An American in London’s Palace of Westminster, where I found myself last week, will soon be reminded that one of our most famous political stories is bunk.
Anyone with even a passing interest in the history of American democracy will have been told that we owe the word “lobbyist” to Ulysses Grant, who, after a hard day running the United States, would repair for brandy and cigars to the Willard Hotel in Washington. There he would be pestered by people seeking favors gathered in the lobby, and the word entered the American lexicon.
That agreeable yarn has long been pushed by the hotel, but “lobby” was used as a verb in America decades before Grant became president in 1869. The word first took on a political meaning in England as early as the 17th century.
If you tour the Palace of Westminster, you will stroll through the Central Lobby, where corridors from the Houses of Parliament and the great hall intersect. It is here that British citizens can show up, ask for their MP and commence to bend his or her ear. Grant may indeed have been irritated by lobbyists, but he was a Johnny-come-lately in that regard.
The armies of highly paid lobbyists who besiege Congress and state legislatures these days are a far cry from the humble petitioners of yore.
Whether the pros represent a refinement of the democratic process, or tend to corrupt it, is your call, but, regardless, America has led the way. Wherever the word “lobbyist” originated, it has been greatly redefined here.
Various other concepts developed in the Palace of Westminster have crossed the Atlantic to be adopted in modified form — the American Bill of Rights clearly owes something to the British version, for instance — but one that has died out in London lingers more or less unaltered in Washington.
Westminster Hall, the oldest part of the palace dating from 1099, was where impeachment trials were held by the House of Lords on charges brought by the House of Commons. The last one was in 1806, since then the Limeys, if they wanted to see impeachment in action, have had to look to America, where, in a process clearly modeled on the British, the role of prosecutor falls to Congress and the Senate renders a verdict.
You don’t need me to tell you that, of course, because a mere five years ago, all Louisiana eyes were watching the process play out in the case of Tom Porteous, the crooked federal judge from New Orleans, who wound up convicted and kicked off the bench.
Transatlantic impeachment watchers have had no cause for complaint in recent years. In 1999, the House even managed to impeach then-President Bill Clinton, but he beat the rap in the upper chamber.
Some of the wilder voices on the right have kept the fun coming by threatening to impeach President Barack Obama, but any threat of that has passed.
A group of MPs, upset over then-Prime Minister Tony Blair’s conduct of the Iraq war and led by a Welsh nationalist, did propose to bring back impeachment in Britain, but was dismissed as a nutty anachronism.
Obama’s name did come up in Westminster Hall, where history’s longest impeachment trial, of former India Gov. Warren Hastings, lasted from 1788 until his acquittal in 1797. But it was not in connection with high crimes and misdemeanors that our guide mentioned POTUS. She opined that he delivered the finest political speech she had ever heard when he stood at the top of the long flight of stairs in the hall during his state visit of 2011 and spoke of the special relationship.
No, this was not a sop to Yanks, for our group was almost entirely English. They were certainly aware that, two days later was Nov. 5, Guy Fawkes Day, when a failed Catholic plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament in 1605 is commemorated with bonfires and fireworks. Fawkes was tried, with predictable results, in this very hall, as not much later, was Charles I.
One American concept that did not originate in Westminster Palace is the separation of powers, and it was certainly foreign to Charles, a believer in the divine right of kings. His disdain for Parliament finally brought him for trial to Westminster Hall, and his head was separated from his body in 1649.
They’ve got some great stories at the Palace of Westminster, and true ones at that.
James Gill’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.