By Nancy Spannaus
May 6, 2023—There was a time when Americans were notorious for their refusal to “bow the knee” and yield to the prerogatives of royalty, British or otherwise. The Declaration’s words “all men are created equal” expressed our justified contempt for a system, no matter how outwardly “humane,” which established a class of blood royalty allegedly appointed by God to rule over us. We were republicans (small r) and proud to fight for the rights of the common man.
Yet the wave of fawning media coverage of the newly crowned King Charles III makes me wonder whether we have lost that distinctive quality. Charles is not responsible for the centuries-long record, written in blood, of the crimes of the British Empire, of course, but the institution he is vowing to uphold is. Africans still remember the torture and suffer the results of the British-run slave trade; Indians recall the mass death from famines resulting from British diktat. In fact, using financial power rather than its vaunted Redcoats, the British monarchy continues to oppress a huge portion of the world, not to mention its outsized influence in the spheres of “information” and geopolitics. Adulation of the British monarchy’s leading representative contradicts republican principles.
So let us briefly recall how we Americans rejected the monarchy back in the 1770s.
No Sudden Shift
While there was always a visible minority of British-American colonists who rejected the monarchical form of government, a broad consensus was a long time in coming. When the colonies came together in the fall of 1774 to devise measures of resistance to Britain’s crackdown on Massachusetts, they combined their non-importation agreement with a humble petition to the King for a redress of their grievances. The King, they hoped, would be their protector against the measures of Parliament.
King George III didn’t see fit to answer.
More surprising is that the Second Continental Congress, which convened in May of 1775 after the bloodshed had begun at Lexington and Concord, also produced a petition to the King. At the insistence of leaders such as New York’s John Jay and Pennsylvania’s John Dickinson, the Congress again professed their loyalty to the King and sought redress for their grievances. This so-call Olive Branch petition was issued on July 5, 1775. It concluded:
For by such arrangements as your Majesty’s wisdom can form, for collecting the united sense of your American people, we are convinced your Majesty would receive such satisfactory proofs of the disposition of the colonists towards their sovereign and parent state, that the wished for opportunity would soon be restored to them, of evincing the sincerity of their professions, by every testimony of devotion becoming the most dutiful subjects, and the most affectionate colonists.
That your Majesty may enjoy a long and prosperous reign, and that your descendants may govern your dominions with honor to themselves and happiness to their subjects, is our sincere and fervent prayer.
King George did respond to this appeal. In a “Proclamation for Suppressing Rebellion and Sedition,” issued in August, the King demanded:
We do accordingly strictly Charge and Command all Our Officers, as well Civil as Military, and all other Our obedient and loyal Subjects, to use their utmost Endeavours to withstand and suppress such Rebellion, and to disclose and make known all Treasons and traitorous Conspiracies which they shall know to be against Us, Our Crown and Dignity: and for that Purpose, that they transmit to one of Our Principal Secretaries of State, or other proper Officer, due and full Information of all Persons who shall be found carrying on Correspondence wit, or in any Manner or Degree aiding or abetting, the Persons now in open Arms and Rebellion against Our Government within any of Our Colonies and Plantations in North America, in order to bring to condign Punishment the Authors, Perpetrators, and Abettors of such traitorous Designs.
The King’s response clearly dashed the hopes of those who counted on him to redress the colonists’ grievances, but it did not immediately galvanize an anti-monarchical response. Even as the Second Continental Congress took up the responsibilities of organizing the war, there was still considerable resistance to the idea of independence. There was a vocal faction in the British Parliament seeking reconciliation, and even the British military command in America, led by General Howe, sought to present an apparent openness to reconciliation. Many Americans, including leaders of the Continental Congress, held out the hope that the war could be stopped.
Enter Thomas Paine, and his wildly popular pamphlet, Common Sense. Paine had only arrived in the colonies in 1774, but he immediately put his pen to work in support of the anti-British cause. Common Sense was published by Paine on January 10, 1776, and immediately caused a sensation, soon requiring a second printing. Ultimately an estimated 500,000 copies were circulated, and the pamphlet’s anti-monarchical content was read aloud and debated throughout the colonies.
General Washington declared in a letter to Lt. Colonel Joseph Reed on April 1, 1776:
My Countrymen I know, from their form of Government, & steady Attachment heretofore to Royalty, will come reluctantly into the Idea of Independancy; but time, & persecution, brings many wonderful things to pass; & by private Letters which I have lately received from Virginia, I find common sense is working a powerful change there in the Minds of many Men.
In America, “The Law is King”
It is beyond the scope of this post to elaborate on Paine’s argumentation against the British monarchy, and monarchy in general. His language was so harsh and polemical (c.f., calling King George “the Royal Brute”) that it even offended some supporters of independence. But at its core, Paine’s appeal was against the toleration of arbitrary power by a hereditary monarchy which considered itself a “higher class” of men, with authority allegedly conveyed by the Almighty. A summary of Pain’s pamphlet follows. (All emphasis is in the original)
The first section, entitled “Of the Origin and Design of Government in General, with Concise Remarks on the English Constitution,” describes the necessity for government and its purpose: “freedom and security.” This is followed by an incisive analysis of the British system in particular, where he describes the ironies in the relationships between the Commons, the Peers, and the Monarchy itself, with the ultimate conclusion that
the will of the king is as much the law of the land in Britain as in France, with this difference, that instead of proceeding directly from his mouth, it is handed to the people under the more formidable shape of an act of Parliament. For the fate of Charles the First hath only made kings more subtle—not more just.
The second section is entitled “The Monarchy and Hereditary Succession;” the following quote gives a flavor of its reasoning.
MANKIND being originally equal in the order of creation, the equality could only be destroyed by some subsequent circumstance. The distinctions of rich and poor may in a great measure be accounted for, and that without having recourse to the harsh ill-sounding names of oppression and avarice. Oppression is often the consequence, but seldom or never the means of riches; and though avarice will preserve a man from being necessitously poor, it generally makes him too timorous to be wealthy.
But there is another and greater distinction for which no truly natural or religious reason can be assigned, and that is the distinction of men into KINGS and SUBJECTS. Male and female are the distinctions of nature, good and bad the distinctions of heaven; but how a race of men came into the world so exalted above the rest, and distinguished like some new species, is worth inquiring into, and whether they are the means of happiness or of misery to mankind.
Paine’s historical review is fascinating. It was clearly fashioned with an eye to the intimate familiarity of many of the colonists with the Bible, because he provides a long, sourced description of Scripture (Old Testament) demonstrating that the demand for a King as the ultimate authority was actually considered a sin against God.
The third, final, and longest section of his pamphlet was entitled “Thoughts on the Present State of Affairs.” Paine says that his own conviction of the necessity for independence came after the Battle of Bunker Hill (April 1775). He believes reconciliation impossible given what has ensued, as well as the inherent inability of a small island to rule a continent which is so distant and of which it is “so very ignorant.” He argues extensively against the allures of reconciliation under a different parliamentary leadership, concluding
And in order to show that reconciliation now is a dangerous doctrine, I affirm that it would be policy in the king at this time to repeal the acts for the sake of reinstating himself in the government of the provinces; in order that HE MAY ACCOMPLISH BY CRAFT AND SUBTLETY, IN THE LONG RUN, WHAT HE CANNOT DO BY FORCE AND VIOLENCE IN THE SHORT ONE. Reconciliation and ruin are nearly related.
Paine elaborates his own scheme for a national government (which differs significantly from what we adopted) and then intensifies his appeal to the people. The following provides a taste:
But where, say some, is the King of America? I’ll tell you, friend, he reigns above, and doth not make havoc of mankind like the Royal Brute of Great Britain. Yet that we may not appear to be defective even in earthly honors, let a day be solemnly set apart for proclaiming the charter; let it be brought forth placed on the divine law, the word of God. Let a crown be placed thereon, by which the world may know, that so far as we approve of monarchy, that in America THE LAW IS KING. For as in absolute governments the King is law, so in free countries the law ought to be King; and there ought to be no other. But lest any ill use should afterwards arise, let the crown at the conclusion of the ceremony be demolished, and scattered among the people whose right it is.
A government of our own is our natural right, and when a man seriously reflects on the precariousness of human affairs, he will become convinced that it is infinitely wiser and safer to form a constitution of our own in a cool deliberate manner, while we have it in our power, than to trust such an interesting event to time and chance.
“A Republic, if you can keep it”
There are still 29 monarchies in this 21st century, including that in Great Britain. Some even call themselves democracies and republics. But in all, those elected to office vow fealty to the monarch; in Britain, to “be faithful and bear full allegiance” to the king.
Fortunately, the American people listened to Paine’s argument. We rejected the old monarchy and did not set up a new one. We proceeded to establish an exemplary republic. Our leaders vow allegiance to the Constitution, committing themselves to “form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”
Despite grievous flaws in execution, our national objectives remain those of a republic. The above quote from Benjamin Franklin, uttered at the end of the Constitutional Convention, expresses the Constitution’s intent. Article IV, Section 4, of our Constitution guarantees “to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government,” and we pledge allegiance to “the flag and to the republic for which it stands.”
Contrary to Paine’s advice, our republic has reconciled with the British nation, as it should. But that is a far cry from approving its form of government, and its matching imperial policies. Let us clear our heads and recommit ourselves to our republican principles.
 The opposition to declaring independence lasted all the way up to the eve of the Declaration. See https://americansystemnow.com/the-fight-behind-the-declaration/.