In the fall of 1919, as Americans struggled with the bitter legacy of World War I, King Albert of Belgium announced that he would tour American cities. AT Van Scoy, president of the Milwaukee Trade Association, wrote a letter urging mayor of milwaukee dan hoan to send a formal invitation to the monarch.
Hoan, the most prominent socialist mayor in the country at the time, did not extend the invitation. While he said he had no problem with civic organizations inviting King Albert, he would have nothing to do with the monarchy.
“Please don’t ask me to invite any king, kaiser or tsar.” Hoan replied. “The people of Milwaukee, in electing a mayor, do not require him to lose his self-respect… Wasn’t the American Revolution and this nation conceived in the elimination of kings? Does not America glory in the French Revolution that gave birth to her republic? Didn’t the people of the new nations created by this war cast off the kings? Do you not see any progress in the fact that the workers of Germany, Austria and Russia have revolutionized themselves of their divine kings? The spirit kindled by these revolutions began in America and spread far and wide, so all countries will unite to cast off autocrats and kings.”
The mayor concluded his letter with an emphatic statement of principles: “Although I do not intend to disrespect the Belgian people, whom I love, or disrespect you, these are days that test the souls of men. We must take our place with the kings, their golden places and their satellites, or align ourselves with the rights of the common man. I would go to my grave in eternal shame if I increased the actions of any king one iota. Mr. Van Scoy, remind his associates that I STAND FOR WORKING MAN, TO HELL WITH KINGS.”
Hoan’s letter it was news across the country and around the world. The mayor faced much criticism from business leaders and conservative politicians. But he, too, received letters from working-class Americans who thanked him for the reminder that the United States was founded in rebellion against King George III and the notion that there is a “divine right of kings.” The following spring, when he ran for re-election, Hoan faced continued criticism but stood by him. Hey what easily re-elected and went on to serve for two more decades as a nationally acclaimed municipal leader.
Hoan has been on my mind lately, as the American media has provided wall to wall coverage of a royal succession in the United Kingdom, while those who recall the association of the monarchy with colonialism face strong criticism. US officials and former officials have gone to considerable lengths to show their respect for the British monarchy. Donald Trump, whose enthusiasm for all things real is well documented, even claimed this week that he would have gotten a better place at the queen’s funeral as President Biden.
The monarchy in the UK, and in most other countries that maintain a royal house, has changed a lot in the century since Hoan had his say. And no matter what others think of the institution, Queen Elizabeth II was an epic figure on the world stage, reigning for 70 years and serving at the time of her passing on September 8 as queen regnant of 15 sovereign states. Surveys suggest that Britons remain quite enthusiastic about the monarchy in general, even if skepticism is growing among the young. Therefore, the pomp and circumstance associated with the Queen’s funeral and the transfer of power to King Charles III can be understood as a popular official function of the United Kingdom and a matter of curiosity to the rest of the world.
But it is worth noting that the American Revolution was a revolt against the monarchy. Thomas Paine, whom Hoan acknowledged with his reference to “times that try the souls of men,” denounced monarchs as “plunderers” who lived lives of luxury at the expense of the people. in 1776 Common sense, the pamphleteer described the monarchy as antithetical to the democratizing principles he hoped would guide the new United States. “The closer a government approaches a Republic, the less business there is for a King,” Paine wrote. He warned that when nations accepted the supposed superiority of monarchs, they set precedents for accepting the supposed superiority of economic elites: aristocrats, plutocrats, and oligarchs.
“In a word,” Paine argued, “he who demands a king demands an aristocracy.”
Throughout its history, the United States has embraced economic and political elites more often than Paine would have liked. After all, just six years ago, we made a billionaire our president. So perhaps the current fascination with the British monarchy by the American media, many of our elected officials, and much of the public is not surprising. But it’s important to recognize that the monarchy debates are about more than kings and queens, pomp and pomp.
veteran British parliamentarian tony benn he knew members of the royal family reasonably well. However, he argued for many years before his death in 2014 that the monarchy should be abolished. “Above all,” Benn argued, “the existence of a hereditary monarchy helps to prop up all the privileges and patronages that corrupt our society; this is why the crown is considered to be so important to those who rule the country or enjoy the privileges it grants.”
Monarchy, Benn warned, was invariably “a prop for privilege.”
Great Britain is a sovereign country. So it is up to the British people to conduct their own affairs. But I share the concern, expressed in their own way by Hoan and Benn, that enthusiasm for royalty often gives way to enthusiasm for elitist arrangements in our economy and politics.
Franklin Roosevelt pondered this theme frequently during his presidency. He saw the New Deal as a necessary challenge to the elites who had gained their own “royal” privileges by monopolizing America’s wealth before the Great Depression. “The economic monarchists complain that we seek to overthrow the institutions of the United States. What they really complain about is that we seek to take away their power.” FDR told the 1936 Democratic National Convention. “Our loyalty to American institutions requires the overthrow of this kind of power.”