A THEME that surfaced often in the coverage of Queen Elizabeth's death on Thursday was how much Americans admired her, notwithstanding the timeless American disdain for royalty. "Why monarchy-rejecting America mourns Queen Elizabeth, too," a New York Post column was headlined. Or, as Jim Geraghty wrote for National Review, "Queen Elizabeth II made it easy to like her, even if you don't like the idea of monarchies."
Well, yes and no.
There is no denying that in proclaiming their independence in 1776, Americans rejected their former king. He had proved himself "a Tyrant ... unfit to be the ruler of a free people," wrote Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence, and the American colonies were accordingly entitled not just "to be Free and Independent States," but also to be "Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown." Fired with revolutionary zeal, Patriots in New York City pulled down the statue of King George III that stood in Manhattan's Bowling Green park. Then, so the story goes, they had it melted down and refashioned into 40,000 bullets for the Continental Army.
And yet, it hadn't been that long since Americans felt a strong attachment to the British king. Writing to a friend from Paris in 1767, Benjamin Franklin praised Louis XV, whom he had just met at Versailles. All the same, he insisted that "no Frenchman shall go beyond me in thinking my own king and queen the very best in the world and the most amiable." Thomas Paine said that as late as 1774, most Americans still retained an "obstinate" attachment to Britain and "their single object was reconciliation," not revolution.
But as anger over Britain's behavior intensified, so did Americans' aversion to royalty. Hereditary monarchy and blood-based nobility, once regarded as necessary and natural, turned into the ultimate symbol of despotism. It wasn't only for national independence that Americans rebelled, but for a republic, too — for a government of the people and by the people, a nation in which citizens governed themselves and rejected the very idea of kings on thrones as both pernicious and laughable.
Royalty is a superstition, contradicted by the self-evident truth that all men are created equal. "All kings is mostly rapscallions, as fur as I can make out," Huckleberry Finn explains to Jim in Mark Twain's great novel. For a diehard, small-r republican like me, that sounds about right. And considering how few monarchies remain in the world, it apparently sounds about right to a lot of people.
Including a fair number of Britons.
A couple of old video clips began making the rounds last week, right around the time that Liz Truss went to Balmoral Castle in Scotland — in what turned out to be the queen's final public appearance — to be formally invited to become the new prime minister. The videos showed Truss as a 19-year-old student activist, the president of the Liberal Democratic club at Oxford University. "We do not believe that people should be born to rule," she declares heatedly in one appearance. "That people, because of the family they're born into, should be able to be the head of our country? I think that's disgraceful," she says in the other.
In what turned out to be the last public appearance of Queen Elizabeth's life, she formally invited Liz Truss — a onetime republican — to become Britain's new prime minister.
Truss obviously takes a different view of things now. But I'm still of the opinion that monarchy is, if not inherently disgraceful, then decidedly anachronistic and contrary to the deepest American ideals — above all the conviction that all human beings are created equal. As a libertarian-leaning conservative, I am deeply skeptical of government power and reject the idea that privilege or nobility should be a function of blood.
In one of the most politically prescient chapters in the Hebrew Bible, the people of Israel demand that the Prophet Samuel appoint a king to rule over them. Monarchy was the norm in the ancient world, but the Jews had never had a king and they yearned to be "like all the nations." God tells a reluctant Samuel to do as the people ask, and the prophet anoints Saul. But first he reads the Israelites the riot act. He warns them that power corrupts and that the monarchy they crave would bring them despotism and misery. "The day will come," Samuel foretells, "when you cry out because of the king whom you yourselves have chosen; but the Lord will not answer you on that day."
The people should have listened. Saul's monarchy begins well, but it ends disastrously. And while the Bible praises some of the kings who followed over the next four centuries for their righteousness and integrity, it condemns more of them for their wickedness, greed, or falsehood.
The annals of monarchy are the annals, to use Twain's far too mild word, of rapscallions. From King Herod of Judea to Henry VIII of England, from Belgium's Leopold II to the Roman emperor Caligula, from Ivan the Terrible to Genghis Khan, the embodiment of sovereignty in a single man or woman has again and again proved calamitous.
Even today, when most of the world's remaining monarchies are mostly or entirely ceremonial, the institution of hereditary kingship is irrational and offensive. "Here, sir, the people govern," said Alexander Hamilton. It is not by chance that the Constitution's opening words are "We, the People." In the United States, there is no requirement or expectation of loyalty to any person. Instead, elected officials, military personnel, and naturalized immigrants all swear to support and defend the Constitution.
For all that, there is no getting around the fact that even in America, countless people long to be ruled by individuals with the "right" genetic lineage. Until Joe Kennedy III unsuccessfully challenged Ed Markey in the 2020 US Senate race, a majority of Massachusetts voters had for 70 years automatically elected any member of the Kennedy family who appeared on the ballot. As his Senate campaign faltered, Kennedy released a commercial that all but laid claim to the office on the basis of his DNA. "Joe Kennedy knows how a legacy is earned," an announcer declared, as images of Robert, Edward, and John F. Kennedy appeared on the screen. "It's a fight in his blood." That was shameless.
Yet it's clear that many human beings have a need to idolize individuals or their families — to regard them as the distillation of a great cause or a proud history. Even in a republic like ours, with a Constitution that forbids titles of nobility, it can be a powerful advantage to be born with a famous name into a political dynasty, which is why so many candidates with "political royal blood" get elected to Congress and other powerful positions. To my mind, Americans should shun dynastic politics and anything else that smacks of royalism or family-worship.
But the craving for such leaders is a constant in history. What was true of the Israelites in Samuel's day was true among some Americans after the Revolution, when there were calls for George Washington to assume sweeping powers and govern as a king. When, years later, Washington became the first president under the new Constitution, some lawmakers wanted him to be addressed with the pomp and grandiosity due a monarch. Vice President John Adams, no less, suggested in the Senate that the nation's new leader be styled "His Elective Majesty," "His Mightiness," or even "His Highness, the President of the United States of America and the Protector of their Liberties." Washington, aware of the example he was setting, consented to be called nothing loftier than "Mr. President."
If there must be monarchs in the world, they should be like Queen Elizabeth. She was among the most famous celebrities of the last 100 years, yet she never acted like a celebrity. Her behavior was never scandalous. Her devotion to duty was unquestioned. She was the very personification of dignity, modesty, and reserve in a world that seemed to grow less dignified, modest, and reserved by the hour.
Even before she ascended the throne, as her son noted Friday in his first address as King Charles III, Elizabeth promised "to devote her life, whether it be short or long, to the service of her peoples." She was only 21 at the time, still five years away from becoming queen, but by all accounts it was a pledge she took seriously. If her life was one of great privilege, it was also one of uncomplaining sacrifice and restraint.
"From the moment she rose, crowned, from the fourteenth-century Coronation Chair, she rarely put a foot wrong," wrote Rebecca Mead in The New Yorker. Of how many other world leaders or public luminaries can that be said? Which of us could have lived that way for 70 years — relentlessly in the public eye, yet never making a spectacle of ourselves?
That is why "monarchy-rejecting America" mourns Elizabeth's passing, and why even a resolute antimonarchist like me honors her for a life well lived. She was that rarest of creatures, a virtuous ruler. "Elizabeth the Good," Andrew Roberts called her in a Wall Street Journal essay over the weekend. Kings (and queens) is mostly rapsacallions, Huck told Jim. This one was an exception.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The queen: three stories
1. Yesterday was Sept. 11, a day that will live in infamy. As Queen Elizabeth's remains began their slow journey from Scotland to Westminster Abbey in London for her funeral next week, I learned for the first time of that day's earlier connection to the queen.
Following the terrorist attacks that caused such shock, upended the free world, and took the lives of 3,000 innocent victims in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania, the queen broke with centuries of precedent and directed that "The Star-Spangled Banner" be played during the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace. From time immemorial, no foreign national anthem was ever played at the palace, except to welcome a visiting head of state. But as a show of solidarity with the American people, the queen asked for something different.
"As the band of the Coldstream Guards began the US national anthem, hundreds in the crowd sang along while others wept, before observing a two-minute silence," The Guardian reported.
At a memorial service held the next day at St. Paul's Cathedral in London, the queen made an even more dramatic break with precedent. With more than 2,600 mourners in attendance, "The Star Spangled Banner" was played once again — and this time the queen herself sang along. That was an extraordinary demonstration of sympathy and friendship, for Queen Elizabeth never sang her own nation's anthem. For 70 years, she always stood in silence as the public sang to her. But on that day, for the first time ever, the British monarch sang America's national anthem in public and, visibly distraught, wiped the tears from her face.
At a memorial service for the victims of 9/11, Queen Elizabeth sang the American national anthem and wept.
2. The late Lord Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi of the United Kingdom and one of Britain's most renowned public intellectuals, opened an essay 10 years ago by noting that Queen Elizabeth's schedule was always governed by rigorous adherence to a timetable. She invariably arrived on time and left on time, in keeping with the maxim of France's Louis XVIII that "punctuality is the politeness of kings."
But there was one memorable exception.
The day was Jan. 27, 2005, the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. At St. James's Palace, the queen was meeting a group of Holocaust survivors. When the time came for her to leave, she stayed. And stayed. One of her attendants said that he had never known her to linger so long after the schedule called for her departure. She gave each survivor her focused, unhurried attention. She stood with each until they had finished telling their personal story.
That was a gesture of royal kindness and respect, reflected Sacks, "that almost had me in tears." When the queen finally took her leave, one after another of the aging survivors came up to him in wonderment. "Sixty years ago," they told the rabbi, "I did not know if I would be alive tomorrow, and here I am today talking to the queen." Her willingness to hear their stories and to stay as long as that took, Sacks wrote, "brought a kind of blessed closure into deeply lacerated lives."
3. At the other end of the emotional spectrum, it has been wonderful to read about the queen's sense of humor — a side of her personality that was rigorously suppressed in public.
"Stories of the Queen's impish side abound from those who knew her best," wrote Gordon Raynor in The Telegraph, "and she would take particular delight in those rare occasions when people failed to recognize who she was."
In one hilarious vignette, a royal security escort named Richard Griffin recalled the time he was accompanying the queen as she walked her dogs on the grounds of the Balmoral estate and they came across a pair of American tourists at a public picnic site. At such moments, the queen would generally stop and courteously say hello — usually giving the flustered tourists an unexpected thrill — but on that occasion it was clear that the two tourists hadn't recognized her.
Making small talk, the visitors asked the older woman where she lived. She replied: "Well, I live in London but I've got a holiday home just over the hills. I've been coming up here ever since I was a little girl, over 80 years."
One tourist asked: "Well, if you've been coming up here for 80 years you must have met the queen?"
Without missing a beat, the queen replied: "Well, I haven't, but Dick here meets her regularly." When Griffin was asked, "What is she like?" he replied with a twinkle in his eye: "Well, she can be very cantankerous at times but she's got a great sense of humor."
The tourists asked if they could have their picture taken with Griffin, and asked his companion if she would do the honors. After the queen took a picture of Griffin with the tourists, they swapped places and Griffin took a picture of the tourists with the queen. He said: "We never let on, and we waved goodbye and Her Majesty said, 'I'd love to be a fly on the wall when they show those pictures to their friends in America and hopefully someone tells them who I am.'"
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
-- ## --
Follow Jeff Jacoby on Twitter.
Want to read more Jeff Jacoby? Sign up for "Arguable," his free weekly email newsletter.