February is certainly presidents’ month, given that Washington, Lincoln, and Reagan — arguably three of our most impressive — were all born at this time. Given the current and ongoing attacks against the current holder of the office — and the resulting fury of his defenders, it might be useful to look at the nature of the office itself, above and beyond party. It may well be that we demand more out of the holder of the office — any holder of the office — than we ought. Instead of just being the elected political head of government, we expect him to be as well the even-handed ruler of the nation, defender of its shores, healer of its wounds, and in some sense, high priest of the national cult. In a word, we expect that an end product of the amoral and cutthroat world of politics shall somehow become a Kingly, fatherly figure the day he is inaugurated — and often turn on him when he does not. Nevertheless, we surround him with semi-Monarchical pomp and ceremony which in and of itself reinforces our high expectations. For many, there is still something sacred about the presidency of these United States that Watergate, Carter, Clinton, and Obama cannot obliterate.
Much of this is attributable to the way in which the American Revolution and Constitution came about. As Eric Nelson wrote in The Royalist Revolution, “On one side of the Atlantic, there would be kings without monarchy; on the other, monarchy without kings.” Reinforcing this latter development on our side of the water was the creation of the Electoral College. Although considered to-day an almost pro-forma anachronism with the sole function of making sure that the votes of flyover states mean something during elections, originally it was considered a more exalted body. Inspired by the Holy Roman Empire and the Holy See, the College would consist of local notables — men of worth who would vote for the best option possible. Needless to say, this exalted view was strengthened by the selection of Washington as our first president: “First in War, First in Peace, First in the Hearts of his countrymen.”
Of course, Washington was a most remarkable man, and everyone has tried to claim him and his legacy — Freemasons, Episcopalians, and even us Catholics (while I personally agree with the deathbed conversion story, there are Catholics who doubt it). Apart from starting the Seven Years War, virtually everything he did is cherished and venerated — his ancestral home in England (there is even an organisation for his relatives); his birthplace and his boyhood home in Virginia; and Mount Vernon, to be sure. But there are his headquarters at Cambridge, Valley Forge (with the Washington Memorial Chapel), Morristown, Yorktown, and various other places; the site in New York City where he was sworn in as president; churches where he worshipped in Cambridge, New York, Philadelphia, Williamsburg, Pohick, New Kent (where he was married), Alexandria, Falls Church, Charleston, and on and on; innumerable buildings up and down the East Coast that claim “George Washington Slept here:” and of course his monument in Washington — to say nothing of that city and the State named after him.
This cultus has been the pattern for every president of note since: Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln (or Davis, for the Confederate sympathisers among us), Theodore Roosevelt, Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Kennedy, and Reagan all have their respective worshippers — and thanks to the New Deal, FDR fans can appreciate the network of buildings, artwork, and travel guides his programmes left behind. Robert Haven Schauffler’s books show that Washington’s Birthday and Lincoln’s Birthday once ranked as highly in the national consciousness as Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving, Halloween, Independence Day, Memorial Day, and Veteran’s Day. But in actuality there is a whole galaxy of presidential libraries and other sites that devotees of any of that exalted band can visit to venerate their hero’s memory. On each former president’s birthday, an emissary from the current incumbent lays a wreath on his grave. Indeed, one may offer obeisance to the whole tribe at Mount Rushmore.
All of which brings us back to the office of president in the abstract, as opposed to its exercise by any particular individual. Despite the relatively simple description in the Constitution, the presidency has become an enormous institution reminiscent not merely of the British and other Monarchies of to-day, but also in some sense a spiritual office in the secular religion of America.
As with the British Royal Standard, so does the president have a flag of his own (designed by Washington); their national anthem, God Save the Queen, is a prayer for the Sovereign. The Star Spangled Banner by contrast refers to our nation’s flag. But there is a presidential anthem, Hail to the Chief, whose lyrics are obsequious in the extreme:
Hail to the Chief we have chosen for the nation,
Hail to the Chief! We salute him, one and all.
Hail to the Chief, as we pledge cooperation
In proud fulfillment of a great, noble call.
Yours is the aim to make this grand country grander,
This you will do, that’s our strong, firm belief.
Hail to the one we selected as commander,
Hail to the President! Hail to the Chief!
If the Monarchs of Sweden, Denmark, Spain, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, Japan, and Great Britain (as well as the latter’s representatives in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and elsewhere) have, well, palaces and country estates wherein to lay their weary crowned heads at night, the president of these United States has both the White House (with its storied history) and Camp David to do so — and often enough, private homes, such as the Reagan Ranch, Nixon’s Western and Southern White Houses, and FDR’s Campobello and Warm Springs retreats. If the Queen may think herself well protected by the Brigade of Guards and the Household Cavalry, our chief executive is defended by the Old Guard, and serenaded by the President’s Own (of course, the rather plain uniforms of the former led the newly elected president Nixon whose whirlwind European tour exposed him to ceremonial guards not just in Britain, but Belgium, France, West Germany, Italy, and the Vatican, to come up with new costumes — the unfortunate results did not last long!). Let the Royals travel in the Queen’s Flight or the Queen’s Train; we have Airforce 1, Marine 1, and the Presidential State Car (although we have given up the presidential rail car and yacht, much to the dismay of those of us who are train and/or sailing buffs!). Monarchs may well enjoy the comforts provided by Royal Households — but the White House Staff can do everything they do, and our Executive Chef manages our State Dinners quite as well as they. We do not have an honours system — knighthoods such as all Monarchies and even some republics such as France, Italy, and Portugal award. But our president does give out the Congressional Medal of Honour, the Purple Heart, the Legion of Merit, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Congressional Gold Medal, and a number of other such decorations. All heads of State, including the Queen and the president, receive credentials from new ambassadors.
The Queen and other Royals may preside over sporting events like Ascot and Henley; but we have the President’s Cup and Ceremonial First Pitch. Certainly Monarchs have always been patrons of the arts — but we have the Kennedy Centre Honours to take the place of the Royal Variety Performance; while the Queen appoints her own poet laureate, the Librarian of Congress appoints one for the president. From the time of JFK until the current administration, the President’s Council on Art and the Humanities acted as the chief executive’s advisors on such things — whether the nation or the world was damaged by their mass resignation in response to one of president Trump’s speeches, only time can tell. Since the foundation of the Boy Scouts of America in 1910, all presidents have served as Honorary President of the Scouts during their term of Office — becoming Honorary Vice Presidents for life afterwards; this was done precisely because the British Monarch has always been the Patron of the British Scouts Association — a fact mentioned by president Taft when taking on the job.
Our inaugurations (especially since presidents stopped wearing morning coats to them) may not be nearly as impressive or religious as a British or any other coronation (though we do try to inject a religious element with a service somewhere and the use of a Bible — sometimes Washington’s or Lincoln’s) nor do our State funerals compare in ceremony with the British; Washington National Cathedral struggles manfully to keep up with Westminster Abbey. The Church of the Presidents in Washington takes the place in a sense of the Chapels Royal; if the Queen makes a point of being seen at the parish churches at Sandringham and Balmoral, the vast majority of presidents have made a point of attending the church of their choice very visibly. The Queen may lead her nation and the Commonwealth in mourning the war dead at London’s Cenotaph, but the president does so at Arlington National Cemetery. Her Majesty may provide for Epiphany and Maundy Thursday services; but the president not only lights the National Christmas Tree and hosts the White House Easter Egg roll, he pardons two Thanksgiving turkeys — and, like the Queen, delivers an annual Christmas speech. Moreover, regardless of his personal faith, he attends the annual Red Mass at St. Matthew’s Cathedral, which the Queen would never do — but so do the Supreme Court. Moreover the president is expected to preside over such events as the National Prayer Breakfast, the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast, and the National Day of Prayer.
But there are also major differences, and these primarily revolve around the fact that the president rules the country in much the same way that Queen’s forbears, Charles I, James II, or even to some degree George III did — whereas Her Majesty must simply approve whatever her Prime Minister decides to do. Although kings had had various ministers to assist them in running the governments of England and Scotland (the United Kingdom after 1707) before, there was no Prime Minister as such, until the reign of Queen Anne. In time — especially as the initially non-English-speaking House of Hanover did not bother attending cabinet meetings — the Prime Minister assumed complete control — although he himself was simply the individual who could command a majority of seats in the House of Commons. When he could not, he must leave office, at which time the Monarch had to find a replacement — although party machines take care of that now. This system was sealed by George III’s defeat in our revolution.
But president Washington had no such requirement to run his first cabinet by Congress. That is because he invented; it is not explicitly in the Constitution. So he duly appointed the first Secretaries of War, State, and the Treasury, and the first Attorney General and Postmaster General. Subsequent presidents added such departments as the Interior, Agriculture, and Commerce, until at length the Executive Branch of Government blossomed into its current size. However, while the Senate must confirm cabinet and other such officials, these presidential appointees are not responsible to Congress, as their British counterparts are. They hold office at the pleasure of the president, who — like the Plantagenet, York, Lancaster, Tudor, and Stuart rulers — is his own Prime Minister. As with them, it falls to presidents to set policies and try to get budgets and bills through Congress.
This also has an effect on Congressional versus Parliamentary practise. In some ways the bodies resemble each other. Both American and British bodies have a Speaker; both American and British lower houses have a ceremonial mace. The House of Commons has a chaplain, as do both our Representatives and Senate (the House of Lords have Anglican bishops). But where the Queen’s Speech from the Throne resembles the State of the Union Address, the Sovereign’s words are really those of “her” government, while the president’s are most certainly his. Similarly, while all British (and Crown Commonwealth) bills require the Royal Assent to take effect, this has not been refused by a Monarch since 1708, and very rarely by any of her Viceroys. In our system, the presidential veto is an important fact of life. When it comes to the Courts, as with “Her Majesty’s Government,” justice is administered and judges and Queen’s Counsels appointed “in Her Majesty’s name” by the “Crown.” But in reality she has no more to do with it than with any other choices the British Government makes. The president, however, really does appoint Federal judges, and most importantly, the Supreme Court Justices, for all that they must undergo Borking or worse by the Senate.
But perhaps the most obvious difference is the military role of our president. Both Monarch and chief executive are commanders-in-chief of their respective armed forces. But British troops cannot go anywhere without the government’s sanction. By way of contrast, although under the American system only Congress can declare war, the president can — and does — commit troops to fight and die anywhere he likes. Although the pace of these interventions may have stepped up since World War II, they have been a fact of our national life since the early 19th century.
There is, however, one other major difference between our system and the British — and one which points up the inherent superiority of ours. Our presidency costs something in the neighbourhood of a Billion a year. The Monarchy costs the British…nothing. Not a penny. Although the government gives the Queen an allowance of about 38 million pounds; the revenue from the Crown Estate — which was surrendered to Parliament by George III in return for this allowance — is about 211 million pounds. As you may know, there is an old American saying — “You get what you pay for!” Obviously our system is better, by that standard.
Seriously, though, Nelson’s comment about us Americans having a Monarchy without a King and the British a King without a Monarchy has a lot of truth to it. As it stands, if this country did have an hereditary Monarch with the powers given the president in the Constitution, a population jealous of their rights would be ever-vigilant in case he exceeded his authority. But because of the ritual of the popular vote, we are convinced instead that he is the “Chief we have chosen for the nation,” and so have permitted him to exceed by far what we would have allowed a King. Whether we would have done better — and whether the British would have done better — had the described division and resulting Monarchical weakness not taken place we cannot know. But we can know that if this became a Catholic country, the system would organically turn into something else — something better. In the meantime, let us remember that our chief of state and government is a politician from whom we routinely demand the behaviour of a King.