“When in the course of human events….” With these words, Thomas Jefferson introduced a justification for Great Britain’s American colonies to declare themselves independent. In so doing, Jefferson acknowledged the history of human events is indeed a course, a flowing stream. Where we are today is a product of our upstream past. And what mankind does “now” will influence human events downstream, in the future.
The Declaration then presented a series of grievances against the monarch ruling Great Britain — and its American colonies, King George III. Truthfully, many of the causes for complaint could be attributed to the British Parliament, which exercised constraints on the King, and was responsible for taxation and other policies. Still, it was convenient to focus the colonies’ ire on a single head of state, and it was an understandable result of the human events leading up to the period.
The preceding century had seen the decline of the doctrine of the “divine right of kings,” which had treated challenges to the inherited privilege and absolute authority of rulers punishable as an offense against God. Yet, the traditional view that “the king can do no wrong” persisted. Meanwhile, political writers began speaking of governments existing by the consent of the governed, and of the rights of the governed to replace governments that don’t properly serve them. This set the background for Jefferson’s Declaration, and informed the framers of our Constitution. Reacting to the perceived abuses of monarchies, the Constitution established an elected president whose powers were balanced by those of a Legislature and a Supreme Court.
George Washington, also wary of a too-powerful ruler, rejected opportunities to become one himself. In 1782, a fellow officer, disgruntled over Congress’ difficulty in assuring promised pensions, suggested a scheme for Washington’s becoming king of the emerging nation. This might have appeased the Tories, who had remained loyal to the Crown through the revolution. But Washington sharply, unequivocally rebuked the officer, then resigned as commander-in-chief of the Army soon after the 1783 peace treaty secured our independence. After election as our first president, followed by a unanimous electoral vote awarding him a second term in 1792, Washington declined to seek a third term, establishing a tradition that survived for more than a century. In 1951, the 26th Amendment limited presidents to two terms, well before term limits became common at lower levels of government.
So another Fourth of July passes, and we still have no king. Yet. However, there seem to be latter-day “Tories” who suggest our president is God-ordained, should be unchallengeable, unfettered by other governmental structures and unconstrained by the laws applicable to the rest of the population, and should be able to rule beyond two terms, even for life.
As George Santayana famously stated, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” We’re not destined to literal re-runs of history, but we can only avoid making the same mistakes if we recall their harsh lessons. Or we can “Make America Monarchic Again.”