"The Brahmin Caste of New England," by Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., first appeared in the Atlantic Monthly in 1860. The text of the article is reproduced below.
There is nothing in New England corresponding to the feudal aristocracies of the Old World. Whether it be owing to the stock from which we were derived, or to the practical working of our institutions, or to the abrogation of the technical "law of honor," which draws a sharp line between the personally responsible class of "gentlemen" and the unnamed multitude of those who are not expected to risk their lives for an abstraction—whatever be the cause—we have no such aristocracy here as that which grew up out of the military systems of the Middle Ages.
What our people mean by "aristocracy" is merely the richer part of the community that live in the tallest houses, drive real carriages (not "kerridges"), kid-glove their hands and French-bonnet their ladies' heads, give parties where the persons who call them by the above title are not invited, and have a provokingly easy way of dressing, walking, talking, and nodding to people, as if they felt entirely at home and would not be embarrassed in the least if they met the Governor, or even the President of the United States, face to face. Some of these great folks are really well-bred, some of them are only purse-proud and assuming, but they form a class and are named as above in the common speech.
It is in the nature of large fortunes to diminish rapidly when subdivided and distributed. A million is the unit of wealth now and here in America. It splits into four handsome properties; each of these into four good inheritances; these, again, into scanty competences for four ancient maidens, with whom it is best the family should die out, unless it can begin again as its great grandfather did. Now a million is a kind of golden cheese, which represents in a compendious form the summer's growth of a fat meadow of craft or commerce; and as this kind of meadow rarely bears more than one crop, it is pretty certain that sons and grandsons will not get another golden cheese out of it, whether they milk the same cows or turn in new ones.
In other words, the millionocracy, considered in a large way, is not at all an affair of persons and families, but a perpetual fact of money with a variable human element, which a philosopher might leave out of consideration without falling into serious error. Of course, this trivial and fugitive fact of personal wealth does not create a permanent class, unless some special means are taken to arrest the process of disintegration in the third generation. This is so rarely done, at least successfully, that one need not live a very long life to see most of the rich families he knew in childhood more or less reduced, and the millions shifted into the hands of the country boys who were sweeping stores and carrying parcels when the now-decayed gentry were driving their chariots, eating their venison over silver chafing dishes, drinking Madeira chilled in embossed coolers, wearing their hair in powder, and casing their legs in white topped boots with silken tassels.
There is, however, in New England, an aristocracy, if you choose to call it so, which has a far greater character of permanence. It has grown to be a caste, not in any odious sense, but, by the repetition of the same influences, generation after generation, it has acquired a distinct organization and physiognomy, which not to recognize is mere stupidity, and not to be willing to describe would show a distrust of the good nature and intelligence of our readers, who like to have us see all we can and tell all we see.
If you will look carefully at any class of students in one of our colleges, you will have no difficulty in selecting specimens of two different aspects of youthful manhood. Of course I shall choose extreme cases to illustrate the contrast between them. In the first, the figure is perhaps robust, but often otherwise—inelegant, partly from careless attitudes, partly from ill-dressing—the face is uncouth in feature, or at least common; the mouth, coarse and unformed; the eye, unsympathetic, even if bright; the movements of the face are clumsy, like those of the limbs; the voice, unmusical; and the enunciation, as if the words were coarse castings instead of fine carvings. The youth of the other aspect is commonly slender; his face is smooth and apt to be pallid; his features are regular and of a certain delicacy; his eye is bright and quick; his lips play over the thought he utters as a pianist's fingers dance over their music; and his whole air, though it may be timid and even awkward, has nothing clownish. If you are a teacher, you know what to expect from each of these young men. With equal willingness, the first will be slow at learning; the second will take to his books as a pointer or a setter to his fieldwork.
The first youth is the common country boy, whose race has been bred to bodily labor. Nature has adapted the family organization to the kind of life it has lived. The hands and feet, by constant use, have got more than their share of development; the organs of thought and expression, less than their share. The finer instincts are latent and must be developed. A youth of this kind is raw material in its first stage of elaboration. You must not expect too much of any such. Many of them have force of will and character and become distinguished in practical life; but very few of them ever become great scholars. A scholar is almost always the son of scholars or scholarly persons.
That is exactly what the other young man is. He comes of the Brahmin caste of New England. This is the harmless, inoffensive, untitled aristocracy to which I have referred, and which I am sure you will at once acknowledge. There are races of scholars among us in which aptitude for learning, and all these marks of it I have spoken of, are congenital and hereditary. Their names are always on some college catalogue or other. They break out every generation or two in some learned labor which calls them up after they seem to have died out. At last some newer name takes their place, it may be; but you inquire a little and you find it is the blood of the Edwardses or the Chaunceys or the Ellerys or some of the old historic scholars disguised under the altered name of a female descendant.
I suppose there is not an experienced instructor anywhere in our Northern States who will not recognize at once the truth of this general distinction. But the reader who has never been a teacher will very probably object that some of our most illustrious public men have come direct from the homespun-clad class of the people, and he may, perhaps, even find a noted scholar or two whose parents were masters of the English alphabet, but of no other.
It is not fair to pit a few chosen families against the great multitude of those who are continually working their way up into the intellectual classes. The results which are habitually reached by hereditary training are occasionally brought about without it. There are natural filters as well as artificial ones; and though the great rivers are commonly more or less turbid, if you will look long enough, you may find a spring that sparkles as no water does which drips through your apparatus of sands and sponges. So there are families which refine themselves into intellectual aptitude without having had much opportunity for intellectual acquirements.
A series of felicitous crosses develops an improved strain of blood and reaches its maximum perfection at last in the large uncombed youth who goes to college and startles the hereditary class leaders by striding past them all. That is Nature's republicanism; thank God for it, but do not let it make you illogical. The race of the hereditary scholar has exchanged a certain portion of its animal vigor for its new instincts, and it is hard to lead men without a good deal of animal vigor. The scholar who comes by Nature's special grace from an unworn stock of broad-chested sires and deep-bosomed mothers must always overmatch an equal intelligence with a compromised and lowered vitality. 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. You broke down in your great speech, did you? Yes, your grandfather had an attack of dyspepsia in '82, after working too hard on his famous Election Sermon. All this does not touch the main fact: our scholars come chiefly from a privileged order, just as our best fruits come from well-known grafts, though now and then a seedling apple, like the Northern Spy, or a seedling pear, like the Seckel, springs from a nameless ancestry and grows to be the pride of all the gardens in the land.