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America’s Aristocrats

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America’s Aristocrats

City Talk August 13, 2021
The Social Order

Michael Knox Beran is a lawyer, contributing editor of City Journal, and author of several books, including the recently published WASPs: The Splendors and Miseries of an American Aristocracy. Beran’s latest book examines the rise and decline of this distinctly American class through the lives of its iconic members, from Henry Adams and Franklin D. Roosevelt to George Santayana and John Jay Chapman. City Journal associate editor Daniel Kennelly recently spoke with Beran about the book and about the WASPs’ history and legacy.

In the preface of the book you write of the inadequacy of the term “WASP”—in particular the “Anglo-Saxon” and “Protestant” parts of that formula. What threads tie together the wide array of figures in this book, if not merely heredity or religion?

Louis Auchincloss hated the term WASP: a ridiculously imprecise way to describe the class to which he belonged—a class defined less by Protestantism or Anglo-Saxonism (whatever that is) than by ties of kinship and institutional pedigree. My working definition of an Auchincloss-style WASP (it covers most of the people in the book) is someone who is (a) connected to one or more of the following: Henry Adams, the Porcellian Club at Harvard, Skull and Bones at Yale, the Knickerbocker Club or the Colony Club in New York, the Somerset Club in Boston, the St. Grottlesex Schools or Seven Sisters Colleges; and (b) who is related by blood or marriage to a few dozen others persons affiliated with these figures or institutions and who summers on Fishers Island, Mount Desert Island, or in some similarly preppy place. I should add that after, say, 1970, the definition ceases to be airtight, as the WASPs’ institutional monopolies erode under the pressure of meritocracy.

The current age seems inclined to view WASPs as hypocrites if not villains—so what is there to be wistful about in their demise?

There was certainly hypocrisy, though not I think villainy, in the WASPs’ effort to create a patrician order in America while pretending to be adherents of equalitarian democracy. When George Kennan told Joe Alsop that the “trouble with this country is that we are a democracy and instead should be ruled by aristocrats,” Alsop said that he “was very nearly sick.” There are no aristocrats in America, Alsop argued, and he liked to quote a WASP personage who told him: “You must remember, darling, Mr. Adams’s titles-of-honor bill was wisely rejected by the first Congress.” Be that as it may, Alsop, like the rest of his class, benefited from a labyrinth of blood and privilege as intricate as any Old World patriciate.

No reason to regret the collapse of the WASPs’ Cosa Nostra-like insiderism, but what remains splendid about them is the way they reinvented themselves at their lowest ebb, during the Gilded Age. They found themselves overshadowed by the plutocrats and party bosses who were coming to dominate a country that the WASPs’ forebears had been accustomed to lead. At the same time, they were appalled by the narrowness of the nouveaux classes and their shallow idea of the good life. As much as Coleridge and Matthew Arnold, WASPs like Henry Adams believed that a microscopically specialized modernity was failing to develop (in Arnold’s words) “all sides of our humanity,” and was producing a civilization of “incomplete and mutilated men.”

WASPs solved the problem by, essentially, pretending to be latter-day Athenians or Renaissance figures, resisting specialization, and working at all kinds of things, with a patriotic idea of public service or civic conscience providing the larger framework. Henry Adams, Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Stimson, Learned Hand, Edmund Wilson, John Jay Chapman, Joe Alsop: all were, in their different ways, civic generalists who wanted to keep a broad-souled idea of success alive in a narrower age.

What remains of their legacy? Where do we see their influence in America today?

The civic humanism of the WASPs was closely tied to their faith in liberal arts education, which they saw as an unrivaled way to unlock human potential. They endowed professorial chairs and gave handsomely to schools and colleges, institutions that, in theory at least, carry on the old humane traditions of educating the soul.

But the animating vision of the WASPs is pretty much dead. The liberal arts survive today not because anyone really believes in the civic humanist culture that they once underwrote, still less because we have confidence in their ability to prepare the mind for the active work of life: the charade is kept up only because the more selective colleges look upon liberal education as you might the tarnished silver service your grandmother left you—a hoary heirloom you don’t really need but can’t bring yourself to put on eBay.

Who among the lives you sketch do you find most personally compelling?

Henry Adams and Franklin Roosevelt are perhaps the two dominant figures in the book. Adams was, I think, the largest intelligence among the WASPs, a man whose high intellectual culture unsuited him for the public career he sought as a young man. FDR was, in powers of practical calculation and skill in directing affairs, much the cleverest of the WASPs: he had very little intellectual culture.

As a public man, Roosevelt would commit himself to reforms that Adams himself had once championed. (In the 1870s, Adams and his brother Charles Francis Adams argued that a stronger federal government was necessary to counter the rise of private financial and industrial power—corporate “Caesarism,” as they called it.) But Adams lost his faith in progressive reform: the deepest problems of modern life were cultural, and as such less susceptible to political solutions. As he aged, he looked for inspiration not to progressive politics but to premodern cultures like the one that created Chartres, with a poetry that “penetrated and enriched the recesses of the whole being,” as R. P. Blackmur wrote in his study of Adams.

Adams and Roosevelt knew one another in Washington. Adams was by this time an old man, Roosevelt a rising public figure. When, over lunch in Lafayette Square, Roosevelt spoke of his political hopes, Adams disparaged them as so much futility. “Young man,” he said, “I have lived in this house many years and seen the occupants of that White House across the square come and go, and nothing you minor officials or the occupant of that house can do will affect the history of the world for long.”

What’s your favorite book on WASPs?

The Education of Henry Adams is the best book on the origins of the particular strand of WASP culture I describe in the book. The best book on its practical culmination doesn’t exist: The Education of Franklin Roosevelt never got written.

Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

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