Why Americans Are Reluctant to Admit Their Presidents Are Kings

News at Home

Mr. Prochaska, lecturer and senior research scholar in the Department of History, Yale University, is the author of The Eagle and the Crown: Americans and the British Monarchy (Yale University Press, Nov. 2008).

'There is a natural inclination in mankind to Kingly Government’ observed Benjamin Franklin at the Constitutional Convention in 1787.  It was a view the Constitution did little to silence.  Various commentators of the day recognized that the powers invested in the Presidency under Article 2 of the Constitution created a monarchy in the United States, albeit an ‘elective’ one.  Indeed, it is one of the great ironies of America that the Founding Fathers invested more power in the presidency than ever exercised by George III, a monarch described as a ‘tyrant’ in the Declaration of Independence.  The Stadholder of the Netherlands, William V, was explicit.  He wrote to John Adams, ‘Sir, you have given yourselves a king under the title of president’.   

Adams himself showed a fondness for monarchy, and in his own writings classified America as a ‘monarchical republic’, by which he meant that the executive power was in the hands of an individual, and was a republic in so far as the Constitution provided for the representation of the people.  He wrote to Benjamin Rush in 1790:  ‘No nation under Heaven ever was, now is, nor ever will be qualified for a Republican Government unless you mean . . . resulting from a Balance of three powers, the Monarchical, Aristocratical, and Democratical. . . .  Americans are particularly unfit for any Republic but the Aristo-Democratical Monarchy’.  As he suggested, a monarchy had insinuated itself beneath the folds of the republic.  It was the reverse of Britain where, as the Victorian constitutional writer Walter Bagehot noted, a republic ‘had insinuated itself beneath the folds of a monarchy’. 

The forms of government on offer in the eighteenth century were essentially variations of monarchy and to the Founding Fathers the British model was far and away the most palatable.  America’s adaptation of ‘elective’ monarchy and the borrowing of British procedures and ceremonial suggest just how deeply indebted the young republic was to its colonial past.  As Franklin’s grandson, Benjamin Franklin Bache put it, Americans created a constitution before they ‘had sufficiently unmonarchized their ideas and habits’.  And he added: they ‘dismissed the name of king, but they retained a prejudice for his authority.  Instead of keeping as little, they kept as much of it as possible for their president’. 

Perhaps not surprisingly, British commentators saw this indebtedness to British tradition more clearly than Americans, who have been inclined to see the United States as a unique constitutional experiment.  As Bagehot observed, the President was ‘an unhereditary substitute’ for a king, an elective monarch serving for a fixed term.  James Bryce, who was to become a popular Ambassador to the United States, argued in his class study, The American Commonwealth (1888) that the Founding Fathers created a copy of the English king: ‘He is George III . . . diminished by holding office for four years, instead of for life’.  The English jurist Sir Henry Maine was likewise forthright about just how much the Presidency owed to the British monarchy in his book Popular Government (1885):  ‘On the face of the Constitution of the United States, the resemblance of the President to a European King, and especially to the King of Great Britain, is too obvious to mistake’.

The Founding Fathers rejected hereditary kingship, but a penchant for ‘the rule of one’, the classic definition of monarchy, has had a recurring echo in the United States. Most Americans assume that democratic principles fit uncomfortably with monarchy, which they have been brought up to associate with tyranny.  They forget that monarchies are today among the most advanced democracies.  The suggestion that their President is an elective king and the United States a ‘monarchical republic’ makes them uneasy.  American historians, well aware of the monarchical elements in the Constitution, have typically pulled their punches, often on the grounds that a President, however regal, serves for a limited term.  They forget that monarchy does not require life tenure or the hereditary principle.  As Hamilton, another Founding Father favorably disposed to kingship, remarked: ‘monarch is an indefinite term.  It marks not either the degree or duration of power’.

In The Imperial Presidency (1973), Arthur Schlesinger conceded that US Presidents had ‘monarchical moments’, especially in the post-war years, but he avoids the ‘K’ word, preferring to see the presidency as imperial.  But is not an emperor a king writ large?  References to the President as a King have been a feature of the nation’s conversation about its political leadership throughout US history.  Washington, dubbed the ‘monarch of Mount Vernon’ by his critics, was often seen in a kingly light, a tendency encouraged by portrait painters who typically portrayed him in regal pose.  The Whigs ridiculed Andrew Jackson as ‘King Andrew the First’ for his expansion of executive power. 

Among other presidents vilified, though occasionally praised, as monarchs were Lincoln, McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Kennedy, Nixon, and Reagan.  In a letter to the historian George Otto Trevelyan, Teddy Roosevelt, not one to minimize his powers, described the office of President as an ‘elective King’.  The growing power and prestige of his Presidency was in keeping with the expansion of American interests.  His monarchical tendencies did not go unnoticed, which led Henry Adams to call him ‘Theodore Rex’, the title of Edmund Morris’s biography of Roosevelt.

Allusions to the imperial presidency and the unitary executive have become commonplace in recent years.  A quick Google search illustrates just how often President George W. Bush has been seen in unflattering royal garb.  A recent article in the Atlanta Inquirer put it squarely: ‘What we have is an elective monarch who, if we are to believe the current wearer of the crown, rules by divine right’.  It is only a matter of time before Barack Obama’s enemies will portray him as a perfidious king, especially as he will have a compliant Congress offering few checks to Presidential authority in the monarcho-republic.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Arnold Shcherban - 12/3/2008

And that idea has become obsolete and unpractical (if it ever has been viable), as it was illustrated by
many obviously partisan divisions among Supreme Court judges.
Therefore it has to be dealt away with.
Plus, people vested with such extraordinary legal powers, must not be appointed for life by the partisan Presidents, who themselves are temporary. I refuse to see any common sense here to begin with, aside from anti-democratic design of the authors of such idea and the law that enforces it.

Evan Shawn Powell - 12/2/2008

Uh, then why have a Constitution at all, if any bill, contrary or not to the Constitution, passed and signed into law by the President is unreviewable by the standards laid out in it?

The idea behind life appointments is that justices would not be beholden to political parties, or constituencies with special interests. It does not make them apolitical, objective and ever rational, but that is the idea anyway.

Arnold Shcherban - 12/1/2008

It is not a democratic monarchy, but more like plutocratic monarchy...
One more thing. Somehow noone takes on the US Supreme Court. The right of Supreme judges to announce any law advanced by the Congress, i.e. by democratic representatives, unconstitutional and appointment of its judges for life are clearly undemocratic, medieval anachronisms.