To a casual observer, the links between Shakespeare’s Richard III, the Federalist Papers, and today’s global politics may not be so readily apparent. But to the Society of Fellows members who participated in its February 2019 symposium, “Tyrants in Action and How Our Founders Thwarted Them,” the parallels across centuries of history were illuminating — and sometimes chilling.
Carol and Ken Adelman, who teach executive leadership through Shakespeare’s plays with their organization Movers & Shakespeares, led the first day of the three-day symposium, focusing on Richard III, which features one of the Bard’s most famous characters, a downright evil villain.
Participants discussed the 15th century king’s motivations, his ruthlessness in acquiring power, the ways in which he amassed support, and the role of his enablers. They marveled at Shakespeare’s ability to “transcend 500 years of psychology,” as one participant put it, and portray the full spectrum of human behavior with such keen understanding. Using Richard as the poster boy, the Fellows compiled a list of a tyrant’s characteristics, including manipulation, taking big risks, a penchant for emergencies and chaos, and several traits of those with narcissistic personality disorder.
After viewing a film clip of the scene in which Richard tests his men’s loyalty during a council meeting purportedly to discuss the coronation of young Prince Edward, participants pointed out the parallels in the 20th and 21st centuries to this consolidation of power. Ken Adelman compared it to the Night of the Long Knives in 1934, when Hitler purged those in his inner circle whom he believed to pose a political threat to his ambitions.
Society of Fellows member Joan Marek said the scene gave her the chills, reminding her of President Trump’s June 2017 cabinet meeting in which his handpicked senior staff took turns effusively praising him. Many of those cabinet members are now gone, Marek noted.
The next day, there was much questioning of how societies throughout history have allowed tyrants to rise to power and to what extent enablers — whether on the inside or not — were to blame.
“People are people, and history keeps repeating itself no matter what we do,” noted Lee Eagle. “Today we have so much technology and additional knowledge, but these basic tendencies in our personalities are there, from Richard III to today.”
Days two and three of the symposium asked participants to contemplate the shaping of American government in the late 18th century. Fellows delved deeply into the founding principles and structural concepts of our nation through the Federalist Papers, which Alexander Hamilton and James Madison published in newspapers after the Constitutional Convention and before the Constitution’s ratification as a series of letters to the new American citizenry to engage them in the process.
Jack Rakove, a constitutional scholar and professor at Stanford University, laid out eight ways the Founders sought to thwart prospective tyranny in their new government. These include plenty of things we take for granted, like elections, specified powers, and checks and balances between branches of government. But some of these methods, Rakove pointed out, aren’t currently working as the Founders envisioned: Career politicians are straining the ideal of limited tenure, and recent presidents’ use of executive orders and emergency declarations often goes around one of the office’s few specified powers — faithfully executing laws passed by Congress.
Participants questioned some of the Founders’ intentions — such as the cold calculation of a slave counting as three-fifths of a person. And they heartily debated issues that have arisen since the United States’ unique form of government was crafted. This includes whether the Electoral College, which Rakove described as a “hastily assembled system,” is still relevant, how political parties are overriding checks and balances and acting negatively as factions, and the politicization of the Supreme Court.
But participants also recognized the strengths and resiliency of the American system, and how, despite some flaws, the US Constitution and the mechanisms it put in place 230 years ago are still relevant and working today.
Fellow Wendell Willkie summarized this optimistic sentiment when he said, “We need to think about how blessed we are to be able have this conversation and reacquaint ourselves with this structure. We’ve had emergency declarations before; a sense of perspective is useful in taking the longer-term view. We are providentially blessed not only in the structure of our institutions but in our animating ideals. And if we don’t have those ideals as Americans, what do we have? The great challenge for our society is to remind ourselves of what unites us.”