Do We Really Need a


The book of Job "is understood to be written for our instruction," mused Benjamin Franklin.

"What then is the instruction to be gathered from the supposed transaction?"

Trust not a single person with the government of your state... For if the Deity himself, being the monarch, may for a time give way to calumny and suffer it to operate the destruction of the best of subjects, what mischief may you not expect from such power in a mere man?... And be cautious in trusting him even with limited powers, lest sooner or later he sap and destroy those limits, and render himself absolute.

The American presidency was understood to be a limited, constitutional monarchy, the invention of men who thought the constitution of England to be the last word in political wisdom. Jefferson, who called the American version "a bad edition of Polish kingship," observed that acceptance of it was possible only because "Of the unlimited confidence we all repose in the person we all look to as our president." The position was created with Washington in mind but "after him inferior characters may perhaps succeed, and awaken us to the danger which his merit has led us into."

"At a remote time," Jefferson predicted, executive tyranny would rear its frightful head; but for the time being, the major threat to liberty was "legislative tyranny"-- which is to say, domination by the national legislature over the provincial governments. Accordingly, the power of the legislative branch was halved by saddling America with two legislatures and "balancing" them with a unified executive branch. Napoleon Bonaparte, whose concern for executive power ran even deeper, would soon prescribe four legislatures for France.

The power of absolute veto had been a major feature of traditional monarchy. The American monarch was equipped with a modern, limited version of it-- two thirds of absolute power. The veto gave the "executive branch" a potent role in the making of laws and budgets, but the "legislative branch," unlike a parliament, was given no role whatever in government. The American monarch, unlike King George, would have no ministers to thwart his will, only "secretaries" responsible to himself, to forward his orders and execute his whims. Thus congressional power was not only "balanced" but thoroughly overmatched.

Having received the entire governmental apparatus of the previous regime in a few trunks, the new executive branch was not formidable. Washington's attempt at dressing the administration in the trappings of European monarchy could hardly have impressed veterans of the courts of Saint James or Versailles. But these past two hundred years have certainly seen changes. The veto, that monarchical prerogative once exercised sparingly by admirable men, has been used with an abandon worthy of Louis the 14th by men who deserve the fate of Louis 16th. How plebeian seem the levees of George Washington and John Adams' gilded coach and six white horses, compared with these modern fleets of airplanes and helicopters, the great choruses of sycophants, pillowbearers and camp followers.

Inferior characters have certainly succeeded to the chair of Washington-- characters inferior, indeed, to Farouk or Ludwig of Bavaria. Power corrupts, and presidential power corrupts absolutely. Monarchy, after all, is just-- in Shelley's words-- "the string that ties the robbers' bundle. But, moral and intellectual inferiority notwithstanding, presidential characters are suffused with what Senator Fulbright knowingly called "the aura of divine kingship."

Washington merely wished to be addressed as "Your Excellency." Adams preferred something grander. But the presidency was given the most potent of all possible titles: "commander-in-chief." By reminding the electorate of this August monicker (the Roman imperator also was a military title), the president may dispel any doubt about his role in the political order. Even the least prepossessing of presidents, as commander-in-chief, is potentially the peer of Frederick the Great and Attila the Hun. If he can only find a way to loose the dogs of war, he is metamorphosed into the War Leader and the teeming throngs are seized by that atavistic, sadomasochistic urge to submit to the Leader and slaughter his enemies. The husk of the "constitutional executive" falls away to reveal the kernel of personal rule.

During his fabled Mesopotamian campaign, Mister Bush made a point of framing each shift and about-face upon his personal moods and whims, prefacing his threats, not unlike Hammurabi, with "I am sick and tired of..." Thus were we warned that upon the state of the presidential ego or hormone or thyroid balance rests the fate of entire civilizations. And this was not autocratic pretension but rather autocracy itself. The strident tone of the War Leader accurately reflected the reality of the imperial presidency.

As the presidency has grown from a limited monarchy into an absolute monarchy of colossal proportion, the legislative branch has withered. Unable to act but only to meddle, respected by none and depised by most, the national laegislatures resemble medieval estates or Russian dumas more than modern parliaments. With what pride did the American sponsors of President Yeltsyn's neo-Romanov constitution praise it as "American-style"!

In the wake of the Indochinese war and the Watergate struggle, the American Congress "encroached" upon the presidential prerogative somewhat. Now the organized partisans of the prerogative have brought this would-be parliament to heel, filling the Congress with anti-congressional militants. In the sort of exercise that might be expected to precede "Russian-style" coups, those parliamentary pretension were recanted amid an orgy of legislative self-loathing and the presidency bestowed with new power. Perhaps some future demagogues will offer the electorate a "contract" to abolish Congress for much the same reason that appendixes and tonsils are removed.

With crisies mounting, America is largely without even rudimentary organs of self-government and therefore without the means of self-preservation. Nations with modest resources and modern parliaments manage to provide their citizens with at least minimal security while America, immense wealth and a presidential-bicameral regime, economically overdeveloped but politically underdeveloped, descends into barbarism.

We prattle about "democracy" even as we strain to hear the latest report on the health and mental state of the presidential person. We plummet willy-nilly from one "failed presidency" to the next, each failure giving us yet another opportunity to profess our indomitable faith in the ultimate advent of the good monarch, blaming everything but the institution for the failure of the institution.

"Progressives," not recognizing the obvious fact that a party cannot very well win ten percent of the presidency, busy themselves with micro-parties in mindlessly imitation of their brethren in more advanced nations, where tiny parties can hope to win seats and thereby have a chance at being in the government. With pseudorepublican institutions discredited and the parties reduced to marketing cooperatives, America's deeply monarchist culture is prepared not for a politically correct little "party" but for a Leader to rise "above parties" and rule with a "mandate from the People."

In an Aesopian fable regarded by Jefferson as a foundation-stone of republican wisdom, a tribe of frogs elects a stork as their king, and the stork eats them. We are suffering from a condition that would not have surprised Aesop, and it should not surprise us. The presidency did not just turn bad; it was a bad idea to start with, and two centuries of the relentless accretion of power have made it immeasurably worse. In its evolved form, it imperils our freedom and our health.

Abolition of the presidency is a first necessary step toward the liberation of American society.

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