The United States has richly enjoyed something quite uncommon in world history: centuries of political governance without a major conflict over the succession of powers.
The United States Civil War was fought over secession, not succession. The Southern states decided to break away from the Union because they knew Abraham Lincoln had won the presidency fairly and didn’t want to live in a country where the Constitution made that happen. This is quite different from what has happened in virtually every major nation in world history.
The United States’ mother country, England, underwent countless conflicts because the hereditary monarchy became the subject of dispute. The War of the Roses pit the House of York against the House of Lancaster, each vying for the throne. Among Shakespeare’s many plays depicting the violence of his own nation’s history Richard III stands out. I have written about the play on this site previously. King John, one of Shakespeare’s less popular plays, also depicts the visceral effects of disputed transfers of power. As Constance cries in Act III, Scene 1, “You have beguiled me with a counterfeit resembling majesty, which being touched and tried proves valueless.” In monarchies, what looks so simple–the passing of power from a king to his closest male heir–never ends as easily as it looks. The word “Shakespearean” has come to mean grandiose and convoluted, in a breathtaking and often aesthetically pleasing way; precisely because people who write about the maddening complexities of passing power from a ruler to his heirs have a tendency to project human flaws in panoramic and melodramatic embellishment.
If a male heir exists, he can always be killed. In the case of Henry VIII, as with the father of the present Queen of England, daughters may have to step in to fill the gap. But female heirs are no less capable than male heirs of behaving viciously, as we see that Queen Elizabeth I was not exactly gentle in dealing with the two Marys who obstructed her, her sister and cousin.
The people of ancient Rome managed to keep a monarchy, republic, and empire going for an astounding 1,300 years despite massive confusion over who was to inherit power from whom. When Octavian became Augustus, he rose to power over a Roman people that had not been free of civil war for generations, and at that point there was no hereditary system. SPQR, the acronym, spelled out “SENATUS POPULUSQUE ROMAE” or the Senate and the People of Rome. Early in the Republic’s history, Rome had tried to reject hereditary rule in favor of a populist model with a legislative body that elected consuls for limited terms. It all looked so simple in principle, but it became bloody in practice, especially as the Roman armies grew in size and generals emerged as a wild card in the system.
Augustus’s rule offered a promise of stability with a centralized executive, the emperor, whose transmission of power would be mediated in theory by the Senate. Augustus’s dynasty quickly devolved into the morass of Rome’s first-century plots. The characters in the Julio-Claudian dynasty are colorful and entertaining to us, and indeed most of them enjoyed popularity with the average Roman, but nobody could say this was a stable long-term solution to succession of powers.
Under Tiberius, the young Caligula posed somewhat of a threat because he was the son of a popular general, Germanicus. So Tiberius, having issued orders that destroyed Caligula’s siblings and parents, called Caligula to the island of Capri to be tutored under the supervision of Tiberius himself, who had removed to Capri to get away from the headaches of Rome. One can imagine the cringe-inducing awkwardness of such an arrangement: the aging emperor and the young soon-to-be emperor, both perverted and psychologically dysfunctional, cooped together on Capri waiting to see when one of them would die.
Legends have always circulated that Caligula suffocated Tiberius with a pillow so he could become emperor. We’ll never know what happened but that sounds like something that would have happened. Tiberius, if he had any common sense, would have certainly had to anticipate such a thing happening. So Caligula became emperor and immediately overplayed his power, sleeping with senators’ wives at parties that the senators themselves attended. He did many outrageous and imprudent things and was killed by soldiers just in time for his uncle Claudius to become emperor.
Claudius had two wives. One of them was Messalina, who was “not entirely virtuous” as a very polite person would say. She was put to death after peccadilloes with other men. The other was Agrippina, Claudius’s own niece, the sister of Caligula, and the mother of Nero, her son by a former husband.
Claudius had his own son, Britannicus, but he foolishly agreed with Agrippina’s request to make Nero rather than Britannicus heir. As one would expect, as soon as this request was granted, Agrippina put her plans into place, ordering a platter of poisoned mushrooms to feed Claudius, so he would die and Nero would be crowned. As soon as Nero became emperor, he had both Britannicus and his own mother killed. A revolt among the soldiers threatened to topple Nero from power, so he killed himself.
When Nero died various legions of the Roman army tried to force their chosen successor onto the throne of Rome. In one particularly bad year there were four different emperors that lasted only a few months. The Senate was particularly helpless at this time so it turned into a civil war, ending with the rise of Vespasian, who’d built his fame crushing the Jews in Judea. Vespasian’s son Domitian became famous for severely abusing the Christians. He was followed by Trajan, a Spanish-born ruler who set off a chain of “good” emperors (and by good, we mean not horrendously awful). The good news was that at this point the Romans moved toward a de facto adoption system where the emperor would adopt a “son” to inherit his power, rather than trying to restrict themselves to blood descendants.
But even by the 200s, Rome had to suffer almost a century of turbulence with emperors lasting two to three years and no clear succession in sight. They had an incurable habit of getting killed so someone else could take power. Diocletian, an emperor hated by Christians, took power in the late 200s and tamped this problem down slightly by imposing term limits and dividing the imperial throne into two pairs of rulers, one in the East and one in the West. The result was the inevitable split of the Roman empire into the Byzantines, who would hang on for a number of famously corrupt centuries, and the Western empire centered around Rome, the capital that was already sacked by barbarians in 410.
Rome presents such an interesting example precisely because Rome proved that one could, in theory, have turbulent problems of succession at the top and still carry on as a political entity as long as a strong civil service undergirded the whole society. This stability was lacking in ancient Israel, for example, because the judges and priests did not preserve their own ethical standards very well. The result for Israel was that after four centuries of chaos under rule by judges, three kings ruled over a unified Israel–Saul, David, and Solomon–and then the country split into the northern and southern kingdoms. While Judah had some fine moments, most of the southern kingdom’s history was marred by unsavory kings. The northern kingdom was a mess from beginning to end.
God blessed the United States with a chain of forty-five presidents and no major conflict over succession. For this Americans must be quite grateful. The problem is that this period is rather short when we hold it up against world history: from 1789 (when George Washington was inaugurated) until 2020, a mere 231 years. Unlike Rome, the United States has not had seven centuries to build up a stable and reliable civil structure; the USA grew by leaps and bounds and is only now emerging from 75 years with a secret national security community (the intelligence community) that seems to have acted as a shadow government for three generations. The CIA and FBI are comparatively young organizations but have the kind of bloated size and reach that one would expect of a centuries-long Byzantine hierarchy. These intelligence bodies are neither morally good (they have shown a constant lack of ethics worsened by a total lack of accountability) nor pragmatically good at what they do. If they were good at masterminding American politics behind the scenes, we wouldn’t have come to know about all their dirty plots. We know much of their misconduct because they make messes they can’t hide, such as Operation Crossfire Hurricane and all the slapstick mishaps illuminated by Wikileaks.
American succession worked smoothly as long as the unwritten rules about balloting worked smoothly. The unwritten rules are: (1) even if you can, just never cheat on an election, and (2) give the system the benefit of the doubt even when you lose.
If Rule #1 is broken it is unreasonable to expect that Rule #2 won’t be broken as well. So here we are. People obviously cheated in the 2020 election. Now we can’t give the results the benefit of the doubt, and we are in the painful place that other civilizations have found themselves. A republic that can’t count its ballots is worse than a monarchy, because there is literally no way of deciding who is going to rule next. To see how this ends, see my earlier essay on the oedipal woes of the ancient House of Thebes.