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The Simplicity of Our System of Government

Summary:
An interesting essay in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal suggests, if we go farther than the author, that “the simplicity of our system of government,” although a worthy ideal, has become a mere historical memory if not a propaganda tool for the democratic Leviathan. The story is about Andrew Jackson who, before his death, refused to be buried in a marble sarcophagus believed to have once contained the remains of a Roman emperor. The idea had been advanced by U.S. Navy commodore Jesse D. Elliot. (See Mary Beard, “A Tomb Not Fit for a President,” WSJ, October 16, 2021.)  Jackson’s reaction, Beard writes, stood as a symbol of the down-to-earth essence of American republicanism and its distaste for the vulgar bric-a-brac of monarchy or autocracy. … Jackson was 77 years

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An interesting essay in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal suggests, if we go farther than the author, that “the simplicity of our system of government,” although a worthy ideal, has become a mere historical memory if not a propaganda tool for the democratic Leviathan. The story is about Andrew Jackson who, before his death, refused to be buried in a marble sarcophagus believed to have once contained the remains of a Roman emperor. The idea had been advanced by U.S. Navy commodore Jesse D. Elliot. (See Mary Beard, “A Tomb Not Fit for a President,” WSJ, October 16, 2021.)  Jackson’s reaction, Beard writes, stood

as a symbol of the down-to-earth essence of American republicanism and its distaste for the vulgar bric-a-brac of monarchy or autocracy. …

Jackson was 77 years old and in failing health; he would die a few months later. But his reply to the letter from Elliott outlining this offer was famously robust: “I cannot consent that my mortal body shall be laid in a repository prepared for an Emperor or King—my republican feelings and principles forbid it—the simplicity of our system of government forbids it. Every monument erected to perpetuate the memory of our heroes and statesmen ought to bear evidence of the economy and simplicity of our republican institutions and the plainness of our republican citizens … I cannot permit my remains to be the first in these United States to be deposited in a Sarcophagus made for an Emperoror King.”

Jackson was in a difficult position. As president, he had been accused of behaving like a Caesar, in a style of autocratic populism that a few of his successors have copied. This may have added to the intensity of his refusal: He was certainly not going to risk an imperial burial.

If the United States or any other Western country once illustrated “the simplicity of our system of government,” these days are long past. After Jackson, imperial presidents included Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt. (For a revisionist history of the Civil War, see Jeff Hummel’s Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men.) The haughtiness of the presidents’ motorcades and omnipresent security theatre may be compared with Agathocles, a Syracuse ruler between 317 and 289 BC, who “prided himself on not using a bodyguard and cultivated an unassuming attitude in public.” As I argued in my post “Praetorian Guards from Ancient Greece to Palm Beach or the Hamptons” (January 14, 2019),  technological, social, and political conditions were different, but it is still worth reflecting on why democratic leaders are so much hated by part of the citizenry that they must be under the constant protection of praetorians (even after departing office). And that was true long before Islamic terrorism and 9/11.

The two world wars of the 20th century as well as the Red Scare (while our own governments were getting very pink) accelerated the trend. Yet, until a few decades ago, one could still get a taste of “the simplicity of our system of government.” If you will pardon a personal anecdote, one of my memories of another epoch dates from the early 1990s: going to meet a senior minister in the French government, a friend and I entered by a backdoor of the government building, walked around an unmanned security checkpoint, and joined the minister in his dining room (or perhaps his office first) without seeing a single cop or any other soul.

The rise of Islamist terrorism and 9/11 gave our Leviathans another great opportunity to buttress the surveillance state and the garrison state. Another dimension of government anti-simplicity is observable in the nearly constant annual deficit and the increase of the public debt since the 1960s.

For anybody who has known better in these United States or in a few other Western countries, it is difficult to believe that much is left of the “simplicity of our system of government.” The political and economic implications are becoming more visible.

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