The Magazine

Our Dignified Constitution

Fourth of July reflections on the Queen’s Jubilee.

Jul 16, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 41 • By GERTRUDE HIMMELFARB
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It was perhaps inevitable that our Fourth of July celebrations last week might have seemed anti-climactic after the four-day festivities a month ago accompanying the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. Fireworks, however spectacular, cannot compare with the thousand-boat flotilla on the Thames cheered on by masses of river-side spectators (shivering and soaking in torrential rain) or the horse-drawn carriage procession (again, the streets lined with people) from Westminster Hall to Buckingham Palace, the Queen regally bedecked and costumed. (Surely the Queen’s hats are costume pieces.) A pano-rama worthy of Hollywood, it was described, televised, and enthusiastically hailed throughout the world, with the Queen as the star of the show, a worthy successor to that other Good Queen Bess whose name she bears. 

Queen

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On second thought, it is the Jubilee that, to an American at least, may be anticlimactic, a display of mere “virtual reality”—in contrast to the Fourth of July, which commemorates a truly momentous event. In liberating us from that monarchy, the Declaration of Independence delivered a devastating blow to the very idea of monarchy, preparing the way for a Republic that was not only a new form of government but also a new social order. Almost in that instant, the New World made the old monarchical world appear archaic and obsolete. It is as if we had ushered in modernity itself. Now, in the twenty-first century, with modernity so far advanced that it threatens to be superseded by something called postmodernity, we have been regaled with a “reality show” glorifying an institution that seems to defy modernity, flaunting a monarch who is the token figurehead of a commonwealth that is itself a token remnant of the British Empire.

Today, when Americans find the very word “lady” suspect, we are shown the British paying homage not only to Ladies (officially titled and properly capitalized) but also to Princesses, let alone the Queen. And while we have discarded, in the name of equality, such courtesies as men opening doors for women, we are regaled with images of commoners, however exalted in other respects, curtsying to the Queen (and Princesses of lesser title curtsying to Princesses of blood). Indeed, those “commoners” (the name itself, to an American ear, is invidious) are not citizens but subjects of the Crown. And these social amenities do not begin to take into account such more serious anomalies as the cost of the royal households in a period of economic crisis and severe austerity. To an American, the monarchy is surely Britain’s “peculiar institution,” as slavery was ours. And the Jubilee, celebrating the monarchy, is surely a triumph of nostalgia over reality.

Or perhaps not. In paying tribute to the Queen—the grace and dignity with which she carries out her ceremonial duties—the British are testifying to her real public function, which is to reassert, in the face of all the evidence to the contrary, the unity, continuity, and vitality of the polity as well as society. This is why there has been, in recent times, no whiff of the abolitionism (the abolition of the monarchy, in this case, rather than slavery) that was a recurrent theme in earlier British history. A letter to the London Times rebuked a reporter who invoked the good behavior of the Queen as an argument in support of the monarchy. This is irrelevant, the correspondent protested: “To approve of the Queen because she is ‘good at the job’ rather suggests republican sympathies,” implying that a Queen who was less “good at the job” would warrant the abolition of the monarchy. The same objection might be made to an article in the Wall Street Journal which explained why Americans should “hail the Queen.” “Slyly witty and supremely dutiful, she is the glue holding together a modern, multicultural Commonwealth”—as if it were the wit and dutifulness that provided the glue, rather than the sentiments attached to the monarchy itself. Almost in passing, the article cited the Victorian writer about the monarchy who warned, “We must not let daylight in upon magic.” 

In fact, it was that eminent Victorian, Walter Bagehot, who let daylight in by exposing the magical function of the monarchy. Bagehot’s The English Constitution is outmoded in some respects; it was written in the two years before the passage of the 1867 Reform Act, which was a major advance toward democracy. But it is still a remarkably perceptive analysis of the monarchy—of the monarchy then and, more provocatively, of the monarchy now, in the most democratic and modern of times. 

Any successful constitution, Bagehot maintains, consists of two essential parts: “First, those which excite and preserve the reverence of the population—the dignified parts, if I may so call them; and next, the efficient parts—those by which it, in fact, works and rules” (italics in the original). Practical men might like to do away with the first. They look only to means and results, and in that equation the dignified appear to be useless. But even as a practical matter, that is mistaken, for it is the dignified parts that give “force” to government and “attract its motive power”; the efficient only utilize that force and employ that power. The dignified “raise the army, though they do not win the battle.” But without the army, there would be no battle.

These remarks appear early in the book in the chapter on the cabinet, as if to remind the reader that even that most efficient part of the government is of secondary importance to the monarchy, the dignified part. The following chapter on the monarchy (which, appropriately, is twice as long as that on the cabinet) opens unambiguously: “The use of the Queen, in a dignified capacity, is incalculable. Without her in England, the present English government would fail and pass away.” The “best reason” for the strength of the monarchy, Bagehot explains, is that it is an “intelligible government.” The figure of the monarch, in the person of the Queen, is easily seen and understood, capturing the imagination and engaging the feelings of the people. She is not only the visible head of the government, she is also the visible head of society, of religion, and of morality, thus enlisting those formidable institutions in support of the government. “Lastly,” and “far the greatest” reason for the strength of a monarchy, is that “it acts as a disguise. It enables our real rulers to change without heedless people knowing it.” 

That last and “greatest” reason might seem to be at odds with the first, “best” reason, the “intelligible government” which now appears to be a government in “disguise.” In fact, the two are of a piece. It is precisely because the monarchy is visible and therefore intelligible that it can so successfully disguise the changes going on in the efficient parts of the government. The monarchy thus assures the unity and continuity of government even as cabinet ministers and members of parliament, parties and policies, issues and controversies come and go.

A modern reader, particularly an American reader, might well be offended by the image of a people so unintelligent as to require the spuriously “intelligible” symbol of the monarchy; a “heedless people” incapable of understanding the ideas or activities of their “real rulers”; the “masses” who are “not fit for elective government.” In defense of Bagehot one might say that he did respect the intelligence, that is, the common sense, of the people in their common lives and affairs. What he did not respect is their ability to cope with the intricacies and complexities of politics. Thus, he opposed the extension of the suffrage in England which would have given the people an active role in government. And he was hostile to the American republic, which presumed to do just that. Indeed, much of The English Constitution is devoted to a contrast between the American and the English systems.

It is curious that nowhere does Bagehot comment on the title of his book. “English,” rather than “British,” required no comment, because it was the common usage at the time. But “Constitution” did, particularly in the capitalized form in which it appears throughout the book. Bagehot, of course, uses the term in its lower-case, generic sense, referring to that body of common law and institutions that had governed England for centuries. But after the passage of the American Constitution (properly capitalized), which was deliberately debated and formally promulgated as a single document setting forth the binding articles of government, the contrast with the British informal constitution was all the more pronounced. Had Bagehot reflected upon the word itself, he might have said that the very act of writing a constitution, let alone a republican constitution, is evidence of a faulty government, artificial, contrived, and therefore unsound. Instead his critique of the American Constitution focuses on the separation of powers, which critically impairs the efficient part of government, and, more fatally, on the lack of any dignified part. 

The Americans, he observes, could not have become monarchical, even if the Constitutional Convention had so desired, because the people lack “the mystic allegiance, the religious reverence, which are essential to a true monarchy.” Elsewhere, however, describing the clumsy technicalities and “absurd fictions” invoked to amend the U.S. Constitution, he likens the Americans to “trustees carrying out a misdrawn will,” hampered “by the old words of an old testament.” The Constitution as an “old testament”—surely this suggests something like a mystic or religious “reverence,” not unlike that characterizing a monarchy. 

 Rebutting Bagehot, an American might defend the separation of powers as making for a government at least as efficient as the English, and might find in the Constitution itself a quality that has all the dignity, even the reverence, he attributes to the monarchy. Indeed, an American might venture to suggest that the Constitution—not one part of it but the whole of it—is a more reliable source of dignity and reverence than the monarchy, precisely because it is not dependent upon the personal character of a monarch. Not all English monarchs, after all, have displayed the dignity or warranted the reverence of the present Queen. Americans recall all too well the less than admirable monarch who presided over England to such ill effect at the time of the Revolution.

Bagehot has only two passing references to George Washington, the president who deliberately refused to assume, in his person or public role, anything suggestive of a monarch. Instead, in his Farewell Address, Washington took the occasion to pay tribute to the Constitution. The Constitution, he reminded his “Friends and Fellow Citizens,” must be obeyed by all because it is “sacredly obligatory upon all”—“sacredly” going beyond the merely “dignified.” Almost half a century later, the young Abraham Lincoln, speaking to a young men’s society in Springfield, Illinois, on the subject of “the perpetuation of our political institutions,” echoed that sentiment: “Let reverence for the laws .  .  . become the political religion. .  .  . Let those materials [founded in reason] be molded into general intelligence, sound morality and, in particular, a reverence for the constitution and laws (italics in the original). Again, “reverence”—not for a person but for a Constitution that transcends persons, as it also transcends parties, politics, and all the other divisive tendencies that afflict government.

Concluding the famous Federalist 10, James Madison beseeched his countrymen to create in the Union “a Republican remedy for the diseases most incident to Republican Government.” The Constitution itself is part of that remedy. It has to be interpreted, to be sure, most notably by the Supreme Court. But the justices of the Court, whatever their private views, have to defend their rulings by appealing to the Constitution. This is their final authority, their “Old Testament”—as it is of the American polity as a whole.

It is that Testament that we celebrate on the Fourth of July. Our festivities might lack the drama or pageantry of the Queen’s Jubilee; they occur, after all, annually, and do not have to await a sixtieth anniversary (or fiftieth, the Golden Jubilee, a decade ago). But they are every bit as jubilant, and deservedly so, for they pay tribute to a republic presided over by a Constitution worthy of the dignity—and, yes, reverence—we have bestowed upon it.

Gertrude Himmelfarb is the author of The Moral Imagination and, most recently, The People of the Book: Philosemitism in England from Cromwell to Churchill.

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