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