US and Them

The Eagle and the Crown: Americans and the British Monarchy by Frank Prochaska

Books Constitutional Affairs Global Governance History International North America Politics The West UK Politics US Politics

This well-researched, well-written book focuses on American press and public reaction to the British monarchy since the time of the American Revolution.

The only reigning British monarch to visit the US prior to the present Queen was King George VI, though William IV, Edward VII and Edward VIII went to America before their accessions.

Particularly interesting is the attention given to royalist sentiment in the American colonies at the time of the Revolution. John Adams, the first US minister to Great Britain, with Alexander Hamilton and ultimately George Washington himself, the leader of the pro-British faction of revolutionaries, bel-ieved the royalists to be about one third of the population of the colonies. The revolution-aries’ treatment of the royalists was often, in more recent parlance, un-American.

On the other hand, the book could have shed more light on contemporary British opinion of the American revolutionaries. The Macaulay-Trevelyan faction of utilitarian historians has maintained that the American Revolution was a civil war in which really only George III and his royal toadies opposed the objectives of the colonists.

Burke, Chatham, and Fox are regularly cited in support of this theory. But this flies in the face of the inveterate reaction of many leaders of opinion, including Dr Johnson, who is sometimes claimed to regard all Americans, with the exception of Benjamin Franklin, as scoundrels.

This study does not claim to be a history of the American Revolution, but the motives and the correlation of forces of the two sides in that conflict naturally shaped their subsequent relations. The Americans have romanticised their founding as a revolt of egalitarian philo-sopher-kings leading a tiny population of intrepid patriots successfully against over-whelming odds. In fact, as has been mentioned, large minorities in both countries opposed the war. The real cause of the American Revolution was the grubby matter of taxes, as Britain felt the Americans should pay more of the burden of protecting them from the French in the Seven Years War (1756-1763), and the Amer-icans thought they should have authority over their own taxation. Almost all the pamphlet-eering about equality and “self-evident truths… inalienable rights… and sacred hon-our” was bunk.

The Declaration of Independence was a violent pillory, almost of Nuremberg Trials proportions, of poor old “Farmer George” III, and a blood libel on the American Indian. Neither Washington nor Jefferson could bring themselves to emancipate their slaves, though the Sage of Monticello was happy enough to procreate with the more comely of them. Relations between the two countries were coloured for a very long time by British un-certainty of what the Americans had been so upset about, and American self-cons-ciousness about being perceived as genuinely aggrieved.

Frank Prochaska underplays the British response to the US Civil War. Palmerston, Russell, Gladstone, and the young Cecil (fut-ure Marquis of Salisbury), all distinguished prime ministers in their time, all favoured the South and Palmerston was tempted to exchange embassies with the Confederacy.

It fell to outsiders, particularly Prince Albert in his last act before his premature death, and Disraeli, to point out that by supp-orting the South, Britain would be writing off Canada and its Caribbean possessions, and that morally and practically it could not take a position in favour of secessionism and slave-holding.

The author captures well the early Amer-ican preoccupation with George III. He also skilfully describes the way in which Edward VIII, as Prince of Wales, and Princess Diana, inserted themselves into the American star system. He tries admirably to build a solid bridge from revolutionary times to the era of Reagan and Thatcher.

But despite his diligent unearthing of US press and public comment on Queen Victoria, I don’t think he makes the case that the American public had an interest in the British Crown after the death of the outrageous George IV in 1830, or the end of the last of the revolutionaries, around 1840 (when the United States also overtook Great Britain in population).

There was no great public soap opera value – always America’s chief interest in the British royals – from the time of the shambles of George IV and Queen Caroline until the Abdication crisis over the American Wallis Simpson more than a century later. It is a myth that surfaces intermittently in America that the American public has ever particularly admired the British constitutional monarchy as a system of government.

The author does bring out well the evo-lution of Victorian Britain towards a republic with a constitutional, hereditary monarch, and of the US towards an elective monarchy. The British monarchs after George III reigned, while the stronger US Presidents have ruled.

More could have been made of what the British royal family thought of Woodrow Wilson, the Roosevelts, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Nixon, and Reagan, and vice versa. It is recorded that the anti-US George V “didn’t think much” of Wilson after he refused to send American forces to the Russian Civil War against the Bolsheviks (though the king had contributed to the massacre of the Romanovs by denying them asylum in Britain). Relations between the desiccated intellectual president and the philistine king were bound to be difficult in any case.

Edward VII liked Teddy Roosevelt and George VI was somewhat overawed by FDR, but he and the Queen Mother made a good impression. George VI and Queen Elizabeth were invited to the US in 1939 by Franklin Roosevelt because he wanted to warn Hitler that he would not be neutral, as Wilson had been, in the event of war; he also wanted to encourage the British monarch, as he had found his prime ministerial counterparts, MacDonald, Baldwin and Chamberlain, to be hopeless in terms of containing Hitler. FDR told his inner circle that in the likely event of war, he hoped the gracious royal couple would help him disarm isolationist opinion in the US.

They personified the long-lost (in America) mystique of the British Crown. The author quotes, to great effect, Eleanor Roosevelt on how moving it was when she and FDR saw them off at the little railway station at Hyde Park, New York, and the crowds along the banks of the Hudson sang Auld Lang Syne, six weeks before the outbreak of the war.

In 1957, the present Queen thought Eisen-hower lacked self-assurance. The royals noted the glamour of the Kennedys and the intel-ligence of Richard Nixon, but we are told nothing of what these men thought of the Queen and her family. The Suez crisis, which severely strained US-UK relations for a time, is not mentioned at all.

The author has various (generally agree-able) foibles, such as his frequent references to British royalty as “poetry”, without elab-oration, and his inexplicable interest in the fulminations of the Chicago Tribune, a neur-otically Anglophobic daily that for decades referred to the “Brutish Empire,” pandering to its German and Irish-American readers.

With all that said, this remains a very readable and well-documented thesis which one does not have to agree with entirely, to appreciate and read with interest and pleasure.