More than 150 years after the American Revolution, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth of England made history when they set foot on American soil. As the first reigning English monarchs to visit the United States, they received a much warmer reception than the British forces of Paul Revere’s time. Amid much fanfare and eager anticipation on both sides of the Atlantic on the eve of World War II, the royal couple embarked on a brief but meaningful tour of the U.S. and Canada, which included a formal reception at the U.S. Capitol on June 9, 1939.
Mindful of the rare opportunity of hosting royalty, the House and the Senate made meticulous preparations for a reception rooted in etiquette and protocol. With only 45 minutes allotted for the ceremony, congressional leaders limited the invitation list to Members of the House and Senate, as well as a handful of journalists. Sol Bloom of New York, the acting chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, took the lead in preparing his colleagues for the historic event. Bloom instructed Representatives how to respond when presented to the King and Queen—“Your Majesty”—and offered advice on more complicated protocol such as the appropriateness of shaking hands with royalty. “It all depends on whether the King offers to,” he directed. “If he extends his hand, then it will be all right.”
On the morning of June 9th, the King and Queen traveled by car from the British Embassy in Washington, D.C., to the Capitol. Despite the oppressive heat and humidity, thousands of people lined the streets of the city hoping to catch a glimpse of the royal couple. House and Senate leaders, including two future Speakers of the House, Sam Rayburn and Joe Martin, escorted George VI and Elizabeth to the reception. Before entering the Capitol, they paused to acknowledge the enormous gathering outside the building (mainly composed of Members’ families and the press), and to pose for pictures. The presence of the Marine band and an honor guard added to the grandeur of the day.
Once inside the Rotunda, a well-rehearsed and formal reception transpired. Greeted by Speaker William Bankhead and Vice President John Nance Garner, the King and Queen stood atop a plush American-made carpet specifically crafted for the monarchs. Representatives and Senators formed receiving lines for introductions to the royal couple. Although the lines moved quickly—Members received strict instructions to engage George VI and Elizabeth only if “interrogated” by the royal guests—a few elected officials could not resist striking up a conversation with the famous visitors. Nat Patton of Texas abandoned formalities by greeting the King and Queen as “Cousin George” and “Cousin Elizabeth,” and telling the Queen, “You are a thousand times prettier than your pictures.” George Bender of Ohio also broke protocol when he congratulated the King on his “good judgment” in marrying Elizabeth. George VI, the subject of the book and corresponding movie, The King’s Speech, did not formally address Congress, but he did briefly speak with some Members. Queen Elizabeth impressed the onlookers with her charm and warm demeanor. During the reception she paid special attention to veterans, like William Jennings Miller of Connecticut who had been wounded in World War I. She also stopped Caroline O’Day of New York to inquire about the number of women in Congress. (At the time, five women served in Congress).
The royal visit to the United States garnered much media attention. The timing of the trip, along with the stop at the Capitol and meetings with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, suggests the British leaders wanted to highlight the strong ties between America and England. A few Members boycotted the reception, labeling the trip as a “propaganda” attempt to lure the U.S. into another war. Regardless of the political motivations behind the visit, the King and Queen made a lasting impression during their high-profile visit. Fifty-two years later, the royal couple’s daughter Elizabeth also made history when she became the first British monarch to address a Joint Meeting of Congress—once again evoking the famous cry: “The British are coming!”
Sources: Baltimore Sun, June 10, 1939; New York Times, June 10, 1939; Los Angeles Times, June 10, 1939; Christian Science Monitor, June 9, 1939; John W. Wheeler-Bennett, King George VI: His Life and Reign (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1958); Mark Logue and Peter Conradi, The King’s Speech: How One Man Saved the British Monarchy (New York: Sterling, 2010).Follow @USHouseHistory