Honoring The Queen At The U.S. Capitol

[ Posted Thursday, September 8th, 2022 – 15:53 UTC ]

I am giving into groupthink today, and thus for the first time I am going to write a column about the Queen of England. Her death today was not exactly unexpected, but it still came as a shock to the United Kingdom and all other British-affiliated countries around the world. Queen Elizabeth II ruled long than any other British monarch, and their history stretches back a lot longer than U.S. history, so that's a pretty astounding feat. What this means, however, is that Britain (and by extension, the rest of the world) hasn't seen a royal funeral for a sitting monarch since 1952. It's been a long time, in other words, so few people alive today have any idea what to expect from it.

So here are some random thoughts I had about the death of the Queen of England. The first is my own misunderstanding. My Irish-born wife was the one to inform me of the passing of Elizabeth, and she said (somewhat sarcastically, being Irish): "The Queen is dead. Long live the King."

Again, since I've never actually heard the phrase formally uttered in my lifetime, I have been misunderstanding it for all these years. I expected the correct form to be: "The Queen is dead. Long live the Queen." I had just assumed it was a way of honoring her passage into the afterlife and was meant to convey: "The Queen's physical body is dead, but she will live forever in our hearts and minds."

Obviously, I was wrong about that. You learn something new every day. King Charles III is the monarch now, and so a plea for his long life is properly included, to show the continuity of the British state. Makes sense, it's just that I had never really thought about it before.

Second, this won't actually be the first British royal funeral I will watch on television. The first I actually wrote about, in part of an Irish vacation travelogue I wrote in 2015:

We'll be heading to London for a few days (to see other relatives) before we return home, and England is experiencing a rather bizarre national milestone of their own this week. King Richard III is getting buried. Or "reburied," after his bones were found under a parking lot a few years back (you just can't make this stuff up, folks). This weekend, the coffin's procession went to Bosworth Field, where he became the last British king to die in battle. Shakespeare famously wrote this scene with the line: "A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!" but Shakespeare was quite likely doing nothing more than writing political propaganda to make the victors look a lot better (Richard III was the last Plantagenet ruler, and his death ended the Wars of the Roses). In fact, Richard III was painted as a monster who killed two small boys to grab the throne, but after reading Josephine Tey's The Daughter Of Time, I was convinced by her argument that Shakespeare's version is hogwash and nothing short of blatant historical revisionism, and that Richard III was actually a pretty decent king (and that his rival was the one who had the two boys killed). Anyway, he traveled back to the scene of his death this weekend (the ceremony was complete with full-dress knights in shining armor), and his reburial is set for this Thursday. It's not every day you get to see a royal funeral in Britain (indeed, there hasn't been one in my lifetime, as far as I know), and this one is especially unique considering this king died 530 years ago.

Somehow I doubt we'll see actual knights in shining armor during Queen Elizabeth II's funeral procession. But I have to admit, it was kind of cool.

But the main reason I am writing this is that I heard one honor being bestowed upon Elizabeth which I initially thought was inappropriate. Spoiler alert: this turned out to be wrong, too.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi announced, upon hearing of the death of Elizabeth, that the United States flags at the Capitol would be flown at half-staff, as a measure of respect and honor.

That didn't sit right with me. In the United States, no man is supposed to have to ever bow to any foreign nation's sovereign, for any reason. Barack Obama had a mini-scandal over a bow (he insisted it wasn't) to the Saudi king. Donald Trump later bowed to the same king, when he received a honkin' big gold necklace from him (he also denied that he had bowed). There is a diplomatic principle here, when it comes to the president. Because unlike in Britain, we have no royalty. Thus, our "head of state" is the president. In diplomatic functions, he embodies America. And America isn't supposed to bow to anybody, for any reason -- especially not some foreign potentate. We are all equal citizens and are not required to ever bow or curtsy or any of the rest of it. It may sound like nitpicking, but the idea behind it was both important and radical when our country was formed, and it has never changed. We bow to no one.

So why should the Capitol honor a foreign queen -- the head of state of the very country we fought two wars against (the Revolution and the War of 1812), and who, previous to 2021, was the only force ever to overrun (and burn down) the very same United States Capitol those flags fly over? How is that appropriate?

So I went and looked it up. I hadn't perused the Flag Code for a while (not since a flag-burning amendment was the talk of Washington), so I will reprint the relevant parts here. From 4 U.S.C. 1 § 7(m):

By order of the President, the flag shall be flown at half-staff upon the death of principal figures of the United States Government and the Governor of a State, territory, or possession, as a mark of respect to their memory. In the event of the death of other officials or foreign dignitaries, the flag is to be displayed at half-staff according to Presidential instructions or orders, or in accordance with recognized customs or practices not inconsistent with law.

It goes on to specify that others also have the power to order flags flown at half-staff, within their sphere of influence: governors of states, territories, or possessions, the mayor of D.C., the armed forces, etc. It doesn't specifically name congressional leaders being in charge of the Capitol's flags, but it is certainly implied as it recognizes that others have the right to make such an order within their own political domains.

Also, 4 U.S.C. 1 § 10 gives the president even more leeway:

Any rule or custom pertaining to the display of the flag of the United States of America, set forth herein, may be altered, modified, or repealed, or additional rules with respect thereto may be prescribed, by the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces of the United States, whenever he deems it to be appropriate or desirable; and any such alteration or additional rule shall be set forth in a proclamation.

So there you go. Right there in the flag code, U.S. flags can be flown at half-staff for "the death of other officials or foreign dignitaries."

When you think about it, no other foreign dignitary deserves such an honor more than Elizabeth II. She reigned during the terms of a whopping 14 U.S. presidents -- all the way back to Harry Truman. She met each and every one, with the lone exception being Lyndon Johnson. That is a record that is likely to stand for a very long time indeed, just as her own record of "longest-serving British monarch" may indeed never be broken.

The United Kingdom does indeed have a "special relationship" with America. After we buried the hatchet about that whole taxation-without-representation and revolution thing, we have been the staunchest of friends on the world stage reaching back to, at the very least, the dawn of the 20th century and World War I. That's a pretty consistent record. No other ally can claim to have stood by us for so long, and so steadfastly.

So if the Flag Code is OK with it, so am I. Queen Elizabeth II certainly made mistakes, but all around she was one tough cookie. She acceded to the throne at the age of 25 and left it in death at the age of 96. The United Kingdom will likely never see her ilk again. She is worthy of one three-letter word that is reserved for only the most influential rulers of any nation: thus ends the Second Elizabethan Era.

She will be missed by millions, both in Britain and without. I don't personally have feelings towards her (good or bad), not being a British subject, but I can certainly respect those who do. Nancy Pelosi is right to show both her own personal honor and that of the United States Congress to such an extraordinary woman.

The Queen is dead. Long live the King.

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


3 Comments on “Honoring The Queen At The U.S. Capitol”

  1. [1] 
    BashiBazouk wrote:

    My favorite Queen story: Taking Crown Prince, Abdullah on a tour of Balmoral.

    My big question: would it be rude to call him King Chuck? And would that be politically acceptable rude or deeply offensive rude?

    Take it with a grain of salt, but one thread I was reading put forth that Queen Victoria actually reigned through more Presidents. Even though she reigned for 63 years, there were a lot more one-termers back then.

  2. [2] 
    Mezzomamma wrote:

    Deaths in office would add two--or more--to the total.

    While some people will predictably get very publicly indignant about anything they regard as disrespectful, down to rather trivial matters, others (not just anti-monarchists) will just as predictably complain about changes to television programming, cancellation of events, and yes, rather trivial matters. Some things seem pretty universal.

    It comes as a jolt to hear references to the king, and to hear the national anthem become God save the king. I'm not a monarchist and am still a US citizen, by the way.

  3. [3] 
    Mezzomamma wrote:

    Victoria's total, that is.

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