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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

Our American Gentry

By Charles William Eliot (1834–1926)

[Born in Boston, Mass., 1834. Died in Northeast Harbor, Me., 1926. Phi Beta Kappa Address on “The Working of the American Democracy.” Harvard University, 28 June, 1888.]

IT is said that democracy is fighting against the best-determined and most peremptory of biological laws; namely, the law of heredity, with which law the social structure of monarchical and oligarchical States is in strict conformity. This criticism fails to recognize the distinction between artificial privileges transmissible without regard to inherited virtues or powers, and inheritable virtues or powers transmissible without regard to hereditary privileges. Artificial privileges will be abolished by a democracy; natural, inheritable virtues or powers are as surely transmissible under a democracy as under any other form of government. Families can be made just as enduring in a democratic as in an oligarchic State, if family permanence be desired and aimed at. The desire for the continuity of vigorous families, and for the reproduction of beauty, genius, and nobility of character is universal. “From fairest creatures we desire increase” is the commonest of sentiments. The American multitude will not take the children of distinguished persons on trust; but it is delighted when an able man has an able son, or a lovely mother a lovelier daughter. That a democracy does not prescribe the close intermarriage which characterizes a strict aristocracy, so-called, is physically not a disadvantage, but a great advantage for the freer society. The French nobility and the English House of Lords furnish good evidence that aristocracies do not succeed in perpetuating select types of intellect or of character.

In the future there will undoubtedly be seen a great increase in the number of permanent families in the United States,—families in which honor, education, and property will be transmitted with reasonable certainty; and a fair beginning has already been made. On the quinquennial catalogue of Harvard University there are about five hundred and sixty family stocks, which have been represented by graduates at intervals for at least one hundred years. On the Yale catalogue there are about four hundred and twenty such family stocks; and it is probable that all other American colleges which have existed one hundred years or more show similar facts in proportion to their age and to the number of their graduates. There is nothing in American institutions to prevent this natural process from extending and continuing. The college graduate who does not send his son to college is a curious exception. American colleges are, indeed, chiefly recruited from the sons of men who were not college-bred themselves; for democratic society is mobile, and permits young men of ability to rise easily from the lower to the higher levels. But on the other hand nothing in the constitution of society forces men down who have once risen, or prevents their children and grandchildren from staying on the higher level if they have the virtue in them….

Two things are necessary to family permanence,—education and bodily vigor, in every generation. To secure these two things, the holding and the transmission of moderate properties in families must be so well provided for by law and custom as to be possible for large numbers of families. For the objects in view, great properties are not so desirable as moderate or even small properties, since the transmission of health and education with great properties is not so sure as with small properties. It is worth while to inquire, therefore, what has been accomplished under the reign of the American democracy in the way of making the holding and the transmission of small properties possible. In the first place, safe investments for moderate sums have been greatly multiplied and made accessible, as every trustee knows. Great trust-investment companies have been created expressly to hold money safely, and make it yield a sure though small income. The savings-bank and the insurance company have been brought to every man’s door, the latter insuring against almost every kind of disaster to which property and earning capacity are liable. Life insurance has been regulated and fostered, with the result of increasing materially the stability of households and the chances of transmitting education in families. Through these and other agencies it has been made more probable that widows and orphans will inherit property, and easier for them to hold property securely,—a very important point in connection with the permanence of families, as may be strikingly illustrated by the single statement that eighteen per cent. of the students in Harvard College have no fathers living. Many new employments have been opened to women, who have thus been enabled more easily to hold families together and educate their children. Finally, society has been saved in great measure from war and revolution, and from the fear of these calamities; and thus family property, as well as happiness, has been rendered more secure.

The holding and the transmission of property in families are, however, only means to two ends; namely, education and health in successive generations. From the first, the American democracy recognized the fact that education was of supreme importance to it,—the elementary education for all, the higher for all the naturally selected; but it awakened much later to the necessity of attending to the health of the people. European aristocracies have always secured themselves in a measure against physical degeneration by keeping a large proportion of their men in training as soldiers and sportsmen, and most of their women at ease in country seats. In our democratic society, which at first thought only of work and production, it is to be observed that public attention is directed more and more to the means of preserving and increasing health and vigor. Some of these means are country schools for city children, country or seaside houses for families, public parks and gardens, out-of-door sports, systematic physical training in schools and colleges, vacations for business and professional men, and improvements in the dwellings and the diet of all classes. Democracy leaves marriages and social groups to be determined by natural affiliation or congeniality of tastes and pursuits, which is the effective principle in the association of cultivated persons under all forms of government. So far from having any quarrel with the law of hereditary transmission, it leaves the principle of heredity perfectly free to act; but it does not add to the natural sanctions of that principle an unnecessary bounty of privileges conferred by law.

From this consideration of the supposed conflict between democracy and the law of heredity the transition is easy to my last topic; namely, the effect of democratic institutions on the production of ladies and gentlemen. There can be no question that a general amelioration of manners is brought about in a democracy by public schools, democratic churches, public conveyances without distinction of class, universal suffrage, town-meetings, and all the multifarious associations in which democratic society delights; but this general amelioration might exist, and yet the highest types of manners might fail. Do these fail? On this important point American experience is already interesting, and I think conclusive. Forty years ago Emerson said it was a chief felicity of our country that it excelled in women. It excels more and more. Who has not seen in public and in private life American women unsurpassable in grace and graciousness, in serenity and dignity, in affluent gladness and abounding courtesy? Now, the lady is the consummate fruit of human society at its best. In all the higher walks of American life there are men whose bearing and aspect at once distinguish them as gentlemen. They have personal force, magnanimity, moderation, and refinement; they are quick to see and to sympathize; they are pure, brave, and firm. These are also the qualities that command success; and herein lies the only natural connection between the possession of property and nobility of character. In a mobile or free society the excellent or noble man is likely to win ease and independence; but it does not follow that under any form of government the man of many possessions is necessarily excellent. On the evidence of my reading and of my personal observation at home and abroad, I fully believe that there is a larger proportion of ladies and gentlemen in the United States than in any other country. This proposition is, I think, true with the highest definition of the term “lady” or “gentleman”; but it is also true, if ladies and gentlemen are only persons who are clean and well-dressed, who speak gently and eat with their forks. It is unnecessary, however, to claim any superiority for democracy in this respect; enough that the highest types of manners in men and women are produced abundantly on democratic soil.

It would appear then from American experience that neither generations of privileged ancestors nor large inherited possessions are necessary to the making of a lady or a gentleman. What is necessary? In the first place, natural gifts. The gentleman is born in a democracy, no less than in a monarchy. In other words, he is a person of fine bodily and spiritual qualities, mostly innate. Secondly, he must have through elementary education early access to books, and therefore to great thoughts and high examples. Thirdly, he must be early brought into contact with some refined and noble person,—father, mother, teacher, pastor, employer, or friend. These are the only necessary conditions in peaceful times and in law-abiding communities like ours. Accordingly, such facts as the following are common in the Unified States: One of the numerous children of a small farmer manages to fit himself for college, works his way through college, becomes a lawyer, at forty is a much-trusted man in one of the chief cities of the Union, and is distinguished for the courtesy and dignity of his bearing and speech. The son of a country blacksmith is taught and helped to a small college by his minister; he himself becomes a minister, has a long fight with poverty and ill-health, but at forty-five holds as high a place as his profession affords, and every line in his face and every tone in his voice betoken the gentleman. The sons and daughters of a successful shopkeeper take the highest places in the most cultivated society of their native place, and well deserve the preëminence accorded to them. The daughter of a man of very imperfect education, who began life with nothing and became a rich merchant, is singularly beautiful from youth to age, and possesses to the highest degree the charm of dignified and gracious manners. A young girl, not long out of school, the child of respectable but obscure parents, marries a public man, and in conspicuous station bears herself with a grace, discretion, and nobleness which she could not have exceeded had her blood been royal for seven generations. Striking cases of this kind will occur to every person in this assembly. They are every-day phenomena in American society. What conclusion do they establish? They prove that the social mobility of a democracy, which permits the excellent and well-endowed of either sex to rise and to seek out each other, and which gives every advantageous variation or sport in a family stock free opportunity to develop, is immeasurably more beneficial to a nation than any selective in-breeding, founded on class distinctions, which has ever been devised. Since democracy has every advantage for producing in due season and proportion the best human types, it is reasonable to expect that science and literature, music and art, and all the finer graces of society will develop and thrive in America, as soon as the more urgent tasks of subduing a wilderness and organizing society upon an untried plan are fairly accomplished.