In a charming old Firing Line episode, William F. Buckley invited Christopher Hitchens and John O’Sullivan to parley over England’s continued influence on America. There is something, Hitchens noted, about the two countries that reinforces the conservative. Nowhere is this tendency more seen than in Americans’ love of the monarchy and royal family. 30 million Americans watched Prince Harry wed the American Meghan Markle, and the outpouring of condolences from Americans—including every living President—upon Queen Elizabeth II’s death showed more than mere diplomatic discretion for the passing of an allied head of state. Americans expressed genuine affection toward an office to which we are connected by “the mystic chords of memory.”
There is between Americans and Britons, as John Adams put it to King George III in 1785, an “esteem, confidence and affection—or, in better words, the old good nature and the old good humor between people, who, though separated by an ocean, and under different governments, have the same language, a similar religion, and kindred blood.” Britain and America’s kaleidoscopic flourishing of ethnicity has not toned-down this bond. The genius of British culture is its plasticity, as Russel Kirk argued in America’s British Culture. Far from being defined by race, the culture in its DNA is polyethnic, its tongue a bewildering yet beautiful mixture of languages now spoken by over 2 billion people.
Perhaps, once unyoked from constitutional requirements to be subject to the monarch, Americans found renewed appreciation for what the monarchy means. As Roger Scruton put it, “the constitutional monarchy is the light above politics, which shines down on the human bustle from a calmer and more exalted sphere.” America’s Founders merged the prime ministerial and monarchical office into one, as Harvard’s Eric Nelson’s brilliant work The Royalist Revolution: Monarchy and the American Founding has shown. The head of state—the face of the nation—was brought into politics.
In the person of George Washington, this unification brought magnanimity to the newborn republic through Washington’s own personal virtue. In the person of—take your pick—Donald Trump or Joe Biden, the need to respect the persona—often called the “office” of the presidency—can complicate an American’s need to honor the country while holding the president to account. In these moments, the light shining above party politics gleams, reminding us of our millennia-old origins that transcend present-day skirmishes.
Hitchens bemoaned the affection of tradition between the English speaking peoples (though in his later years would come to tenuously endorse the “Anglosphere”) and instead approved of Britons on the left admiring and copying America’s experiment in republicanism. This posture is telling – Americans’ republicanism is not where the force of anti-monarchical feelings spring. It does not emerge from the “left,” generically speaking, either; Labour voters and prime ministers consistently support the monarchy, sometimes more assiduously than members of the Conservative party.
Marxism and its wing of the left, so ably personified in Hitchens, is the force that finds the monarchy with its popularity an offense to the total commitment to absolute equality. George Orwell described the opposition this way:
“In left-wing circles it is always felt that there is something slightly disgraceful in being an Englishman and that it is a duty to snigger at every English institution, from horse racing to suet puddings. It is a strange fact, but it is unquestionably true that almost any English intellectual would feel more ashamed of standing to attention during ‘God save the King’ than of stealing from a poor box.”
Constitutional monarchy is a benign yet frank admission that inequality is our earthly reality, and equality only a remedy to its abuses. The rhetoric of total equality is a spell best broken the way most spells are – with a good joke. Kurt Vonnegut’s 1961 sartorial Harrison Bergeron is one of the sharpest:
The year was 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren’t only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else. All this equality was due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution, and to the unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General.
In this dystopian future, the Handicapper General burdens ballerinas with sashweights and bags of birdshot, and caps the handsome with red rubber balls on the nose. The punchline makes obvious what we all know: other than our souls before God, and our rights before the law, we are unequal.
In his essay Equality, C.S. Lewis fleshed-out the monarchy’s tonic to utopian grasps for flattened sameness in the Spectator:
We Britons should rejoice that we have contrived to reach much legal democracy (we still need more of the economic) without losing our ceremonial Monarchy. For there, right in the midst of our lives, is that which satisfies the craving for inequality, and acts as a permanent reminder that medicine is not food. Hence a man’s reaction to Monarchy is a kind of test. Monarchy can easily be “debunked”; but watch the faces, mark well the accents, of the debunkers. These are the men whose tap-root in Eden has been cut: whom no rumour of the polyphony, the dance, can reach—men to whom pebbles laid in a row are more beautiful than an arch. Yet even if they desire mere equality they cannot reach it. Where men are forbidden to honour a king they honour millionaires, athletes, or film-stars instead: even famous prostitutes or gangsters. For spiritual nature, like bodily nature, will be served; deny it food and it will gobble poison.
When the Prince and Princess of Cambridge visited a Cavaliers game in Brooklyn in 2014, and shook hands with Jay-Z and Beyonce, many on Twitter praised the meeting of the “king and queen” of England and the “king and queen” of America. But while the musicians’ entertainment may delight us many times over, the comparison was paltry. Really, there was no comparison. The monarchy, contained by natural law, custom, and representative democracy, is a safe reminder not only of inequality but also of permanence.
Lastly, the monarchy is a reminder of spiritual reality. The universe is not governed by Christ the President but Christ the King. In the moral realm, freedom is the means by which human beings pursue the proper end (or goal) of virtue; in the political realm, freedom is the primary end. Because of kings’ historical abuses, Britons found it necessary to proscribe the powers of the monarch, and Americans found it necessary to reject their place in our government altogether. But at its best, and so proscribed, the monarch is a representation of the King of Kings’ servant leadership. On Saturday, a young boy or girl will begin the coronation with this invitation: “Your Majesty, as children of the Kingdom of God we welcome you in the name of the King of Kings,” and King Charles will reply: “In his name, and after his example, I come not to be served but to serve.” Set your clocks early this weekend; the reminder will be worth it.