Policy Papers

‘The Steady State’? Trump, administration insiders and the lessons of medieval England

Andrew Spencer |

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Executive Summary

  • How should administration insiders respond when legitimate authorities begin to behave in ways that are illegitimate?
  • The problems facing those trying to restrain Donald Trump from inside his administration are not new and parallels are suggested with late medieval England, a polity which helped to shape the US Constitution.
  • Like the anonymous Trump insider in the recent New York Times article, medieval English nobles and officials claimed to have the best interests of the king and the kingdom at heart and struggled to restrain and correct egregious behaviour on the part of the monarch.
  • Such efforts, however well-meaning, nearly always failed. Monarchs proved incapable of reform but their abuse of the great power they held became intolerable.
  • Deposition (or removal) of the monarch was not a reliable alternative course of action because it damaged the institution of monarchy, in particular opening it up to questions of legitimacy.
  • The aftermath of a disastrous monarch was often positive in medieval England as members of political society were prepared to give a legitimate successor space to make improvements to governance.  

It is ten years this month since History & Policy published John Arnold’s article on Why history matters – and why medieval history also matters. The world has changed a great deal in the intervening decade. But ‘deep-rooted argument[s] about nature, identity, nationalism and the like’, which Arnold identified as ones where medievalists could and should have ‘an important revisionary role’ only seem more prominent in the public debate. This policy paper seeks to apply Arnold’s premise that pre-modern historians have something useful to add to current policy debates. It does so not from the outside working inwards in order to suggest ways to shape policy, but rather from the inside. I examine how policy makers work with a dysfunctional leader, moving outwards to think about what that means for the state of the polity. I centre on the United States of America under President Trump, juxtaposed to England in the period between Magna Carta (1215) and the deposition of Richard II (1399), a period characterised by a highly sophisticated and powerful government machine. How did those tasked with helping dysfunctional kings rule try and (mostly) fail to restrain the improper use by these kings of the power which had been invested in them? In this analysis there are, I believe, uncomfortable truths for people of all political persuasions, and no easy solutions. But, as Arnold also wrote, ‘Sometimes history has to be difficult, because history is difficult.’

My starting point is the article, published by the New York Times on 5 September 2018, written anonymously by a ‘senior official in the Trump administration’. It outlined the ways that the author and those of like mind were ‘working diligently from within to frustrate parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations.’  The opinion piece vividly illustrates the difficulties of working with a man who exercises great power but leads in a way that is ‘impetuous, adversarial, petty and ineffective.’ The article is interesting precisely because it does not come from what the author characterises as ‘the popular “resistance” of the left’ but from a person representing those who ‘want the administration to succeed.’ It is not often that as historians we are given a ‘real-time’ on-the-record glimpse into a dysfunctional government machine (though off-the-record briefings and memoirs that lay the blame are ubiquitous now and far from unknown in earlier centuries). We should be grateful for the drawing back of the curtain. What history may suggest, however, is that the efforts of what the author calls ‘the steady state’ – well-meaning and well-wishing officials trying to hold things together in times of self-inflicted crisis – are unlikely to succeed.

It is not hard to find in history examples of men like Mr Trump in positions of extreme power, though they have usually obtained that position either through heredity, force of arms or back-room politicking, rather than through election in an established democracy. So the reader may wonder what thirteenth- and fourteenth-century England might tell us that a study of Henry VIII, Hitler or Ivan the Terrible (all of whom have been compared to Mr Trump) does not. The answer lies in the influence, sometimes conscious and sometimes unconscious, that political developments in England during this period had on the constitutional arrangements of the United States.  

The 800th anniversary of Magna Carta in 2015 reminded Britons of the central position of Magna Carta in the foundation myth of the United States. Americans themselves had never forgotten. It can be found at the very entrance to American justice – on the bronze doors of the Supreme Court itself. Installed in 1935, they depict eight events in the evolution of ‘western’ justice from Ancient Greece to the early years of the American Republic. Two date from thirteenth-century England – Magna Carta being one and Edward I, the ‘English Justinian’, promulgating the Statute of Westminster in 1275 the other.  The prominence of these two events in the American legal psyche is due to the influence of the man depicted in the next frieze, Edward Coke. Coke was Chief Justice of both Common Pleas and King’s Bench under King James I and the champion of parliamentary and judicial independence. Coke and the struggles of the British Civil Wars in the next generation were key to the way Revolutionary Americans understood themselves and their struggle against ‘the establishment of a direct Tyranny over these States.’ The Founding Fathers tended to jump straight from Magna Carta to Coke. In doing so, however, it is easy to overlook that many of the arguments and constitutional weapons that seventeenth-century opponents of Charles I had reached for, were in fact echoes of those deployed in the two centuries after Magna Carta. It was these weapons which Washington, Jefferson and their fellows, picked up again in the eighteenth century when, like their predecessors in medieval and early modern England, they faced what they regarded as ‘a long train of abuses and usurpations’ at the hands of incompetent monarchs, regarded as having capriciously abandoned the public good.

Many of President Trump’s critics regard him as a threat to the US Constitution. That document was specifically designed to maintain the balance between the different arms of government to prevent the emergence of tyranny and is imbued with the arguments and attempted solutions of medieval England. For example, the right of Congress, rather than the president, to declare war, something still denied to the British Parliament, was first proposed by the opponents of Edward II in the Ordinances of 1311. The right of Parliament to vet major executive and legal appointments, a power invested in the Senate in the US Constitution, is also found in the Ordinances but was first proposed in the so-called ‘Paper Constitution’ of 1244 and instituted in the Provisions of Oxford in 1258, both designed to rectify the flawed kingship of Henry III. The principle of judicial independence from the executive flows from the response of the Lords Appellant in the Merciless Parliament of 1388 to Richard II’s ‘questions to the judges’ of the previous year, where the king had forced his justices to declare any and all opposition to the Crown as treasonable. Finally, the process of impeachment, so talked about in relation to President Trump, was a legal device invented during the Good Parliament of 1376 as a means of breaking apart the household cabal which was perceived as having taken control of the ailing Edward III to the damage of the common weal.

None of these ideas was uncontroversial in late medieval England and, indeed, most were conceded by kings in moments of temporary political weakness and then rescinded as soon they were able to do so, often with dire consequences for those who had imposed them. These restrictions on royal power, and others that can be found in the great constitutional documents and set-pieces of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, were the way Englishmen of this period tried to wrestle with a universal historical dilemma – how should one react when a legitimate authority begins to behave illegitimately? That medieval English kings were able to escape from so many of the restraints which their subjects occasionally imposed on them reflects the medieval frame of mind which respected and prized the institution of the Crown as central to how governance should work. Echoes of this can be found in the image of ‘the steady state’ presented by the author of the New York Times article.

In the popular imagination, medieval England was populated by ‘over-mighty’ nobles who squabbled amongst themselves and plotted against their kings. This image is most vividly brought to life on our screens in Game of Thrones but dates back to at least the dawn of professional history in the late nineteenth century. Such a view has not been accepted by medievalists, however, who recognise instead that the fundamental interests of the Crown and of landed society (i.e. the nobility and gentry) in medieval England were aligned and that, consequently, king and landowners were natural allies, not natural opponents.  Such an idea was commonplace among medieval political theorists. Good kingship in late medieval England was parliamentary kingship, meaning that king and Parliament worked together for the betterment of ‘the common affairs of the kingdom’, as the Modus Tenendi Parliamentum (‘How to Hold a Parliament’) from the reign of Edward II puts it.  

Opposing the king outright and seeking to impose restrictions upon the exercise of his power was not a first response to poor kingship but a last resort. In his coronation oath, the king promised to uphold the laws, customs and liberties of the realm, to keep the peace and to dispense justice ‘rightly, impartially and wisely’. These promises underpinned the security of tenure for landowners which was the basis of their power. They therefore had a vested interest in upholding the power of the Crown. As the Lord Chancellor put it in a speech opening the parliament of 1397, ‘to the end that kings should be powerful enough to govern their subjects, they have been given many privileges by right…which they are bound at their coronation to keep and maintain, and those they cannot alienate or translate to another use’. 

The nobility thus needed and wanted the king to be powerful enough to maintain the law at all times. Their difficulty was that they also needed the king voluntarily to place himself below the law. This principle lay at the heart of Magna Carta and was eloquently discussed a few decades later in the greatest English law tract of the middle ages, De legibus et consuetudinibus Anglie (‘On the Laws and Customs of England’), which dates from the 1230s:

Therefore as long as he does justice he is the vicar of the eternal king, but the devil’s minister when he deviates into injustice, for he is called rex not from reigning but from ruling well since he is a king as long as he rules well but a tyrant when he oppresses by violent domination the people entrusted to his care. Let him, therefore, temper his power by law, which is the bridle of power, for the law of mankind has decreed that his own laws bind the lawgiver…and he ought properly to yield to the law what the law has bestowed upon him, for the law makes him king.

English government grew ever more extensive and invasive over the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, in response to external war against the Scots and the French. This threw into ever sharper focus the paradox of late medieval English kingship: a royal authority so strong and essential to the public good that kings who misused it rapidly became intolerable to the community of the realm. The same might be said for the presidency of the United States since Franklin Roosevelt. England could muddle through a King Stephen in the twelfth century just as America could survive the incompetence and corruption of presidents like Jackson, Tyler, Grant and Harding, but kings like Edward II or Richard II, or presidents like Nixon or Trump, fall too far from the ideals of an office imbued with both mystical authority and great practical power.

Medieval nobles saw it as their right and duty to counsel their king and to help him govern, they were his ‘partners and co-workers’ as one of them put it. That did not mean that they were unable to see the flaws of the kings set over them. Like the administration insider, they came face-to-face with failed leadership on a daily basis. Men such as Aymer de Valence, earl of Pembroke, in the reign of Edward II or John of Gaunt under Richard II would have recognised those shared traits of failed rule. They, like the insider, saw themselves as the ‘adults in the room’ and would have sympathised with the officials in the White House ‘trying to do what’s right even when Donald Trump won’t’. The Council of Fifteen in 1258, the Lords Ordainers in 1311 or the Lords Appellant in 1388 did not see themselves as opponents of the king, still less the Crown, but as men trying to do what was right for the public when the king would not. This is not to present all medieval nobles as paragons of public-spirited virtue; they sought the advancement of their own interests assiduously at all times. But self-interest does not preclude a perception of the national interest.   

The difficulty which faced those seeking to restrain kings who failed to uphold their coronation oath and instead set the law at naught was neatly summed up by the fourteenth-century Italian thinker, Marsilius of Padua. Restraining a prince guilty of only ‘slight excess’ would render him ‘an object of contempt; and…the citizens as a result [would] show less reverence and obedience to the law and to the prince.’ Those opponents of Trump now and of Bill Clinton in the 1990s who reach so quickly for the instrument of impeachment to overturn the verdict of the ballot box might do well to remember this injunction. It is, however, the dilemma which the insider, whether at the court of Edward II or in Trump’s White House, faces repeatedly. Where does one draw the line between incompetence and malevolence in a leader? What should one’s response be when your duty is not just to the holder of the office but to the office itself and, more generally, to the people under its rule?

The instinct of the White House insider, as it was for the earl of Pembroke and many like him, seems to be to remain on the inside and to ‘do what we can to steer the administration in the right direction’. The lessons of the thirteenth- and fourteenth-century cannot offer the insider much hope. Incompetence in the very powerful cannot be cured and malevolence cannot be mitigated. King John could never be trusted; Henry III never learned how to rule effectively, and Richard II never outgrew his obsession that his rightful power was being denied him by the nobles who had exercised power when he ascended the throne as a boy. The verdict of the Articles of Accusation against Edward II in 1327 can be applied equally to Donald Trump: ‘by his cruelty and lack of character he has shown himself incorrigible and without hope of amendment, which things are so notorious that they cannot be denied.’

So is the administration insider better off working towards the president’s removal from office – his deposition, to use a medieval term? The historical precedent there, however, is no more encouraging, something that the insider recognises. ‘Early whispers within the cabinet of invoking the 25th amendment’ were rejected because ‘no-one wanted to precipitate a constitutional crisis.’ Those driven to oppose medieval monarchs faced the same problem – removing the king against his will threatened to damage the monarchy almost as much, even more perhaps, as keeping an inadequate king in place. It was only when, as with Edward II and Richard II, their rule became so intolerable as to threaten security of tenure for the landed classes that their opponents reached, as the final resort, for deposition. As with America and Nixon, however, deposition was camouflaged by the language of abdication, thus allowing ‘insiders’ to persuade themselves that they had merely speeded up the natural processes of succession. This worked in the case of Edward II for there was a clear successor – Edward III – who was also supremely competent. It worked less well in 1399 with Richard II. The hereditary claim of Henry Bolingbroke to become Henry IV was not so clear-cut. The Lancastrian dynasty survived early attempts to remove it but was undone by what one historian has called ‘the abysmalness of Henry VI.’ It was questions of Henry VI’s legitimacy that allowed Edward IV to depose him and these questions were at the heart of Edward’s own temporary deposition in 1470-1 and that of his son in 1483. It is concerning for the health of the presidency to see the language of illegitimacy being used by opponents of presidents of both parties since Bill Clinton. Those wishing to see the overthrow of President Trump might reflect on the observation of Thomas Aquinas that the removal of a king could only be condoned if those doing so knew that what came after would be better. It is hard to be sure whether those who call loudest for Trump’s impeachment would be happier under President Pence.              

Those who, like the administration insider and the nobles of late medieval England, see themselves as part of ‘the Steady State’ too often find themselves caught between a rock and a hard place. Tolerate tyranny and misgovernment, or diminish the office of head of state to such an extent that it becomes extremely difficult for its holder to exercise its power effectively. England eventually found its solution to the problem of monarchical irresponsibility in the Civil Wars and the Glorious Revolution of 1688 by subordinating the monarchy to Parliament. The US Constitution inherits that legacy and thus President Trump will pass into history in two or six years’ time. The key for all Americans at that point is to repair ‘not what Mr Trump has done to the presidency but rather what we as a nation have allowed him to do to us.’ The administration insider is surely correct in invoking Senator McCain’s farewell plea for unity. Here there is perhaps another lesson from medieval England. At various points from Magna Carta onwards, and invariably under failed kingship, England descended into internal violence, sometimes political in nature but often just people taking advantage of failed governance and order to settle scores. Real violence often seems not far from the surface of American life but a tempering of the violence of discourse used by all sides is surely necessary if some common ground is to be found. People will always disagree over policy but citizens need to rediscover some faith in their institutions; and those who staff those institutions, of whatever political persuasion they may be, must find ways of rewarding that faith. 

Let us end with a little hope. The comforting lesson from medieval England is that under kings like Edward I, Edward III and Henry V who were both competent and purposeful, ‘the steady state’ was able to achieve remarkable things. The government that appeared so fractious under their predecessors suddenly appeared unified and effective. The Flemish chronicler Jean le Bel wrote in the mid-fourteenth century that ‘between two worthy English kings there has often been one of less wisdom and prowess.’ Part of the explanation for this lies in the capriciousness of heredity. But it also can be found in the willingness of political society, having looked over the precipice during times of crisis, to take a step back and give the new king time and space to find a way of governing that worked for most of the people most of the time. Let us hope that the American people are willing to give their next president, whomever they may be, the same latitude and benefit of the doubt. 

Further Reading

J. Baker, The Reinvention of Magna Carta, 1216-1616 (Cambridge University Press, 2017)

C. Carpenter, ‘Resisting and Deposing Kings in England in the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries’, Murder and Monarchy: Regicide in European History, 1300-1800, ed. Robert von Friedburg, (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004).

D. Carpenter, Magna Carta: a new translation (London: Penguin, 2015).

A. Jobson, The First English Revolution: Simon de Montfort, Henry III and the Barons’ War (London: Bloomsbury, 2012).

K.B. McFarlane, The Nobility of Later Medieval England: the Ford Lectures of 1953 and related studies (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973).

A.M. Spencer, ‘Dealing with Inadequate Kingship: uncertain responses from Magna Carta to Deposition, 1199-1327’, Thirteenth Century England, 16 (2017).

C. Valente, The Theory and Practice of Revolt in Medieval England (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2003).

B. Wilkinson, Constitutional History of Medieval England, 1216-1399, 3 vols. (London: Longmans, 1948-58 [where many of the key constitutional documents can be found in translation].

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