The Aristocracy

At its founding our nation struggled with the question of whether or not an aristocracy was a good thing. Thomas Jefferson preferred a “natural aristocracy” in which the best and brightest would rise to the top of government and take control of the reins of state. Thus he founded the University Virginia toward that end. It was generally recognized that some sort of aristocracy was a good thing, a large part of the glue that would hold the republic together and give it some coherence. The problem is that the Colonists had a bad taste in their mouths from their recent experience with the English aristocracy, especially the King and his court. How to find a balance? In an attempt to instill into our republic something like the English House of Lords the Continental Congress settled on the notion of Senators elected by the various state legislatures and holding office for six years, rather than the mere two years for the members of the House of Representatives elected by “the people.”

The Senators would not be “to the manor born” as in England, but would be the wealthiest men in the nation — which assumed that the best among us would be those who had great wealth. This was a Calvinist notion, of course, which insisted that wealth was a sign of God’s grace and which gave rise to the “Protestant work ethic” that made capitalism such a successful part of the American enterprise. It totally conflicted with Balzac’s later warning: “behind every great fortune is a crime.”

I have always shared the distrust of the notion of an aristocracy and have been proud of the fact that this nation did not go that route — though I have questioned whether our compromise position really provided the balance the English found in their House of Lords, given the pithy truth buried in Balzac’s comment above. The question is whether or not a republic would benefit from a landed gentry, a  group of powerful men and women who are devoted to the notion of “civic duty” and “virtue” as it came to be known in the Age of Enlightenment. Edward Gibbon, for one, thought that an aristocracy were the “intrepid and vigilant guardians,” against the abuse of power and as such a necessary part of any political body. During the American Civil War many Englishmen found their sympathies to lie with the Southern plantation owners, which the wealthy regarded as the closest thing to an aristocracy to be found in the United States. People like Lord Acton even went so far as to defend slavery and criticize the abolitionists  on political — not moral — grounds. He felt that slavery was necessary to the Southern economy and a major cog in the political machinations of the Southern aristocracy. Many other Englishmen sided with the South at that time simply because that was where the cotton came from that kept thousands of workers employed in the cotton mills of Western England. When Henry Adams went to England with his father during the Civil War he was dumbfounded by the lack of sympathy among the English for the Union cause and their view of Lincoln as a buffoon.

In any event, recent developments in the political scene in America necessitate a reconsideration of the entire question whether or not an aristocracy would have been a good thing in this country. We have elected a vulgar president who has surrounded himself with a host of narrow-minded and vulgar followers and the government is in the process of dismantling many of the checks and balances it has slowly put in place over the years to temper the greed and selfishness of the very wealthy. A House of Lords would never have let this happen. As noted, the Senate in this country is the closest thing we have to an elite group of men and women but they are professional politicians who, with rare exceptions, are busy feathering their nests and making sure that are on the right side of things when all hell breaks loose — which is only a matter of time. Perhaps we would have been a stronger nation, committed to a slower and more cautious pace, if we had an aristocratic group in one of the houses of government who could act as a restraint on the seemingly unfettered pursuit of wealth and power that is so prevalent today. They would certainly exert pressure to control a president who seems to be out of control and a danger to the polity.

“Old money” and a powerful group or men and women who are committed to the Enlightenment notion the common good and embrace a code of ethics that centers around the duties of virtuous citizens who care about their country and about future generations may be a bit of an exaggeration of what was in place in England, say,  during the Victorian Age and in this country, to an extent, during our founding. But it beats the reality we see around us today of small-mined men and women intent on lining their pockets and grabbing whatever they can while the grabbing is good and the hell with tomorrow.


10 thoughts on “The Aristocracy

  1. Hugh, very enlightening. I am reminded of Genghis Khan’s ruling approach where he promoted on merit and not on wealth or nepotism. While is reign flourished after his death, especially with Kublai Khan, the greed that wealth brings eventually would do in his empire.

    To me, Jefferson was right to want to create educated people, yet at the base of any power construct is the following truism – power corrupts. So, once the new elite reached power, they could become just as bad as an old elite. In our construct, this is the best reason for term limits. Keith

  2. A lot truth, I think, in what Balzac says. And what Keith has written — many people have gone to Washington, or to the head of a company, with the intent of reform, but they either fail quickly and miserably or are co-opted by the system. I’m of mixed views on the issue of an aristocracy vs. allowing anyone and everyone the chance to be elected to high office, or earn their way to position of authority.. This time we elected a stink bomb, vulgar, shallow, woefully uniformed or disinterested in how our government works.

    But a long-term view reminds us this format, despite yielding some similarly vulgar and highly corrupt presidents and candidates (Jackson, Harding, Huey Long among them), has produced some of our very best presidents. Men who were not of the power elite, the Ivy League or old-money establishment but who, once in office, quite quickly transcended the powers that be: Lincoln is the greatest example. Harry Truman is another. And, in his way, so is Teddy Roosevelt, who came from old money but never wanted to be part of the old-money regime, which saw the grubbing and speechifying of politics as beneath them. TR struck his own path, usually rebellious and always individual and loved talking about politics!

    This time around, we’ve gotten a Jackson-Long-Harding hybrid, though. And it is troubling.

  3. Good thoughts here, but as you note, it is rather a conundrum. And the term “devoted to the notion of “civic duty” and “virtue” ” is something we haven’t seen much of lately. And again, as you and Keith both point out, even those who start out devoted to virtue are likely to be corrupted. The answer? If there were one, a panacea, then wouldn’t there be world peace around the globe? Human nature, being what it is, we will never have a perfectly virtuous government. But still …. it does seem that we could do a lot better than what we have now, where the criteria seems to be rich, white, male, bigoted for any high-level position. Again, good post!

  4. ‘a vulgar president’ – I think you’ve coined a sadly appropriate phrase.
    I didn’t like the thought of too many Bushes and Clintons in power, and I suppose that is something of an aristocracy. Wish I had a looking glass for five years from now…

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