Friday, December 29, 2006

Book Review: "The King's Three Faces"

Boston University history professor Brendan McConville's new book (his second) is The King's Three Faces: The Rise & Fall of Royal America, 1688-1776. It is billed as "a powerful counterthesis to the dominant American historiography," and while I think it undeserving of such melodramatic jacket blurbage, it is still not only an important book but also a good one, and should be widely read.

McConville's fundamental argument is that royalism in the American colonies ran very deeply from the time of the Glorious Revolution (1688) to the very start of the Revolutionary War in 1775-6. Over those decades, he maintains, rites and ceremonies honoring the British monarchs became engrained in the American way of life; this led to the creation of an emotional tie between the individual and the ruler that grew stronger through the early decades of the eighteenth century. Simultaneously in England, the people's bond with the monarch grew weaker while their support for parliament increased. McConville calls this trend paradoxical, but I think if he'd examined Americans' support for their elected colonial legislatures he would have found an important parallel that is entirely absent from this treatment.

The best portions of this book were those describing the various ceremonies used to honor the English monarchs and their families, as well as McConville's discussion of royal images as they were put to use in colonial America. I also was quite impressed with the section on a few of the proposals for structural redesigns of the imperial scheme that could well have averted the military revolution: McConville argues that because these were proffered by "outsiders" (that is, not by imperial bureaucrats who would have had to support any such changes for them to be effected), all such efforts were bound to fail. Nonetheless, there were some very imaginative plans put forth!

As McConville correctly notes, Americans' final break with George III was both abrupt and passionate - it was thought well through the first months of the Revolution that the monarch would not prosecute a war against the colonies, and when it became clear this was a misguided hope, the rupture was both fierce and extreme (witness the pulling down of the royal statue in New York City, for example). This is not a new argument, but its complementary piece (the long-running colonial feud with Parliament) is an important element in the runup to Revolution that McConville omits.

Since I always gripe about poor practices with footnotes, I must add some words of praise for this book: UNC Press has put McConville's references right where they belong, at the bottom of the page. Only the absence of a full bibliography is to be lamented in this case.

The King's Three Faces
is a well-written book; it simply tries to make too much of a splash by claiming to "reinterpret history"; McConville's excellent examination of American colonial royalism would stand quite firmly on its own.

2 comments:

Donna said...

If you're interested in reading more about what helped precipitate the broad change of heart in the US - 46 pages by Scott Liell - about Thomas Paine's Common Sense is very good.

JBD said...

Donna, an excellent point - I've not read Liell's book (and will), but indeed, Paine's "Common Sense" did play a very important role in that shift, attacking the king personally as it did. Another striking omission from McConville's book.