Margaret Thatcher was born one. So were predecessor Prime Ministers Benjamin Disraeli and William E. Gladstone. Diana, the Princess of Wales, too. Also William Pitt, who presided over the British victory in the French and Indian War and lent his name to Pittsburgh. And, according to some university authorities four decades ago, me as well. We were all born commoners.
But — despite what newspapers, websites and television stations on both sides of the Atlantic have reported with wonder and wild-eyed delight — Meghan Markle, the actor who is to marry Prince Harry, is not a commoner. She’s an American, and for generations it has been a national tradition and a source of national pride that no American is a commoner. It is even in the Constitution, not once but twice.
This is more than a semantic distinction. “Commoner” is a term of legal standing in the United Kingdom, along with “peer” (those titled as duke, marquess, earl, viscount and baron). It is not too much to say that the entire premise of the United States — honored even in eras like the Gilded Age and our own time when there are great disparities of wealth in the country — is that titles of nobility are, in a word, un-American. The country was founded in an 18th-century burst of democracy, when fealty to kings and other royals was out of fashion in Enlightenment circles — and when Colonials like those in the future United States recoiled from the notion of hereditary titles and from deference to royalty.
Some historians have argued that the American Revolution and the country that grew out of it were created in large measure by plutocrats and by an early landed gentry. True enough. But even the wealthy among the rebels were fueled by resentment toward the English throne and the nobles who held the commanding heights, politically and economically, in Great Britain.
So strong was this contempt of the entitled with titles that there was virtually no debate on the ban in the Constitutional Convention over these distinctions. Indeed, the concept accounts for a mere seven lines in James Madison’s authoritative, voluminous notes on the debates in the landmark 1787 proceedings.
Alexander Hamilton, writing in the Federalist Paper 84, acknowledged the strong consensus on the issue when he wrote: “Nothing need be said to illustrate the importance of the prohibition of titles of nobility. This may truly be denominated the cornerstone of republican government; for so long as they are excluded, there can never be serious danger that the government will be any other than that of the people.”
As a result, Article I, Section 9, Clause 8 of the Constitution begins this way: “No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States.” The notion is reprised later in the Constitution, when Article I, Section 10, Clause 1 asserts: “No State shall ... grant any Title of Nobility.”
That conformed to the convictions of the activists and theorists of the founding generation of Americans. “Dignities and high sounding names have different effects on different beholders,” wrote fiery Tom Paine, an intellectual warrior against privilege and tyranny. “The lustre of the Star and the title of My Lord over-awe the superstitious vulgar and forbid them to inquire into the character of the possessor.”
Markle’s profile as a woman who is not a commoner is a matter of clear, indisputable logic: Because the country banned any ranks of privilege, there are no commoners in the United States, and because Markle is an American, she cannot be described as a commoner. “The new royal fiancee is still a ‘commoner’ in the etiquette of the royal family,” said Jonathan Steinberg, an American historian who taught at Cambridge University for decades before returning to teach at the University of Pennsylvania. “Since there are no ‘titles of nobility’ in the USA, she’s just a ‘citizen’ here.”
Even in Great Britain, the notion that some people are commoners is in eclipse.
Defying the advice of Thomas Jefferson, who argued that Americans seeking an education in England would learn only “drinking, horse racing and boxing,” I nonetheless accepted a graduate scholarship at Cambridge in the autumn of 1976. There I was immediately categorized as a commoner student, though the term amused me more than it antagonized me.
Cambridge eliminated these distinctions in the early 1980s and, as a result, all matriculants now enter at the same social and academic level, referred to simply as students. “No one, in my hearing, has used the term ‘commoner’ in Oxbridge since about 1979,” said the historian Lawrence Goldman, who has held positions at Cambridge and Oxford and later served as the editor of the Dictionary of National Biography.
Indeed, the word “commoner” has, in certain contexts, become a term of endearment rather than opprobrium on both sides of the Atlantic.
Both Gladstone, who served as a Liberal Party prime minister for a dozen years in the late 19th century, and William Jennings Bryan, the American populist leader and three-time Democratic presidential nominee of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, were known as “the Great Commoner.” Queen Victoria never offered a peerage to Gladstone, who, despite his roots in Britain’s wealthy mercantile class, almost certainly would not have accepted it. Though he prevailed upon Victoria to ennoble Lionel Rothschild, the first Jewish MP, Gladstone in his late years advocated abolishing the House of Lords.
His great rival, Disraeli, was perhaps the strongest exemplar of the commoner. With Jewish roots and without a university degree, title or lands, he nonetheless climbed what he described as the “greasy pole” of British politics to become prime minister and a special favorite of Victoria, whom he favored by delivering her the title Empress of India in 1877.
Despite the tumult over titles, many Britons are delighted with the prince’s choice of a fiancee who has been divorced and is from a mixed ethnic background.
“They have taken Markle to the national bosom and no one cares about her background,” said Goldman, the historian. “Rather, we see it as an indication of how far and fast the nation has changed so that a prince can marry someone from her mixed background and everyone seems entirely relaxed and happy for them. The royal family is reinventing itself successfully precisely because the next generation are marrying ordinary people for the very best of reasons — love — not blue bloods for the very worst of reasons: dynastic considerations.”
One more thing: Kate Middleton was a commoner. She may someday become queen of England.