By Lee H. Hamilton
The United States was born in a rejection of being ruled by the King of England and a celebration of the rights of individuals. The Declaration of Independence states boldly that “all men are created equal,” suggesting that hereditary monarchs are no better than anyone else.
It may seem a little surprising, then, that Americans can be enamored of royalty. We may consider ourselves small-d democrats, but many of us are fascinated with kings and queens. We saw this recently in the response to the death of Queen Elizabeth. It seemed that Americans followed the pomp and pageantry of her funeral almost as closely as her subjects in the U.K.
American television networks suspended regular programming to provide nonstop coverage. Flags flew at half-staff at statehouses and courthouses. Millions of Americans were transfixed by the formal, 10-day mourning period and by live coverage of the service – attended by hundreds of world leaders, including President Joe Biden – and the first speech by the queen’s son and successor, King Charles III.
Almost two and a half centuries earlier, the British crown faced hostility in America. While some colonists were loyal to King George III, many blamed him and his ministers for unjust laws and taxation without representation. Thomas Paine, in his pamphlet “Common Sense,” denounced “the evil of monarchy.” The Declaration of Independence is a long list of grievances against the king, accusing him of “repeated injuries and usurpations” that established “an absolute tyranny.”
After the Revolution, the new nation put limits on the power of its chief executive. George Washington voluntarily stepped down after two terms as president, a tradition that would last until 1940. The Constitution declared that “no title of nobility shall be granted by the United States” and barred Americans from accepting foreign titles without congressional consent.
But the U.S. and the United Kingdom have been allies for most of our history, sharing language, culture, traditions, and political institutions. And, almost from the start, many Americans maintained affection for English royalty. U.S. newspapers extensively covered the crowning of Queen Victoria in 1838. Crowds greeted her son, the future King Edward VII, when he toured the U.S. in 1860.
Celebrity worship has often fed the fascination. Americans paid close attention in the 1930s when King Edward VIII abdicated to marry the divorced American Wallis Simpson. More recently, the personal lives of members of the British royal family have been fodder for the tabloids. There’s a fairy-tale element to this fascination, not surprising in a country where children grow up on stories about Disney princesses and heroes and heroines who live happily ever after.
We also sometimes treat Americans like royalty, including billionaires, pop stars and members of glamorous political families like the Kennedys. John F. Kennedy’s presidency is recalled as Camelot, a reference to the legendary King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table.
Queen Elizabeth II was true royalty, of course. Her 70-year reign was the longest for any British monarch. It saw vast social and cultural changes, including the rise of television, the ubiquity of the Internet and, significantly, the end of the British Empire. The queen embodied memories of World War II, when the United Kingdom’s resistance to Hitler inspired the world. Although her role was largely ceremonial, she performed her duties gracefully and with respect for tradition.
As Americans, we can grieve her death, appreciate her legacy, and wish Charles III a successful reign. At the same time, we should remember our own democratic values. We have never achieved freedom, equality, and justice for all, but we should keep trying as we strive to form a more perfect union.