Traces of Monarchy in Early U.S. Political Culture

Endorsed by the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic (SHEAR)

Friday, April 3, 2020, 10:00 AM - 11:30 AM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Politics


With the Declaration of Independence, the first leaders of the United States of America called for a clean break from the British monarchy. This break was to take place in the realm of geopolitics: from now on, no king would rule over the thirteen colonies-cum¬-states from distant European shores. The separation was also supposed to be ideological and cultural. Monarchical subjects would become republican citizens, loyal not to the image of an individual king but to the idea of a sovereign people.
Though historians have disagreed strenuously about the particulars of this transition, until recent years they have rarely deviated from the basic assumption that Americans quickly fulfilled the Declaration’s vision of a total abandonment of monarchical political culture. Lately, however, several highly stimulating studies have called into question the neatness of this narrative. Eric Nelson has argued that many leading patriots of the 1760s and ‘70s pitched their opposition to British policies as a defense of royal government against a tyrannical Parliament; though largely dormant during the years of the Revolutionary War itself, this royalist persuasion came roaring back during the creation of the Federal Constitution’s muscular, quasi-monarchical presidency. Caitlin Fitz’s work suggests that Anglo-Americans remained fixated upon kingship long after their own revolution, imagining the Spanish American rebels of the 1810s and ‘20s as partners in a common hemispheric struggle against monarchy. Meanwhile, Marcela Echeverri’s study of popular royalism among a diverse swath of revolutionary era South Americans suggests that evidence of monarchism’s ongoing manifestations presents scholars interested in a hemisphere-wide Age of Revolution with a fertile field for comparison and connection.
The papers of this panel will take up the mantle presented by these studies and others, arguing that monarchy was (technically) gone but hardly forgotten in the political culture of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century United States. Though U.S. citizens agreed that no American ruler would wear a crown, political structures, practices, rituals, and images drawn from Americans’ long monarchical apprenticeship lingered both in official state policies and in partisan rhetoric. Our first two presenters, Lindsay Chervinsky and Zachary Conn, will suggest that defining the activities of the president’s cabinet officers and his representatives to Native Americans involved more direct borrowing from British monarchical precedents than scholars have previously recognized. Shira Lurie and Mark Boonshoft will then lead us out of the young Republic’s sites of formal governance and into its classrooms and streets. In sparring over the roles of social class in education policy and popular protest in legislative debates, Federalists and Democratic-Republicans offered competing understandings of the ways in which the establishment of a republic had, and had not, banished America’s old monarchical political culture. Collectively, the papers will suggest that for decades after 1776 the retreat from monarchy was no simple matter. Instead, it was characterized by unevenness, complexity, and meaningful disagreement.

Papers Presented

“The unpopular cause of Anglomany is openly laying claim to him”: The President’s Cabinet, the American Public, and the Long Shadow of the British Monarchy

In 1775 British lieutenant John Barker noted that American troops raised their flag as the “King’s Troops” and referred to the British regular as “the Parliaments.” Although King George III soon experienced the colonists’ displeasure, Americans had long-blamed the King’s ministers in the British cabinet-council for the detested legislation that led to the Revolution. During the summer of 1787, the delegates at the Constitutional Convention rejected a number of proposals based on widespread Anglophobia. In particular, the delegates rejected Charles Cotesworth Pinckney’s proposal to create a council for the president compromised of the department secretaries. Yet by 1793, President George Washington met with his cabinet several times per week to discuss diplomatic issues, constitutional questions, and domestic crises. This paper will explore the public response to the cabinet. Surprisingly, the public accepted the cabinet as an institution, but criticized specific secretaries when they acted too much like British ministers. For example, Democratic-Republicans criticized Alexander Hamilton for wielding too much power over the executive and interfering with Congress. These complaints reflected a concern that American secretaries were becoming dangerously British. By examining the public response to department secretaries through the lens of the cabinet, this paper will demonstrate how the British monarchy shaped the U.S. government and its relationship with the American people long after the end of the Revolutionary War. This interpretation merges literature on popular participation in politics with Atlantic studies that examine Anglo-American political culture and applies these approaches to the cabinet.

Presented By
Lindsay Mitchell Chervinsky, White House Historical Association

Great Lakes Indians, Monarchical Rituals, and the Making of the U.S. Government

During negotiations for an 1826 treaty between the United States and several Great Lakes peoples, Lewis Cass noticed an Ojibwa speaker wore around his neck a medal imprinted with the British King’s face. Cass, Michigan’s federally appointed territorial governor and superintendent of Indian affairs, asked the Indian to affirm that he wore the British medal “not as an authority, or power, but as an ornament” before the American would smoke the calumet (sacred peace pipe) with him. In response, according to the memoirs of another American official, the Ojibwa “took [the medal] from around his neck and laid it on our table, saying, he put no value on it. The pipe was then smoked, and an American medal given him to take the place of the English one.” The American medal was nearly identical. It featured the face of President John Quincy Adams. A half century after Americans declared independence from the British monarchy, U.S. political culture remained monarchical in a key respect. American officials sought to dislodge Great Lakes Indians from the British sphere of influence not by presenting the Republic as a fundamentally different polity from the mother country, but instead by co-opting British modes of diplomacy. In this context the president was a rival to the British King, and, for that very reason, an analogue. Both British and American officials in Indian country used such methods as gifts, oratory, marriage alliances, and trade to encourage native peoples to feel a sense of kinship with a powerful yet benevolent “Great Father” to the East. My paper will explain how this phenomenon came to be and delve into some of its specific manifestations.

Presented By
Zachary Isaac Conn, Yale University

Aristocratic Education in the Early Republic

Critiques of Federalists as monarchists, monocrats, monarchical Anglophiles, and so on, were commonplace in the early republic. Historians usually dismiss them as overblown, evidence of the hyperbolic and apocalyptic partisan rhetoric of the day. Even Federalists recognized monarchy had no place in the United States and suppressed urges to re-create it, we are told. Yet as this paper argues, when it came to education policy, the Federalists’ critics had a point. In the early republic, calls for widespread public education to create an informed citizenry were ubiquitous, if not clichéd. But it was Federalists who dominated education policy in this period, and they mostly built and supported academies. These privately run, state-chartered secondary schools primarily, and consciously so, served elites. Critics and reformers alleged that these schools did little to create a widely informed citizenry and that they preserved backward values; academies, in short, were monarchical. The critique of academies as monarchical turned on three points. Academies offered an outdated curriculum—focused on the classics and ornamental subject—designed for foppish European aristocrats and thus had no place in the United States. Academies were inaccessible, catering mostly to the wealthy. And finally, academies were privately run, which made them impervious to democratic control. This, critics alleged, was how education looked in monarchical societies. These criticisms were borne out in reality. In fact, I argue, Federalists valued and chose to support academies for the very reasons the schools were open to these attacks, even if they fought the “monarchical” epithet. Ultimately, the Federalists’ goal was not creating an informed citizenry, but rather a wealthy and culturally distinct elite, not unlike a European aristocracy. Academies were the means to that end.

Presented By
Mark Boonshoft, Norwich University

From Rebellious Subjects to Obedient Citizens: The Contested Rights of Protest in the Founding Era

The United States’ current debate over how and when dissatisfied citizens should protest the government speaks to the complex relationship between citizens and elected officials at the heart of democracy. What political power do citizens yield to their representatives and what do they retain as individuals? What should a citizen do when they disagree with the choices of their representatives? In the early republic, Americans grappled with the same set of questions as they made sense of their transition from monarchical subjects to republican citizens. While some claimed a revolutionary right to protest unjust legislation, others argued that the nation’s representative government rendered such actions illegitimate. This paper frames the first party system as a disagreement over the citizen’s role in a republic. Republicans believed that the Revolution’s legacy guaranteed citizens the right to resist government when it overreached. They argued that the Revolution had been about popular resistance to tyrannical legislation. To them, popular sovereignty went beyond the mere act of electing representatives. It also granted citizens the right to scrutinize government conduct and resist unjust legislation through popular action, such as petitions, resolutions, and in extreme cases, outright resistance to the law. In contrast, the Federalists argued that resistance tactics developed under a monarchy had no place in a republic governed by elected representatives—Americans need not protest laws of their own making. Federalists believed that the Revolution secured representative government as the means to protect American liberty and maintained that citizens must support and obey decisions made by a majority. If unhappy, citizens needed to wait until the next election for recourse. While most scholarship frames the partisan conflict of the 1790s as a debate over foreign policy and political economy, this paper argues that it was also a fight over the place of protest in American democracy.

Presented By
Shira Nicole Lurie, University of Toronto

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Caitlin Fitz, Northwestern University
Caitlin Fitz (Ph.D., 2010, Yale University) is an associate professor of history at Northwestern University and a historian of early America, in a broad and hemispheric sense. Her work explores early U.S. engagement with foreign communities and cultures, as well as the relationship between ordinary people and formal politics. Her first book, Our Sister Republics: The United States in an Age of American Revolutions (W.W. Norton/Liveright, 2016), reveals how the Latin American independence movements shaped popular understandings of race, revolution, and republicanism within the United States. The book received the James Broussard Best First Book Prize from the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic as well as an honorable mention for the PROSE Award in U.S. history from the Association of American Publishers. Fitz’s article on the hemispheric dimensions of the War of 1812 appeared in the September 2015 Journal of American History; she has also written about U.S. citizens in insurgent Brazil (The Americas, 2008), Iroquois communities during the U.S. revolution (Journal of the Early Republic, 2008), and antislavery activists in Tennessee (Civil War History, 2006). She has received fellowships from the Fulbright Foundation, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and the American Council of Learned Societies, and she has written essays, reviews, and opinion pieces for the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, and the Los Angeles Times. In 2017 she received a Distinguished Teaching Award from Northwestern’s Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences.

Presenter: Mark Boonshoft, Norwich University
Mark Boonshoft is Assistant Professor of History at Norwich University. He received his PhD from Ohio State University and then spent two years as a post-doctoral research fellow at the New York Public Library, working on the Early American Manuscripts Project. His articles and essays have appeared in the Journal of the Early Republic, New York History, and The American Revolution Reborn. His first book, The Rise and Fall of Aristocratic Education and the Making of the American Republic, will appear with the University of North Carolina Press.

Presenter: Lindsay Mitchell Chervinsky, White House Historical Association
Lindsay M. Chervinsky is the White House Historian for the White House Historical Association. She received her Ph.D. in Early American history from the University of California, Davis in January 2017 and completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University. Chervinsky is currently completing her manuscript, The President’s Cabinet: George Washington and the Creation of an American Institution, which is under contract with Harvard Press and due out in early 2020. She has received fellowships and awards from the Organization of American Historians, the Society of Cincinnati, the International Center for Jefferson Studies, and the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington, among others. Chervinsky has shared her work at the annual conferences for the Organization for American Historians, the Society of Historians of the Early American Republic, the Omohundro Institute, the Society for Military Historians, and the Society for United States Intellectual History. She has published work in the Presidential Studies Quarterly and has forthcoming contributions in the Law and History Review, the Oxford Research Encyclopedia, and a volume on state-building in the Early Republic. Chervinsky has also published on a number of blogs and online sites, including Time, History News Network, and The Junto.

Presenter: Zachary Isaac Conn, Yale University
Zachary Conn is a Ph.D. Candidate in Early American History at Yale University. He graduated from the University of Chicago in 2012 with a B.A. in History. He has presented his research in such venues as the American Society for Ethohistory’s annual conference, the CUNY Grad Center’s Early American Republic Seminar, the John Carter Brown Library, and Oxford University’s All Souls College. His dissertation is a study of relations between Americans, Britons, Ojibwas, and Dakotas in the Great Lakes region in the early nineteenth century. He has an article under revision with the Journal of the Early Republic, and has shared his research in such public venues as the Washington Post’s “Made By History” site.

Presenter: Shira Nicole Lurie, University of Toronto
Shira Lurie is a PhD Candidate in History at the University of Virginia under the supervision of Alan Taylor. She received her B.A. and M.A. in History from the University of Western Ontario. Her dissertation, Politics at the Poles: Liberty Poles and the Popular Struggle for the New Republic, argues that conflicts over liberty poles in the 1790s ignited a national conversation about the place of protest and dissent in the new nation. Her research has been funded by several institutions and government agencies, including the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, the American Philosophical Society, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, the Massachusetts Historical Society, the David Library of the American Revolution, and the Bankard Fund for Political Economy. Shira has presented her work at the Rothermere American Institute at the University of Oxford and the International Center for Jefferson Studies at Monticello, as well as at conferences hosted by the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic, the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, the American Society for Eighteenth Century Studies, and the Society of Early Americanists. She published an article in the Winter 2018 issue of the Journal of the Early Republic, and has published online pieces for Nursing Clio, Age of Revolutions, and Inside Higher Ed.