Commentary Magazine


Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia, by E. Digby Baltzell

American Establishment

Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia: Two Protestant Ethics and the Spirit of Class Authority and Leadership.
by E. Digby Baltzell.
Free Press. 585 pp. $19.95.

E. Digby Baltzell, the distinguished sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania, has made a specialty of examining the role of leadership elites in American life. Against the grain of the prevailing equalitarian ideal, Baltzell has argued that orderly social and political change throughout our history has come about through the efforts of a hereditary and hierarchical Protestant leadership class. He first offered this theory in his doctoral dissertation published in 1958 as Philadelphia Gentlemen: The Making of a National Upper Class, and then developed it further four years later, in The Protestant Establishment: Aristocracy and Class in America. Here he described how the values and sense of mission of a patrician group of leaders, beginning with the Founding Fathers and continuing with Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Wilson, and Franklin D. Roosevelt, had been instrumental in shaping our institutions and developing far-sighted responses to economic and social problems.

In the same book, however, Baltzell expressed concern that the Protestant establishment responsible for these achievements had entered a period of decline, beginning in the later 19th and early 20th century, and was on the verge of becoming a mere caste system. The book was as much a plea by Baltzell, himself a member of an older-stock family, for the establishment to reassert its historic role as it was an important piece of social analysis. (In arguing, however, that the establishment should assimilate into its ranks “the best and the brightest” of racial and ethnic outsiders, the book also became a valuable tool in the hands of Jewish civil-rights groups battling discrimination in the country’s “executive suites.”)

By 1976, in a little noticed essay, “The Protestant Establishment Revisited” in the American Scholar, Baltzell all but acknowledged the defeat of his hopes for a resurgence of Protestant leadership, sorrowfully noting that the Ivy League universities and publications founded by older-stock elements (like Henry Luce’s Time) were rushing to join the assault on American society: “The lack of, or declining faith in, an establishment soon spills over into a lack of faith in, and antipathy toward, all institutions.”

Baltzell’s present volume is an attempt to shed light on the origins of this malaise through a comparison of the cultural styles prevailing in the two heartlands of the Protestant establishment: Boston and Philadelphia. His view is that different models of leadership took shape in each of these communities, the one grounded in “pious Puritanism,” the other in Quakerism. Both these legacies, he argues, have continued to cast their shadows on the upper classes of the two cities, on the new groups that came under their influence, and ultimately on America itself.

In general, Boston comes off better in this analysis. Though Puritan doctrine contained no objections to making money—indeed, to do so was a sign of belonging to God’s elect—simply getting rich was frowned upon in Boston unless wealth, leisure, and social position were placed at the service of broader community goals. The laudable actions of the Boston lawyer, Joseph Welch, in cutting down a rampaging Senator Joseph McCarthy in the famous Army-McCarthy hearings of the 50’s, or more recently the refusal of Archibald Cox (St. Paul’s and Harvard) and Elliot Richardson (Milton and Harvard) to cooperate with President Nixon in the Watergate cover-up can all be traced, according to Baltzell, to the force of the Puritan idea of community responsibility on the part of the elite.

A strong elite, moreover, makes for a strong sense of community between the governing classes and the rest of the citizenry:

Where class authority is strong, as in Massachusetts, the people tend to trust their men in authority as signified by the Massachusetts principle of judicial appointment and tenure for life during good behavior. Class authority, then, is a two-way street: where members of a class assume authority over a long period of time, the people will assume their right to authority too and political and judicial mores will in turn reflect upper-class values and gentlemen will be appointed and elected to high office.

Though sprung from the same Protestant root, the Philadelphia Quaker style, Baltzell maintains, has been more equalitarian and pragmatic than that of Boston, allowing the community to go its own way while guarding its class or group authority. If the Boston style has been communal and organic, the Philadelphia style has tended to extreme individualism leading to anarchy. Baltzell quotes approvingly de Tocqueville’s comment that both anarchy and despotism proceed from the same cause, the “general apathy which is the consequence of individualism,” and he suggests that this syndrome, which he connects with the Philadelphia model of Protestantism, has won out in America today:

The Quaker-Episcopal gentry of Philadelphia have really never wanted the responsibilities of power and authority, and if the members of a privileged class decline to serve their communities over a long period of time, eventually those who want authority will be unable to obtain it. . . .

John Adams put it another way: “When authority and social cohesion decline, money alone talks.”

One of Baltzell’s main points is that despite Boston’s unabashed social hierarchy, the democratic ideal has been more consistently favored there than in Philadelphia. This is because “gentlemen of authority inspired by values of service and excellence are likely to recognize new men of ability outside their ranks.” Outsiders, including Jews like Louis Brandeis and Felix Frankfurter, were welcomed by the Boston elite and made Cambridge and Boston their home. As early as 1884, Boston elected its first Irish mayor while Philadelphia did not get around to doing so until 1963.

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Baltzell delineates with extraordinary richness of detail how each of the two cultures of Boston and Philadelphia has molded education, art, architecture, law, medicine, religion, and political life in its respective community. It is no accident, he suggests, that Harvard towers over its Ivy League counterpart, the University of Pennsylvania, or that Boston College is a nationally known Catholic school while St. Joseph’s University remains a local institution. In medicine, Philadelphia took the lead early, producing more physicians and practitioners than Boston did, but Harvard can claim more deans, professors in medical schools, and specialists in advanced knowledge. In politics, there is no contest—Boston was the center of the anti-slavery movement as well as of movements for education, prison, and temperance reform, and Massachusetts gave the nation first families like the Adamses, the Lodges, and the Kennedys, while the best Philadelphia could come up with was the Kelly clan (of whom Princess Grace of Hollywood and Monaco is the most illustrious member).

But if Baltzell is right in declaring that cultural styles in these two important cities have helped to define our character and institutions, he also suffers somewhat from the “scholar’s disease” of claiming too much for his thesis. Virginia, for example, which produced four out of the first five Presidents, contributed as much as Boston did to our national institutions, and one could easily argue that the anti-leadership model that seems to have triumphed in American life owes more to California and the Far West than to Quaker Philadelphia. Moreover, the erosion of Britain’s leadership elite, as evidenced in recent spy scandals, suggests that the problem Baltzell is addressing goes beyond our shores.

More disturbing, however, is the note of patrician aloofness that characterizes Baltzell’s work here, as it has done in the past. Only the old-style New England Protestant elite and the occasional outsider closely assimilated to its cultural norms seem capable, in his view, of providing authoritative leadership, Baltzell overlooks the fact that in absorbing men of talent in their ranks, the old Puritan oligarchy and its descendants have not been entirely disinterested. Whatever their loftier goals, they have also been conscious of the need both to reinvigorate the leadership class—which at crucial times could only be done by calling upon outsiders—and to coopt potential rivals to their authority. A number of historians have suggested recently that the progressive social-welfare legislation that Baltzell attributes to far-sighted patrician leaders like Franklin D. Roosevelt was actually pioneered by newer ethnic politicians like James Curley, Al Smith, and Senator Robert Wagner, and by Jews who staffed the New Deal agencies.

In any case, as an older, Eastern, Protestant elite has gone into eclipse, there are indications that the mantle of leadership is now being assumed by other groups: affluent and well-educated Catholics and Jews, the once despised evangelical Protestant elements in Sunbelt states, and a rising black middle class. And these “new people,” operating in good part out of their own historical experiences, traditions, and values, are taking their direction neither from Puritan Boston nor from Quaker Philadelphia.

About the Author




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