Front Page Titles (by Subject) chapter 113: Equality - The American Commonwealth, vol. 2
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chapter 113: Equality - Viscount James Bryce, The American Commonwealth, vol. 2 
The American Commonwealth, with an Introduction by Gary L. McDowell (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1995). Vol. 2.
Part of: The American Commonwealth, 2 vols.
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The United States are deemed all the world over to be preeminently the land of equality. This was the first feature which struck Europeans when they began, after the peace of 1815 had left them time to look beyond the Atlantic, to feel curious about the phenomena of a new society. This was the great theme of Tocqueville’s description, and the starting point of his speculations; this has been the most constant boast of the Americans themselves, who have believed their liberty more complete than that of any other people, because equality has been more fully blended with it. Yet some philosophers say that equality is impossible, and others, who express themselves more precisely, insist that distinctions of rank are so inevitable, that however you try to expunge them, they are sure to reappear. Before we discuss this question, let us see in what senses the word is used.
First there is legal equality, including both what one may call passive or private equality, i.e., the equal possession of civil private rights by all inhabitants, and active or public equality, the equal possession by all of rights to a share in the government, such as the electoral franchise and eligibility to public office. Both kinds of political equality exist in America, in the amplest measure, and may be dismissed from the present discussion.
Next there is the equality of material conditions, that is, of wealth, and all that wealth gives; there is the equality of education and intelligence; there is the equality of social status or rank; and there is (what comes near to, but is not exactly the same as, this last) the equality of estimation, i.e., of the value which men set upon one another, whatever be the elements that come into this value, whether wealth, or education, or official rank, or social rank, or any other species of excellence. In how many and which of these senses of the word does equality exist in the United States?
Not as regards material conditions. Till about the middle of last century there were no great fortunes in America, few large fortunes, no poverty. Now there is some poverty (though only in a few places can it be called pauperism), many large fortunes, and a greater number of gigantic fortunes than in any other country in the world. The class of persons who are passably well off but not rich is much larger than in the great countries of Europe. Between the houses, the dress, and the way of life of these persons, and those of the richer sort, there is less difference than in Europe. The very rich do not (except in a few places) make an ostentatious display of their wealth, because they have no means of doing so, and a visitor is therefore apt to overrate the extent to which equality of wealth, and of material conditions generally, still prevails. The most remarkable phenomenon of the last half century has been the appearance, not only of those few colossal millionaires who fill the public eye, but of a crowd of millionaires of the second order, men with fortunes ranging from $5,000,000 to $20,000,000. At a seaside resort like Newport, where one sees the finished luxury of the villas, and counts the well-appointed equipages, with their superb horses, which turn out in the afternoon, one gets some impression of the vast and growing wealth of the Eastern cities. But through the country generally there is little to mark out the man with an income of $100,000 a year from the man of $20,000, as he is marked out in England by his country house with its park, or in France by the opportunities for display which Paris affords. The number of these fortunes seems likely to go on increasing, for they are due not merely to the sudden development of the West, with the chances of making vast sums by land speculation, or in railway construction, but to the field for doing business on a great scale, which the size of the country presents. Where a merchant or manufacturer in France or England could realize thousands, an American, operating more boldly, and on this far wider theatre, may realize tens of thousands. We may therefore expect these inequalities of wealth to grow; nor will even the habit of equal division among children keep them down, for families are often small, and though some of those who inherit wealth may renounce business, others will pursue it, since the attractions of other kinds of life are fewer than in Europe. Politics are less exciting, there is no great landholding class with the duties towards tenants and neighbours which an English squire may, if he pleases, usefully discharge; the pursuit of collecting pictures or other objects of curiosity implies frequent visits to Europe, and although the killing of birds prevails in the Middle states and the killing of deer in the West, this rather barbarous form of pleasure is likely in time to die out from a civilized people. Other kinds of what is called “sport” no doubt remain, such as horse racing, eagerly pursued in the form of trotting matches,1 “rushing round” in an automobile, and the manlier amusements of yacht racing, rowing, and baseball, but these can be followed only during part of the year, and some of them only by the young. To lead a life of so-called pleasure gives much more trouble in an American city than in Paris or Vienna or London. Accordingly, while great fortunes will continue to be made, they will be less easily and quickly spent than in Europe, and one may surmise that the equality of material conditions, almost universal in the eighteenth century, still general in the middle of the nineteenth will more and more diminish by the growth of a very rich class at one end of the line, and of a very poor class at the other end.2
As respects education, the profusion of superior as well as elementary schools tends to raise the mass to a somewhat higher point than in Europe, while the stimulus of life being keener and the habit of reading more general, the number of persons one finds on the same general level of brightness, keenness, and a superficially competent knowledge of common facts, whether in science, history, geography, or literature, is extremely large. This general level tends to rise. But the level of exceptional attainment in that small but increasing class who have studied at the best native universities or in Europe, and who pursue learning and science either as a profession or as a source of pleasure, rises faster than does the general level of the multitude, so that in this regard also it appears that equality has diminished and will diminish further.
So far we have been on comparatively smooth and easy ground. Equality of wealth is a concrete thing; equality of intellectual possession and resource is a thing which can be perceived and gauged. Of social equality, of distinctions of standing and estimation in private life, it is far more difficult to speak, and in what follows I speak with some hesitation.
One thing, and perhaps one thing only, may be asserted with confidence. There is no rank in America, that is to say, no external and recognized stamp marking one man as entitled to any social privileges, or to deference and respect from others. No man is entitled to think himself better than his fellows, or to expect any exceptional consideration to be shown by them to him. Except in the national capital, there is no such thing as a recognized order of precedence, either on public occasions or at a private party, save that yielded to a few official persons, such as the governor and chief judges of a state within that state, as well as to the president and vice-president, the Speaker of the House, the federal senators, the judges of the Supreme Federal Court, and the members of the president’s cabinet everywhere, through the Union. In fact, the idea of a regular “rule of precedence” displeases the Americans,3 and one finds them slow to believe that the application of such rules in Europe gives no offence to persons who possess no conventional rank, but may be personally older or more distinguished than those who have it.
What, then, is the effect or influence for social purposes of such distinctions as do exist between men, distinctions of birth, of wealth, of official position, of intellectual eminence?
To be sprung from an ancient stock, or from a stock which can count persons of eminence among its ancestors, is of course a satisfaction to the man himself. There is at present almost a passion among Americans for genealogical researches. A good many families can trace themselves back to English families of the sixteenth or seventeenth century, and of course a great many more profess to do so. For a man’s ancestors to have come over in the Mayflower is in America much what their having come over with William the Conqueror used to be in England and is often claimed on equally flimsy grounds. The descendants of any of the revolutionary heroes, such as John Adams, Edmund Randolph, Alexander Hamilton, and the descendants of any famous man of colonial times, such as the early governors of Massachusetts from William Endicott downwards, or of Jonathan Edwards, or of Eliot, the apostle of the Indians, are regarded by their neighbours with a certain amount of interest, and their legitimate pride in such an ancestry excites no disapproval.4 In the Eastern cities, and at fashionable summer resorts one begins to see carriages with armorial bearings on their panels, but most people appear to disapprove or ridicule this as a piece of Anglomania, more likely to be practised by a parvenu than by the scion of a really old family. Virginians used to set much store by their pedigrees, and the letters F.F.V. (First Families of Virginia) had become a sort of jest against persons pluming themselves on their social position in the Old Dominion.5 Since the war, however, which shattered old Virginian society from its foundations, one hears little of such pretensions.6
The fault which Americans are most frequently accused of is the worship of wealth. The amazing fuss which is made about very rich men, the descriptions of their doings, the speculation as to their intentions, the gossip about their private life, lend colour to the reproach. He who builds up a huge fortune, especially if he does it suddenly, is no doubt a sort of hero, because an enormous number of men have the same ambition. Having done best what millions are trying to do, he is discussed, admired, and envied in the same way as the captain of a cricket eleven is at an English school, or the stroke of the university boat at Oxford or Cambridge. If he be a great financier, or the owner of a great railroad or a great newspaper, he exercises vast power, and is therefore well worth courting by those who desire his help or would avert his enmity. Admitting all this, it may seem a paradox to observe that a millionaire has a better and easier social career open to him in England than in America. Nevertheless there is a sense in which this is true. In America, if his private character be bad, if he be mean, or openly immoral, or personally vulgar, or dishonest, the best society will keep its doors closed against him. In England great wealth, skilfully employed, will more readily force these doors to open. For in England great wealth can, by using the appropriate methods, practically buy rank from those who bestow it; or by obliging persons whose position enables them to command fashionable society, can induce them to stand sponsors for the upstart, and force him into society, a thing which no person in America has the power of doing. To effect such a stroke in England the rich man must of course have stopped short of positive frauds, that is, of such frauds as could be proved in court. But he may be still distrusted and disliked by the elite of the commercial world, he may be vulgar and ill-educated, and indeed have nothing to recommend him except his wealth and his willingness to spend it in providing amusement for fashionable people. All this will not prevent him from becoming a baronet, or possibly a peer, and thereby acquiring a position of assured dignity which he can transmit to his offspring. The existence of a system of artificial rank enables a stamp to be given to base metal in Europe which cannot be given in a thoroughly republican country.7 The feeling of the American public towards the very rich is, so far as a stranger can judge, one of curiosity and wonder rather than of respect. There is less snobbishness shown towards them than in England. They are admired as a famous runner or a jockey is admired, and the talents they have shown, say, in railroad management or in finance, are felt to reflect lustre on the nation. But they do not necessarily receive either flattery or social deference, and sometimes, where it can be alleged that they have won their wealth as the leading spirits in monopolistic combinations, they are made targets for attack, though they may have done nothing more than what other businessmen have attempted, with less ability and less success.
The persons to whom official rank gives importance are very few indeed, being for the nation at large only about one hundred persons at the top of the federal government, and in each state less than a dozen of its highest state functionaries. For these state functionaries, indeed, the respect shown is extremely scanty, and much more official than personal. A high federal officer, a senator, or justice of the Supreme Court, or cabinet minister, is conspicuous while he holds his place, and is of course a personage in any private society he may enter; but less so than a corresponding official would be in Europe. A simple member of the House of Representatives is nobody. Even men of the highest official rank do not give themselves airs on the score of their position. Long ago, in Washington, I was taken to be presented to the then head of the United States Army, a great soldier whose fame all the world knows. We found him standing at a desk in a bare room in the War Department, at work with one clerk. While he was talking to us the door of the room was pushed open, and there appeared the figure of a Western sightseer belonging to what Europeans would call the lower middle class, followed by his wife and sister, who were “doing” Washington. Perceiving that the room was occupied they began to retreat, but the commander in chief called them back. “Walk in, ladies,” he said. “You can look around. You won’t disturb me; make yourselves at home.”
Intellectual attainment does not excite much notice till it becomes eminent, that is to say, till it either places its possessor in a conspicuous position, such as that of president of one of the greatest universities, or till it has made him well known to the world as a preacher, or writer, or scientific discoverer. When this kind of eminence has been reached, it receives, I think, more respect than anywhere in Europe, except possibly in Italy, where the interest in learned men, or poets, or artists, seems to be greater than anywhere else in Europe.8 A famous writer or divine is known by name to a far greater number of persons in America than would know a similar person in any European country. He is one of the glories of the country. There is no artificial rank to cast him into the shade. He is possibly less famous than the railroad kings or manipulators of the stock markets; but he excites a different kind of sentiment; and people are willing to honour him in a way, sometimes distasteful to himself, which would not be applied to the millionaire except by those who sought to gain something from him.
Perhaps the best way of explaining how some of the differences above mentioned, in wealth or official position or intellectual eminence, affect social equality is by reverting to what was called, a few pages back, equality of estimation—the idea which men form of other men as compared with themselves. It is in this that the real sense of equality comes out. In America men hold others to be at bottom exactly the same as themselves.9 If a man is enormously rich, or if he is a great orator, like Daniel Webster or Henry Ward Beecher, or a great soldier like Ulysses S. Grant, or a great writer like R. W. Emerson, or president, so much the better for him. He is an object of interest, perhaps of admiration, possibly even of reverence. But he is deemed to be still of the same flesh and blood as other men. The admiration felt for him may be a reason for going to see him and longing to shake hands with him, a longing frequent in America. But it is not a reason for bowing down to him, or addressing him in deferential terms, or treating him as if he was porcelain and yourself only earthenware.10 In this respect there is, I think, a difference, slight but perceptible, between the sentiment of equality as it exists in the United States, and as one finds it in France and Switzerland, the countries of the Old World where (if we except Norway, which has never had an aristocracy) social equality has made the greatest progress. In France and Switzerland there lingers a kind of feeling as if the old noblesse were not quite like other men. The Swiss peasant, with all his manly independence, has in many cantons a touch of instinctive reverence for the old families; or perhaps, in some other cantons, a touch of jealousy which makes him desire to exclude their members from office, because he feels that they still think themselves better than he is. Nothing like this is possible in America, where the very notion of such distinctions excites a wondering curiosity as to what sort of creature the titled noble of Europe can be.
The total absence of rank and the universal acceptance of equality do not however prevent the existence of grades and distinctions in society which, though they may find no tangible expression, are sometimes as sharply drawn as in Europe. Except in the newer parts of the West, those who deem themselves ladies and gentlemen draw just the same line between themselves and the multitude as is drawn in England, and draw it in much the same way. The nature of a man’s occupation, his education, his manners and breeding, his income, his connections, all come into view in determining whether he is in this narrow sense of the word “a gentleman,” almost as they would in England,11 though in most parts of the United States personal qualities count for rather more than in England, and occupation for hardly anything. The word is equally indefinable in both countries, but in America the expression “not quite a lady” seems to be less frequently employed. One is told, however, that the son of cultivated parents would not like to enter a retail store; and even in a Western city like Detroit the best people will say of a party that it was “very mixed.” In some of the older cities society was, till the sudden growth of huge fortunes towards the end of last century, as exclusive as in the more old-fashioned English counties, the “best set” considering itself very select indeed. In such a city I remember to have heard a family belonging to the best set, which is mostly to be found in a particular quarter of the city, speak of the inhabitants of a handsome suburb two miles away just as Belgravians might speak of Islington; and the son of the family who, having made in Europe the acquaintance of some of the dwellers in this suburb, had gone to a ball there, was questioned by his sisters about their manners and customs much as if he had returned from visiting a tribe in Central Africa. On inquiry I discovered that these North Side people were as rich and doubtless thought themselves as cultivated as the people of my friends’quarter. But all the city knew that the latter were the “best set.” People used to say that this exclusiveness spreads steadily from East to West, and that before long there would be such sets in all the greater cities. So indeed there are sets, but great wealth now so generally secures entrance to them that they can scarcely be called exclusive.
Europeans have been known to ask whether the United States do not suffer from the absence of a hereditary nobility. As may be supposed, such a question excites mirth in America; it is as if you were to offer them a court and an established church. They remark, with truth, that since Pitt in England and the Napoleons in France prostituted hereditary titles, these have ceased to be either respectable or useful. “They do not,” say the Americans, “suggest antiquity, for the English families that enjoy them are mostly new; they are not associated, like the ancient titles, with the history of your nation; they are merely a prize offered to wealth, the expression of a desire for gilding that plutocracy which has replaced the ancient aristocracy of your country. Seeing how little service hereditary nobility renders in maintaining the standard either of manners, or morals, or honour, or public duty, few sensible men would create it in any European country where it did not exist; much less then should we to dream of creating it in America, which possesses none of the materials or conditions which could make it tolerable. If a peerage is purchaseable even in England, where the dignity of the older nobility might have suggested some care in bestowal, purchaseable not so openly as in Portugal or a German principality, but practically purchaseable by party services and by large subscriptions to public purposes, much more would it be purchaseable here, where there are no traditions to break down, where wealth accumulates rapidly, and the wealthy seek every avenue for display. Titles in this country would be simply an additional prize offered to wealth and ambition. They could not be respected. They would make us as snobbish as you are.” A European observer will not quarrel with this judgment. There is a growing disposition in America, as everywhere else, to relish and make the most of such professional or official titles as can be had; it is a harmless way of trying to relieve the monotony of the world. If there be, as no doubt there is, less disposition than in England to run after and pay court to the great or the fashionable, this is perhaps due not to any superior virtue, but to the absence of those opportunities and temptations which their hereditary titles and other social institutions set before the English. It would be the very wantonness of folly to create in the new country what most thinking people would gladly be rid of in the old one.
Another question is more serious and less easily answered. What is the effect of social equality upon manners? Many causes go to the making of manners, as one may see by noting how much better they are in some parts of Europe than in other parts where nevertheless the structure of society is equally aristocratic, or democratic, as the case may be. One must therefore be careful not to ascribe to this source only such peculiarities as America shows.12 On the whole, bearing in mind that the English race has less than some other races of that quickness of perception and sympathy which goes far to make manners good, the Americans have gained more than they have lost by equality. The upper class does not lose in grace, and the humbler class gains in independence. The manners of the “best people” are exactly those of England, with a thought more of consideration towards inferiors and of frankness towards equals. Among the masses there is, generally speaking, as much real courtesy and good nature as anywhere else in the world.13 There is less outward politeness than in some parts of Europe, Portugal for instance, or Tuscany, or Sweden. There is a certain coolness or off-handedness which at first annoys the European visitor, who still thinks himself “a superior”; but when he perceives that it is not meant for insolence, and that native Americans do not notice it, he learns to acquiesce. Perhaps the worst manners are those of persons dressed in some rag of authority. The railroad car-conductor has a bad name; but personally I have always been well treated by him, and remember with pleasure one on a Southern railroad (an ex-Confederate soldier) who did the honours of his car with a dignified courtesy worthy of those Hungarian nobles who are said to have the best manners in Europe. The hotel clerk used to be supercilious, but when one frankly admitted his superiority, his patronage became friendly, and he would even condescend to interest himself in making your stay in the city agreeable. One finds most courtesy among the rural population of New England and the Middle states, least among the recent immigrants in the cities and the unsettled population of the West. However, the most material point to remark is the improvement of recent years. The concurrent testimony of European travellers, including both admirers and detractors of democracy, proves that manners must have been disagreeable in the days when Dickens and Lyell travelled through the country, and one finds nowadays an equally general admission that the Americans are as pleasant to one another and to strangers as are the French or the Germans or the English. The least agreeable feature to the visitors of former years, an incessant vaunting of their own country and disparagement of others, has disappeared, and the tinge of self-assertion which the sense of equality used to give is now but faintly noticeable.
 The trotting horse is driven, not ridden, a return to the earliest forms of horse racing we know of.
 How far extreme inequality of material conditions, coexisting with political equality, is likely to prove a source of political danger is a question discussed in other chapters. Hitherto it has not proved serious. Cf. Aristotle, Polit. V., 1, 2.
 In private parties, so far as there is any rule of precedence, it is that of age, with a tendency to make an exception in favour of clergymen or of any person of special eminence. It is only in Washington, where senators, judges, ministers, and congressmen are sensitive on these points, that such questions seem to arise, or to be regarded as deserving the attention of a rational mind.
 In all the cases mentioned in the text, I remember to have been told by others, but never by the persons concerned, of the ancestry. This is an illustration of the fact that while such ancestry is felt to be a distinction it would be thought bad taste for those who possess it to mention it unless a necessity arose for them to do so.
 An anecdote is told of the captain of a steamer plying at a ferry from Maryland into Virginia, who being asked by a needy Virginian to give him a free passage across, inquired if the applicant belonged to one of the F.F.V. “No,” answered the man, “I can’t exactly say that; rather to one of the second families.”“Jump on board,” said the captain; “I never met one of your sort before.”
 Clubs have been formed in Eastern cities including only persons who could prove that their progenitors were settled in the state before the Revolution, and one widely spread women’s association (the Colonial Dames) has a like basis.
 The English system of hereditary titles tends to maintain the distinction of ancient lineage far less perfectly than that simple use of a family name which prevailed in Italy during the Middle Ages, or in ancient Rome. A Colonna or a Doria, like a Cornelius or a Valerius, carried the glory of his nobility in his name, whereas any upstart may be created a duke.
 In Germany great respect is no doubt felt for the leaders of learning and science; but they are regarded as belonging to a world of their own, separated by a wide gulf from the territorial aristocracy, which still deems itself (as in the days of Candide’s brother-in-law) a different form of mankind from those who have not sixteen quarterings to show.
 Someone has said that there are in America two classes only, those who have succeeded and those who have failed.
 This is seen even in the manner of American servants. Although there is an aversion among native Americans to enter domestic service, the temporary discharge of such duties does not necessarily involve any loss of caste. Many years ago I remember to have found all the waiting in a large hotel in the White Mountains done by the daughters of respectable New England farmers in the low country who had come up for their summer change of air to this place of resort, and were earning their board and lodging by acting as waitresses. They were treated by the guests as equals, and were indeed cultivated and well-mannered young women. So college students sometimes do waiting, and do not feel humbled thereby.
 On the New York elevated railroad smoking is not permitted in any car. When I asked a conductor how he was able to enforce this rule, considering that on every other railway smoking was practised, he answered, “I always say when any one seems disposed to insist, ‘Sir, I am sure that if you are a gentleman you will not wish to bring me into a difficulty,’ and then they always leave off.”
 It was an old reproach in Europe against republics that their citizens were rude: witness the phrases, “manières d’un Suisse,”“civilisé en Hollande” (Roscher, Politik, p. 314).
 There are parts of the West which still lack polish; and the behaviour of the whites to the Chinese often incenses a stranger from the Atlantic states or Europe. I remember in Oregon to have seen a huge navvy turn an inoffensive Chinaman out of his seat in a railway car, and when I went to the conductor and tried to induce him to interfere, he calmly remarked, “Yes, I know those things do make the English mad.” On the other hand, on the Pacific slope coloured people often sit down to table with whites.