The latest scandal among the British royals will doubtless reenergize the long-running argument over the usefulness of monarchy in these times.
Surprisingly often, here and in other fora, one encounters Americans so affronted by the manifest defects of “democracy,” that they declare themselves to be “monarchists.” This has always seemed a little strange to me. Surely the point of monarchy is that it is personal. One can give fealty to a particular royal house, but can one be a “monarchist” in the abstract? Further, “monarchy,” like “democracy,” comes in many varieties, some better, some worse. We need to be sure about what exactly we mean.
Certainly the best of the American Founders would find a predilection for monarchy absurd and dangerous. They feared the executive power and were well aware that the purse, the sword, and the glamour of power could create a large and intolerant following among masses without strong republican virtue. They preferred a constitutional government that would restrain the ruler, whether the one, the few, or the many. But, then, the worst of the American Founders created a Presidential office with as much potential for tyranny as anything ever devised by the mind of man.
I know there are good British people who feel that their monarchy plays an important role as the embodiment of tradition, patriotism, and unity, and I must respect that. I know also that the criticism of the monarchy that comes from the Brit chattering classes is not motivated by moral outrage or democratic sentiment. It expresses the same envy and spite that energizes a similar type in America to hate the Confederate flag. Their nature is to suppress whatever is a remnant of earlier and better times that they fear they cannot fully control.
Yet a real monarchist must admit that the British executed and exiled their legitimate
kings. The Stuarts had defects enough, Heaven knows, but they were royal defects. They had the best of British qualities—courage and intelligence such as nearly conquered the world. Something went badly wrong when the present line of petty German princelings was imported. The German princes were among the stupidest and most repulsive of all the European royals and unfitted to be symbols of a great Empire.
The only positive quality that the present ruling house has ever displayed is middle-class morality and steadiness. And even there, it has been more image than reality, since every generation has produced enough odd characters to fill a zoo. And now we have had two generations that are hardly distinguishable from their peers among the super-rich of the Northeastern United States: at best dilettantes prey of every pernicious cause of the day or else wastrels representative of nothing.
So loyal lovers of Lost Causes everywhere, join me in a quiet toast to the One over the Water.
Clyde N. Wilson is the Emeritus Distinguished Professor of History at the University of South Carolina and a Contributing Editor to Chronicles. Dr. Wilson is best known as the editor of the 28-volume documentary edition of The Papers of John C. Calhoun. He is the author or editor of a dozen other books—including Carolina Cavalier: The Life and Mind of James Johnston Pettigrew and Defending Dixie: Essays in Southern History and Culture—and has published over 700 articles, essays, and reviews. He is also the co-owner of Shotwell Publishing.