President Barack Obama’s European visit this week marks the second time he will meet with Queen Elizabeth of England. Although the British monarch’s constitutional power is not equal to that of the American president’s, they meet equally as heads of state, powerful symbols that affect the cultural and political climate of their respective nations.
Despite the revolution by the American colonies in breaking from England over two centuries ago, the meeting of Obama and Elizabeth represents a strong continuity in Anglo-American relations, an alliance all the more strengthened by their personal contact, whether at state occasions or, as was true in a few situations, the development of personal relationships.
While the characters that compose a British Royal Family at any given point in time usually have a familiarity to the British people that came stretch for decades, from birth or marriage to death, by comparison American Presidents and First Ladies change frequently. Having just surpassed on May 13 the nearly 59 years and 96 day reign of George III and perhaps surpassing in 2016 the record length of almost 64 years set by Queen Victoria, Queen Elizabeth is the second-longest reigning monarch. It has led to the remarkable fact that the current monarch, as both a Princess and a Queen has met every American President since Harry Truman and every First Lady since Eleanor Roosevelt.
Although the Adamses, Monroes and Jefferson met England’s King George III and Queen Charlotte during their various diplomatic services, it was not until October 3, 1860 that an incumbent U.S. President met a member of the British Royal Family. That occurred when James Buchanan welcomed Albert Edward, the Prince of Wales as a guest at the White House for three nights. The unusual circumstance of the visit to Buchanan and his niece Harriet Lane, who served as his First Lady, was due to their being on especially close terms with Queen Victoria and her family, the President having served as the U.S. Ambassador to the Court of St. James. Although no photographs were taken of Edward and Buchanan, a painting was done to commemorate the Prince’s visit to the tomb of George Washington at Mount Vernon.
Nine years later, during a trans-Atlantic visit that was mostly spent throughout Canada, his younger teenage brother, Prince Arthur, the Duke of Connaught, made a brief White House visit to call on President Grant
The first incumbent President and First Lady to stay at Buckingham Palace took place on December 29, 1918 when Woodrow Wilson and Edith Wilson were guests there of King George V and Queen Mary. Although World War I and its devastation were fresh in everyone’s memory, the holiday season lent something of a festive nature to the visit.
A relationship between White House residents and British Royal Family members closer than most was that between Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and George VI and Queen Elizabeth (later more popularly known as the Queen Mother). It began in 1939, as war clouds gathered in Europe and the Royals made a visit not only to the White House but as personal guests of the Roosevelts at their private home Hyde Park, in the Hudson River Valley. There Eleanor Roosevelt famously served hot dogs to the couple. Once World War II broke out, the First Lady visited American and British troops in England and stayed as the guest of George and Elizabeth. There she met their young princess daughters, including the current Queen of England.
On August 2, 1945, not yet four months into his presidency, before his return to the United States after the Potsdam Conference with Soviet Premier Stalin British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, Harry Truman met King George on the U. S. S. Augustaoff Plymouth, England. He and Mrs. Truman entertained his daughter Elizabeth while she was still a Princess, and her husband Prince Philip in 1951, a year before George’s death and her assumption of the crown.
In 1957, Elizabeth was entertained for the first time as Queen by the Eisenhowers, during their visit to mark the 350th anniversary of the first permanent English settlement in America at Jamestown, Virginia. During a November 1954 visit to Washington, seemingly more as a tourist, Queen Mother Elizabeth joined Mamie Eisenhower around town, looking over everything from the many goods available at a drug store to the through the Smithsonian exhibit on First Ladies.
President John F. Kennedy and his wife Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy met the Queen and Prince Philip during their stop in London in early June of 1961, and were entertained at a Buckingham Palace dinner. Lyndon Johnson was the only U.S. President since Truman never to meet the Queen. However, he and Lady Bird Johnson held a special White House dinner and dance in 1965 for her sister and brother-in-law, Princess Margaret and Prince Snowden.
The Nixons met the Queen and Prince Philip during a 1970 visit to England and with their daughters Tricia and Julie and the latter’s husband, David Eisenhower, hosted White House dinners and parties for the future King, Prince Charles and his sister Princess Anne. To greater surprise, they honored the exiled former King Edward and his previously-divorced American wife Wallis Simpson, known as the Duke and Duchess of Windsor at a 1970 state dinner.
The Queen’s next official state visit to the U.S. was in 1976 to mark the American Bicentennial, during which a large state dinner was hosted in her honor by the President and Mrs. Gerald Ford. Betty Ford and Prince Philip, both excellent dancers, waltzed to great applause that July night.
Jimmy Carter met the Queen during a London trip and surprised the world media by kissing the Queen Mother on the lips – as he did with many famous he met during his presidency, from Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis to actress Bette Davis.
The Reagans had befriended Prince Charles several years before they entered the White House. Mrs. Reagan attended his 1981 wedding to Princess Diana, and the presidential couple became the first since the Wilsons to stay as overnight guests at Buckingham Palace, the President famously taking a horse ride with the Queen. In 1983, the Reagans also became the first presidential couple since the Franklin Roosevelts to host the royal couple as their personal guests in their private home, their rustic ranch in the Santa Barbara Mountains, in California. One of the more famous moments of a First Family-Royal Family interaction was the 1986 dinner for Prince Charles and Princess Diana where the latter got to dance with film actor John Travolta.
Although the Reagans and Bushes entertained Princess Diana, it was during her 1994 visit to the Clinton White House that the Princess of Wales struck up a personal friendship with Hillary Clinton, finding common ground in their desire to shield their children from the media. When Diana returned to Washington in 1997, she also slipped quietly into the White House to see her. Months later, Hillary Clinton was invited to attend the funeral of her friend.
The Queen of England again visited the U.S. on a state visit during the George H. Bush presidency in 1991 and again, during his son’s presidency in 2007. Prince Charles and his second wife Camilla Parker-Bowles made their first and only visit together to the White House.
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