previous next

Chapter 27: the antidote to money

One can hardly read the letters from Europe describing fashionable society without discovering that it is perfectly possible for Americans, even those who have been regarded at home as rather vulgar and pushing, to get at least far enough in the English circles of fashion to see and describe the grandest functions. How the knowledge is obtained is not the question. Like the snubbed man of the world in the inimitable Dolly Dialogues, these witnesses may at least claim that if they do not meet Lord Mickleham socially they know his valet. Even in the smaller field of America it is known that old John, the black head-waiter at the Ocean House, in Newport, used to furnish regular material for certain lady journalists by his hints of conversations overheard, reminiscences of family history, and even descriptions of dress. In a more highly developed [183] fashionable life in England, John appears in the form of some impoverished cousin of a countess, or one of those “led-captains” of whom we read in old English novels. As our war correspondents during the Civil War used frankly to avow that they picked up incidents from deserters or “intelligent contrabands,” and described them as personal observations; so any capable woman, trained by long practice, can no doubt extract from the very outskirts of a Queen's Drawing Room materials for a minute inventory of the Duchess of Marlborough's diamonds, with incidental remarks quoted from the “dear duchess” or from “a former lady of honor.”

We are steadily outgrowing the impression that wealth is a peculiarly American institution, or exerts its chief charms in this country. The love of it is hardly to be called a transplanted taste, for its spell is as old as the history of the world and as wide as the earth's circumference. There is nowhere a tribe so savage in Asia or Africa that the prestige of power does not attach itself to those who have more horses, more camels, or more wives than their fellows. But the thing which gives the utmost prestige to wealth is its power to intrench itself in the form of hereditary aristocracy. [184] Great wealth is, in its last analysis, powerless to obtain great social prizes in America, because there are no such prizes. It can at the utmost spend a great deal of money for a while, but that is all it can do. Let us suppose that it can even buy a Presidency-but what is that? Four years of torment, and then “the rest is silence.” Apart from this, the American wealth must transplant itself to get peculiar and exclusive social enjoyments. This fact is a great compliment to America.

People who have no visible imagination in any other direction are always ready to be imaginative in their reverence for an hereditary class; and do not see that it is and must be in all but a very small proportion of cases the mere embodiment and perpetuation of wealth. “All families,” says Lord Murray in Scott's Monastery, “have sprung from one mean man.” There occurred a promotion, sometimes the result of great services, but oftener of magnificent bribes, great frauds, or a woman's shame-all these being measurable in money. In the English titled classes we see a constant transfer of untitled riches, if used for the right political party, into ennobled wealth. It is largely a more gilded and veneered Tammany. Witness the mattercourse [185] comment of the London Spectator on the honors bestowed by the British government on the last Queen's birthday. “Lord Salisbury was not distributing them eccentrically, but according to the regular custom, taking wealthy squires like Mr. E. Heneage and Colonel Malcolm of Poltalloch for his peerages; and giving baronetcies to Mr. R. U. P. Fitzgerald, W. O. Dalgleish, Mr. Lewis McIver, Mr. J. Verdie, and Mr. C. Cave, because they are wealthy men who have done service to the party.” 1 The Spectator is, on the whole, the ablest of the great English weeklies, and the fairest; it is not at present opposing Lord Salisbury, nor is it saying this by way of censure. In what respect does all this differ from the methods of Tammany?

There is nothing new about it; in the Greville Journals (July 2, 1826) the writer reports: “A batch of peers has been made; everybody cries out against Charles Ellis's peerage (Lord Seaford); he has no property and is of no family.... However, it is thought very ridiculous.” But it is evident that it was only the want of wealth that made it ridiculous; and yet this appointment was made by Canning. [186] Perhaps Tweed and Croker managed it better in their own way, for they appointed men, not because they were already rich, but that they might become so. In either case, after the thing was done, who cared for its being thought ridiculous? Certainly not the Englishman, for he obtained by it far more than any American could give or receive. Mere money perishes with the spending and may not found a family, but the owner of a peerage bought with money cannot help founding a family, except by remaining childless. A peer may sink to the lowest depths of poverty or of sin, and yet know that some grateful heiress is waiting somewhere eager to marry his heir. This climax of wealth is English, not American; it is only that this country has lately taken to supplying the heiresses.

When we complain even of the political influence of wealth among ourselves, we forget how recently it is that anything but wealth has been represented, not merely in the British House of Lords, but in the House of Commons. John Bright said at Birmingham, thirty years ago (1867): “I am not able to say what it has cost to seat those 658 members in that House, but if I said that it has cost them and their friends a million of money [pounds], I should [187] say a long way below the mark. I believe it has cost more to seat those 658 men there than to seat all the other representative and legislative assemblies in the world.... There are many members who pay always from £1000 to £15,000 for their election.” This vast expenditure has been much diminished by the present admirable English laws against bribery, but enough remains, especially when we consider that English legislators are not, like ours, salaried, and must therefore either be taken wholly from a very well-provided class or else kept in public life, like the Radical and Irish members, by special contribution. It is really a very simple matter, though it puzzled Matthew Arnold, that men and women who take the English view that wealth is primarily a means of personal luxury should live in Europe. How can they help it? To those who incline, however moderately, to what is still a very common American view, that wealth is to be viewed as being in a manner a public trust, there seems every reason why they should live at home, and why, moreover, even their daughters should wish to do this. The only real antidote to wealth, all the world over, lies in the pursuits of intellect and the desire to do good. As for hereditary rank, [188] it is no antidote to wealth, but merely a means of concentrating and perpetuating its power. Was there ever such a carnival of mere wealth, for instance, as at the coronation of the Emperor of Russia?


1 Spectator, May 23, 1896.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide Places (automatically extracted)
hide People (automatically extracted)
Sort people alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a person to search for him/her in this document.
Tammany (2)
J. Verdie (1)
Tweed (1)
Walter Scott (1)
Lewis McIver (1)
Malcolm (1)
House (1)
E. Heneage (1)
R. U. P. Fitzgerald (1)
English (1)
Charles Ellis (1)
W. O. Dalgleish (1)
Croker (1)
C. Cave (1)
Canning (1)
Matthew Arnold (1)
Americans (1)
hide Dates (automatically extracted)
Sort dates alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a date to search for it in this document.
May 23rd, 1896 AD (1)
1896 AD (1)
1867 AD (1)
July 2nd, 1826 AD (1)
1000 AD (1)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: