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Kings, pageants, and US: John Adams set the tone

Nations need dreams as well as dollars, royal coaches as well as production lines. Millions of Americans watched the British royal wedding and gave a little sigh. All those jingling spurs and cuirasses, the plumed Horse Guards and astonishing wedding dresses, the rejoicing crowds in a nation with the highest unemployment rate of recent times -- maybe the United States needs a little more glamour to help it get over the rough spots.

Did the thought cross John Adams's mind as he met King George III in the palace in London as the first envoy of the successful rebellion? The royal meeting was different from jogging back and forth between Braintree and Boston on his nag. But America had put royalty disdainfully behind it though feeling entitled, half enviously, to peep at the show over television when the British put on one of their unique cozy-imperial spectaculars.

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Many Americans turned from the royal wedding wondering how the British do it. The center of London became a gigantic block party. The United States has faint symbols of the past -- the black robes of Supreme Court judges (without wigs); the trumpets announcing state dinners at the White house; the White House itself , first occupied by Abigail Adams in 1800 and the oldest building in the federal city. Abigail found the "President's Palace" half finished and used the East Room to dry laundry. Having jumped into history without the Middle Ages, the United States has made a virtue of modernity and democratic simplicity. But royal pageantry still has its appeal.

John Adams had ceremonial problems in dealing with royalty. He was sent by Congress to London in 1785 to be the first minister to the Court of St. James's and with some awkwardness was presented to George III on June 1. The ceremony, however dramatic in the abstract, went off with simple dignity on both sides. Adams rejected diplomatic finery and court dress and set the tone which has come down to the present royal wedding where Nancy Reagan did not curtsy to the Queen Mother but shook her hand.

John Adams, short and plump, and known behind his back as "His Rotundity" returned to the US to find the problem of leftover royalty still bothering fellow Americans. He was one of the greatest men of the Revolution and had as his wife one of the outstanding women in the nation's history in strong-willed Abigail. But he was also vain, humorless, and with a bluntness that caused him problems. The question was, how to address the new President, George Washington. Involved in the point was what kind of an office should the presidency be: How far should it lean to royalty?

In this instance Adams favored something ornate. He had dealt with crowned heads and wanted the US president to be respected. In Holland he noted that top government officials were addressed as something that was translated as "His Highmightiness." He was elected vice- president and shocked senators in New York at the first Congress by referring to Washington's inaugural address as "His Most Gracious Speech." Later a Senate committee considered the matter, realizing that it was setting a precedent. It thought that the president should be addressed as "His Highness the President of the United States of America and the Protector of the Rights of the Same." Fortunately the House of Representatives refused to go along, according to historian Samuel Eliot Morison, and Washington's successors have remained plain "Mr. President."

While it seems unreal to most to retain the trappings of royalty in a modern democracy, the British example recalls a problem in the United States.

In the United States, 200 years after the Revolution, the American president is a combination of offices -- politician, head of the armed forces, head of state, and, to some, a kind of ecclesiastical symbol. Men may dislike the individual, but they venerate the office. There is incongruity, some feel, in the presidency where the title has been fixed, but the limit of power varies .

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