Royal wedding: American Anglophilia finds a new generation

Fascinated by the royal wedding? Relax, you’re not alone – and this is nothing new. American love of all-things-English reaches back centuries.

Nir Elias / Reuters
A royal fan is seen opposite Westminster Abbey, in central London, April 28. Hundreds of people have set up tents along the route Prince William and Kate Middleton will travel to Friday's royal wedding.

Americans who plan to watch the Royal Wedding – even just a piece of it – are part of a long tradition of American Anglophiles (lovers of all things English).

Consider this statement from Mark Oppenheimer in Slate:

“Of all the annoying things about the royal wedding – the crass materialism, the outrageous invasion of a young couple's privacy, the bad TV – none is more troubling than the occasion this event gives for the non-English to transform themselves into besotted Anglophilic wusses.”

Harsh words, but they raise an interesting question. Why are we, the republican colonialists who rejected monarchy, now riveted by this wedding?

Professors of British and American history offer several explanations.

The rise of Queen Victoria

After the colonies declared independence from George III, reviled for innumerable political reasons, two even worse kings ascended to the throne. Both George IV and William IV were “greedy, vulgar, brutal, adulterous … horrible in every way,” says Patrick Allitt of Emory University. “Americans said, ‘Look how revolting they are… Even the Brits will kill their own monarchy now,’ ” he says.

But they were followed by Queen Victoria, a paragon of respectability who generated an enormous pendulum swing of public opinion. The rise in respect for the monarchy accelerated when Victoria wed Albert, and the two became the “exemplary moral couple of the whole of Europe,” he says.

“By the late 1800s, lots of Americans believed the revolution had been a terrible mistake,” says Professor Allitt.

The ‘common bond’ forged in World War II

The common threat of Nazi Germany drove the countries together in ways symbolized by – but far deeper than – the friendship of Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt.

“Our historical connection with Britain ebbs and flows with anger at certain periods and closeness at others,” says Elisabeth Cawthon, an associate professor of history at The University of Texas at Arlington.

“We are just at the tail end of a very close connection we have had since World War II,” she says. Many American soldiers came back from operations in Britain with stories of kind treatment, hospitality, and warmth, says Professor Cawthon.

“This has a lot to do with what grandpa told us as children growing up, about the common bond – the common threat from Nazis – and the mutual purpose to defeat the tyranny that threatened the entire globe,” she says.

Their irrelevance

The royal family has no actual relevance to Americans, leaving us completely free to cheer or look down our noses, says Chad Martin, assistant professor of history at the University of Indianapolis. We would object vehemently if Obama were spending this kind of public money on his daughter's wedding, he says, but since it's the Brits, it gets a “whatever.”

Also, England's role in the world is diminished, he notes. For a time during the 1930s, some worried about England’s power to injure us economically, because of its hold over its empire, he says. “But now, Britain is not all that threatening. Their reduced status makes it safe to really like them.”

British theatricality

“They are better than anyone in the world at presenting ceremonies so as to draw in audiences of all ages … to make them grand and accessible,” says Cawthon. The British royals are not so removed as to be inaccessible like Japan, or as commonplace as royals in Scandinavia.

“The Brits have established that perfect balance where you can see them but not quite touch them,” says Cawthon. “You can aspire to be one of them, but never quite be one.”

Growing interest in heritage

“Americans are an invented people, the mutts of the world,” says Professor Martin.

“There is this growing fascination in tracing history back to the old country, and for many, that means England," he says. "It’s a nostalgia for a past we never really had.”

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