On Nov. 15, Attorney General William P. Barr delivered the 19th Annual Barbara K. Olson Memorial Lecture at the Federalist Society’s 2019 National Lawyers Convention.

The main topic of his highly partisan speech was “executive power.” Barr argued that the presidency was “one of the great, and remarkable innovations in our Constitution” that “more than any other branch … has fulfilled the expectations of the Framers.” He went on to argue that “over the past several decades, we have seen steady encroachment on Presidential authority by the other branches of government,” which has “substantially weakened the functioning of the executive branch, to the detriment of the Nation.”

As evidence, he pointed to the fact that the Founders went to war against a British Parliament that had become too powerful. Social media quickly called out Barr, denouncing his argument as a partisan-driven manipulation of history to defend the Trump administration. After all, they argued, the Revolution was in fact a revolt against monarchy.

Yet both sides misunderstand the story. The American Revolution was neither a revolt against the king nor Parliament; it was a revolt against arbitrary power. And this is why preserving a balance of powers between branches of government is at the core of the Constitution.

“Arbitrary power” refers to the exercise of absolute authority to which there was no further recourse. Seventeenth-century English history provided numerous examples to American colonists of attempts by the infamous Stuart monarchs, Charles I and James II, to wield absolute and arbitrary power. The Glorious Revolution of 1688 changed the constitutional balance in England by making Parliament, with its representative House of Commons, the supreme lawmaker and diminishing the prerogative of the Crown. Technically, the Crown retained veto power over parliamentary legislation, but no subsequent monarch dared use it out of fear of being seen as usurping this new constitutional balance. This idea, known as “parliamentary supremacy,” was a key part of British and colonists’ civic identities, and they believed they enjoyed more liberty than other peoples, in part, because of it.

When Parliament began trying to reform imperial administration in the 1760s and 1770s, colonists increasingly came to understand that the Glorious Revolution had not rebalanced the distribution of power of the branches of the English government so much as it had simply transferred arbitrary power from the king to Parliament.

A look at patriots’ writings in this period demonstrates their persistent concern with Parliament’s arbitrary authority over them. As one writer in the Virginia Gazette argued in 1771, “It is indifferent to me, whether the Crown, by its own immediate act, imposes new, and dispenses with old laws, or whether the same arbitrary power produces the same effects through the medium of the House of Commons.” In other words, colonists rejected arbitrary power whether it was being wielded by a 17th-century king or an 18th-century Parliament. As a result, many patriots began to reject Parliament’s authority over the colonies and instead argued that their primary connection to the British Empire was through the Crown.

As the situation became more dire in the 1770s, the newly formed Continental Congress called directly on the king to intervene and exercise his veto power. As Brendan McConville has shown, colonists in North America had developed significant affection for the Crown throughout the 18th century, so, for much of the crisis, they blamed corrupt ministers and members of Parliament for the new taxes and duties, not the king himself, as they hoped he would intervene on their behalf. Only in late 1775, when the king explicitly refused to do so and instead branded them as “rebels,” did the colonists decide that he had become complicit in upholding the arbitrary power of Parliament.

This final turn, along with the language of the Declaration of Independence and an overestimation of the impact of Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense,” is why we have tended to read the Revolution as a revolt against monarchy.

Patriot writings before Paine, however, contained very few critiques of monarchy itself. And though the Declaration focused on the king rhetorically, many of the grievances detailed were either acts of Parliament or acts carried out by his ministers or royal administrators of the colonies. The reason the king became the rhetorical focus of the Declaration — which does not directly criticize monarchy itself (only the “present King”) — was because, by 1776, patriots had already largely rejected Parliament’s authority over them, leaving the Crown as the last of “the political bands” to Britain to be dissolved.

Barr is not the first politician to dismiss this historical reality. Throughout American history, disparate political groups — from abolitionists and Confederates to the Communist Party USA and the far-right John Birch Society — have all sought to characterize the meaning and legacy of the Revolution in ways that would support their own political ideas and goals. For example, during World War II and the Cold War, the idea that the Revolution was a revolt against a tyrannical king lent weight to the American fight against the authoritarianism of fascist and communist regimes.

By arguing that the Revolution was fought primarily against an overzealous Parliament, Barr is attempting to lend the historical and cultural weight of the Revolution to his political arguments about the encroachment of the legislative branch on the authority of the executive. For Barr and the Federalist Society — which at the same convention hosted a “special session” on “Executive Power vs. Congressional Power” — this revolutionary narrative is clearly intended to be used to justify the further expansion of executive authority under the Trump administration. Such a depiction of our founding, however, is less about what happened and more about giving historical cover to those who feel compelled to defend, at any cost, the president’s attempts to expand his power and avoid having any constraints placed upon him by Congress.

Yet the American revolutionaries understood deeply that abuses of power are most likely to occur not when the executive is checked, but when the constitutional balance between the executive and legislature tilts too far toward either side. And that’s the true risk today.