It was some time after the mother of the bride entered the church, after the sermon and after the choir, that the significance of this weekend’s royal wedding hit me. More than 400 years after the first English settlers set foot in North America and some 242 years after we declared our independence from the British crown, the American Revolution was finally going back across the Atlantic to England.
The American Revolution was revolutionary in many ways. In its most basic sense, of course, it was a revolt of the people against their king and the government he led. The Declaration of Independence recounts in detail the many grievances the former colonists held against King George and Parliament, which compelled them to form the United States. The military campaign that followed culminated in the British surrender at Yorktown and an independent United States.
It was a revolution, too, against a class system in which people who lived in England believed themselves to be superior to those who lived in the colonies. The Brits were happy enough to allow the colonists to cultivate land and produce goods and wealth for them. But allowing them into their social institutions or commissioning them into general officer positions in their military, or welcoming them into their gentry or government? Never!
The American Revolution was also a revolution in the philosophy of government it inaugurated — our “great experiment” in self-government. It established the principle that governments get their power from the people and exist to serve the people, and not, as had historically been the practice up until then, the other way around. Enlightened thinkers had written about self-government, but the Constitution of the United States put it into practice.
Finally, after the fighting was done and the nation was independent, and after the people had installed their new self-government, and even after the young nation had almost come apart, there came another distinctly American “revolution.” This was a revolution in culture and socialization, the idea that people from all over the world who came to America seeking economic opportunity for themselves and their children also contributed to the development of a new national culture — an American culture. We call this idea the “melting pot.”
We’d see that melting pot portrayed in many ways. It was in the typical World War II movie bomber crew consisting of a farmer from the South or Midwest, an Irishman or Italian from New York or New Jersey, a Polish factory worker and sometimes even a Jew. It was in the pizza parlors and Chinese restaurants that would appear ubiquitously first in cities and eventually even in small towns and hamlets around the country. The melting pot simmered with multiple ethnic heritages, religions and nationalities, we would proudly say, and was richly layered with sound and history and flavor.
But often, it did not have a lot of color, even though much of American music has its roots in African rhythms, spirituals and Delta blues, and even though much of what we think of as Southern or American cooking, as culinary historian Michael Twitty describes in his book, “The Cooking Gene,” is derived from slave cooking. Moreover, “melting” the races together in the institution of marriage was not, for much of our history, part of the metaphor.
Our country’s history with race is way too complex to parse in this space. Suffice it to say it originated in the slave trade that the British and other Europeans introduced to their American colonies as a way to cultivate the rugged territory and extract its natural resources. It allowed the British colonists to manage huge plantations and produce abundant crops of tobacco, cotton and other agricultural products cheaply to send to the north to produce manufactured goods and to trade with England.
At the core of the slave economy was one idea that slavery’s proponents believed was inalienable: that black people are inferior to white people. That belief, that credo, provided the intellectual cover that enabled white people guiltlessly to pay slave traders to capture Africans, ship them like cargo across the sea, sell like property the ones who survived the inhuman transit without any regard to preserving family structures, and engage in physical violence, depravation, and psychological and legal suppression to keep them in a perpetual state of subjugation and slavery. To many white people, even those who did not employ slaves, the inferiority of blacks was an immutable law of nature, an idea that survived even the end of slavery, and upon it a nation was built.
So the notion that a person descended from those African slaves is the first person in history born in America to join the British ruling family with their blessing is revolutionary. King George never would have seen it coming. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson never would have seen it coming. And for that matter, neither would have Abraham Lincoln. (The scandalous tale of King Edward VIII abdicating the throne so he could marry Baltimore’s own Wallis Warfield Simpson is now fairly well known, thanks to Netflix’s series “The Crown,” but she was never a welcome addition to the family.)
The new duchess represents the whole enchilada of the various American revolutions. Of multiracial heritage, she is the embodiment of the melting pot. Descended from slaves, her lineage has overcome the economic system on which the Brits established their colonial empire in America. Of common American stock, she is the antithesis of the British system of peerage under which one’s standing in society depends on birth rather than achievement. Educated, accomplished and independently successful, she belies the premise of racial inferiority upon which slavery was perched.
No, our forefathers may not have foreseen someone like Meghan Markle as the kind of person who would someday reconnect the United States with their British roots by gaining a place in the royal family. But she is the perfect one to do it now.
Syl Sobel is an attorney and the author of children's books on U.S. history and government, including "Presidential Elections & Other Cool Facts" and "The U.S. Constitution and You." His website is www.sylsobel.com.