01/21/2011 11:48 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Why 1776 Hasn't Dimmed America's Enthusiasm for the Royals

Who knew Kate Middleton embodied the Midwestern values of hard work, patience and common sense? Or that she's a role model in the land of upward mobility? That's the message from Grand Rapids, Michigan, where an exhibition celebrating the life of Prince William's mother Diana has attracted thousands from across the Great Plain states. The engagement of Prince William and Kate Middleton was announced days after the exhibition opened, prompting even more visitors to the Grand Rapids Art Museum. What better place to explore America's continuing fascination with royalty, and the appeal of William and Kate, than in a city which hadn't even been settled back in 1776?

Barb Bierens and Susan Mackett proved most instructive on both counts. I found them watching video of the flowers piling up on the streets of London in the days after Diana's death. As children, they saw the Queen's coronation on TV and found royalty to be cold, austere and remote. The only appeal was a distant historical connection to the old country. But there was nothing approachable or engaging about that version of royalty. Everything changed with Diana -- here was a magnetic royal whose movie-star good looks and headline-making philanthropy appealed to the American sensibility. Barb and Susan see the same potential in William and Kate -- youth, modernity, a sense of public duty and more than a touch of Diana's glamor. In a land where the rich and the privileged very publicly give back, Barb and Susan are already watching closely to find out which charity Kate will choose to champion.

The story of Kate Middleton's rise from the ranks of solidly middle class Britain to Queen-in-waiting also appeals to this meritocratic society. Alright, so the royals are that most un-American of institutions, a hereditary, even feudal monarchy. But actually being able to wear a real tiara has box office appeal in the nation which bequeathed the Disney Princesses to an unsuspecting world. Amanda Larsen, a young woman in Grand Rapids, found that Kate spoke very strongly to the American Dream -- of moving on and up, and being whatever you want to be, even a princess.

I met four generations of the Hedeman family on their way into the exhibition -- Meredith, of generation three, told me she made the pilgrimage in part because she's hoping that Diana's son will be protected in a way his mother wasn't. Meredith and many others in Grand Rapids showed a touching concern for the fate of William and Kate -- a hope that lessons have been learned from the failure of Charles and Diana's marriage, and Diana's untimely death. There was no cynicism here -- perhaps not having to contribute to the upkeep of the royals helps. America's rebellion against rule by the monarch over the water has liberated the former subjects -- I found a more clear-eyed, realistic and thoughtful assessment of the royals here than I'd expect in the UK. Royal advisers in their ancient Palaces could do worse than listen to the plain speaking Midwesterners, thousands of miles away.

Click here to see Laura Trevelyan's report for BBC AMERICA's Royal Special, Modern Monarchy: Here & There.