J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, November 03, 2008

American Politics and the British Aristocracy

When the U.S. of A. left the British Empire, it lost the top of that society’s elite: the inherited positions of monarch, lords, and wealthiest gentlemen. Some of the North American elite had supported the Crown, and they left for Britain and Canada. Other well-born Americans had led the Whig resistance, and became even bigger frogs in the small U.S. pond. But there was still a lot of open water.

Amid the upheaval and war, new men rose to prominence: bookseller’s apprentice Henry Knox, illegitimate islander Alexander Hamilton, carpenter Ebenezer Stevens, underwear maker Thomas Paine, Irish redcoat Andrew Brown. In British society, their opportunities were limited. In the U.S. of A., they all became gentlemen of influence. (To be sure, the old aristocratic system offered its own openings for ambitious men willing to serve powerful patrons, such as Benjamin Thompson of Woburn, later Count Rumford.)

As John Adams’s remarks about a “natural and actual aristocracy” showed, a lot of people still expected power to bunch in families. And in the Adams family it did, for three or four generations. But gradually American society has become more egalitarian and open—as has British society, and every other society in the industrialized world. Though all elites wish to pass down privileges to their children, democracies need to enable talent from every quarter.

Industrialized democracies have therefore tried to replace aristocracy with meritocracy: various systems for identifying and educating talented youth. Those systems all seem to require public education (pioneered in Massachusetts), libraries, inexpensive universities or generous financial aid for higher education, and other ways of spreading opportunities as widely as possible. In addition, as long as unfair discrimination lingers, equal-opportunity societies take affirmative steps to counteract it, or else talent can’t rise from every corner.

Of the four candidates in the current national election, two—Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. Joe Biden—came up through that meritocratic system. Obama, as we all know now, didn’t grow up with wealth or connections. He’s an immigrant’s son, raised away from the U.S. mainland, and visibly African-American in a society that still has racist strains. Biden was the son of a car salesman who attended his state university.

In contrast, Sen. John McCain was the son and grandson of admirals who followed them into the U.S. Navy. He entered the naval academy without good grades, graduated near the bottom of his class, and kept his wings even after crashing airplanes. This Rolling Stone article reported how McCain enjoyed the privileges of flying out of an airfield named after his family. By his own telling, he matured only when he became a prisoner of war, and his family background turned into a liability instead of an asset. Even so, he’s struggled to realize what good fortune has come his way in life.

Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska represents a third strain in American politics: an anti-elitist populism with roots in the Puritan, Revolutionary, and Jacksonian periods. Though Palin’s parents were public-school educators (a teacher and a school secretary), she appears to have taken a casual approach to education. Her political campaigns have all had the theme of overturning forces in power, whether locally or statewide (even when her own party has been in power). That message resonates because most Americans are suspicious of aristocracy—so strongly, in fact, that many of us resent the products of meritocracy as well.

Which brings me to the curious moment this July when Lady Lynn Forester de Rothschild told C.N.N. about Obama: “...frankly I don’t like him. I feel like he is an elitist. I feel like he has not given me reason to trust him.” In September, as Rothschild prepared to endorse McCain, she published a Wall Street Journal opinion piece that again used the word “elitist.”

Looking at an anti-elitist essay over the byline “Lynn Forester de Rothschild,“ Mickey Kaus at Slate commented, “You lost me at ‘de’.” And Rothschild hadn’t even used the aristocratic title she’d received on marrying Sir Evelyn Robert de Rothschild of the fabulously rich British-French banking family.

Lady de Rothschild and her third husband live at Ascott House, shown above. (This is one of several handsome pictures on Wikipedia.) They also own homes in the Chelsea section of London and in New York. (The couple has no home in Washington, D.C.; when visiting that city, Rothschild told Condé Nast Portfolio in 2007, “I assume I’ll still be at the Four Seasons.”) Portfolio called Rothschild the “flashiest hostess in London.”

Given that perspective, what could Rothschild have meant by “elitist”? Her opinion piece didn’t define that trait or offer evidence of how Obama might fit the definition. Its argument seemed to be that other, unnamed other people thought Obama was elitist, so therefore he must be. Rothschild named Thomas Dewey as an American politician from a “modest background.” In fact, Dewey was the son of a newspaper publisher, less patrician than Franklin D. Roosevelt but closer to the governing elite than farmer’s son Harry S. Truman.

Rothschild’s profiles describe her as having had a middle-class upbringing in Oradell, New Jersey. Her father, John Kenneth (Ken) Forester, founded the General Aviation Company in 1954 to provide private and charter planes for executives. As Meridian Aircraft, it remains a family firm, catering particularly to the private planes of New York executives. I don’t know what sort of lifestyle that company’s income provided the Foresters in the 1960s, but clearly its success depended on pleasing America’s corporate elite.

Lynn Forester went to college and law school, like Obama and Biden. After that, she doesn’t seem to have been concerned enough about elitism to enter, say, civil rights law, criminal law, politics, or education, all of which can have direct effects on the lives of the poor. Rather, she went into international business law. On the advice of John Kluge, she made an early bet in telecommunications, and ended up selling her government-granted wireless broadband rights for millions of dollars. Rothschild was therefore a self-made entrepreneur before her latest marriage.

Nevertheless, I can’t help but notice how much thought she devotes to family backgrounds instead of individual achievement. She told the Times, “I think Evelyn fell in love with me when I told him, ‘I’m so impressed how you have risen above the stature of your birth’.” (That was at an invitation-only Bilderberg conference.) Rothschild reassured Portfolio that her husband’s resignation as corporate chairman “was not a particularly difficult decision, because the bank has stayed within family control.” She praised the Estée Lauder company because “the Lauder family is essential to the success of that company.”

Rothschild’s latest business venture involves selling luxury items in India:

You know India has luxury in its DNA. All you’ve got to do is look at the maharajas and look at the Taj Mahal. There’s no Hermès or Louis Vuitton that’s going to tell India anything about luxury. Luxury is a very interesting, undeveloped piece of India.
Another “undeveloped piece of India” is the millions of children who live in grinding poverty; they’re definitely not part of the world’s elite, but they’re also not part of Rothschild’s stated concerns.

In our soon-to-end presidential race, there have been a lot of outlandish and demonstrably false statements, but for me Lady de Rothschild’s remarks stand out as the most ridiculous. Given our nation’s history, they’re also the most ironic: a rich, titled Londoner telling Americans that a former neighborhood activist is “elitist.” At least in the Revolutionary period, Lady de Rothschild could have voiced the aristocratic disdain and resentment of Tories instead of trying to camouflage her personal preferences in anti-aristocratic rhetoric.


RJO said...

An enlightening and entertaining commentary as always.

From a New England historico-genealogical point of view, McCain and Biden are not of interest. McCain's ancestry is in early Virginia and North Carolina, and Biden's earliest American ancestors were in colonial Delaware and Pennsylvania. (Two of Fischer's core settlement areas in Albion's Seed.)

Obama and Palin, however, both descend from another core settlement area: Puritan Massachusetts.

> [Obama]’s an immigrant’s son

You were thinking of his immigrant father, but on his mother's side Obama is a descendant of Massachusetts Puritan immigrants Edward FitzRandolph of Barnstable (1607–) and Samuel Hinckley of Scituate (–1661). And Sarah Palin is Mayflower descendant through passengers John Howland and Elizabeth Tilley.

But through the wonder of genealogy ... Palin is also a descendant of Samuel Hinckley of Scituate, and so Palin and Obama are in fact cousins. (I think it was 9th once removed, but I counted a while ago and have now forgotten.) So whichever way the election goes, there will be a son or daughter of Massachusetts in the White House.

Endless details of political genealogy are available from William Addams Reitwiesner of the Library of Congress:


J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for the info, I think. It means that I’m related to Gov. Palin.

Gary Boyd Roberts at the New England Historical Genealogical Society’s Notable Kin site is another font of information on Presidents’ ancestry.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the history.My mom belonged to Concord ,Mass. DAR!

Reasons to Be Cheerful, Part 3 said...

Lady, you're no lady! Check out my latest cartoon recap of her "career" as political genius at my Reasons To Be Cheerful, Part 3 blog.