--that the colonists’ love for the monarchy intensified as the eighteenth century advanced, while affection for the King among English men and women went through a period of decline. Colonial America, in other words, was the most royal place in the British Empire.

According to McConville, America remained connected to the Empire by three passions: love, fear, and desire. The colonists loved the King, they feared Catholics, and they desired the consumer products that the British Empire provided for them. The Hanover Kings were intimate friends, not remote and distant monarchs. Some colonists even used divine right language to describe the King. The Hanovers were seen as benevolent rulers appointed by a Protestannth-century print and popular culture was saturated with this kind of religious “neo-absolutism,” but historians conditioned to search the colonial record for signs of an inevitable and secular Revolution have simply missed or ignored such ubiquitous references.

If indeed McConville is correct about this monarchial love fest then it becomes that much more difficult to explain why the American Revolution happened when it did. By 1765, as Parliament became more aggressive in enforcing taxation schemes to raise revenue in the wake of the French and Indian War, the colonists turned to their king to defend them against what they perceived to be legislative tyranny. Since all of the colonies had their own popular assemblies, they did not believe Parliament had the right to tax them. In fact, they did not believe Parliament should have any jurisdiction over the colonies. Their connection to the Empire came through their “imperial Father,” the King. Their right to rule at home, they believed, stemmed from seventeenth-century colonial charters issued by the monarch, not Parliament.

By the early 1770s the colonists were also making a connection between parliamentary corruption and their historical memory of the Catholic tyranny of James II. Parliament’s behavior toward them was not unlike the kind of popish corruption that had threatened them during the Glorious Revolution. Such fears were confirmed when Parliament decreed that Catholicism would be the established religion in Quebec. In the wake of the Quebec Act the colonists appealed to the King’s love and justice to save them from further legislation that might undermine their British Protestant liberties.

In the end, George III did not come through for his loyal subjects. As it became clear that he was unwilling to defend the colonies against the acts of Parliament, the affectionate bonds between the colonists and the King began to break apart. McConville’s Revolution thus happened suddenly, not unlike a young man blindsided by the realization that his one true love no longer wants him. And the colonists did not take the breakup very well. They acted as scorned lovers, lashing out in violence against royal officials, Anglican clergy, and anyone else who showed sympathy for the monarch. They destroyed and degraded any and all symbols of the King, including the equestrian statue of George III erected by New Yorkers in 1770. (The fact that such a statue would be built as late as 1770 provides added support to the book’s thesis). Such patriotic iconoclasm, McConville writes, “stands as a testament to the powerful grip the monarchy had on provincial imagination and emotions for the seventy-five years before 1764.”

By July 1776, the long courtship between King and colonists had come to an abrupt and nasty end. After eight years of war the colonists managed to heal their emotional wounds and move on with their lives by creating a new political and social world for themselves. We, as Americans, are familiar with this world. For the past two centuries we have grown rather comfortable living in it. But McConville has reminded us that a different kind of comfort—a comfort found in the King’s protection and care—pervaded the world that Americans inhabited before 1776. While this world is quite foreign to our modern republican sensibilities, it is nevertheless a world worthy of our exploration, even if the past that we find there may not always be useful.

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Anthony Brundage - 9/10/2007

Sounds like a must read, so I have just ordered the book. The very public dispute in the 1920s over the work of major historians like A. B. Hart, A. M. Schlesinger, and A. C. Cunningham, is now a largely unknown phenomenon, even within the historical preofession. It is good to know that McConville has resurrected it, as part of his thesis about the very contingent nature of the American Revolution.

In the first half of the twentieth century, constitutional historians were dominant in the discipline, and produced the interpretations that traditional minded patriots found so repellent: that Britain was the source of the political and legal freedoms enjoyed by Americans, that the Revolution had been a tragic and preventable rupture, and that a new federation of the English-speaking peoples could guide the world to unboundeed prosperity and peace. Such an unprecedented challenge to the dominant national narrative was met with outraged charges of subversion and calls for suppressing the "treason texts."

These matters are treated at length in my new book (co-authored wthe Richard Cosgrove), THE GREAT TRADITION; CONSTITUTIONAL HISTORY AND NATIONAL IDENTITY IN BRITAIN AND THE UNITED STATES, 1870-1960 (Stanford University Press, 2007).

Tim Lacy - 8/27/2007

Based on your review, having not read the book, I'm compelled to ask about how McConville explains our willingness to accept help from pre-1789 Catholic France? And what about the fact that our friendship with France continued into the early 19th century? A too conservative view of U.S. loyalties to Britain wouldn't, on the face of things, be able to explain this well. - TL

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