Baltzell would see the end of the establishment and the collapse of the upper class into an irrelevant rump as a significant underlying cause of many of today’s social maladies, such as the progressive collapse of norms in our political life. This is frequently bemoaned, often with a heavy dollop of blame heaped on one’s opponents, but it was an inevitable consequence of the destruction of an establishment whose values largely defined those norms and whose social cohesion allowed them to be enforced. Without class codes of conduct, only public scandal constrains, and often now not even that. He would see the loss of the establishment along with its class codes of behavior and social enforcement—not such presently popular notions as the weakening of strong political parties or the end of smoke-filled rooms—as decisive in the erosion of political norms.
With increasing income inequality and social stratification reminiscent of the Gilded Age, talk of an “establishment” has returned to our political discourse. As in the past, the word is typically used as a pejorative describing an incumbent power structure that needs to be overturned.
Yet today’s sociopolitical regime is vastly different from the establishment that ruled a century ago, the so-called WASP or White Anglo-Saxon Protestant establishment. With that establishment mostly gone from living memory, its chroniclers and scholars have largely faded from view, as well. That is unfortunate, because in some ways the travails of America’s current elite and their institutions cannot be fully understood without comprehending the previous establishment’s history, sociology, self-conception, and demise.
Thus the work of E. Digby Baltzell is due for a rediscovery. Baltzell, the now nearly forgotten sociologist who popularized the term WASP, helps illuminate not only why the previous establishment fell but also many features of today’s world, such as the shattering of norms, declining trust in institutions, and the emergence of charismatic populist leaders like Donald Trump.
Baltzell, the leading authority on the American upper class, was among the WASPs’ fiercest critics. He turned “WASPs” into a household term in a book savaging them for their exclusion of Jews (and also Catholics) from society’s upper ranks. Baltzell believed that an upper class must reflect the ethnic makeup of the country as a whole in order to retain legitimacy. By failing to assimilate worthy new men of non-Protestant ancestry into its ranks, he argued that the WASP upper class had devolved into a caste. If it stayed on this path, the ethnically closed nature of the upper class would eventually cause its ruin. He quoted Aristotle in arguing that “Revolution may also arise when persons of great ability, and second to none in their merits, are treated dishonorably by those who themselves enjoy the highest honors.”
Baltzell, however, did not desire the WASP establishment’s destruction but rather its reform. Heavily influenced by Tocqueville, he saw the existence of an aristocratic upper-class establishment as a bulwark against atomization and tyranny in democratic society as well as an enforcer of sociopolitical norms. An expanded upper class that, among other things, would bring non-Protestants into its ranks was something he hoped to see emerge. That was not to be, however, and Baltzell then became the WASPs’ chronicler and eulogist as the establishment dissolved.
A Gentleman and a Scholar
Born in Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square, Edward Digby Baltzell was a scion of the upper class that later became the object of his study—though he was, as he put it, among the “impecunious genteel.” He attended boarding school at St. Paul’s, but unlike his classmates he was unable to attend Harvard, Princeton, or Yale because his father had lost employment at an insurance company due to alcoholism. Instead, he enrolled at Penn, where he paid for at least part of his own schooling by doing odd jobs. He also played sports and was captain of the freshman tennis team. Sport and the gentlemanly honor code of sportsmanship continued to influence his work throughout his life.
After graduation, Baltzell served as a Navy pilot in the Pacific during World War II. It was in the service, where he saw men from several ethnic backgrounds serving together in one body, that he first had the idea of an integrated upper class. Discharged from the Navy, he enrolled in graduate school in sociology at Columbia during that school’s heyday, with professors such as Robert Merton, Robert Lynd, and C. Wright Mills.
He sensed that his upper-class background made him unusual in the sociology field, which was dominated by people of middle-class origins. He also realized that the upper class was an understudied area. He considered the work of the most famous analyst of that class, Thorstein Veblen, inadequate. Veblen, in his view, had given the world the mistaken impression that the upper class was a “leisure class,” not the functional class that Baltzell knew from lived experience.1 Balztell did his dissertation on the American upper class, and for the rest of his life remained the world’s foremost authority on it.
Rejecting a Marxist framework, Baltzell’s theory of class draws heavily from Weber and Tocqueville. His analysis leans on several related but distinct concepts: elite, upper class, aristocracy, authority, establishment, and caste, each of which has a specific meaning in his work.
Baltzell’s elite is the collection of people who occupy the most senior positions in the key domains of society: politics, business, the professions, science, the arts, religion, etc. Elites are individuals and elite status is based on achieved position and accomplishment, not on criteria such as breeding, high intelligence, moral character, “worthiness,” and the like.
His upper class is a collection of extended families at the top of the social status hierarchy who are descended from elites of one or more generations past. (The merely wealthy are not themselves a genuine social class, and are generally assimilated into the upper class at a lag across multiple generations). Children of the upper class are born into a secure, ascribed status, freeing them from the type of status anxiety and competition faced by other classes.2 An upper class is generally raised together, intermarried, and maintains unique folkways such as its own vocabulary or accent. (You might say tomayto, but WASPs of the era when that famous song was written said tomahto.3) The elite, the wealthy, and the upper class are thus related but distinct entities, rarely distinguished today within America’s declassed elite.
Baltzell defines an aristocratic upper class as one which justifies its status and privileges through service to the nation, both by assuming leadership roles and by being open to assimilating the families of new men of merit among the elite. An aristocratic upper class will also be a bearer of traditional values and authority.
Authority is legitimized, institutionalized power. Baltzell uses the term to specifically refer to traditional or class authority that produces a popular deference to upper class leadership and respect for American institutions. That is, not only did the WASPs take the lead in public affairs, but the public also saw that as a right and proper thing and followed willingly. He wrote, “Class authority is a mysterious blend of sentiment and myth, of love and loyalty, and the graceful charm of quiet leadership. It is, above all, a product of faith bred of ancient traditions and long continuing organic relationships between the leaders and the led.”
An establishment exists when members of an upper class hold a significant share of the elite positions in key sectors and institutions, and when their traditional values are dominant among the elite and society at large. An establishment is thus a ruling class, but one which governs through authority as defined above, not by force or through authoritarian methods.
An upper class becomes a caste rather than an aristocracy when it retains its social status and privileges but ceases to either provide leadership or to assimilate new worthy men into its ranks, especially for reasons of race, religion, or ethnicity. Baltzell thus follows Tocqueville’s description of the French aristocracy as a caste.4
Finally, the term WASP itself refers specifically to the American upper class, not just anyone who is a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant. Jimmy Carter was not a WASP. George H. W. Bush, the scion of an upper-class Connecticut family, was.5
Thus, beyond distinguishing between the elite, the wealthy, and the upper class, Balztell also provides a guide for distinguishing between well-functioning (aristocratic) and poorly functioning (caste) upper classes, and between well-structured (establishment) and poorly structured (declassed) elites. Throughout his career, he explored these concepts in analyzing the history of the American upper class.
An upper-class establishment was necessary, in his view, to a healthy and functional society. Without it, a democracy would devolve into bureaucratic despotism, corporate feudalism, charismatic Caesarism, or some other undesirable state as a result of runaway social atomization. This upper-class role came from its status and wealth, to be sure. But it also arose, crucially, from the fact that—in contrast to economically or functionally defined groupings, such as the working class or the elite—it was an actual social community. As Balztell’s student and collaborator Howard Schneiderman summarized it, the upper class maintained “a sense of gemeinschaft-like solidarity.” This social solidarity is what made it a counterweight to social atomization and an independent power base that could act as a check against excesses in business, government, or a charismatic populist leader.
This sense of community also created powerful mechanisms of social control, including the threat of class ostracism, to enforce standards and norms of class behavior. Thus, a man who repeatedly violated the Anglo-American code of the gentleman (by, for example, cheating at sports) risked painful social exclusion. As a real-life example of the WASP social code, divorce was heavily frowned upon. Until the 1960s in Philadelphia, anyone who was divorced and remarried was automatically excluded from receiving an invitation to the socially exclusive Dancing Assembly, no matter who he or she was. In contrast to the upper class, the elite “is not a real group with normative standards of conduct . . . there is a code of honor among thieves and [Boston] Brahmins that does not exist among people listed in Who’s Who or Dun and Bradstreet’s Directory of Directors.”
In their day, the WASPs were a culture-setting class for America, meaning that many of their moral and behavioral codes were normative, or at least aspirational, for all classes. In addition, because WASPs themselves held a substantial number of key elite positions in the era of the Protestant establishment, this allowed them to enforce les règles du jeu and to ensure that not just the letter of the law but also the unwritten rules and norms were followed by all. As Schneiderman put it,
A moral force within the putatively amoral world of politics and power elites, an establishment of leaders drawn from upper‑class families, is the final protector of freedom in modern democratic societies. Such an establishment of political, business, cultural, religious, and educational leaders succeeds in its moral function when it sets, follows, and enforces rules of fair play in contests of power and opinion. . . . Hegemonic establishments give coherence to the social spheres of greatest contest. They don’t eliminate conflict, but prevent it from ripping society apart. . . . The genius of an establishment lies in its capacity to put moral brakes on power by applying an upper‑class code of conduct and responsibility to it.
But an establishment was also something of a contradiction in America. The idea of hereditary upper-class leadership was at odds with the country’s egalitarian and democratic aspirations—even if, without it, a successful, healthy democracy was not possible in Baltzell’s view. The country needed to live within that tension to succeed, perhaps even to survive as a society. Baltzell wrote, “No nation can long endure without both the liberal democratic and the authoritative aristocratic processes.” Only a genuinely aristocratic upper class, one that both served the nation through leadership and was open to new men of merit, was capable of sustaining this tension. Such a class could bring needed balance and prevent “the atomization of society, fostered by the fanatic forces of egalitarian individualism,” which he saw as “the greatest threat to political freedom in our time.”
Yet Baltzell also saw that the upper class was failing to meet that challenge, causing an emerging leadership crisis for the country. Increasingly, the WASPs were choosing to withdraw rather than to lead, and they categorically refused to open a number of their institutions to those outside of their own ethno-religious community, excluding Jews, Catholics, and blacks. Whether the WASPs could have survived the forces converging on them is debatable, but Baltzell believed their decision to act as a caste rather than as an aristocracy doomed them. During the 1960s, the establishment fell, and the upper class devolved into a hollow shell that receded from the public consciousness. The consequences of that fall continue to bedevil America today.
Baltzell authored three major books on the American upper class, each looking at it through a different analytical lens. Philadelphia Gentlemen described the formation and socioeconomic history of the upper class. The Protestant Establishment detailed how the WASPs failed the openness test of aristocracy. And Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia examined the roots of the WASPs’ failure to meet the leadership test of aristocracy. Baltzell continued returning to this subject in essays until his death in 1996.
The Rise and Fall of a National Upper Class
Philadelphia Gentlemen: The Making of a National Upper Class, published in 1958 (also published in paperback under the title American Business Aristocracy), looks at the upper class through the lens of material or economic forces. Baltzell traces the transformation of the American upper class from roughly 1870 to 1890, then analyzes the development of the newly formed national upper class until World War II.
Prior to this late nineteenth-century transition period, the American upper class had been local and familial. Each city or state had its own local upper class with its own culture. A national upper class, to the extent that it existed, was a federation of local upper classes. These local upper classes were familial: social status was determined almost solely by the family a person belonged to. Cities were growing rapidly at this time but still comparatively small. Philadelphia, for example, only had 121,000 people in 1850. Boston only had about 25,000 people in 1800. Thus, there was no need for upper class directories like the Social Register. Everyone knew who was upper class.
The upper class consisted of the descendants of personages of historic importance such as colonial-era leaders like John Winthrop of Massachusetts, military leaders like Revolutionary War general John Cadwalader of Philadelphia, and wealthy businessmen in various stages of status assimilation. In many cases, such as the Adamses of Massachusetts or the Harrisons of Virginia, multiple generations of these families became men of eminence in politics and other fields. It was through this type of multigenerational service to and leadership of the nation that the upper class justified its continued existence.6
The structure of the upper class began to shift in the 1870s, driven by several changes in society. The Civil War created a more cohesive American union. Large-scale industrialization, urbanization, and immigration began to remake the face of the country. As Irving Kristol noted, “In 1870, the United States was a land of small family-owned businesses. By 1905, the large, publicly-owned corporation dominated the economic scene.”7 These firms created vast new wealth, with Gilded Age fortunes dwarfing any that had come before. There were more millionaires in the Senate in 1910 than there had been in the whole country prior to the Civil War.
A more centralized economy and government led naturally to a more centralized upper class. In this new environment, new upper-class institutions came into being, many of them national in scope. These included the elite boarding school—the number of which grew significantly after the Civil War—the country club, the summer resort town, and genealogical societies. The 1880s were a seminal decade in institution building, witnessing the establishment of the first country club in Brookline, Massachusetts (1882), the Groton School (1884), and Tuxedo Park (1885). Of particular note was the publication of the first edition of the Social Register, a directory of upper-class families and their affiliations, for New York in 1887.
Some key upper-class institutions like Exeter Academy, Harvard, and certain clubs predated this period, but they took on increasing importance at this time. Baltzell documents how upper-class families in Philadelphia were more likely to have attended Harvard, Princeton, or Yale and less likely to have attended Penn as generations passed. Similarly, the founders of upper-class families had originally hailed from a variety of religious backgrounds but largely converged on Episcopalianism over time.
Acceptance and participation in these institutions came to eclipse family in importance for defining social status, though obviously being from the right family was also a principal factor in acceptance. “It was, then, one’s club and educational affiliations, rather than family positions and accomplishment alone,” Baltzell wrote, “which placed one in a secure establishment position in the corporate and urban world which America had become by the end of the nineteenth century.” This was particularly the case with schools and the city gentlemen’s clubs. As Baltzell noted, “The circulations of elites in America and the assimilation of new men of power and influence into the upper class takes place primarily through the medium of urban clubdom.” We see this multigenerational assimilation via clubdom in the case of the Rockefeller dynasty. John D. Rockefeller Sr. was a member of the Union League Club of New York, Rockefeller Jr. a member of the more prestigious University Club, and Rockefeller III a member of the most exclusive Knickerbocker Club.
During the late nineteenth century, the upper class also began migrating to the suburbs or outlying neighborhoods. Where once the elite of Philadelphia had lived in Rittenhouse Square, they subsequently moved to places like Chestnut Hill and the Main Line.
Thus the life of a Philadelphia WASP might go something like this: He would start out being raised in Chestnut Hill, proceed through high school at a local elite day school like Episcopal Academy or a boarding school like St. Mark’s, then move on to college at Princeton, where he would join an exclusive dining club like the Ivy. Returning to Philadelphia, he would live in Ardmore, join a prestigious firm such as Drexel and Company or a family enterprise, assume membership in a city club like the Philadelphia or Rittenhouse Club, and be engaged in various charitable endeavors. He would play tennis at the Merion Cricket Club, attend annual Assembly dances, and spend summers in Cape May. He probably met his wife at her debutante, and would proceed to have a larger-than-average number of children with her, staying together for life. Their children would in turn marry the children of other upper-class families or the children of newly minted wealth as a means of assimilating them into the upper class.