The last time I went to Colonial Williamsburg, I was sitting in the capitol’s courtroom and listening to the guide give his spiel on eighteenth-century trials, when it suddenly hit me: Americans lived under a monarch before the Revolution. I don’t mean that I didn’t know this before, of course; I mean that it hit me viscerally for the first time.
I’d never felt so distant from the inhabitants of eighteenth-century America as I did at that moment, sitting in that reconstructed courtroom where men—where subjects—dispensed justice under the aegis of a crown on the far side of the Atlantic.
Gordon Wood describes the colonists’ monarchical world in The Radicalism of the American Revolution (p. 11-12):
This was no simple political status, but had all sorts of social, cultural, and even psychological implications. As clarified by Sir Edward Coke and other jurists in the seventeenth century, the allegiance the English subject owed his monarch was a personal and individual matter. Diverse persons related to each other only through their common tie to the king, much as children became brothers and sisters only through their common parentage. Since the king, said William Blackstone, was the “pater familias of the nation,” to be a subject was to be a kind of child, to be personally subordinated to a paternal dominion.…The whole community, said Benjamin Franklin in 1763, is regulated by the example of the king.
The colonial past, in short, is a foreign country. Or at least it is here in America, where we don’t much stock in personal ties to a monarch anymore.
Americans pull down an image of George III on Bowling Green in New York, July 1776. By Johannes Adam Simon Oertel (original uploader was Shoreranger at en.wikipedia) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
This brings us to the current brouhaha over British actress Emily Blunt’s reaction
to becoming an American citizen. While folks here in the U.S. took offense at her off-hand joke
about the Republican presidential debate,* what interested me about her remarks was her distress at getting drafted into her own personal American Revolution:
One part of the process that was particularly concerning for Blunt was renouncing allegiance to Queen Elizabeth.
“I had to renounce my Queen!” Blunt said.
“The thing that’s weird is I do get to keep both my British citizenship and this, but you have to renounce her. But it’s kind of typically American – not to be rude. I had to renounce her in the room but I don’t actually technically renounce her. They were like, ‘just say it, you don’t have to mean it but just say it.'”
This emotional and personal sense of investment in a monarch is something that seems strange to Americans, but would’ve been familiar to our colonial predecessors. Blunt’s vexation over having to renounce her queen might help us understand why so many Americans hesitated to take that last, fateful step toward independence—and why some of them refused to take it at all, deciding instead to fight, go into exile, and perhaps die for their commitment to their king. Renouncing Parliament was one thing; renouncing the monarch was something else altogether.
Oh, and as long as I’m on the subject of Emily Blunt and the British monarchy, let me recommend the 2009 film The Young Victoria. It’s a very good movie, and Blunt is outstanding in the title role.
*Honestly, though, if your first taste of American citizenship was Trump’s hair on TV, wouldn’t you be having second thoughts too?