David Cannadine on the True Republic and the Disguised Monarchy

Indeed, better-informed Americans fully understood this. “We elect a king for four years”, Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of State once observed, “and give him absolute power within certain limits, which after all he can interpret for himself”. Some commentators went even further, insisting that although America claimed to be a republic, because it had no hereditary sovereign, it was in reality a disguised monarchy – whereas Britain might claim to be a monarchy, because it had a royal head of state, but it was in fact a concealed republic, because the politicians rather than the sovereign were actually in charge. In the words of one late 19th Century American newspaper: “Great Britain is a republic, with a hereditary president, while the United States is a monarchy with an elective king.” That may not have been the whole truth of things then, and it is not the whole truth of things now, but it should certainly give both President Obama, and also his Republican critics, some food for thought – to say nothing of the occupants of 10 Downing Street and of Buckingham Palace.

– David Cannadine

Cannadine here raises an interesting point – the President of the United States is all at once Head of Government, Head of State and Commander-in-Chief of the nation’s military. He is given executive authority within certain boundaries, which he can often define himself, as Cannadine points out. The US puts two candidates out to campaign against each other, and allows the electorate to pick one as their effective monarch for four years. The most interesting point here is that the UK, while it prides itself on its monarchical nature with a hereditary Head of State, is truly a republic with an elected Parliament holding all the de facto authority of governance, while the United States, priding itself on being a Republic and the world’s ‘capital of Freedom’, vests a notable amount of power in its President, therefore symbolically making it more of a monarchy than the UK. I do not make the point that the US Congress is subordinate to the President (and therefore the USA is a monarchy); far from it. The point to be raised here is that Cannadine’s declaration that the United States is a ‘monarchy with an elective king’ seems strangely apt when one thinks of it. It is also an ode to the now largely-symbolic role of the monarch in the UK; the latter has truly transcended to the form of a true republic.

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