The Aristocracy of the Dollar

“The uttered part of a man’s life, let us always repeat, bears to the unuttered, unconscious part a small unknown proportion. He himself never knows it, much less do others.”— Carlyle’s Essay on Scott.


IT is much to be doubted whether any marriage contract in history had ever a simpler or compacter basis than that between the celebrated Dr. Samuel Johnson and the lady who became his wife. It stands recorded, not in Boswell’s Life of him, but in the scarcely less entertaining letters of his contemporary, Miss Anna Seward. He told the object of his affections that he was, in the first place, of mean extraction; that, in the second place, he had no money; and that, in the third place, he had had an uncle hanged. Not to be outdone, the lady replied as promptly that she valued no man the more or the less for his parentage ; that as to money, she had none herself; and that, in regard to his last point, although she had never had a near relative literally and actually hanged, she had at least twenty who deserved to be. It is needless to say that a marriage between two such congenial spirits followed, and that it was, all things considered, fairly happy. It is worth noticing, also, that the two lovers sketched out unconsciously the successive phases of social structure which have prevailed in the world. Society must always have some kind of aristocracy or leadership, some standard of social precedence. The aristocracy of birth is one form of this standard ; that of wealth is another; while that of wisdom, of virtue, and of never having had a relative hanged is still another. Let us for the present confine ourselves to the first two of these alternatives.

We are living in a transition period of our social history. The aristocracy of birth is passing away. The aristocracy of wealth is coming forward. This in its turn may yield to something better. There is certainly room for it! But standing as we do at the deathbed of one form of social organization and the birth of another, it is worth while to compare their merits. There are those who honestly believe that in losing hereditary aristocracy the world is losing much, and who see a formidable danger in the aristocracy of wealth. Others maintain, as sincerely, that this movement is a step forward and not backward. It is a good time to set the two side by side and see how far the world is likely to lose or gain by the exchange.

In all Europe, of the hereditary governing bodies which once ruled it, there is left to-day but one, the English House of Lords. In one or two other countries, such as Austria and Prussia, the upper chamber contains the hereditary element, but it is never exclusive, while the English House of Lords stands by itself. It is, indeed, in one respeet more aristocratic than in the Middle Ages, because in those days it consisted quite largely of an appointive body, the dignitaries of the church, who had commonly risen from the ranks of the people, and whose position was not hereditary. This life element, comprising the bishops, has now been reduced, as Goldwin Smith once said, “ to comparative insignificance in point of numbers, and to almost total insignificance in point of influence.” This impairing of power further extends to the whole body of the House of Lords from the very dignity of its traditions, and from the recent origin of most of its peerages. Not only do very few of these date back as far as the landing of the Pilgrims in America, but the very membership of the House, and consequently its voting power, depends at any moment on the action of the King. When the Reform Bill was carried, June 7,1832, by the express promise of the King to create new peers enough, if needful, to carry it through the Lords, the Lords became from that moment, for practical action, a wholly secondary body ; a system of brakes — not of wheels — for the car of state. It is becoming filled, accordingly, as Mr. Bodley tells us in his France, with “ newly made peers, who prevail upon the editors of peerages to erase from their pedigrees the worthy aldermen who founded their fortunes, and accord them forefathers who performed feats at Hastings unknown to the workers of the Bayeux tapestry ” (II. 375). We see the outcome in the criticisms of Vanity Fair on London society : “In Rome and Vienna, and even in republican Paris, London society has become a laughing stock. Blood, pride of race, what are these ? Where are they nowadays ? Money, above all the willingness to entertain, these are the pass-keys to what was once a fortress to be entered by birth, and by birth alone.”

For the aristocracy of birth, the English basis was the law of primogeniture, which Dr. Johnson maintained to be a good law, because it made only one fool in each family. Yet we forget how few years it is since, in some of our older American colonies, the traditions of Old England were still upheld, in this respect, and hereditary forces ruled the state. I remember talking once with a Rhode Islander, now an aged man, who recalled the time when he had returned from India from a five years’ absence, and who had then voted when but one day in port, because he was the oldest son of his father.

Nothing, indeed, now remains in America which so recalls the feudal system as the whole region of the Narragansett country in Rhode Island, where one still sees the remains of a class of buildings differing in kind from any now erected. They represent great square houses of fifty or a hundred and fifty feet front, with drawing-rooms twenty feet square and from fourteen to sixteen feet high. There were two stories, with high gambrel attics for the slaves, who often occupied outbuildings, also. The houses were so large that in one of them, the old Potter house, there occurred a house-warming of three days and nights, during which the old father and mother, in their outof-the-way rooms, never learned that anything was going on. Under the law of primogeniture, then prevailing, the households were on such a scale that one of these magnates, Robert Hazard, is said to have boasted of economy, when he brought his family down to seventy persons. He owned twelve thousand acres, kept foxhounds, four thousand sheep, one hundred and fifty cows, and fourteen saddle horses. He employed twelve negro dairymaids, each with a small girl to wait upon her, by whose joint labors from twelve to twenty-four cheeses were made every day in the year for family consumption ; and, let us hope, people took exercise enough to digest the product. These are, at any rate, the still living traditions of the Narragansett country as they prevailed thirty years ago.

In a similar way an almost feudal system of proprietorship was tried on the Hudson, and went down in the “ anti-rent war.” In the catalogues of our early colleges, the names of students were not arranged alphabetically, as now, but according to the relative social position of students’ families, this lasting until 1767 at Yale, and until 1772 at Harvard. The Society of the Cincinnati was undoubtedly relied upon by many as a step toward hereditary aristocracy. But what came of it ? You hear of a few quiet, elderly gentlemen as eating an annual dinner together, and that is all the world knows of it. Thus easily have died out all efforts to establish such hereditary classes among us. Yet I can remember when it was jocosely said of some families of Massachusetts that they claimed to have had, in the time of Noah’s deluge, a boat to themselves ; and I can recall, on the other hand, when a social aspirant in Boston asked, “ Who belong to the really old families, grandmamma ? ” and that relative shook her weary head and said, “ Mostly no one, my dear.”

The advance in the standard of wealth in the last century is recognized by all as something formidable. In the writer’s boyhood, John P. Cushing was the only man in Boston, or its vicinity, who was suspected of being a millionaire ; and even in his case some regarded such wealth as incredible. He was an essentially modest, retiring man, and said to a lady of my acquaintance, who ventured to reproach him for having holes in his shoes, that he knew no real advantage of wealth, except to be able to wear one’s old shoes without criticism. But what is a million dollars to-day ? To the eyes of many it represents economy, almost poverty ; at any rate, a step toward the almshouse. John Jacob Astor was said to be worth twenty millions, and that was such a colossal fortune, people had again to alter their standard of figures in arithmetic. After this, Commodore Vanderbilt’s forty millions seemed but a step, and the next Vanderbilt’s two hundred millions were not so wholly startling. Yet men looked with commiseration on the division of this last fortune by his published will. Sixty millions to each of two sons, and the rest of the family cut off with ten millions apiece ! Men felt like taking up a contribution in the churches. Yet what seemed even these wonders compared with the personal fortunes of the present day !

Let us look first at the alarming side of this rapid growth of wealth. First comes its possible interference with our whole system of local government. A successful merchant of the last generation in Boston felt the increasing burden of taxation so heavily that he moved from the city to a country town where his father had been a modest clergyman. Inquiring of the town officials as to his taxation, they hesitated a little to reply, as if wishing to deal gently with the brilliant fish thus migrating to their quiet pool. To solve the problem, he suggested that they send him the town bills as presented for the coming year, and let him try a financial experiment. He then paid them all in succession, and thereby saved twenty thousand dollars on his annual tax, as paid hitherto in Boston. The selectmen, meanwhile, collected of all other taxpayers their usual amount, made a separate fund of it, and spent that in securing the best roads and signboards in the county. It was all very well in this instance. But suppose a series of millionaires, migrating to a series of country towns, what would be the result, and how long before we should have a new form of feudalism ? This was one question to be seriously raised, and soon there were others.

How is it all to end, men asked, this new development ? Consider history, they said. We can readily understand how the castles on the Rhine went down. The traveler visits their terrible torturechambers, their oubliettes, and then reads the tale of the free burghers, the weavers and lace-makers of the Low Countries who swept down that beautiful valley and made an end of feudalism. No such easy process suggests itself amid the complications of modern labor; and should a new race, born of sudden wealth, arise, what would it be ? How many generations would it take to secure good manners, for instance, in the new masters of the community ? What will become of the refinements of life, if all the guidance of good society is to be transferred to the hands of those who have spent the prime of their existence in making money ?

It is to be noticed, moreover, that the very men who repudiated the coat-ofarms were the men most eager to assume it when they once had an excuse. How rarely do you find in society the men who have the courage to tell the exact truth about their own antecedents ! It is so exceptional that, wherever it is done, it fills us with admiration. Pope Urban IV was the son of a cobbler, and had pursued that vocation himself, and so, with proper pride, he used a cobbler’s tools as his symbol. Bishop Willegis, who was brought up as a wheelwright, becoming at last a bishop, and being entitled to a coat-of-arms, found, when he went to take possession of his palace, that the little boys had been chalking wheels all over the walls. Being a man of sense, he put a wheel upon his coat-of-arms, and the little boys lost their fun, while the px*ice of chalk went down.

Again, Goethe’s father was in early life a blacksmith, and in Frankfort, over the door of the house where the great German poet was born, may be seen the coat-of-arms assumed, in a manner, by his father. The elder Goethe was skilled in the manufacture of horseshoes, and he wished to put three horseshoes over his door for a crest; but his architect, wishing the fact to appear to the utmost advantage, wove those horseshoes into the shape of a musical lyre, and thus unconsciously predicted that within those walls the greatest of modern poets should be born. How fine is all this, yet how vainly one may watch along the streets of any fashionable watering-place for any carriage panel that might have been designed by Pope Urban, Bishop Willegis, or the elder Goethe ; and how many may one see which represent a dragon or unicorn or griffin, some creature out of whose hide and horn no one ever made a living since the world began. Not one of these even rivaled the traditional motto of Senator Philetus Sawyer, of Michigan, who, having gained a fortune by the honest pursuit his name implied, adorned his carriage with the Latin word “ Vidi,” which, being translated, signifies “ I saw.”

No doubt there were facts enough on which to base all this solicitude, yet there is another side. The aristocracy based on the dollar has its own weaknesses and follies; yet it has certain merits. Its first merit is that it belongs to the present, not to the past; it represents something that is being done, or has lately been done, whether for good or evil; not something which has long gone by. When Theodore Parker first.visited Cincinnati, at that time the recognized leader among Western cities, he said that he had made a great discovery, namely, that while the aristocracy of Cincinnati was unquestionably founded on pork, it made a great difference whether a man killed pigs for himself, or whether his father had killed them. The one was held plebeian, the other patrician. It was the difference, Parker said, between the stick ’ems and the stuck ’ems ; and his own sympathies, he confessed, were with the present tense. It was, in other words, aristocracy in the making. It stood for a race which had found forests to be cleared, streams to be bridged, and roads to be built; the dollar was not only behind these forms of service, but it was the corner-stone of the schoolhouse and the church. It predicted a civilization which should belong to today, not to yesterday ; and belonging to to-day, should also predict to-morrow.

Out of this close allegiance to the present tense, the aristocracy of the dollar has derived several other advantages. It has always emerged, within a generation or two at the farthest, from the ranks of the plain people, and thus always seems nearer to them. It takes for that reason the color of its time. It is not too permanent. It finds sympathies at home, and spends its money there : in three quarters of the towns in Massachusetts, for example, you find a town hall or a public library that was presented by some native of the town. It is not easily crushed or even intimidated ; so that it is not uncommon to find a man who has made one or two fortunes and lost them, and is now resting on his third. It appreciates other forms of influence than its own, and has a secret reverence for science, for history, and even for literature.

None are more ready than rich men to recognize that while one man makes money in business, another may devote himself to intellectual pursuits. The elder Agassiz once refused a profitable course of lectures on the ground that he had not, just then, the time to make money. If mere material wealth is all that is thought of among business men, he would have been thought fit for an insane hospital, but as it was, he was all the more respected. Those who say that our people look merely at wealth take a very superficial view. As a rule, men do not know who is the richest man in the next city or the next state. Mere wealth has, after all, a very limited reputation compared with that of intellect. An English novelist comes here, and every town hall is open to him ; a Swedish peasant girl comes to sing to us, and we pay any price to hear. Bring forward your art and your genius, the community seems to say, and we will provide the money. Let an ordinary millionaire land at the wharf, on the other hand, and no more attention is paid to him than if he were an exgovernor. The very fact that the pursuit of wealth among us demands rare talent and energy seems of itself to create respect for those same qualities when manifested in other ways.

Why did the aristocracy of parentage fail to hold its own ? Why did it die out in America and, practically speaking, in all the British colonies ? It had every advantage at the outset; it held the inside track. It failed because two great laws of the universe were against it: first, the laws of arithmetic, and, secondly, the laws of physiology. It violated the principles of arithmetic because it required that each individual or household should have a distinct line of ancestors, and it would thus be discovered in a few generations that there were not nearly enough ancestors to go round, leaving people in the position of Mark Twain, who declared that he had " no parents to speak of, only a father and mother or so.” It was contrary to the laws of physiology, as shown by the deterioration of one royal family after another in Europe, these having come to resemble those English race horses which have so much blood that there is very little horse, and it must be replenished from a more plebeian stock.

To sum it all up, the strength of hereditary aristocracy lay, undoubtedly, in a sort of accumulated self-respect ; the coats-of-arms may or may not have been given originally for great deeds, but memory or imagination gradually assigned them to that origin as time went on. As Marmontel nicely defined it, “ Nobility of birth is a letter of credit given us on our country, upon the security of our ancestors, in the conviction that at a proper period of life we shall acquit ourselves with honor to those who stand engaged for us.” On the other hand, the strength of the newer form of aristocracy lies in its greater nearness to the community at large, as being of more recent and tangible origin, and as usually showing some special visible gift or faculty in those who represent it. Its beginning may have been never so humble, yet these qualities bear some vague promise of its future.

The thing which most puzzled that early traveler in America, Captain Basil Hall, in 1827, was to see on the highroad a pig-driver wearing spectacles ; and it is only a few years since a newly arrived Englishman mentioned to me, as something requiring explanation, that he had seen somebody in a full suit of black broadcloth feeding hogs. I had a call, many years since, from a young lady, well-dressed, well-bred, and of American birth, who wished to be hired to do housework, and stipulated that she should bring her own piano. I met lately a man whose professions were farming, cigarmaking, running a saw-mill, ice-cutting, sailing a fishing schooner, and peddling parched-corn candy balls. The average life of a college boy might furnish material for that book entitled the Romance of a Poor Young Man ; and we all make a living, as Shakespeare’s Touchstone threatens to kill his rival, in a hundred and fifty different ways. No doubt plenty of young people are now born rich, but they are very rarely people whose grandparents had that experience. The community watches them with some interest to discover whether they are to furnish new illustrations of the rural American proverb that it takes but three generations to go from shirt - sleeves to shirt-sleeves.

After all, the worship of the dollar is but the foam upon the advancing wave of modern civilization. It breaks into spray and vanishes, even while we gaze. Even now there are not a score of men in America who are known by name throughout the land for their wealth alone ; but a young man who makes a single brilliant speech at a political meeting, or a young girl who writes a clever story, may wake up some fine morning and encounter a fame spread from Maine to California, before either of them has made enough money out of it to pay a washerwoman’s bill. “ The whole interest of history,” says Emerson, “ lies in the fortunes of the poor.” All the novels are full of the enjoyments of wealth; but who celebrates the joys of poverty ? The pride of its little prudences, the joy of its wholesome abstinences, the magnificent delight of its occasional holidays ; — who but Dickens ever described them ? Who but his little Jacob ever knew what oysters were, or really saw a play ? Enjoyment does not lie in quantity, but in quality. The first book is worth the library; the first cheap engraving may give more lasting pleasure than the picture gallery that follows. How few really cheerful faces one sees in the carriages on a fashionable avenue ; in the carriage, for instance, of Mrs. Crœsus, who thinks it her duty to drive, “ in order to air the horses.” But what unutterable bliss is the Sunday afternoon drive to the overworked clerk who has been putting by the two dollars for at least two years. and lying awake at night to decide on the cheapest livery stable ! True, Mrs. Crœsus has the felicity of being the more stared at, but the young man has the profounder felicity of not caring whether he is stared at or not, so long as he — and the young woman — enjoy themselves. Thus the little boy who was seen asleep at the theatre, night after night, explained, toward the end of the season, to the sympathetic and inquiring stranger who waked him, “ Ah, but you see, I have to come. I’ve got a season ticket! ” Alas for wealth, which has season tickets for everything and gets the full relish out of nothing !

If the general tenor of this essay is thus far correct, it may be claimed that the aristocracy of the millionaires is only a prelude to the aristocracy of the millions. We talk of the upper ten thousand now, and may talk of the upper ten million by and by, and so on toward the whole population. As this advance is gradually made, we need not fear but that all the proprieties of life will follow, even if slowly. It is really a greater step to have taught a whole people to read and write than to have taught them all to carry themselves politely and to use their forks properly. I can remember well, in visiting our Western states, fifty years ago, that one encountered in traveling scarcely a person who did not eat with the knife ; whereas now one would think, in hotel or steamboat, that every man was born, not with a silver spoon, but with a silver fork in his mouth. A friend of mine, in those days, using a choice phrase at a Western steamboat table was hailed by an unexpected voice : " That’s a very pretty word you made use of, stranger. Would you have the goodness to repeat that word ? ” That condition of things made the popularity of English novels at that day. They were handbooks of good manners for a public longing to be taught. Here were twenty-five million people eager to learn the manners of duchesses. This spread the new fashions; in older countries, dress was a badge ; the cook would lose her place if she ventured to wear a bonnet like that of her mistress. Here, if the mistress objected to the bonnet, she would lose her cook.

In all this process of gradual development, wealth naturally takes the lead upon a path which tends, on the whole, upward. The aristocracy of the dollar may or may not prepare the way for anything better than its predecessor, but it will have its day. The aristocracy of birth yields, though reluctantly. A story is told of an Englishman who, after a delightful chat with Thackeray, whom he met as a stranger at a club in London, upon being told that it was a famous author to whom he had been talking, replied with surprise, “ Is he an author ? I had taken him for a gentleman.” So Dr. Johnson, nearly two centuries ago, had defined an English merchant as “ a new species of gentleman,” and Lord Stanhope said, with undoubted truth, that the only trade in which an English gentleman could then engage was that of a wine merchant. Travelers tell us of an instance in Scotland where, at a dinner party, an upper servant was sent round beforehand to inquire how many acres of land each guest had inherited, so that they might be arranged at the table in their proper order. How childish these discriminations appear in a land where, as the newspapers lately informed us, a single resident of Rochester, New York, owned four hundred farms in different states in the Union, including thirty-five thousand acres in the state of Kentucky alone ; or where, as was stated not long since, one American citizen controlled two great telegraph lines across the continent and four out of the seven New York daily papers !

That the new aristocracy will have its own problems to meet is plain enough. One great one lies already in the foreground. In Mr. Bodley’s France, generally recognized as one of the ablest of modern social studies, he tells us that in all the leading modern nations, whether styled republican or otherwise, society is no longer complex, but has practically become divided into only two social classes : “ that which gains a livelihood by manual toil, and that which earns a living in other ways, or subsists on the interest of capital ” (I. 9). Is this easy conclusion justified ? Now that mercantile life has come to be, as in America, a gentleman’s employment, who can help seeing that it only involves a question of time for mechanical occupations to receive the same recognition? Who can go into a machine shop of the present day without thinking how much more of intellect dwells in those wheels and bands than in the majority, not merely of counting-rooms, but even of court-rooms and pulpits ? Constant inventive power is steadily transforming trades into arts ; the great factory not only educates the man who runs it, but every boy who tends a lever or minds an engine. I remember that once, when I approached at evening, by a local railway branch, the New England village where I was to give a lecture, I noticed, as we drew near the station, an eager interest and mutual conference among the passengers, joined with an air of evident pride and exultation. I was at last approached by the conductor, who had evidently noted me, with the inquiry whether I was the lecturer expected. On my assenting, his face lighted up as he eagerly told me the fact which had evidently thrilled every breast. “ You may not be aware, sir,” he said, “ that the president of the lecture association has been called out of town, and that the vice president who is to present you to the audience is the engineer of this very train ! ” When the time came, no President of the United States could have introduced a guest with more propriety and dignity than did this railway engineer ; and when I left that little town at dawn, he honored me with a seat beside him on the locomotive, — his own lecture platform. I felt for an hour, in the glory of the swift motion and of that winter sunrise, as if the whole problem of democracy were solved and the future of the republic were secure.

Thomas Wentworth Higginson.