- Historic Sites
The British Vew
The recent British ambassador to Washington takes a generous-spirited but clear-eyed look at the document that, as he points out, owes its existence to King George III
May/June 1987 | Volume 38, Issue 4
The guest at the British Embassy in Washington, D.C., leaves his car and is ushered through a comparatively modest, low-ceilinged entrance hall. The architect, Edwin Lutyens, wished to surprise him, for the entrance hall opens up into a magnificent double staircase that mounts toward the still more opulent reception rooms above, the central feature of which is a sixty-six-yard-long corridor. It is Lutyens’s equivalent of Beethoven’s transition to the finale of his C Minor Symphony. “Lovely corridors,” said a distinguished predecessor of mine, before my wife and I came. “Lutyens loved corridors, couldn’t stand rooms.” In fact, the rooms are pretty good too.
The guest arriving at the embassy has a choice: Turn left up the staircase and go past the magnificent state portrait of George III; turn right and go up past the stately portrait of his wife, Queen Charlotte. I always used to encourage my guests to pause and contemplate the portrait of George III, dressed in his coronation robes. “I hope you realize,” I would say, “that America owes its greatness to that man.” My guests’ eyes would glaze over in disbelief. I would go on. “Yes, for if he had not been so stupid … ,” and the rest of the sentence would be lost in laughter.
In fact, the United States would not be the place it is, nor its Constitution the magnificent document it is, if George III and his ministers had been sensible enough to receive the delegation of colonists sent to London in 1775 with the Olive Branch Petition requesting a peaceful redress of their grievances.
But they were not received, so they returned to America, pretty fed up, I shouldn’t wonder. And the Revolution went inexorably on its way. Independence was proclaimed, and the two score or more well-educated country gentlemen wrote one of the seminal political documents of mankind: the United States Constitution. Thanks to George III.
We are all, indeed, civilized by the existence of the United States Constitution.
Many ideals motivated them, but of one thing I am certain: They were determined that no man should govern them in the way that George III had governed them. So they set about devising a system of government as different as it was possible to be from the British system. If they had merely wanted their independence, they could perfectly well have taken as their inheritance the British parliamentary system, suitably modified, as indeed Canada and Australia were to do later. Basically Britain is still governed as it was governed by George III, plus a few modern innovations, like universal adult suffrage. Fundamentally the British system of government flows in a continuous stream from the Magna Carta in 1215—in Churchill’s phrase, “Liberty broadening down from precedent to precedent.” It works quite well for us. I doubt it would for you.
I’m glad you didn’t try. For the parliamentary system of government gives —for the five years’ duration of the legislature—astonishing power to the executive, provided it enjoys a majority in the House of Commons. Perhaps that does not matter for a medium-sized nation like Britain, whose capacity to do harm, even if it wanted to, is pretty limited. But give the executive of a superpower, even a friendly neighborhood superpower like the United States, powers of that magnitude, and we all should be in trouble. For those well-educated country gentlemen looked at George III and looked into their own hearts, and they saw that if the United States was to become the sort of place they wanted to live in, then power, which tends to corrupt all, had to be shackled.
And they saw that the best way to shackle it was to ensure that no man or woman could get hold of too much of it. So was born, based on the separation of powers, the Constitution of the United States, and the admiration and despair alike of America’s friends and foes.
Admiration, certainly, for both its form and its content. Who can fail to be moved by its language, poised as it is halfway in time between Shakespeare and Churchill and with the cadences natural to both? Who has so little poetry in his soul that he does not thrill to the era’s other great charter, when it says, “We hold these Truths to be self-evident with the same ecstatic shudder that comes over him at, say, the start of Richard III: “Now is the winter of our discontent/Made glorious summer by this sun of York.” The reason is obvious: the U.S. Constitution, like the Declaration of Independence, was written by gentlemen educated in Shakespeare’s iambic pentameters.
There is admiration, too, for its political sophistication, which gives powers to the President and takes them away again; which seems to give but finally avoids conferring power on the Congress, since neither Senate nor House of Representatives can operate, except in limited circumstances, on its own; and which then sets up the Supreme Court, with the power to disallow what the other two coequal branches of government may have agreed to. The President of the United States is not, as the cliché would have it, the most powerful man in the world; he is only President of the most powerful country in the world.