The recent coronation of her son King Charles III was similarly a spectacle of pomp and circumstance, with an estimated 2,000 guests in attendance. While these two coronations were decades apart, they both symbolised British tradition, history, and continuity. Despite the large turnout of both coronations, one figure was conspicuously absent during both events. In 1953, President Dwight Eisenhower did not attend Elizabeth II’s coronation. Instead, he sent a special envoy to represent the United States. Similarly, world leaders from across the globe gathered for Charles III’s coronation, but noticeably absent was U.S. President Joe Biden. Instead, First Lady Dr Jill Biden, along with the couple’s granddaughter Finnegan Biden, attended in his place. The absence of Presidents Eisenhower and Biden (as well as those of their predecessors) represent a further example of history and continuity: one signifying America’s complex relationship with the British monarchy. In total, eight coronations have taken place during the presidencies of James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren, Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, and most recently Joe Biden. Yet, none of these men ever attended the coronation of a British Monarch. Jill Biden’s presence at Charles III’s coronation represented this complex, and at times, contentious relationship.
Some 250 years ago, Colonial Americans were themselves subjects of Britain’s King George III. Today, any American schoolchild will attest that their country’s founders waged a war against the so-called mad despotic King to forge a free nation. As the country’s founding document attests, this new Republic was based upon principles of ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’, drawing sharp contrast to the supposedly tyrannical reign of George III. Of course, historians are quick to point out that George III was no tyrant, nor was he suffering from insanity during the American Revolution. According to Andrew Roberts, the American Revolutionaries viewed their moment in history as comparable to English Revolutionaries of 1642 and 1688, against Charles II and James II respectively. In turn, they set out to make George III appear equally oppressive. Of note, the Declaration of Independence – America’s foremost founding document – wildly exaggerates the King’s ‘oppression’ over the American colonies. George III was, above all, a constitutional monarch who was himself openly critical of tyrannical monarchies. Nonetheless, the mythologised concept of the ‘evil’ King George remains woven into America’s psyche and is generally accepted as truth.
However, the relationship between the two nations has changed drastically since the end of Colonial America, evolving from hostility, to indifference, to fascination, to warm friendship and strategic alliance. The first post-American Revolution coronation was that of George IV in July 1821. Yet, it was simply impractical for President James Monroe to attend. Monroe and his wife Elizabeth had attended Napoleon’s 1804 coronation in Paris, during which time he was serving as Minister to Great Britain. The fifth U.S. President was no stranger to European political affairs, having previously served as Minister to France from 1794 to 1796, and having returned to France in 1803 to aid Robert Livingston in securing the Louisiana Purchase.
By the time of Monroe’s presidency in 1821, no sitting President had ever stepped foot off American soil (the first was Theodore Roosevelt in 1906, who travelled to inspect the construction of the Panama Canal). In the days before air travel, a President embarking on a lengthy – and even potentially dangerous – transatlantic voyage was unthinkable. More symbolically, however, America and Britain had been embroiled in the War of 1812 just a few years earlier, during which time Monroe served as Secretary of State and briefly as Secretary of War. Therein, British forces set fire to the newly-constructed White House – the very home of former President James Madison. For many Americans, the war was a ‘second independence’, solidifying their freedom from Great Britain. In simpler terms, George IV’s coronation was likely of little significance to President Monroe, and the monarchy was likely equally indifferent as to whether he attended or not. One way or another, the precedent was set for American presidents to abstain from attending British coronations.