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A Brief History of the Boston Brahmin

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There’s more to being a Boston Brahmin than simply having an early Puritan ancestor, graduating from Harvard and living on Beacon Hill.

John Quincy Adams by George Peter Alexander Healy

Boston Brahmin and President, John Quincy Adams by George Peter Alexander Healy

You must not flaunt your wealth. You must shun glitzy resorts. You must be thrifty, perhaps traveling by T. The one new suit you buy a year must adhere to the Brahmin dress code, now known as preppy. You must speak in your own British-sounding dialect. (To hear it, click here.)

You should probably marry a relative. You have plenty of choices, including Appletons, Bacons, Cabots, Codmans, Coolidges, Crowninshields, Forbes, Hunnewells, Lodges, Lowells, Parkmans, Perkins, Russells, Saltonstalls, Shattucks, Shaws and Winthrops.

You must eat roast beef on Sunday night and cold leftovers on Monday, which is where the expression ‘cold roast Boston’ comes from. It was a favorite of Massachusetts Gov. William Weld, a Brahmin who persistently failed to stay out of the newspaper.

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William Weld

According to the Brahmin code, you must only be mentioned in the newspaper when you are born, married and died.  But many Brahmins, like Weld, couldn’t help but generate ink by taking high government office. Or running colleges. Or founding prep schools and orchestras. Or winning literature prizes. Or actually running newspapers themselves, like Benjamin Crowninshield Bradlee.

Brahmin Coined

Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.

Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., coined the phrase in 1861 in his novel Elsie Venner, describing Boston’s aristocracy as the ‘Brahmin Caste of New England.’ They believed destiny had set them apart to create a shining city on a hill. They embraced the values of their Puritan forebears: hard work, thrift, culture and education.

Many Brahmin families had made their fortunes as merchants and financiers before Holmes published his novel. If you hadn’t made your money by then, the only way into the caste was to marry into it.

Some Brahmins were already wealthy when they arrived in the early 17th century. Weld used to joke that his ancestors sent the servants ahead on the Mayflower so they could prepare the summer cottage.

Oliver Ames made his own fortune. He started manufacturing shovels in 1803 in Easton, Mass. He accumulated enough money to underwrite the Union Pacific Railroad. Frederick Lothrop Ames was an original stockholder of General Electric, and the family’s real estate holdings enabled them to build the Colonial Theatre, parts of MIT and the Ames Building, which was the tallest building in Boston from 1893 to 1919. Another Oliver Ames became the 35th governor of Massachusetts.

Boston Brahmin vs. Boston Irish

Henry Cabot Lodge, Sr., as a young man.

Henry Cabot Lodge, Sr., as a young man.

The Boston Brahmins had no love for the Irish immigrants who arrived on famine ships during the 1840s. Young Brahmins founded the Immigration Restriction League in 1894 shortly after they graduated from Harvard. The League had as its champion Henry Cabot Lodge, Sr., who sponsored a bill in Congress that would have required newcomers to pass a literacy test to enter the country

Evacuation Day was declared a holiday in 1901 as a compromise between the Brahmin elite and the ascendant Irish. It marks the day in 1776 when British troops left Boston: March 17.

Boston Brahmins also founded the New England Watch and Ward Society, a puritanical group of private citizens active from 1878 to the 1920s. It made Boston a target of scorn and – unintentionally – heightened interest in the books and plays it banned.

Brahmins also founded Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Peabody Essex and Isabella Stewart Gardner museums, WGBH, the Museum of Fine Arts and the Boston Athenaeum.

They followed their Puritan ancestors who started Boston Latin School, the first high school in the country, by founding elite college preparatory schools like Choate (now Choate Rosemary Hall), Groton, Andover and Phillips Exeter. Then they sent their children and grandchildren to them.

WASPy Snobs

John Lowell, Jr.

John Lowell, Jr., founded WGBH.

Sociologist Harriet Martineau visited Boston in the 1830s and concluded its Brahmins were 'perhaps as aristocratic, vain, and vulgar a city, as described by its own "first people," as any in the world.'

Novelist John P. Marquand lampooned the circumscribed life of the Boston Brahmin in The Late George Apley. George Apley's grandfather once moved to the South End, but was so shocked to see a man in shirtsleeves across the street he sold his house the next day and retreated to Back Bay. George Apley has a family estate in Milton (Nahant or Beverly would have worked as well), stays at the Boston hotels in New York, London and Paris and doesn't know what he would have done in life without the Club. (One Boston club, The Tennis and Racquet Club, had rooms heated only by fireplaces as late as 1958.)

T.S. Eliot's poem The Boston Evening Transcript gently mocks the Brahmin caste to which he belonged (though his family moved to St. Louis). The Transcript, published from 1830 to 1941, was the paper of record and a Brahmin favorite with book reviews, music criticism, a college sports page, a bridge department and a genealogy column.

More to the point was the poem by John Collins Bossidy:

And this is good old Boston,
The home of the bean and the cod,
Where the Lowells talk only to Cabots
And the Cabots talk only to God.

The Kennedys most certainly were not Boston Brahmins.

Brahmins by Marriage

Isabella Stewart Gardner was a Brahmin by virtue of her marriage to John Lowell Gardner, Jr.

Young John Kerry receives a medal

Young John Kerry receives a medal

Secretary of State John Forbes Kerry is a classic example of Brahmin by marriage. His father was descended from Austro-Hungarian Jewish immigrants who converted to Catholicism. It was his mother who had the Forbes ancestors and a maternal aunt who paid for his prep school education.

The Forbes had made an early fortune in the China trade, built the transcontinental railroad and went on secret missions for Abraham Lincoln. They family made even more money investing in Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone. Allan Forbes headed Boston's State Street Bank and Trust Company in the 1950s. The family has its own quiet resort, Naushon Island, where a Forbes once grilled a stablehand on his thoughts about the Plantaganets.

When Kerry ran for re-election to the U.S. Senate in 1996, his opponent was his distant cousin: William Weld. And when he ran for president in 2004, he was following in the footsteps of other Brahmin presidents: John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Photo: William Weld, By Gage Skidmore, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50569492

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  1. Pingback: The Pet Names of Famous New Englanders - New England Historical Society

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