Years ago I took a course on Tudor and Stuart England. Its primary focus was more on social and cultural aspects of British society at the time, rather than diplomatic history. Later I took an interest in the England of the Civil War era. One thing that struck me was the unquestioned acceptance of monarchy in the minds of the people, from high nobility to low commoner. Like the Romans before the Visigothic sack in the early 5th century these were a people who could not imagine a world any different than the one they had known. That is one of the things which made the execution of Charles I so shocking to many contemporaries. Myself, I was tacitly indoctrinated in American republicanism as a child. Films like the The Patriot grow in the rich soil of the same cultural environment which gave rise to the phenomenon of the antagonists in Roman era films speaking with British accents while the protagonists had robust American drawls. As I spent my formative years on the fringes of of New England there was particular pride taken in that region’s early role in the rebellion whenever we addressed the American Revolutionary War. Clearly I have little reverence and respect for the institution of monarchy as a matter of upbringing and expectation. Not to make too explosive an analogy, but in the past I viewed monarchy as somewhat like slavery, an cultural artifact once universal which would inevitably melt away under the harsh glare of the objective forces of justice for all.
Today I take a more moderate view. I accept that my own reflexive republicanism comes out of a particular cultural milieu and a view of history which we in the United States take for granted. Additionally, I am no longer so enamored of a crass Benthamite rationalism about institutions which do, and don’t, have utility for the greater good. Just as the men and women of the Tudor age took it for granted that the monarch was the natural institution to bring order to a chaotic world, we in our own time assume that democracy is the natural “end of history” when it comes to a more perfect political order. But is it truly so?
It seems likely that monarchy itself was an institutional innovation. We see it in the shift from Mesopotamian nominal theocracies (which were likely de facto oligarchies) to elective monarchies, and finally to dynastic despotisms. And the arrow of history did not always point in one direction. The Romans overthrew their kings, and the wanax did not once again become ubiquitous after the Greeks passed through their Dark Age and rebuilt their civilization. Though the Roman Republic collapsed as a real institutional force in the 1st century B.C., it actually persisted in name for centuries. Only in the early 3rd century did the emperors transform the Senate into a nakedly servile body which no longer even maintained the exterior semblance of independence. The idea of a republic was so powerful in the cultural mythology of the Roman nation that it persisted as a ghostly shadow over centuries of operational despotism. In our own age the legitimacy of democracy is such that even the most objectionable of autocracies often maintain a facade of popular consent, such as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
The past week the US media has been a tizzy over the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton. Some Americans were quite excited, while others were not. I would probably class myself in the latter category, not out of antipathy, but out of apathy. We have enough political and social concerns of great weight that I’d rather not focus on foreign dynasties. But I certainly do not judge the British in their celebration. I am sure that from their perspective on the other side of the pond they could point out plenty of baroque and nonsensical institutions and traditions in America which we take for granted as necessary as apple pie. It is an important lesson of adulthood to keep in mind that what is good, right, and pleasing for you, need not be so for others. Whatever the details of the packaging, we all know that the final product of a nominal monarchy is far preferable to a sham democracy.
Addendum: The monarchies of the world:
Image Credit: Kremlin, Nick Warner, Eddo