As I discussed yesterday, the U.S. of A. never created a formal hereditary aristocracy on the British model. But before American politics turned against the whole idea of aristocracy, some leaders argued that some sort of noble class was a useful check on both autocracy and democracy.
Notably, on 18 Oct 1790, John Adams wrote to Samuel Adams about the value of “nobles” in preserving balanced government:
By nobles, I mean not peculiarly an hereditary nobility, or any particular modification, but the natural and actual aristocracy among mankind. The existence of this you will not deny. You and I have seen four noble families rise up in Boston,—the Craftses, Gores, Daweses, and Austins. These are as really a nobility in our town as the Howards, Somersets, Berties, &c., in England.(This transcription isn’t exact. When this letter was published at the time, printers cleaned up Adams’s spellings.)
Blind, undistinguishing reproaches against the aristocratical part of mankind, a division which nature has made, and we cannot abolish, are neither pious nor benevolent. They are as pernicious as they are false. They serve only to foment prejudice, jealousy, envy, animosity, and malevolence. They serve no ends but those of sophistry, fraud, and the spirit of party.
All the families that Adams named had risen from the ranks of craftsmen to that of gentlemen (particularly lawyers, his own profession) in his lifetime:
- Thomas Crafts was a decorative painter who helped organize the earliest Stamp Act protests in Boston, commanded the Massachusetts militia artillery during the war, and became a selectman and magistrate.
- John Gore also started as a decorative painter and became a militia officer. His oldest daughter, Frances, married Crafts; his middle son, Samuel, became a factory owner; and his youngest son, Christopher, went into the law and eventually became governor of Massachusetts.
- The elder Thomas Dawes was a house carpenter who went into politics; his son of the same name became a judge. (William Dawes was a cousin.) The family’s descendants included Senator Henry L. Dawes and Vice President Chester G. Dawes.
- Benjamin Austin, a merchant and state legislator, and Jonathan L. Austin, eventually state treasurer, were the sons of the manager and part-owner of a rope factory.
Adams’s insistence on the value of such a “natural aristocracy” reflected his view of proper constitutional balance was always a shifting contest among the one (monarch, President), the few (lords, Senate, political class in general), and the many (Commons, House of Representatives, voters or people in general). Not to mention his penchant for dividing groups into thirds.
Other thinkers of the time also advocated a tripartite division of power, but that wasn’t the only constitutional model Americans were working with. For example, during the Revolution some states opted for a one-chamber legislature and/or a council of men instead of a single person as executive. But Adams’s model won out, in Massachusetts in 1780 and in the U.S. of A. as a whole in 1788.