America’s Late Ruling Class

Lisha Riabinina/New York, NY

The following essay originally appeared in print in Palladium 04. To receive original content in future print editions, subscribe here.

Every society is ruled by its elites. There are always some groups who actually hold the levers of power, as opposed to the majority, who for better or worse are along for the ride, regardless of voting and taxes. 

But what makes an elite? Typically they are those at the apex of the social structure. Often, they or their predecessors were in on the formation of the current regime of society, and they are themselves steeped in the animating philosophy or religion of that regime. While their power may stem from many sources, their authority comes from their guarding that faith, and their legitimacy depends upon their observance of it. They must continually be willing to prove this through self-sacrifice—of leisure, of effort, and if necessary, of life—for that faith and for their fellow society-members who are lower down the spectrum. From this comes both their own self-confidence and the respect, honor, and obedience of their followers and subjects. 

Decline comes when they lose belief in their own legitimacy, or become wholly self-seeking, or both. Their sense of responsibility may turn over time into one of mere entitlement. This in turn leads to the disaffection of those beneath them, their withdrawal from public service into private luxury, and then to their gradual or violent replacement, wholly or partially, by a new and more energetic set. Of course, if they manage to prevent this overthrow without returning to their natural duties as a ruling class, their society as a whole will fall apart or transform into something radically different—whether through internal convulsion or invasion from outside.

But we Americans love to pretend that we are an egalitarian society. Even so, we speak of things having or not having “class,” by which we mean style. In any case, our insistence on this egalitarian unreality has had the effect of veiling the reality of power in American society. If there is no ideologically legitimate place for power, it doesn’t disappear; it just hides in the shadows. As with every other culture that has ever existed, we too have the rulers and the ruled. But neither has been static in the years since our founding.

Our first elites in the United States of America were the founders of our particular society: those who brought us political independence from Britain. Often, they had been members of the colonial elites, themselves based upon the descendants of the earliest settlers of each colony, combined with wealthier or brighter newcomers. The unique foundation of each of the Thirteen Colonies ensured that rulers and ruled alike would be quite varied ethnically and religiously. 

In America’s early period, especially before the revolution, it is difficult to speak about a really “national” elite. Although a number of families did ultimately manage to found the federal regime and operate on the level of national politics, most of America’s upper class was highly localized. Elite families in New York and Pennsylvania would have different familial networks, clubs, religious affiliations, and mores. 

Rather than a national elite, this period saw close collaboration between a number of localized elites, predominantly from what had been the colonial upper classes. New York City’s upper crust dates back to the Dutch era, as the Holland Society, the Society of Daughters of Holland Dames, and the St. Nicholas Society continue to bear witness to. The “Old Philadelphians,” conversely, generally descend from colonial English, Welsh, and Dutch stock, and traditionally were centered around such places as Rittenhouse Square and the string of Northwestern suburbs called “the Main Line.” The Philadelphia Club, founded in 1834, is the oldest such organization in the country with a permanent clubhouse. In Boston—the self-proclaimed “hub of the universe”—Beacon Hill and the latterly-built Back Bay became the traditional haunts of the Boston Brahmins: Cabots, Lowells, Saltonstalls, and the like. These Brahmins later came to dominate the city after the cream of local high society departed for Halifax with the British in 1776. Similarly-distinct local upper classes grew up in every major American center.

These groups shared similar educations, marital ties, and analogous positions in their respective colonies and thus a mostly-shared vision of their place in the world. Ideologically speaking, the three things that united the colonial elites were a vague generic Protestantism, a general moral consensus on fundamental social taboos and mores, and before the revolution, a shared devotion to the image of the king—their protector against Catholic France and Spain. 

After the revolution, the last was replaced with a synthetic civil religion that idolized those who had accomplished the revolution and framed the constitution as heralds of “liberty.” This was the central dogma of the new national faith, which began to develop immediately following the victory over Britain. The cult of the American republic and its near-deified founders did not begin many generations after these events; in fact, those who built it often came from the same generation as the founders themselves and had lived through these events. The educational reformer Noah Webster set to work constructing a national program of schooling in American values and a new national history, in addition to writing the first-ever American English dictionary in order to enshrine a proper national linguistic idiom, distinct from the British one. 

Meanwhile, the writer and literary agent Parson Weems began the work of American hagiography with glowing biographies, which became standards for American children and the source of such stories as a young, immaculately honest George Washington confessing to killing a cherry tree. Webster joined the Connecticut elite through marriage and collaborated with federalist founders like Hamilton, while the outsider Weems found his work easily appropriated into the mythos which such families shared after 1776.

The civic religion was not a cynical construction of America’s newly independent ruling elites, but a phenomenon in which they enthusiastically believed. The new elite had proved its worthiness to its own satisfaction and that of its constituents by founding and staffing the new country’s structures: government, the military, elite educational institutions, learned societies, conservation efforts, and museums and other cultural and artistic foundations. As it did so, it became increasingly national in scope and nature.

But in the northern U.S., as Henry and Charles Adams would continually mourn in the latter half of the nineteenth century, a rising class of new men was coming up through banking and nascent industry to supplement and replace the old merchant and landowning elites. These, in turn, subjugated the southern agrarian leadership via the Civil War. 

Afterward, these predominantly northern “robber barons” not only grew rich, but also wished to become gentlemen. They remodeled the Ivy League and the top boarding schools into the images of Oxford, Cambridge, and the British public schools. Familiar modern traits of the Ivy League, such as the gathering of High Table dinners and neo-gothic architecture, date to this era of increased anglophilia—and to the deepening pockets of university donors, who could now fund those architectural improvements. 

The rising northern elite families even married some of their daughters to British and European nobility. So it was that Consuelo Vanderbilt married the Duke of Marlborough in 1895, and with her dowry saved his ancestral Blenheim Palace. Nine years later, a similar marriage to Daisy Leitner Howard, daughter of a wealthy Chicago retailer, rescued the ancestral Charlton Hall of the Earls of Suffolk. These transatlantic marriages sometimes had unfortunate results: when the French Marquis de Castellane married Jay Gould’s daughter, his infidelities, their subsequent divorce, and his attempts at annulment were a long-lived scandal that held up ecclesial courts and produced newspaper inches for years.

But these trans-Atlantic marital ties also reflected a new reality: the existence of a singular American elite. The predominantly Protestant and Anglo-Saxon upper classes were now truly national in character, with a shared mythos and institutions which united them across state and generational lines. These institutions became the standard by which upwardly-mobile people and families measured their own successes and lifestyles. 

Within black American communities, socially and legally isolated from large sections of American society, distinctive black middle- and upper classes arose in cities like Atlanta and Chicago. These communities created colleges like Hampton and Tuskegee, modeled on those established by WASP elites. Likewise, rising numbers of Catholic and Jewish immigrants put upward pressure on WASP institutions as they grew increasingly successful and attempted to enter colleges, country clubs, and other parts of American upper-class life. 

Aspirational elites from across American society attempted more or less to ape the social manners and local power of their WASP prototypes. Etiquette books such as those by Amy Vanderbilt and Emily Post became bestsellers, and upwardly mobile folk were counseled upon moving to a new locale to join the local Episcopal parish, country club, and historical society; wives were urged to join the junior league and garden club – and to send their children to dance the cotillion.

But from the early twentieth century onward, America’s national elite began to decline, first in terms of political influence, then of social prestige, and finally in sheer numbers. The decline of the WASP was a self-conscious phenomenon. It became a theme that has burgeoned into a cottage industry of sorts, creating such writers as Henry Adams, John P. Marquand, Louis Auchincloss, John Cheever, A.R. Gurney, Cleveland Amory, and Whit Stillman. 

What exactly happened? Henry Adams and his brothers Brooks and Charles Francis, Jr. each described the decline of “their” sort in competition with the “new men,” whose power came from banking and industry. The Adamses considered themselves to have been bred to public service, and to have maintained an aristocratic ideal. Their ancestors included both Presidents John Adams and John Quincy Adams. 

This lineage was no match—in Henry’s view, at least—for the energy of those who were replacing them, who themselves had only their aggrandizement at heart. The line of Henry’s nephew went on to embody the story of the upper-class writ large. Charles Francis III, the son of Henry’s less-prominent brother George, served in the cabinet as his uncles had done, under Herbert Hoover. Charles Francis IV served as a Naval officer in the Second World War, but made his name in business as an electronics industrialist, overseeing Raytheon’s growth as a military technology giant. Charles met success by defecting from the norms of the upper class and gaining prestige in the world of the “new men” his forefathers had viewed with suspicion. Rather than businessmen emulating the WASPs, it was the WASPs themselves who looked elsewhere. Charles’s own sons, Charles Francis V and Timothy, did not make names for themselves.

While individual members of the American upper class were defecting to the mores of the new men, their overall population likewise fell into a deepening crisis: each new generation was getting smaller. The trend became obvious so early on in the twentieth century that Theodore Roosevelt lambasted contraception as a driver of WASP decline. In a sharply worded letter to an Episcopalian minister, he declared: “To advocate artificially keeping families small, with its inevitable attendants of pre-natal infanticide, of abortion, with its pandering to self-indulgence, its shirking of duties, and its enervation of character, is quite as immoral as to advocate theft or prostitution, and is even more hurtful in its folly, from the standpoint of the ultimate welfare of the race and the nation.” 

While decrying it as a general evil, he was also aware of its particular danger for the WASP: “In New England at the present time the old native stock is diminishing—that is, there are actually fewer people of the Revolutionary stock left in New England today than there were fifty years ago—and this even eliminating all the emigration from New England.” But Roosevelt was fighting a losing battle, even in his own branch of the Roosevelt clan. He had six children; his son, Theodore III, had four; Theodores IV and V each had one.

What was the source of this class fatigue? One popular narrative, laid out in works like Richard Brookhiser’s The Way of the Wasp, attributes their decline to their embrace of progressive politics, an ideology that could only contradict and undermine the aristocratic ethos of the old upper class. But while WASP political mores certainly did change in the twentieth century, their class had already sustained nearly a century of challenge and competition with America’s rising business classes and upwardly-mobile immigrant populations. 

Perhaps a more searching question would be, what made their forebears think they had the right and the obligation to rule? Across Episcopalian, Calvinist, and Deist confessional lines, the predecessors of men like Henry Adams had believed, consciously or otherwise, that they owed their positions in society to God—however they conceived Him to be. But without institutional establishment or philosophical adaptations to modernity, this was an ill-defined and unstable belief. Over time, it decayed as tensions within the American upper-class ethos left it unable to articulate and define a coherent basis for its continued dominance. 

At the time that Roosevelt and Adams decried the decline of their caste, the historic Protestantism of the WASPs was torn between fundamentalist strains that could not appeal to American elites and modernist ones which held some appeal but ultimately seemed unable to compete with newer, nonreligious ideologies. Social Darwinism held strong sway over a period of several decades and had the immediate benefit of reassuring upper-class adherents of their place in the grand order of things. But it also conflicted with WASP religious commitments and social mores like noblesse oblige. In the end, Divine Right is hard to sustain if one does not believe in an effective Divine.

The Second World War and the massive cultural changes of the 1950s and ‘60s effectively dealt the death blow to American upper-class continuity. What had been the WASP institutions for training and inserting entrants into the rulership—the Ivy League, St. Grottlesex, and the Episcopal Church—remained extant and influential. But it was no longer WASPs they trained, but rather the children and grandchildren of the most successful and ambitious “new men,” some of whom had now married into WASP families. While such marriages could sustain some WASP bloodlines, they could not secure the ethos of their institutions. At the schools and universities, professional success gradually subsumed the idea of public service as the dominant ethos, while churches and social organizations could not rely on a numerically diminishing and philosophically exhausted WASP familial network to survive.

But the old elites did not vanish entirely. In hereditary societies and on a local level, they and their institutions remain. They still influence the social life of their cities and towns—or at the very least still maintain certain discreet institutions, offering outlets from debutante balls to English-style foxhunts. Golf, tennis, and yachting remain favorite pastimes. Even the Social Register and its local editions and versions still get published, despite having long lost the power to honor or terminate one’s place in respectable society.

The remnants of the American WASP upper class are, once again, local affairs. In Boston, the Somerset Club remains their particular preserve, now that Harvard no longer is. The Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company, founded in 1636, still boasts a single member of an old Bay State family on its Command Staff. The National Lancers also remain, but their current and most prominent former commanders have Italian surnames. There are still a few Brahmin names scattered among the Trustees of the Boston Athenaeum, however, as there are among those of the Museum of Fine Arts. Apart from such institutions, they are infrequently heard from—although there was recently a documentary on the remaining users of their unique dialect. The Boston Cotillion and the Winter Ball still present debutantes to what remains of Boston society.

The old families in New York have likewise retained a few social institutions. The Knickerbocker Club is still fairly exclusive. The New York Hussars’ Squadron A, on the other hand, is primarily a social club, and not nearly so exclusive; the Veteran Corps of Artillery is still military, but not aristocratic. The “Silk Stocking” regiment—the 7th New York militia—is long gone. Their headquarters, rebranded as the “Park Avenue Armoury,” is now an arts center, though it continues to shelter the Knickerbocker Greys; dating back to 1881, this unique cadet corps, now co-ed, consists of children from 6 to 16 years old. Still learning drill and discipline, they are now far from restricted to the children of the city’s elite. 

There are still a number of elite schools, but these boast few members of the city’s old patrician clans. Religiously, the Dutch Reformed Collegiate churches still function, as do a number of Episcopal churches once considered “society”—although it is now an image they stridently attempt to shed. New York’s Bishop Paul Moore, great-grandson of the “Night Before Christmas” author, did as much as anyone to push that denomination on its present course. Debutante balls and white affairs are still common during the season, but being a New York debutante does not have the cachet that it once did, unlike their counterparts in Boston.

Pennsylvania arguably fares better than its larger metropolitan counterparts. The First Troop Philadelphia City Cavalry, although maintaining the sort of ceremonial and social round enjoyed by the other such units, does have a number of serving members in the National Guard with some of the old families remaining within its ranks. Religiously, the WASPs of Pennsylvania tended to be Episcopalian and Quaker and had a strong relationship with such educational institutions as the University of Pennsylvania and Valley Forge Military Academy. Their athletic interests are shown by the number of fishing, barge, and hunt clubs they still maintain, while the Philadelphia Charity Ball is one of their major debutante venues.

The south features a few pockets of both black and white old-urban high society, as in Charleston, Savannah, Mobile, and New Orleans. The First Families of Virginia and Maryland maintain their historic homes to the best of their ability, and still hunt and fish mightily. Chicago, St. Louis, San Francisco, and even Los Angeles have their historic patrician sets as well.

But charm and nostalgia are no substitutes for elite position. However much such families might sustain the arts, conservation, and historical preservation, they no longer wield real power over their cities, counties, states, or country. Whit Stillman, himself from a well-established business family close to the old upper class and whose godfather was the renowned WASP sociologist E. Digby Baltzell, delivered an elegy to their fate in his 1990 film, Metropolitan. The character Charlie, a philosophical WASP heir, muses on the decline of their predecessors: 

Well, just look around. Take those of our fathers who grew up very well off. Maybe their careers started out well enough…but just as their contemporaries really began to accomplish things…they started to quit…on rising above office politics…or…or refusing to compete and risk open failure. Or not… -not doing the humdrum part of the job. Or only doing the humdrum part. Or gradually spending more and more time on something more interesting… um, conservation, or the arts…where even if they were total failures no one would know it.

Unkind as this description may sound, it is also unflinching. And it has the ring of truth. What began generations ago as a crisis of legitimacy to rule has ended as a question of mere purpose.  

In the meantime, although the WASP elite may have left us, the institutions they founded in government, religion, education, and private life have not. But those staffing them and guiding the destinies of the country come in the main from very different backgrounds and direct them towards very different ends.

In a sense, the end of the Cold War was the last hurrah for the institutions themselves. America’s upper classes felt the Soviet threat deeply enough that it could keep them running on auto-pilot. But with the end of the Soviet Union, no missions or purposes remained to animate the institutions. The American upper class was truly dead and those who controlled most of its institutions seem to have told the truth when they describe themselves only as “upper-middle class.” America still retains great concentrations of wealth, privilege, and prestige. But no successor class has ever managed to assert itself with the decisive authority and coordinating ability of the old American national elite.  

Creating an elite is about far more than formality in dress, following etiquette, and enjoying aristocratic pastimes, though our society could benefit from more of all of these. These are nothing more than the outward trappings and by-products. These trappings remained long after the families of America’s upper classes had lost the zeal, courage, and vital energy they had once exhibited in pursuing their transcendent purposes—as well as any deep belief in their own legitimacy. They endured as the motivating Christian faith of the early generations gave way to the American civil religion of the early nineteenth century and the ideological programs of the twentieth. They survived as the willingness to shed blood in combat and to serve within the American state disintegrated in the face of financial ambition and professional careerism. Only at the end did the jealously guarded mores of respectable marriage, family, and lifestyle finally fade away. 

If a true successor elite arises, its members will not do so by imitating the trappings or even the institutions of the WASPs. The era of the WASPs has ended, and the historical conditions that created and sustained them are no more. But certain of their traits provide guidance for what we might expect and aim for, as these traits are shared with elite classes of all times and places.

A true elite begins with dedication to some transcendent faith; not merely as a useful propaganda tool in governing, but as motivation to act collectively to create and rule a particular kind of society. This may be some movement to return to traditional expressions of faith as we now see among some younger people, or it may be some novel synthesis with the modern scientific cosmology, taken seriously into its philosophical and theological implications. But even if it is something else entirely, no coordinated movement can act at the sovereign level and become an elite without its own self-confident view of its own unique place in the cosmos.

All the trappings and institutions of an elite ultimately serve this transcendent motivation as its tools for action in the world. A second major trait of a true elite is a dynamic and instrumental approach to their institutions, with one foot out and the other foot in. To be an elite is to act in the world as an independent historical player with the collective power and ambition to not simply accept established institutions, but to change them. Our late American upper classes maintained a sense of stewardship over their institutions—from universities to the United States—because these were the vehicles by which they could act in the world. And when they need something different, a true elite creates and re-creates its institutions, rather than merely staffing them.

Third, any elite that will last necessarily has a generational outlook in its internal culture. It is not just a set of individuals, but almost a tribe. The obsession of the WASPs with familial ties and prestige embodied in the Social Register reflected an understanding that the networks of relationships that embodied their culture could only survive if they were properly handed down through the generations. Those in the position to act as elites today will only realize their potential if they embrace similar independence of thought and action, and similar commitments to functional honor and etiquette, and learn to pass them down. What begins as a personal regeneration must ultimately become one of a family, a class, and a civilization.

These will not be the only key traits of a successful future elite, but they are some of the biggest currently missing from America’s halls of power. If, as Bob Dylan assured us, “the order is rapidly fading,” it is up to those now living to start building a better one in its place—whatever form that may eventually take.

Charles A. Coulombe is a writer, columnist, and the author of many books, including Star-Spangled Crown and Puritan’s Empire. He divides his time between Los Angeles and Vienna.