If President Obama were an English king in Medieval Europe, he would have been ousted from power before now. Though the American Constitution provides a bloodless remedy for removing the overreaching executive from office in the form of impeachment, the fact that it takes a majority in the House and a two-thirds majority in the Senate shows that the provision is toothless if the sovereign is both despotic and popular.
A few valuable extended passages in Macaulay’s A History of England show startling parallels of the designs and depredations of the current administration with those of certain odiously remembered kings in England. And while those who believe our present Constitution is a bulwark against the medieval backwardness that plagued Europe for centuries, the ignorance of the masses can remove any value the document has for preserving a free people.
Here are the Constitutional provisions Macaulay states were designed to check the rapine of the king.
But his power, though ample, was limited by three great constitutional principles, so ancient that none can say when they began to exist, so potent that their natural development, continued through many generations, has produced the order of things under which we now live.
First, the King could not legislate without the consent of his Parliament. Secondly, he could impose no tax without the consent of his Parliament. Thirdly, he was bound to conduct the executive administration according to the laws of the land, and, if he broke those laws, his advisers and his agents were responsible.
Since it is such an important discussion, and one we Americans often take for granted through overconfidence in our Constitution, let’s trace how these prohibitions against the power of the sovereign came to be understood.
No English King has ever laid claim to the general legislative power. The most violent and imperious Plantagenet never fancied himself competent to enact, without the consent of his great council, that a jury should consist of ten persons instead of twelve, that a widow’s dower should be a fourth part instead of a third, that perjury should be a felony, or that the custom of gavelkind should be introduced into Yorkshire. But the King had the power of pardoning offenders; and there is one point at which the power of pardoning and the power of legislating seem to fade into each other, and may easily, at least in a simple age, be confounded. A penal statute is virtually annulled if the penalties which it imposes are regularly remitted as often as they are incurred. The sovereign was undoubtedly competent to remit penalties without limit. He was therefore competent to annul virtually a penal statute. It might seem that there could be no serious objection to his doing formally what he might do virtually. Thus, with the help of subtle and courtly lawyers, grew up, on the doubtful frontier which separates executive from legislative functions, that great anomaly known as the dispensing power.
That the King could not impose taxes without the consent of Parliament is admitted to have been, from time immemorial, a fundamental law of England. It was among the articles which John was compelled by the Barons to sign. Edward the First ventured to break through the rule: but, able, powerful, and popular as he was, he encountered an opposition to which he found it expedient to yield. He covenanted accordingly in express terms, for himself and his heirs, that they would never again levy any aid without the assent and goodwill of the Estates of the realm. His powerful and victorious grandson attempted to violate this solemn compact: but the attempt was strenuously withstood. At length the Plantagenets gave up the point in despair: but, though they ceased to infringe the law openly, they occasionally contrived, by evading it, to procure an extraordinary supply for a temporary purpose. They were interdicted from taxing; but they claimed the right of begging and borrowing. They therefore sometimes begged in a tone not easily to be distinguished from that of command, and sometimes borrowed with small thought of repaying. But the fact that they thought it necessary to disguise their exactions under the names of benevolences and loans sufficiently proves that the authority of the great constitutional rule was universally recognised.
The principle that the King of England was bound to conduct the administration according to law, and that, if he did anything against law, his advisers and agents were answerable, was established at a very early period, as the severe judgments pronounced and executed on many royal favourites sufficiently prove. It is, however, certain that the rights of individuals were often violated by the Plantagenets, and that the injured parties were often unable to obtain redress. According to law no Englishman could be arrested or detained in confinement merely by the mandate of the sovereign. In fact, persons obnoxious to the government were frequently imprisoned without any other authority than a royal order. According to law, torture, the disgrace of the Roman jurisprudence, could not, in any circumstances, be inflicted on an English subject. Nevertheless, during the troubles of the fifteenth century, a rack was introduced into the Tower, and was occasionally used under the plea of political necessity. But it would be a great error to infer from such irregularities that the English monarchs were, either in theory or in practice, absolute. We live in a highly civilised society, through which intelligence is so rapidly diffused by means of the press and of the post office that any gross act of oppression committed in any part of our island is, in a few hours, discussed by millions. If the sovereign were now to immure a subject in defiance of the writ of Habeas Corpus, or to put a conspirator to the torture, the whole nation would be instantly electrified by the news. In the middle ages the state of society was widely different. Rarely and with great difficulty did the wrongs of individuals come to the knowledge of the public. A man might be illegally confined during many months in the castle of Carlisle or Norwich; and no whisper of the transaction might reach London. It is highly probable that the rack had been many years in use before the great majority of the nation had the least suspicion that it was ever employed. Nor were our ancestors by any means so much alive as we are to the importance of maintaining great general rules. We have been taught by long experience that we cannot without danger suffer any breach of the constitution to pass unnoticed. It is therefore now universally held that a government which unnecessarily exceeds its powers ought to be visited with severe parliamentary censure, and that a government which, under the pressure of a great exigency, and with pure intentions, has exceeded its powers, ought without delay to apply to Parliament for an act of indemnity. But such were not the feelings of the Englishmen of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. They were little disposed to contend for a principle merely as a principle, or to cry out against an irregularity which was not also felt to be a grievance. As long as the general spirit of the administration was mild and popular, they were willing to allow some latitude to their sovereign. If, for ends generally acknowledged to be good, he exerted a vigour beyond the law, they not only forgave, but applauded him, and while they enjoyed security and prosperity under his rule, were but too ready to believe that whoever had incurred his displeasure had deserved it. But to this indulgence there was a limit; nor was that King wise who presumed far on the forbearance of the English people. They might sometimes allow him to overstep the constitutional line: but they also claimed the privilege of overstepping that line themselves, whenever his encroachments were so serious as to excite alarm. If, not content with occasionally oppressing individuals, he cared to oppress great masses, his subjects promptly appealed to the laws, and, that appeal failing, appealed as promptly to the God of battles.
A number of reflections leap to mind from this remarkable extended passage. First, that the Constitution can be jealously guarded, but certain interests in the state will contrive to circumnavigate these safeguards, while steadily eroding the apprehension that the Constitution is being violated. Second, if a vigorous popular opposition could be found in early nineteenth century England, how much more so could that be true now! Third, the current National Defense Authorization Act would effectively repeal Habeus Corpus, a jealously guarded right whose violation was tantamount to an act of war declared by the sovereign upon the people. Fourth, the executive prerogative to detain without trial, combined with the presumption that the sovereign has the discretion to torture his adversaries, is reflective of a purely medieval mindset. Fifth, the executive is becoming further removed from the legislative bounds to be imposed on his authority. The bureaucracy, and particularly, unelected and unconfirmed czars, have become a rogue apparatus replacing law with regulations and fiat. Sixth, human nature is fairly constant throughout history, even though circumstances may change. Seventh, a historically free people will tolerate the hubris of a government only so long.
We cannot allow the leftists to continue building their precedents for tyranny, whether through executive fiat, bureaucratic decree, legalistic decisions, or other sundry outrages against the Constitution and Americans’ hard-won freedom. Every infraction, no matter how grave or fearsome, must be opposed, until the avalanche of public opposition has accumulated to such a degree it appears that it will overcome all in its way.