I read in Greek . . . a couplet, the sense of which was: "Nobility in men is worth as much as it is in horses, asses or rams; but the meanest blooded puppy in the world, if he gets a little money, is as good a man as the best of them."
-- A letter from John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, July 9, 1813
The passage you quote . . . has an ethical rather than a political object . . . . I agree with you that there is a natural aristocracy among men. The grounds of this are virtue and talents . . . . There is also an artificial aristocracy, founded on wealth and birth, without either virtue or talents.
-- Jefferson's reply to Adams
What those old American revolutionaries would make of Washington's current swirl over the presence of British nobility paving the way for the arrival of the real thing, royalty, is, sadly, only a subject for speculation. Would their reaction to the round of private dinners and receptions given for such as the self-styled "magnificent seven" and the rest be one of bemusement or disappointment? We don't know. At the least, though, as observers of humanity and students of democracy, they would be keenly interested in what this behavior says about their fellow citizens in the America of the mid-1980s.
Let it be said merely that seldom has the capital of democracy witnessed so much social climbing and scurrying about over who gets to glimpse -- first hand, and in private, of course -- the titled aristocracy in our midst.
To judge from the media coverage so far, this one is being treated as grander than a presidential inauguration. Perhaps not since Andy Jackson threw open the doors of the White House to admit a clamorous horde of plain everyday people who proceeded to tear into an enormous cheese weighing 1,400 pounds and standing four feet high inside the executive mansion vestibule has so much social excitement gripped the capital.
And all this is only prelude to the main event a week away when that attractive young couple, our British cousins, Their Royal Highnesses Charles and Diana, come to visit.
Not that any of this should be surprising. Americans always have had a love affair with and a fascination for titles and royalty. In past generations, our new millionaires added to their luster by arranging for their sons and daughters to be married to lord or lady so and so and then spent additional fortunes to bring back, stone by stone, great old castles to be rebuilt securely on American soil, tangible symbols of the founding of new dynasties, hard evidence of the emergence of an American economic royal class.
Certainly, too, in this age of acquisitiveness, this era of celebration of self, when the reigning and most familiar folk heroes are the bejeweled and fabulously wealthy figures who flit over the nation's TV screens on "Dynasty" and "Dallas," rubbing elbows with and, yes, marrying, titled blue bloods, the arrival of the most glamorous of real-life royal couples is an occasion of obvious magnitude.
It's also an occasion when the rest of the country gets a closer look at the values and attitudes that dominate its capital.
Washington, alone among the old imperial capitals of the past, was created solely as a center of government. Politics, not commerce and culture, was its principal commodity. It remains the only reason for its existence. And here, more than in most places, the city's social strata judges itself by its personal access to the most powerful. That this is all silly, and sometimes obsequious, matters not at all. In Washington, when royalty comes calling, the city collectively bows.
The old political philosophers, who created the system, thought all this pretension would long be put behind us.
Alexis de Tocqueville, in his classic book on democracy in America, was one who spoke effusively of the new American's rejection of aristocracy and pride in equality: "Aristocracy has made a chain of all the members of the community, from the peasant to the king: democracy breaks that chain, and severs every link of it. As social conditions become more equal, the number of persons increases who, although they are neither rich enough nor powerful enough to exercise any great influence over their fellow-creatures, have nevertheless acquired or retained sufficient education and fortune to satisfy their own wants. They owe nothing to any man, they expect nothing from any man; they acquire the habit of always considering themselves as standing alone, and they are apt to imagine that their whole destiny is in their own hands. Thus not only does democracy make every man forget his ancestors, but it hides his descendants, and separates his contemporaries from him; it throws him back forever upon himself alone, and threatens in the end to confine him entirely within the solitude of his own heart."
Well, as the visit of the nobles and the royals demonstrates, he was wrong.
Come to think of it, we should thank Their Royal Highnesses. They've taken our minds off the nasty, grubby, insoluble problems of governance -- things like reducing deficits and raising taxes -- and have given us a chance to dream royal dreams and indulge in fancies of unparalleled luxury and unchecked power.
Oh, by the way, do you know where we can get an invitation to . . . .