About 20 minutes before noon, on Thursday, May 16, 1991, Members and Senators packed the House Chamber for a historic Joint Meeting of Congress. A small platform had been placed on the middle level of the rostrum, hidden from view, and a straight-backed chair a few feet over had been specially reserved. At the top of the rostrum, House Speaker Tom Foley of Washington and Vice President Dan Quayle, both dressed in simple navy-blue suits and white shirts, sat in front of the American Flag, everything and everyone framed by two veined columns of black marble.
At the rostrum’s microphone stood a bespectacled woman in a peach-colored hat.
Since 1837, House Rules had forbidden people from wearing hats on the floor—partly because the tall stovepipe style popular at the time prevented Members at the back of the chamber from seeing what was happening at the front. It had not been an easy or simple decision to ban head coverings: the nineteenth-century debate about the propriety of donning hats in government spaces had been bruising. But it wasn’t even a homegrown tradition. Congress had inherited the practice from Parliament, where British lawmakers insisted on wearing hats in order to declare their independence from kings and queens.
And yet in 1991, more than 150 years after Congress’s prohibition on hats, the House—likely unaware of the irony—made an exception to its hat rule for none other than the Queen of England herself, Elizabeth II, and her peach-colored hat.
It was rare for Congress to host foreign royalty: prior to 1991, only seven monarchs had ever addressed American lawmakers during a Joint Meeting. But it was just as rare—if not more so—for a hat to be seen on the House Floor.
It was—and remains—relatively common for foreign leaders visiting the United States to address a Joint Meeting of Congress. These speeches, especially in the years following World War II, have often celebrated America’s leading role in world affairs, and the relationship the foreign leader’s country shared with the United States. British Prime Ministers going back to 1941—including Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher—have addressed Joint Meetings, as have foreign presidents from every corner of the globe. The House Chamber has also hosted kings and queens from a handful of other nations. But Queen Elizabeth’s address before a Joint Meeting that mid-day in May marked the first time that Congress had ever heard directly from the British Crown.
The Queen, who ascended to the throne in 1952 following the death of her father King George, had visited the United States three times before her trip in 1991. In 1957 she embarked on her first whirlwind four-day state visit to America at the invitation of President Dwight D. Eisenhower and First Lady Mamie Eisenhower. The Queen returned to the United States in 1976 to help commemorate the American bicentennial, and attended a luncheon Congress held for her in Statuary Hall. During their remarks at the luncheon Speaker Carl Albert and Vice President Nelson A. Rockefeller celebrated the lasting bond between the U.S. and England. When it was her turn to speak, Queen Elizabeth reciprocated the admiration, acknowledging that the people of England “can declare without reserve: That America, our strong and trusted friend, holds a special place in British hearts and affections, and so it will ever be.” The Queen stepped on American soil again in 1983 for a West Coast tour arranged by President Ronald Reagan.
In 1991, at the behest of President George H.W. Bush, Congress landed a coveted spot on the Queen’s tightly-packed 13-day American excursion that featured numerous events in the Washington, DC, region. During her three days in the nation’s capital, the Queen toured George Washington’s Mount Vernon home along the Potomac River, and visited the Folger Library and Shakespeare Theater. Hoping to witness America’s pastime, she also took in a few innings of a baseball game between the Baltimore Orioles and Oakland Athletics.
In the build up to the Queen’s address on May 16, Congress laid out careful plans to accommodate certain royal protocols. “The queen is the queen,” Clerk of the House Donnald K. Anderson recalled, “and there was a particular attention to detail to make sure it was flawless.” In additional to the decision to temporarily lift the ban on hats in the chamber, Speaker Tom Foley, House Doorkeeper Jim Molloy, and Anderson worked with the British Embassy to ensure all went smoothly—including the decision of where the Queen’s husband, Prince Philip, would sit. Typically, the spouse of a foreign leader or dignitary sat in a reserved section of the gallery looking down onto the House Floor. But in 1991 royal etiquette required a different arrangement. Ultimately, the Prince was seated on the rostrum a few feet away in a straight-back chair.
A mishap during Bush’s welcoming ceremony for Elizabeth II at the White House also informed how the House prepared. After President Bush made his opening remarks, no one lowered the podium or provided a pedestal for the Queen who was nearly a foot shorter than the President. As a result, microphones blocked the view of the Queen’s face which led the press to jokingly describe the Queen as “the talking hat”—much to the embarrassment of the White House. Determined to not repeat that mistake at the Joint Meeting of Congress, Anderson added a riser on the rostrum. “We made particular diligence to see that there was a platform of the proper height that was there ready for her to stand on,” he later remembered.
When the Queen arrived at the House Chamber on May 16, everything was as scripted as possible. “Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second and His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh,” House Doorkeeper Jim Molloy bellowed at 11:40 a.m. Members and Senators had flocked to the center aisle to secure an up-close look at the royal couple, and the packed chamber erupted in delight and excitement as they walked to the rostrum. Per the crown’s tradition, Members largely refrained from reaching out for handshakes and instead gave the Queen and her entourage a standing ovation. “There is a magic about the Queen and everybody wanted to see her,” Anderson observed. As a House Officer, Anderson stood to the left of Speaker Foley on the rostrum, not far from the Queen and prince.
“I do hope you can see me today,” the Queen joked before beginning her remarks. Anderson remembered that the Queen “immediately established a rapport with the audience” and that the crowd leapt to its feet in response to her less than subtle dig at the Bush White House. Her remarks—which the Queen read from paper instead of a teleprompter, and which had been drafted by the British Embassy because modern British monarchs do not express independent policy opinions or political viewpoints—quickly developed a more serious tenor. She thanked the United States for its leadership in the Persian Gulf War and in previous armed conflicts and stressed the necessity of continued cooperation between the nations. As the Cold War struggle among superpowers wound down, the Queen warned against isolationism and discouraged any reliance on force to solve international problems. “Some people believe that power grows from the barrel of the gun. So it can, but history shows that it never grows well nor for very long,” she said. “Force in the end, is sterile. We have gone a better way; our societies rest on mutual agreement, on contract and on consensus.” During her 15-minute speech the Queen received several long applauses as well as a standing ovation when she concluded by saying, “May God Bless America.”
Not everyone was so enthused with the Queen’s presence that day, however. Since the 1960s, Northern Ireland had been the site of often violent conflict between supporters of a unified and independent Ireland, and those, including British policymakers and security forces, who wanted Northern Ireland to remain a part of Great Britain. Because of the ongoing struggle, Joseph Kennedy II of Massachusetts (the nephew of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy and Senator Edward Kennedy) and a small contingent of Irish-American Members boycotted the address. “Let us not get caught up in the pomp and circumstance associated with the Queen’s visit,” Representative Kennedy implored. “Let us not become willing anglophiles who have forgotten the wrongs associated with the British occupation of Northern Ireland.”
Similarly, Raymond McGrath of New York skipped the Joint Meeting as a form of protest and instead demonstrated against British policy in Northern Ireland in front of the Supreme Court. “My Irish bricklayer father used to say to me, ‘I wouldn’t be caught dead in the same room as the Queen of England,’ and he would roll over in his grave five times if I was alive in there.”
British policy in Ireland wasn’t the only point of contention. Another Congressman, Gus Savage of Illinois, also shunned the day’s ceremonies. Savage lobbied his colleagues in the Congressional Black Caucus to boycott the Queen’s address to object to Britain’s decision, like many countries, to remove economic sanctions against South Africa as its racist apartheid regime began a slow process of desegregation. Savage and the CBC had long called for the end of apartheid and wanted the country to desegregate immediately, rather than gradually.
After the Joint Meeting congressional leaders escorted the Queen to Statuary Hall for a celebratory luncheon. The majestic room was adorned with white chairs, green moire-covered tables and special programs to mark the historic occasion. Members of the press crowded the balcony to document the day. Queen Elizabeth and invited guests dined on spiced shrimp and vegetable cream soup. As Clerk of the House, Donn Anderson had the honor of holding the Queen’s chair as she sat down to enjoy the “elegant affair.” Speaker Foley toasted the Queen and referenced the connection between Statuary Hall, which previously served as the House Chamber, and the War of 1812 when the British attacked the Capitol. “I hope you will not consider it ungracious of me to point out that the burning began in this room,” he joked. The Speaker later presented the Queen with a crystal bowl illustrating scenes from the Capitol.
When the Queen left the nation’s capital, she traveled to Florida and Texas before ending her state visit with a private weekend in Kentucky to enjoy one of her favorite hobbies—horses.
Nevertheless, the Queen’s hatted presence lingered in and around Capitol Hill.
The Queen wasn’t the first person to wear a hat in the chamber in recent memory. In 1977, June Carter Cash wore a hat on the rostrum when her husband, musician Johnny Cash, recited a poem to celebrate the bicentennial of the American Flag. But the Queen’s speech marked something of a brief cultural shift. The House’s decision to allow hats in the chamber for the Joint Meeting, for instance, meant other women wore hats on the floor for the speech that day, as well.
In Washington, DC, where “most working women opt for a conservative, business-like garb . . . everyone, it seemed, wanted to get into the hat act,” a Canadian reporter covering the Joint Meeting wrote. According to one local millinery, “business has been great.”
Sources: Atlanta Constitution, 9 July 1976; Newsday, 17 May 1991; New York Times, 21 October 1957, 17 May 1991; Sun Times (Fort Lauderdale), 17 May 1991; The Record (Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario), 17 May 1991; USA Today, 14 May 1991; Washington Post, 17 May 1991; “Donnald K. Anderson Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives (23 April 2020); Congressional Record, House, 102nd Cong., 1st sess. (16 May 1991): 11235, 11238. Video of the Queen’s speech can be found on CSPAN’s archives, “Queen Elizabeth II Address to Congress,” 16 May 1991, https://www.c-span.org/video/?18018-1/queen-elizabeth-ii-address-congress.Follow @USHouseHistory