The Trew Law of Free Democracies?


In England during the early years of the 17th century, an illuminating and important debate occurred over what, if any, were the limits of monarchical authority. The crux of the debate was this: did the power and authority of the monarchy supersede the law or was it subject to the law? The chief representative of the former position was James I, while his opponent, Sir Edward Coke, defended the latter.

As early as 1598-and before he ever acceded to the English throne-James had articulated the position that "the King is above the law, as both the author and giver of strength thereto," circulating his opinions in an anonymous work titled The Trew Law of Free Monarchies that everyone nevertheless knew to be the work of James’s own hand. Perhaps aware of the possible opposition that his position might occasion, James was careful to state that "yet a good king will not only delight to rule his subjects by the law, but even will conform himself in his own actions thereunto." Notwithstanding James’s stipulation that a good monarch will conform his behavior to the law, what is clear in this position is that monarchical adherence to law represents, at best, a generous indulgence rather than a binding obligation.

It is no surprise, therefore, to learn that James’s position clashed with the views of some parliamentarians when he ascended to the throne in 1603. The man who would become his chief opponent, Sir Edward Coke, had been the attorney general under Elizabeth I and seems, in some respects, an unlikely choice to become the king’s adversary. Under Elizabeth, Coke had defended the traditional privileges and prerogatives of monarchy, making his transformation as champion of the primacy of law over monarchy appear all the more astonishing. It is Coke, let us remember, who argued that the principals enshrined in Magna Carta extended to all English subjects and not merely to the nobility, famously declaring that "Magna Carta is such a fellow that he will have no sovereign." In opposition to James’s claims that adherence to law rested on the monarch’s willful indulgence, Coke staked out his position that the monarch, while subject to no human person, was nevertheless subject to the law.

It is one measure of the strangeness of the present time that the James-Coke debate appears both illustrative and oddly prescient. Who could have imagined that almost exactly 400 years later the United States would be witness to the reprisal of such a debate? Of course the eeriness of the similarities between past and present should not blind us to their striking differences. Perhaps the most important difference is this: as holder of the top legal office of his day, Sir Edward Coke set himself in opposition to unregulated prerogatives of monarchy unlike his present-day counterpart, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. Witness, for example, Gonzales’ recent remarks to CNN’s Soledad O’Brien regarding the revelation that the administration engaged in secret wiretapping: "There were many people, many lawyers within the administration who advised the president that he had an inherent authority as commander in chief under the Constitution to engage in these kind of signals, intelligence of our enemy." If Gonzales is to be believed, the U.S. Constitution grants the president "inherent authority" to act in an unsupervised and unregulated manner. If this were really the case, why did President Carter ever permit passage of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, since the existence of such an act could only serve to restrict the president’s "inherent authority" under the Constitution to engage in secret monitoring of either U.S. citizens or foreign powers?

That the Bush administration and its cronies have taken a position remarkably like James’s defense of monarchical absolutism, while appalling and ironic given the country’s history, is not altogether surprising. What is more surprising is the extent to which the position of Attorney General of the United States, when confronted with the whims and dictates of an increasingly renegade White House bent on reshaping the globe, has become merely a cipher if not, in fact, a rubber stamp. In dark days such as these one longs for the sane voice of an Edward Coke, someone to defend and restore the proper relationship of law to executive authority. And in the absence of a Coke, then perhaps for a more radical recapitulation of the events of 1642.

The title is a reference to James I’s The Trew Law of Free Monarchies, arguably the most vigorous defense of monarchical absolutism made by any English king.

ERIC JOHNSON-DEBAUFRE is a doctoral candidate in English at Boston University and an avid reader of Counterpunch. He can be reached at ericjd@optonline.net.


Weekend Edition
November 27-29, 2015
Andrew Levine
The Real Trouble With Bernie
Gary Leupp
Ben Carson, Joseph in Egypt, and the Attack on Rational Thought
John Whitbeck
Who’s Afraid of ISIS?
Michael Brenner
Europe’s Crisis: Terror, Refugees and Impotence
Pepe Escobar
Will Chess, Not Battleship, Be the Game of the Future in Eurasia?
Vijay Prashad
Showdown on the Syrian Border
Colin Todhunter
Class, War and David Cameron
Jean Bricmont
The Ideology of Humanitarian Imperialism
Dan Glazebrook
Deadliest Terror in the World: the West’s Latest Gift to Africa
Walter Brasch
Terrorism on American Soil
Dave Lindorff
Gen. John Campbell, Commander in Afghanistan and Serial Liar
Michael Welton
Yahweh is Not Exactly Politically Correct
Karl Grossman
Our Solar Bonanza!
Barrie Gilbert
Sacrificing the Grizzlies of Katmai: the Plan to Turn Brooks Camp Into a Theme
Mark Hand
Escape From New York: the Emancipation of Activist Cecily McMillan
Ramzy Baroud
Forget ISIS: Humanity is at Stake
Elliot Murphy
Cameron’s Syrian Strategy
Gareth Porter
How Terror in Paris Calls for Revising US Syria Policy
Thomas S. Harrington
Jeff Jacoby of the Boston Globe and the Death of Ezra Schwartz
Michael Perino
The Arc of Instability
Yves Engler
Justin Trudeau and Canada’s Mining Industry
Tom H. Hastings
ISIS and Changing the Game
Lars Jørgensen
Vive la Résistance
John Halle
A Yale Education as a Tool of Power and Privilege
Norman Pollack
Syrian “Civil War”?: No, A Proxy War of Global Confrontation
Sheldon Richman
Let the Refugees In
Simon Bowring
UN Climate Talks 2009: a Merger of Interest and Indifference
Ron Jacobs
Rosa Luxembourg–From Street Organizer to Street Name
Aidan O'Brien
Same-Sex Sellout in Ireland
David Stocker
Report from the Frontline of Resistance in America
James A Haught
The Values of Jesus
Binoy Kampmark
British Austerity: Cutting One’s Own Backyard
Ed Rampell
45 Years: A Rumination on Aging
November 26, 2015
Ashley Nicole McCray – Lawrence Ware
Decolonizing the History of Thanksgiving
Joseph Grosso
The Enduring Tragedy: Guatemala’s Bloody Farce
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
Imperial Myths: the Enduring Lie of the US’s Origin
Ralph Nader
The Joys of Solitude: a Thanksgiving!

Joseph G. Ramsey
Something to be Thankful For: Struggles, Seeds…and Surprises
Dan Glazebrook
Turkey Shoot: the Rage of the Impotent in Syria
Andrew Stewart
The Odious President Wilson
Colin Todhunter
Corporate Parasites And Economic Plunder: We Need A Genuine Green Revolution
Rajesh Makwana
Ten Billion Reasons to Demand System Change
Joyce Nelson
Turkey Moved the Border!
Richard Baum
Hillary Clinton’s Meager Proposal to Help Holders of Student Debt
Sam Husseini
A Thanksgiving Day Prayer