I write as an American patriot who is also a confirmed Anglophile. So when I got the sad news this morning that the Queen’s health had taken so dangerous a turn that the palace had summoned her family to Balmoral, I steeled myself for bad news.
Alas, the bad news has now been confirmed. Queen Elizabeth II has died.
It says a lot that when I say “the Queen” even American readers know I can mean only one person. The ninety-six-year-old had just celebrated her platinum anniversary this summer — seventy years on the throne, the longest of any English monarch.
Elizabeth was far and away the most admired head of state in the world. Her good sense, her generosity of spirit, her thoughtful but active reticence have made her one of the most successful monarchs in history. Her long tenure — she was on the throne beginning in the administration of Harry Truman — made her a symbol and a cynosure of stability.
Americans grow up (or used to grow up) reading about the “long train of abuses and usurpations” that Thomas Jefferson set forth against George III in the Declaration of Independence. Andrew Roberts, in his magisterial new book on Jefferson’s bête noir, shows that Jefferson exaggerated greatly for effect. That takes nothing away from the nobility of the American Revolution. But it does remind us that “monarchy” is not synonymous with tyranny, just as “democracy” is not synonymous with liberty or good government.
Alexander Hamilton, in the very first of the Federalist Papers, said that the debate over the proposed Constitution of the United States would decide whether it was possible for humanity to form government by “reflection and choice” or whether they were destined to give in to “force and accident.”
That was a good formulation. But the case of Britain shows that constitutional monarchies have as much claim to government by “choice and reflection” as constitutional democracies. I suppose one way of dramatizing this point is to ask whether you would rather would rather live under the aegis of Joe Biden or Queen Elizabeth.
Louis XV, casting his eye over the political situation in France in the early eighteenth century, is said to have remarked “après moi, le déluge,” “after me, the catastrophe.” He was right about that, though the “déluge” took a while to engulf the world.
There is reason to worry about the fate of the British monarchy after Elizabeth.
Prince Charles is no Commodus to Elizabeth’s Marcus Aurelius. But he is a weak reed with which to support a venerable but also fragile institution.
The nineteenth-century English essayist Walter Bagehot, pondering the complexities of the British monarchy, advised against active participation by the monarch in political affairs. “We must not,” he said, “let daylight in upon magic.” What Bagehot called the “impressive” side of monarchy must be maintained by discretion, ritual, and taste.
Elizabeth exuded those virtues spectacularly throughout her seven decades on the throne. Charles, who once billed himself as “defender of the faiths” (plural), not so much.
I intend to say a prayer for the Queen. I am sorry she couldn’t wait until her grandson William was ready to ascend the throne. Nevertheless, Britain and the world must be grateful for her example and her guidance. RIP.