Winston Churchill’s mother was an American. This is no insignificant fact. The maternal side of a man’s family is always important, in all cultures, but in Churchill’s case it played a prominent role in the beloved Prime Minister’s ceaseless quest to bring the United Kingdom and the United States closer together during a time in world history when national socialism and international socialism were ascendant and threatening the liberal order of the British Empire and the American republic.
Churchill’s American side also played an important role in the United Kingdom’s constitutional crisis of 1936, when King Edward VIII abdicated the throne in the name of love. And the apple of the king’s eye? An American woman who was wed to an American-born British business magnate. The intricate connection between British aristocracy and the upper crust of American commercial society deserves an essay of its own, but here at the Historiat we will focus our efforts on Churchill’s response to the constitutional crisis created by the king and his American woman.
The British constitution is unwritten and therefore sometimes the object of playful derision by Americans of a more nerdy bent, but the United Kingdom has one and it explicitly places the monarchy in the realm of ceremony rather than policy.
King Edward VIII’s short reign was in no way confrontational to the democratic order of the British constitution, either. Edward VIII’s politics included visiting a deindustrializing region in Wales and commenting that “something must be done,” publicly mocking Labor’s elected ministers (he called some of them “cranks”), and vocally opposing some of the British Empire’s foreign-policy decisions. All of this fell safely into the realm of “ceremonial,” but just barely.
Perhaps the most striking feature of Edward VIII’s vocal opposition to the elected government was that he only reigned for a single year: 1936. I can’t imagine the current monarch of Great Britain, for example, causing anywhere near the commotion that Edward VIII did (even though Elizabeth II is Edward’s niece).
So, where was the crisis? It was in the fact that Edward VIII, as King of Great Britain, wanted to marry a divorced woman whose two (not one, but two) ex-husbands were both alive. Since the Church of England was the official church of the empire, and it forbade marrying a divorcee who had living exes, King Edward VIII was galavanting all over the rule of law. Numerous members of parliament, mostly on the left, moved to attack the King. For his part, Edward VIII wished to marry the American socialite (her name is Wallis Simpson, by the way) and remain king. A furious debate raged over the constitutionality of the monarch’s actions.
From the beginning, Winston Churchill opposed the king’s attempts to marry the American woman. She was married (not yet divorced for the second time) and her first ex-husband was still alive. So behind closed doors Churchill urged Edward VIII to avoid a scandalous marriage, but publicly he very much lent his support to the king. Churchill was even shouted down in parliament when he attempted to give a speech imploring his colleagues to ease off the pressure gauge and give the king some time to make a decision under less duress. So perturbed were Churchill’s parliamentary colleagues, that his political career suffered until the advent of World War II.
The fact that Wallis Simpson was an American had absolutely nothing to do with the constitutional crisis of 1936. And the fact that Churchill’s mother was an American socialite had nothing to do with his public support for his king. Yet both women played an important role in shaping British history throughout the 20th century. It’s just one more reason, if I do say so myself, that the United Kingdom should apply to become the 51st state of the union.