If a prince can marry a commoner without losing his claim to the throne, this is no fairy tale. It’s an American love story.
That’s a point that can easily be lost amid all the pomp and pageantry of Prince William and Kate Middleton’s nuptials — the most anticipated royal wedding since Charles married Diana in 1981. But William and Kate are not having a typical royal wedding. In fact, it is quite an American affair.
Don’t take my word for it. Look to none other than Alexis de Tocqueville. Many of his great insights about the American way of life emerge from comparing America’s democratic habits and mores with those of Europe’s aristocratic regimes. And one key difference, according to Tocqueville, was marriage.
Aristocratic marriage is a union of goods and property, political matches unconcerned with the bride and groom sharing common interests or even affection. Tocqueville notes that such marriage tend to be unstable: for “the conjugal bond that keeps the fortunes of the two spouses united leaves their hearts to wander about aimlessly. This flows naturally from the spirit of the contract.”
America’s democratic marriages, by contrast, depend on the shared affection of its members. This makes American marriages more stable, in Tocqueville’s observation: when an American “chooses his companion by himself without having anything external to hinder him or even direct him, it is ordinarily only similarity of tastes and ideas that brings man and woman together and that same similarity keeps and fixes them beside one another.”
American marriage has changed since Tocqueville’s day, of course, with the rise of divorce and the sexual revolution. Yet it is still not uncommon, in America, for a wealthy man to marry a poor woman. There are no strict classes or division of birth of fortune that “make a man and woman different beings such that they can never come to be united to one another.” In aristocracies, passions may bring a couple together, “but the social state and the ideas it suggests prevent them from bonding in a permanent and open manner.”
William and Kate were not pre-selected for another when he was in school and she in her wet nurse’s arms, as was typical for a royal marriage in Tocqueville’s age. They met as university students, dated for eight years, and are the first royal couple to live together openly before marriage. And let’s not forget that Kate is not an aristocrat.
As royal-watcher and author of The Diana Chronicles Tina Brown argues, Kate is the “un-Diana”—and that is a good thing. Engaged at 19 and married at 20, Diana was a young aristocrat who hardly knew what she was getting into — and provided a great deal of drama as a result. Kate is nearly 30, hails from a middle-class family, and provides much-needed stability for William. More than that, Brown notes, William wanted to make sure that Kate was ready for royal life — that she knew what she was getting into.
Tocqueville would say William was looking for more of an American woman, for such a woman “never falls into the bonds of marriage as into a trap set for her simplicity and ignorance. She has been taught in advance what is expected of her, and she freely places herself in the yoke of her own.”
His words explain not only how un-aristocratic Will’s and Kate’s romance has been, but perhaps why many Americans were eager to view the ceremony.
Americans flocked to London to see the wedding. They bought souvenirs and replicas of Kate’s engagement ring. Hotels across the United State hosted special “royal wedding” packages, complete with early wake-up calls and lavish breakfasts. But what these Americans were watching was not some imaginary fairy tale or even a typical lavish royal wedding. It was another American love story.
— Julia Shaw is a research associate and program manager in the B. Kenneth Simon Center for American Studies at the Heritage Foundation.