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The New Aristocracy


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In 1776 Americans declared themselves independent of more than arbitrary rule by a distant monarch. They also severed the ties of aristocracy. This was in itself a revolutionary notion.

It meant that political power, its attendant privilege and economic advantages would no longer be transferred by the blood. Earldoms, dukedoms, and kingdoms were banished from the territory and from the future of the American people. The citizen became the self-identifying unit of self-rule.

The generation of English colonists who gathered together in the summer of 1776 to declare their independence from the English crown knew that they had exhausted all other remedies. They had petitioned, beseeched, and protested. Finally, they had resisted with force of arms at Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill. Their declaration of independence was the last resort, the last redoubt, the final refuge. As we say today, they were putting it all on the line.

They were breaking not just with monarchy, but with hereditary aristocracy as well. From that day forward, July 4th, 1776, the destiny of no American would be defined or limited by the circumstances of his birth. Dukes, earls, princes, knights -- all were swept away. Political power would no longer be the dominion of a select few families, to be passed from one generation to the next.

As with the other Founders, Adams and Jefferson shared an abhorrence for what they called the “tinsel aristocracy” of the Old World. They were glad that America had been spared the baneful influence of a corrupt, hereditary nobility.

While recognizing that the abolition of the hereditary rights of primogeniture and the prohibition of titles of nobility precluded certain kinds of officially sanctioned aristocracy, Adams insisted that such measures could not in themselves preclude the re-emergence of aristocracy in some other, perhaps more insidious, form.

He argued that aristocracy could renew itself as it had in the old world, by means of the accidental circumstances accruing from birth into a wealthy or renowned family.

Adams wrote, “I can never too often repeat that aristocracy is the monster to be chained…Bind aristocracy then with a double cord, shut him up in a cage from which, however, he may be let out to do good but never to do mischief.”

Adams insisted that “every government is an aristocracy in fact” and that it is imperative to guard against the greed, ambition, and tyranny of the aristocracy. He indicated the remedy: “The great secret to liberty is to limit [the aristocrats’] power and to control their passions. Rome and Britain have done it best.”



Turning away from Adams' vision?


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