OPINION- On this day, two hundred thirty-seven years ago (June 1, 1785), John Adams—the first U.S. Minister Plenipotentiary to Britain—met with King George III. Adams was unanimously elected to serve as plenipotentiary and was tasked with attempting to ease tensions between the newly minted United States of America and its former mother country, Great Britain. The Revolutionary War had concluded just two years prior, so the mood of the room was somber and the significance of the meeting was profound.
This nerve-wracking exchange between the king and one of his former subjects is perhaps best, and most accurately, recounted in Andrew Roberts's novel, The Last King of America: The Misunderstood Reign of George III. The dramatic encounter is also portrayed in season one, episode four of HBO's miniseries, John Adams. The dramatized reenactment gives any fan of American history goosebumps.
Following the historic encounter, while Adams walks backwards to exit room (so that he never showed his backside to his former ruler), King George III ominously said, "I pray, Mr. Adams, that the United States does not suffer unduly from its want of a monarchy."
Though it may seem axiomatic and unnecessary to state, it is important to note that we, as a nation, have not suffered unduly from our lack of a monarch. Instead, we have thrived. The reason for our national success is simple: Our beautifully crafted and specifically worded constitution.
To be sure, at the time of Adams's meeting with the King of England, the United States Constitution was not the supreme law of the land, nor had it even been thought of. Indeed, the Articles of Confederation governed Adams and his fellow countrymen from 1781 until June of 1788.
The Articles of Confederation, which have often been described as a mere "league of friendship" among the states, proved to be unworkable and untenable. To necessarily oversimplify, the Articles of Confederation accorded too much power to the individual states. Indeed, Article Two delineated the allotment of power: "Each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence, and every Power, jurisdiction, and right, which is not by this confederation expressly delegated to the United States in Congress assembled."
Clandestinely cloaked to preclude and obviate public censure or outrage, in 1787, delegates met in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to revise the Articles of Confederation; however, in fewer than four weeks, virtually of the delegates were in agreement that the Articles of Confederation could not be revised. Indeed, instead, the Articles of Confederation needed to be scrapped and a new governing document, a new constitution, needed to be drafted, approved, and sent for ratification to the states.
The story of the Constitutional Convention is extremely fascinating and one that is fraught with impressive oratory, robust argument, and unprecedented compromise. On September 17, 1787, Constitution Day, the delegates agreed on the final version of the Constitution and set out across our young nation to circulate copies of it and attempt to garner support for its ratification. Pursuant to Article VII, the approval of nine states would be "sufficient for the Establishment of this Constitution between the States so ratifying the Same."
On June 21, 1788, thanks to the help of staunch Federalists, such as Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, James Madison, and Noah Webster, Jr., New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify the U.S. Constitution.
The reason we have not "suffered unduly" from our lack of a monarch is because our founding fathers recognized that the very existence of a monarch is antithetical to the notion of equality. A great nation, they understood, is one that is governed not by men but by laws. Because we are all created equal, it is imperative that we are governed not by some purportedly divine king but by people whom we select (either directly or indirectly) to govern us. In short, it is the law that controls, not the superfluous will of some unelected despot.
While many are familiar with the axiom that we ought to be "a government of laws and not of men," few actually know where that expression derives. Interestingly, it comes from Article XXX of the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, which was adopted in 1780. In pertinent part, it reads:
[T]he legislative department shall never exercise the executive and judicial powers, or either of them: the executive shall never exercise the legislative and judicial powers, or either of them: the judicial shall never exercise the legislative and executive powers, or either of them: to the end it may be a government of laws and not of men.
John Jay, who was later nominated by President George Washington to be the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, also emphasized the importance of separation of powers. "Let Congress Legislate," Jay said, "let others execute, [and] let others Judge."
Though the federal constitution is devoid of such flowery, eloquent language, it succinctly and expressly divides the powers of the federal government into three distinct branches: the executive department--Article II; the judiciary--Article III; and the legislative department--Article I.
The purpose of this is ostensible; divvying up the power into three distinct sects precludes one sect, and thus one person, from acquiring all of the power.
The idea of having three distinct, disparate branches of government was truly a novel idea in the late 18th century. Moreover, it remains relatively novel in contemporary times.
While testifying before Congress, the late, great Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia said that the way in which the constitution separates power into three separate but co-equal branches is what makes America exceptional. Moreover, he said that European heads of state are nothing more than "creatures of the legislature." That is to say, some European countries do not even attempt to separate the chief executive (e.g., the prime minister) from the legislature.
In his testimony, Justice Scalia also lambasted those who believe that the Bill of Rights (i.e., the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution, ratified in 1791) is what has enabled America to survive and thrive for more than two centuries.
"If you think that a bill of rights is what sets us apart, you're crazy," he exclaimed. "Every banana republic in the world has a bill of rights. . . . Of course, just words on paper, what our framers would have called 'a parchment guarantee.' "
Justice Scalia is incontrovertibly correct. Without a method to preclude the centralization of power, any "rights" inscribed on parchment would be of little significance and easily curtailed or, worse yet, repealed entirely.
In addition to our distinct branches of government, our constitution brilliantly accords each branch a way or series of ways to circumscribe, or "check," the power of another branch. For example, if both chambers of Congress pass a bill, the president may, at his discretion, veto it, thus inhibiting it from becoming law; in turn, the Congress, with the support of two thirds of its members in both houses, may override the president's veto. A final example of the checks-and-balances system is the judiciary's implied ability to declare legislation, federal regulations, and executive orders unconstitutional. (The foregoing examples are far from an exhaustive list of the checks and balances accorded to each branch by the constitution.)
While all of these provisions may seem cumbersome and arbitrary, they are not. And while the inherent difficulties in passing legislation, whether favorable or unfavorable, may seem unscrupulous and even unnecessary, they are essential.
The theory propagated by Alexander Hamilton, writing as Publius, in essay LXXIII of The Federalist has proved true: "The injury which may possibly be done by defeating a few good laws, will be amply compensated by the advantage of preventing a number of bad ones."
Our government, though complex, seemingly stagnant, and often plagued by gridlock, is nonpareil. Our constitution has protected us from within and without. Notwithstanding King George III's eerie admonition 237 years ago, we have yet to "suffer unduly" from our want of a monarchy, and it seems unlikely that we ever will.
In Lin-Miranda Manuel's hit musical, Hamilton, King George III (played by Johnathan Groff) emphatically admonishes in his songs, while salivating and drooling profusely, that "[o]ceans rise; [and] empires fall." Despite the unequivocal truth of both statements, the United States of America has remained strong. Thanks to our portentous founding fathers and our incredibly sound constitution, I have no doubt that America will remain both a national superpower and a bulwark of freedom.
In sum, I am thankful for the United States' want of a monarchy, and you should be, too.