Aristocracy in America

©7-2016 Matt Fitzgibbons,

balmoral-castleSince the mid-18th century, before there was a United States, America came to despise aristocracy and everything it stood for. Today, with fewer and fewer voters familiar with history, aristocracy has experienced resurgence by using this vacuum as a new medium in which to flourish.

After almost a century of effective isolation from their mother country, American Colonists in the mid 1700s had developed their own unique understanding of man’s relationship with government. Literacy rates in the American Colonies were among the highest in the world. They were both well-versed in history and political philosophy and proud of their English tradition of legalism, which promised that all subjects of the crown were equal in the eyes of the law. However, after the Seven Years War (what we Americans call “The French Indian War”), King George III and Parliament began reinterpreting and eliminating the colonists’ rights and effectively nullifying decades of legal tradition in the American Colonies to force them to pay what they deemed was their fair share of that expensive war. After various taxes, tariffs, protests and eventually bloody battles, the British Empire not only failed in their goal, they found that they had created a tempest which lead to the creation of the longest-standing, free nation in human history. And it initiated revolutions around the world that would systematically seek to eradicate the effective power of all forms of aristocracy.

liberty-bellWe often think of the Declaration of Independence as the beginning of the American War for Independence, but it was Thomas Paine in his incredibly popular “Common Sense” who dared be the first to write what many Americans were thinking, though few would risk treason by writing:
“Men who look upon themselves born to reign, and others to obey, soon grow insolent; selected from the rest of mankind their minds are early poisoned by importance; and the world they act in differs so materially from the world at large, that they have but little opportunity of knowing its true interest, and when they succeed to the government are frequently the most ignorant and unfit of any throughout the dominions.”

Paine points out that the aristocracy is painfully out of touch with the citizenry. He was echoing increasing American disdain for aristocracy and set the stage for a complete elimination of all ties to Great Britain and inspired an American desire to declare independence.

Many of our Founding Fathers were, in fact, aristocrats. But from the moment of the Declaration of Independence, everything changed. These were individuals who had all of the advantages of an aristocracy but yet risked their fortunes, lives and families’ lives on the belief in a system which would eliminate all of their own birthright privileges. They instead traded an aristocracy for a meritocracy, where success would be gauged on talent, ability and hard work.

Declaration_independenceWhen the Committee of Five elected Thomas Jefferson to write the Declaration, he codified Americans’ understanding of the what government was and did so in no uncertain terms:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to affect their Safety and Happiness.”  The Declaration of Independence

After the War had been won, various States immediately set about confiscating the estates of pro-British aristocrats and systematically outlawing what remained, including passing laws throughout the States eradicating primogeniture (the legal right of the eldest male to inherit all of an estate.)

Thomas Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson

These uniquely American ideas necessarily meant Americans had an inherent disdain for any form of aristocracy, so much so that our Founders outlawed it twice in the U.S. Constitution, for the Federal Government (Article I, Section 9, Clause 8) and for the States in Article I, Section 10, Clause 1.
“No title of nobility shall be granted by the United States: and no person holding any office of profit or trust under them, shall, without the consent of the Congress, accept of any present, emolument, office, or title, of any kind whatever, from any king, prince, or foreign state.” –Article I, Section 9, Clause 8 of the U.S. Constitution

Once the laws were in place, many of our Founders continued to argue for the elimination of the remnants of aristocracy. As Thomas Jefferson eloquently expressed in a letter to John Adams:

John Adams
John Adams

“For I agree with you that there is a natural aristocracy among men. The grounds of this are virtue and talents. Formerly bodily powers gave place among the aristoi. But since the invention of gunpowder has armed the weak as well as the strong with missile death, bodily strength, like beauty, good humor, politeness and other accomplishments, has become but an auxiliary ground of distinction. There is also an artificial aristocracy founded on wealth and birth, without either virtue or talents; for with these it would belong to the first class. The natural aristocracy I consider as the most precious gift of nature for the instruction, the trusts, and government of society. And indeed it would have been inconsistent in creation to have formed man for the social state, and not to have provided virtue and wisdom enough to manage the concerns of the society. May we not even say that that form of government is the best which provides the most effectually for a pure selection of these natural aristoi into the offices of government? The artificial aristocracy is a mischievous ingredient in government, and provision should be made to prevent it’s ascendancy.” -Thomas Jefferson letter to John Adams, October 28th, 1813

Few members of Congress who had ratified the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights were still in government when the documents went into effect a few years later. Those in power were careful what legislation they passed since they knew that they would shortly be living under those laws as private citizens. If it made business for the citizenry more difficult, it was unlikely to pass in the earlier years of the Republic. Today, career politicians amass wealth far beyond what their skills might have enabled them to accomplish in the private sector, and they do so with a simple majority vote from the American public.

How did this happen? An increasing number of Americans do not know history. The result is the continued expansion of an elite class for whom the law does not apply. We no longer recognize that there is a cycle from tyranny to revolution (or invasion), to liberty, to oligarchy and back again. Our founders understood this and wrote the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights to counter it. Yet knowledge of only 20th century history is enough to see the pattern clearly. Since the writings of Karl Marx, aristocracy has flourished by camouflaging itself in the cloak of equality. For example, an increasing number of Americans fail to recognize the inherent hypocrisy of politicians surrounded by taxpayer-funded, armed security while working diligently on removing the right of the citizenry to defend itself in the same way.

prisonTypically, someone comes to power by promising equality, independent of talent, ability or hard work. The only catch is that the citizenry must give up some property and rights for the common good. For a while, everything seems to be working. The majority work hard towards the goals of their new Utopia and are told that the promises made require only a little more sacrifice. They yield. After all, what are a few more taxes and a few more rights for the promise of such a wonderful life in the future? But then, as always, they begin to see an elite class emerge with connections to government for whom, life does get better… a lot better. For everyone else though, life gets far worse. Scapegoats and enemies are manufactured, both from outside and from within to take peoples’ attention off of the real problems and the cycle repeats, usually killing millions through war and genocide. This happened in the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, Communist China, Viet Nam, Cambodia, etc.

Last week at the Republican National Convention, Republicans nominated a wealthy political outsider. This week at the Democratic National Convention, those of us familiar with history will see the nomination of an American aristocrat again cloaking failed ideas as solutions to inequality… solutions to problems which these very ideas created. The question is: Will we ever know how many Americans were actually persuaded by these old, failed ideas, or will years of embedded American aristocracy assure they win… through whatever means possible?

-Matt Fitzgibbons,
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