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American Pie: Caste In America

Before citizens of the United States of America could anoint a royalty, they had to set about building a caste system from the bottom up, says John Merchant.

And John goes on to reveal the family that many Americans now think of as their own version of “royalty’’.

For more of John's outstandingly readable columns please click on http://www.openwriting.com/archives/american_pie/

The making of a “royal” family

America’s founding fathers meant well when they sat down to write the Constitution, but they were naïve in thinking that Constitutional guidelines would somehow eliminate the iniquities of their English heritage. Feudalism would continue to thrive, though now the peasant’s yoke had been transferred to the slaves. Religious intolerance and bigotry still waited in the wings, ready to move to center stage when circumstances allowed.

The Declaration of Independence, which predated the Constitution, was signed by the thirteen states of the time, and contained the following statement:

“We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

It’s hard to imagine that the promise of liberty, or even life, resonated with the slaves or the indigenous population, but then, they weren’t invited to the party anyway. The introduction of slavery into American society had the effect of lifting the peasantry one notch up the pecking order, and consequently all the other castes above them. The whole idea of a royal family at the top of the heap was anathema to the Constitutionalists, but that hasn’t prevented American society from doing their darnedest to create one ever since.

But before the citizenry could anoint a royalty, they had to set about building a caste system from the bottom up. The first step in the process was to get rich. Wealth means power and influence, useful tools for establishing a place in society, though at first there weren’t too many opportunities to make a quick buck.

You could get rich farming, but only at the pace the crops would grow. Tobacco was a great export commodity, but the market expanded only as fast as you could get people hooked on the weed. Land grabbing was quicker, but owning almost half of what is now New York State and beyond, as the Duke of Albany, later James II had, didn’t quite have the street credit of a bank vault full of money. Building and owning a railroad could be fruitful, as long as you could raise the money to do it, but even that required patience.

Then along came “natural resources.” Oil, gas, gold, copper, iron ore, coal – a plethora of goodies the like of which had never been seen before. And if you had grabbed enough land in the right places by then, or owned a railroad, you were sitting pretty. Society was percolating, and the robber baron caste was founded. But even robber barons are not all created equal, so means had to be found to differentiate the strata.

With enough riches you could buy an ambassadorship, or if you were less well endowed, a consular appointment, and if you didn’t mind a little extra effort, a seat in Congress or the Senate. Once you had those credentials on your resume, you were well on the way to setting yourself apart from the moneygrubbers. But as one famous American found out, there was still one more hurdle before you could climb to the top of the heap – acceptance by the Establishment.

This proved to be impossible for Joseph P. Kennedy. He was born in Boston in the 1800’s and did all the right things to succeed. Famously ambitious, by age 25 he was already president of a small bank, and later he moved into investment banking, movie theaters, film production and liquor, becoming wealthy in the process. It is often alleged that he boot- legged liquor during Prohibition. He supported Franklin Roosevelt in the elections of 1932, and in 1938, FDR appointed him ambassador to Britain.

But he had two strikes against him when it came to aspiring to his final goal, the Presidency of the USA. He was Irish and a Catholic, and as such would never be granted the necessary approval of the Boston Brahmins. The Brahmins, also called the First Families of Boston, are New Englanders who claim hereditary and cultural descent from the English Protestants who founded the city of Boston, Massachusetts, and settled New England.

They are considered to be part of the historic core of the East Coast Establishment, along with other wealthy families of New York City and Philadelphia. The power they wielded at the time derived from their historic, self-appointed position in society, their inherited wealth and their education. Not for them the indignity of the scramble for new money and the dirty tricks of the robber barons. No Catholic, self-made millionaire would ever become president if they had their way.

But Joe would have his revenge. By then he had a stable of young sons he was grooming for an assault on the Establishment, backed by his considerable wealth and influence. The boys were smart, well educated, and had their father’s determination. First out of the gate was Joe Jr., his eldest. Unfortunately, and tragically for Joe Sr.’s ambitions, young Joe was killed during World War II before he had chance to show his mettle.

Next up was John F., who, with some considerable support from his glamorous wife and his father’s wealth, finally laid waste to the Brahmin’s opposition and became president. Joe Sr. was ecstatic. And so America’s first family was born – not royal, but about as close an approximation as you could get in this Republic, adding a topping of cream to the layer cake of caste. The rest, as they say, is history. But as time passes, the Kennedy clan, despite tragic depletion, is maturing into what Americans have wanted since Independence, a royal family to call their own.

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