Summer Reading for Summer Travel: Aristocracy in America

Aristocracy in America: Francis Grund’s Critique of European Travel Accounts in the Early Republic

By Armin Mattes

MattesArmin Mattes is assistant research professor and assistant editor of the Papers of James Madison at the University of Virginia. He is the author of Citizens of a Common Intellectual Homeland: The Transatlantic Origins of American Democracy and Nationhood and the editor of Francis J. Grund’s Aristocracy in America: From the Sketch-Book of a German Nobleman.

Top image: Samuel Beals Thomas, with His Wife, Sarah Kellogg Thomas, and Their Two Daughters, Abigail and Pauline by Edward Dalton Marchant

By the 1830s, America as the “New World” had long held a special place in the imagination of Europeans. Initially, this fascination concentrated more on America’s natural wonders and economic potential, but increasingly shifted to social and political phenomena after the American Revolution and the establishment of a republican regime. With the French Revolutionary Wars finally over in 1815, travel to America became easier and safer, and accordingly in the 1820s and 1830s the number of travel accounts on American society proliferated. The most famous of these was Alexis de Tocqueville’s two volume (1835, 1840) Democracy in America, but there were many more such as Michel Chevalier’s (1836) Lettres sur L’Amérique du Nord, Basil Hall’s (1829) Travels in North America, in the Years 1827 and 1828, Thomas Hamilton’s (1833) Men and Manners in America, Harriet Martineau’s (1837) Society in America, and Frances Trollope’s (1832) Domestic Manners of the Americans, to mention just the most important of them.

The style and quality of these travel accounts varied considerably, but all of them in one form or another were fascinated by one aspect in particular: the lack of a nobility in America. Nowadays, this does not seem like a big deal, but it is worth remembering that in the 1830s the republican United States was the oddity and all these visitors came from countries with a titled nobility and a more or less hierarchical social and political order. However, the trend especially in Great Britain and France was towards a greater liberalization. Hence these European writers were curious to see if and how a country without a politically defined upper class could work and what democracy in practice would mean for an upper class, a topic the more pertinent to these writers, all of whom belonged to the upper classes of European nations.

Unsurprisingly, the opinions of European visitors on American society and its elite differed. For example, Hall, Hamilton, and Trollope were clearly not impressed with what they saw and published highly critical accounts of the state of American society, describing American manners and social norms as rough and almost denying that something like an American (social) aristocracy that would deserve that name existed. Others such as Martineau differentiated more and while criticizing the manners of the masses, sympathized with and praised members of the American elites. All of them, however, agreed that the United States were thoroughly democratic and that the elites were virtually powerless. For instance, Alexis de Tocqueville noted that since upper class Americans were “unable to assume a position in public life comparable to that which they occupy in private life,” they retreated from politics altogether. As a result, they formed “a society apart, with its own distinctive tastes and pleasures,” but without political power; and since they were without power, the elite also posed no danger to American democracy. Even though, as Tocqueville realized, “the rich feel a deep disgust with their country’s democratic institutions.”

Interestingly, these European writers’ observations were in contradiction with Americans’ own perception of both the existence and dangers of an “aristocracy” in America. Jacksonian Democrats routinely conjured up the specter of “aristocracy,” and the trappings of European aristocratic culture held considerable allure for many members of the American elite. Francis Grund’s Aristocracy in America, published in 1839 in an English (London) and German edition aimed to bridge this transatlantic divergence of perceptions.

Few persons were better suited to this task than Francis Grund. Born in 1805 in Bohemia, he attended university in Vienna and was thus familiar with the nature of European aristocracy. Unlike most other European travel writers, however, Grund did not just tour the United States for a couple of months but immigrated to the nation in the mid-1820s and became a U.S. citizen, an influential journalist, and an active politician, thus gaining a deeper understanding of American society. Being a strong supporter of Jackson and Van Buren’s Democratic Party in the 1830s, Grund was also much more familiar with, and sympathetic to, the Jacksonians’ preoccupation with “aristocracy” than the other mostly conservative, upper-class European writers.

In short, Grund’s Aristocracy in America provides an ideal source to explore the aspirations, power, and danger that parts of the early republican elite posed to American democracy, which generally eluded European travelers. In contrast to most other European observers of American society, Grund painted a picture of America in which the danger to the republic did not come from below but from the pseudo-aristocratic pretensions of certain subsets of the American elite. Illustrating vividly, in a sarcastic and often highly entertaining way, the elite’s incessant hunger for exclusiveness, he revealed significant counter-democratic tendencies in the Jacksonian period. By thus bringing a class conflict fueled from above to the fore, Aristocracy in America can help one to better understand the ubiquitous rhetoric of a struggle between “aristocracy” and “democracy” in the Early Republic.

Next blog post: an excerpt from Aristocracy in America

Mattes coverAristocracy in America
From the Sketch-Book of a German Nobleman
By Francis J. Grund
Edited and with an Introduction by Armin Mattes
452 pages • Hardcover • ISBN: 9780826221568 • $40.00
Part of the Studies in Constitutional Democracy series

Fall & Winter 2019 Catalog

Our Fall & Winter 2019 catalog has just arrived! It features new titles on subjects that range from journalism to the history of the Early Republic. It also includes our newest paperbacks and backlist highlights. Have a look for yourself!

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The Myth of Coequal Branches: The Standoff between Congress and the White House

SiemersLately, almost every evening on the nightly news, politicians, pundits, and hosts can be heard talking about the “coequal” branches of government. But what if this idea is a myth and not part of the Constitution at all? David Siemers asserts precisely this and comments on the standoff between the White House and Congress to explain his argument.

The House Oversight Committee, suspecting the presence of criminal behavior, has demanded documents from President Trump’s accounting firm.  The president has filed suit in federal court to prevent their release.  This standoff has placed two ways of constitutional thinking in stark juxtaposition.  The first is more familiar to most Americans—two coequal branches are jousting over the proper settlement of a constitutional dilemma.  This understanding is pithily captured by political scientist Sarah Binder in a recent Tweet:  “the branches typically negotiate out their disagreements; Co-equal branches can’t easily compel the other branch to accede to demands.”  Despite being more familiar, I demonstrate in The Myth of Coequal Branches that this way of thinking is actually a recent innovation, stemming from similar disagreements between Congress and the Nixon Administration, which resisted requests of Congress by citing the president’s coequal status.

The second way of thinking has just been articulated by US District Judge Amit P. Mehta in an initial ruling on the Trump case:  “It is simply not fathomable that a Constitution that grants Congress the power to remove a president for reasons including criminal behavior would deny Congress the power to investigate him for unlawful conduct.”  Rather than concentrating on how much power each branch has, and asserting that it is equal, this ruling focuses on the legitimate function of each branch.  In pursuing their investigation into the Trump organization, Judge Mehta has noted that Congress is operating well within its constitutionally authorized sphere.  We can call this latter approach a “separation of functions” understanding of the Constitution, to distinguish it from the idea that there are three branches with equal power.

The choice between these two modes of constitutional thinking is not esoteric.  At issue is whether the Constitution’s own outlines for governance are followed, or whether they are replaced by a constitutional myth devised by interested actors.  Politicians offer up the idea that their branch is coequal because they know that the idea will be accepted on faith.  “Coequality” allows each branch to claim partial control over every matter before government, regardless of constitutional authorization. This rhetoric also forestalls further constitutional analysis.  Disputes may end in resolution, but not ones that are satisfactorily explained to the public, who assume that each branch should have equal say.

The American founders did not believe that the branches were equal in power.  James Madison and Alexander Hamilton baldly contradicted the idea in The Federalist.  We should take care to better understand the constitutional system we are in.  Each branch has an equally legitimate role to play, but the branches are not equals in their power or in their function.

Sarah Binder’s Tweet was “published” at 5:29 AM on May 7 2019:
The Mehta quote is on p. 24 of Trump v. Committee on Oversight filed May 20, 2019:

To read David Siemers’s full argument, check out his book! It can be found on our website and retail outlets such as Amazon.

SiemersThe Myth of Coequal Branches

Restoring the Constitution’s Separation of Functions

David J. Siemers

242 pages

Published: December 2018

ISBN: 9780826221698

Studies in Constitutional Democracy

David J. Siemers is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin–Oshkosh and the author of four books, including Presidents and Political Thought. He lives in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.


The Wall Street Journal review of ‘The Panic of 1819’: Easy Money, Bad Decisions

The Panic of 1819 has been reviewed by the Wall Street Journal!

A boom in lending was followed by a bust and hard times. The crisis inspired a new spirit of self-reliance and impressive economic debate.


The Second Bank of the United States was heavily criticized in the aftermath of the Panic of 1819. PHOTO: KEAN COLLECTION/GETTY IMAGES

James Grant

April 17, 2019 6:54 p.m. ET

Few will feel the urge to spray confetti in this year of the bicentennial of the 1819 panic. The wondrous thing, by Andrew Browning’s telling, is that the young country survived it. The title of Mr. Browning’s fine and formidable history only hints at its scope. “The Panic of 1819” is, in fact, a political, social and financial history of the U.S., before, during and after America’s first great depression.

If you have a subscription to the WSJ, you can continue reading here:

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Lloyd Gaines and the Fight to End Segregation by James W. Endersby and William T. Horner

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Unjustly Dishonored: An African American Division in World War I by Robert H. Ferrell

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From SWEETBACK to SUPER FLY: Race and Film Audiences in Chicago’s Loop by Gerald R. Butters

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