Is there no Aristocracy in America?

I am deeply intrigued by a statement made in the October 2010 issue of Vanity Fair. Within the text of a story about the bitter rivalry of Rupert Murdoch and Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. – titled “Two Men and a Newsstand”- author Sarah Ellison writes, “In America, there is no aristocracy or upper class in the British sense of those terms.” To be honest, I do not really agree with her at all.

America is a young country, so you may not necessarily have an established family tradition “in the British sense” (as Ellison puts it) unless your family came to America with wealth. That is just a simple fact. America is a success story in so many ways, if you think about it. We were supposed to be a colonial empire to pad the pockets and provide supplementary income to those ‘across the pond’, however, as a nation we decided to rebel. Obviously, that did not turn out the way the English had intended. We did not put up with it for as long as so many other places have in modern history and that is why we are such an incredible patriotic country. We are a great nation. Clearly, like any other country in the world, there are the haves and the have nots. We occasionally have had to fight to keep our place (wherever we are) due to certain events in history, and there are many people who have become wealthy since America became the United States of America less than 250 years ago. So you do not have to have come to America with wealth. Not obligatory at all.

But to claim that we have no upper class or aristocracy is completely false. I recently had a professor (who was born in West Germany mind you) tell my class that “there are no upper class students attending this school because why would they go here when there are all those Ivies up north”. Those who read my blog and Twitter ( know I sat there in class bristling for the remaining hour of the course because I was sincerely pissed off. Most of you agreed with me that he was making an assumption only an individual not born in the U.S. would make. If you arrive in the U.S. when you are 16, you certainly miss out on developing many opinions and perceptions that could be considered more accurate. I wonder if Ms. Ellison has a similar background as this professor. Only someone with that level of education must have a high social naïveté to not get it, as in get why I attend where I am at. Clearly.

The American Heritage Dictionary defines ‘upper class’ as: “The highest socioeconomic class in a society.” This same text defines ‘aristocracy’ as: “1. A hereditary ruling class. 2. Government by the nobility or by a privileged upper class.” Can you really tell me that we have neither of these features in America? We most certainly have an upper class and I think socially and politically there is definitely a level of aristocracy which exists. I find Ms. Ellison’s clearly uninformed opinion “the British sense” to be hysterical. Does she know anyone who is British and is in the upper class? Many long-standing family friends who live in England still have sold off their family manors and priceless antiques due to taxes and expense of land upkeep. A number of others have sold off portions of land to the government as conservation easements and started organic farms on their lands to “make do”. Many other British aristocracy peers have told me stories about allowances being cut short. Are you really going to tell me that we do not have something similar going on in the U.S.? We have plenty of wealthy people in the U.S. who are members of our government or control major corporations that are essential to this nation’s well-being– Kennedy, Bush, Chase, Steves, Bradford, Winthrop, Jones, and at the turn of the 20th century we still had others including the Adams, Paley, Roosevelt, Rockefeller and Vanderbilt families as well. There are those who are FFV and those whose ancestors were sent to Texas to settle those wild lands of America. We most certainly have large manors, incredible antique collections and elite representatives in our government. We have old families with large fortunes controlling the interests in their regions with skill, a high level of education and fantastic networking connections. They may be controlling things, but most all give back in one way or another – regardless of party affiliation.

There are many people in the U.S. with great fortunes and incredible family stories who do not stick out in the public forum. Many have Twitter accounts and blogs you read every day, with the average person assuming they are simply well-travelled and possibly exaggerate a good bit. No readers, while there are many who do falsify information, there are a small number of bloggers who are from old families who have chosen to remain “upper class”… or merely first class in the way they portray themselves in this global forum of blogging. They do not over share, they wish to broaden the perspectives of their readers (educate them a bit, if you will), and they choose to remain relatively anonymous. They have money, but it is not about money, it is about quality. Quality of writing, quality of entries, quality of life. Ironically, Lisa Birnbach touches on the way in which to stay classy in her latest book, True Prep, she writes, “We prefer modest discretion to the outward manifestations of wealth that are the signs of the new hordes. [….] your money has just always been there… if it is a fact of your family’s life… if you take regular vacations but stay in rooms, not in suites [….] We do not engage in stretch limousines. We spend our money in more covert ways” (page 43). She may be writing about “preps” but she could easily be writing of anyone with responsible yet affluent means.

If you subscribe to Town and Country, you know that in the social affairs sections and occasional featured stories you hear several of the same names mentioned. You may see the same family name pop up or see the same two or three faces appear in the photographs next to the dedication of a garden, a new museum wing or a fine arts performance center. I know in a recent issue, I saw a lovely photograph of a specific dowager of an old Texas family, surrounded by her family at an event held in her honor. This “Yellow Rose of Texas” has been incredibly generous and philanthropic throughout her lifetime and fully deserved the red carpet treatment. She is a Texas woman, but she is not a woman out to have a big show or big top trumpeting her achievements. She remains understated and kind to all who cross her path. There are many people like that in America, who may have the upper class means of living, but do not forget who they can help. Her family is of the “highest socioeconomic class in a society” and they certainly rule the opinions of many in Texas.

Ellison states in her contributor’s paragraph at the front of Vanity Fair (page 100) that Murdoch’s mission with the WSJ is, “the culmination of a lifelong grudge against the elites, and he wants to win” – I wonder if she shares the same opinion?

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Virginia based lifestyle blogger Whitney of WorthyStyle shares her beauty, fashion, gluten free cooking, family life, and more. Follow along!

4 thoughts on “Is there no Aristocracy in America?

  1. Oooh interesting topic. I side with you here. I think we do have an aristocracy in America, but I think that it is not recognized as such because, as you mentioned, they developed very differently. It looks and feels different. Like everything here, it is an adaptation of something ancient.

  2. Oooh interesting topic. I side with you here. I think we do have an aristocracy in America, but I think that it is not recognized as such because, as you mentioned, they developed very differently. It looks and feels different. Like everything here, it is an adaptation of something ancient.

  3. I think there are several threads here. Aristocracy in the British sense means class status granted by royalty. Without royalty, we have not got their kind of aristocracy.

    On the other hand, to say we have no upper class would be wrong too. Of course we do. Just who is in it is tougher to figure out, and whether the determinheing characteristics are family history, money, education, accomplishment, is difficult to say.

    Your professor was rude and wrong. He assumes that America works like Europe, whereby anyone from the upper class will attend certain universities. Clearly our education system doesn't work like that.

    And, finally, we might want to spend a little time considering, as you have, what we would want an American “upper class” to look like, beyond money. What traits we hope those of privilege would exhibit.

  4. Love this post Miss Worthy, your points are well made, and accurate. The professor is clearly incorrect, I'm not understanding why he would take that approach… it makes no sense.

    Thank you for another stellar post,

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