Origins and effects of the American paradox

February 16, 2012

The American paradox was born with the republic itself. Consistent with the republican ideology, the Founding Fathers of the new nation developed a legal and institutional framework that provided no place for aristocratic privilege. The first article of the Constitution, for example, prohibits the republican government from granting any titles of nobility; nor can titles from sovereigns or foreign governments be accepted by those who hold public office.1 Other legal supports for a hereditary aristocracy, such as entail laws and primogeniture, were abolished in the first decades of the republic.

Constitution of the United States

Nonetheless, aristocratic sentiments have persisted throughout the history of the country. Deprived of the traditional examples of social hierarchy, Americans, inspired by the organic vigor of society, searched for other role models.

According to David Potter, they rejected hereditary but not acquired social status. Since everyone needs a social identity and status, Americans were compelled to seek their own identities and to compete to elevate their social standing as “self-made” men. Such competitiveness for success inevitably generates pressures and tensions that for many, as Potter notes, are intolerable. It is not surprising that the most characteristic forms of mental illness in the United States are those originating in a sense of personal inadequacy and insecurity brought on by an implacable competitive system in all spheres of life.2

Railroad baron Charles C. Crocker, one of the Big Four co-founders of the Central Pacific Railroad.

The same phenomenon is reported by Lipset and Bendix:

“In cultures which accept the idea of aristocracy, and which explicitly recognize the existence of classes, it may be possible for an individual to ignore distinctions of status in a number of social contexts without feeling that he has thereby jeopardized his social or economic position.”3
Thus, the United States presents the curiosity of a society with a directive elite earnestly cultivating distinctions of status, and, at the same time, theoretically convinced that elites should not exist. Pessen notes this “paradoxical scene in which most of the people seem altogether oblivious to the significance, even to the very existence, of the class distinctions that in fact play so central a part in American life.”4


Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira, Nobility and Analogous Traditional Elites in the Allocutions of Pius XII: A Theme Illuminating American Social History (York, Penn.: The American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family, and Property, 1993), Appendix I, pp. 163-164.


1 “No title of nobility shall be granted by the United States: and no person holding any office of profit or trust under them, shall, without the consent of Congress, accept of any present, emolument, or title, of any kind whatever, from any king, prince, or foreign state” (Constitutions of the United States of America, Article I, Section 9).

2 Cf. David Potter, Freedom and its Limitations in American Life (Stanford: Standford University Press, 1976), pp. 28-29.

3 Seymour Martin Lipset and Reinhard Bendix, Social Mobility in Industrial Society (New York: Random House, 1963), p. 48.

4 Edward Pessen, “Status and Social Class in America,” in Luther S. Luedtke, ed. Making America: The Society and Culture of the United States (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Information Agency [1987] 1988), p. 279.

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