The Once and Future King

The Once and Future King

The remarkable new book shatters just about every myth surrounding American government, the Constitution and the Founders, and offers the clearest warning about the alarming rise of one-man rule in the age of Obama.

Most Americans believe that this country uniquely protects liberty, that it does so because of its Constitution, and that for this our thanks must go to the Founders, at their Convention in Philadelphia in 1787.

Buckley’s new book debunks all these myths. America isn’t the freest country around, according to think tanks that study these things. And it’s not the Constitution that made it free, since parliamentary regimes are generally freer than presidential ones. Finally, what we think of as the Constitution, with its separation of powers, was not what the Founders had in mind. What they expected was a country in which Congress would dominate the government and in which the president would play a much smaller role.

Sadly, that’s not the government we have today. What we have instead is what Buckley calls Crown government, the rule of an all-powerful president. The country began in a revolt against one King, and today we see the dawn of a new kind of monarchy. What we have is what one of the Founders, George Mason, called an “elective monarchy,” which he thought was worse than the real thing.

Much of this is irreversible. Constitutional amendments to redress the balance of power are extremely unlikely, and most Americans seem to have accepted and even welcomed Crown government. The way back lies through Congress, and Buckley suggests feasible reforms that it might adopt to regain the authority and respect that it has squandered.

Advance Praise for The Once and Future King

A powerfully argued indictment of the growth of executive power in Great Britain and its former colonies, the United States and Canada. Buckley’s book is greatly enhanced by his expert knowledge of the constitutions and politics of these three English-speaking nations. He shows, as few scholars have, just how much of the time we live in a fog and create results we never intended.

Gordon Wood, Brown University,
author of The Radicalism of the American Revolution

The Once and Future King deals with constitutional issues at a more serious level than almost anything else I have read recently. Th e prose, moreover, is elegant and flowing. It is an easy read, even though it deals with serious and complex problems. This is a beautifully written, very interesting, and largely persuasive book.

Philip Hamburger, Columbia Law School
author of Separation of Church and State

The book is immensely enjoyable to read and to think about. It is written with real brio and strongly articulates a distinct point of view—i.e., the superiority of parliamentary government—that most American readers (and students) will find nearly bizarre, given socialization into standard verities about the wonders of the American way of doing things. It’s a bracing read, in every way.

Sanford V. Levinson, University of Texas School of Law,
author of Our Undemocratic Constitution: Where the Constitution Goes Wrong (and How We the People Can Correct It)

This is a bold and willfully provocative critique of American presidential power, how and why it got to be that way, and what we can do to change it. Buckley takes no prisoners in his trip back to the American founding, with forays into the British and Canadian political systems, questioning all the conventional pieties and received wisdom along the way. If history truly is an argument without end, this is a new entry in the debate.

Joseph J. Ellis, Mt. Holyoke, author of Founding Brothers and Revolutionary Summer

Rhetoric about ‘exporting democracy’ around the world obscures what political scientists, historians and constitutional lawyers should actually reveal: the profound differences between the governmental systems of ‘the West’. Buckley’s brilliant book is the first to compare the governments of the United States, Great Britain and Canada: with compelling argument, it shows the advantage of prime ministerial systems over an increasingly autocratic presidential system. This has profound implications for how we understand the growth of executive power that now afflicts them all in varying degrees and forms.

Jonathan Clark, University of Kansas, author of The Language of Liberty 1660-1832

Unchecked executive government—which F. H. Buckley, with characteristic wit, calls “Crown government”—has triumphed in the North Atlantic democracies, to the extend of threatening democracy itself. Buckley examines this profound development through the lens of American (and British and Canadian) constitutional history, to stunning effect. His brief for Congressional revival is utterly unlike the recurrent, schematic proposals for a U.S. parliamentary system. The Once and Future King is a work of virtuoso scholarship—bold, iconoclastic, and practical-minded in the spirit of the Framers themselves.
Christopher DeMuth, Distinguished Fellow, Hudson Institute

Sample Quotes

On American government today:

The president has slipped off many of the constraints of the separation of powers. He makes and unmakes laws without the consent of Congress, spends trillions of government dollars, and the greatest of decisions, whether to commit his country to war, is made by him alone. His ability to reward friends and punish enemies exceeds anything seen in the past. He is rex quondam, rex futurus—the once and future king. And all of this is irreversible.

On how one doesn’t understand American history without also understanding what happened in similar countries:

He who knows only his own country knows little enough of that.

On the Constitution the Founders wanted for America:

People today might support the separation of powers for a variety of reasons, but fidelity to the intentions of the Framers isn’t one of them.

On how the Framers would not have anticipated how the rise of democracy transformed American government.

In the end, the democrats won the day. The rickety machinery they devised for the election of presidents was a sealed car speeding through the first decades of the republic, darkened in obscurity on departure but emerging in sunlight on arrival to transform American politics.

On the role of James Madison at the Constitutional Convention:

If [Madison] was the Father of the Constitution, … this was one of those cases, not unknown in delivery rooms, where the child bore little resemblance to the father.

On how Britain governed its Empire:

On occasion, [the Second British Empire] appeared to act on the principle that any feather-brained member of the upper class who looked good on a mount would make a good colonial ruler.

On America’s elective monarch:

Presidential lawmaking … amounts to a return to the monarchical prerogative powers that Roger Sherman and the other Framers so feared.

On presidential systems and militarism:

A presidential government that can readily go to war is a government more likely to go to war, and a government with a greater military budget.

On the Supreme Court’s failure to halt the rise of Crown government in America:

The Court has abdicated its role as the policeman of the balance of power. It has ignored the rise of the executive branch and become the enabler of Crown government. It is like an umpire who yearns to award a 15-yard penalty against the hapless team that is down 49-0 at the half.

On American Exceptionalism:

America is one of the freest countries in the world [but] it wasn’t the presidential system that made the difference. What makes America exceptional is that for more than 200 years it has remained free while yet presidential.

On the character of the charismatic president:

The charismatic leader cannot brook rivals. There can only be The One. Every other source of authority is suspect, both people and institutions. His charisma trumps them all.

On the potential for abuse in the federal Department of Justice:

Chekhov said that, when the audience sees a loaded pistol on the wall in Act I, it must go off by Act III. The potential for political misuse in federal criminal law is a loaded pistol, and the mystery is why it hasn’t gone off yet.

A suggestion for reform:

Congress should impeach and remove presidents often. When their policies fail, when they are touched with scandal, or for no reason, just for the spirit of the thing.