The Last Best Hope? Understanding America from the Outside In
The Elected King Episode
Series 3 (Hilary term 2021)
Published 14 January 2021
NB the text below was transcribed automatically by https://otter.ai.
President Trump: All of us here today do not want to see our election victory stolen by emboldened radical left Democrats, which is what they're doing and stolen by the fake news media. That's what they've done and what they're doing. We will never give up. We will never concede it doesn't happen. You don't concede when there's theft involved.
Adam Smith 00:32
Hello, and welcome to the last best hope, a podcast that examines America from the outside in. My name is Adam Smith. I'm the Orsborn professor of US politics and history at the University of Oxford. As I speak, we're in the febrile last days of the unprecedented Presidency of Donald Trump. Aggressive pro Trump supporters some wearing Nazi t shirts and carrying Confederate flags invaded and ransacked the US Capitol last week, at one point dropping the United States flag on the ground in order to replace it with a Trump campaign flag. In response to all this, whence the Senate reconvened, Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey drew a comparison between the pro Trump mob and the Royal Marines who burned the Capitol in 1814.
Cory Booker: In two times in American history that individuals laid siege to our Capitol, stormed our sacred civic spaces and tried to over rent on up end and overrun this government one was in the war of 1812. And the other one was today. What's interesting about the parallel between the two is they both were waving flags to a sole sovereign, to an individual surrendering democratic principles to the cult of personality one was a monarch in England. And the other one the flags I saw all over our capital, including in the hallways, and in this room to a single person named Donald Trump.
Adam Smith 02:18
This isn't particularly convincing in many ways as a historical analogy. British troops in the war of 1812 didn't hero worship the Mad King George in the way that the pro Trump cult worship their leader, but Booker's analogy does raise some interesting questions about the curious relationship between the American presidency and monarchy. Booker assumes for rhetorical purposes, that the early 19th century British monarchy was autocratic. But this wasn't true at all. Since the 17th century, the British monarchy has been constrained by Parliament. The American founders at the Constitutional Convention created a presidency with far more power and authority than the British monarch had had since James II. Of course, the president is elected. And up until President Trump all previous heads of state have laid down the office without protest or violence. Even so, while they're president they're vastly more powerful than any British monarch has been for 400 years, and at the same time as the commander in chief with the prerogative powers of a king, they are also vastly more powerful than any Prime Minister in a parliamentary system. Some conservative constitutional lawyers in the last half century take this kingly idea a step further, by developing the theory of the unitary executive. The notion that the President has unfettered authority over the entire executive branch, and President Trump is the ultimate reminder of how much like a dysfunctional Hollywood caricature of mediaeval kingship the presidency can be. He used the power of the pardon to obstruct justice, to prevent vital testimony and a legitimate investigation and to reward friends and relations. He referred to the commanders of the US military as ‘my generals’. He petulantly told reporters to shut up and show him respect. And he expects those whom he favours to humiliate themselves in their subservience to him, and sets the mob on them if they step out of line. No subject in American history is more mystified and myth-encrusted than the intentions of the founding fathers. So when it came to executive power, what were they really thinking? Why, having just thrown off monarchical authority, did they apparently create an elected King? What was their understanding of executive authority? So to talk about this further, I'm joined now by Steve Sarson, who is professor of American civilization at Jean Moulin University in France and the author of numerous books and articles about the early Modern Atlantic world, and most recently a terrific book about Barack Obama's conception of American history. And by my colleague at Oxford, Nicholas Cole, a senior research fellow at Pembroke College, and an expert on the political thought of the 18th and 19th century, and in particular, on the classical influences on the American founders. Nicholas and Steve, thank you both very much for joining me. And, Nicholas, can I begin with you let's let's think about this moment in 1787. When elite Americans gathered together in Philadelphia in order to design a new government for the United States, which is a newly independent country. It has been recognised as such in the 1783 Treaty of Paris, it's all very recent. These were men who, in most cases have taken leading roles in the revolutionary struggle against Britain over the preceding two decades. And they met together to write this Constitution, which astonishingly and for better or for worse, is still in its basic formulation in operation. Now, we're talking today about particular about how they conceptualise the executive power. So Nicholas, what were the range of options that they came to think about when it when they came to consider the executive?
Nicholas Cole 06:24
I think the first thing to say is that it's really important to them that there be an executive power. I mean, that's part of the very first proposition that's accepted by the convention that the new government that they will propose, will have a legislative, executive and judicial branch. And the reason that that's so important is that it's having these three distinct branches of government in their mind that will make the new federal constitution, a real government, as opposed to it to a looser diplomatic union, and give it energy, which is often a word that's associated with the executive, when they talk. As far as the particular form of the executive, though, there's much less discussion than one might imagine. There's the brief consideration of the idea of having multiple people to to be the executive that that really doesn't have any support at the convention, it's dismissed very quickly. Most of the fuss that's around the executive is how the figure will be chosen. And then precise details of exactly the way particular powers will operate, such as powers of pardon, and veto and the other things that we associate with the presidency. But what's missing from their discussions is a really thorough discussion of how the executive will function in day to day business, as opposed to you know, the more extraordinary matters of you know, vetoing legislation, or that kind of
Adam Smith 08:06
Nicholas, out of interest, did they always know they were going to call this executive the president?
Nicholas Cole 08:10
No, the initially that they just talked about the the executive magistrate. But the word President is not a controversial one. There's been some experimentation with other words, at state level, Thomas Jefferson proposes in Virginia, that their chief executive there be called the administrator of the state to get away from the idea of, of a Royal Governor. The word president at the convention, though, is not a controversial sort of choice. It's a it's a very neutral 18th century word, all kinds of bodies have presidents, and it doesn't have that sense of sort of august reverence that we associate with the word today.
Adam Smith 08:53
Well, we'll come back to the question of whether or not on how august reverence was was was scattered in folded over the the the notion of the the President of the United States. Steve, if I can turn to to you. These men gathered in Philadelphia, as I said, it had had almost all been involved in the revolutionary struggle over over 20 years or so, at the beginning of the protests by the American colonists, after the conclusion of the Seven Years War, in 1763. They were petitioning as Englishman to the king they saw the king as the man who could offer them redress. So what does that tell us about their the colonists conception of, of kingship that they saw him as the solution before in the end, of course, they saw him as the problem.
Steve Sarson 09:49
Some may continue to do that right up to the olive branch petition 1774 1775. So in in some ways, the Declaration of Independence is a last sort of recognition of the king's authority, if only to overthrow it. So the petitioning of the king was very much a part of it. And they developed much more of a view that Parliament throughout the revolutionary crisis that Parliament had little or no role, certainly within the colonies. For some of them, Parliament had a role in the empire that is to say to do with trade, regulation of trade, or the conduct of wars, joint enterprises, common enterprises, but no jurisdiction within the colours themselves. Whereas the sort of more radicals like Thomas Jefferson started arguing that ultimately the ultimate arbiter in the Empire is the king, and the king could veto and in I mean, one or two people had argued this before, but Jefferson's famous summary view of the rights of British America argued that the king could actually veto legislation by Parliament or by any of the legislators in the Empire assemblies in the Empire, if they intruded on the rights of another one.
Adam Smith 11:12
So interesting, what you're saying there, what you seem to be describing then, is a fundamental difference over the governance of the British Empire. Between on the one hand, the colonists and on the other hand, the government in London parliament in London, which added at its core, which had at its core, the the power of the executive, the power of, of the monarch. So, Parliament by the end of the 18th century, by this period, by the 1760s, and 70s, parliament in London, had conceptualised itself as being the embodiment of sovereignty. It was the notion wasn't it of the king in Parliament, which came out of the Glorious Revolution of 1688 1689, in which Parliament had forcefully and as it were finally asserted, it's right to select, in effect, select the king by choosing a monarch skipping over whatever it was, 57 Stuart claimants to the throne, I'm making up that number, but it was some great number, wasn't it in order to pick this Protestant, William of Orange? So that was Parliament asserting its sovereignty after a century, the 17th century during the during the civil wars, in which the question of the relationship between the king and Parliament had been at the centre of a lot of bloody controversy. So all that had happened in Britain, with the result that too, by the 1770s, it was kind of obvious to people in London that Parliament had authority clearly had Parliament had authority in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts and Virginia, just as it had authority in Ireland or Scotland. To then that was self evident. But the colonists conceptualised things very differently, didn't they? So they what you're describing is them, the leaders of the colonial revolt, believing as it were, that they had a direct relationship with the king, which they didn't dispute that the king was the king and they owed loyalty to him. What they disputed was that they owed any loyalty or respect or duty to Parliament. Is that is that a correct summary of what you're saying there? Steve?
Steve Sarson 13:32
That's absolutely correct. You've hit the nail on the head by saying that basically, the glorious revolutions, settlements, were very different in the American colonies than they were in Britain or perceived that way, certainly. Whereas, and it rests as you said, on the whole idea of the king in Parliament. The colonists rejected that and thereby rejected the whole framework of parliamentary sovereignty throughout the Empire, but also the constitutional arrangements within each colony were very different from the way they worked in Britain, specifically, the relationships between the the executive and legislative powers. In Britain, of course, you know, the executive sits in Parliament and controls a majority of it, or so it kind of worked out by the time of Walpole and after, whereas in Europe, that is the essence of the kingdom or the crown in Parliament, of course. But in the colonies, there were no there was no crown in Parliament, there were no governors in the assemblies. The governors of each colony remained separate powers with limited powers, but they were separate powers or entities. And so this kind of, rather than the kind of horizontal axis of conflicts in the developed in British politics afterwards, the sort of end of the king versus parliament, we have the king and King in Parliament. In the colonies that continued this kind of opposition ism, this kind of vertical axis of political opposition between executives and legislators continued. So it really changed everything about the nature of the Empire. And about one, sometimes the way I think about things did not change in the colonies, they retained, as you said, that 17th century pre-Glorious Revolution, constitutional character of both the Empire and of each individual colony …
Adam Smith 15:35
In which in the colonies you had a governor who, in some cases was appointed by London and other cases not, but you had a governor that was, that was separate from the local legislators, who wasn't a member of the local legislators on the member of the Virginia House of Burgesses or whatever, just as the King wasn't a Member of Parliament. Whereas in in in England, conceptually, the king's authority rested in Parliament. And that was, that was a critical difference. Nicholas, what we've been talking about so far really is that is that as it were the kind of lived experience over generations of English, British colonists living in North America, and how they may have come to see the role of the king in relation to Parliament, differently from people in England. But in many of the kind of the sort of standard textbooks accounts of the American Revolution, what we're told is that these founding fathers were deep thinkers, people who read widely, what was the influence of theory? And also what was the influence of a kind of longer understanding of, of ancient history on their conception of the appropriate role of the executive power?
Nicholas Cole 17:10
One of the striking things about the way they think about the executive is the fact that the, they seem to draw so little, on their their own immediate experience of everyday government, when they're thinking about constructing the executive, they slip very quickly into comparing the putative President of the United States to the consuls at Rome, or to to other ancient magistracies, and they talk about government in very classical ways. So that they talk about the merits of having a government that blends the idea of authority vested in a single person, with the principle of government vested in many people and the idea of mixing those ideas in the in the form of constitution that they adopt for the state. And that even people like James Wilson, talk about the, you know, the, the merits of having a single person who can act, you know, quickly and with secrecy, and and with these attributes, that that ancient thinkers have described, and modern thinkers following ancient thinkers that ascribed to monarchy in various forms, as opposed to republican or democratic government. And I do think it's interesting that they, they never quite managed to escape that way of thinking about government, even though, you know, their own experience, told them that, you know, with executive figures, come bureaucracies and, you know, maybe we don't want to use that term in this period. But but but come, you know, agents to man customs houses and do all of these other roles. Yet the convention doesn't talk about these sorts of things. It talks about the executive in this, this very, sort of elevated theoretical sense, really derived from theoretical re reading.
Adam Smith 19:07
I find that fascinating, because as we've just been discussing, these were people who've been doing government in one form or another hand, they before the revolution, and since during the revolution, they surely they must have been drawing on their own experience. And yet what you're saying and I know that you're right, because you know, this stuff better than anybody that so far as we know, when they actually came to talk about it, they immediately moved on to as it were some more abstract place.
Nicholas Cole 19:36
Some people did read. He, you know, did read Montesquieu, but I think more than the people who read Montesquieu, a lot of people knew that there was a principle in Montesquieu called the separation of powers, and they knew that they wanted that, you know, either If they hadn't read the detail of the text, they associated a proper separation of powers with liberty and with proper republican government. So they did want to retain it.
Adam Smith 20:03
But some that they thought that's what they thought had gone wrong, right then in the British constitution, right? So is the idea then that had there been a true separation of powers in the British imperial, in the governance of the British Empire, then there wouldn't have been a problem in the first place, they wouldn't have had to revolt. And by that what they meant was they in effect, wanted a much stronger King. That's the irony, right? Isn't that they wanted a king who had the power to veto parliamentary legislation if it was going to infringe the rights of colonists. So they wanted a more Tory conception of the British constitution, then did the ministers in London
Nicholas Cole 20:48
That that's quite true, although these, these concepts become very slippery in practice. So you know, it's it's, it's one thing to say, well, that the king should have the power to veto legislation that's harming the colonists. But But harm is often in the eye of the beholder. And of course, British theorists didn't see it like that at all. And if you told British thinkers, that that the thing that would save Empire would be to vest extraordinary powers that hadn't been exercised for pretty much a century at this point in the king, who was going to decide, you know, what legislation would and wouldn't be acceptable? It would have caused the most incredible constitutional crisis.
Adam Smith 21:34
So Steve, I'm obviously being a little bit deliberately provocative here. But yeah, is there anything in what I'm kind of trying to suggest to Nicholas there that these colonists were the real Tories, because what they effectively rejected was the Glorious Revolution right? So the Glorious Revolution, the Whiggish settlement which ensconced the power constrained the power of the king in Parliament, as we were discussing earlier, that was what the the, the the colonists were rejecting. And so by setting up a separate executive, by emphasising this idea of the separation of powers as they did in the Constitution, whether it is from some highfalutin idea of what they’d read in Montesquieu, what they'd heard, Montesquieu had said, or whether it was through lived experience, or whatever it was, they nevertheless came to this view that they wanted to establish in the colonies, a strong executive that was separate from parliament, which was exactly what the Tories had wanted in in 17th century England. irony? And irony?
Steve Sarson 22:37
Yes, I suppose. So. I certainly wouldn't go with your albeit somewhat jokey, Tory theory. I mean, I think what the what they had was really a radical Whig, I'm not saying anything new here, but really a radical Whig concept of what had happened or not happened during the Glorious Revolution here. Rather than going to Montesquieu, I think we need to look to Locke. And his idea of that, with the proviso that the Constitution does not alienate one's unalienable rights, and that it secures the safety, happiness, property, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness or property with states of the people, then you can pretty much set up whatever kind of government you like. And in the Declaration of Independence, for example, all it specifies about once you have a revolution, against a tyranny, and the tyranny can be of any sort, and bear in mind that Jefferson said that you can have 350 tyrants in the legislature as well as one tyrant on a throne. You know, it's it's really about the safety, happiness, security property of the people. That's the philosophical principle that matters. So really, it's, it might have a Tory kind of result, but it's coming from a radical Whig place.
Adam Smith 24:00
Yeah, no, that's it. That's a very good formulation, Steve. I mean, I'm still interested, though, in that, as you just put it, that Tory result, because I'm still interested in how you get from the radical Whig idea that sovereignty resides in the people that government is based on the consent of the government, to the notion that the resolution of the apparent muddle of the governance of the newly United States in the 1780s that the resolution for that included and quite centrally included the creation of a strong and separate executive.
Nicholas Cole 24:34
And when we think the executive of the United States is strong, what we typically mean is that there's a power of veto which turns out to be very powerful in the American case, although even Hamilton at the convention matters. And tells us didn't think that that power would be used very much because British monarchs hadn't used it very much. And we think of the president as commander in chief, yeah, just as the the king was, you know, commander in chief for the for Britain. But of course, not literally. So. And we think of a power of pardon. But again, that's not a power that is very frequently exercised in the, in the British case. So we, we think of these, these powers that become important in in America later, much more important than they are in Britain. But which it's not obvious to anybody at the time are going to be that significant in America.
Adam Smith 25:36
And especially since as you just said, there, Nicholas, those three things veto, being commander in chief, and the pardon power, were three things which in the British case, by the end of the 18th century, the king rarely, if ever exercised, and and insofar as the monarch did do so it declined further and further through it through the 19th century.
Nicholas Cole 26:00
So the question then becomes, well, why on earth did the convention fest the president with those powers, I think we can explain some of those powers? If we think well, what would the constitution have looked like if the President didn't have these special functions and powers? And the answer is, Article two would be incredibly thin, you know, executive power would shall be vested in a president of the United States. And because that's not theorised more than that, by the convention in in order to make the presidency seem like a proper head of state a properly August rope. The convention feels it has to be modified vest the presidency with some of the theoretical perhaps powers that the king had in Britain, because that's what head of states have, those are the sorts of powers you associate with a, with a strong executive, as they would call it or an energetic executive. And so when Washington becomes president, his job is to try and craft the role. And and Washington in particular, I think, sees his his job as making sure that the role of the president is respected. And also that it is, you know, a proper separate branch of government. So he has it he has a delightful correspondence with John Adams just when he is and…
Adam Smith 27:32
Who is the vice president.
Nicholas Cole 27:42
Yeah, sorry, his Vice President Yes, he has a delightful conversation with with with john adams is vice president, just as he's becoming president, where they experiment briefly with writing to each other in the third person, bit like Caesar, writing in the third person, you know, the President of the United States requests the following, you know, from from his vice president of China, they have a brief exchange like this before dropping it. But what Washington wants to talk about is, is how much he needs to withdraw from the American public and keep himself separate as a figure, or whether he can visit people in a personal capacity, whether he can go to people's homes for he says tea parties, you know, and and what you see in this correspondence is him trying to think through, well, is the President going to be a remote figure a bit like the the king? Or is he going to be some other kind of figure and how do you navigate that in a republic. And and the same is true with the way he relates to Congress. So the Senate to remember is only 26 people at the start, feels very much more like a sort of older Governor's Council, in some ways, that the Senate is to give the president advice and consent for appointments and for treaties, and nobody really knows how that's going to work in practice. So Washington does experiment with going to the Senate for advice. But he very quickly realises that this, this could be disastrous for the presidency in the sense that, you know, it embroiled the president in watching treaties that he's tried to negotiate be sent off to subcommittees for discussion. It is not at all the kind of relationship he imagines. And and so he rapidly abandons that and ever since, presidents have not gone to the Senate to discuss treaties with them in person,
Adam Smith 29:49
The cabinet he creates his own cabinet, doesn't it? He he so he which was not envisaged or is not mentioned in the Constitution. Right. So, so, so so so Washington immediately begins then perhaps in response to that experience, as you've described there, he begins to create, to flesh out a basis for of political authority for the for the presidency by surrounding himself with his own appointed people, albeit people whose appointments have to be ratified by, by by the Senate, but nevertheless, he isn't he making decisions that which are institutionally building up to the presidency?
Nicholas Cole 30:27
Yeah, and even and even then, the Constitution had said that, for these very senior appointments, the President would need to get the approval of the Senate. But it said nothing about the dismissal of people in in these places. And, of course, that remains a very controversial issue all the way through the 19th century. You know, if if Congress has said, you know, their head of department is going to be this figure, can the president remove them from office? because that gives the presidency if the President can do that, and it's not accepted that he can, that gives the presidency much more power than if President is stuck with with figures because they've been vested with authority from Congress. And this gets us to the separation of powers point, again, which keeps coming round and round in these discussions, because a perfect separation of powers is incompatible without with other ends that that people want to achieve.
Steve Sarson 31:31
Likewise, Nicolas, on the on the issue of the sort of institutional development, if I may usurp your role, Adam, and as Nicholas. Was there any sense this might seem a bit off the wall? But was there any sense that the cabinet was a kind of Privy Council too? Because then, you know, you find a link between the cabinet and the old regime of the king in America with Privy Council? Of course, answer to the king, and how to roll in through the Board of Trade and looking over the colonies was, was there any sense that it was similar, or am I completely off the wall?
Nicholas Cole 32:12
Well, there's, there's one occasion and and Jefferson writes about it at length, where Washington delegates decision making authority to the cabinet collectively. And and that does have that kind of echo because he's, he's away, a buddy, it's, you know, it's it's difficult, you know, did the American thinking on government, in this period, is still very controlled by sort of older theories of government that really don't account for institutions like the cabinet? And certainly if you'd, if you'd started to talk about, you know, privy councillors, you really would have set alarm bells ringing in America just just doesn't sound republican enough, does it so. So it, I think it's it's very difficult for this early generation to account for all of the different bits of the machinery of government, working together in this way, particularly when the role of the Senate to provide advice say, for the writing of treaties, has really fallen away, after after early, very unsatisfactory experiments, that the sort of classically inspired accounts of the Constitution fit increasingly badly. And yet, Americans cling to this rather abstract way of thinking about government for much longer than they probably should have been.
Adam Smith 33:38
A century or more later, when other parts of the British Empire separated from the Empire and rejected the king or queen as head of state, they also established presidencies, I'm thinking of Ireland or India, but they did so they created a presidency on a very different model, they created a presidency who which had the some of the symbolic functions of a head of state, but without any real political power, and deliberately so and so executive power was still vested effectively in the legislature through a cabinet and Prime Minister in the way that it was in Westminster. And it seems to me that you know, what the what the three of us have been talking about here is a way in which the because of the particular circumstances and timing of the American Revolution in the 18th century and because of the experiences that the American revolutionaries had had, with their own colonial governments in which there was a separate governor, they ended up as it were accidentally creating a presidency which had the which was vested with the formal trappings of an older style monarchy, without really thinking through or being unable for understandable Reasons to see into the future and understand what implications that may have the consequences of this obsession with the separation of powers and a separate executive separate from the legislature ended up being the creation of this enormously powerful institution. And so we fast forward to the present day. And we have a situation which, for the rest of the world, looking in seems quite extraordinary, where you have a president who is able, and obviously in the case of Donald Trump entirely willing to use the pardon power, most obviously, because that seems most I mean, it really gets to the heart of the kingly nature of the presidency, doesn't it the notion that the President can bestow a pardon on anyone, possibly, including himself, in a way that a prime minister, obviously can't do. Nicholas.
Nicholas Cole 35:51
No, well, I was just going to say, I mean, 18th century thinkers, did did believe that there should be some capacity for the state to exercise mercy. And so in colonial government after the state goes, right, so its own state government after the revolution. Sometimes that that power can move to the legislature to you know, so that, you know, there is a there is a capacity in the state to grant parliament. I think the convention was either very concerned that the role of the presidency should be August enough for Washington and as you say, Adam have the right trappings. And we have to remember that Washington is sitting in the chair at the convention listening to what's going on. And I think it's, it's, it's pretty obvious that he's a very obvious candidate for the first presidency of the United States, if it emerges. So what they're really talking about is, are we going to create an office that Washington would want to hold. But they're also because of their colonial experience. And because as we've been talking about that, they thought that one of the things that had gone wrong in Britain was too much confusion of executive and legislative power, they thought that executives might act as a defender of the people in a clearer way, if there was some clear independence of the legislative branch, which is why after lots of discussion, they ultimately reject the idea of selecting the president through Congress, because they're very worried that the president should have that separate role. So I think they would have said the state must be able to exercise mercy, this might even be a proper function for the President. They just they just don't expect the the other mechanisms that they had put in to control executive action to be really so so dormant, expected the power of impeachment to be rather more frightening than it than it's actually proved. They hadn't really thought through the way that the Presidents would see see their role in shaping the way legislation is implemented even. So that they're thinking about the presidency just just doesn't anticipate the way the role has been shaped. And, and partly because they don't really foresee the consequences of this much more democratic figure, that the President of the United States is the only person in government who will be mediated through the electoral college. And we could we could talk about all of the the issues with that, but the president is
Adam Smith 38:39
A subject for another podcast...
Nicholas Cole 38:41
The President is the only person who can claim to be a representative of all of American citizens. And that means that, you know, the these nascent powers of the presidency has become much, much more significant once once presidents embrace that idea that they are a kind of democratic representative, which actually happens, what begins to happen very quickly,
Adam Smith 39:06
Very quickly. I mean, Jefferson, Jefferson certainly has that idea, doesn't he when he wins the election in 1800. And obviously, Andrew Jackson really takes the takes that idea a step further as him and he is the President is the embodiment of a great body of the people. I mean, at the risk of opening up as we come to the end of this conversation, another huge Pandora's box. So I do want to, to ask you, in particular, I guess Nicholas the about the way in which the presidency is theorised or has been theorised in recent decades by conservative legal thinkers, the notion of the unitary executive.
Nicholas Cole 39:46
So I think the issue can be stated very simply, but solving it is very complicated. The issue is when article two says executive power shall be vested in a president of the United States. Does does that phrase in and of itself grant the presidency any powers? Or is it merely as an introduction to that paragraph? And secondly, when the President swears an oath to faithfully execute the laws? What What does that phrase mean? And conservative thinkers, although they draw on a very long tradition, I think that there are inherent powers, we've got to resist the use of the word prerogative, I guess. But there are there are inherent executive powers that are very broad.
Adam Smith 40:43
But you say resist the word prerogative, because they resist the word. But I mean, that is what we're talking about what we're talking about, the unitary executive, as I understand it, and I'm not a lawyer, and I'm looking to you to, you know, correct me on all of this Nicholas. But you know, what I'm what I was the way I i understand a very simplistic way the unitary executive idea is that it is a fundamentally Tory idea. I mean, absolutely, about reestablishing the royal prerogative and being very overt, not about perhaps I don’t know, though, I was going to say, not about the divine right of kings, but I think there are plenty of people who think that President Trump is literally selected by Providence, and is the agent of God, and is there by divine right. But, but in every other respect anyway, it's a it's a Stuart conception of the presidency, isn't it?
Nicholas Cole 41:28
I think there's a lot in that…
Adam Smith 41:29
I'm gonna come back to you, Steve, on this in a moment. But Nicholas?
Nicholas Cole 41:33
No, I think that I think there's I think there's a lot in that. And and one of one of the things, for example, is what's the right of Congress to have oversight into the inner workings of executive agencies, for example, you know, when, when the when the President is given the power to execute the laws, what is the right level of congressional oversight? And there are some theorists who say that, that Congress, you know, shouldn't be able to do very, in depth detailed studies of its own, or control through various mechanisms, the way executive functions in the state are done, because that's trampling on the separation of powers and trampling on the right of the President, to, to, to hold the executive power that's been vested in him. And it's, it's in finding that, that margin between the two that where the dispute lies,
Adam Smith 42:32
Steve, have we come full circle? Are we back to a kind of Stuart conception of the presidency? Does the United States now need another Glorious Revolution in which the people, perhaps acting through their parliamentary representatives in Congress, reassert their power and hold the executive to account?
Steve Sarson 42:40
I think you're absolutely right, I think Americans need to reclaim the memory or regain the memory of the revolutionary ancestors conceptions of particular kings, because what we're talking about here is the difference between an institution and the person, an institution can be what it is, but if it's abused by a person, then that's a different matter. And that's really what they're talking about in the declaration when they blame the king. There's nothing anti monarchical, in the Declaration of Independence, except the relentless attack on a king, but it is on a king. It talks about the reign of the present king of Great Britain, previous kings, hardly. But that also speaks to a prior way of looking at monarchy and that is to criticise, again, individual kings, usually the Stuart kings, because they seem to have in historical notion, political national, attention, tendency towards tyranny that Trump has. And so yes, I think I would not say that Trump is George III, absolutely not. Because one of the things about poor George III is he was a constitutional monarch and quite a scrupulous one. But he was a British constitutional monarch and therefore could not be an American constitutional monarch.
Adam Smith 44:08
I think the advocates of the unitary executive idea want a president to be to be to be Charles I.
Steve Sarson 44:16
Yes. And that's that's where we are. I think we have someone who has no respect for what other people perceive to be constitutional provisions. And the problem is the man rather than the institution
Adam Smith 44:29
On the thought that what Americans now most need is to invite an invasion from friendly invasion from Holland. I think we should draw this fascinating conversation to a close. Nicholas Cole and Steve Sarson. Thank you both very much, indeed.
Steve Sarson 44:45
Thank you very much.
Nicholas Cole 44:45
Adam Smith 44:55
I was talking to Steve Sarson, professor of American civilization at Jean Moulin University in Toulouse, and with Nicolas Cole, a senior research fellow at Pembroke College, Oxford, we were talking about the origins of an enduring irony. The President of the United States swears an oath to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution. But in the end, as the founders recognised, if there is a selfish and corrupt man in that office, he has the power to pardon criminals, to bestow favour, to create a court and cult around him. And we get end up in the grotesque chaos of an American president, an American president, sending his loyal subjects scuttling over to the Capitol to smash up their own legislature. My name is Adam Smith, and you've been listening to the Last Best Hope podcast from the RAI, Oxford's centre for the study of the United States and its place in the world. If you've enjoyed this episode, please listen to the many others that are listed on your podcast app like us and tell other people about us. Goodbye.