Refinement of the elites

June 4, 2012

The previous considerations presuppose a process of refinement and cultivation of those persons and families who aspire to become members of the elite. Without this refinement, they can be rich, even very rich, but they will not be an authentic traditional elite.

Colonel Adolphus Busch was the German-born co-founder of Anheuser-Busch.

How does this process work? A man becomes rich, and a desire for prestige is born in him. To attain such prestige he feels the need to have certain noticeable qualities that distinguish him from the common man: more culture, better education, greater refinement, and the like. He feels the need to adopt a lifestyle that corresponds to the idea that the public has regarding what a man of prestige should be. Moved by this desire for prestige, he begins to refine himself according to this model.

When this process of refinement began in the United States, American cultural life did not offer adequate national archetypes. As Richard Bushman points out, the republic stunted American culture, depriving it of its highest human models, that is, those of the aristocracy.

Lady Randolph Churchill (née, Jennie Jerome) came from a successful American banking family. She was the mother of Sir Winston Churchill.

“Americans in the nineteenth century faced a number of perplexing difficulties growing out of the contradictions in their culture. Among the discomforts and embarrassments, they were left with a truncated culture whose zenith and ultimate realization lay outside their borders. Republicanism cut off the top of American society by forbidding an American aristocracy. Aristocratic bloodlines, traditionally the bearers of the highest culture, could not be tolerated…. It meant that the best people and the best circles, the models for others to follow, were always elsewhere.

“Even the best societies of the greatest cities lived in the shadows of still more refined aristocratic society in Europe….

An advertisement in The Ladies' Monthly Magazine May 1868, showing the latest French fashions.

“…[Therefore], the genteel lived by a standard outside themselves and their own circle. They could not break the colonial and provincial habit of looking upward and outward for leadership.” (Richard L. Bushman, The Refinement of America [New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992), pp. 413-414.

Those aspiring to be part of the elite were obliged to imitate European models, principally English, the natural archetype for Americans. As a result, they thought that living in the manner of an English gentleman would confer social prestige. And since the English generally acknowledged the superiority of French fashions, the wives of these Americans began to adopt certain French styles in order to have prestige among the American public.

Mina (Miller) Edison, wife of Thomas Edison. She was the daughter of inventor Lewis Miller, co-founder of the Chautauqua Institution and benefactor of several charities.

In this way, rudimentary elites acquired in two or three generations an authenticity that made them capable of being assimilated by the older elites.

In a well-constituted society, such a process of refinement would take place in all social classes, not just in the highest. For underneath this process lies man’s innate desire for perfection. We shall return to this point later.


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), American Appendix, p. 186. Editorial comment: —

A few points to be highlighted in this post:
1. Aristocracy and refinement are inseparable; 2. American elites look to and emulate British ones; 3. French fashions “set the tone” in Europe during the Belle Epoque. These fashions were adopted willingly by American elites because they followed the British cue. 4. The striving for perfection and excellence is natural in man.
How beautiful that our ascending 19th century elites wanted to refine themselves and adopt aristocratic manners. How beautiful again, that they had a spirit of admiration, not one of envy, and recognized the superiority of British and French elites. These American elites emulated the example being set by these more aristocratic elites. The revolutionary and subversive spirit would be to hate this superiority and want to destroy it.


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