Revolutionary republicanism and Obama’s bow to monarchy

Did Obama's bow violate the founding principles of American republicanism found in the Declaration of Independence?

Linking President Obama’s bow before the Japanese emperor to the political principles found in the Declaration of Independence might seem a departure to those who know that these pages are dedicated to historical analysis, not a review of current events. Still, the event prompts comments worth making if for no other reason to remind us that Americans are citizens in a nation founded on a republican system established with an anti-monarchial war.

First, a clarifying statement: I am well-aware the president is not the first chief executive to bow before a monarch. As national media has amply pointed out during the last few days, President Nixon did so, as did President George H.W. Bush (albeit in the direction of the casket containing the body of Emperor Hirohito during the state funeral for the Japanese ruler). George W. Bush not only bowed, but kissed the cheek of the Saudi king.  The president’s supporters say these facts bolster their claim that the “bow wow” generated by a simple act of courtesy is just another blast from what they call The Republican Noise Machine. Not to be outdone, Republicans criticizing the president say the bow was not only a sign of weakness, but a national embarrassment. I will leave it up to readers to decide where they stand regarding those two divergent opinions.

However, most of the Founding Generation developed into a group of political thinkers who not only rejected monarchy, but feared anything that smacked of royalty or regal behavior – particularly from the president. Furthermore, the American people became more and more hostile toward royalty and rejected any love of the monarchial system by the beginning of the 19th century. Thomas Jefferson is among the best-known critics of monarchy from that time. His time in France, a nation whose culture and intelligentsia he admired throughout his entire adult life, taught him a lesson about possessing any respect for monarchy. In a 1786 letter to George Wythe, Jefferson wrote:

 If anybody thinks that kings, nobles or priests are good conservators of the public happiness, send him here. It is the best school in the universe to cure him of that folly. He will see here, with his own eyes, that these descriptions of men are an abandoned confederacy against the happiness of the mass of the people. The omnipotence of their effect cannot be better proved than in this country particularly, where, notwithstanding the finest soil upon earth, the finest climate under heaven, and a people of the most benevolent, the most gay and amiable character of which the human form is susceptible; where such a people, I say, surrounded by so many blessings from nature, are loaded with misery, by kings, nobles and priests, and by them alone.

Granted, the Declaration did not explicitly reject monarchy, but it did reject a king whom Jefferson and the Congress deemed a tyrant. Additionally, although the Declaration clearly implies the people have a right to embrace any government that respects their rights and their sovereignty in government, it is patently clear in the Declaration’s language that government would be a republic. In history, republics were the result of people in places such as ancient Greece or Rome rejecting, deposing, even murdering kings because a monarchy respects the power of only one person – the monarch. Although the definition of a republic has historically been slippery, the Declaration of Independence injected the commonly held understanding that a republic respects the rights of man. Therefore, it is a government based on the matters of the people – the literal meaning of the word in Latin – and the presumption that “the people,” the community of citizens in the political commonwealth, are equal in rights and equal before the law. After 1776, the political culture of a republic and the political culture of a monarchy are like oil and water: they don’t mix. Monarchy is an Old World encumbrance. Jefferson knew this, once writing, “I was much an enemy to monarchies before I came to Europe. I am ten thousand times more so, since I have seen what they are.”

Should the president have picked a fight with the Japanese emperor in the name of American exceptionalism and the Republic? No – but the president should have remembered the history of his office is one where chief executives have often been accused of regal behavior and imperial presidencies, and that Americans expect the president of a republic to act like a man who understands the superiority of the republican form of government. I understand that Obama offered a bow, and that he did not expect one in return. But his decision to bow (or the decision of any American president to bow) is troubling. At the very least, a man who bows before kings and emperors indicates that monarchy is a system equal in worth to what we practice in the United States. Today’s Americans are not the Federalists of the early days of the republic who knew and embraced monarchy as a potentially valid form of national government. I am not suggesting that President Obama has royal ambitions. However, I am suggesting a simple handshake would have sufficed since he is the president of nation founded on the idea that all men are created equal. Bowing and scraping before kings is not a revolutionary idea. In the vast span of history, representing a republic is.

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