What's a Boston Brahmin?

Answers to your questions about the news.
March 1 2004 3:54 PM

What's a Boston Brahmin?

And has Kerry really earned the name?

In covering this year's presidential contest, journalists keep using the phrase "Boston Brahmin" to describe Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry. What exactly is a Boston Brahmin?

The term was coined by physician and writer Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. (father of the famous Supreme Court justice). Dr. Holmes used it both in a novel and in an 1860 Atlantic Monthly article called "The Brahmin Caste of New England" to describe the region's upper crust. The words caste and Brahmin indicate where Holmes got the idea.

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In India, a Brahmin is "a member of the highest or priestly caste among the Hindus," according to the Oxford English Dictionary. By applying the term to his native Boston, Holmes was describing a more secular but equally powerful group—the city's entrenched WASP elite, or what he called its "harmless, inoffensive, untitled aristocracy."

Holmes counted himself a Boston Brahmin. In large part, he used the term to refer to families who produced generation after generation of scholars at institutions like Harvard. (He contrasted this "race of scholars," whose aptitude for learning was "congenital and hereditary," with what he called "the common country boy, whose race has been bred to bodily labor." However, Holmes also thought there was room in elite circles for hearty country boys who had gained an education—their better health could be useful in certain cases: "A man's breathing and digestive apparatus [one is tempted to add muscular] are just as important to him on the floor of the Senate as his thinking organs.")

The term Boston Brahmin quickly came to connote great wealth, political influence, old New England roots, and often all of the above. These Brahmins frequently intermarried, founded and patronized Boston cultural institutions, and had some connection with nearby Harvard. Dr. Holmes himself was dean of the Harvard Medical School.

"A Boston Toast," the famous poem by John Collins Bossidy, neatly sums up the Brahmin culture:

And this is good old Boston,
The home of the bean and the cod,
Where the Lowells talk only to Cabots
And the Cabots talk only to God.

The Brahmins are also well-known for their hostility to the Irish and other immigrants whose large numbers transformed the city in the 19th and early 20th centuries. In his book Guarding the Golden Door: American Immigration Policy and Immigrants Since 1882, author Roger Daniels discusses a group known as the Immigration Restriction League, which was founded in 1894 by recent Harvard graduates. The league favored drastic curbs on further immigration, and the man who would become its main advocate in Congress was the thoroughly Brahmin Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge, R-Mass. In 1891, when he was in the House of Representatives, Lodge had introduced a bill that would have required new immigrants to pass a literacy test before entering the country. Although some now think of the Kennedys as Brahmins because of their wealth and prestige, the family was certainly not part of the WASP club when it began its rags-to-riches climb.

As for whether John Kerry qualifies as a Brahmin, the answer is yes and no. On the yes side, consider that his middle name is Forbes. In fact, Kerry's mother was related to at least two traditional Brahmin families, the Forbeses and the Winthrops. Yet Kerry himself is a practicing Catholic, and many in Massachusetts long assumed Kerry was an Irish name. However, the senator says he learned from a Boston Globe investigation last year that his paternal grandfather was actually born Jewish in what's now the Czech Republic. Before emigrating to America in 1905, Fritz Kohn changed his name to Frederick Kerry. He also apparently converted to Catholicism.

So, it's certainly fair to say that New Englander John Kerry grew up in a privileged household. But whether he's really a Brahmin depends on whether you think that term has evolved to include a Catholic with both Protestant and Jewish roots—and who went to Yale.

Explainer thanks Kate McLean of NPR's Day to Day.

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