Unknown artist/Library of Congress
President Andrew Jackson depicted as king.
Unknown artist/Library of Congress
A recurring conservative critique of President Obama is that he governs more like a king than the popularly elected leader of a Democratic republic that he is.
The idea has led to the not unexpected Internet reaction of crowns being Photoshopped onto images of Obama's head, as you can quickly see by Googling the words "Obama" and "king."
It's also the theme of a speech that's gotten a lot of attention in conservative circles by Rep. Mike Pence, an Indiana Republican with presidential aspirations. First given at Hillsdale College in September, Pence reprised it last week for a meeting of the Federalist Society of conservative and libertarian lawyers.
Pence explains why, in his view, Obama inexcusably crosses the line from president to monarch.
A lengthy excerpt:
Our nation finds itself in the position of a dog whose duty it is not to ask why, because the "why" is too elevated for his nature, but simply to obey.
America is not a dog, and does not require a "because-I-said-so" jurisprudence to which it is then commanded to catch up, or legislators who knit laws of such insulting complexity that they are heavier than chains; or a president who acts like, speaks like, and is received as a king. The presidency has run off the rails. It begs a new clarity, a new discipline, and a new president.
The president is not our teacher, our tutor, our guide or ruler. He does not command us, we command him. We serve neither him nor his vision. It is not his job or his prerogative to redefine custom, law and beliefs; to appropriate industries; to seize the country, as it were, by the shoulders or by the throat so as to impose by force of theatrical charisma his justice upon 300 million others. It is neither his job nor his prerogative to shift the power of decision away from them, and to him and the acolytes of his choosing.
Is my characterization of unprecedented presumption incorrect? I defer to the judgment of the people, which they will make with their own eyes, and ears. Listen to the exact words of the leader of President Obama's transition team and perhaps his next chief-of-staff: "It's important that President-Elect Obama is prepared to really take power and begin to rule day one." Or, more recently, from the words of the latest presidential appointment to avoid confirmation by the Senate, the new head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau wrote last Friday, "President Obama understands the importance of leveling the playing field again."
"Take power… Rule... Leveling." Though it is now, this has never been and should never again be the model of the presidency or the character of the American president. No one can say this too strongly and no one can say it enough until it is remedied. We are not subjects, we are citizens. We fought a war so that we do not have to treat even kings like kings, and — if I may remind you — we won that war. Since then, the principle of royalty has, in this country, been inoperative. Who is better suited or more required to exemplify this conviction, in word and deed, than the President of the United States?
There apparently is nothing more American than accusing a president one disagrees with of being kingly.
As Ron Chernow notes in his new biography of George Washington, even the "Father of His Country" was accused by some political opponents of wanting to recreate the monarchy in the U.S., with himself as king of course.
President Andrew Jackson had some of the humblest beginnings of any of the nation's leaders and was a raging populist.
But that didn't stop his political enemies, furious of his used of the veto and antagonism towards the financiers of his day, from famously calling him "King Andrew I" and caricaturing him with a crown and ermine cape.
Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican president, got the royal treatment, too, from his opponents. Not only was he a portrayed as a king, he was called a tyrant, as in "sic semper tyrannis," — "Thus always with tyrants," the words his killer John Wilkes Booth shouted during the assassination.
More than a century and a half later, the most recent Republican president also was accused of royal pretensions and angrily referred to as King George (pun intended) by some political adversaries.
Here's an obvious theory as to why those who oppose presidents turn them into kings. It allows every generation of president haters to tap into the nation's creation story.
If the occupant of the White House is a despotic king with his boot on the neck of the American people, then that must make his opponents the keepers of the torch handed across the centuries by the Founding Fathers.
It appears to be just another one of the occupational hazards of being a U.S. president: your opponents will accuse you of royal pretensions.