The Fourth of July is the only American holiday with a villain.
The Declaration of Independence, adopted by the Second Continental Congress on July 4, 1776, is best known for its stirring preamble. But most of the charter is an indictment of King George III for his “history of repeated injuries and usurpations” — a catalogue of royal crimes ranging from obstruction of justice to the imposition of martial law to the levying of unfair taxes. “He has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people,” Congress charged. The king had proved to be “a Tyrant … unfit to be the ruler of a free people.” Accordingly the American colonies were entitled not just “to be Free and Independent States,” but also to be “Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown.”
It was no small thing to give up their attachment to a monarch. Many Americans had only recently been enthusiastic royalists. Writing to a friend from Paris in 1767, Benjamin Franklin praised Louis XV, whom he had just met at Versailles. Yet “no Frenchman shall go beyond me,” he insisted, “in thinking my own King and Queen the very best in the World and the most amiable.”
But as disaffection with British policies intensified, so did Americans’ aversion to royalty. They came to see George III as the personification of everything they hated about the Old World’s political institutions. Hereditary monarchy and blood-based nobility, once regarded as necessary and natural, turned into the ultimate symbol of despotism. It wasn’t only for national independence that Americans fought a revolution. It was for a republic, too — for a government of the people and by the people, a nation in which citizens governed themselves and rejected as pernicious the very idea of kings on thrones or aristocrats born to rule.
Few ideals are as entrenched in our national character. Early on, Americans feared that the president would turn into a king. At the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Franklin argued against paying the nation’s highest official a salary, lest he be tempted to “follow the example of Pharaoh, get first all the people’s money, then all their lands, and then make them and their children servants forever.” Perhaps recalling his own former affections, Franklin wasn’t sure that Americans might not allow such a monarchy to take root. “There is,” he warned, “a natural inclination in mankind to Kingly Government.”
Yet that inclination is one to which Americans have proved immune. When we broke with the British crown in 1776, we broke with royalty for good. The Constitution prohibits both federal and state governments from granting titles of nobility — a provision Alexander Hamilton hailed in Federalist No. 84 as “the corner-stone of republican government.” The First Congress rejected suggestions that the president needed a regal-sounding form of address — “His Mightiness” was one proposal — and no president has ever refused to leave office when his term ended. To this day we revere George Washington for voluntarily stepping down after two terms instead of clinging to power. (And when Franklin Roosevelt in 1940 failed to uphold the precedent, the Constitution was amended to require it.)
Royalty may be fine for lesser breeds across the pond, but it’s one habit the American nation has never regretted giving up. Watching from afar, some Americans may enjoy the pageantry of a royal wedding or diamond jubilee. For ongoing tabloid-style entertainment it’s certainly hard to beat the soap-opera dysfunction of the House of Windsor. But envy the Brits (or anyone else) their monarch? Not us. Not a chance.
Americans, Lord knows, are apt to quarrel about everything. But one thing we never, ever debate is whether we’d be better off with a king. In Gallup polls dating back to 1950, nearly 90 percent of Americans have consistently said that a royal family would be bad for America. Alexis de Tocqueville reported the same thing. Americans’ lack of desire for a monarch, he wrote in 1835, amounted to “a sort of consensus universalis.”
Royalty is a superstition, long ago contradicted by the self-evident truth that all men are created equal. It’s a scam, and a ridiculous scam at that. “All kings is mostly rapscallions, as fur as I can make out,” explained Huck Finn to Jim. No conviction could be more American.
Jeff Jacoby can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby.