‘The Lord Alone Shall Be King of America’: Hebraism and the Republican Turn of 1776

Center for American History and Culture Programs
American Political Thought Seminar
Friday, April 11, 2014

3:30 to 5 pm

Eric Nelson, Harvard University

It is well known that Thomas Paine’s Common Sense fueled an abrupt “republican turn” in American political thought during the early months of 1776. Less well understood is that it did so by reintroducing into Anglophone political discourse a seventeenth-century, Hebraizing tradition of republican political theory, one grounded in the conviction that it is idolatrous to assign any human being the title and dignity of a king. This theory was both more and less radical than more familiar forms of European republicanism: more radical, in that it denied the legitimacy of all monarchies, however limited; less radical, in that it left open the possibility of an extremely powerful chief magistrate, so long as he was not called “king.”

Eric Nelson is Professor of Government at Harvard University. His research focuses on the history of political thought in early-modern Europe and America, and on the implications of that history for debates in contemporary political theory. Nelson is the author of The Hebrew Republic: Jewish Sources and the Transformation of European Political Thought (2010). His new book, The Royalist Revolution: Monarchy in American Political Thought, 1765-1789, is forthcoming from Harvard University Press.

The Seminar in American Political Thought is underwritten by the Jack Miller Center.