For a country like the U.S. that violently divorced itself from the British monarchy almost 250 years ago and still jealously guards its role as the arbiter of “true” democracy, modern America is surely obsessed with the British royal family. We refer to many royals on a first-name basis—Diana, Will and Kate, Harry and Meghan—which suggests some sort of intimacy with these elusive figures. We celebrate others, like Queen Elizabeth II (congratulations on the Platinum Jubilee, by the way), for their distant nature because it seems so quintessentially British. I would argue that the British Royal family fascinates the American psyche because they inspire a nostalgia for an American-British royal connection that never truly was. To begin to understand this enduring “relationship,” however, we need to look to the colonial period, a time when “London was the capital of America.”1
Historians have convincingly contended that free, white British American colonists were perhaps more British than their compatriots living in England, at least in terms of their monarchical devotion and consumption.2
But it wasn’t this simple, for Anglo-Americans’ literal and theoretical distance from their homeland, combined with their deep urge for belonging in a massive empire, fostered something of an inferiority complex among middling and elite colonists. It also stoked an obsession with demonstrating their loyalty and connection to the Crown. Colonists hung pictures of the royal family on their walls, named taverns after their favorite royal celebrities, held raucous parties to celebrate the monarch’s birthday, and greedily consumed news about the royal family.
Yet this theoretical connection went beyond parties and pictures. White British American colonists also enslaved tens of thousands of kidnapped Africans, forcefully invaded Indigenous lands while killing or enslaving their occupants, and waged war with competing European empires under the guise of British monarchical power and success.3
But here is the rub. Colonists’ relationship with the British monarchy was one-sided. Much of it was fantasy that hinged on a celebrity worship of a royal family with whom colonists had no real, physical association.
And the British monarchy did not seem particularly concerned with this lack of contact. During the roughly 175 years of British rule over the thirteen North American colonies, no member of the British Royal family ever stepped foot on American soil. It was, in fact, only during the American Revolution, when the colonies were at war with Great Britain that a British Royal finally visited America–and he was a disappointment.
When Prince William Henry (1765-1837) arrived in occupied New York City on September 16, 1781, he was a sixteen-year-old who never expected to inherit the Crown. The young man was, to put it bluntly, far more expendable than his two older brothers, so his father (King George III) sent him to sea as a midshipman in the British Royal Navy. But being prone to temper swings and brawls, William was hardly the crown jewel of the Hanoverian monarchy. But New Yorkers didn’t see him this way, at least at first.
For colonists, the arrival of a member of the royal family was a cause for real celebration. The British media–not to mention King George III–had spent the past year doting over the teenage sailor. William’s presence at Britain’s momentous naval victories over the Spanish at Cape St. Vincent, Gibraltar in 1780 further bolstered his royal legitimacy, thereby providing American colonists real hope that his arrival might save poor Lord Cornwallis, who by the fall of 1781 was trapped by U.S. and French forces in Virginia. Prince William Henry, in short, arrived in North America as a true royal celebrity—a symbol of colonists’ hopes, dreams, and anxieties regarding their imperial futures. Unfortunately, his tenure proved hollow at best.
This same fascination with an American-British royal connection that never truly was still impels Americans’ enduring passion for the British monarchy. A perfect example comes from March 2021 when the Netflix series The Crown topped American Nielsen ratings with a season focused on the relationship of Prince Charles and Princess Diana. At the same time, in another top-viewed event, Oprah interviewed Queen Elizabeth II’s grandson, Prince Harry, and wife, Meghan Markle, the Duchess of Sussex about their recent move to the U.S. after a high-profile rift in the Royal family.4 Royal fantasy and fiction melded in an orgy of intrigue, and Americans could not get enough. And this all occurred—much like Prince William’s visit to North America during a devastating world war—during a very real and very deadly global pandemic.
But that’s the thing about Americans’ obsession with British royalty. It is built on fantasy and a desire for monarchy that will never be—and never has been—truly fulfilled. And this is just the way Americans want it.
Americans want to read tabloids, and watch films, television shows, and news clips about the British royal family, but we don’t want true connection with them. In an especially radical example, one conservative pundit recently declared that “caring about the British royal family is fundamentally un-American.”5 Harry and Meghan can come to America, but they do so as media figures rather than true representatives of the royal family or the British people and their government. Many Americans know the tragic saga of Princess Diana, or the name of William and Kate’s most recent child (I just looked it up—Prince Louis), but will never actually travel to England or visit Buckingham Palace. As in the eighteenth century, we crave connection with British royalty, but at a comfortable distance.
Vaughn Scribner is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Central Arkansas, who researches the eighteenth-century British Empire, especially in the Americas. His first book, Inn Civility, investigated colonial American taverns as spaces of societal contest, while his second book, Merpeople: A Human History, utilized humanity’s long-held fascination with mermaids to better understand the human condition. He is currently writing an environmental history of the American Revolution from the perspective of British and Hessian soldiers.
Read Vaughn Scribner’s article, “A Royal in Revolutionary America: Prince William Henry and the Fall of the British Empire in Colonial America,” in the Spring 2022 issue of Early American Studies.
- Julie Flavell, When London Was Capital of America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010). ↩
- Brendan McConville, The King’s Three Faces: The Rise and Fall of Royal America, 1688-1776 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006); T.H. Breen, “‘Baubles of Britain’: The American and Consumer Revolutions of the Eighteenth Century,” Past & Present 119 (May 1988): 73-104. ↩
- See, for instance, Woody Holton, Liberty is Sweet: The Hidden History of the American Revolution (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2021); Kathleen DuVal, Independence Lost: Lives on the Edge of the American Revolution (New York: Random House, 2015). ↩
- Carly Mayberry, “Royalty Reigns with Coming 2 America and The Crown Topping Nielsen Ratings,” Forbes Online, April 9, 2021, https://www.forbes.com/sites/carlymayberry/2021/04/09/royalty-reigns-with-coming-2-america-and-the-crown-topping-nielsen-ratings/?sh=2370d06c6adf; Addie Morfoot, “Nielsen: Netflix’s The Crown Got Royal Gains from Meghan’s Big Oprah Interview,” NextTV Online, April 8, 2021, https://www.nexttv.com/news/nielsen-netflixs-the-crown-got-royal-gains-from-meghans-big-oprah-interview. ↩
- John Daniel Davidson, “Caring About the British Royal Family is Fundamentally Un-American,” The Federalist, March 9, 2021, https://thefederalist.com/2021/03/09/caring-about-the-british-royal-family-is-fundamentally-un-american/. ↩