March 13, 2010

An inaugural address

He shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.

This instruction in the constitution has developed into one of the most important pieces of theatre in the western world. Whether it be Lincoln, Kennedy, Bush or Obama, American Presidents have used the state of the union to make their case and think in public about what they want to do with their time in office. Symbolically the opposition can also signal their dismay at the President's choices by not applauding or not standing as he enters. When you think about it the requirement seems a little odd, if you were designing a constitution tommorrow, would you include a note which said that the executive had to come down and formally speak to a Leglislative that can interrogate his officers anyway? Furthermore if anything the members of individual districts are more likely as a body to know what the state the union is in, than a President based in far away Washington and surrounded today by so much security that normal life almost certainly vanishes.

Why did the founders include this point- after all the first President was even more hampered by poor transportation networks and the fact that most of America (including the largest state Virginia) was predominately a rural country. We can only understand the state of the union if we begin to look at the figure the President was most taken to represent- to find that, we can look at the debates surrounding the inauguration address that Washington delivered in 1789. John Adams, the Vice President and thus President of the Senate, was incredibly concerned: Adams had two concerns, firstly when Washington was in the senate was Adams President of the Senate? and secondly how should congressmen behave when in Washington's presence. Senator Richard Lee of Virginia remembered from his stay in England that when the King addressed Parliament, the Lords sat and the Commons stood. Senator Izzard of South Carolina said that the Commons only stood because they had run out of seats! The Vice President didn't help by saying that when he had visited the state opening of Parliament as ambassador to the Court of St James, he had been unable to see above the heads of the crowd who was standing or sitting. Crucially though note that Izzard, Adams and Lee all agreed that whatever Congress should do it should behave to Washington as though he was the King.

Federalists talked openly during this period of the Presidency as a monarchical institution. Thomas Jefferson, no Federalist, even beleived that Washington would hold it for life, and imagined an elective monarchy on the model of Poland. When Washington appeared in places, the bands struck up with 'God save the King': John McHenry of Maryland even told Washington that he had become King. Gordon Wood has plenty more evidence in his recent book. What is so interesting about this is that one returns to the concept of the state of the union and the inaugural: the model must have been the English custom of the Queen's Speech which opens Parliament- one of the significant English ceremonial constitutional occasions where the Queen in Parliament (the English sovereign) is seen in all its magnificence. When Washington came to Congress, the same idea was visible and like British Kings deifinitely had, Washington even decided in his first couple of years to attend the senate and to interfere in debate.

Most of this narrative is derived from Gordon Wood's recent book- but what we can add to it is a further speculation. Because here we have the same plant- the inaugural or state of the union- planted in very different soil. In Britain it turned into the Queen's speech, in America into the modern state of the union. I think there are interesting contrasts here: firstly one can see that in both countries the politics of party- something that repelled every eighteenth century statesman- has taken different forms. The Queen has moved above the politics of party in the UK and so drones unimpressively through her government's measures- the Prime Minister listens. The President in America effectively leads a party and so you get the great orations. In Britain the speaker does not hold real power, in America the speaker does hold real power. I am sure that others will be able to furnish further contrasts but this is a subject worthy of exploration: because of the way that the American constitution was drafted, very much with an eye on British precedent, the United Kingdom and the United States not to mention several other countries form useful counterfactuals to each other. We can see how the same institution- in this case coming to the Leglislature to make a speech becomes a very different event depending on the ways that the respective constitutions have historically been configured.

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