Our Drama of Kingship

Impeachment as Ritual and Rituals of Impeachment

You hate the child king,

You hate the child king;

You hate him,

Mother, the enemies are the people,

You hate him,

The people are wizards.

Admit the treason of Mabedla--

You hate him,

You have wronged,

Bend great neck,

Those and those they hate him,

They hate the king;

King, alas for thy fate,

King, they reject thee,

King, they hate thee.

--Southeast African ritual chant, from Max Gluckmann's Custom and Conflict in Africa.

SO CHANT THE Swazi tribespeople, dancing, circling, shaking in the magic glow of age-old ritual fires. In the center stand the king, the queens, the elders and the sub-chieftans--all the ranking leaders of the tribe--humbled and ridiculed by the insults of the people. A young prince steps forward, his head held high, his shield and spear in hand: "Follow me," he beckons to the people, "this evil king betrays his sacred trust." More princes and military captains mimic his example, defiling the name of the monarch and calling the people to rebellion. Then, remarkably, these same slanderers of the king exhort him to lead them to war...

Impeachment. That is how it has been done in "primitive" societies for thousands of years, and now-more-than-ever, it appears likely that we will be doing it here in the United States. But despite the mounting evidence of wrongdoing and misconduct by Richard Nixon, despite the persistent Nixon evasiveness that keeps the national confidence in tortuous limbo, a majority of the country continues to view the prospect of impeachment with uneasiness and suspicion. On the one hand, the nation seems to want a definite resolution of the charges against Nixon--a "strong majority" in a recent Harris Poll done for Newsweek magazine said they favored "a trial in the Senate." On the other hand, when the sampling was asked specifically whether "impeachment" would be good for the country, Newsweek reported that "support fell away dramatically."

There seems to be more at issue here than unlearned civics lessons about what actually constitutes an impeachment proceeding. Rather, these mixed polling results seem to indicate a mixed national mood, a combination of outrage and fear--intensified, to be sure, by confusion, but profoundly ambivalent in its own right: Solid evidence of wrongdoing--even by the highest official in the land--must be weighed and adjudicated, and due punishment must be meted out; yet this little-used method of punishment (impeachment) threatens chaos and disaster.

HOWEVER, except for its infrequent use in the United States, impeachment is a process that by its nature should promise stability and the continuation of the status quo, not chaos and disaster. It is a political ritual that has been present in the constitutions of organized societies since their beginnings--a ritual whose purpose and effect has been to affirm, not undermine, the unity of the people and the moral rectitude of the prevailing order. The parliamentary "vote of no confidence" is an oft-cited example of modern impeachment sans desastre, but impeachment rituals were also held by our "primitive" forebearers (and are still held by tribes like the Swazi) as often as four times a year. And, far from a prelude to social disintegration, the rituals were seen as a source of political, economic and even sexual prosperity. The king himself was expected to initiate the proceedings at the waning of the moon, when man's powers were said to go into decline, so that the ritual climax could occur at full moon, when man's powers were thought to be at their height. Then, on the final night of the ritual cycle, the king and his court would subject themselves to the attacks of the people and the princes.

The purpose of these ritual "impeachments" was both to affirm the unity of the people around the kingship and to highlight conflicts around the person of the king himself. Even when no prince or sub-chieftan actually coveted the throne, the ritual demanded that they act as if they did. Their attacks on the king were necessary to emphasize the contrast between the sanctity of the kingship and the human failings of the king. If a particular monarch was a corrupt or cruel despot, the people would not seek to overthrow the social order, but would simply replace the king with another man, usually a member of the king's own family. The fact that the king himself might be evil would not invalidate the sacred kingship, as symbolized by the people's final exhortation to the king to lead them to war.

Also part of the proceedings was a black bull ceremony. In ritual fashion, a black bull would be stolen from the people by the king. This theft, which symbolized the demands of the monarchy, would make the people both "angry" and "proud"--a complex of attitudes expressive of their ambivalence about living in an authoritarian nation.

Thus, through regular reenactments of their dissatisfaction with the king, the people would acknowledge the essential rightness of the social order and the enduring sanctity of the kingship. These ritual impeachments, known to anthropologists as "the drama of kingship," were a way to handle conflicts that might otherwise have led to the demise of the tribe or nation; they provided both a vehicle for protest and a method for replacing an inept or evil leader--without a major social upheaval. But while regular impeachments bade well for the fate of the society, the fate of each king was always thought to be a sad one in the eyes of the people, for the king had to bear both the burdens of office and the hatred that was the lot of kings.

THE FATE of our own "king" (and, in the eyes of many, the fate of the nation as a whole) also appears rather sad at this point. But the trouble does not lie with the process of impeachment itself. Rather, the nation's distress over the prospect of ousting Richard Nixon arises from legitimate if somewhat alarmist fears over the durability of our social order, and from the fact that king and kingship--or, more properly, president and presidency--have become strangely synonymous.

Impeachment was meant to be an integral part of our governmental system, a constitutional method for redressing wrongs committed by the country's high officials. We suffer no dearth of precedents (they fill over 2000 pages in House and Senate record books), and no lack of officials capable of presiding over the proceedings. But when the nation itself is in a period of profound social turmoil--as in the years of our impeached but unconvicted president, Andrew Johnson, and now--any challenge to even the temporary power holders seems to threaten disaster. Clearly, the Founding Fathers intended impeachment to be a last resort, but just as clearly did they distinguish between president and presidency, and between a president and the kings whose oppression they had suffered. Hamilton writes in the Federalist Papers that:

The President of the United States would be liable to be impeached, tried, and, upon conviction of treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors, removed from office; and would afterwards be liable to prosecution and punishment in the ordinary course of law. The person of the King of Great Britain is sacred and inviolable; there is no constitutional tribunal to which he is amenable; no punishment to which he can be subjected without involving the crisis of a national revolution. In this delicate and important circumstance of personal responsibility, the President of Confederated America would stand upon no better ground than a governor of New York, and upon worse ground than the governors of Virginia and Delaware.

AN IMPEACHMENT and/or conviction of Richard Nixon will not in itself will be the cause of some future national disaster: If American government and society reach the point of disintegration it will be because of social forces greater than Nixon or any other individual office-holder. But while an impeachment will likely bring neither substantive change nor total chaos, it may serve to remind the American people of the crucial distinction between president and presidency, a distinction that is present even in the most "primitive" societies.