The American Civic Religion has a whole year’s worth of lesser and greater feasts on its paraliturgical calendar: Flag Day, Independence Day, Memorial Day, Labour Day, Loyalty Day, Constitution Day, Four Chaplains’ Day, Thanksgiving Day, and quite a number more. But the Monday nearest February 22—often called Presidents’ Day, but still legally Washington’s Birthday—points up a particularly American custom: the semi-deification (at least by their supporters) of our past presidents. Their birthplaces are treasured as shrines, the more recent have libraries/museums to which their remaining faithful may make pilgrimage, and their memorials and monuments—especially the favoured few in Washington, D.C.—are important temples of the national faith.
February has two important presidential birthdays in addition to George Washington’s—Abraham Lincoln’s and Ronald Reagan’s. On January 30, death day of the martyred King Charles I, we also have Franklin D. Roosevelt’s natal day. Arguably, this quartet are the most important of our presidential band (although cases can certainly be made for Thomas Jefferson and Theodore Roosevelt, as Mount Rushmore attests, as well as Woodrow Wilson and JFK). As the National Park Service’s website tells us in introducing its section on the presidential sites:
American presidents seem bigger than life. But many were just ordinary citizens who found themselves in the right place at the right time. They had the right ideas and qualities to become president of the United States. The National Park Service preserves the journeys that influenced these leaders and protects the experiences that have grown our nation. Discover the places and stories of presidents—before, during, and after their time in office.
As might be supposed, the White House, as the centre of this most awesome of all earthly institutions, stands as the focal point of veneration. Just as with Buckingham Palace, the Palais d’Elysee, the Kremlin, or any other residence of heads of state and government, the White House is the venue for the various rituals of the government’s ceremonial year: here the chief executive receives the letters of credence or new ambassadors, pardons two Thanksgiving turkeys, lights the National Christmas Tree, and presides over the annual Easter Egg Roll. To St. Matthew’s Cathedral will he go with the Justices of the Supreme Court for the annual Red Mass, occasionally to St. John’s, Lafayette Square (the “Church of the Presidents”) for worship, and to the Washington Hilton for the yearly National Prayer Breakfast. He issues proclamations for various observances and presides over ceremonies of national mourning and prayer at the Episcopalian National Cathedral. Memorial Day finds the Commander-in-Chief delivering an address at the remembrance ceremonies at Arlington National cemetery. At the equally venerable Capitol, the president delivers the State of the Union address; unlike the Speeches from the Thrones made by the British King and his Commonwealth viceroys, it really does represent the president’s views.
As might be expected, the presidential inauguration is as impressive event as Yankee ingenuity can devise, with the solemn swearing-in of the new president by the Chief Justice serving as merely the centrepiece of a number of ceremonies, ranging from church services to gala balls and an enormous parade. Moreover, where British coronations are literally a once-in-a-lifetime event, we Americans enjoy this sort of thing every four years. Impressive as a president’s entrance into history is, so too is his departure therefrom via state funeral. No one who has seen the riderless horse and the caisson, nor the lying-in-state, nor the funeral (in the past few years at the National Cathedral) cannot fail to be impressed by it all.
To be sure, as it has evolved, the American presidency has become important to far many more than those ruled directly by it. In the words of the Miller Center for its study at the University of Virginia:
The U.S. presidency includes a small and select group of individuals who have led what is now the most important country in the world, humankind’s most powerful military force, and a government that employs millions—and on whom many millions more depend. From this one office issue forth the critical decisions that affect countless lives around the world and shape the course of history. Only this small club of leaders, and those closest to them, could truly understand the power of the presidency and what it means to wield it.
As might well be understood, this thoroughly American product is the envy of the political class across the planet. Throughout Latin America, Africa, Russia, and even France (since the birth of the Fifth Republic in 1958) executive presidencies of all creeds and colour have striven to imitate the success of George Washington’s legacy. From Buenos Aires’ Casa Rosada to Pretoria’s Mahlamba Ndlopfu, mediocre figures in presidential sashes strut and fret their hour upon the stage and then are heard no more. But whilst they do so, they enjoy their perks, reward their friends, and punish their enemies as they choose.
But in most of Europe and in those Commonwealth Republics that have not shifted to the executive model, a much different style of presidency prevails—one that manages to have the defects of both executive presidencies and constitutional monarchies, without the benefits of either. On the one hand, instead of being either directly elected or brought to power through a coup as with most executive presidents, such a chief of state is generally chosen by one or both houses of the country’s parliament. In practise, this means that the presidential residence becomes a sort of retirement home for used-up politicians. His Excellency has very little power, instead fulfilling the ceremonial roles required by the chiefship of state—opening parliament, awarding decorations, encouraging the arts and sciences, dedicating plaques, and the like. In all of this, he functions much like the remaining constitutional monarchs in Europe, Japan, and elsewhere. Indeed, he often lives in one or two of the old Imperial or Royal residences, surrounded by guards whose unit lineages claim descent from those which formerly guarded the Lord’s Anointed, and whose uniforms often hearken back to that time.
The problem, of course, with such folk, is that at the end of the day they are not Monarchs. As the creation of one or another political party, they are not living representatives of the nation’s history and heritage, as are even the most powerless of crowned figureheads. Such figures cannot serve as “living flags,” let alone constitutional guarantors. As Charles Fenyvesi puts it in his Splendour in Exile: “Regardless of his personal imperfections, a monarch represents the majesty of history. He is an heir—a link in a chain that leads to the Middle Ages that in turn connects to antiquity and beyond, to the beginning of measured time when the first hero slew the dragon of disorder and established the rule of law.” This imbues them with Authority. Fr. Aidan Nichols, O.P. tells us:
As the Spanish political theorist Alvaro D’Ors defines the concepts, power—that is, government—as raised up by the people can and should be distinguished from authority. Power in this sense puts questions to those in authority as to what ought to be done. It asks whether technically possible acts of government, for co-ordinating the goals of individuals and groups in society, chime, or do not chime, with the foundational norms of society, deemed as these are to rest on the will of God as the ultimate power of the shared human goal. Authority, itself bereft of such power, answers out of a wisdom which society can recognise.
Of course, in those favoured nations which still boast figures nominally at the helm, the truth is that the course is set by the same sort of politicos who misrule the vast majority of republics, with little or no regard for the wisdom of Monarchical Authority. Did the King of Belgium refuse to assent to abortion? Depose him for a day. Would the Grand Duke of Luxembourg not sign a euthanasia bill? Strip him of the power to obstruct the will of the current pigs at the governmental trough. Despite the overwhelming political power they wield, however, the political class in the remaining monarchies cannot help but gaze longingly at the top spot that is out of their reach; whenever possible they chip away at Royal symbols and chew the remaining bits of Royal prerogative, all in hope of one day quietly doing away with the dreaded thing all together and taking what they conceive to be their rightful place in the sun. Pathetic as this dynamic may be in countries with a resident monarch, it is all the more so in Commonwealth Realms. In each of these a large chunk of the political establishment (often enough in both the “liberal” and “conservative” parties) are committed to making the transition from stable monarchy to banana republic—as seen most recently in Barbados.
So is there any alternative to these bleak vistas? Well, this writer for one would not favour violent revolution—even those as world-shattering and government shaking as the Reuss Plot and the January 6 Insurrection, which the rulership in both Germany and the United States affect to be mightily triggered by. Yet even peaceful change would be resisted by those who have shone their power to shut down the World’s economies, lock their subjects down in their homes, and cover them with masks.
But change might well come if a great many people begin two realise two important facts. The first is that the sort of democracy most of us have been taught to believe in—if not a heresy, as Lord Percy of Newcastle maintained—is certainly a myth. The political classes, while certainly possessing talents the rest of us do not, are no more representative of “the people” than the actors and athletes the people pay to entertain them. As such, giving them the complete control they currently wield is, as P.J. O’Rourke once famously observed, like giving teenage boys guns, whiskey, and the key to the car.
But another myth, held as widely on the Right as on the Left, is that the majority of the people at any given moment are virtuous, and if properly informed will do the right thing. The truth is that people are by nature fallen and reflect the society in which they dwell. When abortion was imposed upon the United States by the Supreme Court in 1973, the vast majority of Americans thought abortion was murder, albeit not so deeply as to do much about it. But decades of World War I and II veterans being replaced on the voter rolls by products of an ever-decaying educational and entertainment system has brought us to a situation wherein all the pro-abortion state constitutional amendments proposed at the last Federal election were adopted—and all the pro-life measures went down to defeat. This in turn allowed Mr. Trump to blame the pro-life folk for his party’s lacklustre performance at the polls.
One might say that what is needed for equitable governance is a monarch combining the party-free national rootedness of the Sovereigns of Britain, Scandinavia, Spain, and Benelux with the ability to defend his people from foreign foes, politicians, and each other alike. Restricted by a notional belief that he would fry in Hell forever if he misruled, and hedged about with local and institutional liberties, such a paragon might well have a better chance of ruling justly than any of the various substitutes on offer to-day.
It may well be so. But if one looks at the various monarchs from Charles I of the Three Kingdoms in 1649 to Charles I (and IV and III) of Austria-Hungary in 1922 who offered to risk life and limb to defend their subjects from rapacious and cruel oligarchies, one if forced to stop and think. It is not just that their various causes went down to defeat; it is that the descendants of those for whom they fought, suffered, and died continue to think of these tragedies as progress. Perhaps we must get our minds right before we can deserve better.