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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.


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

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7 replies to this post
  1. As a Brit, I cavil at ‘Thatcher was a dignified representative of the British people’. The great virtue of the separation of head of government from head of state is that the politician ISN’T representing the people, merely the current interests of the ruling group within the country. And on a good day that will cause the ruling group within the visited country to see that their interests coincide so that they work together for the greater good – or at least the interests of both!

  2. Very interesting Mr. Davis. Coming from the Commonwealth Realm north of the United States, a country whose founders dissented from the American Founding Fathers’ decision to break away from the British Empire, I am a hardcore royalist whose monarchism is not mixed with republicanism – except perhaps in the sense hinted at in the root meaning of republic as a polity that governs for the common good of the public such as the commonwealth imagined by Plato which was, of course, ruled by kings. Having absorbed many or most of my basic political principles from the writings of Jacobite-sympathetic Tories like Dr. Johnson I would be comfortable with Her Majesty exercising far more of her powers than she actually does, but there is something to be said for keeping the ownership of the powers of the state separate from their exercise.

    I have had discussions with several people who cannot see the point of a monarchy where the monarch does not actually exercise executive authority to accomplish whatever they think ought to be accomplished but I find it hard to see things from this point of view myself. It is utilitarian to judge the worth of a time honoured institution such as the Crown by the ruling stick of usefulness and utilitarianism is a basic failing of the modern mind – the tendency to dismiss all standards of worth that cannot be measured and expressed in quantitative terms. Thus I appreciate very much your remarks in your second paragraph.

    Having said that, it seems obvious to me that in countries such as the United Kingdom and my own the institution of monarchy does serve, even today, a real purpose which is more than just that of ceremonial figurehead and that this purpose might actually be more important than the actual running of government that was expected of kings in days gone by. The Westminster parliamentary system of government is, of course, the embodiment of the classical ideal espoused by Aristotle and Polybius of a mixed constitution which, by blending monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy would be more stable and secure than any of these alone. Since the Whig triumph of 1688, the balance of power in the system has shifted very much to the democratic side of things, placing the actual exercising of most government powers in the hands of elected officials and their bureaucratic lackeys. To be elected to office, one must be a politician, that is to say someone who is ambitious and seeks power, which is the type of person who is most susceptible to the corrupting influence of power. If government power is to be exercised by such people, it is that much more important that it be owned by someone else, placing the elected politicians in the humbling position of servants to that person, their master. To make that someone else “the people” is a common temptation these days but it is dangerous. Rousseau, the father of the concept of popular sovereignty was also the father of totalitarianism. A government that sees itself as the agent of the will of the people is a government that can do whatever it wants because whatever it does it is the people doing it to themselves. Hence the modern regimes that practiced tyranny on an unprecedented scale – the French Republic in the “Reign of Terror”, Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union and all the other “People’s Republics” – all did so in the name of the people. The United States has escaped this fate so far – regardless of what one might think of the present administration – because its commitment to liberalism, the idea that the individual comes first and possesses rights and freedoms that no regime, democratic or otherwise, has the right to infringe on, has taken precedence over its commitment to democracy. I have no confidence in liberalism’s ability to indefinitely ward off the nastiness of what Alexis de Tocqueville called “the tyranny of the majority” because liberalism is based upon a demonstrably false premise – that the individual comes before the community. If one must have politicians exercising the powers of government it is better to leave the ownership of those powers in the possession of a monarch. It is much more humbling for politicians for them to be ministers of a royal master than to be “the representatives of the people” which is a not vey humbling role at all.

    That is the line of argument I used against an impertinent, supposedly conservative, Canadian columnist who took the recent celebration of the longevity of Her Majesty’s reign as an opportunity to call for the end of the monarchy. A full defence of the ancient office of monarch, of course, must not rest on its useful function, but on its antiquity and endurance through history, endowing it with dignity and authority. It is the mark of a civilized government that power is the servant of authority.

    • Very impressed by a seriously thoughtful defence of constitutional monarchism. It’s hard to resist the appeal of utilitarianism in such arguments; it’s great to see someone hold it so lightly.

  3. With respect but this article seems a little indecisive or dare I say “lukewarm”. If your not going to believe that Kings and Aristocrats get their right to rule from God you might as well be a democrat. I guess I’m saying this I suppose because I am a Absolute Monarchist ( which is the only one that works) and a Catholic full fledged. I guess it’s just your difference in thought and expirience.

  4. “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.”

    Hobbes is being invoked by your commenter as a kind of magic talisman that can be used to ward off evil monarchists. He does not even know Hobbes well enough to realize that for Hobbes the sovereign could just as well be a legislature, and the same characteristics would apply to it as to a king.

  5. That the USA sought to elect a “Presider” over the nation, while vesting the “real power in the Legislative branch is rather evident from history. Unfortunately, power tends to centralize when it is one versus a multitude.

    Washington was reportedly adverse to being treated “royally”, while Adams thought it was a nifty idea. Passing by a few hundred years, and Richard Nixon puts WH guards in Ruritanian uniforms. (The “Imperial President”. ) A few decades pass by, and folks are complaining about President Obama’s “imperialistic” style. (They should look up the origin of the word “emperor”.

    Perhaps even if we elected a Queen of Naboo, complete with faux-Mandarin accoutrements, for a ten or twenty year period, it would be far too much for Americans to handle.

    In any event, I find it hilarious how the Presidency didn’t really begin to “imperialize” until after FDR, and the irate Republicans passed the two-term amendment. (A clear violation of Original Intent!)

    I am afraid no system is without fault, or the possibility for abuse. Given human nature, what CAN be abused, WILL be abused.

    But, at least if we had an American Aristocracy and Monarch, perhaps Yanks would not have been so notorious at wanting to be “presented” in European capitals.

  6. What I think you are looking for is a proper reading of Machiavelli’s theories on the aristocratic republic. Other than that, Aristotle.

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