Consider a Monarchy, America
By NIKOLAI TOLSTOY
November 5, 2016
© 2016 Count Nikolai Tolstoy
Southmoor, England — As a foreigner with dual British and Russian citizenship, it is not for me to comment at length on the merits of the rival candidates for the presidency of the United States. But it seems uncontroversial to say that neither appears to be a Washington or a Lincoln, and that the elective presidency is coming under increasingly critical examination.
That their head of state should be elected by the people is, I imagine, the innate view of almost all American citizens. But at this unquiet hour, they might well wonder whether — for all the wisdom of the founding fathers — their republican system of government is actually leading them toward that promised “more perfect union.”
After all, our American cousins have only to direct their gaze toward their northern neighbor to find, in contented Canada, a nation that has for its head of state a hereditary monarch. That example alone demonstrates that democracy is perfectly compatible with constitutional monarchy.
Indeed, the modern history of Europe has shown that those countries fortunate enough to enjoy a king or queen as head of state tend to be more stable and better governed than most of the Continent’s republican states. By the same token, demagogic dictators have proved unremittingly hostile to monarchy because the institution represents a dangerously venerated alternative to their ambitions.
Reflecting in 1945 on what had led to the rise of Nazi Germany, Winston Churchill wrote: “This war would never have come unless, under American and modernizing pressure, we had driven the Hapsburgs out of Austria and Hungary and the Hohenzollerns out of Germany.”
“By making these vacuums,” he went on, “we gave the opening for the Hitlerite monster to crawl out of its sewer on to the vacant thrones.”
To be fair to the “American and modernizing” influence, a similar consideration led President Harry S. Truman and Gen. Douglas MacArthur to preserve the Japanese monarchy at the end of World War II. This wise policy enabled Japan’s remarkable and rapid evolution into the prosperous, peaceful democratic society it has been ever since.
Doubtless, entrenched republicans will respond that hereditary rulers may prove mad or bad. But democracies have dynasties, too. America may have thrown off the yoke of King George III, but Americans chose to be governed by George Bush II. It is salutary to recall that George III when sane lost the American colonies, but when insane ruled a Britain that triumphed over the armies of the (elected) Emperor Napoleon.
The framers of the Constitution were, without question, men of pre-eminent judgment and intellect. But they did not enjoy a monopoly of such qualities. Across the Atlantic, equally lofty thinkers argued that a monarchy was inherently more stable than a republic.
No British statesman was more supportive of the colonists’ cause than Edmund Burke, yet none was more eloquent in defense of the benefits of Britain’s monarchy.
“The people of England well know,” he wrote, “that the idea of inheritance furnishes a sure principle of conservation, and a sure principle of transmission; without at all excluding a principle of improvement.”
A monarchy, in other words, lends to a political order a vital element of continuity that enables gradual reform. The rule of law is thus guaranteed by respect for authority — as Dr. Johnson advised Boswell: “Now, Sir, that respect for authority is much more easily granted to a man whose father has had it, than to an upstart, and so Society is more easily supported.”
Their contemporary, the historian Edward Gibbon, weighed the rival systems and came down with characteristic acerbity in favor of a hereditary sovereign. “We may easily devise imaginary forms of government, in which the sceptre shall be constantly bestowed on the most worthy, by the free and incorrupt suffrage of the whole community,” he wrote, but “experience overturns these airy fabrics.”
The advantage of monarchy is that the institution “extinguishes the hopes of faction” by rising above the toxic partisanship of competing parties and vying elected officials. “To the firm establishment of this idea,” Gibbon concluded, “we owe the peaceful succession, and mild administration, of European monarchies.”
It may be remembered that no British monarch has been assassinated for about five centuries, while no fewer than four American presidents have been murdered in the last 150 or so years. A factor to ponder, I suggest.
Gibbon’s point holds true today. Many Britons would, for example, be glad to see the royal prerogative increased in certain fields, like the distribution of titles and seats in the upper house of Parliament. The increasingly venal use of such honors for prime ministerial patronage has led to calls for the queen to restore integrity to government by resuming authority over the system.
The French politician of the early 20th century Georges Clemenceau once remarked, “there are two things in the world for which I have never seen any use: the prostate gland and the president of the republic.” As they contemplate the choice before them this week, many Americans may share something of that sentiment. There is an alternative.
Nikolai Tolstoy, the chancellor of the International Monarchist League, is a historian and novelist.