“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” So states the opening of the Declaration of Independence, though it would be nice to include the women, too. Which would seem to squelch any notion of aristocracy right from the start. And the Constitution: “No title of nobility shall be granted by the United States: and no person holding any office of profit or trust under them, shall, without the consent of the Congress, accept of any present, emolument, office, or title, of any kind whatever, from any king, prince, or foreign state” (Article 1, Section 9, Clause 8). Clearly, the newly established United States of America was a democratic nation that wanted no truck with titles of nobility or, by extension, with any class-based society ruled by an aristocracy. And we held the very concept of monarchy in contempt, as witnessed by the Declaration’s long litany of complaints against King George III, whose arbitrary and unjust actions prompted our fight for independence.
Yet Martha Washington, our first First Lady, in holding weekly receptions on Fridays for members of Congress, visiting dignitaries, and people of the community (meaning New York and then Philadelphia, for Washington D.C. had not yet been invented), presided with dignity and formality to the point of being criticized by some as imitating the rituals and fashions of the abhorred British crown. Worse still, perhaps, she was addressed by many as “Lady Washington,” and by some as “Our Lady Presidentress.” Later prints and paintings, showing her at these events, present her in dazzling gowns and with an air of majesty worthy of Marie Antoinette before the Revolution. All of which does smack just a little of monarchy, though in fairness to Martha it should be remembered that she did this out of a feeling of duty, a feeling that she owed it to her husband. She really preferred the quiet domestic life of Mount Vernon, from which she and George had been plucked by his election, and to which they would return at the end of his second term. As First Lady, she would tell her niece, she felt “more like a state prisoner than anything else.” Which, come to think of it, sounds rather like the British royals today.
|Martha Washington, on the raised platform, presiding over the President's reception. |
Or is this Versailles? An 1861 print.
The partisan politics of the 1790s pitted the Federalists, led by John Adams and Alexander Hamilton, against the Democratic-Republicans (forerunners of the Democratic Party of today), led by Thomas Jefferson. The Federalists, who were backed by bankers and businessmen and wanted a strong national government, at first prevailed. Far from embracing the great masses of the citizenry, they were leery of them, and when the French Revolution sent riotous mobs parading through the streets – sometimes with the heads of victims impaled on spikes – they recoiled in horror. So it was logical enough that they wanted better relations with Great Britain, the enemy of revolutionary France, even if we had fought a long war to wrest our independence from its king. Right from the start, then, there were elements of U.S. society that looked on aristocratic, class-ridden Britain with something less than hostility or scorn.
Meanwhile the Democratic-Republicans opposed the Federalists in every way, saw yeoman farmers, not merchants and bankers, as the ideal citizens of a republic, supported the new French republic before its excesses became evident, and accused the Federalists, when they signed a treaty with Britain, of selling out republican values to British monarchy. In this early brouhaha – a very partisan brouhaha, probably even surpassing today’s brouhaha in venom -- the Federalists were sometimes called aristocrats or monocrats or Tories (a term also designating the colonists loyal to Britain in the Revolution), while they labeled their opponents not just Republicans or Whigs, but also Jacobins, anarchists, disorganizers, and worse. Which does suggest that, from the very beginning, this new democracy had mixed feelings about aristocracy vs. democracy, the few vs. the many.
But wasn’t aristocracy – a landed aristocracy – implanted in the country long since, especially in and around New York City and in the Hudson Valley? Back in the seventeenth century the Dutch West India Company, the founder of New Amsterdam (later New York City), granted title to large tracts of land to landholders called patroons, so as to encourage colonization and settlement. The patroons enjoyed many rights and privileges, such as appointing local officials, creating civil and criminal courts, and holding land in perpetuity. So if their tenant farmers had a gripe against their manorial landlord and went to court, the court was a tool of the patroon, who was like a little king in his own domain. If the patroons weren’t a new class of landed aristocracy, who was? And when the English took over from the Dutch in 1664, they continued the patroon system and themselves granted large tracts of land, called manors.
|Kiliaen van Rensselaer. Not a yeoman farmer.|
The largest of the patroonships was Rensselaerswyck, granted to the Dutch merchant Kiliaen van Rensselaer in 1630, comprising most of Albany and Rensselaer counties and parts of two others – a huge estate the was kept intact by his descendants until the death of the last patroon, Stephen Rensselaer III, in 1839. Following Stephen’s death the estate’s 3,000 tenant farmers, resenting their subjection to a landlord living in semi-feudal splendor, launched an anti-rent rebellion against Stephen’s heirs that soon became a statewide revolt against the whole system of leasehold tenure. When the anti-renters got support from the legislature and courts, the various Rensselaer heirs sold out their interests in the late 1840s and this particular patroonship was ended once and for all.
Van Cortlandt Park in the northwest corner of the Bronx is named for Stephanus Van Cortlandt, another patroon and the first native-born mayor of New York, who in 1697 received from King William III of England the grant of an 86,000-acre estate in Westchester County. Stephanus’s family did all right for themselves: one sister married a Van Rensselaer, and another married Frederick Phillipse, whose vast manorial estate stretched from the Bronx north to the Croton River in Westchester County. Preserved in Van Cortlandt Park today is the Van Cortlandt House (now a museum), a handsome three-story Georgian house built for a Van Cortlandt descendant in 1748 – the oldest building in the Bronx. The Van Cortlandt family occupied the park now named for them until they sold it to the city in 1888.
|The Van Cortlandt House. Not a palace, but they lived well.|
I could go on, citing other patroons who received grants of land in New York State, but it should be obvious by now that there existed a landed aristocracy that intermarried and had great influence in public affairs, serving as alderman or mayor or governor while always presiding as lord of the manor. In 1775, on the very eve of the Revolution, the British authorities redefined “patroonship” as “estate” and took away the patroons’ jurisdictional privileges, an act that so alienated the ethnic Dutch population that they sided with the independence movement when war broke out. But after the war the newly formed New York State government refused to overturn the law.
And in New York City? Obviously, no huge estates there with tenant farmers paying rent – or refusing to do so – to any lords of the manor; there just wasn’t room. But there was even so what could be called an aristocracy, the oldest, quietest, and most exclusive of whom were the Old Knickerbockers, descendants of the old Dutch families of the region, with names like Van Rensselaer, Stuyvesant, Bleecker, Van Cortlandt, and Roosevelt. (“Knickerbockers” also designates the baggy knee trousers, or knickers, that the early Dutch male settlers wore.) The Knickerbockers impressed others as being refined but clannish, quietly proud of the gilt-framed portraits of ancestors on their walls, but not too bright.
|An old print showing New Amsterdam, circa 1642. The Dutchman in knickerbockers is|
clearly in charge. But who's doing all the work?
Not quite on a par with the Old Knickerbockers were descendants of early English settlers who had amassed fortunes here, and also, in smaller numbers, descendants of Huguenots, French Protestants who had fled persecution in Catholic France and come here long before the Revolution. These families intermarried and often provided mayors and governors, since public service was considered an obligation of the elite, though by no means a career.
All the old families guarded their position quietly but determinedly, and looked with scorn on any pushy New Money folks who aspired to join their ranks. So in New York City, as in the state and the nation, if all citizens were created equal, some were more equal than others.
But change was coming. The election of 1828 brought Andrew Jackson to the White House, the first president born west of the Appalachians. So ended the long reign of the Virginia Dynasty and the Adamses, father and son, who until then had monopolized the White House. To celebrate Old Hickory’s election, well-wishers from the West poured into the capital and behaved boisterously and drunkenly at the first presidential reception: a shocking display of the boorish manners that would soon so offend the English visitor Mrs. Trollope, and that exasperated even Jackson himself, who is said to have escaped through a window. The crowd left only when bowls of liquor and punch were placed on the front lawn of the White House. The “Peepul” had triumphed, albeit at the cost of a demolished reception hall and several thousand dollars in broken china. Aristocracy, if such there was, was now on the defensive.
|Fernando Wood, trying to look a bit Napoleonic. |
His enemies called him the King of Dock Rats.
In burgeoning New York City the situation was aggravated by the heavy influx of Irish fleeing famine in Ireland in the late 1840s. They were turbulent, poor, and Roman Catholic, traits not likely to endear them to the Wasp majority, least of all the self-styled elite who up till then had governed the city. The election of Fernando (“Fernandy”) Wood as mayor in 1854 marked the advent of the full-time professional politician, and the Tammany machine was already organizing the Irish as a massive block of voters (“Vote early and often”) who could swing an election. The so-called New York aristocracy withdrew in disgust from politics, abandoning it to Tammany and its grubby cohorts, except for occasional reform movements like the one that ousted Boss Tweed and his cronies. But those movements rarely lasted. As the Tammany spokesman George Washington Plunkitt observed, “Reformers are like morning glories, they wilt by noon. But Tammany’s a fine old oak.”
Even as Tammany took over the political scene, another aristocracy was appearing, one based on money. Entrepreneurs like John Jacob Astor, the fur king, and Cornelius Vanderbilt, the railroad magnate, amassed fortunes that let their descendants distance themselves from the grubby details of business and fortune-making, and aspire to social preeminence. They were the real snobs of the day, being newly arrived, with the Astors looking down on the Vanderbilts, and the Vanderbilts looking down on others, while the Old Knickerbockers quietly looked down on them all. Taking a hint from Oliver Wendell Holmes’s line, “Build thee more stately mansions,” they did just that, rearing up palaces like the Vanderbilts’ French chateau-style residences on Fifth Avenue, Jay Gould’s Gothic castle at Lyndhurst on the Hudson (acquired by him, but built by a predecessor), and a slew of palatial residences at Newport, Rhode Island. The old elite had been tasteful and discreet, but the parvenus now coming to the fore lived more blatantly: if you had money, you wanted the world to know it, and an imposing residence was a fine way to display your millions.
|Lyndhurst, Jay Gould's Gothic castle and family retreat. To ward off enemies, the Mephistopheles|
of Wall Street had armed guards posted around the clock.
Meanwhile Americans of every stripe and hue nourished an abiding fascination with the very aristocracy and monarchy of Europe that they had rejected so emphatically from the outset. When the young Prince of Wales, the future Edward VII of England, came to the U.S. in 1860, he was greeted and feted with enthusiasm. In New York there was a grand ball at the Academy of Music that everyone who was anyone managed to attend, the jam so great that the floor collapsed beneath them, though with no injury to anyone. When Grand Duke Alexis of Russia, the fourth son of Czar Alexander II, came for an extensive tour in 1871, the city honored him with balls and receptions and a torchlight parade of the firemen, before he visited other cities and, as a climax of his American tour, hunted buffalo in Nebraska in the company of Buffalo Bill Cody and several hundred Sioux recruited for the occasion. Clearly, Americans were in love with not just aristocracy but monarchy, as long as they weren’t the ones being ruled.
|The Grand Duke kills a buffalo with a pistol shot. But soon, thanks to overhunting, there |
wouldn't be any buffalo to hunt.
|Jennie Jerome. Lord Randolph had good taste.|
Could Americans aspire even further? Could they become members of European aristocracies? The answer wasn’t long in coming. Jenny Jerome, the daughter of Wall Street speculator Leonard Jerome, married Lord Randolph Churchill in 1874, the result being Winston Churchill. Widowed, she would catch the roving eye of the Prince of Wales, Victoria's son and the future Edward VII. (Any good-looking woman of the proper rank was apt to catch his eye.)
|Anna Gould, date unknown. But |
she was obviously doing well.
And Anna Gould, the daughter of New York financier Jay Gould (called by some the Mephistopheles of Wall Street) married a titled Frenchman in 1895 and so became the Comtesse de Castellane; that she had inherited millions from her father was perhaps not irrelevant. Then, in Paris in 1906, after her high-living hubby had gone through half her fortune, she divorced him on grounds of infidelity (and there were plenty of grounds) – an event that the satirical magazine Puck celebrated hilariously. Not that she and her millions were in any way out of the marital market. In 1908 she married her ex’s cousin, a titled nobleman of the illustrious house of Talleyrand-Périgord, thus becoming the Marquise de Talleyrand Périgord, Duchesse de Sagan. This marriage – and the title that came with it -- stuck.
As international social climbing went, Anna Gould’s ascent was remarkable. But as a Wall Streeter once observed, if you aim for the stars, you get chorus girls; if you aim for chorus girls, you get nothing. Admittedly, a very male-oriented observation, but the message applies to both sexes: aim high, very high. How about majesty? Well, that took a little longer. In 1956, movie star Grace Kelly married Prince Rainier III of Monaco in what was called “the wedding of the century,” thus becoming Princess Grace. Not bad, but let’s face it, Monaco, however pretty, is a pretty small place. Could an American woman aim even higher?
|Prince Rainier and Princess Grace arriving at the White House|
for a luncheon in 1961.
|Wallis Simpson, 1936.|
It had already happened. In 1934 Wallis Simpson (born Wallis Warfield), a divorced woman, had become the mistress of Edward, Prince of Wales, who, still unmarried at age 40, was charmed by her very American ways, her domineering manner and irreverence toward his exalted position – a liaison that the British court and government found increasingly worrisome. Matters came to a head when, at his father’s death in January 1936, Edward became King Edward VIII of Great Britain. A prolonged crisis followed, since the new king was determined to marry the woman he loved, and divorced women – she would soon divorce her second husband as well – were not welcome at the Court of Saint James. So in December of that year the Edward abdicated, so as to marry Wallis Warfield, who after the marriage became the Duchess of Windsor.
Wallis Warfield’s success fascinated Americans as much as it dismayed and angered the Brits, among whom the Prince of Wales had been especially popular. But not all Americans approved. A friend of mine told how, at an early age, he heard his matriarchal grandmother announce to his mother at the time of the abdication, “He has abandoned the ship of state for a tramp steamer!”
|President Nixon greeting the Duke and Duchess of Windsor in 1970.|
Was there any truth to the matriarch’s allegation? There were rumors of other lovers, but they were rumors only. One critic described the Duchess as “charismatic, electric, and compulsively ambitious.” In 1936, having become the adored favorite of the most eligible bachelor in the world, she was surely the most famous woman in the world, and no doubt the object of envy. Ostracized by the British court, she and her husband had little left to do but become, in the words of some, social parasites, gadding about from one international gala to another and risking boredom; no wonder they embraced chubby Elsa Maxwell, party-giver extraordinaire (post #170), even if Elsa and the Duchess at one time had a tiff. Famous for saying, “A woman can’t be too rich or too thin” (and she achieved both), the Duchess is also quoted as having said, “You have no idea how hard it is to live out a great romance.”
Yes, we are still fascinated by monarchy, as seen in actress Helen Mirren’s brilliant portrayals of Elizabeth II on stage and screen, but maybe aristocracy and monarchy aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. Maybe we commoners should thank our lucky stars that we aren’t onstage constantly, aren’t besieged by paparazzi, don’t have to flee them and risk dying in a high-speed auto accident like Princess Di and her Egyptian boyfriend in Paris in 1997. Maybe we can live quietly and contentedly, glorying in our snug obscurity.
A new scam: I get lots of junk phone calls. Sometimes it's Bridget offering something (I hang up), sometimes it's "Congratulations! You have been chosen--" (I hang up), or "This is an important message about your--" (I hang up), and so on. Bridget and the others -- all recorded messages -- have phoned at least twenty or thirty times. And sometimes, when I answer, there's no one on the line. But the other day I got a new recorded message: "Iona [or some such name] has been trying to reach you; this is the last call. Iona is suing you because--," at which point I hung up. Lawsuits aren't announced in this fashion. But some who get this phone call may well panic, stay on the line for more information, and be tricked into contacting Iona (or whomever) to avoid trouble, thus making themselves vulnerable to some kind of fraud. Beware of Iona and her ilk; hang up at once.
Coming soon: "Beauty is power" and the short, squat little Jewish lady who said it and made it happen, and ended up a billionaire in the process. They don't make 'em like that any more.
Coming soon: "Beauty is power" and the short, squat little Jewish lady who said it and made it happen, and ended up a billionaire in the process. They don't make 'em like that any more.
© 2015 Clifford Browder