by Jeff Polet
As modern Americans, a resistance to monarchy is more or less bred in our bones. Our tale of our national origins largely revolves around a rejection of the tyrant King George in particular and monarchy in general. This “Dialogue Between the Devil and George III, Tyrant of Britain” is a striking example of the genre.
During the revolutionary period the “Loyalists” retained their devotion to the crown and to the idea of the necessity and superiority of a functioning monarchy. We are seldom told that most Americans were loyalists almost up until the writing of The Declaration of Independence, the key event being the passage of “The Prohibitory Act” in 1775. Under this piece of legislation, England removed the colonies from the King’s protection, with the colonists reasonably concluding that they owed no loyalty to a king who would not protect them.
This letter from John Adams, written in early 1776, contemplates whether America should be a republic or a monarchy. Written to Mercy Otis Warren, one of the great thinkers and writers of the period and to whom the reader will be introduced in a subsequent essay, Adams began by observing “Monarchy is the genteelest and most fashionable Government” although “For my own part I am so tasteless as to prefer a Republic.” Even though Adams served on the committee that would issue the Declaration on July of that year, in January he still held to the view that “erect[ing] an independent Government in America” was “utterly against my Inclination.”
Adams’s argument hinges on his assessment of the manners and virtues he associates with both forms (republic and monarchy) of government, for “It is the Form of Government which gives the decisive Colour to the Manners of the People, more than any other Thing.” Monarchy brings with it luxury, decadence of manners, reduction of vigor, an obsession with finery, and a kind of frivolousness.
Republics encourage hard work, perseverance, self-reliance, frugality, modesty, and self-discipline. But more than encouraging such virtues, republics require them. About this, Adams wrote: “Virtue and Simplicity of Manners are indispensably necessary in a Republic among all orders and Degrees of Men. But there is so much Rascallity, so much Venality and Corruption, so much Avarice and Ambition such a Rage for Profit and Commerce among all Ranks and Degrees of Men even in America, that I sometimes doubt whether there is public Virtue enough to Support a Republic.”
One way of closing the loop would be to have political leaders who could, by both word and deed, cultivate in citizens the requisite virtues. These leaders, in turn, had to be able to resist the two vices Adams identified as attendant to the holding of office: servility and flattery. Indeed, the most significant background to the development of American political forms in the 18th century was the 17th-century debate in England between the Court and the Country parties. The former referred to the court of the King, occupied by sycophants and hangers-on and the consolidation of power, while the latter emphasized republican virtue, parliamentary supremacy, popular rule, and liberty. Its greatest concern was the presence of corruption, either by public officials or by monied interests.
Adams was addressing in his own terse way a fundamental problem of republican politics: the need for leaders and the equally important need to protect those leaders from the dangers and temptations of power. Adams acknowledges the difficulty involved both in producing such leaders and in maintaining their integrity. “However, it is the Part of a great Politician to make the Character of his People, to extinguish among them the Follies and Vices that he sees, and to create in them the Virtues and Abilities which he sees wanting. I wish I was sure that America has one such Politician but I fear she has not.”
One of the most important maxims in politics is Lord Acton’s observation that power tends to corrupt and absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely. One aspect of this is that power isolates those who hold it, none of us being able to maintain our sense of proportion or self-understanding in the presence of hangers-on. Another aspect is that power doesn’t correct character flaws, it intensifies them. One defense of a long primary season is that it gives voters ample time to review a candidate’s character prior to the corrosive effects of power.
Only trees that are deeply rooted, strong in trunk and limb, green and flexible, will be able to withstand the strong winds of political corruption. As those winds grow stronger there are fewer and fewer than can stand upright. As the twig is bent, so grows the tree — by which we mean in part that character has to be nurtured already in the cradle and studiously attended to throughout childhood. Just as bracing and cabling saplings when they are young insures they grow upright and properly centered, thus able to withstand the elements, so too leaders need to have their character properly staked at a young age.
If you want to know whether a person has been properly staked, look at the parents, the coaches, the bosses, the mentors, and ask whether they have the required knowledge and skill. One thing that impressed us about President Ford was his good fortune along all those lines, maybe most especially with his step-father. He was from an early age raised to withstand the temptations of power, and the fact he wasn’t elected may have been an additional contributor to that. He stood upright in the gloomiest storms in no small part because he had been so firmly rooted in virtue and had been staked to the center.
- What advantages do monarchies have over republics and republics over monarchies?
- Why would Adams be disinclined to erect an independent system of government in America?
- Can republican systems of government survive without having virtuous leaders? Is Adams right that leaders are key to making citizens virtuous, or is that asking too much of them?