The Queen and I

On July 9, 1976 Queen Elizabeth II visited New York as part of a goodwill tour of the United States to commemorate the founding of the American republic two hundred years earlier. On that day she visited Bloomingdale’s, the Stock Exchange, and Trinity Church, where she settled an unpaid debt the colonies owed to King George III in the form of 279 peppercorns.

I am not exactly clear how the colonists owed the queen’s fourth great-grandfather pepper corns, but the debt must have been significant enough to keep on the books all this time rather than write it off. I can’t imagine owing anyone pepper corns unless maybe I drop their Pottery Barn grinder and they explode all over the floor. And even then, doesn’t the grinder count more than the corns? How much are pepper corns, anyway? Am I missing something?

Queen Elizabeth II

I did not miss the queen’s visit. I was there for it. She wore a bright yellow dress and a matching hat that looked like a halo with a flamingo on top. I could be wrong about the color, though. Being male, I have trouble telling yellow from green. Not so with Prince Philip, who wore a navy, Savile Row, two-piece suit. You can’t go wrong with that. I don’t remember what I wore, but it could have been shorts. New York in July is nothing to mess with. You can get heat stroke if you don’t dress right.

I don’t remember why I was there exactly, since I spent most of that summer in Philadelphia, including Valley Forge for the fireworks on the Fourth of July (see Laura Fedora). I don’t think I had gone into Manhattan just to see the queen, so it may have been the summer I drove a Checker cab while home from college, in which case I would have been in the city anyway (see Prodigy for a Day). Or I could have been there for another reason (I also ran deliveries for a stationery shop). Either way, stopping to see the queen would have been easy enough to do.

I was a bit uncertain about the proper attitude to take toward the queen. After all, that same great grandfather had refused gestures of reconciliation and waged war against my country, never mind that the United States did not exist at the time, the queen did not exist, and I certainly did not exist. It would be another 103 years before my people even set foot in the New World. So, how was I supposed to feel toward this monarch now?

To tell the truth, I wasn’t really uncertain. That is, I didn’t expect the queen to order MI6 to burn down the White House as she toured under the guise of “good will,” but it does raise questions about how much responsibility we should assume for the past. Plenty of examples come to mind. I try to maintain a safe distance from the extremes of full immunity on one hand and direct accountability on the other. In the end, it comes down to a question of fairness as in what’s fair and why do we consider it fair? My preference is not to force people to do anything, but that has more to do with my temperament.

I mean I do not have the disposition to be a Bolschevik storming the winter palace, a Jacobin sending my neighbors to the guillotine, or a Maoist cudgeling anyone who shows affinity for the “Four Olds” (i.e., ideas, culture, customs, habits). If anything, I am drawn toward anti-revolutionary thinking and sentiment. So, if not exactly a monarchist, I might be a constitutional monarchist, which is what Queen Elizabeth and her supporters are.

But don’t get me wrong. While I would have fought with the White Russians against Lenin (I love The Big Lebowski), I am no bore. Between pepper corns and the soup tureen the queen presented to President Ford to commemorate the bicentennial, I recognize just how tepid conformity can be. Sure, a soup tureen beats a pasta maker, but it sounds suspiciously like a regift. As it turns out, the Fords may never have used it. The tureen now sits in an exhibit case in the Smithsonian.

The best approach may be to balance the two, avoiding the extremes again. That makes even more sense to me now than it did as I stood there in Lower Manhattan watching the royal couple, who, now that I think of it, looked bored to death with the whole charade. It’s a delicate dance, don’t cha know.

Image credits: feature “Queen Elizabeth II at the University of Leicester” (Dec 5, 2008) by Mrschnips (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0); flowers by Samuel Regan-Asante. Like fiction? Check out the Mercury “trilogy” (The Gringo, Laura Fedorahere. Also, go to Robert Brancatelli.


  1. A wonderful reminisce, Robert, written with your usual good humor.

    No matter my opinion on the relevance of a constitutional monarchy, Queen Elizabeth certainly reigned with dignity and decorum. No profane outbursts, no hypocritical behavior, good will toward all, and in general the type pf person it is easy to admire and respect.

    Not sure about the peppercorn debt, but find myself wondering if the Brits would take us back? They seem to have so much more good breeding than our Washington crowd.

    If they decline, perhaps we can manage to at least return New York City to the Native Americans for those $24 worth of beads. Maybe the beads are also in the Smithsonian someplace.

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