Our Tudor Parliament

Rep. Kevin McCarthy greets former House speaker Nancy Pelosi after being elected speaker in 15 rounds of votes. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

King Henry VIII did not willfully set out to become a tyrant—if anything, he was in many ways inclined in the opposite direction. He understood himself as a liberator of England and as what we would now recognize as a nationalist: He built up Parliament as a central national institution and rooted his titles and legitimacy in that national assembly, rejecting what had been the settled authority of the pope and the church; he incorporated Wales into the system of national parliamentary representation (it had been subject to direct royal rule) and instituted English as the official language in Wales (without much consulting the Welsh); to the occasional irritation of the nobility, he practiced the meritocratic elevation of commoners such as Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell to high office; in contrast to the radicals that the Reformation would throw up, the Henrician church did not differ much with Rome when it came to such issues as transubstantiation or clerical celibacy—Henry would have been well-satisfied with a Catholic Church whose English adherents and English clergy were under English authority, and that may be what he thought he had created or was creating. 

The problem, of course, was that Henry could not abide one of the key things that is necessary for the creation and maintenance of a genuinely free society: rivalrous and competing centers of power. Henry’s elevation of Parliament was meant to diminish the power of Rome, just as his meritocracy was less an exercise in egalitarianism than it was a way of undermining the independent powers of the great nobles, a project that had begun in earnest with his father’s royal patronage of Thomas Wolsey, the “butcher’s boy” (as his critics derided him) who would rise to the position of cardinal and then serve as Henry VIII’s chancellor. It was inevitable that the Church of England would be first and foremost the Church of Henry Tudor—for the king, there was no difference between the two entities. It will not do to try to read Henry’s mind (there should be a kind of “Goldwater rule” for history) but we might reasonably accept that Henry’s abuses, outrages, and tyranny were, from his point of view, patriotic and well-intentioned: In Henry’s time as in our own, nationalists have always had contempt for procedure, norms, and the rule of law. What is necessary to the pursuit of the national interest is, as they see things, always legitimate in that there is and can be no superior or precedent interest. Many U.S. presidents have behaved according to Henry’s maxim: “I do not choose anyone to have it in his power to command me, nor will I ever suffer it.” 

Our government has grown corrupt because it suffers from the Tudor disease—a phobia of independent powers. The government itself cannot countenance rival centers of power, hence the imbecilic assault on religious communities during Democratic administrations (attempting to bully the Little Sisters of the Poor, a community of celibate nuns, into providing contraceptive and abortifacient access) and the imbecilic assault on technology companies (perceived as cultural and political enemies) under Republican power. The federal government is increasingly hostile to the independent powers of the states. (It is worth keeping in mind that the states created the federal government, not the other way around.) Within the federal government, the increasingly imperial presidency seeks to override the independent powers of the other branches of government (“If Congress won’t act, I will”).

And the centralizing impulse is evident even within the political branches: The “unitary executive” school of thought championed by some conservatives invests the whole of the executive branch’s power in the person of the president, while the House of Representatives has descended into a kind of farcical dictatorship: Whereas “regular order” had ensured that the real power in the House is divided between the speaker and various committee and subcommittee chairmen, our new practice of permanent legislative emergency (omnibus bills, continuing resolutions, etc.) has given the speaker princely power, albeit princely power only within the shrinking and debased principality that is the House. The Senate maintains something of its character, while the Supreme Court has befuddled and irritated progressives by working to restore the rightful powers of the legislatures, as in the matter of abortion. 

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