Amid the strife wracking US politics, a soul can grow weary. Why do we care? Why do we bother—why not lay down the burden of republican citizenship and turn away?
In our hearts, most of us have a vision of a more just, peaceful, and prosperous nation. With concerted effort and good will, we can attain a condition better than what we’ve experienced lately. I suppose I became a historian and took the unlikely step of writing about politics because I want to make citizenship a large, evident part of my identity. Whatever else I do, being a citizen is something that I want to achieve.
Patriotism is out of fashion with the sophisticated. We think about “going into politics” as a sort of careerism; and, if we don’t do that, it’s pretty much understood that we are on the sidelines. It would be difficult for us to make sense of the 19th-century statesman who, on his death, was eulogized as a “pure patriot. . . whose brain and heart and means and energies were all at the service of his country.” We can understand the part about the brain and the heart—but to commit all one’s means and energies to the country? That’s alien.
Yet the many-sided commitment of self to public life was once a commonly held American ideal, which individuals pursued in the hope of gaining a special kind of honor and esteem. Conversely, the wholehearted identification of one’s personal destiny with that of the nation was a crucial element on which the future of the republic was thought to depend.
Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee last week stirred up many warm feelings, underscoring the important role of human affection in maintaining a government and a country. Having a queen may seem useless from a functional standpoint, but symbolically Elizabeth represents the nation in her person. To love Elizabeth is to love Britain, which isn’t too hard, especially when she is looking so darned benign and motherly.
Yet the sentiment the Queen evokes isn’t particularly cozy. Often she evokes awe, especially when projecting loftiness, magnificence, or a tireless duty. All the qualities associated with the Queen serve to bridge a gulf that might otherwise exist between her subjects and that abstraction that is their nation. It’s precisely because Elizabeth is a person—rather than a building, say, or a flag—that she can embody so many varying qualities that, taken all together, help maintain something distinctive in Brits’ feeling for their country.
In the words of the 19th-century Englishman Walter Bagehot, the queen “excites and preserves the reverence of the population,” thereby helping to bind their sentiments to the state.
Besides her gobs of jewels, her surreally one-of-a-kind existence, and her heavily photographed family, what I like most about the queen is the way she styled herself as a sort of sacrificial über-citizen, beginning on the very first day of her reign. On the evening of her Coronation in 1952, the young queen made this declaration to the people of her country.
I have in sincerity pledged myself to your service, as so many of you are pledged to mine. Throughout all my life and with all my heart I shall strive to be worthy of your trust.
Thus began sixty fairly unsensational years of color-coordinated dressing and the performance of millions upon millions of prescribed and customary royal duties. At the end of the day, it’s hard not to admire Elizabeth’s dogged commitment to all the formalities and tedious conventionalities that are part and parcel of her country’s monarchical tradition.
When it came time to draw up our own Constitution in the 1780s, the Revolutionary generation was conscious that, in rejecting monarchical government, they had given up something that, in good times, helped secure citizens’ attachment and loyalty. What, in a republic, could substitute for monarchy’s appealing glitter, pomp, and ceremony? What could the framers devise to cultivate the people’s respect and embody the fledgling nation’s character and authority?
Ironically, the answer they came up with is the presidency. The framers hoped that the occupant of this new-fangled office would function as “the people’s sovereign.” Federalists like John Adams hoped that the style presidents adopted would be sufficiently “splendid and majestic” to instill a sense of the dignity and authority of the nation in the public mind. In addition, members of the federal government took care to develop a set of forms and customs for capital life that might earn the republic respect, both at home and abroad.
Still, it would be hard to claim that the Founders solved the problem satisfactorily. In the years before the Civil War, observers recognized that the federal government exercised only a weak, secondary claim on many Americans’ loyalties—secondary to their homes and to the states where they were raised.
As we contemplate the narcissism and partisanship permeating the competition for the presidency, we may be justified in doubting whether the work of securing the affection and loyalty of the people remains a priority today.
Image: Robert Cruikshank’s watercolor,
“President’s Levee, or all Creation going to the White House”
(published 1841), from this source.