In Anti-federalist 74, Philadelphiensis wrote,

Who can deny but the president general will be a king to all intents and purposes, and one of the most dangerous kind too-a king elected to command a standing army.

And at the Constitutional Convention, South Carolina’s Charles Pinckney worried that

the Executive powers of the existing Congress might extend to peace and war, etc., which would render the Executive a monarchy, of the worst kind, to wit an elective one.

I understand why they worried about the military power and a standing army, but I’m not grasping why they thought an elected king was worse than a non-elected one. Any thoughts?

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8 Responses to What’s So Bad About an Elected King?

  1. Mr. Blue says:

    Today, I would say the thing that makes it worse is that an elected king has a greater claim to legitimacy, which would make it harder to rally the an uprising.

    Of course, it’s easier to unseat a king with an election than with an uprising.

    In the context of the times, though, it seems to me that hereditary monarchy was given some legitimacy that it lacks today.

  2. trumwill says:

    My guess is that it’s one of those “Monarchies are all bad, and each kind is worst than the rest” things.

  3. Oscar Gordon says:

    Yeah, I think it was an artifact of the times.

    A lot of Western monarchs today are downright pleasant.

  4. Kenb says:

    Perhaps there was a sense that while a hereditary king would at least have been groomed for the role, an elected “king” would possibly be just some normal Joe and god knows what he might do.

    It is surprising that the concern isn’t explained but just treated as self-evident.

  5. mike shupp says:

    This is the exact reverse of Kenb’s theory.

    Some elected monarchs: Napoleon and Napoleon III, Poland’s kings up through the Reformation, and the emperors of the Holy Roman Empire, from about 962 to 1806 AD. Election of monarchs to establish new dynasties is not unknown — think of the Romanoffs (1605), England’s Glorious Revolution (1688), and not much later, the Hanoverians. Holland’s monarchy was based on an elected Stadtholder at some point in the 17th century. Denmark on the other hand had an elected monarch until just about the same moment — 1660 — and then switched to a purely dynastic system. Belgium and Greece both had ruling dynasties established by “election” in the 1830’s — I gather the “voters” were other European kingdoms. Also, of course, the Popes have been temporal rulers, and they are elected.

    So, what’s of interest is that elected monarchs tend to be able, and not uncommonly, ambitious men. They’re a much more select group than the folks who just inherit their thrones, and fall prey to religious credulity, pride, stupidity, stubbornness, laziness, libertine lifestyles, disablement by age or disease, objectionable favoritism, or elimination by unscrupulous minority guardians.

    Life for ordinary people can be fairly comfortable under lackadaisical hereditary rulers, in short. Elected monarchs can be the very devil!

    • kenB says:

      Hey, no fair bringing in actual historical information!

      Anyway, that sounds pretty plausible to me. It may be opposite to mine in terms of attitude but it’s not far off in effect — whether due to good/neutral qualities like prudence or caution, or bad qualities like laziness or selfishness, the hereditary king is seen as less likely to upset the apple cart.

      • mike shupp says:

        Well, we’ve got more history to look at than the Founding Fathers. In 1789, they wouldn’t have had the splendid example of Napoleon to point to (a hereditary monarch established by plebiscite to govern the French Republic). The example closer to them would have been visible every day at the Constitutional Convention — the gentleman presiding over their deliberations, George Washington, who within living memory had been given complete control of the rebel armies during the American Revoution.

        The Romans in their republican days had had the notion of giving absolute rule for a six month stretch to one man during times of national peril. This didn’t always work perfectly, since the elected ruler sometimes wasn’t eager to return his powers to the Senate; the famous counterexample was Lucius Quinctius Cincinattus, who was twice elected dictator (in 458 and 439 BC) to deal with emergencies and resigned his powers in both cases within a couple of weeks. Washington was given such authority when the Continental Congress proved incapable to running military affairs and voluntarily resigned at the end of the Revolution — behavior so striking that George III himself came to acknowledge Washington as “the greatest character of the age”. The parallels were so obvious that some of Washington’s ex-soldiers referred to themselves as the “Sons of Cincinattus”; some of them established a city called Cincinatti in the Northwest Territories.

        (tl;dr) I suspect that’s what the people at the Constitutional Convention had in mind when discussing the perils of elected kings.

  6. James Hanley says:

    My post precipitated a better discussion than I had the audacity to hope for. Thanks all.

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