One of the small towns that borders on Lansing is celebrating Victorian Days this weekend. It’s been hot and sunny so all those Victorian clothes must have been rather oppressive for those participating, but it seems like everybody had a lot of fun donning Victorian garb, riding in horse-drawn carriages, reenacting Civil War battles and sitting down for tea.
As somebody brought up in England, I find it interesting that Grand Ledge, a fairly small community in America’s mid-West has been celebrating Victorian days for seventeen consecutive years “to honor the customs stemming from late 19th century America and England” (“Annual Grand Ledge festival honors Victorian customs,” by Scott Davis, Lansing State Journal, May 5th).
But it’s understandable when you know some history.
Victoria gave her name to an age. She was (and remains, though maybe not for much longer) the longest reigning monarch in British history, presiding over the British Empire for 64 years. (Queen Elizabeth II is already older than Victoria was when she died and has been queen for over 61 years.)
Victoria was the Queen-Empress, not only Queen of the United Kingdom, but also all of the colonies and dominions of the British Empire, roughly a quarter of the world’s land surface. The title of Empress of India was conferred on her in 1877, hence the term Queen-Empress.
She is a reminder of the fact that Britain was the world’s only superpower during the nineteenth century. The British Empire remained the world’s biggest military power right up until World War II, which is still in the memory of many people alive today.
After World War II, power passed from London to Washington; since then the United States has been the preeminent power.
It’s good to be reminded of this because there’s a sobering lesson here for Americans – could the United States one day be replaced at the top by another country, just as England was?
Even before Victoria died, there were signs that British supremacy was coming to an end. The country still maintained the greatest navy in the world right up until World War II, but it was starting to lag behind the US and Germany in industrial production and economic growth.
The US today is lagging behind China in production and is behind even more countries in terms of economic growth. At some point in the next few years, China is projected to overtake the United States as the #1 economic power. What will that mean for American leadership?
There is no guarantee the US will remain #1. There is also no guarantee that democracy will triumph over dictatorship, which is what China is. It’s also what Hitler’s Germany and Imperial Japan were 70 years ago – at a time when the outcome of the war was very much in question.
One final question to ponder as we remember the Victorian Age: what will they call our age? Will the age we’ve lived in be known as the American Age? Or will it be the Second Elizabethan Age, named after a descendant of Victoria who, as Head of State of 16 countries and Head of the 54 nation Commonwealth, still plays a role in a quarter of the world’s countries?