Jan. 6, 2021: “Mad King George,” or Charles the First?

January 9, 2021

Anonymous White House insider reports claim that Donald Trump is behaving like “Mad King George.” In private, maybe he is; in public, though, on Wednesday, January 6, 2021, he acted like Charles the First. Less familiar to Americans today, Charles’s actions in 1640s England inform the eighteenth-century Constitution of the United States.

Infuriated by Puritans in the House of Commons, Charles the First told the Lord Mayor of London not to call up any troops, and, in the absence of any armed opposition, led a march across the capital city, from Whitehall to Westminster. There, Charles entered Parliament with a group of 80 armed soldiers, and attempted to arrest five prominent members of Parliament who were opposed to him. A marching progress across London was no secret to Parliament, so the Five Members, as they became known, had already evacuated to a secure location, a barge in the Thames, famously undisclosed by the Speaker of the House, William Lenthall, who told the King, “I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place but as this House is pleased to direct me.”*

The king had entered Parliament, attempted to arrest legislators, and failed. It was a stupendous overreach, and disastrous. Within months, England was at war with itself; within years, Charles had been executed by Parliament, and England became a republic. No reigning monarch has entered the House of Commons since that day in 1642. Remarkably, that day was January 4th, technically in 1641, on the Julian calendar the United Kingdom (and its colonies) used until 1752. That is, Charles the First laid seige to Parliament nearly exactly 380 years to the day before Donald Trump told a “Save America March” rally crowd which was chanting ”Fight for Trump! Fight for Trump!,” “after this, we’re going to walk down and I’ll be there with you. We’re going to walk down–We’re going to walk down. Anyone you want, but I think right here, we’re going to walk down to the Capitol.”

Of course, there are differences between the two events. For one thing, as it turned out, Donald Trump was not there with them; he was back in the White House watching it all play out on TV. By contrast, Charles actually led troops into Parliament, and, by contrast, kept them out of Commons when he went in. In 1642, it was King Charles who sat in the Speaker Chair, but only after asking to do so; by contrast, it was members of the pro-Trump mob who having chased Congress out of their chambers then sat for selfies in the Speaker’s Chair. Charles and his troops did not damage Parliament; if anything, they damaged the monarchy. Of course, by contrast, those who stormed Congress smashed windows, tore down signs, and, reportedly, relieved—one might say “expressed”—themselves in the hallways and offices of elected representatives.  And, in 1642, no one died.

We are all still sorting what else Trump and his supporters damaged when they laid siege to the Capitol—possibilities include art works, carpeting, desks, democracy, international reputation, and the future itself.  What happened between the White House and the Capitol on the afternoon of January 6 is not unprecedented; it is instead loaded with precedents, which is what makes it so powerfully significant.  Every event is unique, and developing a completely accurate picture–every angle of every participant before, during, and after, plus all the angles not available to participants—is beyond us. The events of 1642 vex historians to this day, at a four-century remove. What used to be called the Puritan Revolution became known as the English Revolution, then the English Civil War, then the English Civil Wars, and, most recently, the War of Three Kingdoms.  In any case, by definition, historical analogies cannot be exact, and, therefore, in that sense, history cannot be a guide.  However, the examination of similarity and difference is one of the advantages of analogies; they constitute a means of a cumulative measurement.

The most important disadvantage of historical analogy in particular is the contextual narrative in which the historical example is embedded, and thus comes with. In the familiar narrative, for example, George the Third precedes a Revolution. As we saw on Wednesday the 6th, the siege takers saw themselves in George the Third terms: taking on the narrative implied by the analogy, they were re-doing the American revolution, complete with “Don’t Tread on Me,” and with Mike Pence and Nancy Pelosi as the malevolent tyrants, apparently. (And like Charles, they arrived ready to arrest their five, albeit with plastic zip ties this time.) Here, too, the glaring inequity in treatment of Black Lives Matter protests and the Capitol siege involves the same racist logic seen in the analogical eighteenth-century ‘revolution’ against the Mad King George. As Samuel Johnson noted at the time, in his 1775 essay Taxation No Tyranny, “we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes.” Such iniquitous treatment in the defense of freedom is not unprecedented; it is built into the analogy. Nor, indeed, is racialized mob violence unprecedented. What happened to Congress on Wednesday, January 6, 2021, has happened at countless county court houses in the Jim Crow South, i.e., in America. It just hadn’t happened at Congress before. Fortunately, the stormtroopers were not able to find the people they apparently wanted to place in the nooses and scaffold they set up around the building. This time.

Despite all the disadvantages of the extraordinarily complicated contextual narrative of Charles the First (two civil wars, execution, Irish conquest, republic, Restoration, and thus interregnum), that analogy does highlight a central constitutional issue, then and now. Not only did the January 6 siege succeed in delaying, if only for a few hours, Congress’s certifying the election results, and thus in breaking the peaceful transfer of power in the US at the federal level. By doing so, the siege obscured the fact that the executive branch supported—seemingly even incited—an attack on the legislative branch, thus breaking the separation of powers at the heart of the US Constitution. Presumably permanently: if not formally rebuked, all future presidents can now hold rallies outside Congress, demanding their followers go there, “fight” and be “strong,” if there’s a vote whose results they don’t like.

Since 1642, no reigning monarch has entered the House of Commons, such a violation of the separation of powers was Charles’ arrival understood to be. The framers seeing the English experience with inherited monarchy, tweaked the separation of powers implicit in the English system: courts, a bicameral legislature, and an executive. It was, so to speak, an analogy, a salvage effort. As with all analogies, differences were also highlighted. Instead of a king, a President is elected, which is to say removable, without the execution that ended Charles’ reign. Unfortunately, the Constitutional Convention created and we have retained an indirect and thus analogically aristocratic form of electing the head of the executive branch, and it was that very feature of the eighteenth-century Constitution (in its late nineteenth century codification) which was in process at the time of the January 6 attack. The role of the electoral college will continue to be reexamined as a result. Through it all, though, the president of the United States has always required an invitation before addressing Congress (even for the state of the union address mandated by the Constitution), a separation-of-powers legacy of the English system, and Charles’s shocking disregard for it. On Wednesday, a president’s supporters took the building over, after he told them he would be there with them when they got there. It turns out, that last bit was fake news, straight from the head of the executive branch, but it sure looks like they went in to represent him. The case of Charles the First means both the integrity of US democratic elections and the constitutional separation of powers are both at stake in the aftermath of the invasion of the Capitol from the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.


*Schama, Simon.  A History of Britain.  Volume II.  The Wars of the British, 1603-1776.  (New York: Hyperion, 2001), 123.

Related Posts