Having a President vs. Having a Monarch
“With her death, it’s hard not to fear that so much she exemplified—restraint, duty, grace, reticence, persistence—are disappearing from the world.” As Andrew Sullivan suggested in his reflections on Queen Elizabeth II, the best aspects of her public life contrast sharply with the worst aspects of modern politics. She dedicated herself to duty in service of her country; our own leaders, by contrast, tend to use their office for personal or political gain. While she exemplified her country and office at its best, our leaders too often exemplify our country, and our politics, at their worst.
This seems a point on which all agree. “Over seven decades,” the Wall Street Journal editorialized, “the British monarch offered steady, self-effacing leadership.” “The affection in which she was held reflected, above all, a sense of duty that seemed innate,” the Financial Times wrote, a “resolve to uphold the responsibilities that had been thrust upon her.”
Throughout, she transcended the politics of our age, so effectively as to cast doubt on the virtue of democracy relative to monarchy: “Grubby politicians come and go, they cut deals and win elections by dividing their countries,” the Economist observed. “The king helps keep politics and nation separate and woe betide him if he confuses the two. Contrast that with America, Brazil and Turkey, poisoned by the fusion of head of state and head of government in Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro and Recep Tayyip Erdogan.”
We might take comfort in the fact that we live in extraordinary times: Queen Elizabeth II was an exceptionally good monarch, while our elected leaders seem exceptionally bad. Yet there have also been memorably bad monarchs and memorably great presidents.
But this isn’t exactly right. The contrast that Queen Elizabeth II exemplified is not simply a sign of our times. It is a timeless challenge of self-government, as America’s best statesmen recognized from the start: For all its virtues, republican self-government’s fusion of the head of state with the head of political government comes at an inherent cost.
Alexander Hamilton pressed the point from the start. In Federalist 22, he warned that while a monarch’s honor is bound up with the nation’s, an elected leader’s incentives are more attenuated. “One of the weak sides of republics, among their numerous advantages, is that they afford too easy an inlet to foreign corruption,” he observed. “An hereditary monarch, though often disposed to sacrifice his subjects to his ambition, has so great a personal interest in the government and in the external glory of the nation, that it is not easy for a foreign power to give him an equivalent for what he would sacrifice by treachery to the state.”
Hamilton was repeating the point he made months earlier to his fellow Framers in Philadelphia: “The Hereditary interest of the King was so interwoven with that of the Nation, and his personal emoluments so great, that he was placed above the danger of being corrupted from abroad—and at the same time was both sufficiently independent and sufficiently controuled, to answer the purpose of the institution at home,” he told them, according to Madison. For all of its virtues, republican government lacked this particular protection for the public good.
And so our Constitution needed auxiliary precautions—checks and balances, separated powers—and the ultimate sovereignty of the people. But in addition to all of those things, the Constitution places an extraordinary obligation on the president: to swear an oath. “I do solemnly swear (or affirm),” each new president recites, “that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
Today the president’s oath of office might seem pro forma—an inaugural tradition alongside a bit of poetry, and the outgoing president’s departure on Marine One. But in the first instance, George Washington and his countrymen knew the stakes. The public oath was necessary to show that the president was binding himself, and his honor, to the greater good. And after taking his oath (which Chancellor Robert Livingston followed with the rather royal exclamation, “Long live George Washington, President of the United States!”), President Washington took the additional step of delivering an inaugural address, which was dedicated not to reciting policies, but to reinforcing the fact that his own personal honor was bound up in his duty to country.
That was a crucial choice. As Jeffrey Tulis recounts in The Rhetorical Presidency, Washington’s original plan for his address was to outline the measures that Congress should undertake. But he chose another approach, and emphasized that choice in the remarks themselves: He would use the occasion not to promote his aims, but to acknowledge his duties. “Instead of undertaking particular recommendations,” Washington said, “I shall again give way to my entire confidence in your discernment and pursuit of the public good.” Eight years later, Adams’s own attempt to imitate Washington’s example misfired (characteristically); but later, Tulis writes, “Jefferson reconstituted the inaugural address into a form that was adhered to by all presidents until Lincoln,” attempting “to articulate the president’s understanding of republican principle”—his commitment to constitutional duty. They attempted to strike a republican balance, eschewing pomp and circumstance but embracing constitutional responsibility, prefacing any policy discussions with a reiteration of the basic limits of their office.
To be sure, many of our early presidents fell short of their constitutional duty—to say the least. But as to constitutional virtue, at least they honored it in the breach, by respecting the form if not the substance. In the twentieth century, by contrast, presidential inaugural addresses were more likely skip duty and cut to the policy chase. “Symptomatic of the larger changes in form,” Tulis writes, “would be the fact that only half of the twentieth-century inaugural addresses even mention the word Constitution (or any of its provisions), and none of the twentieth-century addresses contain analyses of the meaning of the Constitution.”
Of course, the problem is not so much the presidents but ourselves. We like to see the president swear his oath of office, but we really like to hear him endorse the right policies in his inaugural address. We want our president to feel constrained by his office, but we really want him to feel constrained by our policy agenda. We like the fact that Queen Elizabeth II was above partisanship, but we would never tolerate the same from the president—at least, not from the president from one’s own political coalition.
To be sure, the whole point of republican self-government is that we are governed by politically selected and accountable leaders, not ruled by a hereditary king, so we need not apologize for making political demands on them. But in observing the outpouring of respect and affection for Queen Elizabeth II, even the republicans among us can see the virtue of true statesmanship, and what’s lost in its absence. Again, it is a timeless question, as true in Hamilton’s time as in ours. Ideally, our president’s honor is bound up in our nation’s honor. Unfortunately, that requires us to bind ourselves to it, too.