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Chapter 21: international marriages

What are called by the high-sounding name of “international marriages” not only serve as material for gossip in our vast and hungry newspaper press, but also for matter of thought to those who study social tendencies. The thoughts they suggest lie in the same direction with those aroused whenever a rich American buys a castle in Europe, or even leases a shooting preserve in Scotland. All these are chiefly interesting because they bear on the problem of the position and prospects of wealth in a republic. Nobody cares when an economical American student goes to live in Berlin, or a poor girl marries an impecunious Englishman. There must be added to the affair that little flavor of splendor that comes from wealth, or it is nothing. This is not mere snobbishness. There is more of genuine snobbishness in a London day than [149] in an American year. It is largely a good-natured curiosity; and behind this lies, with the judicious, a real desire to philosophize on the future workings of American aristocracy, if such a thing there is to be.

It seems very complimentary to this country, on the whole, that the upper extremes of wealth find themselves uncomfortable here, and discover that they can get much more for their money in Europe. This was acutely pointed out by our best critic, Mr. Bryce, who makes the matter very clear. All American ways and methods are founded largely upon the needs of the great middle class of the community. Wealth in the United States can only buy a little more of those comforts and luxuries of which everybody has something. But wealth in England can buy that of which the great body have nothing-the possession of hereditary rank. When a man grows rich enough, no matter whether his wealth came by breweries or by public employment, he can fairly expect to reach the ranks of the titled classes; and thenceforward, if he plays his cards well, he may climb higher and higher. This is a privilege wholly different in kind from anything that wealth gives in America. Moreover, some of the best natural [150] instincts assist this tendency. Every parent wishes to provide for his offspring. Now riches have wings, but a place in the peerage has not. The pauper son of the millionaire is nobody, but the earl's son holds his position securely in spite of poverty, or even of crime. This is a clew to much of the charm possessed by hereditary rank for rich Americans; and the repeated instances of misery which have followed its pursuit always leave room for a hope that the next experiment may turn out better.

And even apart from rank, everything in English society, or even that of Continental Europe, gives to wealth an advantage which it may never claim here. The vast estates, the perfectly organized service, the habit of deference, afford a sort of paradise to those who look no further than themselves. Even an American bishop, it is said, is not altogether free from the delight inspired, on English soil, by hearing himself called “Me Lud.” It is very striking to see the unanimity with which highly cultivated Americans-Sumner, Ticknor, Motley, Hawthorne, Lowell-have expressed in their diaries or letters an American reaction against these splendors, to which they were here and there admitted in England; [151] and an involuntary feeling that, in Hawthorne's phrase, a vast number of people must be housed too little in order that a few may be housed so much. But it is only the thoughtful and cultivated man who finds such drawbacks as this; while he who merely regards wealth as a personal privilege and as something to be spent wholly for his own gratification, likes naturally to be where that privilege is largest; and this is clearly in Europe, not in America. Women, to whom the external charm of aristocratic life is greatest, and who have only lately begun to philosophize about social progress, are naturally more blinded than men to the real drawbacks of that brilliant society. Hence the greater part of those American women who have married into the higher circles of English life are said to be more than English in their Tory proclivities; there is scarcely a liberal among them.

Much of the criticism on “international marriages” is no doubt unjust — as that they carry wealth out of the country, and the like. Supposing it to be an evil to send wealth out of the country, what difference does it make whether it is spent in paying Worth's bills at Paris or in rebuilding a French chateau? If the great extremes of wealth are hard to reconcile [152] with republican government, as most persons think, why not send those extreme cases elsewhere, to some scene where they fit in better? Nothing hinders the progress of new ideas, new social methods, reforms that touch the root of society, so much as those very extremes. Our worst demagogues are always the rich demagogues. The truly dangerous trusts and combinations do not come from the poor. It is really a more serious problem in social study what to do with our multimillionaires than with our paupers. A republic can get on very well where all pay a small tax; but where an individual tax bill may pay the whole annual expenses of several towns, there the problem begins to press upon us-how to deal with such inequalities and still preserve the spirit of a republic. Perhaps it is as well, while we are engaged in solving this problem, to have the responsibility of the very largest fortunes transferred from time to time to communities not troubled with the dream of social equality.

Again, if it be true, as even English liberals sometimes tell us, that the great show-places of Europe are worth what they cost to the whole community simply as public parks or pleasure-grounds, then there is no reason why [153] Americans, who certainly enjoy them even more than Europeans, should not contribute their share-beyond the entering sixpence — to keep them up. Both countries were in a manner the losers, for instance, when the magnificent library at Blenheim was sold at auction to pay the debts of a spendthrift. It must always be remembered that individual wealth among Americans is greater in proportion than European wealth, because the latter is almost always encumbered with the necessity of keeping up costly establishments. Much of it, no doubt, will float back to Europe by change of residence or international marriages, and will serve either to keep up great historic places or for much worse purposes. But the problem of human civilization lies behind all this, and will perhaps transform all our notions of property itself within another hundred years.


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