In the fall of 1919, as Americans were struggling with the bitter legacy of World War I, King Albert of Belgium announced that he would tour American cities. A.T. Van Scoy, the president of the Milwaukee Association of Commerce, wrote a letter urging Milwaukee Mayor Dan Hoan to issue a formal invitation to the monarch.
Hoan, the most prominent socialist mayor in the country at that time, did not issue the invitation. While he said he had no problem with civic organizations’ inviting King Albert, he would have nothing to do with monarchy.
“Please do not ask me to invite any king, kaiser, or czar,” responded Hoan. “The people of Milwaukee, in choosing a mayor, do not require of him a forfeiture of self-respect.… Was not the American Revolution and this nation conceived in the wiping out of kings? Did not America glory in the French Revolution that gave birth to their republic? Did not the people of the new nations created by this war cast off the kings? Can you see no progress in that the workmen of Germany, Austria, and Russia by revolution have thrown off their divine kings? The spirit kindled by these revolutions started in America spreading far and wide and so all countries will join in discarding autocrats and kings.”
The mayor concluded his missive with an emphatic statement of principle: “While I mean no disrespect to the Belgian people, whom I love, nor discourtesy to you, yet these are days that try men’s souls. We must take our place with kings, their golden places and satellites, or line up with the rights of the common man. I should go to my grave in everlasting shame were I to boost one iota the stock of any king. Mr. Van Scoy, remind your associates I STAND FOR THE MAN WHO WORKS, TO HELL WITH KINGS.”
Hoan’s letter made news across the country and around the world. The mayor faced a good deal of criticism from business leaders and conservative politicians. But he also received letters from working-class Americans who thanked him for the reminder that the United States was founded in revolt against King George III and the notion that there is a “divine right of kings.” The following spring, when he sought reelection, Hoan faced continued criticism, but he stuck to his position. He was reelected with ease and went on to serve for two more decades as a nationally acclaimed municipal leader.
Hoan has been on my mind of late, as American media outlets have provided wall-to-wall coverage of a royal succession in the United Kingdom, while those who recall the monarchy’s association with colonialism face stark criticism. America officials and ex-officials have gone to considerable lengths to display their regard for the British monarchy. Donald Trump, whose excitement about all things royal is well-documented, even claimed this week that he would have gotten a better place at the queen’s funeral than President Biden.
The monarchy in the UK—and most other countries that maintain a royal household—has changed a great deal in the century since Hoan had his say. And no matter what anyone thinks about the institution, Queen Elizabeth II was an epic figure on the world stage, reigning for 70 years and serving at the time of her September 8 passing as queen regnant of 15 sovereign states. Polls suggest that Brits remain quite enthusiastic about the monarchy in general, even if skepticism is growing among young people. So 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 UK, and a subject of curiosity for the rest of the world.
But it is worth noting that the American Revolution was a revolt against monarchy. Thomas Paine—whom Hoan recognized with his “times that try men’s souls” reference—decried monarchs as “plunderers” who lived lives of luxury at the expense of the people. In 1776’s Common Sense, the pamphleteer portrayed monarchy as antithetical to the democratizing principles that he hoped would guide the new United States. “The nearer any government approaches to a Republic, the less business there is for a King,” wrote Paine. 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,” argued Paine, “whoever demands a king demands an aristocracy.”
Throughout its history, the United States has embraced economic and political elites more frequently 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 on the part of the American media, so many of our elected officials, and much of the public is unsurprising. But it’s important to recognize that debates about the monarchy are about more than kings and queens and pomp and pageantry.
The veteran British parliamentarian Tony Benn knew the members of the royal family reasonably well. Yet he argued for many years before his death in 2014 that the monarchy needed to be abolished. “Above all,” argued Benn, “the existence of a hereditary monarchy helps to prop up all the privilege and patronage that corrupts our society; that is why the crown is seen as being of such importance to those who run the country—or enjoy the privileges it affords.”
Monarchy, warned Benn, was invariably “a prop for privilege.”
Britain’s a sovereign country. So it’s up to the British people to guide their own affairs. But I do share the concern, expressed in their own ways by Hoan and Benn, that enthusiasm for royalty often gives way to enthusiasm for elitist arrangements in our economics and our politics.
Franklin Roosevelt reflected upon that theme frequently during his presidency. He saw the New Deal as a necessary challenge to the elites who had extracted their own “royal” privileges by monopolizing the wealth of the United States before the Great Depression. “The economic royalists complain that we seek to overthrow the institutions of America. What they really complain of is that we seek to take away their power,” FDR told the 1936 Democratic National Convention. “Our allegiance to American institutions requires the overthrow of this kind of power.”