You’ve probably gathered by now that a lot of my interest lies in the performance of status Issac Royall and John Brown were gave. What kind of men were they? What kind of men did they want to be perceived as? As an anthropologist ([ahem] in training) those are questions I’m obligated to get to the bottom of. The trouble is is that the answers are not exactly clear. They probably weren’t even clear to Royall and Brown.
A lot has been made in this blog of how important it was to Royall that he manage to convey to the world around him his legitimacy as a member of the elite. The ginormous house rising out of the impeccable landscaped lawns, the expensive wig purchased for his son, the fine china and exotic comestibles all communicated affluence and success. On the other hand, however, Royall made some clear nods to his family’s origins. On the family crest, designed by Royall (recognizable as the insignia for Harvard Law School, which was largely endowed by Isaac Royall Jr.), are three sheaves of wheat. This crest appeared on almost everything in the Royall House from documents to bottles of wine unearthed during Alexandra Chan’s dig. The sheaves were likely meant to evoke the family’s agricultural background.
Royall, then, seems to have taken some measure of pride in his humble beginnings. In large part this was likely because it gave him something against which to compare himself post-striking-it-big. That is to say he had something to compare his later success against (“what am I if not not what I was?”). Social mobility allowed for Royall’s reinvention as a member of a nascent self-made American elite in line with the Enlightenment ideas of philosophers such as John Locke. Thus was he allowed to inter his humble tradesman father in an elaborate crypt without whitewashing his origins.
Perhaps John Brown, as a patriot, took this self-made image more to heart than Royall the royalist. At the very least the Brown Mansion docents seem to think so. At every turn, from the introductory video to the gift shop, “self-made man” proclaims itself far and wide. Terms used to describe him during the tour were “unaffected” and “a man’s man.” He did not purchase an extremely expensive powdered wig for his son, James, despite investing in a fine education for all his children. Moreover, Brown chastened is son James for purchasing the infamous titanic carriage/SUV despite happily using it extensively (even letting George Washington borrow it during a visit). “One must not seem to take too much care with one’s appearance,” he admonished James during their correspondence while the younger Brown was studying at Harvard.
In both cases it’s clear tensions existed between where the traditional landed aristocrat ended and where the new self-made man began. Both men were concerned with appearances but also entirely conscious of where they came from. Whether or not Brown was “prouder” or “more mindful” or “thought more about” his humble origins — or, as a social scientist might say, how much of this factored into his “subjectivity” — is subject to further research on my part. If it’s researchable at all.
It’s important to bear in mind how this has not changed in recent years. There is an ongoing tension in American elite families between seeming like your prestige comes naturally and not seeming to be affected. Consider Bush’s reinvention as a cowboy from the millionaire, Ivy League educated son of a former president. Meanwhile, consider Bush Sr’s portrayal as “effete” thanks to his lack of shame regarding his education. Speaking of effete, consider the possibility of “femiphobia,” the masculine fear of appearing feminine which Stephen Ducat believes has been poisoning the executive branch for the past twenty years. Which brings us back to the question of gender, power, and aristocracy.
More to come on this subject.