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The American Monarchy

Is the US President as a republican substitute for royalty? Frank Prochaska explores the relationship between George III and the Founding Fathers, and the constitutional and ceremonial continuities between Britain and America. 

The Committee of Five presenting their draft of the Declaration of Independence to the Congress on June 28, 1776. Painting by John Trumbull.The pride, the glory of Britain, and the direct end of its constitution is political liberty ... Thus have we created the noblest constitution the human mind is capable of framing, where the executive power is in the prince, the legislative in the nobility and the representatives of the people, and the judicial in the people and in some cases the nobility, to whom there lies a final appeal from all other courts of judicature, where every man’s life, liberty and possessions are secure. (King George III).

In September 1761, the colonial Englishman Benjamin Franklin, on tour in the Low Countries, eagerly anticipated a return to his home in London to attend the coronation of George III. With his invitation secured, he reached London in time for the festivities, but a storm delayed his arrival at Westminster Abbey and he had to content himself with watching the pageant from a distance. From his vantage point, Franklin would not have known that the ceremony itself was a shambles. Among other mishaps, the authorities had forgotten the canopy, the sword of state and chairs for the King and Queen; and the Dean of Westminster, it was said by an eyewitness, ‘would have drop’d the Crown, if it had not been pin’d to the Cushion’.

Franklin, fascinated by royalty, would have forgiven the King had he sat on the Crown. He wrote to a friend that George III’s virtue and sincerity would dissipate faction and predicted that His Majesty’s reign would ‘be happy and truly glorious’.

Franklin’s admiration for his monarch had few limits. After a dinner at Versailles hosted by Louis XV in 1767, he reported that ‘no Frenchman shall go beyond me in thinking my own king and queen the very best in the World and most amiable’. As a frequent guest at court, he attended George III’s birthday festivities in 1771, and the following year wrote to his son of the King’s ‘great regard’ for him.

As Franklin’s devotion to royalty illustrates, it was no easy matter to break with so universal a system of government as monarchy, especially for colonial subjects who thought of themselves as patriotic Englishmen and their King as a guardian of the Protestant faith and the ‘father of his people’. George III was no less revered in America for being so remote. Distance made him a more difficult target and enhanced the monarch as symbol. With an ocean between them, few colonists ever set eyes upon a member of the royal family, but they demonstrated their allegiance through ritual celebrations of royal birthdays, coronations, and marriages.

Royal authority was slow to weaken in a land of English-speaking emigrants on the fringes of the known world, whose leaders looked to the King for political legitimacy. As the colonists believed the monarchy to be the guarantor of their rights, even the disaffected were hesitant to blame the King for their discontents. Popular indignation centred on the ministry and not the King, who was typically described in resolutions as ‘the best of sovereigns’. Oliver Wolcott, a signatory of the Declaration of Independence, wrote that the reservoir of respect for George III had been so deep on the eve of the Revolution that ‘the abilities of a Child might have governed’ the colonists.

The colonial tradition of looking to the Crown for redress was powerful. While Americans often acknowledged the authority of Parliament, they found reasons for refusing to accept it in specific cases, such as taxation. Dismissing the monarch was more difficult given the deep roots of royalism in the colonies. Parliament, subject to party politics, had little symbolic importance in American political rituals, whereas, in the words of Brendan McConville (2006), the King was ‘the empire’s living embodiment’. Franklin said he could understand the sovereignty of the Crown but not the authority of Parliament. As John Brooke observed in his biography of George III (1972), ‘the fathers of the American republic were the heirs of the Tory tradition in British politics’. He added: ‘perhaps the only true Tories in the world today are to be found in the United States’.

Although the colonists’ regard for George III was slow to wane, events on the ground increasingly strained their patience. In the 1770s, the tightening of political authority and the behaviour of the British Army towards colonial civilians heightened fears that the American arcadia was being sacrificed to satisfy European dynastic interests. As the crisis deepened, it became more common for the colonists to depict the King as the head of a tyrannical government. Pamphleteers fuelled the growing anxieties as the crisis turned violent at Lexington and Bunker Hill. The King, intent on defending his authority, played into their hands by resolving to bring the colonists to heel. As Jeremy Black notes in his life of George III (2006), the result was a breakdown of the paternalism that marked relations between the King and the colonists, whom he had described as his ‘rebellious children’ at the beginning of the conflict.

While the ‘rebellious children’ denounced the King as a despot in turn, it is debatable whether George III was even the ‘executive’ in British government in view of the constraints on his prerogatives. A century later Walter Bagehot observed in The English Constitution (1867) that the framers of the American constitution assumed that the King was the executive when in reality he was but ‘a cog in the mechanism’. Though George III publicly approved of a harsh policy towards the colonists, he did not declare war on America nor lead the nation into battle. He advised and reprimanded but deferred to his Cabinet on strategy and generally followed the lead of his ministers. Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence in 1776 that King George had shown himself ‘unfit to be the ruler of a free people’, yet Parliament carried every measure against the colonies by large majorities.

The defiant colonists needed a scapegoat and the zealous denunciation of George III in the Declaration of Independence, though unwarranted, was an astute propaganda device. Jefferson understood the value of personalizing the enemy. Having discredited Parliament, the revolutionaries needed to discredit the monarchy in order to define their cause and rally the troops. Thus Jefferson took aim at the King, describing him as ‘a Prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant’. Most of the Declaration of Independence is a litany of royal ‘injuries and usurpations’ heaped on the colonists, from the King’s refusal to assent to laws for the public good, to destroying lives. Nothing did more to shape the unhappy reputation of George III in America than what Samuel Adams called this ‘catalogue of crimes’.

George III loomed large in America’s foundation myth, and thus became a fixture in US history, an antitype of the Founding Father. A belief in the despotism of the King was invaluable in shaping the vision of the United States as a nation founded in patriotic struggle. In turn, the rejection of European dynastic and political interests ­contributed to the conviction that America is a nation uniquely blessed, which has characterized American self-perception since the Revolution. But the belief in American ‘exceptionalism’, like the belief in the ‘free-born Englishman’ that nourished it, has always been better propaganda than history, for America was, and remains, less exceptional than it takes itself to be. The Puritan John Winthrop fashioned his ‘City upon a Hill’ in the hills of Suffolk, England not the hills of Massachusetts.

The hostility to Britain and its King during the Revolution has tended to obscure the constitutional affinities between the two nations. Americans, as Franklin’s grandson Benjamin Franklin Bache put it in 1797, created a constitution before they ‘had sufficiently un-monarchized their ideas and habits’ (his italics). Republics, such as Venice, and ‘elective’ monarchies, such as Poland, existed in the western world; but hereditary monarchy was the principal constitutional model on which Americans had to draw before the French Revolution. The forms of government on offer to the Founding Fathers were essentially variations of monarchy, ‘the rule of one’. Moreover, most colonists had looked favourably on Britain’s hereditary monarchy before the Revolution. So too had leading eighteenth-century European political philosophers.

Though few Americans said it openly after 1776, many of them believed that limited hereditary monarchy was a practical system of government. As John Adams 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.

Such phrases as ‘Aristo-Democratical Monarchy’ suggest just how arbitrary definitions of republican – and monarchical – government were in the late eighteenth century. Even Thomas Paine recognized that kingship was not inconsistent with republican government. As he put it in the Rights of Man, ‘what is called a republic, is not any particular form of government’. King George, though often described as a tyrant, was himself a classical republican, wholly supportive of a balanced constitution.

Not all the Founding Fathers were averse to kingship, at least of the undespotic, limited variety, a point made nearly a century ago by the American historian Louise Dunbar. Various American thinkers, most notably John Adams (d. 1826) and Alexander Hamilton (d.1804), leaned towards incorporating monarchical elements in the American constitution, a tendency that fuelled the hostility of their critics. As an officer at Valley Forge in 1778, Hamilton had signed an oath in which he repudiated any allegiance to George III. But his mind had been shaped by the British constitution, which he believed, like many of his contemporaries, to be the finest in the world. His admiration for England led to a good deal of ridicule from his enemies, who retailed stories that he was in league with British paymasters. Jefferson had the New Yorker Hamilton in mind when he wrote to La Fayette that the champions for a king, lords, and commons were often from the east,

... and are puffed up by a tribe of Agioteurs which have been hatched in a bed of corruption made up after the model of their beloved England.

Jefferson had a point when he accused Hamilton of monarchical sympathies. Hamilton wrote in his notes in 1787 that republics suffered from corruption and intrigue, while monarchical power provided vigorous execution of the laws and acted as a check on the other branches of government.

The monarch must have proportional strength. He ought to be hereditary, and to have so much power, that it will not be his interest to risk much to acquire more.

In his subsequent remarks on constitutional questions, Hamilton dropped all references to the virtue of ‘hereditary’ monarchy. In the Federalist essays he mocked those who equated the authority of the President with that of a hereditary British King. In a purposeful sleight of mind, he inflated the monarchy’s powers so as to make the powers of the presidency, which he wished to be extensive, seem relatively modest.

Like other Americans with royalist leanings, Hamilton judiciously covered his tracks and retreated from any notion of replicating in the republic a hereditary institution that had been complicit in so much turmoil. For years, he sympathized with the idea of what he called an ‘elective monarch’, who could serve for life on ‘good behavior’. Indeed, he put forward this proposition in a long speech to the Constitutional Convention in 1787. The delegates rejected the idea, yet in the end the Constitution did not preclude the emergence of an elective monarch for life, at least in theory, for it permitted a President to be re-elected for successive four-year terms. As the Founding Fathers were aware, monarchy did not necessitate the hereditary principle or life tenure. Elective monarchy had a long history, with examples from Anglo-Saxon England, the Holy Roman Empire, Poland and the Vatican. As Hamilton noted, ‘monarch is an indefinite term. It marks not either the degree or duration of power’. As Johnson’s English Dictionary defined it, monarchy was simply rule by a single person.

The distinction between absolute monarchy and limited monarchy was often lost on American politicians, particularly anti-federalists with a political axe to grind. But in looking for a viable constitutional model, the Founding Fathers turned naturally to British precedent. They scrupulously avoided any identification of the model with George III, for having savaged him as a tyrant they could hardly use him as a prototype. A ‘pure democracy’ had little charm, for it was widely seen as at best impractical and at worst anarchical. The theory of mixed government of King, Lords and Commons had a compelling logic to many Americans who desired security, a just measure of liberty, and the avoidance of arbitrary rule.

Americans sought to widen the definition of republic to embrace more fully the affairs of the public at large; but while they strained to reconcile egalitarianism with mixed government, their colonial experience eased the translation of King, Lords and Commons into President, Senate and the House of Representatives. Adams wrote to Jefferson in December 1787 on the new Constitution, observing that ‘you are apprehensive of Monarchy; I, of Aristocracy. I would therefore have given more Power to the President and less to the Senate’.

The constitutional system adopted in the United States, with its ideal of checks and balances, was a creative modification of classical republican ideas suited to American social realities. But when those checks and balances do not operate effectively—as happens from time to time in American history--the powers of the presidency are arguably more akin to those of an absolute monarch like Charles I than to those of a limited monarch like George III. The effective American propaganda campaign skewed American perceptions of George’s power, but it should not be assumed that as a constitutional monarch he had powers comparable to those granted the President, which have been interpreted at different times to be virtually unlimited. It is one of the great ironies of the US constitution that the Founding Fathers invested more power in the presidency than George III exercised as King.

For all their revolutionary rhetoric Americans treated ‘His Excellency’ George Washington as a republican version of ‘His Majesty’ King George. Some Americans, sensitive to the symbolism of power, believed the President required a title and pored over the titles of the European princes to find one that had not been appropriated. Thomas Mc­Kean, Chief Justice of Pennsylvania, thought ‘Most Serene Highness’ desirable. Washington himself was said to have preferred the style of ‘High Mightiness’ used by the Stadtholder of the Netherlands. The reigning Stadtholder, William V, was among the Europeans who saw George Washington as an un-crowned monarch. As he said to Adams: ‘Sir, you have given yourselves a king under the title of president’.

In the Senate a titles committee suggested ‘His Highness the President of the United States of America and Protector of the Rights of the Same’. Adams, who believed that social distinctions and love of ceremonial were innate human characteristics, took the lead on the issue; but the Senate rejected his suggestions for titles, ‘His Elective Majesty’ or ‘His Mightiness’. In the end, the Senate, like the House of Representatives, voted that Washington should be called simply ‘The President of the United States’. But the question of how the President was to be addressed did not end there. Article 2 of the Constitution gave the President the more significant and problematic title, Commander in Chief, which had longstanding royal associations, having first been used by Charles I.

Whatever his title, the President was not short on authority and prestige. Given American uneasiness with unmerited privilege, the Founding Fathers rejected the hereditary principle. But as Bagehot observed, the President was ‘an unhereditary substitute’ for a king, an elective monarch serving for a fixed term. Though the source of Washington’s authority was not biological, as President he was given ‘semi-royal status’ that suited his august demeanour and vital role in the revolutionary struggle. The African-born Phillis Wheatley paid poetic tribute, which suggested just how common it was at the time to think of the presidency as a variant of kingship:

A crown, a mansion, and a throne that shine/With gold unfading, Washington! Be thine.

Every parent believes in the hereditary principle. The want of a hereditary monarchy, what Bagehot called ‘a family on the throne’, has only propelled the emergence of political dynasties in the United States, from the Adamses to the Bushes. John Adams took comfort from the admixture of kingship in the presidency:

Limited monarchy is founded in Nature. No Nation can adore more than one Man at a time. It is a happy Circumstance that the object of our Devotion [Washington] is so well deserving of it.

During the framing of the Constitution, the office of President came under attack as an instrument of monarchy. Some like George Mason and James Monroe in the Virginia Convention worried lest an ‘elective monarchy’ prevail.  Patrick Henry, another Virginian, famously denounced the Constitution’s ‘deformities’ and saw the presidency ‘squinting’ towards monarchy:

If your American chief be a man of ambition and abilities, how easy is it for him to render himself absolute. The army is in his hands, and if he be a man of address, it will be attached to him ... Away with your president! We shall have a king: the army will salute him monarch.

Various commentators worried about insufficient checks on presidential pretension given the extraordinary powers invested in the Commander in Chief, which in practice gave the President a free hand in foreign affairs. With the power to make treaties, grant pardons, fill vacancies, appoint supreme court judges, ambassadors, consuls, and ‘all other officers of the United States’, it was not surprising that critics saw American kingship in the making, for these powers resembled – indeed exceeded – the prerogative powers residing in the British Crown. Raw­lins Lowndes, in the South Carolina Convention, declared the proposed presidential office ‘the best preparatory plan for a monarchical government he had read’. It ‘came so near’ to the British form that, ‘as to our changing from a republic to a monarchy, it was what everybody must expect’.

American commentators, having demonized the King, had little inclination to understand the limits of constitutional monarchy in the reign of George III. So when they said that America would lapse into monarchy, they meant something more absolute than the limited monarchy in Britain. William Short, the American chargé d’affaires in Paris, feared that ‘the President of the eighteenth century’ would ‘form a stock on which will be engrafted a King in the nineteenth’. Alarmed by the moral temper in the early republic, Benjamin Rush wrote that ‘a hundred years hence, absolute monarchy will probably be rendered necessary in our country by the corruption of our people’. In 1787, Franklin, with philosophical detachment, observed in the Constitutional Convention:

It will be said that we do not propose to establish kings. I know it. But there is a natural inclination in mankind to Kingly Government. It sometimes relieves them from Aristocratic domination. They had rather have one tyrant than five hundred. It gives more of the appearance of equality among Citizens, and that they like.

It was of no small significance that the Founding Fathers made the President both the executive and the ceremonial head of state. Doing so ensured that the nation’s highest office would have monarchical overtones, with much of the attendant, uncritical awe associated with kingship. Later European republics, those of France and Germany for example, separated these roles as a safeguard against the abuse of power. In combining its executive and ceremonial roles, the United States lacks a non-political head of state who can provide consensus and a focus for national pride in times of crisis or political division. The constitution encourages Americans to revere the President as head of state even when they disapprove of him as the executive or Commander in Chief. The result is a disconnection between thoughts and feelings in the citizenry, which leads to perplexity while diluting criticism of presidential abuse.

The Founding Fathers turned naturally to British precedent to answer constitutional questions but also to answer questions of political etiquette. They cast off British rule, but retained a liking for British ceremonial practices and customs. As Gordon Wood points out in Revolutionary Characters: What made the Founders Different? (2006), Hamilton urged Washington to follow the forms of ‘European courts’, while Adams advised him to indulge in a show of ‘Splendor and Majesty’. Washington’s presidency illustrates that a ‘Republican Court’ emerged, complete with artillery salutes, parades, martial music, odes set to the music of ‘God Save the King’, bewigged footmen, levées, lavish dinners, a presidential barge manned by thirteen river pilots in formal dress, and travels through the states that were reminiscent of royal ‘progresses’. The courtly formality enraged radicals and anti-federalists, who thought it recreated the divisive rituals of monarchy.

The first inaugural in 1789, which set the tone for future administrations, had many of the elements of a crowning. Dignity and grandeur, thought essential to the union and the nation’s highest office, were the order of the day. In a pale imitation of George III’s golden state coach pulled by eight cream Hanoverian stallions, David McCullough describes how:

Washington rode to Federal Hall in a canary-yellow carriage pulled by six white horses and followed by a long column of New York militia in full dress.

Back at the Senate, the President called his address ‘His Most gracious Speech’, which raised a few eyebrows, for it was noted that those words were the same as those placed before the speech of the King at the annual opening of Parliament. When a critic protested that the usage represented ‘the first Step of the Ladder in the Ascent to royalty’, the President greeted the complaint with surprise, saying that it was ‘taken from the Practice of that Government under which we had lived so long and so happily formerly’.

George III, always attentive to etiquette and ritual, approved of the royal overtones of the American court. He would have been amused to discover that the former colonists celebrated Washington’s birthday rather as his British subjects celebrated his own, with the sound of cannon, bells, and drums. It was followed by a levée, a formal reception long associated with royalty. Though frowned upon by many democrats, the levée became a fixture of the nineteenth-century American court. Even Jefferson, who discontinued the practice on becoming President, held one in 1805, to the dismay of some of his admirers. In a striking union of republican content and monarchical form, James Madison celebrated July 4th with a levée. Such practices fed the popular criticism of the nation’s monarchical tendencies and the penchant of presidents for pomposity and seclusion from the people.

At his levées, George Washington played the king to weekly audiences, while Mrs Washington, in imitation of Queen Charlotte, opened her drawing room on Friday evenings. After witnessing one of Washington’s receptions a colonel from Virginia despaired for the safety of the nation. As he observed, the President’s ‘bows were more distant and stiff’ than any he had witnessed at St James’s. Attacks on these formalities, the ‘mock pageantry of monarchy’, were a recurring feature in the young republic. John Adams, dubbed ‘His Rotundity’ and the ‘Duke of Braintree’, was often criticised for his princely style. His love of decorum led his enemies to conclude ‘that he sought a hereditary monarch, with himself as king and son John Quincy groomed as his dauphin’ (Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton, 2004).      

America’s adaptation of ‘elective monarchy’ and the borrowing of British ceremonial suggests just how deeply indebted the new nation was to its colonial past. In Britain, as Bagehot and a host of constitutional writers agreed, a republic had ‘insinuated itself beneath the folds of a Monarchy’. In America, a monarchy had insinuated itself beneath the folds of a republic. The phrase ‘Monarcho-Republicanism’ was sometimes used to describe the British Crown in the nineteenth century. It had a variant in the US presidency, which many a participant in the Revolution recognized. Even Jefferson, the scourge of American royalists, felt that the spirit, if not the letter of monarchy, had persisted. He feared an eventual tyranny of executive power in Washington, which he believed to be a feature of Federalist politics. As he wrote to James Madison in 1789: ‘We were educated in royalism; no wonder, if some of us retain that idolatry still’.

Contrary to Jeremy Black’s excellent new biography, George III was not ‘America’s last King’. The Founding Fathers rejected hereditary monarchy, but a penchant for ‘the rule of one’ had a recurring echo in the republic, which the constitution did little to silence. Throughout American history references to the President as a king have been a feature of the nation’s conversation about its political leadership. Such references have increased of late, as a glance at many a newspaper will attest. Stephen Graubard’s recent survey of presidents from Theodore Roosevelt to George W. Bush sees them as a breed of would be monarchs surrounded by courtiers, with vastly expanded executive authority and ‘unmistakable signs of having assumed the trappings traditionally bestowed on European heads of state’. Brought up on trappings of royalty many Americans continue to succumb to the idolatry and charm of kingship. If they only knew, some of their presidents would give monarchy a bad name.

Frank Prochaska teaches history at Yale. He is the author of The Republic of Britain, 1760-2000 (Penguin Books, 2000). 

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