Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

“Obama as Stuart,” By Nathan Coleman

Both political pundits and the general public often compare presidents to one another, usually in order to help defend or attack presidential actions.  For example, just about every major political scandal since 1973 has been given “gate” at the end of it in recognition of the Watergate scandal that destroyed the Nixon presidency.  While absolute comparisons are clearly impossible to make—each President is faced with different contextual circumstances, after all—nevertheless, some similar actions and responses can, and should, be noted.  If the caveat of context is kept in mind, these comparisons are useful, easy, and quick ways to help explain discontent or satisfaction with a presidential administration.

The current administration is no different.  When President Obama was first elected in 2008 newspapers and other publications went to great lengths in the attempt to describe the Illinois Senator as the second coming of FDR and Lincoln all rolled into one.  Whether President Obama can be compared to both Roosevelt and Lincoln is debatable (and depends on how positively or negatively you see Lincoln and FDR), yet there is a better—if somewhat surprising—historical comparison that can be made with the Obama administration, that of Charles I, the king of England from 1625–1651.

When side-by-side comparisons between the two are made, the similarities are quite stark.  Here’s is a quick list of several of the more striking comparisons between the two.

1: Both embraced political ideas that were alien to the country they ruled:

Charles I embraced the Divine Right/Absolutism idea of Monarchy, which held that Monarchs were God’s chosen ruler of the people and must, therefore, be absolutely obeyed.  Englishmen of the period had long rejected the idea that the Monarch and his/her rule was absolute. Rather, they embraced an idea that their constitutional system was predicated on customs and rights that dated back since “time immemorial.”

President Obama has embraced a Marxist/Extreme Progressivism, which essentially tries making the state all-intrusive and powerful.  Although Americans have accepted certain statist elements in their system for around a century, they nevertheless still profess to accept the basic tenets that the government should be limited by constitutional proscription.

2: Charles and Obama have little respect for dissenting religious beliefs. 

During Charles I reign, his Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud, persecuted various dissenting sects—those protestant branches that did not conform to the Church of England—with the Puritans, Presbyterians, and Quakers being the most famous of his victims.  This persecution, which was intense and often violent, was one of the causes for the growth of the New England Puritan colonies in the mid-17th century, as well as a driving cause behind the English Civil War and Charles’ military conflict with Scotland.

While President Obama has not engaged in such an obtuse scheme, his administration has displayed a shocking lack of respect for religious freedom and thought by attempting to force religious-affiliated hospitals, schools, and businesses, such as Hobby Lobby, to embrace and pay for activities that they consider morally repugnant.  On top of that, there is increasing evidence that the Obama administration is persecuting Christian military chaplains who refuse to endorse homosexual marriage or couples.

3: Both force individuals to pay taxes without Legislative Consent. 

In 1629, Charles I dissolved Parliament when that body did not grant him the funds he desired for a war.  For eleven years, known as the “Personal Rule,” Charles governed England without Parliament.  When he needed funds, he simply taxed his subjects without Parliamentary consent.  The most famous of these taxes was the “Shipmoney Tax,” used to help pay for ship building in wartime.  The tax had been moribund for three centuries when Charles I resurrected it.   When Englishmen objected on the grounds that the King could not raise taxes without Parliament’s consent, Crown-Appointed Judges sided with Charles I in the famous case of Rex v. Hampden.

President Obama’s signature piece of Legislation, the Affordable Care Act, also mandates that people pay a fee if they do not enter into insurance policies as part of the measure.  While a large portion of the American people rejected the notion that the American federal government could ever mandate the public to purchase anything, or otherwise face a fine for failing to do so, the Obama Administration, just like Charles, had a friendly court to rule otherwise.  In fact, in his stunning 2012 opinion Chief Justice John Roberts argued that the fee was actually a tax that had to be paid if the person was opting out of the ACA since the dollar amount associated was not burdensome, even though Congress did not pass the measure as tax (as an aside: the ACA now legally being a tax raises another constitutional question since the measure originated with the Senate and not the House, as the Constitution commands). As if the ACA and the court’s decision were not enough to threaten liberty, recently the Obama administration has floated the idea of having the FAA raise taxes on cell-phone users without Congressional approval.

4: Both make extensive use of Secret Courts.

If opponents of Charles I became too vocal, they would often find themselves hauled before the infamous Star Chamber court to face Sedition (treason) charges.  These courts possessed no juries—one of the bedrocks of liberty—and made decisions based upon the flimsiest of evidence. Archbishop Laud used the courts to tremendous effect during this persecution of religious dissidents. When Parliament finally reorganized after the Personal Rule, one of its first actions was to abolish the Star Chamber.

Obama has his own secret court.  Its responsibility is to oversee the various domestic spying surveillance agencies used by the Obama administration. To be sure, this court was created before his Presidency and was also used by his predecessor. Nevertheless, under President Obama those functions have increased dramatically, and it is unclear what, exactly, that information has been used for.

5: Rampant disregard for the rule of law and constitutionalism.

Charles I had little regard for English constitutionalism. Despite paying lip service to England’s Ancient Constitution, by considering himself God’s agent he scoffed at any real limitation upon his authority. Rather, he sought to make his will the constitution.  The entire purpose of the Personal Rule was, of course, to promulgate law at his own discretion without Parliament’s input, aid, or assistance.  There would be no rule of law; his will would be the rule of law.

Obama has demonstrated a remarkably similar disregard for constitutional norms.  In 2009, he ordered Chrysler to disobey well-established bankruptcy laws for a system of his own preference—which, of course, was to pay off his Auto Worker Union supports.  More recently, Obama unilaterally suspended the implementation of elements of the Affordable Care Act without any legal authority to do so.  When asked by what authority he did this, he cited none (because he had none) but mentioned the Republican control of the House of Representatives.  His administration has also granted 1,800 waivers—or exemptions—to businesses regarding the Affordable Care Act.   The recipients of these waivers do not have to participate in the implementation of the law.  The equal application of the law, one of the foundational aspects of the rule of law, means little to nothing if a President can arbitrarily decide to whom the law applies and to whom it does not.

The list of comparisons could go on, but these are five of the most obvious and constitutionally serious ones.  The next time you consider comparing presidents to one another, also consider looking at other historical examples.  Very often, those comparisons can be quite illuminating, if not more than a little disturbing.

14 Responses to ““Obama as Stuart,” By Nathan Coleman”

  1. Peter Y Paik (@pypaik)

    I agree with your points that the Obama administration has been bad for religious freedom and that the domestic surveillance program is out of control, but what kind of Marxist uses $700 billion in public funds to bail out the big banks? I think Obama is a moderate who has come to power at a time when the basic conditions that are crucial to the success of moderate leaders are lacking: economic growth (Clinton) or social consensus (Eisenhower). Many on the Left who want more government action on jobs have been sorely disappointed in Obama, and it’s my sense is that his support stems more from fear of what the GOP might do, and anger over what the George W. Bush administration did, than or anything that he himself has accomplished. But the fact that he is trying to maintain a perhaps untenable status quo, which includes propping up an expensive welfare state in a time of terrible economic hardship for the middle class, does not make him a Marxist.

    • ncoleman01

      Thanks for writing and for reading the essay! I understand your point on Obama’s (supposed?) Marxism. I think his personal history demonstrates that doctrinaire Marxism has been a major influence upon him, even if he does not openly call for the uniting of the workers of the word. Governing and the limits that real politics places upon him (i.e. the desire to be elected and dealing with the electorate) forced some concessions on these beliefs; there is a difference in believing in academic theory and the reality of governing. He governs as a socialist, and has certainly advocated such policies as his “spread the wealth around” statement in 2008’s election demonstrates, the assertion (several years before his ’08 election) that the Supreme Court of the 1960s did not do enough for “economic justice,” and the bailout you mentioned illustrates. He certainly seems to want a command/control economy, and he admitted in the early 2000s that he would like to see a single-payer health care system. I see little moderation on his policies that were not the result of being forced upon him. That, it seems to me, is the real disappointment the Left has with Obama – the fact he cannot be the doctrinaire Leftist they (and conservatives) know him to be.

      Thanks again for your comments!


  2. Rob

    Although there is much to digest here, and much to laud (no pun intended), this piece is fundamentally in error. HM Charles the Martyr is not Barrack’s forerunner.
    1. Englishmen had NOT “long rejected the idea that the Monarch… was absolute.” Although what the concept “absolute” meant, was indeed an issue, Englishmen had long accepted the idea of the Great Chain of Being, princes and prelates being fairly high on the humanly order. They understood rank, and therefore authority. No, the real innovators were in Parliament and with those who swarmed to its ranks in rebellion, who placed the atomized individual in the place of the Great Chain. No natural authority anywhere, not even in the family. Each man fundamentally his own master, and having a right to be his own author. Those who surrounded the Putney Debates, the Levellers, the Rainsboroughs, the Gerrard Winstanleys. These were the authors of the notions that governance, even society itself, rests upon the social contract and the individual. They would have abolished sovereignty, rank, property, and patriarchy. These are Barrack’s forerunners in political theory, and this is a FACT. No natural (aka “divine right”) authority over anyone, each person having the right to be his/her own author. The Royalists at root were those admitted that a father is still the father of the family, however poor his decisions might be or even when he is a lout.
    2. Here, HM Charles and Barrack converge. However, the missive stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of religion, or religio. That which binds the community, practically and its vision, IS its religion. Every community has an established religion from which there can be no dissent—else the community does not exist and the law of the jungle prevails. Barrack’s religio happens to be atomized individualism, aka secular humanism.
    3. Parliament’s proper and established role was to advise the King and carry back the will of the Crown. Not presumptuously propose that they consider royal proposals, as if he had to get their permission. Prior to shipmoney, the ports where ships were constructed had to foot the entire bill. HM Charles simply shared this burden more equally amongst the towns.
    4. Here again, HM Charles and Barrack converge. Yet all states have the power to indict those who threaten the existence of the state. A state cannot be neutral with respect to its very being, so such courts must be likened to states of war. The British couldn’t use due process in fighting the IRA, and vice versa. Barrack’s flouting of due process is seemingly hypocritical however because he Star-Chamber-indicts individuals, in the name of individualism.
    5. Again, Parliament showed the least regard by presuming to condition any law upon its consent.
    Finally, a better comparison would exist between Barrack (better yet, Abraham Lincoln) and Oliver Cromwell. They would interpose the power of the aggregate-individual state to break up any traditional authority, whether a monarch, an institution (slavery), ethnic identity, the family, and even property. This is not a royal power; it is an anti-royal power.
    “I have a trust committed to me by God, by old and lawful descent. I will not betray it to answer to a new unlawful authority.” [H.M. Charles I at trial, 1649]

    • ncoleman01

      Thanks for the reply! You raise great points that I don’t disagree with save that I really don’t equate Charles I as the forerunner to President Obama. I really just wanted the piece to show some surprising similarities of constitutional violations that go beyond the traditional president vs. president comparisons. I do quibble with the English acceptance of absolutism. I agree wholeheartedly on the cultural acceptance Great Chain of Being (my students always find that concept interesting), but there were strong notions of the “Common Law mind,” a large element of which held the king is confined to/by the law that date back to Magna Charta (13C), Bracton (14C), Fortesque (16C), all of which Coke and others employed to great effect in the 17c. This isn’t to suggest Parliament didn’t innovate – I agree with you that they did, sometimes to such a great extent that it ultimately weakened the constitutional arguments they were making against Charles. Also, I am not of a persuasion to call Charles, Charles the Martyr – but to each their own! Like I mentioned in the piece, the caveats of context are always important to keep in mind, and that’s why any comparison of a past figure to a contemporary one is always prone to disagreements.

      Thanks for reading!


  3. Rob

    Though an unrepentant foe of both Pym and Cromwell, I cannot ascribe perfection (far from it) to the Royalist cause either.
    I appreciate the thoughtful and amicable reply.

  4. Mattermind

    Any thoughts on the historical Richard III and the Tudor myth promulgated by Shakespeare? How much did Queen Elizabeth influence the decision to use Thomas More’s slanted portrayal that ultimately flattered usurping Richmond’s political aspirations? Where do you stand on Henry VII vs. Richard III? Your thoughts and historical background are much appreciated at A Year of Shakespeare.

  5. ncoleman01

    Mattermind: Thanks for your feedback! In truth, Shakespear’s use – or misuse! – of history is not a topic I have studied too deeply. Regarding H7 v R3, – I think both were quiet stern and unyielding. I would have to say I favor H7 more than Richard III. Henry did bring stability back to England – or at least made it more stable than it had been under Richard III.

    • Mattermind

      But wasn’t Henry’s “stability” at the expense of almost dictatorial control? That, to me, makes the debate worth having. According to The Daughter of Time, Richmond enacted a policy of ruthless elimination of all the surviving York ancestry, a goal that Henry VIII continued. If Richard, in fact, was generous and tolerant instead of the way we remember him, then that has radical implications for the way history itself is shaped and remembered. We can see that in our own era with the way Ronald Reagan is now venerated. Many who lived through those days have a startlingly different sense of him and the times. Not to argue politics but rather to make a point about who writes history and how the past gets handed down. We assume a neutrality that may not – and likely does not – exist.

  6. ncoleman01

    I can’t confess to being an expert in Tudor era history, but I think you raise quite a valid point about the context and reality vs. contemporary and biased perception. It very well could be that our understanding of Richard III has been overtaken by Shakespearian-Tudor bias.


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