A particularly interesting chapter in the history of Anglo-American relations is the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, during which many British aristocrats married rich American heiresses in order to replenish their dwindling fortunes. Wealthy American industrialists (or at least their wives) were eager to lend their treasure to the British aristocracy in exchange for grandchildren with noble blood and aristocratic titles. This trend began with the emergence of the nouveau riche in the society of New York during the late 1860s and early 1870s. Old New York City was deeply rooted in the simple austerity of its Dutch Reformed heritage. New Yorkers eschewed the ostentation of fashionable trends in the courts of Europe. This is not to say that New York lacked for sophistication or appeal. New York was dominated by elegant (if not monotonous) brownstone homes. Celebrations were common, though informal, for the time period. Many New York homes lacked ballrooms, and gatherings took place in formal sitting rooms where furniture was rearranged for dancing and conversation. But the emergence of the nouveau riche, wealthy industrialists with “new money,” made some members of the established families of New York nervous.
The matriarch of old New York was Caroline Schermerhorn Astor; known as “the Mrs. Astor.” Caroline Astor was married to William Backhouse Astor of the famous Astor family with deep roots in the de facto aristocracy of New York and New England. Caroline Astor, along with Ward McAllister, sought to preserve the rules and etiquette of traditional New York society by excluding members of the nouveau riche from polite society. Astor’s chief rival was Alva Vanderbilt who married William Kissam Vanderbilt of the Vanderbilt family. The solution that many wives of nouveau riche families settled upon was to take their daughters to Europe for presentation at court and, hopefully, marriage to a suitable aristocrat. The first destination for disaffected New Yorkers was Paris, but before long London became the destination of choice. This period was famously chronicled by Edith Wharton in her novel, The Buccaneers.
Many marriages between American heiresses and British aristocrats formed, often under the sponsorship of Prince Albert, son of Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha and Queen Victoria who would later become King Edward VII. Famous examples of these trans-Atlantic unions include Jennie Jerome, daughter of New York stock speculator and financier Leonard Jerome, who married Lord Randolph Churchill. Churchill was a younger son of the Duke of Marlborough, who enjoyed a successful career in the House of Commons. Churchill and Jerome were the parents of the future British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Another famous Anglo-American marriage was of Consuelo Vanderbilt, the daughter of William and Alva Vanderbilt, to Charles Spencer-Churchill, 9th Duke of Marlborough. In addition to British nobility marrying Americans, there are also examples of British commoners marrying American women in Rudyard Kipling, Bertrand Russell, and Hilaire Belloc.
Several aspects of this time period are fascinating. There are both good and bad takeaways from this interesting period in the history of Anglo-American relations. Here are some of my thoughts on what we can learn from the Edwardian ethos that brought about an era of unprecedented trans-Atlantic friendship.
The friendship between Great Britain and the United States was certainly a positive development after two major wars between them in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The relationship of the two nations had matured since the immediate aftermath of the Revolution. It is gratifying to witness the reconciliation of two nations which share “kindred blood,” in the words of John Adams when meeting with King George III after the conclusion of the American Revolution.1
America was founded as an extension of the European people. As America continued to become more prominent during the course of the nineteenth century, it is only natural that upper echelons of American society would intermarry with the aristocratic classes of fellow European nations. This was a long European tradition that spans centuries of history. Marital unions between two kindred nations or tribes helped to forge lasting alliances by binding powerful families together, and there were at least a few Anglo-American marriages that followed this pattern.
The Edwardian epoch was one of fantastic taste and refinement. This was the age of the architecture of Richard Morris Hunt and Ralph Adams Cram. The wealthy American families of this period built magnificent mansions in Newport, Rhode Island, where they spent the summers. Fortunately, many of these glorious examples of Western culture still stand. In an age of ubiquitous degeneracy, it is gratifying to remember a time when our (admittedly flawed) elites displayed refinement, manners, and class.
Anglo-American marriages from this period were almost exclusively one-sided, in that wealthy American heiresses married relatively impoverished British aristocrats. For some time the British aristocracy had been in decline, and for several reasons. The chief problem that the British aristocracy faced was the decline of Christianity. Church attendance was at the beginning of a decline that has now left the modern Anglican Church completely moribund. British aristocrats were the vanguard of this apostasy. Marital fidelity was never a particular hallmark of the aristocratic classes, but promiscuity became more mainstream among the nobility during the social dominance of Prince Albert/King Edward VII.
At one time, membership in the aristocracy accompanied a profound sense of duty in service of King and country, but the aristocracy of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries had long since abandoned those ideals in favor of perpetual revelry. The dissolute lives that many aristocrats led frittered away family fortunes acquired over several generations in a relatively short timespan. The situation was worsened by Britain’s abandonment of its tradition of nationalist economics, embracing free trade in the mid-nineteenth century. The result of this policy was the devaluation of land, which was the principal commodity of the aristocracy. The problems created by free trade policies were used as a rationale to implement socialism.
Accordingly, the social and economic status of the British nobility was in disarray, and wealthy American heiresses seemed like a good solution to solve these problems. Many of these trans-Atlantic marriages were formed on a purely utilitarian basis with the goal of bolstering the fortunes of the aristocracy, and providing American families with connections to ancient titled families from Britain. Needless to say, utilitarian considerations are a poor foundation for marriage.
Many of the American wives of British aristocrats found themselves profoundly lonely in their adopted homeland. British families were often suspicious of these newcomers, and several of these women wrote frequently to their American families about how much they missed home. For these women the beauty of the sprawling English countryside and the splendor of magnificently grand estates did not compensate for their social isolation. Charles Dana Gibson, whose artwork and drawings capture the spirit of the Edwardian epoch, drew a particularly poignant illustration of isolation experienced by American brides in England.
Gibson’s picture A Castle in the Air portrays an American wife sitting in an elegant dining room across a long table from her English husband. A thought bubble appears above her head. She imagines herself back in America with a home in the country in which she and her American husband would play in the yard with their children and family dog. What this woman longs for is a life in which she trades the grandeur of Europe for the familiar comfort and simplicity of home. This period ought to serve as a warning for many proponents of miscegenation who believe that the obstacles caused by ethnic and racial differences can be overcome with enough effort. The reality is that even closely related kindred nations like America and Great Britain were dissimilar enough in their manners and customs, from a mere century’s separation, that marriages between Americans and Britons encountered additional hardships. Money doesn’t buy happiness, and for many American heiresses in England, this proved to be all too true.
Lessons to Learn
The era of trans-Atlantic Anglo-American marriages came to an end with the death of Edward VII. America had matured to a world power by the early twentieth century, so aristocratic titles in foreign countries had largely lost their luster in the American interest. The luster of British aristocratic titles had also waned in the eyes of the American industrial elite due to the very ignoble conduct of Britain’s nobility. Franklin Work of New York City was particular irked by his daughter Frances’ marriage to James Burke Roche, 3rd Baron Fermoy. Roche was a feckless rake whose abandonment of his wife ultimately led to their divorce on the grounds of his desertion. Work’s reaction is recorded in the book, To Marry an English Lord:
Frank Work, father of Frances Burke-Roche, put his disapproval of foreign marriages quite baldly. During an interview quoted in his obituary, which appeared in the New York Tribune in 1911, he stated: ‘It’s time this international marrying came to a stop for our American girls are ruining our own country by it. As fast as our hard-working men can earn this money their daughters take it and toss it across the ocean. And for what? For the purpose of a title and the privilege of paying the debts of so-called noblemen! If I had anything to say about it, I’d make an international marriage a hanging offense.2
Trans-Atlantic marriages lost their allure when the aura of the British aristocracy faded in American culture. Today, neither Great Britain nor America retains the prestige they once enjoyed. Cultural Marxism has rotted out both once-proud nations to their very core, and personally I can’t help but look back at the Edwardian epoch with a certain degree of nostalgia in spite of the problems that were typical of this period. Are there lessons that we can learn that would be useful for the future restoration of Great Britain and America? Is it foreseeable that American families can one day unite with the elite families of Europe in a positive manner that benefits all nations and families involved? I believe so, but the mistakes made during the Edwardian period ought to be avoided.
First, America needs to develop a more robust understanding of the place of traditional classes in a healthy society. Others may disagree, but I believe that the trend towards a more egalitarian ethos that took hold in American culture during the mid-eighteenth century was a negative development.3 If America could develop a healthy and organic class consciousness, this would help ameliorate a desire to seek status through marriage to foreign families simply because of the class system that is in place in that context. Granted, this would be difficult under our current circumstances, but if America is to be delivered from our current crisis, it is reasonable to surmise that a true natural elite class would emerge from the struggle.
Second, Britain and other European nations need to fix their social and economic problems without using marriage into American money as the temporary stopgap measure that it became in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Happy and stable marriages will not emerge from purely utilitarian concerns, nor will such marriages bind kindred nations such as Great Britain and the United States together in mutual affection as they could have. Adopting the principle of maintaining tribal and ethnic property inheritance from Leviticus 25 and Numbers 27 and 36 would help to disincentive marriage for purely monetary reasons.
We are a long way off from Edwardian Britain and America. The context of the Anglo-American marriages that took place during this time has changed substantially, and in many ways this can be written off as a mere historical curiosity. Nevertheless, as an admitted Anglophile I am fascinated by this particular time period. It is my hope that one day America and Britain, as well as other Anglophone nations like Canada and Australia, can emerge from our present crises and usher in a new epoch of renewed friendship.
- John Adams told King George III in his audience after being appointed Minister Plenipotentiary to Great Britain: “I shall esteem myself the happiest of men if I can be instrumental in recommending my country more and more to your Majesty’s royal benevolence, and of restoring an entire esteem, confidence, and affection, or, in better words, the old good nature and the old good humor between people who, though separated by an ocean and under different governments, have the same language, a similar religion, and kindred blood.” King George responded that he found Adams’ greeting to be “extremely proper” and “justly adapted to the occasion.” Quote taken from John Adams by David McCullough, pg. 336-337. This exchange was recorded in a letter of Adams to John Jay. McCullough surmises that with the exception of Adams’ reference to the “kindred blood” shared between Great Britain and America, that Adams was “altogether sincere,” implying that Adams did not actually believe this. This view is reflected in the HBO adaption of McCullough’s book which has Adams hesitate before uttering this phrase, but I see no reason why Adams (or King George, for that matter) would have believed any differently. ↩
- To Marry an English Lord: Tales of Wealth and Marriage, Sex and Snobbery, pg. 314 by Gail MacColl and Carol McD. Wallace ↩
- This more egalitarian ethos that emerged during this time period is typified by the poem “The Contrast” by Royall Tyler in which honorific titles are eschewed in favor of more informal greetings:
“EXULT, each patriot heart!–this night is shewn
A piece, which we may fairly call our own;
Where the proud titles of ‘My Lord! Your Grace!’
To humble Mr. and plain Sir give place.” ↩