How the WASPs won by losing

·9 min read
A WASP. Illustrated | iStock

The United States once had a ruling caste. They reigned for about a century, from Reconstruction to the Nixon administration, but only in the final years of their ascendancy were they given a name: White Anglo-Saxon Protestants, or WASPs.

Outside a few holiday resorts, authentic WASPs have mostly disappeared from view. Since Gilligan's Island introduced Thurston Howell III, most Americans know them only as comic figures in brightly colored holiday attire.

In his perceptive new book, WASPS: The Splendors and Miseries of an American Aristocracy, Michael Knox Beran shows that this caricature is deceiving. The WASPs' legacy is still with us even though their accents and rituals have become punchlines. They may have lost much of their privilege and cohesion, but their creations — including the administrative state, elite education, and charitable foundations — remain dominant influences on American life.

The term WASP was never quite accurate. This strand of the American elite was uniformly white, but not Anglo; Dutch, French, and sometimes more exotic blood flowed through its veins. Its members were mostly Protestants, but some were not. And the vast majority of American Protestants did not belong to the Episcopalian churches WASPs favored.

More than ethnicity or faith, what defined the WASPs was a mixture of ancestry, affluence, and idealism.

WASPs were mostly descendants of colonial-era merchants and professionals. If not so rich as Gilded Age industrialists, they inherited sufficient wealth to live in comfort without working too hard.

These roots were often sprung from New England, where WASPs faithfully sent their children to boarding school and college. Yet their headquarters was not Boston, by the late 19th century a mere provincial capital. WASPs pursued their ambitions in New York and Washington, where the real decisions were made.

This was a literally inbred society, whose core members were more or less cousins. Despite their reputation for snobbery, though, WASPs did not reject democracy. Instead, they aimed to help popular government reach its highest possibilities. Their ideal wasn't European nobility but aristocracy in its ancient Greek sense, meaning rule by the truly best.

The robber barons might have used their vast wealth to steer the national parties toward their own interests, but the WASPs began their ascent in the late 19th century as reformers. They embedded themselves in the bureaucracy and judiciary, bypassing the parties entirely, to insulate politics from corruption. Qualified professionals who enjoyed private incomes, they saw themselves as a permanent governing class who would give an uninformed public what it needed rather than what it thought it wanted.

The vision of elite-driven reform was not entirely selfless. WASPs believed they were entitled to rule and aimed to do it. Yet their motives included genuine public spirit. This sensibility was embodied by Groton, a boarding school founded by the charismatic Episcopal priest Endicott Peabody that educated a disproportionate number of leading WASPs.

WASPs didn't only set up schools. They established a complex of foundations and advocacy groups to combat social ills without trading help for votes. WASPs also staffed the professional civil service beginning to replace the spoils system. The modern diplomatic service, National Park Service, Federal Reserve, and other agencies all took shape under WASP influence.

In Beran's telling, the fortunes of the WASP enterprise were closely linked to the Roosevelt family. After a series of presidents who kept WASPs at arms' length, elite reformism found a champion in Theodore Roosevelt. Fearful of immigration and exhausted by Woodrow Wilson's even more enthusiastic progressivism, WASPs took a conservative turn in the 1920s. In Beran's telling, though, they recovered their old do-gooding spirit with FDR. While many of his contemporaries considered him a traitor to his class, FDR created the most WASP-heavy administration in history, encouraging WASPs to drift away from the party that saved the Union.

But by then, WASPs were already in trouble. For one thing, they were running out of cultural gas. Before World War I, writers of WASP background and themes such as James Russell Lowell and William Dean Howells dominated American letters, while high-society painters like John Singer Sargent became world famous. After the war, modernist movements from above and popular culture from below undermined aesthetic convention. Even WASP-adjacent authors like Ernest Hemingway and John Dos Passos rejected the genteel tradition enshrined at New England colleges.

Second, WASPs' economic advantages were eroded by the Depression and wartime taxation. The big fortunes survived. But smaller rentiers were wiped out. By midcentury, most WASPs needed to earn a living. John Cheever turned this unhappy descent into the middle class into literature.

Third, the tension between elitist and egalitarian elements of the WASP ethos became unsustainable. What should patricians do if the people rejected their authority? Some WASPs, like the diplomat George Kennan, questioned the wisdom of democracy itself. Others turned left, becoming Communist fellow travelers and sometimes, like Alger Hiss, actual spies.

These developments exacerbated a vampiric quality Beran sees as endemic to WASP culture. Prone to exhaustion, WASPs counted on infusions of new blood to revive their flagging energies.

Thus John F. Kennedy became the vehicle for the WASPs' last great effort. His social-climbing father provided an education that made JFK acceptable to patricians. As a prince of new money and new media, though, Kennedy was comfortable in a postwar America escaping WASPs' grasp.

But the Kennedy administration was an Indian summer. While foreign policy "Wise Men" enjoyed cocktails in Georgetown, events abroad hastened their doom. Louis Auchincloss, a Groton old boy who combined legal practice with a literary career, reported, "I used to say to my father, 'Everything would be all right if only my class at Yale ran the country.' Well, they did run the country during the Vietnam War, and look what happened!"

Mobilization for war also required different principles of elite selection. To conduct global struggles against fascism and communism, America needed talent wherever it could be found. Liberal WASPs like the sociologist E. Digby Baltzell, who popularized the term, argued that the "Protestant Establishment" could fulfill its destiny by embracing true meritocracy and then fading from the scene.

Born with a foot in the door, WASPs were supposed to make themselves worthy of power. As their influence declined, degeneration set in. Henry Adams smirked that "​​The progress of evolution from President Washington to President Grant was alone evidence to upset Darwin." We might say the same of the subsequent procession from WASP to preppy to bro.

Beran depicts the decline of the WASPs as a tragedy. Yet it's also possible to see improbable success. The WASPs were inspired by a dream of national renewal based on professional administration, moral formation by elite educational institutions, and a new kind of cultural institution independent of both the state and aristocratic patrons. That vision is still with us even if the WASPs are not.

Start with administrative bodies staffed by a professional civil service — the "deep state" as it has recently become known. The alphabet soup of federal agencies has its origin in WASP-led reform movements of the 1870s. It was a vivid revival of old conflicts when Robert Mueller, an anachronistically perfect WASP, briefly became the avatar of anti-Trump sentiment. Donald Trump, on the other hand, was formed by the corrupt patronage politics WASPs arose to resist.

Elite education also reflects more of the WASP heritage than we like to think. Standardized tests and affirmative action transformed the student body. But the Ivies and their imitators still practice higher education primarily as an exercise in selection and forming a ruling class. Classic WASP characteristics including athletic ability and assumed potential for leadership remain decisive for admission.

Despite its impatience with the ostensibly benighted past, the moralistic progressivism that infuses colleges today echoes the WASP conviction that social reform is a product of personal virtue. Campus leftism is not about specific policies. It is an effort to create the right sort of people through structured forms of communal living. That's not Marxism. It's what "Cotty" Peabody was doing at Groton.

Finally, WASPs dreamed of replacing aristocratic patronage with enduring structures that would transcend the lifetimes and whims of their founders. In culture as in politics, they trusted professional management more than individual judgment.

The result was the charitable foundation, which reconciled the 19th century rivals of plutocracy and reform by placing portions of the great industrial fortunes under the control of WASP mandarins. Due to their wealth, prominence, and insulation from electoral pressure, such foundations still wield extraordinary influence. Their largesse set the agenda for scholarship, the arts, and political advocacy.

These institutions are the real WASP legacy. Rather than the fussy conservatism depicted in pop culture, it's an inheritance of institutionalized progressivism that sees privilege as the means to moral ends, even when those ends are superficially revolutionary.

Take Princeton, where the Classics department recently eliminated language requirements, ostensibly to make the subject more attractive to minority students. The decision was attacked as an abandonment of academic and culture standards. With their love of ancient Greece and hard-won mastery of Virgil, WASPs would have regarded the decision with horror.

But the move away from the traditional curriculum is less revolutionary than it seems. Princeton and counterparts continue to serve as gatekeepers to the elite. They maintain endowments the size of national economies and exercise a magnetic attraction on the upper middle class. By becoming less explicitly WASPy without abandoning the WASP ethos, they achieved a status that the WASPs alone could never accomplish.

Despite the triumphs of the Roosevelts, WASPs lost the electoral battle. Their tendency to priggishness didn't play with voters. The self-abasement of latter-day WASPs like George H.W. Bush and John Kerry have become legendary. But they weren't the first WASPs to struggle with modern media. Check out Henry Cabot Lodge Jr.'s 1956 performance on What's My Line?.

WASPs did better in classrooms and boardrooms where it was less important to connect with ordinary people. They won their struggle for America's soul by designing institutions that continue to shape it.

The phrase "pyrrhic victory," derived from a episode in Roman history that WASPs would have recognized, describes a situation in which the costs of winning are so great that victory is really a defeat. Sometimes combatants lose by winning. WASPs won by losing.

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