“What subject can give sentence on his king?/And who sits here that is not Richard’s subject?” asked a clergyman from Shakespeare’s “Richard II,” written about 1595. The clergyman continued: “And shall the figure of God’s majesty,/His captain, steward, deputy elect,/Anointed, crowned, planted many years,/Be judged by subject and inferior breath?”
The answer was “yes.” His cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, a more competent and popular leader, “gave sentence” on the corrupt Richard, forced him to abdicate and replaced him.
This Shakespearean quote briefly articulates the Divine Right Theory of Kings, an idea embraced within a decade by King James I of England and later his son, Charles I. In 1649, Charles tried to impress his Divine Right on a skeptical Parliament after it charged him with high treason.
Charles denied Parliament’s lawful authority: “I have a trust committed to me by God … I will not betray it to answer a new unlawful authority.” John Bradshaw, the Parliament’s judge, responded that the bond of protection the king owed the subject was broken by the king, and with it the bond of subjection owed the king. He called the king not a “protector of England,” but a “destroyer of England.”
The poet, John Milton, argued in his “Tenure of Kings and Magistrates” that Charles reigned like any tyrant, “regarding neither law nor the common good, (reigning) only for himself and his faction.” He believed that since the power of a king is derived from the people, the people have the right to sit in judgment on his corrupt and tyrannical behavior.
Charles was found guilty of high treason and beheaded on Jan. 30, 1649.
Parliament and Milton rejected Divine Right Theory in favor of Social Contract Theory, a theory that proclaimed an essential, negotiable bond between the ruler’s legitimate authority and the natural rights of the citizen. This theory was later elaborated on, with various shadings of meaning, by Thomas Hobbes, Jean Jacques Rousseau and John Locke.
In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson echoed Locke’s revolutionary beliefs in his opening remarks. Jefferson wrote that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
These truths certainly were not evident to George III and the other kings of Europe.
When Jefferson wrote “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,” this seemed like agnostic and subversive nonsense to George III and the other kings of Europe.
And when Jefferson wrote “That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government,” he unequivocally rejected the Divine Right Theory of Kings and asserted the judicial power of the people — a frightening prospect to George III and the other kings of Europe.
The framers of the Constitution believed a check on authoritarian power was so urgent that they inscribed it in the last sentence of Article I: “The House of Representatives …shall have the sole Power of Impeachment.”
Is it possible that in these “worst of times,” the Divine Right Theory has emerged zombie-like from the graveyard of history?
In a recent Salon article, Amanda Marcotte stated that “Trump is channeling … the beliefs of evangelical conservatives (who) are telling Trump, regularly and in grandiose terms, that he is in fact the Chosen One and has been anointed by God to be the president at this point in time.”
Katherine Stewart, in a New York Times article, stated that many white evangelicals believe that Trump “is a miracle sent straight from heaven to bring the nation back to the Lord” and “that resistance to Mr. Trump is tantamount to resistance to God.” And those who do resist Trump through impeachment are guilty of “regicide by another name,” according to Fox News contributor Joe Di Genova.
In his Oct. 8 letter to the House Committee members conducting the impeachment inquiry, Trump rejected congressional authority. His letter declares that he does not recognize and will not cooperate with the impeachment proceedings because they are “constitutionally invalid.” So the battle is joined.
When concerned citizens point to the looming Constitutional Crisis, this is the issue: Are we going to abide by the principles inscribed in our founding documents outlining the powers of the three branches of government with its clear limits on executive power, or are we going to return to a period in which mystical, quasi-divine mumbo-jumbo may be claimed by a corrupt, incompetent and unpopular leader?
William Shaw, of Pinehurst, is the author of “Fellowship of Dust: Retracing the WWII Journey of Sergeant Frank Shaw.”