In Federalist 67, Hamilton dismissed critics of the Constitution who claimed the president was “not merely as the embryo, but as the full-grown progeny, of that detested parent,” monarchy. In fact, the president was a mere “magistrate” with powers roughly equivalent to those of the governor of New York. Yet Anti-Federalists portrayed him as a potentate “with the diadem sparkling on his brow and the imperial purple flowing in his train . . . seated on a throne surrounded with minions and mistresses, giving audience to the envoys of foreign potentates, in all the supercilious pomp of majesty.” To frighten the people, they conjured “images of Asiatic despotism and voluptuousness” and invoked “the terrific visages of murdering janizaries, and to blush at the unveiled mysteries of a future seraglio.”
According to Hamilton (Federalist 68), the Constitution erected insurmountable barriers to monarchy. Presidents are elected, and for only four years; Britain’s monarchy is hereditary. Presidents can be impeached and removed from office; England’s monarch is “sacred and inviolable,” and cannot be removed by any means short of revolution. A presidential veto can be overruled; in the late eighteenth century, the king of England could negate Parliamentary acts unilaterally.
Hamilton’s contrast was somewhat disingenuous. After all, monarchs come in a variety of forms and with a range of powers, and Hamilton knew well enough the president was more than a functionary executing decisions made by others. The Constitution replaced the Articles of Confederation in part to invigorate the executive. Some Federalists spoke of the presidency openly, and approvingly, in royal terms. Writing in 1789, Vice President John Adams called the American system a “monarchical republic, or, if you will, a limited monarchy” and stressed the president’s power was greater “than a king of Poland; nay, than a king of Sparta.” No other republican magistrate, Adams boasted, “possesses a constitutional dignity, authority, and power comparable to his.” Anti-Federalist firebrand Patrick Henry wasn’t seeing things when he said the new system “squints towards monarchy.”
The Constitution aimed to put the right sort of men in what was intended to be an elevated, powerful, vigorous, and independent office. The Electoral College created a buffer between the popular vote and the selection of the president, so that the executive wouldn’t be tossed about by what Hamilton called “the heats and ferments” of popular will. Hamilton expected the electoral process to produce presidents who were “pre-eminent for ability and virtue.” Within one state, a man might rise to power through “talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity,” but “other talents, and a different kind of merit” would be needed “to establish him in the esteem and confidence of the whole Union, or of so considerable a portion of it as would be necessary to make him a successful candidate for the distinguished office of President of the United States.”
In the American version of the ancient “mixed constitution,” the president represents the “one” who rules alongside the “few” of the Senate and judiciary and the “many” of the House of Representatives. The president doesn’t even have to jockey with a prime minister. If the president isn’t a monarch, he fills the slot vacated by monarchy.
A tendency toward what Arthur Schlesinger dubbed an “imperial Presidency” seems built into the system. As Antonin Scalia said in his dissent from Zivotofsky v. Kerry, presidents have often been more “George III than George Washington.” Modern presidents live in a palace, surrounded by guardians and quasi-courtiers and celebrities, a dazzling host at lavish concerts and state banquets. To some degree, it has always been so. Washington assured Catharine Macaulay that he and Martha thought “simplicity of dress” most fitting for a president, along with “everything which can tend to support propriety of character without partaking of the follies of luxury and ostentation.” Still, President Washington’s shoe buckles sparkled with cut glass.
A semi-imperial presidency seems inevitable, though not because of gaps in the Constitution or the vulgar tastes of American voters. Benjamin Franklin may have been closer to the mark when he observed there’s a “natural inclination in mankind toward Kingly Government.” Whether they are monarchs or not, and whatever the constitutional limits placed on them, powerful leaders take on royalish trappings because politics is ineradicably sacral. Since the president is the “one,” he ought to transcend the sturm und drang of swamp politics, standing above sectional interests and faction as one president for one people.
A solitary executive may lurch in an autocratic direction; l’etat, c’est moi. But in Christian and even post-Christian Europe, monarchs are sacred because they represent a divine authority to which they themselves are accountable. Presidents have served as the unordained priests of American religion. They take their oath of office on the Bible, often with the addition of “so help me God,” and end speeches with “God bless the United States of America.” President George H. W. Bush’s first act as president was to offer prayer. By comparison with the pageantry of Christendom, the sacral aura is dim—no anointing, no crown or cross. But it’s there. And properly so, since, as the solitary symbol of one nation, the president signifies the nation’s under-Godness.
In recent decades, the executive has exceeded constitutional limits, usurping a negligent Congress’s legislative power and authority to declare war. Practically, the president’s powers should be curtailed. But presidents also operate in the extra-Constitutional realm of political symbol, and there the danger isn’t imperialization but desecration. Modern presidents are partly responsible for the desecration. They campaign for office by cultivating the “little arts of popularity.” Ubiquitous modern media exaggerate a trend that began with election stumping in the late nineteenth century. In moments of crisis, even a divisive figure like George W. Bush can be president for everyone, but day-to-day, presidents are partisans who survive and succeed if they have a highly developed “talent for low intrigue.” Trump has taken this desecration to new levels, but it started long before Trump’s first tweet.
And we can’t place all the blame on occupants of the White House. The desecration of the presidency is equally a function of the dividedness of the nation. Images of Trump hogtied, impaled, or tortured supply inverted evidence of the sacral character of the presidency. Like an ancient scapegoat king, the president suffers desecration through symbolic dismemberment. We have no common faith, and so have no common icon. To which god are presidents accountable? How can a single president symbolize a severed body politic?
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.