Over the past few decades, many of the unwritten rules of American political life have been discarded. Presidential appointees, once routinely confirmed by the Senate, now spend months in limbo. Signing statements have increased in frequency and scope, as presidents announce which aspects of a law they intend to enforce, and which they intend to ignore. Annual spending bills stall in Congress, requiring short-term extensions or triggering shutdowns.
The system isn’t working. But even as the two parties agree on little else, both still venerate the Constitution. Politicians sing its praises. Public officials and military officers swear their allegiance. Members of Congress keep miniature copies in their pockets. The growing dysfunction of the government seems only to have increased reverence for the document; leading figures on both sides of the aisle routinely call for a return to constitutional principles.
What if this gridlock is not the result of abandoning the Constitution, but the product of flaws inherent in its design?
The history recounted in a recent book on the Constitution’s origins, by Eric Nelson, a political theorist at Harvard, raises that disturbing possibility. In The Royalist Revolution, Nelson argues that the standard narrative of the American Revolution—overthrowing a tyrannical king and replacing him with a representative democracy—is mistaken. Many leaders of the patriot cause actually wanted George III to intervene in their disputes with parliament, to veto the bills it passed, even to assert that he alone had the right to govern the American colonies. In short, they wanted him to rule like a king. When he declined, they revolted.