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Uneasy Lies the Head that Sleeps in the White House

by Daniel Szechi on Dec 21, 1998

Daniel Szechi

An ominous, chill quality permeated impeachment proceedings in Congress at the close of last week. And rightfully so, for the House of Representatives solemnly debated whether the President should be put on trial for his political life. If the Senate now convicts him, the political body of President Clinton will cease to exist. He will, in effect, be executed.

But the private, physical body of citizen Clinton will survive. This was not always the case with grievously erring heads of state in times past. Within the Anglo-American constitutional tradition — the tradition that nurtured the framers of the US constitution — the consequences of criminal behaviour, or simple incapacity, on the part of the chief executive were often much more terrible.

So how did the English, who provided the framers with most of their constitutional examples, deal with criminal, or incapable, heads of state in times gone by? What did they do with monarchs who outraged the people?

Before 1600 (the period most of the English precedents come from), of course, one has to be careful when using concepts like “the people”. For all practical purposes the only people who mattered politically were the feudal barons who lorded it over the rest of society from their great castles.

Any king who wanted to do anything significant had to have their support. And if he angered them enough, those barons would rebel and wage war against him.

King John, for example, managed to exasperate so many of his barons by his incompetence and petty tyranny that they rebelled in overwhelming numbers, cornered him at Runnymede in 1215, and forced him to concede the declaration of rights known as Magna Carta. Likewise even the mighty Henry VIII (of six wives fame), was forced to withdraw a new tax — the so-called “Amicable Grant” of 1525 — in the face of massive armed opposition.

In other similar situations the kings usually won such wars, or were able to negotiate some kind of compromise that left them in power. Both John and Henry kept their crowns and their heads on their shoulders by timely concessions. But sometimes, when the king pushed the barons too far, they would wage war to the death — his.

Between 1066 and 1547, twenty kings ruled England — and seven of them (maybe eight — there is a distinct possibility that William II was assassinated) died violent deaths at the hands of their subjects. Some, like Edward II and Henry VI, were defeated, captured, formally deposed by the barons, and then quietly murdered. Others, like Richard I and Richard III, died fighting the rebels. Another two, King Stephen in 1141 and Henry III in 1264, were captured and imprisoned and were lucky to escape with their lives.

Though it might look like it, the English barons were not simply being violent for the sake of it. They actually had very few options when it came to dealing with a tyrant king (or one they simply perceived as bad for the community of the realm). Legally, English monarchs were answerable only to God. Which meant that the only way to get rid of one for good was to kill him.

So regicide — king-killing — became the tried and tested, unofficial English form of impeachment of the head of state. Quite rightly, the framers of the US constitution rejected taking the president’s life as an appropriate way of controlling the behaviour of the chief executive. Instead they made the Presidency answerable to Congress, and substituted a vote of impeachment and a trial in the Senate for war and murder.

And so when the current impeachment process becomes scandalously partisan, or downright unfair, it is worth remembering the old English alternative. Even from William Jefferson Clinton’s point of view a modern US impeachment is a considerable improvement on the way things used to be done.

Daniel Szechi is a professor of history at Auburn University and a writer for the History News Service.