Overlapping Consensus

In some hours of leisure I had before the Thanksgiving holiday began, I was able to turn to one of the many books that have sat on my shelves too long — Eric Nelson’s The Royalist Revolution.

My original interest in it had been that of a #tradbro who looks for antiliberal counterhistories wherever he can find them, and likes his histories as unwhiggish as possible. This, Nelson does not fail to deliver. Even those of us who know better, even those of us who may indulge in Jacobite or other monarchical fantasies, or who have learned to sift through patriotic stories of the Revolution to detect among its actors interested motives and reckless ambitions — even we cannot overwrite completely the outlines of American history as we learned it with our ABCs. The Revolution always appears under the banner of “No Taxation without Representation”; it is always inspired by the books of Locke, whether we read them as wisdom or heresy; it is filed in a catalogue alongside other legends of heroes striking off the shackles of despotism.

Against this, Nelson advances two theses–

  • That Stuart theories of royal prerogative, resurrected in the colonies, were an important part of patriot political thought in the years before the Revolution, and
  • That these royalist theories, more than an expedient forensic device, outlasted the Hanoverian sway, and defeated more Whiggish ideas in the debates over the Constitution of 1787, leaving America with a President more monarchical than most monarchs — not as a “second Revolution” or American counterrevolution, but as the culmination of principles that had shaped patriot thinking since the 1760s.

Nelson proves these theses decisively, piling up citations until there can be no doubt that the royalist thought he sees among the patriots is more than the product of a reactionary imagination. (If anything, he shows this too exhaustively — readers outside the academy may not appreciate a history that is substantially its own sourcebook.) But whatever Nelson can teach us about American history, I am particularly grateful for up the example he gives of a kind of historical method.

For the aim of this book, in defending the idea of a “Royalist Revolution,” is not to refute the traditional Whig narratives: it proposes, rather, a kind of historical counterpoint, in which the opposition of Royalist and Whig plays against other themes. Nelson’s study sorts the political theories of the founding generation along several axes, the first of which is defined by the question of representation: does political representation require that a government resemble its citizens proportionately, or does it suffice for “legitimate” representation that the citizens have given consent, tacit or otherwise, to a government of whatever form?

On another axis, Nelson sorts thinkers by the types of constitution they will allow: must all decisions be authorized by a legislature as under the Articles of Confederation, or should the other branches of government be free to implement the law as they see best? Another axis concerns the grounds for rejecting the authority of the Crown: was the offense of George III that the mere fact of his kingship usurped honors due to God alone (as the atheist Paine and some fanatical Puritans agreed), or was it that particular misdeeds here absolved the Americans of their allegiance to a political form unobjectionable in itself?

Part of the purpose of Nelson’s endless citations is to demonstrate that almost every juncture of these axes was occupied by some American at some point in the 18th century. In each of the Americans’ transformations — from subjects to rebels, from rebels to democrats, from democrats to citizens of a balanced republic — one of these axes was for the moment the most important, but in each case the winners and losers were both unwieldy coalitions of various positions along the other axes. It’s hard to avoid the suspicion that some actors in these coalitions adopted whatever principles they need to remain on the winning team, and Nelson does not pretend that every ideological contortion is equally plausible. But his aim is not to tell a story of cynicism or political trickery, but to demonstrate how the apparent forward motion of history, even the appearance of of clear ideological themes in history, emerge from the interactions of groups who may not share a goal or a set of political principles.

To explain this, Nelson borrows Rawls’s notion of “overlapping consensus.” There is nothing of Rawlsianism in his argument (and he avoids mentioning Rawls at all), but the phrase is a good one. The events of the 1760s-80s are advanced by shifting groups of people who on some level agree on the outcomes they want, but may have different or even opposed reasons for wanting them. By this “Royalist Revolution,” then, Nelson does not mean to point out a revolution of a clearly royalist character, but to indicate that it was a revolution from which nondemocratic theories and reasonings were never absent, and which in their absence could not have proceeded the way it did.

In this book, Nelson focuses narrowly on the colonists’ and rebels’ theories of political legitimacy. No doubt an expanded study could show a similarly complex field of play across the other famous dichotomies of early American politics: agrarianism vs. industry, quietism vs. empire — no doubt a similar study could expose more complex ideological fault lines in the politics of 2015 than our pundits imagine.

And it is in this sense that I found in the book an education that I am grateful for; it gives an example of an historiography that neither dissolves ideology into the motions of markets or of armies, nor conceives of events as a kind of ideological puppet-show in which the theorists holding the strings are all that matter. In Nelson’s alternative approach, untangling ideology from events is a matter of great labor and considerable insight, and results in showing us a play of forces in which we are deprived of any clear banner to rally around.

The reactionary bro is a bit disappointed to be deprived of a devastating argument against the Revolution’s republicanism, but for that satisfaction foregone he receives a lesson not only in history but in practical politics.

We who are unenthusiastic about liberalism in an age when liberalism is universal are tempted to despair, tempted to write off all modern forces as bearing a liberal taint, and to approach modern debates with such ideological chastity that we can scarcely make our positions understood, and scarcely act, lest we find ourselves aligned with the bugbears either of liberalism or of those least-pleasant illiberalisms from which our liberal contemporaries are not wrongly in flight.

If we look for a party, we will find none. But if we can view the 21st century with the same clarity The Royalist Revolution brings to the 18th, we don’t need a party. Among those we disdain to join and those with which we share no principles there are still many with whom we share goals. And if we must be their allies, reminding ourselves that this “overlapping consensus” is provisional and extrinsic (and not some some fusionist love-marriage) may help us win a few battles without imagining that we are losing our souls.

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