Friday, April 29, 2011

A Republic, You Say?

As avid droves descended on London and as billions around the world tune-in to the broadcast of the latest “Royal Wedding” (British/Commonwealth version), Americans might gnash their teeth and wonder why we couldn’t have such a colourful revenue-generating institution.

This regret derives from the strange notion that the United States is not a monarchy. This misconception was spawned by Benjamin Franklin’s now famous remark that the constitutional convention had been resolved upon “a Republic, if you can keep it.” A Republic, you say? Readers might well consider Edward Gibbon’s definition of a monarchy:

"The obvious definition of a monarchy seems to be that of a state, in which a single person, by whatsoever name he may be distinguished, is intrusted with the execution of the laws, the management of the revenue and the command of the army." (Decline & Fall of the Roman Empire, ch.III (1776).)

The application of the definition to the American presidency seems obvious and the false notion that the United States was not a monarchy perpetuated a species of trick on the gullible.

Auberon Waugh once explained to the French that England was ruled by the concept of the Total Joke, the four pillars of which were the Monarchy, the House of Lords, the Tory Party and the Church of England.

No less a joke attended the Republic founded by England’s distressed progeny on Atlantic shores. Although the entire constitutional edifice bore a republican and, indeed, a Roman, facade, its true structure was entirely of English Oak.

The lower House of Representatives was plainly a House of Commons, presided over, as in England, by a Speaker. The Upper Chamber, which in England represented estate interests was converted into a Senate representing the several States. In either case, that house represented the interests of an established, corporate, entity with its own legal and jurisdictional powers. The courts of law and equity which, in England, had long struggled to achieve their independence were, in America, firmly established as an independent “branch” of government. If Americans bothered to study their own antecedent history they would easily see that the Constitution of 1788 was a restatement of the “Settlement” of 1688 which had established the framework of England’s constitutional monarchy. Almost.

When it came to the executive, however, the constitutional Framers hedged their bets. As is well known, George Washington cut short any notions of an hereditary monarchy. But the equal necessity and dangers of a strong executive bedevilled the Framers. The Constitution as originally written reflected a certain toying with the idea of a Roman duumvirate - the system of an elected diarchy. As originally provided, the Vice President was the runner up in the presidential elections. As President of the Senate, he held a position as potentially powerful as the Speaker of the House and certainly one which could be used as a foil against his erstwhile opponent, the primary President. A divided monarchy, was among the many “checks and balances” the Framers built into the system.

However, the embarrassment proved unworkable and the Twelfth Amendment, enacted in 1804, provided the constitutional mechanism for the election of a “presidential ticket” whereby the Vice President was reduced to the position of a Lady-in-Waiting or, as has been said, a “Brother-at-Sea”.

In so amending, the country returned full circle to the Settlemen of 1688 with the sole exception, that our monarch was elected for a term. Thus, almost from the outset, the Constitution provided for a constitutional monarchy, as defined by Gibbon and established by English custom.

The Joke, in America at least, was that the Founding Fathers were revolutionaries who had established the “World’s First and Greatest Democracy.” The Constitution of 1788 had been in fact a coup d’etat carried out by the most conservative and philo-British elements in the Colonies.

Upon achieving their independence, the American States fell prey to the twin evils of mobocracy and despotism. Strong, genuinely democratic movements coalesced in most of the states, inspired by radical French Jacobin ideas, and drawing political strength from the debtor and working classes. At the same time, tin-pot governors, gave themselves titles, airs and fancy carriages, drawing inspiration from the Hegelian concept of the “World Historical Personage” -- otherwise known as a “Napoleon Complex”. The newly united States hovered between the very radical democracy and megalomania that in the next several decades were to destroy the political and economic cohesion of Hispanic America. Not without reason the Framers of the “more perfect Union” sought to return to the statu quo ante by putting Humpty Dumpty back together again.

It was not an altogether bad choice. While one might sympathise with the grass-roots movements of the 1780’s and 1790’s, the historical record of democracies, as James Madison correctly noted, had been “violent and short”. An evolving English conservatism, on the other hand, did provide that balance between extremes that de Tocqueville so admired.

In the end, however, the success of any system depends on Abiding the Joke. For the system to work, it was necessary that the American Monarch exercise his prerogatives sparingly. For the most part, excepting Jackson and Lincoln, U.S. presidents kept a relatively low profile. Apart from a species of pseudo monarchical hoopla upon taking office, most presidents adopted a low key managerial style. Stressing the purely executory nature of the office, they did not submit legislation to Congress until the beginning of the 20th Century.

In many ways, despite his position as head of state, the president functioned more as prime minister than as a monarch. Alas, the apogee of the fait neánt presidency under Calvin Coolidge was followed soon thereafter by Franklin Roosevelt's Augustan Restoration. "At age nineteen," Augustus wrote, "I raised an army at my own expense and restored liberty to the Republic which had been oppressed by a faction." (Res Gestae, Divi Augusti, ch. 1, Loeb Classic. Lib, Harvard Univ. Press (1924).) Again, Gibbon comes to mind:

“The tender respect of Augustus for a free constitution which he had destroyed can only be explained by an attentive consideration of the character of that subtle tyrant.... He wished to deceive the people by an image of civil liberty, and the armies by an image of civil government. ... The system of the Imperial government, as it was instituted by Augustus ... may be defined as an absolute monarchy disguised by the forms of a commonwealth. • • • The masters of the Roman world... humbly professed themselves the accountable ministers of the Senate, whose supreme decrees they dictated and obeyed.” (Gibbon, op. cit.)

Historical analogies are the treacherous precipice of political commentary and there is much in circumstance and detail that distinguishes Roosevelt’s America from Octavian’s Rome. But in a salient and significant way the core issue was the same. The problem faced by Augustus was that a vast and complex empire, beset by regional differences and increasing class disparities, required a centralized and consistent governance. Similarly, if there was a singular statement that could characterize Roosevelt’s policies it was his statement that a national emergency required a national response -- and by “national” he meant centralized and presidential.

Roosevelt’s “saving” of the Republic was accompanied by the conivance of Congress itself which -- while retaining ultimate control over “policy” -- devolved actual “rule making” power to the executive bureaucracy or to the Emperor’s Household Slaves, as Romans would have put it.

Ultimately the Supreme Court obliged, not simply in upholding key components of the New Deal, but more fundamentally in putting its nihil obstat on the idea that Congress did not need to enact every law or “regulation” so long as it maintained “general oversight” of the executive bureaucracies whose decrees and orders would otherwise be deemed “presumptively” valid.

It was as monarchical as a Republic could get and the ensuing War placed the American imperator in command of the nation-at-war. In the post war years, the first imperial presidents, like the early Roman princes, “disdained that pomp and ceremony which might offend their countrymen but could add nothing to their real power. In all the offices of life, the affected to confound themselves with their subjects and maintained with them an equal intercourse of visits and entertainments.” (Gibbon, op. cit.)

Such were Harry Truman’s morning walks, Ike’s golfing on the lawn, the Kennedy’s tag football, Jimmy Carter’s cardigan and even Nixon’s “Republican cloth coat” and “little dog Checkers.”

But if personal restraint were sufficient of itself there would be little need for political science. Nixon traded in republican cloth coat for gold-and-creme ceremonial palace uniforms and Johnson all but had the White House toilet paper emblazoned with the Presidential Seal. Along with these brassy and tinseled displays of power went artifices of a darker, more secret and insidious sort, until in its latter manifestations, Bush II imitating Commodus, alighted on to ship deck like some aerial gladiator. We do have a monarchy, it just lacks class.

It is strange how England and America moved in opposite directions, the mother country becoming more democratic as she moved through the course of empire, we becoming less.

The ruling fact is that the country long ago ceased to be even the republican-monarchy of 1788. In the end, it will be said, that we cashed in the fol de rol of an English monarchy for the farce of a Roman one.

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