Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Her Majesty Victoria: A Queen of Character

Per Scriptum E. Wesley - Mackinac Center Intern

Perhaps there is no finer example of the pomp of constitutional monarchy than Queen Victoria, but more than pomp, Queen Victoria's sense of duty, sympathy, and genuineness exemplified the heart of constitutional monarchy. At the time of her funeral on February 2, 1901, the entire Western world mimicked the order and beauty of the English empire, as the very name of the era implies. Although some colonial wars voiced the desire of independence among inhabitants who had long endured Europe's lust for imperial gain, English imperialism of the 19th century was softer and more tame than ever before. England didn't much interfere with the petty struggles in Europe, and as such ushered in an age of peace that had been unprecedented in English history. The Empire was dedicated to developing virtue in society, and this spirit was what rooted Victorian beauty in social stability. Victoria's immense character defined a culture and preserved the most peaceful of empires that the world had yet seen.


When she ascended the throne in 1837 at the age of 18, Victoria took her place as the embodiment of the kingdom under constitutional monarchy. Unlike the American experience, the British tradition of liberty has always centered on a king or queen. Liberty, whether inherently due to all citizens or bestowed as a special gift or exemption, comes down from God, through the blessing of the king, and finally disseminated throughout the kingdom. Far from being irrelevant in government, the monarch of England still held strong presuppositional weight to the actions of the government. Parliament existed on the foundation of English monarchy, not at the expense of it. As William Lecky wrote in his Historical and Political Essays: Queen Victoria as a Moral Force:

In India and the Colonies this is still more the case. It is not the British Parliament or the British Cabinet that there forms the centre of unity or excites genuine attachment. The Crown is the main link binding the different States to one another, and the pervading sentiment of a common loyalty unites them in one great and living whole.
The unity of the English empire is due to its unique sense of liberty. The farther one goes from England the greater the monarch's influence as the basis for commonality. Victoria exemplified this ideal with her warm yet starchy disposition that informed her every move. Her good sense, work ethic, tact, and sense of duty brought her success. Lecky claimed, "It was these qualities, combined with her unrivalled experience of affairs, and strengthened by long and constant intercourse with the foremost English statesmen of two generations, that made her what she undoubtedly was—a perfect model of a constitutional Sovereign." "Perfect" would be too strong a term, but "accomplished" would be an understatement.

With English political rank came the necessity to learn compromise without neglect of conviction. In this respect, Victoria often consented to the reforms of the Whigs and prime ministers of the time (like Prime Minister Gladstone) despite the fact that she often disagreed with them. The Empire flourished under the liberal direction. She even allowed Gladstone to provide for the disestablishment of the Irish Church from that of England. Yet, she was by no means a puppet ruler. She parted ways with Lord Palmerston over the Italian unity and was opposed to the overthrow of so many conservative rulers in the aftermath of the 1848 Continental revolutions. This love for the old courts held in balance with her allowance for the liberal reforms was the fulfillment of her ideal as an English constitutional monarch, and the key to understanding not only the political aspects of the Victorian Era but also the cultural development. Victorianism was the recasting of conservative ethic in the newer mold of classical liberalism.

The Queen brought peace to her empire, both internally and externally, with her constant attention to the sufferings of others and her sympathetic heart. The whole world loved her. Her reputation for being a great lover of children gave Victorian middle class life an example of an orderly yet loving home. She amended the English dispatch to America after the Trent Affair so as to defuse controversy by softening the language. She was always encouraging, and charmed even her strongest enemies such as Louis Napoleon and Bismarck. Lecky wrote, "She was never more in her place than in visiting some poor tenant on the morrow of a great bereavement, or uttering words of comfort by the sick bed of some humble dependant." Her sympathies transversed the globe as evidenced by her letter to Mary Lincoln after President Lincoln's death. Politics was not the driving motive of her service (after all, she didn't need votes to be queen); they were the out-flowing of her position as an English monarch and as a "Victorian" lady of virtue. After the death of Victoria's own husband Prince Albert in 1861, Victoria slipped into seclusion and was veiled from the public for over a decade. During this time she lost popularity. Later in life she returned to her people, and her golden and diamond jubilees firmly put her in the public eye. Against the advise of the Duke of Wellington, the now aged Victoria decided to visit politically unstable Ireland. She withheld nothing from the Irish people, and allowed fifty thousand children to meet her at one time in Phoenix Park. If the British Empire could achieve peace in Ireland, it would indeed be a peaceful empire.

An era ended with Victoria's death. Although Edward VII inherited the peaceful Empire, its glories would die with the advent of two world wars. Quoting Psalm 51, Lecky described Queen Victoria, "'Truth in the inmost parts' was indeed a prominent characteristic of the Queen, and she wrote nothing which was not in accordance with her true convictions." If any virtue embodied the Victorian Era, it was truth. The stability of the 19th century golden age of England stood as an anchor against the storms of the next century.

Sources:
Image of Victoria in her Coronation from Wikipedia
http://oll.libertyfund.org/?option=com_staticxt&staticfile=show.php%3Ftitle=2071&chapter=156322&layout=html&Itemid=27
http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/victoria_queen.shtml
http://www.biographyonline.net/royalty/queen-victoria.html
http://www.thamesweb.co.uk/windsor/windsorhistory/royalfunerals/qvicfuneral01.html

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