Had our Founding Fathers been suddenly transported last week to modern America and forced to watch the morning television shows, they would have been shocked to see breathless American anchors all agog, celebrating the enduring reign of a British monarch live from London. They would have wondered why their countrymen were so enchanted by the glory of a direct descendant of George III the same week that, centuries ago, Richard Henry Lee first submitted his fateful resolution to the Continental Congress: “That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.” The man who seconded Lee’s resolution, however, would not have been surprised. John Adams dedicated his life to the cause of liberty, yet continued to insist that the allure of royalty among men could never be abolished.
If the American Revolution came to embody not only a rebellion against England, but against the very institution of monarchy, a great deal of the credit goes to Thomas Paine, who devoted the central section of his Common Sense to a theological attack on kingship of any kind. “Government by kings,” he informed his many thousands of American readers, “was first introduced into the world by the Heathens, from whom the children of Israel copied the custom. It was the most prosperous invention the Devil ever set on foot for the promotion of idolatry.” As Harvard’s Eric Nelson notes in his fascinating book The Hebrew Republic, Paine was drawing on an idea of recent intellectual vintage. Modernity is often seen as an embrace of secularism, Nelson remarks, but with the triumph of republicanism in modern political thought the opposite actually occurred. “Renaissance humanism, structured as it was by the pagan inheritance of Greek and Roman antiquity, generated an approach to politics that was remarkably secular in character,” Nelson writes of the previous political order. Meanwhile, in the fervor of the Reformation in the 17th century, “Christians began to regard the Hebrew Bible as a political constitution, designed by God himself for the children of Israel.”
Some of these theologians founded their arguments for republicanism on the Book of Samuel, wherein God responds with anger to the Israelites’ request for a king. Perhaps the most eloquent English version of this idea can be found in both the poetry and prose of Milton, a great opponent of the Restoration. Noting that “God in much displeasure gave a king to Israelites, and imputed it a sin to them that they sought one,” Milton further argued that all monarchy is idolatrous, as “a king must be adored like a Demigod, with a dissolute and haughtie court about him, of vast expence and luxurie.” Had Milton seen the parade of a thousand boats on the Thames last week, he might have repeated his contention that a monarch does little except “pageant himself up and down in progress among the perpetual bowings and cringings of an abject people, on either side deifying and adoring him.” Paine, while himself utterly irreligious, knew his biblically literate American audience, and argued similarly: “As exalting one man so greatly above the rest cannot be justified on the equal rights of nature, so neither can it be defended on the authority of scripture; for the will of the Almighty as declared by Gideon, and the prophet Samuel, expressly disapproves of government by kings.”
Adams, in contrast, believed that while the rise of the American republic would change the world, it could never change human nature. People, he was certain, would always be attracted to the trappings of majesty, and it was better to channel it than to ignore it. Upon meeting Paine, Adams reported in his autobiography, “I told him further, that his reasoning from the Old Testament was ridiculous, and I could hardly think him sincere. At this he laughed, and said he had taken his ideas in that part from Milton; and then expressed a contempt of the Old Testament, and indeed of the Bible at large, which surprised me.” When he became vice president, Adams argued that royal titles, such as “His Most Benign Highness,” should be given to the leaders of the new government. If the grandeur akin to royalty were not accorded public servants, Adams insisted, Americans would focus their enraptured attention on others.
His proposal failed spectacularly, and fed false charges that Adams was himself a monarchist. Mocked by his enemies as “His Rotundity, the Duke of Braintree,” Adams suffered for eight years in a position that he called “the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived.” For the rest of his life, Adams continued to express envy at the credit accorded to Paine for the changes wrought by the Revolution. “What a poor, ignorant, malicious, short-sighted, crapulous mass is Tom Paine’s ‘Common Sense,’ ” he wrote to Jefferson. “And yet history is to ascribe the Revolution to Thomas Paine!”
Perhaps, though, Adams spoke too soon. Vindicating his prediction, millions of Americans tuned in to the royal wedding and the Diamond Jubilee. None of the enraptured anchors saw fit to cite Paine’s contention that “when a man seriously reflects on the idolatrous homage which is paid to the persons of kings, he need not wonder that the Almighty, ever jealous of his honour, should disapprove a form of government which so impiously invades the prerogative of Heaven.” Paine himself died alone and penniless. Meanwhile, David McCullough’s bestselling, Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of our second president has been made into an HBO miniseries, celebrating Adams’s contributions to the American cause. Somewhere, John Adams is—well, not smiling, certainly, but perhaps harrumphing in quiet satisfaction.
Meir Y. Soloveichik is director of the Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought at Yeshiva University and associate rabbi at Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in Manhattan.