If there is one form of government that seems to be universal and enduring, it is monarchy. Humankind has dabbled with many different systems but always seems to come back to letting a single person and his or her family rule the country for generation after generation—or at least until society falls apart, the economy goes to hell, and somebody thinks he and his followers can do better.
We in America like to think we’re immune to this monarchical tendency because of the U.S. Constitution and the government structure which it proposes and which we all accept. And true, the system has worked reasonably well for more than two centuries. But we are not immune.
We also like to think of monarchy as old-fashioned, a throwback to a less-enlightened age, to hundreds of years ago, before the rise of the printing press, instant communications, and the democratizing forces of universal education, free speech, and the machine gun. And true, modern social media does seem to guarantee that everyone gets his or her say, eternally, ad nauseam, in whatever forum he or she can erect or channel. But monarchy does not rely on parchment scrolls, coats of arms, and ermine robes. It is not prevented by popular education and endless chatter. We are not immune.
Consider every civilization that has risen on Earth. Almost all of those that were enlightened enough or lucky enough to pass through a period of democracy eventually has reverted to some form of monarchy through crisis or invasion.
The Greeks, who apparently invented the system of voting for and electing leaders, after a couple of centuries soon devolved into rule by homegrown tyrants who had garnered extensive political power. Eventually, the Greeks were conquered by the Macedonians, marched with Alexander to the ends of the world, and upon his death broke up his empire into a collection of Hellenistic kingdoms founded on his leading generals. They in turn were conquered and ruled by either the Romans or the Persians. Eventually, the Greek homeland ended up with its own hereditary monarchy. Basileus is the ancient Greek word for “king.”
The Romans were ruled by the Tarquin kings for the first couple of centuries after the founding of the city—until the Roman elite threw the kings out. The Senate and People of Rome then developed a republic run by annually elected consuls, or military governors, supported by a hierarchy of publicly held offices: the cursus honorum, or “course of honor,” open to all men of senatorial rank. The system worked well enough for a couple of centuries, until men of rank and wealth rose high enough to raise their own armies, fight for control, and take over the state. For centuries more under the Caesars, who held the rank of imperator, or “field marshal,” the form of the old government subsisted with meetings of the senate and, for a while, the nominal authority of elected consuls and other offices. But it was a sham that deceived no one, because the emperor had the army at his back and held the real power.
The French had a government of kings and nobles until 1789, when revolution overthrew the system and tried to install a new and totally enlightened democracy. This system failed for having too many architects with grand ideas and too much residual anger at the old regime. After several years of political strife, the state fell to military adventurism under a Corsican general who pretended to be spreading the benefits of revolution to the rest of Europe. The French themselves named Napoleon their emperor fifteen years after their own revolution. And the style of “emperor,” although not always the power, continued in French government until late in the 19th century. The French today are a democratically elected republic, although they are now rapidly shedding their sovereignty to an unelected European Union run by social architects with grand ideas.
The Russians had their own kings or tsars until 1917, when the three-hundred-year-old Romanov Dynasty succumbed to the February Revolution under a provisional government centered on the Duma, or “parliament,” and led by liberal aristocrats and centrist Social Democrats. That new government lasted until the Bolsheviks under Vladimir Lenin took control in the October Revolution (or November in the western calendar) later in that same year and installed the Soviet, or “workers’ council,” system. The Soviets were supposed to be democratically elected, and for decades they paraded under that façade. But after five years of civil war and a slowly congealing “dictatorship of the proletariat,” the party united under a single ruler, Stalin, who was afterward sometimes referred to as “the Red Tsar.”
The Chinese went from an imperial form of government in 1912 to a brief republic that, after years of weak and vacillating administration—not helped by foreign intervention and the Japanese invasion—succumbed to the Communists in 1949. As with the Russians, the Chinese Communists practiced a dictatorship that was effectively no different from rule by a totalitarian emperor and his unelected mandarins.
The Germans, or at least the parts of central Europe that eventually became Germany, were ruled for centuries by a royal family, the Hohenzollerns, which passed through a number of stages—counts, burgraves, electors of the Holy Roman Emperor, and finally emperors themselves—until the end of World War I. The Germans then tried a republic, but when it sank under its own weight and that of war reparations imposed by the French and their allies, the Germans turned fifteen years later to the National Socialists and a führer, or “leader,” who was granted absolute control more complete than any king’s.
About the only advanced countries that retain their hereditary monarchies in a modern form are the English and the Japanese. The English had a long line of kings and eventually queens—although not always from the same family, or even from the same country—and early on they adopted a form of elected representation in a parliament, which existed mostly to grant the monarch the taxes needed to fund the government. That worked sometimes well, sometimes badly, until the accession of Scottish-bred Charles I, against whom the English fought their first and only civil war and ended by beheading him and submitting to the near-absolute rule of Oliver Cromwell as Lord Protector. That worked out so badly that they brought back the monarchy and have kept it ever since, on a shelf and under glass, as a kind of reminder.
The Japanese have had an imperial family since beginning of its history in about the sixth century of the Common Era. For a span of more than six hundred years, however, from 1192 to 1867, the real power resided with the military caste of samurai under the shogun, or hereditary “military commander,” with the emperor functioning as a ceremonial puppet. The emperor was returned to authority in the Meiji Restoration of 1868, which twenty years later established the Imperial Diet, or parliament. However, the military influence always remained strong in Japan. In 1947, after World War II and the American occupation, the country officially became a constitutional monarchy, like the English.
In a constitutional monarchy, parliament is the seat of government under control of a prime minister and his or her cabinet of secretaries—all of whom are elected representatives from the party or coalition holding the greatest number of seats. Prime ministers have ruled in England for more than two hundred years, and the king or queen has functioned in a merely ceremonial capacity. This is rather as if the United States preserved all power in the Speaker of the House and his or her party cohort but maintained a line of national celebrities—say, Henry Fonda, followed by his children and grandchildren—to preside in the White House as masters of ceremony, holding state dinners, giving out medals, and setting the tone for polite society.
The United States swore off monarchy after its own war of independence, ending British rule in 1783. The president of our republic—whose office and forms of address were purposely designed so as not to resemble those of a king—has waxed and waned in power, sometimes taking on near-dictatorial authority, as Lincoln did during the Civil War, or Roosevelt during the Great Depression and World War II. But the forms of the Constitution have held—up until now. The rise of a centralized government in Washington, DC, has taken over more and more functions in the name of interstate commerce.1
While legislation originates in Congress, the executive branch is charged with enforcing the laws that Congress enacts. For the past half-century or so, Congress has taken to writing larger and ever more complicated pieces of legislation, trying to cover entire spheres of social interaction—water and air quality, communications, medicine—and provide for every eventuality. But these massive documents leave on-the-ground interpretation to the appropriate department of the executive branch, with their rulings and edicts moderated only by legal challenges resolved through the court system. This has pushed more and more power into the hands of appointed—not elected—officials who are loyal only to the president and his appointed cabinet members.
It is questionable how far this tendency toward consolidation will go. Certainly, the United States will never have a king, just as the Romans were so proud of having thrown out the Tarquins that no subsequent ruler, however powerful, dared claim the title and trappings of “king.”2 But as history has shown, monarchy does not depend on a word. “Field marshal,” “leader,” or “chairman” will do just as well. The title “president” will serve, too, with the qualifier “for life” spoken in a whisper. It is the amalgamation of power and the ability to pass it on to your chosen heirs and descendants that makes a kingship.
I have no love for monarchy … although the idea of having a young person raised to think of the nation as his or her special responsibility, properly trained in the ways of good government and stable policies, and guided by generations of his or her family’s administrative retainers—such a fairytale does seem like the way to preserve the best of a society’s traditions. It would certainly be better than a gaggle of clever, power-hungry politicians who can promise the electorate a grab bag of spoils, or national greatness, or whatever else passes for currency with the fickle mob.
One would think that the ability of a democracy to change course quickly, to throw out an administration when it heads in the wrong direction, and to choose a new path when an inspired leader can devise and communicate one—that such attributes of a democracy would make it the ideal form of government. Such a system would be self-correcting, always seeking the best for the majority of its citizens. And such a fairytale does seem like the best way to steer a growing and dynamic society through troubled, turbulent, or technologically innovative times.
But we don’t live in a fairytale. We live in a world where human beings seem to be disproportionately divided between those who want to control their neighbors and the neighbors who want to be left alone. Those who want control do so because they think they have better ideas than anyone else, or because control is an obvious way to obtain money, prestige, and security for themselves and their families. Those who want to be left alone desire a stable social and economic order in which to practice their skills—whether farming, shoemaking, or trading—and raise their children, and they don’t much care who is in control or what the government does, so long as good order is maintained.
For both these types of human being, a monarchy backed by some credible semblance of authority—whether it’s the “divine right of kings” or the loyalty of the legions and a praetorian guard—will satisfy their needs. For the power-hungry, supporting a hereditary monarch means not having to worry oneself over which other politician will climb to the top of the heap and take control, while ensuring that a measure of shared power and delegated authority will flow to those who endear themselves or make themselves useful to the royal personage and his or her household. For the complacent neighbors, a hereditary monarchy means not having to think too much about who is offering what incentives in the clamor for support and which path is the right one to choose in the midst of social and economic confusion. Or, as the milkman Tevye says in Fiddler on the Roof: “Lord bless the Tsar and keep him—far away from us.”
Monarchy is not a great system of government. But allowing a single man or woman and a single family to take control of the country and share out power within a trusted circle seems to be the most stable … enduring … recurring system of government. It works after every other system has broken down, chaos has ensued, and the dogs have stopped fighting over the scraps.
1. This is actually in the Constitution, Article 1, Section 8, Clause 3: “The Congress shall have power … to regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several states, and with the Indian tribes.” Since every aspect of the country’s social and economic organization can, one way or another, be construed as affecting commerce between the states, the Commerce Clause has provided justification for the federal government to involve itself in nearly everything.
2. In times of crisis, the ancient Romans would occasionally name a dictator, which is just the Latin word for “speaker.” But while this role was sometimes granted for an indefinite period, even “for life,” it was supposed to be temporary and was never intended to be hereditary. Julius Caesar was assassinated because, in part, he seemed to be aiming at a crown for himself.