CLAY JENKINSON: The Future In Context — The Contradictions Of Pomp, Circumstance And Populism

President and first lady Biden attended the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II on Monday, Sept. 19, 2022. More than 500 heads of state and foreign dignitaries from all over the planet made their way to London to attend the funeral.

Representatives from 167 countries of the 193 United Nations member states, including 18 monarchs, 55 presidents and 25 prime ministers were in attendance. It was an extraordinary moment of shared grief in a troubled and divided world. Nearly everyone who has commented on it regards the queen’s funeral as the end of an era, a show of international solidarity that is very unlikely to recur. Already commonwealth nations are debating how long they should observe the obligatory mourning period before declaring full independence from the British crown.

The King Is Dead …

The last time a British monarch was buried with such magnificent pageantry was in 1910, when King Edward VII died at the age of 68. American historian Barbara Tuchman caught the mood in her 1962 book, The Guns of August:

“So gorgeous was the spectacle on the May morning of 1910 when nine kings rode in the funeral of Edward VII of England that the crowd, waiting in hushed and black-clad awe, could not keep back gasps of admiration. In scarlet and blue and green and purple, three by three the sovereigns rode through the palace gates, with plumed helmets, gold braid, crimson sashes, and jeweled orders flashing in the sun. After them came five heirs apparent, 40 more imperial or royal highnesses, seven queens — four dowager and three regnant — and a scattering of special ambassadors from uncrowned countries.”

One of that “scattering of special ambassadors” was former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt.

A Star Among the Scattered

Roosevelt just happened to be touring European capitals at the time of King Edward’s sudden death. He and his son, Kermit, had completed their nearly yearlong post-presidential safari in British East Africa and had caught up with former first lady Edith Roosevelt and their daughter, Ethel, in Khartoum on March 14, 1910.

William Howard Taft served as the 27th president of the United States (1909-1913) (whitehouse.gov)
William Howard Taft served as the 27th president of the United States (1909-1913) (whitehouse.gov)

Because TR was already in Europe, his hand-picked successor as president, the 300-pound homebody William Howard Taft, invited him by telegram to attend the funeral of King Edward VII as the official representative of the United States. By 1910, Roosevelt was not only the most famous American but perhaps the most famous man in the world. His presence would bring a luster to the funeral that could be provided by no other attendee, with the possible exception of Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, whom TR had just visited in Berlin.

Roosevelt cabled Taft that he would be delighted to represent America at Edward’s funeral.

A World Stage Big Enough for Theodore Rex

Ironically, although Roosevelt has been called America’s first king and though his greatest biographer, Edmund Morris, entitled his volume on the Roosevelt presidency Theodore Rex,” Roosevelt was in fact both a capital-R and a small-r republican, who found all the pomp and circumstance of royalty, the costuming and the pecking order, the rituals, the protocols and the pompous oratory both tedious and ridiculous.

Although he had been born into wealth and privilege, Roosevelt was a meritocrat who regarded royalty as a kind of national public humiliation. “I have been awfully well-treated by kings,” he wrote, “but in modern days, a king’s business is not a man’s job. He is kept as a kind of national pet, treated with consideration and distinction but not allowed to have any say in the running of the affairs of the national household.” Roosevelt said that kingship reminded him of the vice presidency: a political cul-de-sac that should probably be abolished. Roosevelt loved power, but he was relatively indifferent to ceremony and the trappings of power. And he was nobody’s national pet.

 Col. Theodore Roosevelt, 1st Cavalry, U.S.Volunteers, ca. 1898 (archives.gov)
Col. Theodore Roosevelt, 1st Cavalry, U.S.Volunteers, ca. 1898 (archives.gov)

Roosevelt toyed with the idea of appearing at the funeral in his U.S. Cavalry uniform dating from his heroics at San Juan Hill in Cuba, but Edith was able to convince him to wear a simple swallow-tailed black suit instead. She feared that he would be ridiculed in his gaudy Brooks Brothers uniform from 1898. Among other things, TR had put on at least 30 pounds in the interim.

Meanwhile, when Archie Butt, a military aide to both presidents Roosevelt and Taft, learned that both Roosevelt and Kaiser Wilhelm would be attending the state funeral, he quipped, “It will be a wonder if the poor corpse gets a passing thought.” It was TR’s daughter, Alice, who famously said, “My father wanted to be the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral.” But Roosevelt surprised his critics this time.

The Greatest Man in the World

Theodore Roosevelt — a war hero; a Western cowboy; a big game hunter; a former governor, vice president and president of the United States; winner of the Nobel Peace Prize — had nothing to prove in London in May 1910. He was just 52 years old, the youngest person who had ever been president of the United States, still at the height of his physical and mental powers. He knew that he was the best-loved world leader at the gathering and that the only other leader to whom he might justly be compared was Kaiser Wilhelm, who was increasingly regarded by the European community as a threat to world peace. Roosevelt was content to do whatever was asked of him through a long series of funeral-related activities. He made no effort to jostle for position, to insist upon any primacy or privilege, or to call attention to himself.

As his biographer Edmund Morris put it, “For the next six or seven days, he had to behave with extreme formality. He was assigned a royal carriage, a military attaché, two British aides-de-camp, six grenadier guards and even a bugler, to herald his comings and goings.” Aside from a few sarcastic remarks in private, TR performed his role with perfect — and uncharacteristic — decorum. In fact, he may have been the best-behaved dignitary at the funeral. The whole week was a circus of pettiness, squabbling and (as far as Roosevelt was concerned) comic frivolity, as foreign delegations jockeyed for the best seats at banquets, positions in parades and the funeral cortege, lodging and access to the British royal family.

The Pettiness of Protocol

When Stephen Pichon, the French minister of foreign affairs, tried to enlist Roosevelt to protest the fact that the coachman they shared wore only a black coat, while those of monarchical nations wore red coats, Roosevelt tried to explain, in his pidgin French, that the purpose was no doubt to distinguish delegations from republics from delegations from monarchies, and that as far as he was concerned, his coachman was free to wear a green coat with yellow sashes. But, as he explained in a letter, his French was so terrible that Pichon thought Roosevelt was insisting that he wanted a coachman with a green coat, and Pichon wanted to know the precedent in diplomatic history for that!

During the funeral march, Roosevelt and Pichon were positioned eighth in a sequence of 12 delegations and their coach was a closed conveyance, while some royal delegations ahead of them rode in glass coaches. TR said the only glass coach he had ever heard about was found in the fairy tale “Cinderella.” Pichon was apoplectic with both private and public rage, that the honor of France had been sullied to a degree that made this a potential international incident. Pichon was even more offended that a delegation of “ces Chinois” (Chinese) preceded the two republics (U.S. and France). “To this I answered,” Roosevelt wrote, “that any people dressed as gorgeously as ‘ces Chinois’ ought to go ahead of us; but he responded that it was not a laughing matter.”

No sooner was Roosevelt settled in Dorchester House, the official residence of American ambassador Whitelaw Reid, than British dignitaries and foreign diplomats began to call upon him in a long-established ritual of formal droppings by. Roosevelt wearily submitted to these elaborate and tedious protocols, but almost immediately he barked, “Confound these kings; will they never let me alone?”

TR was also visited by Arthur Conan DoyleRudyard Kipling, his hunting friend Frederick Courtney Selous, the former Japanese ambassador Kogoro Takahira, and even his Dakota pal Seth Bullock, sheriff of Deadwood County, S.D. What was “he” doing in London? TR chose not to call on Winston Churchill, whom he despised (and which was apparently reciprocated by the British prime minister). The English-speaking world was not large enough for two such outsize writer-statesmen!

Several days before the funeral, Roosevelt was ushered in to meet the new king, George V, whom he found accessible and unaffected, and who introduced TR to the queen and their children.

Mr. President, Is That a Giant Teddy Bear Above Your Head?

While he was in Great Britain, Roosevelt accepted an honorary degree from Cambridge and delivered the prestigious Romanes Lecture in the Sheldonian Theatre at Oxford. His theme at Oxford — “Biological Analogies in History” — was “politely” received, but the wits of Oxford chose to have some fun with the boisterous American. The university chancellor introduced him in a Latin oration that translates (in part), “Behold, the promised man, before whose coming comets turned to flight, and all the startled mouths of sevenfold Nile took fright!” At Cambridge, university wits lowered a giant teddy bear over his podium as he began to speak. Lest he be offended, his hosts reminded him that when Charles Darwin spoke at the same podium, a giant stuffed ape had been lowered over his head.

During one of the few moments that had not been preplanned and scheduled, TR and Edith ventured alone to revisit St. George’s Church in Hanover Square incognito, where they had been married in a quiet ceremony 28 years earlier. They asked to see the church register but were told that it was locked away. The document’s keeper, not knowing who they were, volunteered that people frequently came into St. George’s wishing to see the register, which contained two royal signatures and that of Theodore Roosevelt, a former president of the United States. TR and Edith left without revealing who they were.

The End of the Good Old Days

When the Roosevelts arrived back in New York harbor on June 18, 1910, after an absence of 15 months, he was met with the largest public reception in the history of the city. There was, by now, widespread disillusionment with President Taft, whose general energy level was low (especially in contrast to his hyperkinetic predecessor), and who had veered from TR’s policies, particularly on questions of natural resources and conservation.

(Above) Silent film of the Roosevelts’ return to New York in 1910, complete with American-style pomp and circumstance. (loc.gov)

More than 500,000 people lined Broadway and Fifth Avenues to catch a glimpse of the former president. “I have never witnessed anything like it,” Archie Butt reported. Somehow Roosevelt had achieved a stature no other president had ever enjoyed. It had nothing to do with Edward VII’s funeral, everything to do with his exemplification of what he called “the glory of work and the joy of living.” Before he left the White House for Africa in March 1909, Roosevelt told the American people that “no president has ever enjoyed being president as much as I have done, and no family has ever enjoyed living in the White House as we Roosevelts.” Nobody even thought of challenging his statement.

He had been missed. He was still regarded as the greatest American. He would soon make the mistake of concluding that he was therefore entitled to resume being president of the United States.

One of the dazzling heads of state at the funeral of Edward VII was Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary. As the historian Barbara Tuchman wrote in “The Guns of August,” though nobody knew it at the time, Edward VII’s funeral marked the end of an era:

“Together they represented 70 nations in the greatest assemblage of royalty and rank ever gathered in one place and, of its kind, the last. The muffled tongue of Big Ben tolled nine by the clock as the cortege left the palace, but on history’s clock, it was sunset, and the sun of the Old World was setting in a dying blaze of splendor never to be seen again.”

Four years and two weeks later, Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated on the streets of Sarajevo. What followed was World War I, the Great War, the war that shattered all the world’s illusions of progress, peace and the Enlightenment, killed 20 million Europeans, and set the stage for Auschwitz, the Siege of Leningrad and Hiroshima.

On Aug. 3, 1914, TR’s friend and British Foreign Secretary Edward Grey said, “The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.”

You can also hear more of Clay Jenkinson’s views on American history and the humanities on his long-running nationally syndicated public radio program and podcast, The Thomas Jefferson Hour,” and the Governing podcast, Listening to America.” Clay’s most recent book, “The Language of Cottonwoods: Essays on the Future of North Dakota,” is available through AmazonBarnes and Noble and your local independent book seller. Clay welcomes your comments and critiques of his essays and interviews. You can reach him directly by writing cjenkinson@governing.com or tweeting @ClayJenkinson.

Leave a Reply