Commentary Magazine

The Study of Man: Aristocracy in America

American sociology has become the most omnivorous of all the social sciences. It has set itself the task of systematically investigating the operations of contemporary society, in much the same fashion, and with similar theoretical conceptions, as the biological sciences seek to investigate the structure and function of living organisms. How far sociology has succeeded in fulfilling this large ambition should not be left to the experts to judge, but I think there can be little doubt that until now it has failed to deal adequately with one major problem: the interrelations of power and upper-class status in egalitarian and democratic America. I am happy to report that the work under review promises to meet part of this need. Philadelphia Gentlemen, by E. Digby Baltzell, says important things about class and power in America, and says it in ways that will interest and fascinate laymen as well as sociologists.

Baltzell’s most important thesis is that the United States is developing an upper class comparable in many ways to the aristocracies of the old world. Characterized by descent from old wealth, an Anglo-Saxon ethnic background, membership in the Episcopalian church, education at a private boarding school and then at Princeton, Yale, or Harvard, membership in the Somerset, Knickerbocker, or Philadelphia clubs—it is this class which also, in Philadelphia at least, controls the major sectors of the economy; by its combination of high social status and economic wealth it possesses tremendous community power. Evidence of this is the fact that the Philadelphia Social Register, a book in which the nouveaux riches, no matter how wealthy, find no place, “listed, with certain ethnic exceptions, almost all the most powerful bankers and businessmen in the city in 1940.”

Upper-class gentility is always based on inherited wealth, but as the abundant statistical and qualitative data presented here make clear, the genteel wealthy upper class do not spend their time on “conspicuously consuming leisure-time activities”—activities which they leave to the newly rich and their scions—but rather continue to emphasize “the ‘Protestant ethic’ of hard work and a mistrust, amounting almost to an incapacity, for leisure.” And consistent with this analysis, Baltzell suggests that the members of the Philadelphia Social Register do not exhibit any of the “other-directed” traits which, according to David Riesman (who, ironically enough, is the son of the first Jewish member of that august body), characterize the American middle and upper classes.

In stressing the links between an upper-class subculture and power, Baltzell does not agree with C. Wright Mills in seeing America as fallen under the sway of an interlocking directorate of power-oriented leaders who seek to further class or clique self-interest. Rather does he see power and stratification as inherent aspects of every complex social system. And with Tocqueville he suggests that the existence of an aristocratic class and culture permits power to be used more, rather than less, responsibly: “In the last analysis, power over other people is the indispensable mark of high social status, and the primary function of an upper class is the exercise of power. . . . An upper class must maintain the power of leadership in order to limit the power of individual leaders. . . . Among other things, a sense of honor and morality, and even a sense of noblesse oblige, serves to check the abuses of power.”

Philadelphia Gentlemen analyzes the development of the upper-class culture in America: the emergence of elite private schools such as Groton, which after 1900 play a part comparable to Eton and Harrow in Britain; the gradual centralization of upper-class education in a few universities; the growing exclusiveness of upper-class social clubs; the codification of upper-class membership in the Social Register; the conversion of old high-status families to Episcopalianism. All of these developments may be seen as ways by which those who “have” seek to hand on their privileges to their descendants, and there is no question that this is what indeed happens. The creation of one upper class whose members share a common background and values, however, serves to create a class of power holders who can be disciplined for violation of the code by their status peers.



It is possible to discover many advantages in the existence of a privileged, more or less hereditary, upper class. In a bureaucratic society, as Max Weber pointed out many years ago, the successful climb the ladder of government or industry by conforming to the desires of their superiors. Hence bureaucratic success requires unimaginative conformity, whereas those who are born to high status enjoy the freedom to please themselves and to experiment and innovate. The nouveau riche entrepreneur is likely to view all who stand in the way of his maximizing a profit, whether they be workers, competitors, or governments, as obstacles to be removed by any possible means, including the use of anti-labor thugs or financial support of unscrupulous political opportunists, behavior which those bred to lead will regard as dishonorable. And as Robert Sherwood has indicated, history exemplifies “the principle that the men who inherit, or easily gain, their power are less likely to intensify it at the expense of society than those men who have struggled for it in the service of a burning ideal.” As evidence for these propositions, Baltzell cites the fact that “the upper class in Philadelphia has, on the whole, fostered an atmosphere of integrity and honesty within the business community,” and that “it is traditional in America that the gentlemen of means and position support the rights of those less privileged than themselves, often in opposition to the privileged class that bred them.”

From his analysis of the growth of a national upper class characterized by almost caste-like patterns, Baltzell comes to his ultimate conclusion: the emergence of an American aristocracy strengthens freedom and reform. The scions of a business aristocracy are increasingly finding that business is not the most satisfying way of fulfilling their leadership role, particularly since government rather than business has become the center of effective power. But those who seek to lead in politics and government choose a path which is repugnant to the conservative and business community. Hence, Baltzell suggests, it is no accident that in recent years “the political leaders who came from upper-class backgrounds tended to be Democrats rather than Republicans; they were deviants in a predominantly Republican and business-oriented subculture.” In Philadelphia since World War II, the city has been going through a “cultural, civic, and political renaissance” under the aegis of a revived liberal Democratic party, which has been led by two members of the upper class, Richard Dilworth and Joseph Sill Clark. The local chapter of Americans for Democratic Action, led by another Social Registerite, John Frederick Lewis, Jr., has played a major role in this upheaval, and it includes many men whose names also figure in the Social Register. And among those who may lead the Democratic party back to the White House in 1960 are “Adlai Stevenson of Choate School and Princeton, G. Mennen Williams of Salisbury School and Princeton, John F. Kennedy of Choate and Harvard . . . and Averell Harriman of Groton and Yale.”

The view of upper-class norms and institutions presented here stands in refreshing contrast to the now dominant sociological conceptions of W. Lloyd Warner and C. Wright Mills. Warner, ignoring the power functions of high social status, accepts at face value the stress placed on manners and family background as the main source of class differentiation. Mills, on the other hand, dismisses these aspects of the class structure as epiphenomena and sees only a self-interested and exploitative “power-elite.” It is perhaps no accident that these two perspectives, one of uncritical emulative acceptance, and the other sharply hostile, are the views of two men whose own social origins place them outside the upper class, while the book under review is by a sociologist who has lived closely with the members of the Philadelphia social elite all his life. One lesson perhaps to be drawn from this study is that the common assumption that an outsider always sees more clearly than an insider is not necessarily true.



There is a number of questions about the American upper-class behavior to which one may hope that Mr. Baltzell will turn in future work. Much of the statistical data in the volume do not go past 1940. Baltzell explains this on the ground that many structural changes occurring in America that might affect the patterns described here “waited for the close of World War II to assert themselves,” such as the decline of occupations and industries which were traditional centers of upper-class dominance, e.g. investment banking, and the decline of local ties and family prestige with the concomitant growth of “the new corporate feudalism.” He asserts that modern war, e.g. that of 1940-45—and one might add prolonged postwar prosperity—are “productive of new elites and new family fortunes.” But if this is so, it may call many of the findings of the book into question. We surely want to know whether we are reading a book about a declining or an emerging pattern. There is, in fact, some statistical evidence which suggests that the pattern documented here no longer obtains. Baltzell, for example, reports a secular decline in the rate of growth of the Social Register. Only 6 per cent new families were added to the list between 1930 and 1940, as contrasted with 31 per cent between 1910 and 1920.

At the same time that the Social Register has become more and more limited to those with the “right” family background, it would seem that the proportion of the business elite who secured their eminence through inheritance is constantly declining, and there has even been an increase in the proportion of business leaders of working-class origin over the past two generations—this fact has been independently documented by Reinhard Bendix, Suzanne Keller, and W. Lloyd Warner.

Thus if Bendix, Keller, and Warner are right, the economic power of the Social Register in the nation as a whole must be lessening. These differences between Baltzell’s conclusions and those suggested by the analyses of the composition of the business elite may be a function, as Baltzell suggests, of changes since 1940, or they may reflect the fact that the upper-class structure of Philadelphia is atypical. Dennis Brogan, one of the leading British authorities on American society, wrote in the early 1940’s that an aristocratic upper-class pattern can only be found in the economically declining cities in the United States; he specifically mentioned Boston, Charleston, and Philadelphia as such cities. Where new major industries, head offices, or population are flocking (New York City, Washington, California, Texas), power also goes. In those places, however, one would expect the upper class to be weak.

The assumption that an increasingly solidified and exclusive American upper class is characterized by greater security, honor, and noblesse oblige, is also open to question. In the late 19th century James Bryce called attention to the fact that upper-class Americans showed greater concern with social origins of potential intimates than did comparable upper-class Britons. Brogan made the same comment about pre-World War II America and Britain, and very recently Howard Brotz, a young American sociologist who spent several years studying the Jewish community in Britain, pointed to the same variation in snobbery of upper classes on both sides of the Atlantic as perhaps helping to explain why wealthy English Jews are much more readily accepted by wealthy English Gentiles than are comparably situated American Jews by their Gentile peers. In each case, Bryce, Brogan, and Brotz argue that the extensive efforts of upper-class Americans to develop strong status barriers of family origins, exclusive schools and clubs, restricted neighborhoods, and so forth, actually reflects the insecurity of nouveaux riches, or more accurately of an upper class living in a country in which the very notion of ascriptive privilege violates one of the key cultural values, that of equality of opportunity. In effect, it is suggested that a genuinely aristocratic upper class would not bar Jews or acceptable nouveaux riches from their homes, social clubs, or college fraternities. A class which is really secure in its status can not be declassed by contact with those of lowly background. Those characterized by true noblesse oblige would never offend others’ feelings by excluding them. In spite of Baltzell’s penetrating analysis of American upper-class behavior, I am still left wondering whether a genuine upper class can exist in the United States as long as egalitarianism remains one of the key aspects of our value system. And if it is true that inherited class position will always feel itself threatened in America, then the tendencies toward aristocracy documented in this study may continue to cause conflict and strain since they not only produce Franklin Roosevelts, Dilworths, Clarks, and Steven-sons but also throw up Archibald Roosevelts who back McCarthy and Elliott and John Roosevelts who become Republicans.

All this points up what is for me Baltzell’s one major deficiency—his failure to deal with the continued vitality of the value of egalitarianism in America, and its effect on American upper-class life. From the foreign travelers of the early 19th century to the contemporary émigrés from Eastern Europe interviewed by Bogdan Raditsa,1 high status Europeans in America have noted with surprise that Americans are reluctant to defer to others solely because of family background, wealth, or occupation. The constant tendency toward aristocracy has always been countered by egalitarianism, and by large-scale social mobility. There can be little doubt that America is developing something like an elite Establishment resembling Great Britain; but it is an Establishment which resembles the new, more open British one rather than the old aristocratic institution that died between 1940 and 1950. If I am right, this means that while the Social Register will remain a fairly exclusive body with membership limited to those with proper ancestry, its members will pay much less attention to the family backgrounds of those with whom they associate than did their parents. Some evidence for these changes may be found in postwar Democratic Philadelphia, where the young scions of the Social Register mingle at social, political, and intellectual gatherings with minority group, especially Jewish, professionals whom they have met at the meetings of ADA or other community welfare-minded organizations.




1 See “Clash of Two Immigrant Generations,” COMMENTARY, January 1958.

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