The as-of yet unnamed son of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge entered the world on July 22, 2013. Should Americans care?

Guest post by Daniel Kilbride

Clearly, a lot of them do. News of the Royal Birth was the lede on talk radio, newspapers, and cable news stations. None of the other roughly 362,000 births that took place on that day received even a fraction of the attention lavished on the son of William and Kate.

Are the 8,000 or so men who died in combat during the American Revolution spinning in their graves? One could argue that they gave their lives so that Americans would have the right not to care about the birth of a child three thousand miles across the ocean. One might even make the argument that their sacrifice positively obliges their national descendants to give a collective shrug at the news of such an event. So what is going on?

A lot of people in the Anglophone world have a point of view about this, and not merely in the States. The Guardian newspaper included a “republican” button (later changed to “not a royalist,” perhaps to avoid any confusion with the U.S. political party) on the top right-hand side of its webpage that allowed readers to opt out of the whole sickening spectacle of “news” coverage of the labor and birth that foregrounded its home page. Among the many tragedies concerning the too-soon death of British journalist Christopher Hitchens is that we are cheated out of the delicious invective that no doubt would have flowed from his pen over all this Royal Excitement (fortunately, he gave us a preview).

Whether or not royal-watching constitutes un-American behavior is not a new question. As I discuss in Being American in Europe, 1750-1860, newly independent Americans had to confront these issues as well. Was it appropriate for American diplomats to don court attire as they served in foreign capitals? Should American tourists seek audiences with royals? Should they address august personages by their titles? Should they doff their hats when the Pope passed by during a parade?

Nowadays, these questions are academic, but in the early years of the existence of the United States, they seemed positively existential. The ship of state navigated monarchical seas in the era following the French Revolution. The great states of Europe were deeply hostile to the United States—not because the small, weak, distant republic constituted a military threat, but because its example inspired republicans and nationalists within their borders. Thus, many Americans abroad believed they had an obligation to embody republican principles in their dress and behavior. And when they were confronted with Americans who did not share their political zeal—and, worse, when they encountered those who were every bit as dazzled by royalty and aristocracy as Royal Watchers today—they did not respond well.

In 1815, U.S. minister to France Albert Gallatin was deluged by Americans in Paris seeking admittance to a ball thrown by the Duke of Wellington. Gallatin turned to William C. Preston, a young southerner making a tour of Europe, to help him sift through the mounds of applications. Preston, a patriot, was disgusted by his compatriots’ “indecent and unrepublican eagerness to get into an aristocratic party.” But if Preston could not endorse his countrymen’s wishes, he did understand their motivation. Newly independent, the United States lacked both a clear national identity and a standard for assessing personal worth apart from birth and family name. Americans idolized aristocrats because they had not yet come up with an alternative. That didn’t make Preston any less judgmental, though.  “In regard to nobility our people have a rapturous and romantic regard for it,” he observed sadly.

Preston was angry with his fellows not merely because he had a republican’s white-hot hatred for entrenched privilege, but because he saw their behavior as a danger to American republicanism. The young nation’s institutions were still quite fragile, its cultural direction yet unclear. The idealization of equality, social mobility, and political participation (among white men) that seems like such a fundamental part of 19th century American culture was still developing. The nation might have chosen another path, especially if the Federalist Party had figured out a way to stay relevant. Preston lived in a very different world than the vigorously egalitarian United States of the 1840s and 50s. The rejection of monarchy, aristocracy, and other forms of class privilege seemed like nothing less than a patriotic duty to Americans of Preston’s ideological bent.

By the 1840s, aristocratic culture was no longer the existential threat it had been in earlier decades. Good Americans still disdained their compatriots who name-dropped aristocrats and sought out royal audiences, but these behaviors no longer seemed like threats to the republic. They were just in bad taste. Writing in 1850, Virginian Josephine Eppes thought that a dinner guest who bragged about her association with “Lord This and Lady That” was “conceited, proud, and silly,” but no more than that. Cosmopolitan Americans strained to explain to their compatriots that gratuitous demonstrations of disrespect for European customs were more likely to be interpreted as national insecurity than adherence to principle. Besides, argued Philadelphian Robert Walsh, refusing to conform to European standards of behavior while abroad was simply rude. “High republican airs and unaccommodating manners” simply made Americans abroad seem ridiculous. The 1860 visit to the United States of Edward Albert, Prince of Wales, excited so little controversy because by then it was apparent that so little was at stake.

Americans’ commitment to republican principles has stood the test of time. So I suppose that the attention lavished here on the birth of William and Kate’s son is probably harmless enough. But I still think it is unbecoming of Americans to care. Nothing against the young lad, but if the United States stands for anything, it stands for the idea that no kid is better than any other kid by virtue of who his or her parents are. I know that Americans have violated that principle again and again, but as Abraham Lincoln said of the principles articulated in the Declaration of Independence, the Founders “meant to set up a standard maxim for free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere.”

Upon this happy event, I humbly suggest these sentiments as befitting for Americans and republicans everywhere: Welcome to the world, young Mr. Windsor. And an equally enthusiastic welcome to all of other babies born across the world on July 22, 2013.

kilbrideDaniel Kilbride is the chair of the history department at John Carroll University. His most recent book is Being an American in Europe, 1750-1861, published by Johns Hopkins University Press.