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John Adams

Gathering my thoughts to once again tackle the question of monarchism, I glanced over the comments on my 2014 essay, “Why I’m a Monarchist.” One commenter, known only as Harris and identified only as an aging Maltese, noted that “Thomas Hobbes makes the argument more pungently, and more brutally. What is advocated here, is a kind of monarchy lite, a sentimental affection. Real monarchs (rulers, tyrants—Hobbes sees these all as basically synonyms) have real power.”

As a point of order, I take faint issue with the reducio ad tyrannis approach to monarchy, which is common enough in the United States. Who decided that a monarch should wield “real” political power (unlike, say, Queen Elizabeth II) to the point of tyranny (unlike, for instance, Christ the King) I’m not sure. It must’ve been some Jacobin. Surely it wasn’t Burke, Disraeli, Churchill, or any of those ardent monarchists in the British conservative tradition.

Otherwise, though, the comment seems wholly valid. My essay did espouse a sort of monarchism-lite, which nicely compliments my Catholic-lite Episcopal faith.

Now, is there anything wrong with wanting the lite option? Not necessarily. Conservatives are typically averse to hundred-proof laissez-faire capitalism, egalitarianism, theocracy, etc. Conservatism, put a bit too simply, is the philosophy of constructive criticism. We’re more inclined to improve modestly on the old than to rush out and buy the brand-new model.

So I’m not overly concerned about being seen drinking Diet Monarchism when all the cool kids are drinking Monarchism Classic. And neither, it turns out, were the Founding Fathers.

I’m not sure if it’s vain to assume I have any sort of following who might feel betrayed by my doing so, but all the same I feel the need to offer an apology: I’m going to have to back-track from the 2014 essay, which I’m afraid wasn’t a very accurate representation of monarchism in the first place.

Let’s say this about that: a monarchist—constitutional or absolutist or what—is someone who believes in hereditary government. I didn’t argue for hereditary government; I never have argued for hereditary government; I never will argue for hereditary government. The hereditary monarchy in the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth Realms seems to me a splendid system that serves its people very ably, but I’ve never thought it my business to tell other nations what sort of government they should employ. My concern has always been, and always will be, for my own people—the American people.

As for my arguments for a so-called American monarchism, they fell into two categories: the gravitas lent by monarchy (the “sentimental affection,” as Harris called it), and monarch qua constitutional safeguard. Both were, I confess, quite weak.

First thing’s first. I said that the Founding Fathers were also drinking Diet Monarchism. Let me quote, at length, from Peter Vierek’s brilliant little book Conservatism:

[John] Adams spoke for many Federalists in 1789 (the very moment of the anti-monarchic Revolution in France) when he called America “a monarchical republic, a limited monarchy” owing to the special role of the president. He called the presidency, though elective, as exalted as old-world royalty. Consequently, the Federalists sought to give the presidency the pomp and ceremony surrounding kings. For such views, Adams, our second president, and his son, our sixth president, were denounced by the Democratic party as “monarchists” and as America’s hereditary “House of Stuart.” Yet their ideal was never monarchy, never any reminder of the hated George III, but “a free republic.” The Adamses, Hamilton, and Madison used “democracy” to mean direct democracy, “republic” to mean indirect democracy. They stressed that “a republic” and “liberty” depended on what Hamilton called “sacred reverence toward the Constitution.” Such reverence seems an emotional transfer of that felt for kings, making the American Constitution a sublimated monarchy. Adams warned his radical second cousin, Sam Adams, “The multitude as well as nobles must have a check.” The check was to be this mystically revered Constitution. Pure democracy had no check on majority passions Therefore, said Adams, “there never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.” [1]

I’m rather embarrassed to have been ignorant of all this at the time of writing “Why I’m a Monarchist,” but it seems only fair that I come clean and admit that this is the far more coherent, far more practical, and far more refined version of what I’ve espoused.

Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher

For the sake of full disclosure, let’s press it a bit further. I contrasted Margaret Thatcher with Barack Obama, saying (I think rightly) that Thatcher was a dignified representative of the British people, whereas the Obamas are something of an embarrassment. I concluded that this was due to the fact that Britain was a monarchy and we’re a republic. I might point out to my-2014-self that Reagan, Thatcher’s American counterpart, was just as dignified a representative of the American people overseas. And I’m sure wouldn’t be alone in pining for a president who brought as much gravitas to the office as Reagan—or, for that matter, Abraham Lincoln, Teddy and Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and a great many of our presidents stretching back to Washington himself. Republics and monarchies, then, mustn’t have very much to do with it.

As for the “monarch qua constitutional safeguard” argument: I attempted to debunk the claim that the modern British and Commonwealth monarchies was powerless to uphold and defend their respective constitutions, citing two incidents of monarchical institutions working exactly as they were intended. The conservative republican line—more common in Australia and, of course, the United States, than the United Kingdom—is that those incidents where the British and Australian constitutions were not upheld indicate either an inability or a disinclination to do so.

I don’t think it’s quite so simple, but there’s no denying that the power of the British monarchy—for weal or for woe—has been severely limited. On our side of the Pond we have the Supreme Court, whose sole function is to interpret the Constitution, much as the Queen’s is in theory.

In the wake of Obergefell vs. Hodges, we mightn’t be feeling too thrilled about the SCOTUS. Nevertheless, it’s done its job far more often than not throughout its proud history. There are about 570 mammoth volumes of official reports on Supreme Court cases; we can probably count the really egregious decisions ones on both hands. All in all, our constitutional court has been a tremendous asset to our nation—unmatched, perhaps, among such safeguards in the history of constitutional government. It also happens to be the oldest constitutional court in the world, much-imitated (understandably) by younger democracies.

Embarrassing as it inevitably is to be proven wrong on such a tremendous issue, it’s no small comfort to realize that one’s not struggling against such an irresistible current as the whole of American history.

Now, I’d still identify as a monarchist, though of the Adams type—a monarchical republican. A much-touted survey reported that 13% of Americans would prefer we live under a monarchy; I imagine they, too, would be monarchical republicans: those who believe our president should act within his constitutional powers (to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed”), couched in a bit of innocent and heartening ceremony, providing a non-partisan (or at least non-polarizing) head of our government, acting as a stately representative of the American people overseas, and serving as a faithful and inspiring Commander-in-Chief for our men and women in uniform. And I bet they’d endorse the idea of the Constitution itself taking on the majesty of divine-right kings, embodying certain God-given and inalienable rights.

No doubt more than this 13% would also fall within this category. It’s not an unreasonable expectation, and it’s one that, happily, has existed since the inception of our republic.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

Note:

[1] Vierick, Peter. Conservatism from John Adams to Churchill. Princeton: D. Van Nostrand Company, Inc., 1956. Print.

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