Monarchy: Limits on Royal Authority

The late modern presidency is easily wielded as an instrument of tyranny. Popular sovereignty is taken as a mandate to do anything of which the majority approves, because the authority of a president is said to come from the people.[1] Nec audiendi qui solent dicere, Vox populi, vox Dei, quum tumultuositas vulgi semper insaniae proxima sit (‘nor are they to be heard who are used to saying, “The voice of the people is the voice of God,” when the tumultuousness of the crowd is always close to madness’); much uninformed popular opinion is merely 游談囈語 (‘drifting talk and delirious words’).[2]

Unlike democratically elected presidents, Christian kings are groomed for the duties of ruling nations, taught to know both the origin and the limits of their authority. A Christian sovereign knows that his rule comes from the sovereign of all nations, the King of Kings; established lawfully by God, he must accept that he has the duty to defend the Christian faith and that his subjects have traditional liberties (e.g. the right to petition for a writ of habeas corpus), and therefore that his rule is not arbitrary but lawful. No one can be punished, therefore, except through the law of the land, which rests on the sovereignty of Almighty God.

There are further limits on royal power. Kings, like judges, may be impeached by Parliament; new taxes (extraordinary revenue) must be raised with the consent of Parliament; and no standing army may be maintained during a time of peace without the consent of Parliament. Blocking tyranny, Parliament’s check on royal power may also spur economic growth by securing property rights.

Further advantageous to a monarchical system is that revolution, if people do their duty, is but a rare corrective to abuses of power, and so it can generally avoid mob rule. As outlined by Charles Bartlett in an explanation of the English litany, political-religious duty in the Church descends hierarchically: king, royal issue, bishops and clergy, nobility and magistrates, people.[3] If the king must be deposed, the duty belongs first to the royal issue, then to the clergy, nobility and lesser magistrates, to do so in advance of a popular revolution.

For those who value order and liberty, then, a robust monarchy can be a good thing.


[1] Constitutional scholar Bruce Ackerman predicts in The Decline and Fall of the American Republic (Harvard Univ. Press, 2010), page 9, that American presidents will ‘assert “mandates from the people” to evade or ignore congressional statutes when public opinion polls support decisive action’.

[2] While I know that the School of Salamanca advanced arguments for popular sovereignty against ‘the errors of the Anglican sect’, not knowing these arguments I cannot address them.

[3] This seems to have been the Chinese standard as well. As Mencius 5B.9 records,

‘King Xuan of Qi asked about high ministers. ¶ Mencius said, “Which high ministers is the king asking about?” ¶ The king said, “Are the ministers not the same?” ¶ “They are not the same. There are ministers who are from the royal line and ministers who are of other surnames.” ¶ The king said, “May I inquire about those who are of the royal line?” ¶ “If the ruler has great faults, they should remonstrate with him. If, after they have done so repeatedly, he does not listen, they should depose him.” ¶ The king suddenly changed countenance. ¶ “You should not misunderstand. You inquired of me, your minister, and I dare not respond except truthfully.” ¶ The king’s countenance became composed once again, and he then inquired about high ministers of a different surname. ¶ “If the ruler has faults, they should remonstrate with him. If they do so repeatedly, and he does not listen, they should leave.” ’


2 responses to “Monarchy: Limits on Royal Authority

  1. Symbolic power will always be present in a nation: one of the benefits of constitutional monarchy is that it ensures that symbolic power is exercised by one with limited actual power, providing an important check to tyranny.

    In addition to the points that you make, Christian monarchy also serves to remind us that our nation is something that we inherit from our fathers, and must bequeath to our children. We have a patrimony to maintain, and a legacy that we must pass on. Where monarchy is forgotten, people can start to believe that the nation is something that can be invented anew in every generation.


    • This is why I fear for a China that forgets its monarchy. In the tumult surrounding the establishment of the Republic in the 1910s–20s, much was discarded and the people radicalized in favour of Western novelties. In the wake of this iconoclasm, which later took extreme shape in the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese clergy, both at home and abroad, no longer know what to do with traditional Chinese culture, and their engagement is shallow. This leaves many Chinese Christians, both in North America and elsewhere, susceptible to all the anti-catholic excesses of Western Evangelical culture, since they’ve largely axed their own civilization in favour of mass pop culture.

      At the same time, the civilization’s deep-seated flaws are still there, hidden by the destruction of its ritual forms. Without forms, problems become very hard to evaluate, especially if the destruction of the form signifies, misleadingly, the destruction of the thing.


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