The idea of republican simplicity is a relic from the age of the American Revolutionary War. To get at its meaning, it’s easiest to meditate on its opposite. Think to yourself: How do I address a king? Am I meant to bow/curtsey? How low? What do I do with my hands while I bow? Do I avert my eyes? Do I look at my feet or his feet? Do I have to use some formula when I speak? Can I smile or do I affect seriousness? The possibilities for anxiety-causing detail are endless because kingship, we know intuitively, is a political institution steeped in elaborate custom, ritual and minute, complicated expressions of hierarchy.
When the colonies that would become the United States threw off British rule, they rejected hereditary monarchy as a form of government along with the particular English monarch of the day, George III, in favor of a republican form of government. This was felt by many in the early days of the republic to signify the beginning of a complete turnabout in the relations between the social orders. From then on, they believed, ceremony, deference and social hierarchy would no longer figure into our political and social life as a nation.
An example: when George Washington was elected chief executive under the new constitution, people were uncertain about how to address him in a way that was respectful enough for the office he would occupy but not slavish toward its authority. In this environment John Adams’ suggestion that the president be called, “His High Mightiness, the President of the United States and Protector of their Liberties” met with widespread ridicule. As things turned out, Washington was already being called, “His Excellency” from his days in command of the Continental Army; and it was this title that stuck for the duration of his two terms as president. During the single term of his successor, on the other hand, there was an apparent downgrade in the title, resulting in the modern usage, “Mr. President.” This, finally, was a good expression of republican simplicity.
One of the pleasures of history is the recollection and consideration, at a distance, of the alternatives that our country once knew and rejected. Today’s Pic of the Week post comes just days after the simple republican affair of inaugurating the 44th President of the United States for a second term in office. Contrast that with the coronation of a king: The images accompanying this post come from a beautiful work published by two men, both heralds and genealogists close to the English court, Francis Sandford (1630-1694) and Gregory King (1648-1712). Their book, which captures in great detail a celebration of the most opulent sort, is called “The History of the Coronation of the Most High, Most Mighty, and Most Excellent Monarch, James II by the Grace of God, King of England, Scotland, France and Ireland, Defender of the Faith, &c. and of his Royal Consort Queen Mary.” An excellent example of a coronation book, it contains 61 leaves of plates, including a wide array of images of processions, costumes and accoutrements, ritual, regalia and architectural drawings. While coronation books always have a subtle political point of their own to make, the visual content of this item from the Rare Book Collection of the Law Library of Congress makes it as much a priceless work of art as a wonderful window into the pomp and grandeur of our ancient political order.