Sixty years ago in London, Queen Elizabeth was crowned in succession to her father, the now famously stammering chain-smoker George VI. For most Brits the queen’s Diamond Jubilee is a chance to celebrate her reign with street parties, fireworks, concerts, and pageants along the Thames. They will be toasting the woman who has so far presided over 12 prime ministers, including perhaps the greatest of them all, Winston Churchill.
It is a mark of Elizabeth’s benign demeanor and quiet charm that she will be celebrated not only in the 54 member states of the Commonwealth, the independent nations that were Britain’s former colonies and dominions, but around the world, too. Few countries do pomp as well as the Brits, as the weddings of Prince William to Kate and Prince Charles to Diana attest. But not all Americans, when they watch the Jubilee, will grasp the true role of the queen.
She is a constitutional monarch, which means she wields no political power. She personifies the state and opens sessions of Parliament by reading out the new legislative program her prime ministers have written, as if she herself had decided what the people need. She keeps her views strictly to herself and does as she is asked by elected officials, whether it is greeting fellow heads of state or dubbing new knights with a sword.
On the face of it, there is nothing much the American Republic can learn from the monarchy. In the Revolutionary War, we decided monarchy was not for us. George III, the king who lost America, was not only clinically mad. He was crazy to have let America go, but that’s another matter. America has steamed on without a monarch ever since and has never looked back.
One of George Washington’s most significant decisions was to decline a third term, saying the last thing America needed was another king. After Franklin Roosevelt came close to becoming an elected monarch by winning four terms, the Constitution was changed so no president should serve more than two. Our republic was founded instead upon democratic principles born of the French Revolution, dividing power between the executive (the president), the lawmakers (Congress), and the judiciary (the Supreme Court), on the principle no single arm of government should become too powerful.