Legitimacy in Colonial and Monarchical Governments Compared


The concept of legitimacy in government has been a central theme in political science and history, particularly when comparing the beliefs of the American colonists with the established norms in European monarchies of the same era. This article delves into the fundamental differences in how legitimacy was perceived and justified in these two distinct contexts.

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The Colonial Perspective on Government Legitimacy

In the American colonies, the idea of legitimacy was deeply influenced by Enlightenment thinking, particularly the works of philosophers like John Locke. Locke’s theories, which emphasized natural rights and the social contract, became a cornerstone in the colonial argument for legitimacy. The colonists believed that a government’s legitimacy stemmed from its ability to protect the natural rights of its citizens – life, liberty, and property. This perspective was revolutionary in its insistence that legitimacy was not an inherent right of rulers but rather a conditional status granted by the governed.

The Declaration of Independence is a quintessential document embodying this view. It asserted that governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. This was a clear departure from the idea that divine right or hereditary status could confer legitimacy. Instead, the colonists argued that a legitimate government must be representative, accountable, and subject to the will of the people.

Monarchical Legitimacy: The Divine Right of Kings

In contrast, European monarchies of the same period predominantly subscribed to the theory of the divine right of kings. This doctrine held that monarchs were chosen by God and thus inherently legitimate. Their authority was not seen as derived from the consent of the people but from a higher, divine authority. This view was deeply intertwined with the religious and cultural fabric of the time.

Monarchs, under this belief system, were accountable not to their subjects but to God. The stability and order provided by a monarchy were often seen as a reflection of the natural and divine order of the universe. This perspective justified absolute power in the hands of a single ruler, often leading to autocratic governance.

The Social Contract: A Comparative Analysis

The concept of the social contract as articulated by Locke and other Enlightenment thinkers was a critical point of divergence between colonial and monarchical views on legitimacy. For the colonists, the social contract was an agreement between free individuals to form a government that would protect their rights. If the government failed to do this, it was deemed illegitimate, and the people had the right to overthrow it.

In monarchies, however, the social contract was interpreted differently, if acknowledged at all. The relationship between the monarch and the subjects was not seen as a contract between equals but as a paternalistic arrangement where the monarch was the protector and the subjects were the obedient children. The idea of rebelling against this order was not only politically dangerous but also often viewed as a moral and religious transgression.

Representation and Accountability

Another significant aspect of legitimacy involves representation and accountability. The colonists’ push for representation in decision-making processes, encapsulated in the slogan “no taxation without representation,” was a direct challenge to the monarchical system. They believed that for a government to be legitimate, it must be accountable to those it governs, which in practice meant representation in legislative bodies.

In contrast, European monarchies rarely provided such representation. While some countries had advisory bodies, like England’s Parliament, the monarch often retained substantial power. The lack of direct accountability to the general populace was a hallmark of monarchical rule.

The Impact of These Legitimacy Beliefs on Governance

The differing beliefs in the source of a government’s legitimacy had profound impacts on how governance was structured and practiced. In the colonies, the focus on consent and rights led to the development of political institutions that emphasized checks and balances, separation of powers, and a system of laws that was considered supreme. This was in stark contrast to the monarchies, where governance was often centralized, with few checks on the ruler’s power.

The Role of Religion in Legitimacy

Religion played a crucial role in shaping the concept of legitimacy in monarchies. The divine right of kings was not just a political doctrine but also a religious one. It intertwined the monarchy with the church, often making the king the head of the national church, as was the case in England. This religious backing provided a moral and spiritual justification for the monarch’s rule, making any opposition not just a political act but a religious transgression.

In the colonies, while religion was undoubtedly significant, the Enlightenment’s influence introduced a degree of secularism in political thought. The legitimacy of government was seen in terms of rational and secular principles, like the protection of rights and the consent of the governed, rather than divine sanction.

The Evolution of Monarchical Legitimacy

It’s important to note that the concept of legitimacy in European monarchies was not static. Over time, many monarchies began to incorporate elements of representativeness and accountability, partly in response to the same Enlightenment ideas that had inspired the American colonists. The English Bill of Rights of 1689, for instance, was a move towards limiting the power of the monarchy and enhancing the role of Parliament, reflecting a gradual shift in the understanding of legitimacy.

The American Revolution: A Clash of Legitimacies

The American Revolution can be seen as a direct clash between these two notions of legitimacy. The colonists, armed with their belief in a government’s legitimacy deriving from its people, rebelled against a monarchy that they saw as illegitimate because it did not represent or protect their rights. This conflict was not just a military struggle but also an ideological one, pitting the emerging democratic ideals against the traditional monarchial order.

Legacy and Contemporary Relevance

The legacy of these contrasting views on legitimacy is still evident today. Modern democratic governments, with their emphasis on representation, rights, and the rule of law, owe much to the ideas that were championed by the American colonists. Conversely, the few remaining monarchies have largely transitioned to constitutional forms, where the monarch’s role is more ceremonial, and legitimacy is derived from constitutional and democratic principles.

The historical debate between colonial and monarchical legitimacy continues to inform contemporary discussions about the nature of political authority, the role of the state, and the rights of citizens. Understanding this historical context allows for a deeper appreciation of the complexities and evolution of political legitimacy.

Impact on the U.S. Constitution

The failure of the Articles of Confederation served as a crucial lesson for the framers of the U.S. Constitution. They recognized the need for a stronger federal government while still protecting the rights and autonomy of individual states. This led to the creation of a federal system with checks and balances, a significant departure from the confederal system under the Articles.

Establishment of a Strong Federal Government

Learning from the weaknesses of the Articles, the Constitution established a more robust federal government with specific powers delegated to it. This included the power to tax, regulate interstate and international commerce, maintain armed forces, and enforce laws. This stronger central government was designed to address the inefficiencies and ineffectiveness of the Confederation government.

Creation of a Bicameral Legislature

To address the inequities in representation under the Articles, the Constitution introduced a bicameral legislature consisting of the House of Representatives and the Senate. The House provided proportional representation based on state population, while the Senate allowed for equal representation with two senators from each state. This Great Compromise balanced the interests of both large and small states and rectified the representation issues evident under the Articles.

Separation of Powers

The Constitution clearly delineated the powers of the legislative, executive, and judicial branches, establishing a system of checks and balances. This separation of powers was a direct response to the concentration of all governmental powers in the Confederation Congress. The executive branch, headed by the President, was established to enforce laws, while the judicial branch was created to interpret laws and resolve disputes, including those between states.

Federalism and the Amendment Process

The Constitution embraced federalism, distributing power between the national and state governments. It also provided a more practical amendment process, requiring approval from two-thirds of both houses of Congress and ratification by three-fourths of the states. This process, while still ensuring stability, was more flexible than the unanimous consent requirement of the Articles, allowing the Constitution to adapt over time.

Addressing Economic and Defense Concerns

The Constitution granted the federal government powers to address the economic and defense weaknesses of the Confederation. It allowed for the establishment of a national currency, regulation of trade, and the maintenance of a standing army and navy. These powers ensured a more stable economic environment and a more robust national defense.


The inadequacies of the Articles of Confederation played a pivotal role in shaping the U.S. Constitution. The weaknesses of the Articles – from the lack of a strong central government to the issues in legislative representation, financial instability, absence of separate branches, and rigidity in amendment – all informed the Constitution’s design. The Constitution emerged not only as a remedy to these problems but also as a visionary document that balanced the need for an effective national government with the protection of states’ rights and individual liberties. It stands as a testament to the ability of a nation to learn from its past and evolve, laying the foundation for what has become one of the most enduring and influential systems of government in the world.