Many across the United States will have spent this week watching coverage of the British monarchy. Millions of Americans from all walks of life will read, watch and listen to coverage of the Queen’s funeral. This is quite a stunning turn of events, after all we endured considerable discomfort to rid ourselves of that crown. There are two important lessons in her life and position that merit consideration.
The British monarchy does not enjoy a lengthy period of support here. My ancestors arrived on this continent as refugees from the restoration of King Charles II, having recently fought against the crown. Their disdain for the monarchy surely led their grandsons to fight throughout our revolution. This is a common history that belongs to millions of Americans.
The foundational document of our republic was hate mail to King George III. It is splendid irony that the most important sentence in the English language comes from our Declaration of Independence. It begins “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal…” I need not finish it. The Declaration rejects not merely the king, but the idea of a kingdom itself.
Our anti-monarchical sentiments run deep. Captured British cannons remain on display at West Point, and the “shot heard ‘round the world” that launched our revolution still echoes across the globe, most recently in protests of China. So, how could it be that we Americans, possessors of our own rich inheritance of freedom, would offer such regard and care for that monarchy?
The first reason, and one that is pregnant with lessons, is that institutions change. A monarchy that began as an enforcer of brutal power, later evolved. By the time young Elizabeth made her first public speeches at 14, the monarchy served a unique role that supported and expanded liberal democracy. It is not a perfect institution, nor is Britain a perfect democracy. But, sometime in the 20th century, the role of the monarchy shifted wholly to that of public duties in support of modern democracy.
It was probably her father, who crafted the role into what it is today. King George VI entered Naval Service at 17, and distinguished himself in combat. His ascent to the throne came through the failure of his brother to complete his duties. George VI kept his family in London as it was brutally bombed, and sent his teenage daughter into military service. The future Queen Elizabeth II drove and repaired trucks. Service to the nation, not monarchial rule or elegant celebrity, became the job of a queen.
The 70-year reign of Queen Elizabeth II saw the British Empire release some 43 nations from colonial control. In so doing, most elected to remain part of a loose commonwealth of friendship. Her role was to graciously watch her nation’s flag lowered for many ceremonial exchanges. This open support of liberty and freedom was critical at home and abroad. It is worth noting that representatives from nearly all these former colonies will attend her funeral.
The modern monarchy of George VI and Elizabeth II saw their democratic nation help defeat the three great scourges of modernity—fascism, communism and imperialism. Ironically, Britain’s dispensation of its own imperial holdings made it a great nation, where before only an imperial one once stood. The monarchy helped its citizens understand that they could make this transition successfully and with grace. That is what strong, stable, adaptable institutions do—help us navigate change while ensuring continuity.
The lesson for Americans is then about the strength of our institutions—are they changing for good or ill? We must ask ourselves whether we have a Congress, judicial courts and a presidency that can sustain us through dark and troubled times. Do we have governorships and state legislatures with the mettle to see us through lasting challenges? I don’t ask if we have the correct people in these offices; we often do not. I ask whether we have the right rules, norms and focus on procedure that defend our liberty.
On a more grassroots level, do we trust those who run our schools and police our streets? Do we trust the generals and admirals who defend our shores, or those people in uniform who serve? Do we trust the professors, the public health officials, the priests, ministers and rabbis, the CEOs and CFOs, the trial attorneys, nurses and physicians?
All these occupations have institutions that sustain their work. We must ask ourselves if these institutions are growing and strengthening or withering away. Do these organizations discipline the conduct of their members, do they eject miscreants and herald the heroes among them? More importantly, we might ask what we individually do to strengthen these institutions.
This is not a partisan concern. I cringe when I hear a president claim that he “has a pen and a phone” to avoid Congress, or shatters constitutional limits on student debt relief. So too do I worry when a president skips past Congress on war powers, or bends intent of Congress to impose tariffs. These acts weaken institutions even when undertaken by good people with whom I agree. The institutions matter; for as we have lately learned, elected office sometimes attracts the very worst of people, devoid of character, lawless, and possessing no moral compass or ethical constraint. And, that leads to our second lesson about Queen Elizabeth II.
Much will be written about her strength of character, so I will touch lightly upon it. Queen Elizabeth II was the richest woman in the world, but led what must have been a near-slavish life of public service. She did this for more than seven decades, likely performing some 30,000 public events, averaging more than one per day since she was a girl. A similar workload killed her father in his 50s. Yet, she performed this job honestly, diligently and without complaint or personal scandal. It was her duty, and she did it. That is character.
For citizens of a monarch-free republic, that might be our most acute lesson to be drawn from her life. We cannot always find the best among us to run for office, and even those will be mere humans. Surely we can elect those who will discharge their oath of office, tell the plain truth, and when necessary suffer personal discomfort to complete their duties. We need not expect them to be perfect parents, decorated soldiers or flawless spouses. But character matters, now more than ever, and that is why we pay respects to the burial processions of someone else’s queen.
Michael J. Hicks is the director of the Center for Business and Economic Research and the George and Frances Ball Distinguished Professor of Economics in the Miller College of Business at Ball State University. Send comments to [email protected]