By Philip Terzian
So what can explain the depth of feeling, the palpable sense of loss and regret, in this superpower ex-British colony across the Atlantic at the death of Queen Elizabeth II?
Familiarity has something to do with it. Like most Britons, the great majority of Americans have never known any other British monarch; Elizabeth had met on equal footing with every president since Harry Truman.
Fame, and its cousin celebrity, is a factor as well: Her birth was news during the Coolidge administration; and when, in the middle of the Great Depression, her uncle King Edward VIII abdicated to marry an American, 10-year-old Princess Elizabeth suddenly found herself heir to the throne of the British Empire.
Mention “the British Empire” today and historical arguments ensue. Mention “the queen” and everybody over here knows who you mean.
To be sure, Elizabeth’s many qualities as sovereign are well known — her respect for Britain’s unwritten constitution, her grandeur and grace, her subtle diplomacy, her stewardship of monarchy itself in the modern age — and all will be scrutinized and analyzed in the days ahead. In an era of exceptionally rancorous public discourse, Elizabeth’s private politics (if she had any) were largely a mystery. In Britain, as well as in America, her personal popularity transcended social class as well as partisanship. The Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson always said that the most rewarding and enjoyable times he spent as premier were his weekly audiences with the queen.
She had seen it all and heard it all — and gained some wisdom along the way — as long as anyone could remember.
In that sense, of course, Elizabeth’s esteem, and the curiously enduring maternal affection in which she’s held, may be easily understood. She has been a part of the fabric of Anglo-American culture for so long and played her equivocal role with such skill that her death reminds us of loss and the passage of an age with painful emphasis.
As a very young woman, then-Princess Elizabeth famously consecrated her life to the service of Britain, its people and its commonwealth, and she never faltered nor put a foot wrong in three-quarters of a century. Sacrifice, selflessness and strict attention to duty are always regarded as endangered virtues, especially among our governors.
Still, this doesn’t quite explain her status in America. And therein lies a tale.
Whenever the queen, or some member of the royal family, would visit these shores, exasperated citizens would reliably remind us that we once fought a war of independence from Great Britain and from monarchy itself. Which, of course, is perfectly and thankfully true. Yet it’s equally true that our declaration of independence from England was written in England’s language, that our own Constitution derives from the cumulative laws and customs of what used to be called the mother country — and not least, in recent times, that we have fought side by side with the ex-colonial power in defense of those rights and freedoms we both cherish.
The essential difference, however, is that in rejecting British rule, our republican system of checks and balances also jettisoned the principle of constitutional monarchy, which, while scarcely an error and consistent with our particular brand of self-government, has bequeathed to us a system that, while gloriously democratic, has not always proved so checked and balanced in the 2½ centuries since 1776.
While Britain’s monarch serves as head of state but not of government — the titular personification of the nation — our charter invests dual authority in a party politician, the president. Prime ministers come and go but the British sovereign endures while American presidents, in the fullness of time, have acquired a kind of royal status. To say the least, some presidents have proved more worthy of this exalted condition than others, and the evolution of our system has not always been so perfectly balanced and calibrated.
Of course, no system of government is perfect and never will be, and modern Britain has suffered from deficient monarchs (see the aforementioned Edward VIII) as readily as we have benefited from great presidents. Still, when the system that Elizabeth II personified works, it works wonderfully well, and might prompt us to mix our affection and respect for the late queen with a sense that love of country, in America and Britain, might also involve a certain humility, perspective — and at this moment, reflection and sadness, as well as gratitude.
Philip Terzian, former literary editor of The Weekly Standard, is the author of “Architects of Power: Roosevelt, Eisenhower, and the American Century.”