A Case Against American Monarchy

Monarchy does not fit within the American political tradition, nor is it the only form of good government, as some traditionalists suggest.

Many traditional Catholics online advocate for monarchy. I am not necessarily opposed to this idea. I believe the 20th century, a century characterized by tyranny and genocide, showed us that modern and “enlightened” governments do far worse damage than anything the Old Regime could muster. 

Monarchists sometimes point to the Habsburgs of the Holy Roman Empire as an ideal for Christendom. I am inclined to agree with this idea. My great-great grandfather was born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire during the reign of Emperor Franz Joseph. I believe the Habsburgs were one of the great defenders of the Catholic Church for many centuries.

However, the aforementioned does not mean that monarchy suits America well. Monarchy does not fit within the American political tradition, nor is it the only form of good government, as some traditionalists suggest.

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One issue with monarchy as a “return to tradition” in the United States is that there is no tradition of monarchy in this country. No king of Britain ever even visited the Thirteen Colonies. Only in 1939 did a king of Britain, King George VI, set foot on American soil. 

At the risk of insulting the reader’s intelligence, the United States broke away from an albeit weak monarchy in Great Britain. The purpose of the American founding was to maintain a level of self-governance the North American colonists enjoyed until roughly the end of the French and Indian War. Only then did the British Parliament become much more hands on in governing the Thirteen Colonies. The American founding, therefore, was more of a continuation of a political tradition of self-government in the Anglo tradition than a starting point for a new political tradition. 

If anything, a move toward monarchy in the United States would be more akin to the French Revolution. The comparison seems comical at first. One might question how a movement toward monarchy could be similar to the revolution which committed the most famous regicide? However, the French Revolution, unlike the American, sought to totally upend the traditional political system of France at the time. 

At the end of the 18th century, France had very little experience with a limited monarchy, let alone a constitution establishing a representative government. Furthermore, the Declaration of the Rights of Man, the constitution of the French Revolution, forbade the Church from enforcing any moral standard, which again broke heavily from French tradition at the time. An American monarchy would as well constitute a totally new political system, with just as alien a political tradition, perhaps as inorganically as the French Revolution. 

The United States has never had an official nobility, let alone a royal family. From which cast of society would we even select a king? To at least accept the premise that Americans would move forward with a monarchy, one question the Catholic monarchists fail to address is: Who would the new royal family be? If America were to stick with its current informal political royalty, it would end up being families with names the likes of Bush, Clinton, Obama, or Kennedy, none of which is what traditional Catholics think about when they ponder this issue. 

If one wanted to stick with the nation’s tradition, the House of Windsor, the British Royal Family, would be a logical pick. But, obviously, this would disappoint most of the Catholics who desire this change. Firstly, the Windsors are Protestant not Catholic. Secondly, which member of the family would be chosen to rule from sea to shining sea? One could only imagine the disaster if Prince Harry maintained his titles within the family and then was selected to rule America as Britain’s sister monarchy across the pond. 

To satisfy the traditionalist’s fantasy here, perhaps one could look to the German House of Wittelsbach. The Wittelsbachs once had, and theoretically still have, a claim on the British throne. One can trace the Wittelsbach involvement in British royal politics back to the line of Jacobite succession to the throne, which insisted on a Catholic line of succession to the British throne. 

Though Wittelsbachs have essentially abandoned their claim to the British throne centuries ago, if the United States were to seek a Catholic monarch, this family could provide a possible solution. Perhaps ironically, the House of Wittelsbach also once claimed the throne of the Holy Roman Empire around the time when the Habsburgs secured an essential monopoly on that title; ironic because the Holy Roman Empire is often the model pointed to by traditional Catholics as an example of an ideal nation. 

Many people usually think about the Habsburgs as the emperors of the Holy Roman Empire. However, for most of its early history, a group of electors bestowed the imperial title on the new emperor. Therefore, during the medieval period, the Empire was closer to a rule of few than a rule of one, to cite Aristotle’s types of regimes. 

Though small, eventually settling at seven prince-electors, four secular and three ecclesiastical, imperial title was not exactly hereditary until the rise of the Habsburgs in the late 15th century. Interestingly enough, around the time of the rise of the Habsburgs, the empire allowed for Protestant prince-electors as a result of religious violence stemming from the growth of Protestantism, which some traditionalists could view as a cave to the heretics. 

What was the Holy Roman Empire? Though historians have debated this question for many years, essentially the Empire was a loose confederation of German principalities ruled by an emperor. The crowning of such an emperor was initiated with the coronation of Charlemagne by Pope Leo III on Christmas day in the year 800. This coronation was an exchange of legitimacy for Charlemagne and protection for the pope from factions hostile to him in Rome. 

It was also an opportunity to attempt to resurrect a Roman Empire in the West. At the time, Empress Irene occupied the throne to the Byzantine Empire, then still called the Roman Empire. Though Irene sat on the same throne as many great Caesars, the same throne as Augustus, Trajan, Theodosius, etc., some claimed the throne was vacant at that time, as a woman occupied it. Therefore, Western Europe saw this as an opening to reinstate an emperor for the first time since A.D. 476.

Even though the Holy Roman Empire is usually associated with papal coronations and defense, it also was at the center of some serious Church controversies during the Middle Ages. The investiture controversy, for example, largely centered around Emperor Henry IV. The issue at the heart of the investiture controversy was who had the power to appoint bishops. Henry IV believed he had the power to appoint bishops within his realm, while Pope Gregory VII attempted to assert his authority to appoint ecclesiastical princes. 

Ultimately, the Concordat of Worms decided that the pope would continue to appoint bishops but that they would swear an oath of fealty to the emperor. Still, such a controversy demonstrates that even the relationship between the Church and the Empire whose emperors she crowned was not always amicable. The idea that the relationship between Church and Empire was always, or even usually, harmonic is a bit of a fantasy.

Some traditionalists will also disparage the United States as a republic, claiming monarchy is the only good form of government. They sometimes claim that the fall of Christian monarchy led to the demise of the 20th century, a claim with which I generally agree. However, major Catholic theologians would disagree that monarchy constitutes the only good form of government. 

St. Thomas Aquinas believed the best system of government would mix the best elements of rule of one, rule of few, and rule of many. Aquinas called for a virtuous king along with an aristocracy to advise him. Such a stance for monarchy only would also ignore the Catholic republics which have flourished over the centuries, such as Venice, which lasted as a republic for over a thousand years. 

The United States, at least in its founding, mirrored Aquinas’ mixed system rather well. There were elements of the rule of one in the president at the head of the Executive Branch, rule of few in the Senate and the Supreme Court, and rule of many in the Congress. Over the course of American history, the way the government functions has changed drastically, with far too much power shifting to unelected bureaucrats in the Executive Branch, but this is more a criticism of how to run the system than the system itself. The United States, at least in its founding, mirrored Aquinas’ mixed system rather well.Tweet This

Therefore, though Catholic monarchy produced much good for Europe over many centuries, it is not the only form of good government. Catholic monarchy was also not always perfect, though no system created by man alone can ever attain perfection. One must consider the history and tradition of a nation to determine what government works best. Rather than trying to overhaul our system in the United States, American Catholics ought to work within the system and get our people into positions of power to forward the changes we want to see in our nation. 


  • Thomas Shaffern

    Thomas Shaffern studied history, philosophy, and theology at the University of Scranton. He is now a high school teacher in Pennsylvania.

tagged as: Monarchy Politics

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