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The Eagle and the Crown

Review by: Walter L. Arnstein, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Frank Prochaska, The Eagle and Crown: Americans and the British Monarchy, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008).

Dr. Frank Prochaska’s purpose is both to illustrate and to attempt to explain a tendency that “has cast a long shadow across American history, leaving a legacy that is both puzzling and profound” (p. 200): why did a nation founded on ideological and military rebellion against the British monarchy come to feel a strong sense of attraction to that very institution? As a scholar born and educated in the United States who has long lived in Britain, Prochaska is particularly wellsuited to explore a topic that has been touched on by other historians but not hitherto surveyed systematically. As the author of such works as The Royal Bounty: The Making of the Welfare Monarchy (1995) and The Republic of Britain, 1760-2000 (2000), he has made use of the Royal Archives, but his prime source in this case is a plethora of nineteenth and twentieth-century American newspapers as supplemented by numerous memoirs and published letters.

The underlying theme of the work is that the love-hate relationship between Americans and the British monarchy has changed remarkably little in the course of two centuries. Although the Declaration of Independence of 1776 condemned King George III as “marked by every act which may define a Tyrant,” the Founding Fathers looked favorably on much of the political history of the land of their ancestors. Thus the American Constitution of 1787 refashioned Britain’s mixed government as a compound of a monarchy (the president), an aristocracy (the senate), and a democracy (the house 348 Book Reviews of representatives) as well as an independent judiciary. Prochaska reminds us how the presidency became a form of “elective kingship” that exercised powers greater than those that George III had been able to wield. Even as in Victorian Britain “a republic had insinuated itself beneath the folds of a Monarchy,” so in America “a monarchy had insinuated itself beneath the folds of a republic” (p. 23).

Even in George III’s own lifetime, some Americans were beginning to commend that monarch’s private life and in 1809 even to celebrate his Jubilee. In 1817, during an era of Anglo-American reconciliation, they were to lament deeply the death in childbirth of the Princess Charlotte, the presumptive heiress to Britain’s throne. In Chapter 3 he brings us to “Victoria Fever.” The fact that “an imbecile, a profligate, and a buffoon” was succeeded in 1837 by an energetic and dutiful eighteen-year-old queen aroused almost as much fascination in the United States as it did in the United Kingdom. As that chapter and the next two illustrate, “The Queen’s genius was to enhance the monarch as a symbol of constitutional rectitude, while associating royalty with the prevailing middle-class sentiments of the age” (p. 43). In the course of the nineteenth century, as the United States was riven by civil war and headed by mediocre American presidents, she came to symbolize there as well as in Britain the respectable manners and mores of a common Protestant Anglo-American culture. Although Queen Victoria took a keen interest in the United States and in individual Americans, she never visited the New World; but in 1860 her eldest son did, and his month-long visit demonstrated in city after city the delight that Americans took in royalty. “No president could excite such a fervor” (p. 67).

During the decades that followed—as confirmed by the excitement aroused by her Golden Jubilee of 1887, her Diamond Jubilee of 1897, and her death in 1901—Victoria became “America’s Queen.” As future Secretary of State William M. Evarts observed in 1876: “had Queen Victoria been on the throne, instead of George III,…our rebellion…would not have been necessary” (p. 92). A few years later the Daughters of the American Revolution saluted Victoria as the “noblest exponent of queenly womanhood the world has seen” (p. 102).

In the course of the twentieth century, the United States was greatly to exceed the United Kingdom in population as well as in industrial and military might, and the ethnic background of its people ceased to be predominantly British; but all American presidents other than Martin Van Buren have claimed ancestors from England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland. The sense of a common legal and literary culture never disappeared, and an awareness of a special relationship was repeatedly to be revived. In successive chapters, the author focuses first on King Edward VII, “the greatest royal impresario in British history” (p. 121) and then on the Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VIII) of the World War I and post-war era. The latter became “the ultimate darling of the mass media” (p. 134). Later chapters take up the impact of Wallis Warfield Simpson and the Abdication (1936), and then King George VI and his consort, whose formal visit to an isolationist United States in June 1939 encouraged British Scholar 349 American involvement in World War II, which began only two months later. Their coronation in 1937 had resulted in the longest continuous radio broadcast in American history, just as in 1953 the coronation of their daughter, Queen Elizabeth II, served as the catalyst of international television. Most readers will remember that extraordinary phenomenon, the Dianamania of the 1980s and 1990s even as the death of the princess “demonstrated the cathartic and consoling power of royal spectacle” (p. 197).

Prochaska’s highly readable overview does remind us of the Irish-American critics of the monarchy, but he unduly neglects the numerous occasions—ranging from the War of 1812 and the Oregon Boundary dispute to the post-Civil War Alabama Claims and the Venezuela Boundary dispute of 1895-96—when an American war against Britain remained all too likely. The very ability of successive members of the royal family to defuse Anglo-American acrimony helps make those efforts even more meaningful than he implies. He is misleading also when he writes, “Edward VII, unlike Presidents Jackson, Lincoln, or his contemporary Theodore Roosevelt, did not have the power to make war or peace” (p. 110). As a matter of fact, such power had been granted by the Constitution not to the president but to Congress, even though American presidents—especially since 1945—have found ways to evade that provision. The British Crown did possess such power, but during the centuries after 1688 they came to be exercised primarily by the head of government (the prime minister) rather than by the head of state (the monarch). An American president—often uncomfortably—combines both roles.

One may cavil at a few of Prochaska’s conclusions, but his book provides an eminently stimulating, highly informative, and generously illustrated account of why (according to the New York Times) “in a curious way, Americans feel closest to the country they rebelled against” (p. 187).

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