For centuries, there has been an enduring interest in the lives and stories of the world’s aristocrats and nobles.
From the ancient Barons and Lords of medieval Europe, to the glamourous Counts and Dukes of the Renaissance, people from all walks of life have been captivated by the way of life at the highest echelons of society.
Sometimes the appeal is the lavish lifestyle traditionally enjoyed by those born into privilege and plenty – the luxurious clothes, fine jewels, dazzling parties and sumptuous feasts.
Others may be drawn to the exquisite homes of the world’s wealthiest aristocrats – the palatial properties, vast estates and refined country houses that serve as the family seats for noble families around the globe.
Whereas some will be enchanted by the larger-than-life characters that populate the prominent positions on the world stage, those enjoying exclusive levels of influence, esteem and power. For eons, ordinary people across the globe have enjoyed living vicariously through the adventures of the world’s aristocrats and nobles.
So, it’s not surprising that many people wonder about the elite social structures within one of the greatest and most influential nations of the world – the United States of America.
Does America Have An Aristocracy?
As a republic, America doesn’t have an official aristocracy. Unlike the home nations of America’s European founders, the pioneering settlers from England, Spain, Amsterdam and France, the United States doesn’t have a formal monarchy, a system of royalty, or an official aristocratic hierarchy.
There is no recognised formal system of social ranking, such as the noble titles found in many European countries, e.g. Duke and Duchess, Count and Countess, Marquis and Marchioness, Lord and Lady etc…
Official noble titles and social ranks are not a part of America’s social order, so in the formal sense, there is no such thing as an American Aristocracy.
Yet, much like the highly nuanced and subtle social traditions of the most ancient cultures, there is undoubtedly an informal hierarchy of class and status within American society.
Old Money Vs New Money – The American Aristocracy
As the communities of early pioneers and colonies of America evolved over the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, the blossoming United States began to shape its social groups into an unofficial hierarchy.
As with many of the ancient cultures around the world, a class system gradually emerged, with certain families and individuals enjoying more elevated status within the social structure, along with levels of political power and influence that were unavailable to the masses.
In line with the patterns of wealth and fortunes, money would play a part in the selection process for this new class system. Those with financial advantages would be more likely to enjoy positions within the affluent Middle Class or the wealthy Upper Class.
Yet money was not the only criterion for joining the elevated social realms. In a reflection of the systems of nobility and aristocracy around the world, the hierarchy of social rank within America was also subject to questions of lineage and breeding.
Though there were no official titles of nobility to dictate membership of the right family or a rightful position within the hierarchy, there was undoubtedly a system of social order that recognised the rank and position of certain families, which were welcomed into the high society circles, whereas others were deemed to be outsiders.
Once again, money would play a part in the selection and inclusion within these elite social groups, yet this time it was less a case of how much money a family enjoyed, and more about how long the family had been wealthy.
Terms such as New Money and Old Money were used to differentiate between the family’s history and social standing.
The traditional upper-class families, those that had enjoyed fortune and power for a number of generations, were known as Old Money or the established high society. Those who failed to meet the relevant criteria, for example, the wealthy industrialists and financiers that rose to wealth during the 19th century, these were regarded as New Money or arrivistes, who had plenty of money but lacked the relevant lineage and traditional values of the Old Guard.
Along with the elite social systems and exclusive clubs within the upper classes of the early USA, many Americans have historically enjoyed enduring esteem for more formal noble titles that still exist in countries around the world.
Much like the people all over the planet, the entire spectrum of American society has held the ancient systems of royalty, nobility and aristocracy in high regard. Perhaps there has been an even stronger interest from those in the USA because there’s no formal system of nobility within the republic.
One of the most famous examples of this affinity for European titles of nobility was the trend of matching wealthy American heiresses with impoverished aristocrats in marriages that would ostensibly benefit both families.
The popularity of this practice, which peaked around the early 20th century, led to the term ‘American Princesses’, in reference to the new titles, rank and esteem these marital arrangements would bring about.
The vast dowries that usually accompanied the nuptials were certainly part of the appeal of such arrangements, especially for those noble families who were blessed with official aristocratic titles yet faced considerable financial burdens, such as the upkeep of enormous estates or inheritance tax issues.
In return, the young brides would attain a new level of social cachet unavailable in their native America, that of a genuine title of nobility, such as Duchess or Countess.
For many American families who enjoyed enormous fortunes but lacked the required social credentials, having a French Countess or English Duchess in the family would elevate the social standing of the entire family, both in Europe and at home in America.
The popularity of this trend of American Princesses reflects the esteem and regard that American society has traditionally held for the positions and ranks of nobility around the world.
And the wealthy heiresses who embarked on these noble adventures overseas were the founders of a kind of new American Aristocracy, one that married US money to noble lineages, a combination that paved the way for new dynasties that blended families across the Atlantic.