Members of Republic, the lobbying group calling for the abolition of the British monarchy and its replacement with an elected head of state, often express bewilderment over the American fascination with the Royal Family.
Republic supporters out protesting and canvassing for a British Republic around Buckingham Palace are often confronted by American tourists who defend the monarchy as a quaint and endearing institution.
Why, pray tell, do Americans find such an institution so endearing? Our colonial Founding Fathers, after all, not only overthrew the monarchy and pioneered modern republicanism but also conceived the institutional antithesis of the monarchy: the modern republican presidency. Why do we still evince so much sympathy for an institution that we abandoned almost a quarter a millennium ago?
I think that my ambivalent views on the monarchy parallel those of most Americans. I admire the monarchy — up to a point.
I admire how Elizabeth II, who had the monarchy unwittingly foisted on her, has carried out her duties for three generations with unwavering grace, confidence and dignity. I respect the sundry ways that the monarchy provides ballast within the British constitutional system and how it’s yielded ground to Parliament over the last 400 years. I marvel at the way the Monarchy continues to exert a largely hidden, but firm, hand on the affairs of state through longstanding traditions, perhaps best embodied in the Queen’s weekly audience with her prime minister.
Most of all, I envy the way the monarch functions as a national symbol, standing above the political fray and unifying the nation in a way that the partisan American presidency never will.
In some ways, the monarchy puts our presidency to shame. The image of a president being shuttled in a spacious plane equipped with its own Oval Office can’t help but spark a measure of awe. But the president’s traditional State of the Union address doesn’t quite pack the same visual punch as the Queen in her royal vestments travelling in a horse-drawn carriage on her way to the Opening of Parliament — or the sight of Black Rod rapping on the door to summon the Commons the Queen’s presence, or the lowering of the Queen’s Standard at the precise moment her carriage exits Westminster following the Opening.
In fact, I could make the strong case — and have — that we Americans would be much better off with a largely ceremonial presidency modeled after the presidencies of Ireland and Germany, both of which essentially function as democratized versions of the monarchy.
In the end, though, I end up tripping over my republican proclivities. I can’t help but regard some aspects of the monarchy as repellent. I can’t look past the fact that one is a king or queen only because of birth. For that matter, I can’t get around the fact that monarchies have historically functioned as little more than legal mafias and that modern monarchs trace their lineage to distant men who walked over thousands of bodies in the course of securing their claims to their thrones.
Despite all the endearing traits of monarchies, much of what they represent is repellent to the republican traditions I cherish as an American.
So why, despite all this, do we Americans still evince a qualified affection for royalty and its trappings?
I think such affection for the ritual and tradition associated with royalty is deeply etched in the human psyche. Royalty has been the means of organizing and governing human beings for virtually all of the past 5,000 years of recorded history. Republican presidencies, by comparison, are a mere flash in the pan. I think that this deeply seated affection also accounts for why so many American evangelical Protestants in the 19th century found Masonry so appealing. Masonry filled the breach created by the American’s frontier religious experience, when Bible reading, hymn-singing and preaching replaced the liturgies and rituals that characterized older traditions.
Ritual and tradition have been an integral parts of the human experience for eons. Whenever we dispense with them, we feel a deep void.