From Monroe to Biden - the Complex Role of American Presidents During Royal Coronations

Dr Alex Sessa

This June marks 70 years since the coronation of Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II. Some 8,000 people crammed into Westminster Abbey to witness the crowning of the 27-year-old Monarch.

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.
From Monroe to Biden – the Complex Role of American Presidents During Royal Coronations
Washington Crossing the Delaware - Emanuel Leutze

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From Monroe to Biden – the Complex Role of American Presidents During Royal Coronations
A young Queen Victoria

Throughout the 1820s and 1830s American attitudes toward Great Britain were shifting.

It was becoming evident that the two nations shared ‘strong parallels’ and were bound by ‘unprecedented human, material, and cultural traffic’. Upon her accession to the throne in 1837, Queen Victoria penned a hand-written letter to President Martin Van Buren, assuring him ‘that it will be Our most earnest desire to cultivate and maintain the Relations of Friendship and good Understanding’ between the two nations. She signed the letter, ‘Your Good Friend, Victoria R.’ The American public had likewise grown enormously interested in Queen Victoria’s coronation and were even purchasing souvenirs to mark the occasion. One influential political magazine, The United States Magazine and Democratic Review, coined the phrase ‘Victoria Fever’, owing to the hairbrushes, riding hats, and even soap being produced in the Queen’s likeness throughout Philadelphia. Despite the newfound craze, President Van Buren did not attend the coronation. Instead, his son John attended and afforded himself the opportunity to socialise with Europe’s elites. During a ball following the coronation, he is said to have danced with the young Queen. Upon his return to the United States, the American press nicknamed him ‘Prince John’. Evidently, relations between the two countries had softened in the decades since the American Revolution. Victoria reigned during the tenure of seventeen presidents, but she met only former President Millard Filmore in 1855, two years after he left the White House. It was Victoria’s grandson George V who became the first British Monarch to meet an incumbent American President. On Boxing Day 1918, Woodrow Wilson arrived in London to negotiate a Peace Treaty, formally ending the First World War. President and Mrs Wilson were paraded through London with tremendous fanfare and jubilation. Along the procession, Queen Alexandra (the Queen Mother) could be seen waving a small stars and stripes flag in front of Marlborough House. Wilson delivered remarks before the King and Queen at Buckingham Palace on 27 December. Among other things, he spoke of the friendship between the United States and Great Britain: ‘May I not, sir, with a feeling of profound sincerity and friendship and sympathy propose your own health and the health of the Queen, and the prosperity of Great Britain?’ Nearly twenty years later, George VI became the first British Monarch to visit the United States. During 1938, the King and Queen were planning a trip to Canada when President Roosevelt invited them to Hyde Park for a few days of relaxation, in a bid to enhance Anglo-American relations. Roosevelt’s invitation was delivered to the King by American Ambassador Joseph Kennedy (father of future President John F. Kennedy). The plan to boost relations worked brilliantly, with the King and the President photographed eating hot dogs and drinking beer together. Americans and Britons began to view one another more favourably. This newfound alliance would prove instrumental throughout the course of the Second World War. The oft-cited ‘special relationship’ between the United States and Britain – which refers, in principle, to the on-going diplomatic and military strategic alliance between the two nations – marked a turning point in the way British Monarchs and Presidents have dealt with one another. This has been particularly evident in the relationships George VI and Elizabeth II cultivated with the Presidents who served during their reigns. In 1951, 25-year-old Princess Elizabeth visited President Truman in Washington D.C. on behalf of the ailing King George. Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh gifted President Truman an 18th-century over-the-mantle painting to be hung in the White House. During a speech in the Rose Garden, Truman offered his well wishes to the young couple, stating: ‘We have many distinguished visitors here in this city, but never before have we had such a wonderful young couple who have so completely captured the hearts of all of us’. He went on to invite the couple to return to Washington with their children, noting that whoever would be in the White House by that time, the couple could be assured they would always be welcome.
Ancestry UK

Within a year, Elizbeth ascended the throne. In January 1953, Dwight Eisenhower was sworn in as President.

It is noteworthy that President Eisenhower enjoyed a particularly special relationship with the royal family. On two occasions, he was a guest at Balmoral – first during his time as a General in 1946 and then as President in 1959. During his second visit, the Queen promised him a recipe for scones, which was delivered to the White House the following year. Yet, when it came to the Queen’s coronation, President Eisenhower declined an invitation. Instead, he followed the precedent set by his predecessors and sent a special envoy, among whom were George C. Marshall and Earl Warren. Queen Elizabeth II went on to meet every U.S. President, except Lyndon Johnson who did not visit the U.K during his presidency. During the early years of her reign, State visits between the two countries were grand spectacles. In 1957, Elizabeth II was greeted by an extravagant Ticker Tape Parade upon her arrival in New York City. Similarly, John and Jacqueline Kennedy were greeted by half a million onlookers when they arrived in London in 1961. In 1976, the Queen travelled to Washington D.C. to celebrate America’s bicentennial, where she danced with President Gerald Ford during a White House ball. Betty Ford noted that her only complaint about the visit was that she kept mixing up ‘Your Majesty’ and ‘Your Highness’. The following year, the Queen hosted Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter at Buckingham Palace. After the visit, some media outlets reported that President Carter kissed the Queen Mother on the mouth. Carter later protested the claims, calling it a ‘light kiss on the cheek’ at the end of the evening. In more recent years, Elizabeth II was pictured comfortably horseback riding with Ronald Reagan and even seen publicly embracing First Lady Michelle Obama. Her last meeting with a U.S. President took place in June 2022, when she welcomed President and Dr Biden at Windsor Castle in the lead up to the G7 Summit in Cornwall. The Bidens returned to the U.K. the following September to attend Her Majesty’s funeral. Despite the mutual respect that has developed between British Monarchs and U.S. Presidents through the years, Mr Biden declined an invitation to attend King Charles’ coronation in May. It has been reported that the Bidens will attend an official state visit at Buckingham Palace at a later date. Still, the question lingers: why do American Presidents cling to the tradition of refusing to attend coronations? Moreover, what does Dr Jill Biden’s presence at the recent coronation symbolise for the British-American relations? It could be argued that, despite the progress of this once-contentious relationship, the presence of a U.S. President at a British coronation would fly in the face of America’s anti-monarchy origins, which are so deeply rooted in the country’s historical identity. On the surface, this notion would indicate that some form of deep-seated animosity is woven into America’s collective consciousness. Any such animosity appears to have disappeared long ago. During Elizabeth II’s 1976 visit to the U.S., President Ford stated, ‘Your Majesty, the wounds of our parting in 1776 healed long ago. Americans admire the United Kingdom as one of our truest allies and best friends. There could be no more convincing evidence of that friendship than the splendid British contributions and participation on the occasion of our Bicentennial’. Ford went on to note the commonalities between the two countries, noting that the American Founders modelled their own system of government after Britain’s. The two countries, he affirmed, had long been bound by principles of democracy, peace, and justice. The Queen responded, ‘Our countries have a great deal in common. The British settlers created here a society that owes much to its origins across the ocean. For nearly 170 years there was a formal constitutional link between us. Your Declaration of Independence broke that link, but it did not for long break our friendship’. It is, therefore, unlikely that President Biden’s absence from Charles’ coronation – as well as the absence of seven of his predecessors – can be attributed to animosity. While no official explanation has ever been given for the tradition of American Presidents declining to attend coronations, it seems more likely that it is simply a matter of maintaining the ‘status-quo’. Since James Monroe’s absence at George IV’s crowning 200 years ago, the precedent was set for his successors to follow suit. As history has shown, Presidents and monarchs engage with one another through gestures of friendship and goodwill – not through the mutual celebration of coronations. President Biden, therefore, appeared committed to upholding this standard. Still, while Presidents do not personally attend coronations, they certainly do not ignore them. Jill Biden’s presence was a nod to diplomacy and a gesture of respect resulting from the friendship between the two nations. Her participation in Charles’ coronation is a strong affirmation that tradition and continuity are being carried out on both sides of the pond, and that the unique friendship between the United States and Great Britain continues to flourish.
From Monroe to Biden – the Complex Role of American Presidents During Royal Coronations
The Coronation Portrait of Queen Elizabeth II.
From Monroe to Biden – the Complex Role of American Presidents During Royal Coronations

Dr Alex Sessa

Dr Alex Sessa is a writer, educator, and historian. He completed his PhD from the University of Southampton Parkes Institute for the Study of Jewish/non-Jewish Relations. Additionally, he holds degrees in Public History and Visual and Media Arts. His research interests include Christian-Jewish relations, memory studies, imperial history, and film history. Originally from the U.S., he has travelled to more than 25 countries and is proud to call London home. He is proud to write for The Historians Magazine and to assist in public relations.
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