Sunday, February 25, 2018

343. Aristocracy: Are Some of Us Better Than the Rest of Us?

For an announcement of my novel Dark Knowledge, go here.


Signs on the wall of a Mexican restaurant where I lunched recently:

It's fun until
the BEER
runs out

You are the
bacon to my
scrambled eggs

is all you

No Fumar


Aristocracy: Are Some of Us Better Than the Rest of Us?

     “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.  Such dignity and formality, in fact, that she was criticized by some for 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 show her presiding over these affairs 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 sounds rather like the British royals today.

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File:Brooklyn Museum - The Republican Court (Lady Washington's Reception Day) - Daniel Huntington - overall.jpg
Martha Washington receiving.  Versailles transplanted to America?
An 1861 painting.

     And come to think of it, our Founding Fathers, many of whom attended these affairs, were well-educated, well-mannered gentry – WASPS of course -- and not riffraff from the streets.  Most of them had money and property, and some of them owned slaves.  The Constitution that they created was designed, among other things, to protect the property and interests of two key elements of society: Northern merchants and Southern landowners.  So right from the first, the newly hatched republic had at its head what might be called a kind of aristocracy.  No titles, but plenty of property and self-interest.

     Still, ordinary Americans nursed a keen resentment of class differences and aristocracy.  This was what bedeviled Frances Trollope, the mother of the novelist, when she came here in 1831 in hopes of launching a business to revive her family’s dwindling fortunes back in England.  If she took exception to America and Americans, she had good reason, for in launching her business in hog-slaughtering Cincinnati, she was fleeced by the locals, who had no need of the grandiose bazaar that she built at great cost; lacking customers, the store left her ridden with debt.  The Americans she dealt with there and elsewhere seemed to bear out Talleyrand’s two-word appraisal of us, when queried by Napoleon: “Proud pigs.”

File:Frances Trollope by Auguste Hervieu (2).jpg
Frances Trollope, circa 1832.  Here she looks so sweet, but her pen was savage.

     Wherever Mrs.Trollope went, she heard comments on “British tyranny” and her “paltry little place of an island.”  She resented being called “the English old woman,” when butcher boys were referred to as “gentlemen.”  The American males she met were braggarts and boors who ate with their knives, chewed, schemed, and spat.  Even in church, they spat.  Were there no gentlemen at all?  When she observed a session of Congress where sprawling Westerners put their feet up on their desks and, of course, spat, she also saw, by way of contrast, certain members who dressed and behaved properly.  Whenever she inquired  about one of them, she got the same answer: “He is a Virginia gentleman.”  But in her travels here, gentlemen were few and far between.

     Mrs. Trollope happened to come when Andrew Jackson, the first president from beyond the Appalachians, and thus the first one from the “West,” was in office, to the extreme discomfort of the Eastern elite.  America was a raw adolescent nation that had fought two wars with Great Britain and took delight in putting Mother England down, and Frances Trollope was England incarnate.  She bristled with preconceived notions and prejudices of class, and resented the uppity presumption of ordinary Americans.  Her finery, her manners, and her shrill, piercing voice made her just the sort of English biddy that Americans loved to insult.  She was herself solidly middle class and no aristocrat, but represented a class-based society where inferiors were expected to show good manners and above all know their place.  But in Jacksonian America no one was required to know their place.

     Ironically, in and around New York City and in the Hudson Valley there was a landed aristocracy implanted here long since.  Back in the seventeenth century the Dutch West India Company, the founder of New Amsterdam, had 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.  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.

     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.  This huge estate 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.

     In New York City there were no huge estates with tenant farmers paying rent – or refusing to do so – to any lords of the manor; there wasn’t room.  But there was 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.

     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.

     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,” the New Money clans 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, 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.

File:Lyndhurst Tarrytown NY - front facade.jpg
Lyndhurst today.  Gould took refuge here, when his enemies on Wall Street turned nasty.
The place was ringed with guards.


     Meanwhile, whatever their feelings about class, Americans nourished an abiding fascination with the aristocracies and monarchies of Europe.  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.  The climax of his American tour was a buffalo hunt in Nebraska in the company of Buffalo Bill Cody and several hundred Sioux recruited for the occasion.  Clearly, Americans were in love with both aristocracy and monarchy, as long as they weren’t the ones being dominated.

     Could Americans aspire even further and become members of European aristocracies?  The answer wasn’t long in coming.  In 1874 Jenny Jerome, the daughter of Wall Street speculator Leonard Jerome, married Lord Randolph Churchill, 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.)

     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 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).  This event was celebrated hilariously in a cartoon by the satirical magazine Puck.  The cartoon showed her arriving in the courtroom in black, almost like a bride at a wedding, carrying a bouquet of incriminating affidavits, while her husband swoons.  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.  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?

     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 Edward abdicated, so as to marry Wallis Warfield, who after the marriage would become the Duchess of Windsor.

File:Nixon and the Windsors.gif
President Nixon receiving the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, 1970.

     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 overheard his matriarchal grandmother announce to his mother at the time of the abdication, “He has abandoned the ship of state for a tramp steamer!” 

     Was there any truth to the 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.  In suburban Evanston, Illinois, at a tender age I became aware of her when I saw, on a table in the living room, a biography entitled Her Name Was Wallis Warfield, with a photo of a rather handsome dark-haired woman on the cover.  Such was my mother's reading of the moment.

     Once her second divorce was finalized, Wallis Warfield and the Duke married and settled in France.  But in 1937 they visited Nazi Germany and were welcomed personally by Hitler.  The Duchess, it was said, was a fan of Hitler’s and was influencing the Duke accordingly.  (It was also said by some that she had had an affair with Joachim von Ribbentrop, the German foreign minister.)  Rumors circulated that the Nazis hoped to put the Duke back on the British throne, once they had defeated the Brits.  When France fell in 1940, the Windsors removed to neutral Portugal, where German agents courted them.  So the Brits found an ingenious solution: they made the Duke governor of the Bahamas, thus getting him and his wife out of Europe and the reach of the Germans.  He was governor until 1945, when the Nazi regime collapsed and Germany surrendered.

     Ostracized by the British court, after that the Windsors had little to do but become, in the words of some, social parasites, gadding about from one international gala to another and risking boredom.  To her credit, those who met the Duchess were impressed by her stately manner, her grace, and her charm.  Famous for saying “A woman can’t be too rich or too thin” (and she achieved both), she also memorably remarked, “You have no idea how hard it is to live out a great romance.” 

     In America the Duke and Duchess remained popular.  Maybe we were delighted that an American – however estranged and controversial – had snagged the most desirable bachelor in the world.  Today we are still fascinated by monarchy, as seen in 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. 

     Today’s partisan politics have added a new twist to the story of aristocracy in America.  The people of the deindustrializing heartland – many of whom voted for Donald Trump in 2016 – feel looked down upon by the coastal elites.  A nonprofit named Better Angels is trying to bring red state and blue state residents together for long conversations that will help them understand each other.  When asked to name the five stereotypes that the other side throws at them, the Reds gave these in this order:

1.    Racist
2.    Uncaring
3.    Uneducated
4.    Misogynistic
5.    Science deniers

The Reds feel much more shamed by the Blues than the Blues feel shamed by the Reds.  As a result, the Reds are reluctant to enter into conversation with the Blues, fearing still more shaming.

     And what stereotypes do the Blues feel the Reds hurl at them?  Here are three:

1.    Against religion and morality
2.    Unpatriotic
3.    Against personal responsibility

     There is mutual misunderstanding here.  For the Reds, the Blues are a kind of self-appointed aristocracy that think themselves inherently superior to the Reds, and this the Reds bitterly resent.  As a committed New Yorker who hails from the Midwest, I find myself on both sides of the divide, sympathetic to Blues and Reds alike, perhaps more of a Blue than a Red, but eager to make peace between them.  Not easy.  Even in democratic America, where all are supposedly equal, the notion of aristocracy dies hard.

Source note:  For information on Better Angels, I am indebted to a column by David Brooks in the New York Times of February 20, 2018: “Respect First, Then Gun Control.”  Brooks argues that Reds and Blues must talk to each other and show mutual respect, before they can work together to achieve meaningful gun control.


All books are available online as indicated, or from the author.

1.  No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World (Mill City Press, 2015).  Winner of the Tenth Annual National Indie Excellence Award for Regional Non-Fiction; first place in the Travel category of the 2015-2016 Reader Views Literary Awards; and Honorable Mention in the Culture category of the Eric Hoffer Book Awards for 2016.  All about anything and everything New York: alcoholics, abortionists, greenmarkets, Occupy Wall Street, the Gay Pride Parade, my mugging in Central Park, peyote visions, and an artist who made art of a blackened human toe.  In her Reader Views review, Sheri Hoyte called it "a delightful treasure chest full of short stories about New York City."

If you love the city (or hate it), this may be the book for you.  An award winner, it sold well at BookCon 2017.


"If you want wonderful inside tales about New York, this is the book for you.  Cliff Browder has a way with his writing that makes the city I lived in for 40 plus years come alive in a new and delightful way. A refreshing view on NYC that will not disappoint."  Five-star Amazon customer review by Bill L.

Available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World

2.  Bill Hope: His Story (Anaphora Literary Press, 2017), the second novel in the Metropolis series.  New York City, 1870s: From his cell in the gloomy prison known as the Tombs, young Bill Hope spills out in a torrent of words the story of his career as a pickpocket and shoplifter; his brutal treatment at Sing Sing and escape from another prison in a coffin; his forays into brownstones and polite society; and his sojourn among the “loonies” in a madhouse, from which he emerges to face betrayal and death threats, and possible involvement in a murder.  Driving him throughout is a fierce desire for better, a persistent and undying hope.

For readers who like historical fiction and a fast-moving story.


"A real yarn of a story about a lovable pickpocket who gets into trouble and has a great adventure.  A must read."  Five-star Amazon customer review by nicole w brown.

"This was a fun book.  The main character seemed like a cross between Huck Finn and a Charles Dickens character.  I would recommend this."  Four-star LibraryThing review by stephvin.

Available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

3.  Dark Knowledge (Anaphora Literary Press, 2018), the third novel in the Metropolis series.  Adult and young adult.  A fast-moving historical novel about New York City and the slave trade, with the sights and sounds and smells of the waterfront. 

Browder - Cover - 9781681143675-Perfect - 2
The back cover summary:

New York City, late 1860s.  When young Chris Harmony learns that members of his family may have been involved in the illegal pre-Civil War slave trade, taking slaves from Africa to Cuba, he is appalled.  Determined to learn the truth, he begins an investigation that takes him into a dingy waterfront saloon, musty old maritime records that yield startling secrets, and elegant brownstone parlors that may have been furnished by the trade.  Since those once involved dread exposure, he meets denials and evasions, then threats, and a key witness is murdered.  Chris has vivid fantasies of the suffering slaves on the ships and their savage revolts.  How could seemingly respectable people be involved in so abhorrent a trade, and how did they avoid exposure?  And what price must Chris pay to learn the painful truth and proclaim it?

Early reviews

"A lively and entertaining tale.  The writing styles, plot, pace and character development were excellent."  Four-star LibraryThing early review by BridgitDavis.

"At first the plot ... seemed a bit contrived, but I was soon swept up in the tale."  Four-star LibraryThing early review by snash.

"I am glad that I have read this book as it goes into great detail and the presentation is amazing.  The Author obviously knows his stuff."  Four-star LibraryThing early review by Moiser20.

Just released; available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

4.  The Pleasuring of Men (Gival Press, 2011), the first novel in the Metropolis series, tells the story of a respectably raised young man who chooses to become a male prostitute in late 1860s New York and falls in love with his most difficult client.

What was the gay scene like in nineteenth-century New York?   Gay romance, if you like, but no porn (I don't do porn).  Women have read it and reviewed it.  (The cover illustration doesn't hurt.)


"At times amusing, gritty, heartfelt and a little sexy -- this would make a great summer read."  Four-star Amazon customer review by BobW.

"Really more of a fantasy of a 19th century gay life than any kind of historical representation of the same."  Three-star Goodreads review by Rachel.

"The detail Browder brings to this glimpse into history is only equaled by his writing of credible and interesting characters.  Highly recommended."  Five-star Goodreads review by Nan Hawthorne.

Available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

                *                 *                 *                  *

Coming soon:  As usual, no idea.

©   2018   Clifford Browder

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