Whither the WASP?

One of the disturbing things about the Cult of Wokeness is how many venerated institutions—educational, cultural, religious, and so on—have succumbed to it, as per our earlier published “Woke List.” One such that did not make that admittedly non-exhaustive numbering was the National Association of Independent Schools, the umbrella group for many of the most prestigious centers of secondary learning in the country. Among these are the famed “St. Grottlesex” group, a portmanteau encompassing St. Paul’s in New Hampshire, St. George’s in Rhode Island, and St. Mark’s, Groton, and Middlesex in Massachusetts. These elite boarding schools have played roughly the same role as the Ivy League has in higher education. It is more than a little disturbing, then, given their place in the universe, that the NAIS should have issued an “NAIS Statement on Addressing Anti-Blackness and Systemic Racism” reading in part:

We will be rolling out initiatives to build and strengthen strategic plans to address systemic racism and inequity and help foster ongoing dialogue. As institutions across America are reckoning with systemic racism, schools can take the lead in addressing both historic and present-day injustice. Independent schools value and develop individual potential and build and nurture communities. Listening, learning, and growing are central to what schools do. This is an opportunity to make our schools safer, stronger, and more active participants in the creation of a more just world.

The dreary ritual denunciation of systemic racism and implied condemnation of their founders brings into stark relief the implicit rejection on their part and that of their institutional brethren on our list of the class that did indeed create them: the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant. Now this is a slippery term, WASP. In popular use, it also connotes money. Thus, the Boston Brahmins would be considered as part of this group, but their Swamp Yankee cousins would not. The same goes for Maryland and Virginia’s First Families and the SOBS of Charleston, South Carolina, on the one hand, and the Southern Poor Whites on the other, for all that they may have shared ancestry. Also, they need not be exclusively of English origin, as the Roosevelts, Duponts, and Zabriskies might tell you. Moreover, even in their heyday, there was never a single monolithic national elite. Every major city and its hinterlands had (and have) their own version.

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Now, the seizure of the institutions their ancestors founded by the Woke—many of whom come from their numbers—is in a sense just another chapter in their long decline, chronicled unmercifully in various media by such as Henry Adams, J. P. Marquand, Stephen Birmingham, John Cheever, Louis Auchincloss, Cleveland Amory, Samuel Huntington, A. R. Gurney, and Whit Stillman. Nevertheless, their cultural and social prestige long outlasted their political power. The afore-mentioned institutions they founded for conservation, historic preservation, the arts, and education have done a great deal of useful work within their limits, until their wokening. Their style and etiquette were emulated by all who wanted to rise in status, and such as Emily Post and Amy Vanderbilt were quite happy to help integrate everyone into the code of polite behavior. As late as the mid-60’s, aspiring social climbers attempted to ape their habits. One guide for such couples at that time advised its readers, upon moving to a new suburb, to “join the local Episcopal church, historical, operatic, theatrical, and musical societies, country club—and for the wife, the Junior League and Women’s Club.” A very few years afterward, all those signs of bourgeois acceptance meant a great deal less. To be sure, there are still hereditary societies and private clubs that keep up some of the old spirit. You’ll still find scions of old families here and there hunting to hounds and joining regattas. From Greenwich, CT, to Pasadena, CA, there are still communities with a residue of the tone their traditional denizens passed on to them. But with some few exceptions, these are far less exclusive than they were. The COVID crisis forced Brooks Brothers, that citadel of WASP fashion, into bankruptcy.

In any case, the American Upper Classes were never static. The colonial era–gentry who brought independence and then figured prominently in the second civil war gradually made room for the sons of the Gilded Age robber barons, whose millions were able to buy them European titled marriages, and who remade the Ivy League and St. Grottlesex in the image of Oxbridge and Eton. But there was a difference between the Knickerbocker Club admitting Rockefellers and Vanderbilts and what followed later. Although Gotham still boasts its Quadrilles and Knickerbocker Greys, as one Manhattan doyenne told me over two decades ago, “Honestly, New York Society today is anybody with a blue blazer and khakis!”

It might well be asked at this juncture, as cities burn and the country drunkenly lurches toward its next presidential election, why any of this matters. The answer is that the governmental and other institutions the WASPs designed are the only ones we have, and their decline has paralleled that of their makers. In a word, as the animating spirit—the religiosity—with which they endowed their creations has departed, so too have those creations begun to collapse. Back in 1892, in the case of the Church of the Holy Trinity (a noted Episcopal church in Manhattan) against the United States, the entirely Protestant Supreme Court ruled unanimously, after citing various colonial charters, state constitutions, and innumerable examples of Christianity in civil life: “These, and many other matters which might be noticed, add a volume of unofficial declarations to the mass of organic utterances that this is a Christian nation.” The author of the court’s decision, Mr. Justice David Josiah Brewer, clarifying  the court’s opinion in a subsequent book, opined that while government of the country itself is legally neutral, “Nevertheless, we constantly speak of this republic as a Christian nation—in fact, as the leading Christian nation of the world. This popular use of the term certainly has significance. It is not a mere creation of the imagination. It is not a term of derision but has substantial basis—one which justifies its use.” Going on about the general practices and celebrations of the American people, he then concluded: “Christianity came to this country with the first colonists; has been powerfully identified with its rapid development, colonial and national, and to-day exists as a mighty factor in the life of the republic. This is a Christian nation…” It was a view that the majority of Thanksgiving and Christmas celebrating, public school praying Americans would have agreed with. But the views of the elite, imprecise to begin with,– would change over the next seven decades.

When Amy Vanderbilt issued her first etiquette book in 1954, she tackled the question—already an issue in polite families—of whether or not to send children to Sunday school. Her response indicated just how far WASP religiosity had travelled: “Most children benefit from some ethical and religious instruction in groups with other children. From it they get a valuable grounding in the Bible, knowledge of which is so vital for a full understanding of literature, our mores, and our moral precepts. If all the other children in your neighborhood go to Sunday school and your child, because you have no particular religious affiliation or, perhaps, conviction, stays home, you run the risk of letting him become an outsider in the activities of the group. I am thinking not only of the pleasure, inspiration, and spiritual growth children get from the Bible stories as they hear them in Sunday school but of the skills that the child may develop from Sunday school activities, such as singing. It seems to me that young people should not wait for courses in comparative religion in high school or college to find out about these emotional and ethical experiences that influence our thinking and effect our literature, our laws, our whole cultural pattern.”

In such an atmosphere, both the doctrinal collapse of the mainline Protestant Churches favored by the WASPs and the later careers of such of their ministers as Episcopal Bishop Paul Moore and the Reverend William Sloane Coffin become eminently understandable. Having lost what basis they had in the fight with the Fundamentalists in the early 20th century, they became empty shells—and much of WASP culture with them. In our next column, we shall see if anything can be saved.


  • Charles Coulombe

    Charles A. Coulombe is a contributing editor at Crisis and the magazine’s European correspondent. He previously served as a columnist for the Catholic Herald of London and a film critic for the National Catholic Register. A celebrated historian, his books include Puritan’s Empire and Star-Spangled Crown. He resides in Vienna, Austria and Los Angeles, California.

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