Looking at the Orange Despot across the sea, it is hard to believe that America was a land founded in hopeful rationality, in response to the tyranny of inherited kingship, and informed by Enlightenment values. In fact, the American Presidency as currently stands is almost directly analogous to a Medieval kingship. Meanwhile, our Monarchy fulfills a role almost directly analogous to that imagined for the Presidency by the Founding Fathers.
But how did we arrive at this pass? Let me take you on a whistle-stop tour of history – and how the British system has evolved in a kind neat inverted symmetry to the American as each nation has responded to various crises over the centuries.
Side note: I’m not a historian in any sense of the word. I’m sure anyone can poke holes in various facts I’ve used to construct this argument (mainly because I’m not that clued up on actual facts!) but I think there’s a broad truth to it when you look at the big picture.
This Side of the Pond
One of the big problems facing countries in Medieval Europe was the character of the King. The King was the owner and dispenser of power in the land. No part of state business could be done unless it were in his name, accompanied by his seal and delivered by his agents.
The King might listen to his ‘great men’ or take counsel from advisors from the church, or defer to the Pope in spiritual matters, but essentially his word was law. His position was ordained by God, and he claimed leadership by either birth or conquest.
And so his character mattered. A great deal, in fact. The names of ‘bad’ kings come to us easily: Ætheled the Unready*… Edward II… John… Richard III. And the reason they are considered ‘bad’ is intimately tied with their character as people. Hapless Æthelread was constantly surprised when the Danes reneged on their promises year after year after year and turned up to pillage anew. John vacillated and lied to his great men. Richard schemed and plotted, and probably murdered his nephews** to cement his claim to the throne.
And then there were other Kings who don’t rank as highly on the scale of ‘badness’ but were otherworldly (Richard I: who really just wanted to worship God the whole damn time) or feeble-minded (Henry VI – who endured long periods of mental instability, rendering him incapable of governing, which lead partly in turn to the Wars of the Roses).
Every time one of these ‘bad’ Kings took the throne, trouble was never far behind. A weak King could be subject to whim or fancy, or turned by powerful manipulators. An outright incapable King such as Henry VI after his mental collapse in 1453 posed other questions: if the King is rendered incapable of even signing his name, who governs?
The whole sorry sage of our halting, uneven and often bizarre journey towards our parliamentary system (imperfect as it may be) is essentially a series of reactions – or corrections – to bad kingship.
The first repudiation of kingly infallibility is Magna Carta, which established (weirdly specific) rights for barons that the King could not simply overrule. Treacherous, avaricious John had pissed off his large landowners on whom he relied for revenue in the form of taxes. Although he was technically within his rights as King to do as he pleased, it turned out there was actually a limit beyond which a King could go. It was the first recognition that a King had to obey ‘natural’ law derived from human experience on some level – rather than just on ‘My Will is God’s Will.’
And so Kings began to recognise that they needed some degree of consent and parliament gradually started to influence and constrain kings. Periodically a King would still get out of hand, however.
Henry III was desperate to be rid of this tiresome encumbrance, which led to what was effectively the first war between King and Parliament in the form of De Montford’s Rebellion. This set a sort of precedent that if a King overreached his unstated powers, he could be fought, killed or deposed and replaced by another King – for over time the number of competing bloodlines simply grew and grew (shout out to the Wars of the Roses, and the various houses that were imported and skin-grafted onto the British system until the 19th century).
So the overarching theme between the 10th and 18th centuries was really a story of monarchs of varying calibre creating – or failing to prevent – various disasters. A vainglorious Henry or two could ruin the country by marching to war against France, breaking with Rome, or going mad. A mad king needed a body to rule in his name. A bad king needed to be removed. In neither case was there really a framework to operate within, so factionalism and civil wars followed as night follows day.
And so, gradually, the power of the King was curtailed and trammelled. It was uneven progress – a fairly modern sounding system of rules to govern the relationships between King and country was signed as early as 1258 in the form of the Provisions of Oxford for example – but each crisis of Kingship served to bounce the country further in the direction of our modern conception of governance.
Occasionally, a King like Henry VIII might tip things back towards tyranny, but bit by bit the powers of the King were eroded until they ended up embodied in the figure as someone who wears hats and cuts ribbons. They are still the head of state, but modern monarchs are effectively for ornamentation only. Real power lies with elected representatives – and our most pressing problem is that those elected representatives are weak, poorly-informed, and governed by their own superstitions more than by by fact or reason.
Over the Pond
The ‘final’ revolution against the idea of kingship came not on British soil, but in our American colonies. George III’s taxes weren’t actually that onerous on the American colonies, and the colonies did need protection from the depredations of other powers such as the Spanish, so some taxation was justified. And at the outset of the Revolution, most Americans actually assumed that the outcome would be merely better administration in the name of the King, rather than independence. Letters from the revolutionaries to the King are couched in the usual lickspittle terms of endearment and obsequiousness you’d expect to come from loyalty rather than revolution.
But. George III – even before his madness – was still somewhat entrenched in the Medieval mindset. These upstarts needed to recognise his right to rule and so he followed the time-honoured path of Kings in beginning a war based in principles and lofty goals, rather than thinking about logistics and pragmatic possibilities. It was a war he could never hope to win.
The colonies dutifully won, declared independence and then set about on a remarkable experiment: to devise a system of governance rooted in the legitimacy of popular mandate, in which no one arm of the legislature could overpower the others. This is the famous ‘checks and balances’ system.
All of this precisely because the system of Kingship had spent the previous 700 years debunking itself.
The logical conclusion of a parliamentary system was that the people should pick their rulers rather than have them imposed by matter of whose grandfather fucked whose second cousin.
So: a head of state, analogous to a King, would be elected by the people to represent them at home and abroad and to keep something of a hand on the tiller of state, but limited in terms of power and the length of time they could serve.
But history proved that this system itself – like the Death Star – contained a fatal flaw. Sometimes, the situation demanded that someone take action where Congress found itself unable to act. The American Civil War probably marked the first major turning point. Until then, Presidents had largely been figureheads who rarely used their notional powers. But in order to win the war, Lincoln suspended habeas corpus, expanded the size of the army and blockaded Southern ports without Congressional Authority. Arguably these were all necessary for the War to be won, but it established the precedent that would lead to Trump: in exceptional circumstances, the President could just go ahead and do things that Congress itself was unwilling or unable to do.
In the 1930s, in the face of the Great Depression, Roosevelt took new powers to the Presidency in order to push his ‘New Deal’ through. Congress demurred once again to the President. As this precedent had been set, it become rote. New powers were given to the President during times of crisis and were simply never returned. WWII… Vietnam… and, most particularly, the War on Terror merely continued this constitutional slide, unbalancing the system heavily in favour of the executive.
So today, the President has the powers that once would have been the reserve of a King. He appoints his own ministers and advisers. He directs the military. He has command of foreign policy. He can declare war. He can veto almost any legislation coming from his parliament. He has command of a vast network of spies and informants and can direct their attentions to any foe internal or external. Although the FBI for example has nominal independence, and presidents have historically been reluctant to interfere in FBI business, Trump merely followed a precedent set by Bill Clinton when he fired James Comey as its head. The FBI is under the command of somebody who serves purely at the pleasure of the president.
Like a medieval King, he is in theory limited by other powers in the land – notably the judiciary – but he can appoint his own judiciary, tilting the long term tenor of the legal system towards his own views long after he has left office.
He is also limited by time: he has 8 years maximum to do what he can, and it widely accepted that beyond a president’s first term, mostly presidents as perceived of as struggling to achieve anything of legislative significance.
Nonetheless, in my estimation, the current form of the US Presidency is closer to that of a King than was ever intended by the writers of the constitution.
But don’t take my factually unsteady word for it. Here’s William H. Seward (1801–1872) – who served as secretary of state to both Lincoln and Johnson:
“We elect a king for four years, and give him absolute power within certain limits, which after all he can interpret for himself.”
And so here we are. America in 2018 has arrived at the point that England faced at various points during the Middle Ages – governed by an insane, tempestous King, with god-like powers, surrounded by faction and swirling rumour, raging against both the real and imaginary forces arranged against him. And for all the good the constitution is in this situation, we may as well as do as peasants did in the Middle Ages and pray.
*Fact attack: ‘unready’ is actually a corruption of ‘unræd’ – literally “poorly advised”. Originally, this was a neat pun, as ‘Æthelread’ roughly means “nobly advised.”
**Fact attack: the fate of the ‘princes in the tower’ is still a mystery, but it seems absurd that a man so conscious of his reputation would not have produced the Princes to repudiate the very public claims that he had had them murdered. It is, of course, possible that they died of innocent causes (disease, accident) and that he knew this knew that this would never be believed.