Power in the US I:The WASP Ascendancy

My late friend Alex was a holocaust survivor who landed in New York as a refugee after World War II, a young man who then went on to create a new life for himself here. A teenager when the War broke out, Alex shared the story of how he was shipped across Europe from camp to camp with Joanna Wiszniewicz of the Polish-Jewish Institute in Warsaw. This story has been published in book form And Yet I Still Have Dreams: A Story of Certain Loneliness. Not an easy read, but one that reveals the best in people along with the worst.
Always grateful to have become an American, Alex was a keen student of US social structure and politics; and with Old World wisdom, he would say “If you have to have a ruling class, the WASPs are the best – they are honest and they are not intellectual.”
The phrase WASP is an acronym for White Anglo-Saxon Protestant and designates an upper-class, white American protestant usually of English descent – especially those with roots in colonial New England and, better yet, those who went to an Ivy League school. The group also includes the members of prominent New York families whose roots go back to the Dutch period and who blended into the WASP social world, such as the Roosevelts and van Cortlandts; these are often referred to as “patroons,” the Dutch term for settlers who were granted 16 miles of land along the Hudson River as part of their civilizing mission.
The most storied representatives of the WASP world were the Boston Brahmin families: the Lowells, the Cabots, the Lodges, et al. So clubby were they that they inspired this doggerel:
Here’s to dear old Boston, Home of the Bean and the Cod.
Where the Lowells speak only to Cabots and the Cabots speak only to God
From the very beginnings of the new nation, armed with the Protestant Ethic and those Ivy League diplomas, its scions have occupied the presidency (starting with John Adams, Harvard 1755) and held seats on the Supreme Court (starting with first Chief Justice John Jay, Columbia 1764) – Adams’ family arrived in Massachusetts around 1638 while Jay’s mother’s family were the van Cortlandts and his paternal grandfather was a French Huguenot who came to NY in the late 1600s.
The US always being exceptional, it can be argued that the Marxist sounding term “ruling class” doesn’t quite fit the American experience. Wikipedia has it thus: “The ruling class is the social class of a given society that decides upon and sets that society’s political agenda.” So, for the sake of discussion and simplicity, let us stay with it. There is a point to having a ruling class. The ship of state is steady and transitions of power peaceful (something that is of concern lately in the US). Family ties, concern for future generations and responsibility for the nation in their charge makes a ruling class a dynasty which directs the country with a long term view as opposed to the short-term logic of the stock market and with a nationalistic view as opposed to that of striving politicians who are beholden to self-interested donors and lobbyists.
Until not very long ago, the WASPs were visible everywhere – in business, government and academe; their leadership role in American life was universally acknowledged. Today they have almost disappeared from view; indeed, for some years now, not a single person even raised Protestant has been on the Supreme Court, a court where the WASPs were accustomed to being the majority. How did we get here? Mystėre.
Indeed, the WASPs were the great stewards of American capitalism from the Industrial Revolution on. At the outset, they had to share power with the rich, well-educated, planter class of the South. With the Civil War, however, the WASPs became the uncontested ruling class of the United States. The nation’s history was rewritten and Thanksgiving became the holiday to commemorate the arrival of Europeans on these shores as Plymouth replaced Jamestown in the official story.
The WASP leadership would see the country through Reconstruction, the Gilded Age, the Spanish-American War, the Progressive Era, WW I, the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression and WW II.
After the Civil War the Republicans in Congress moved quickly to pass the 13th Amendment (1865) which ended slavery as such in the US and then went on to pass the 14th (citizenship, due process and equal protection under the law, 1868) and the 15th (the right to vote, 1870).
Like the course of true love, that of the WASP Ascendancy was not always smooth. Except for those three amendments, their post-Civil War record on race relations proved disastrous. To start, the scope of the 14th amendment was rolled back soon after ratification by the Supreme Court in the Slaughter-House Cases of 1873, making the amendment’s passage a “vain and idle enactment” in the words of dissenting justice Stephen J. Field.
Despite the WASP reputation for honesty and despite the fact that the first Grants arrived in Massachusetts in 1630, the two terms of West Point graduate U.S. Grant (1869-1877) were plagued by corruption. Still, towards the very end of Grant’s tenure, Congress did pass the Civil Rights Act of 1875 which outlawed racial segregation in public places, thus staying true to the agenda of the abolitionist movement.
Then came 1876, a year Gore Vidal described as “probably the low point in our republic’s history.” The Republican candidate for president was Rutherford B. Hayes (Harvard Law) whose forebears missed the Mayflower and didn’t reach Connecticut until 1625. The Republicans engineered a deal with the Southern states to secure the presidency although Hayes had lost the popular vote to Democratic candidate Samuel Tilden. The deal gave Hayes a majority in the Electoral College but ended Reconstruction – a true Faustian Bargain. That plus the Supreme Court’s overturning that same Civil Rights Act in a basket of cases called the Civil Rights Cases (1883) followed by Plessy v Ferguson (1896) served to keep the former slave states safe for white supremacy.
A break in the Republican suite of presidents occurred with the election of Grover Cleveland in 1884. Though a Democrat, his WASP credentials were solid – the Cleveland family went back to 1635 in Massachusetts. Cleveland’s two terms were, in turn, split by the election of Ohioan Benjamin Harrison whose ancestors included a US president (grandfather) and a signer of the Declaration of Independence (great-grandfather).
Continental imperialism continued with the American Indian Wars (aka American Frontier Wars) which ground on even after the closing of the Frontier (1890 according to the Census Bureau and Frederick Jackson Turner). Overseas imperialism began under President William McKinley with the annexation of Hawaii and then the Spanish-American War which led to the annexation of the Philippine Islands and Puerto Rico. As for family tree, on both sides his forebears (Scots-Irish and English) went back to the early 1700s in Pennsylvania. The McKinley name has since lost some of its luster – until recently the tallest mountain in North America was named Mt McKinley; now it is officially known by its Native American name Denali, no “Mt” required.
The excesses of the Gilded Age and the robber barons were reined in some by the Progressive Era policies enacted during the presidency of Teddy Roosevelt, a Harvard man (1880) with impeccable patroon credentials. Roosevelt was followed by William H. Taft (Yale 1878) whose family tree went back to the 1660s in Massachusetts.
Following Woodrow Wilson (a Democrat of vintage Scots-Irish heritage, Princeton 1879), Warren Harding a Republican from Ohio became the next president –- no surprise there: in the sequence from Grant to Harding, 7 of the 10 elected presidents were from the great state of Ohio! The Harding administration was another low point, however, for the WASP Ascendancy and their reputation for honest living. Despite his distinguished forebears (on his mother’s side his family tree went back to the eminent patroon Van Kirk family), Harding’s administration begat the Teapot Dome Scandal (oil leases on Federal lands in California and Wyoming); and there was scandal in his personal life: he had an illegitimate daughter with Nan Britton, his long time paramour. To make matters worse, Britton went on to write The President’s Daughter, a pioneering “Kiss and Tell” publication and one juicy even by today’s standards. There’s more: Harding died in most mysterious circumstances in a San Francisco hotel room – arguably done in by his long-suffering wife, the stuff of a resilient conspiracy theory.
Moral order was restored with the accession to the presidency of Vice-President Calvin Coolidge in 1923, a Yale Law graduate whose Puritan ancestry traced back to 1630 in Massachusetts. To boot, Coolidge was an active member of the Congregational Church while mayor of Northampton, Massachusetts – the very church of the fiery preacher Jonathan Edwards whose sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” electrified the New England of the mid 1700s.
There was another brief break with the Ivy League tradition with the election of Herbert Hoover (Stanford 1895). Hoover was from Iowa originally making him the only president till then from West of the Mississippi. The Protestant dimension still loomed large, however, as Hoover pummeled his Irish-Catholic opponent, NY governor Al Smith. Hoover even carried 5 states from the Solid South, a bloc which had voted Democratic unerringly since the end of Reconstruction.
With the Great Depression, the public turned once again to the WASP ruling class and elected Franklin D. Roosevelt (Harvard 1903) to the office of President. So central still to the nation’s psyche was the WASP leadership that George Santayana’s novel The Last Puritan was a bestseller in 1936, second in sales only to Gone With The Wind. FDR’s job was to make America safe for capitalism. With the New Deal and pro-labor policies, his administration forestalled threats from the far Left and, on the other hand, subsidized industry with huge public works projects – many of them iconic such as the Golden Gate Bridge, the Hoover Dam and the Tennessee Valley Authority.
In the post-war world, the WASP political class still stood tall. The Cabots, the Lodges, the Harrimans, the Rockefellers, the Tafts were still politically active and visible. But the dynasty was coming to an end. Indeed, with the Depression and WW II, power had to be shared with others. The New Deal empowered labor unions – a development long resisted by the establishment. By now, the colorful robber barons were long gone and faceless “organization men” were at the helm of the huge war-fed corporations that had made the US “the arsenal of democracy.” The War and the new Cold War created the Military-Industrial Complex, a fearsome new kind of alliance of capitalism and the military.
At this point in time, the legacy of the WASP ascendancy wasn’t looking so bad – a most glaring exception being the situation of Black America, a population callously abandoned by the leadership since the end of Reconstruction. And this villainy continued after World War II as the Great Migration of 5 million black Americans to the Northern cities gained momentum, spurred in part by the invention of the cotton harvesting machine in 1944 – Nicholas Lemann, The Promised Land (1991). The response was high-rise ghettos as federal funds were directed to ensure the Levittowns of the post-War suburbs would be segregated. The integration of the military and of major league baseball during the Truman administration were the only bright spots.
A sure sign that the times were a-changin’ came in 1952 when the young Irish-Catholic JFK defeated the Brahmin stalwart Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. in a race for a Senate seat in Massachusetts: Lodge was the sitting senator and this was a stunning defeat for the WASP establishment.
A dynastic ruling class provides for continuity and national unity; it is patriotic in the true sense of the term and puts the nation’s interests first because it identifies the nation’s interests with its own. With the WASP ascendancy ending in America, what would follow? Where would the new leadership of the new colossus take us? Today, we can be nostalgic about the WASPs’ role as a ruling class as the country is in the process of tearing itself apart. More to come.

2 thoughts on “Power in the US I:The WASP Ascendancy

  1. Nice essay: Interesting and surely consistent with conscious and un-conscious nurturing. It’s a truism, and what co0mes to matter–good or bad– is what is being nurtured. Couple of related thoughts

    An example. My father, who went only to the 6th grade or so before entering into show businesses in the first half of his life, could teach anybody anything he knew and, somehow, he knew a lot; it was perhaps one of his best abilities. Fortunately I acquired it, I guess by just watching how he did it, and he did have “a way.” I never thought much about the roots of his skill, just knew that somehow he had acquired it.

    Not that long ago my adult sons did some serious genealogy work on that side of the family– easier to trace than all other strands for the unusual family name. Turns out his grandfather was the head of some major Govt. Education Dept. in Cuba… and, as far back as my sons traced to the 1500’s in Spain, the male line members were ALL educators. Hmmm.

    Second: I read this above– “The nation’s history was rewritten and Thanksgiving became the holiday to commemorate the arrival of Europeans on these shores as Plymouth replaced Jamestown in the official story.” That may be the current narrative, but the first Thanksgiving was both toward the Indians who had helped the settlers survive, but also and especially to their God. Whatever else those settlers had in common–and one given specific religion was not one such– the Founders all understood THEY were not at the top of the spiritual food-chain, and our earliest defining documents make ample reference to that ongoing thread: A nurtured awareness of and respect for God… however sinful this or that individual may have been.

    Third: An earlier attempt to place a Catholic in the WH– Al Smith– was derailed by that same group who had aligned themselves around THEIR God, or what was left of Him, and wanted no more-structured religionist playing in the game. By the time JFK came along, he was as little Catholic as they were Protestant; his religion did not matter so much, though they made the perfunctory complaint, for its not mattering as it once had to earlier public figures. What mattered more was JFK’s financial status (irrespective of the source of that money) and his NE geographical credits.

    Fourth: I say often “we freely (increasingly dishonestly) elect representatives to Govt who re-present us to ourselves”…. and they surely do, except that they appear/become us writ-large for being on a most public stage: a magnified mirror for us to witness– and deny, depending on political persuasion– that they are perhaps even greater sinners than we electors.

    Fifth: Today a belief in God, mush less a deference to His will, is disappearing from our culture as a whole; rather, a denouncing of Him is an increasing norm. THAT is what we are nurturing. And that nurturing– like my father’s long line of teachers– is having its impact and will have for generations to come.

    AND, we all allowed it to happen.

    1. I rather agree about JFK. His wealth, his Harvard degree, his socialite spouse, his Boston background – all made him fit neatly into the WASP framework. Had he lived, he might well have in fact extended the Ascendancy for a generation.

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