Americans Should Care About the Royal Wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle

The wedding, this weekend, of Britain’s Prince Harry and the American actress Meghan Markle has already generated a number of Pavlovian, and entirely predictable, responses.

A surprisingly large percentage of the American public takes an interest in the comings and goings of the British royal family—especially its marriages and (in recent decades) divorces—and this, in turn, reliably annoys that smaller portion of Americans who have no interest in the royals. They ask: Why should anyone, on this side of the Atlantic, care one way or another about the British royal family; and come to think of it, didn’t we fight a revolution in order not to have a royal family?

These perennial questions are easily answered.

First, the public fascination with foreign—especially British—royalty tells us more about ourselves, and about human nature, than about Prince Harry or his grandmother Queen Elizabeth II and her growing flock of descendants. Since the mid-19th century, the British royal family has consciously cultivated its image as a family, and not just a random assortment of wicked uncles, dowager consorts, and foreign-born claimants to a thousand-year-old throne. This has not only kept the Windsors safely in place as symbols of the state while quarreling politicians run the government; it has also generated near-perpetual public interest in the joys and sorrows, lives and personalities, of the royal clan.

So successful has this glamorous/domesticated marketing strategy proved that even here in resolutely republican America tens of millions of citizens will rise before dawn on Saturday to watch the wedding ceremony on live television.

Which reminds us, of course, that the answer to that second question is slightly complicated: Yes, we did fight a revolution to gain our independence from Britain; but our quarrel was with Parliament, not with the reigning monarch of the day. (Indeed, many Founders had hoped that King George III might be sympathetic to their grievances, and petitioned him to intervene with Parliament on their behalf.)

For that matter, if anyone doubts that Americans are susceptible to the lure of constitutional monarchy, they need only contemplate the status and trappings of the modern presidency. When Senator Mitch McConnell strides into a room, the Marine Band does not strike up “Hail to the Majority Leader.” And so far as I am aware, no one outside the John Roberts household refers to the wife of the chief justice of the United States as “First Lady.”

Something in and around Buckingham Palace fulfills a need still lurking in the American consciousness.

Which brings us to Saturday’s wedding. Prince Harry is a grandson of the Queen and second son of the Prince of Wales. His elder brother, Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, has produced two sons and one daughter in slightly less than seven years of marriage, and so the likelihood of the popular, slightly raffish, and redheaded Harry ever succeeding to the throne is very remote. That explains, to some degree, the extent to which the identity of his prospective spouse has not been a matter of much official importance. And contrary to popular myth, British princes and princesses have been routinely marrying commoners—that is to say, people not of royal birth—for most of the past century.

Still, Meghan Markle has sparked more than the usual interest, partly because she hails from Southern California, partly because she used to appear in movies like Horrible Bosses, and partly because her “mixed-race” background—her mother is African-American—intrigues the press here and in Britain. In any case, even by the ever-more-lenient standards of British royalty, she’s comparatively unprecedented.

In my own view, however, what really sets Meghan Markle apart from previous royal brides—or grooms, for that matter—is her status as a divorcée. Lest we forget, the last time (1936) a member of the British royal family (King Edward VIII) proposed marrying a divorced American, official and unofficial reaction was so strong—and predominantly adverse—that His Majesty was forced to choose between his throne and “the woman I love” (Wallis Simpson).

I suspect that Mrs. Simpson’s identity as an American was very nearly as crucial as the existence of (two) living ex-husbands. But it should also be remembered that, two decades later, when Queen Elizabeth’s younger sister Margaret sought to marry her late father King George VI’s onetime equerry, Peter Townsend, the marriage was essentially forbidden because Group Captain Townsend—a Royal Air Force hero of the Battle of Britain—had been divorced.

Princess Margaret, like Prince Harry, was some distance from succession to the throne, but public sentiment about divorce in the mid-1950s was very nearly as strong as it had been in the 1930s. Now, of course, the social landscape is much altered, and experience has prompted the British royal family—and families in general on both sides of the pond—to amend the rules. For better or worse? Well, good luck, and bon voyage!

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