When Charles and Camilla toured the nation’s capital this week, they “wowed” the adoring Americans they encountered, according to Reuters.
Sure, there wasn’t quite the same degree of enthusiasm as there was for last December’s visit of William and Catherine, Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. (What could top the sight of Wills and Kate chatting it up with Jay Z and Beyoncé?) But there was a real buzz nonetheless.
Yet Charles is a middle-aged prince with decidedly wonkish tendencies. (One of the highlights of his trip to Washington was his participation in a conference devoted to the problem of marine plastic waste.) Unlike Princess Diana, we can’t cite his youth or glamor as reasons for American adulation.
Instead, the response to British royalty invites more serious consideration of Americans’ fascination with the monarchy – a fascination that might seem strange, given the nation’s decision to sever ties with George III in 1776. No royal family from any other nation has induced the same level of scrutiny or celebration.
It’s important to recognize that British royals – regardless of their age or gender – have been eliciting similar responses on American shores for the last 150 years.
In 1860, Prince Albert Edward (the future King Edward VII) staged a surprisingly successful American tour, during which he was mobbed by fans in cities including Chicago, Albany and Detroit. In 1939, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth made similar headlines when they ate their first hot dogs in Hyde Park, New York, urged on by President Roosevelt and his wife, Eleanor.
And then there was the frenzy surrounding Prince Charles and Princess Diana’s visit to Washington in 1985. President Reagan may have mistakenly referred to Diana as “Princess David,” but no one will forget Diana’s turn on the dance floor with John Travolta.
Of course, there’s an element of pragmatism in the tradition of warm American receptions. After the American Revolution, the newly independent nation realized that it would need to maintain strong ties with the imperial motherland for diplomatic and security reasons; the War of 1812 proved to be the exception – rather than the rule – in 19th-century Anglo-American relations. This “special relationship” would only become more vital during World War II and the Cold War that followed. President Roosevelt invited George VI to that picnic in 1939 not only to exchange pleasantries, but to also telegraph British and American unity in the face of German belligerence.
But the emotion on display during royal visits also suggests a deep affective tie. Although the American revolutionaries long ago rejected colonial government, there has always been a certain degree of ambivalence about the Crown. The colonists, after all, had felt an intense and personal relationship with George III, whom they regarded as distinct from the British Parliament, even as many came to question the concept of hereditary sovereignty. As late as 1775, Alexander Hamilton would defend George III in his The Farmer Refuted on the grounds that George III was “king of America, by virtue of a compact between us and the kings of Great Britain.” As Hamilton went on to explain, “[T]o disclaim the authority of a British Parliament over us, does by no means imply the dereliction of our allegiance to British Monarchs.”
In the wake of the Revolution, the routines, symbols, rituals and attitudes associated with the Crown proved difficult to sacrifice.
These thorny aspects of the transition from colony to nation have been addressed in works by Elisa Tamarkin, Brendan J McConville and, most recently, Eric Nelson. In The Royalist Revolution, Nelson even goes so far as to suggest, provocatively, that the nation’s founders crafted the American presidency with the image of a strong king in mind. Not everyone will buy Nelson’s thesis, but there’s no denying that Americans have made their own political dynasties: instead of the Windsors, we have the Kennedys, Bushes and Clintons.
In this respect, Charles and Camilla’s current visit may allow an opportunity for more than just the donning of lounge suits and the brushing up on etiquette. It may also afford Americans a moment, however fleeting, to imagine themselves once again as royal subjects.