The Kingship and the Presidency

The executive is not a stand-in king.

LONDON, ENGLAND - JUNE 03: (L-R) Queen Elizabeth II (C), poses for a photo with U.S. President Donald Trump (L) and First Lady Melania Trump (R) ahead of a State Banquet at Buckingham Palace on June 3, 2019 in London, England. President Trump's three-day state visit will include lunch with the Queen, and a State Banquet at Buckingham Palace, as well as business meetings with the Prime Minister and the Duke of York, before travelling to Portsmouth to mark the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings. (Photo by Alastair Grant - WPA Pool/Getty Images)
Alastair Grant – WPA Pool/Getty Images

“Policymaker, father, stand-in king”: that is how a much-discussed “Checks and Balances” podcast from the Economist described the office of the American presidency in anticipation of Joe Biden coming to occupy it. The statement was greeted on Twitter with a staggering ratio of (currently) 645 replies to 149 likes—as sure a sign as any that the Economist had, in the current vernacular, posted cringe.

There are few words that inspire more visceral disgust among American conservatives than “king.” It is a title that has become synonymous for many with “tyrant”: an evil office occupied by an arrogant fool, possessing vast quantities of unmerited power and wielding it over oppressed subjects in a manner doomed to corruption.

This, in the scope of history, is a radical and relatively new outlook. “Kingship” has not always been an inherently bad word—neither, ironically, has “tyrant,” which comes to us from the Greek tyrannis, best translated simply as “king.”

But the ease with which tyrannis slid from meaning “king” to meaning “violent oppressor” shows that even in antiquity, rule by one man was inherently prone to abuse. That is something the great historians and political theorists of Ancient Greece and Rome knew well. Aristotle, Herodotus, Polybius, Cicero: each of them, in his own way, saw that the evil in human hearts made it impossible for one man and his heirs to hold lifelong rule without eventually becoming hypocritical, destructive, and cruel.

But it’s not as simple as just throwing off the shackles of kingship and being done. Someone has to be in charge, and attempts at direct democracy—giving power solely to a majority of the voting public—have ended poorly in the ancient world. Without great statesman like Pericles at the helm, direct democracies like Athens found it difficult to act decisively in times of war or even proceed coherently in times of peace. Just as monarchies decay into tyrannies, and aristocracies decay into cronyism, direct democracies decay very easily into mob rule. The brokenness of human nature always wins out in the end.

Therefore even the Roman historian Livy, who famously endorsed the virtue of republican liberty even as he wrote under the Emperor Augustus, still recognized that simply letting the people loose is a recipe for disaster. Though the Romans put an end to their own decadent monarchy around 509 BC, Livy wrote, they were lucky they didn’t do so earlier. Because:

What would have been the result…if they had been freed from the restraining power of kings and, agitated by populist storms, had begun to foment quarrels with the patricians…before sufficient time had elapsed for either family ties or a growing love for the very soil to effect a union of hearts? The infant State would have been torn to pieces by internal dissension.

In other words, even Romans needed time to mature before they tasted what Livy elsewhere calls “the sweetness of liberty”: if they were going to dispense with the strong leadership afforded by kings, they would need something better to put in its place. But what?

The Lawful Freedom of a True Republic

The answer is given by Polybius, a Greek historian who describes the masterful design of the Roman constitution in his own history. All simple forms of government, writes Polybius, undergo what has come to be called anacyclosis—a Greek word meaning the “cycle of regimes.” If a virtuous king takes over, nevertheless his son or his son’s son becomes corrupt and monarchy becomes tyranny. Then a few good men oust the king and install an aristocracy—but that devolves into oligarchy, or cronyism, in the end. Then the people seize control, their democracy becomes mob rule, and a king has to rise up to bring order back. The cycle begins again.

But the Roman republic was a system for balancing each kind of government against the other: the voting people, the aristocratic senators, and the “consuls,” a yearly two-man executive that performed some of the duties kings used to perform. So even in the republic, the office of consul looked enough like kingship that, in Polybius’ words, “if one looks at this part of the administration alone, one may reasonably pronounce the constitution to be a pure monarchy or kingship.”

And yet, Livy tells us, the Romans at this point were so disgusted by monarchy that they even chased from the city a perfectly decent man who had the same name as a former king, simply because “the very name was a danger to liberty.” The Romans took every precaution that the consuls should never be tempted to those excesses they had suffered under the rule of tyrants.

Every republic needs an executive power, and that power must fill certain functions which kings fill in monarchies: issuing final decisions in times of war, for example. But it would have appalled the Romans to imagine that a consul, or anyone in government, was coming even close to being a “stand-in king.” The whole point of replacing the kings with a republic was to eradicate the need of kingship entirely.

The Puzzle of the Presidency

All of this and more was on the minds of the American Founders when they drafted our Constitution in 1787. Americans, having thought of themselves as English subjects until very recently, were still stinging with resentment at the abuses of King George III. Those abuses are listed at great length in the Declaration of Independence, and the impulse to avoid them at all cost did much to shape our first national compact—the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union.

Under the Articles, America discovered what Polybius and Livy both knew: a government whose central power is too loosely held will be vulnerable to chaos. The Constitutional Convention of 1787 was, effectively, a response to the problems that arise from a weak federal government: no executive or judiciary branch means no power to do such important things as repay debts or regulate commerce between states.

And so the founders had an extremely difficult needle to thread. On the one hand, they had to vest power in a stronger federal government if America was to survive at all. On the other hand, both they and their people were—exactly like the Romans—still supremely wary from firsthand experience of anything that looked remotely like monarchy. To create an executive office in that climate which would pass muster with the people was a tall order indeed.

That is why Alexander Hamilton, in Federalist #69, took every pain to reassure his readers that this new office—the presidency of the United States—would not in any way be a stand-in king. True, “the executive authority, with few exceptions, is to be vested in a single magistrate.” But, “ if, in this particular, there be a resemblance to the king of Great Britain, there is not less a resemblance to the Grand Seignior, to the khan of Tartary, to the Man of the Seven Mountains, or to the governor of New York.”

Hamilton goes on to give reason after reason why the president will not be like the English king. Presidents will be elected every four years; kings rule for life. Presidents can be impeached; their vetoes can be overturned; their treaties and ministerial nominations are subject to the advice and consent of the senate. And, crucially, “The [president] has no particle of spiritual jurisdiction; the [king] is the supreme head and governor of the national church!”

Central to all these arguments is the essential point that a king is invited to consider himself inherently superior to his subjects—more fit by divine right to rule—whereas a president must prove himself on the basis of merit in the eyes of his fellow men. At issue is nothing less than the most fundamental question of our nation: are men created equal, or are some born with a greater right to govern themselves than others?

So, Hamilton concludes, “What answer shall we give to those who would persuade us that things so unlike resemble each other? The same that ought to be given to those who tell us that a government, the whole power of which would be in the hands of the elective and periodical servants of the people, is an aristocracy, a monarchy, and a despotism.” Nothing could be further from the truth, in other words, than to call the president a “stand-in king.” By design, in spirit, and according to their own direct protestations, that was the last thing the founders intended.

What Are They After?

Anyone who wants to cast the presidency as a makeshift monarchy should thus be subject to the most careful scrutiny imaginable. Why, we are entitled to ask, do the staff at the Economist think it would be salutary for Joe Biden to occupy the role of “father figure” and de facto monarch? Why does Biden himself seem eager to pack the Supreme Court with judges of his own choosing—and why does he seem to think he can do so without broad bipartisan consensus? Why, for that matter, do so many of his supporters want to turn our carefully calibrated republic into something approximating mob rule—which, as sure as night follows day, will give way to kingship in the end?

The answer to all these questions is older than the Roman republic or the Athenian democracy. It is as old as government itself: power. That enticing ability to make others serve at your pleasure, against which the entire system of American government was designed to protect. “Power tends to corrupt,” wrote Lord Acton to Bishop Creighton in 1887, “and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Already in states like California, where one-party rule and COVID hysteria have turned governors like Gavin Newsom into de facto monarchs, we are seeing the shameless ugliness that deforms men and women who can issue command after command without accountability. The face of kingship is the face of a man dining out on fine French cuisine while his people languish in locked rooms after 10pm and eke out a living on the dole. The face of kingship is as God said it would be in 1 Samuel 8: given enough time, they will drive your sons before them like horses to pull their chariots, will steal the best of your land and leave you hungry, will laugh out of sheer arrogance while you starve.

That is why the president is not a stand-in king. And neither is Gavin Newsom, though he may act like one. The American spirit is battered but not broken, and though this year has been a nightmare in many respects, it is imperative that we not submit. The kings of this world rise up and band together against God and his anointed—will we stand against them and be free?

Spencer Klavan is host of the Young Heretics podcast and associate editor of the Claremont Review of Books and The American Mind. He can be reached on Twitter at @SpencerKlavan.

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.

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