Who Are the American Aristocracy?

Nov 19, 2021 | Noble Titles, Royal Titles, USA

Over the last few centuries, there developed a class of eminent families and individuals in the United States that have come to be known as the American Aristocracy.

In the truest sense of the term, America doesn’t have an aristocratic or noble class, largely because it has never had a royal ruler or monarch. When the country was colonised in the 16th century, it was settled and later governed by European explorers. These colonies grew and developed over the centuries, until they eventually declared their independence from the European colonial rule and became a Republic, i.e. a nation governed by its own people and representatives, rather than by a king, queen or emperor.

Without any royal heritage, there were no official noble lines or aristocratic titles and ranks such as Dukes, Lords, Barons, Counts and Earls. This is because the noble titles of the aristocracy in places such as England, France, Germany and Spain etc were gifts of privilege, rank, power or prestige from the kings and queens of the time. In most of the evolved systems of nobility, only a royal monarch had the power to grant the rank or title of an official aristocratic position.

However, the evolution of society in America has followed a similar pattern to the older social systems in Europe and elsewhere, in that – even in the absence of a king or queen to bestow power and privilege – an elite social class has emerged regardless.

America’s apparent aristocracy is a testament to the tendency of social groups to rise or fall based on certain criteria and conditions. These include family background, ambition, financial wealth, political prowess, appeal to the masses and powerful connections.

In the earliest days of America’s Aristocracy, the individuals that rose within society were those who proved themselves in governance and politics. As the country evolved from its colonial past, some of the men who had found power within the early colonies and settlements established strong reputations and wealth that formed the foundation for esteemed positions for the generations to follow.

Theodore Roosevelt and family

Unknown authorUnknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Families such as the Roosevelt family, who had originated, like many American colonials, from the Netherlands, became prominent political players in the 17th century, and rose to such heights of power, esteem, fame and fortune that the family name is still associated with America’s grandest political families even today.

As American society evolved, a new class of aristocracy emerged. The rise of trade and industry of the 18th and 19th centuries created stupendous empires of wealth and commercial success, headed by powerful, influential men such as Andrew Carnegie who made his fortune in the steel industry and went on to become one of the richest American’s of all time.

As the wealth, power and social influence of these business titans grew, their rich and privileged families became an eminent class within society. These families, although relative newcomers to the Upper Class and High Society of colonial America, soon became the social equivalent of Europe’s nobility. They built for themselves vast palatial homes and estates, and spent a good deal of their time moving in elite circles, mixing with the powerful leaders and dignitaries, using their wealth and influence to support their chosen political parties and causes.

This new American nobility would come to be regarded as the epitome of social eminence. Their parties would be the highlights of the season, when an invitation (or the lack of) could make or break another family’s position within the social hierarchy. The clothes and interiors chosen by the wives and daughters of these business magnates would be the last word in fashion and trend-setting for the adoring and fascinated middle classes.

As America established its identity as a nation in the centuries following its independence, the families that were the first to make their names and fortunes became known as Old Money. Sometimes referred to as WASPs – White Anglo Saxon Protestant – these older families regarded themselves as the true aristocracy of America. The exclusivity and strict codes of admittance rivalled some of the more ancient noble mandates and strictures from more formal aristocratic systems, such as those of their forebears in England and Europe.

When the industrialist and banking magnates began their own similar rise to power and social elevation, the Old Money families clung to their place at the head of society, attempting to restrict which of these New Money or nouveau riche upstarts would be allowed to join the exclusive club of America’s Aristocracy.

One of the most legendary clashes between Old Money and New Money within American High Society was the story of Alva Vanderbilt in the late 19th century. While the Vanderbilt name is now firmly established within America’s great families, they originally found themselves on the wrong side of the Old Money / New Money divide. Alva Vanderbilt was the wife of the heir to the Vanderbilt fortune which was built on shipping and railroad success.

Mrs. O.H.P. (Alva) Belmont

Bain News Service, publisherAdam Cuerden, restoration., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Alva strived tirelessly for many years to become accepted within the established social order, facing the snobbery and exclusion that many of those new to traditional aristocracy would be familiar with. In the end, though, she triumphed and the family became one of the cornerstones of the new social establishment, helped significantly by the arranged alliance of her daughter Consuelo with the undoubted pedigree and ancient heritage of the Duke of Marlborough, from one of England’s oldest and most respected noble families.

Over the centuries since the wealthy industrialists replaced the Old Money colonials, new types of social elites have emerged. The Oil Barons of the 19th century, such as John D Rockefeller and John Paul Getty established new strata of wealth and social influence. Similarly, the families that found fame and fortune in banking and finance also secured their position within American society.

While the source of their riches has varied through time, in line with the cultural demands and developments, these families have undoubtedly contributed to the formation of a social hierarchy in America. And while they may still officially belong to a republican country, their wealth, influence, power and taste for the finer things in life have secured their position in history as America’s unique take on the aristocratic class.

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