How to Be Posh
Lessons from 18th Century America
Hello from Annette
Have you ever wandered into the company of rich folk, and felt judged?
You probably were judged. And even if you win the lottery, you will still be judged, unless you behave like other rich people. And they won’t invite you to their posh parties unless you do. This is a problem, because, meanwhile, your old friends and relatives will be hitting you up for money, and so you need to dump them for new, rich friends, lickety-split.
All this is to say that, just in case you one day win the lottery, you may want to start finding out how to be posh, how to act like you belong to the club, in short, to relearn everything, from what to wear to how to think.
Oh, and the first rule of poshness? Unless you're already rich, nobody will let you know the rules. And, as you may have already noticed in your lifetime, the rules do change.
Today, we're meeting a few newly rich people who wanted to be posh, and how they went about it.
George and the Garter King-at-Arms
George lives in Virginia, and he is proud of his British heritage. He has already ordered hundreds of bookplates from London, featuring his family’s coat of arms. This makes him feel very posh. Still, he wants to make it official.
That means George needs to verify not only his family’s coat of arms, but also his family tree. So he contacts the Garter King-at-Arms, the British official in charge of heraldry in London, who is appointed by the monarch. The current Garter King-at-Arms is Sir Isaac Heard.
Sir Isaac is happy to help the American. However, George doesn’t give him much to go on. He sends George a form to fill out, with whatever family history he knows, but George doesn’t know much. He can trace his family to about 1657, when two of his ancestors settled in Virginia. Unfortunately, he has no idea who their parents were.
George is clearly embarrassed about this. He hasn’t put a lot of time into his family history, he tells Sir Isaac in an apologetic note, because he hasn’t been all that interested before now. Even if he had been interested, he explains, his “busy and active life” would have prevented him from doing any actual research.
George can only tell Sir Isaac what he has heard from other family members:
“Our ancestors who first settled in this country came from the northern counties of England, but whether from Lancashire, Yorkshire, or one still more northerly . . .”
In other words, he doesn’t know.
Sir Isaac, however, won’t give up that easily. He’s an experienced genealogist and heraldry expert, and he starts looking for George’s family in several counties.
Sure enough, he finds George’s ancestors.
They weren’t from the north of England, as George had thought, but from Sulgrave, a little village in the English Midlands. Sir Isaac even finds the family coat of arms carved on their gravestones.
Unfortunately, the coat of arms that George had already printed on his bookplates is a bit different from the drawing Sir Isaac sends him from London.
However, George thanks him for all his hard work, and asks him to let him know if any more information turns up about his British pedigree .
Americans love being descended from posh British people. I don’t know how they manage it, because, like most Brits, I have mostly found dirt-poor farmworkers in my family history before about 1850.
Still, George’s story is pretty cool.
You see, his correspondence with Sir Isaac Heard took place in 1792, and at the time, George Washington happened to be President of the United States of America.
You may have heard of him, and of his brand new country. It’s the one in which “all men are created equal”, whose founders had turned their back on silly titles like “Sir” and “Lord”. George himself, you would think, was posh enough, being president, not to have to prove it.
But no. George wanted to know if his British ancestors were Sirs and Lords. That's why he got in touch with the man appointed by the monarchy to verify his family coat of arms, so he could feel confident slapping it onto bookplates, silverware, the side of his carriage . . . Well, everywhere people would see it, really. With his certified coat of arms, George had finally achieved a life goal: To be endorsed as posh by the British establishment.
If You’re So Rich, How Come You Ain’t Posh?
Even today, being rich doesn't automatically make you posh.
Ask Donald Trump, whose Palm Beach neighbors turned their noses up at him, his interior design, his taste in foods.
Ask Kate Middleton's mum, Carole, grandmother to the heir to the throne, who was mocked in the tabloid press for saying “pardon me” to the Queen. Saying “Pardon me” (like saying “toilet” instead of lavatory or even “loo”) in England marks you as definitely not posh. This helps explain why Mrs. Middleton, a former flight attendant, who, along with her husband made her fortune selling party supplies, sent her daughter to posh boarding school: To ensure that she became posh. Apparently, the plan succeeded beyond the Middletons’ wildest expectations.
Keeping Up Appearances
Have you ever watched Keeping Up Appearances, the 1990s Britcom? Mrs. Bucket (which she tells everyone is pronounced Bouquet), is a lower middle-class woman of working-class background, who tries so hard to be posh. Much of the humor is grounded in how she can’t get it right. While many Americans love that show, some of the subtleties are likely lost in translation: Mrs. Bucket calls her living room a “lounge” (that’s a huge giveaway, right there, that she’s not posh), proudly invites people to her “candlelight suppers”, and boasts of her expensive china.
The show is popular around the world because, well, we all know a Mrs. Bucket. Indeed, I found myself explaining Keeping Up Appearances to Georgia’s version of Mrs. Bucket, at dinner in her house, which became slightly awkward.
Today, Mrs. Bucket would be completely lost, because, even in the 90s, the rules had already changed. That’s how poshness works: Posh people keep shifting the goalposts. Since the whole point of poshness is to exclude, that’s the only way poshness can remain . . . posh.
Where Did Poshness Come From?
Poshness is as old as people, but in British history, it was royalty, of course, who set the ultimate standards long ago. Monarchs needed to impress people with their wealth. Their tastes in houses, clothing and other belongings influenced the rich and powerful people closest to them: the aristocracy, followed by the gentry, their title-less but still posh cousins.
For centuries, to be posh in England, you needed land, lots of it. Land was the basis of your wealth and power in an agricultural society.
But land wasn't enough. You also needed a big impressive house and stuff to fill it with. Even so, this only made you rich, not posh: It didn't guarantee that people would look up to you.
The number one requirement of being genteel (posh) could not be bought: Pedigree. You needed posh ancestors, showing that you had the right to expect respect.
This mattered very much to monarchy, to show they had the right to rule. But it also mattered to aristocrats and gentry, who ruled over smaller areas and populations. Showing off portraits of your ancestors, your family tree, and your family’s coat of arms were very important. You rented your land to farmers, and let them get on with the work of farming and hiring their own workers, while you lived a life of leisure, developing appreciation for art and music, and superior cultural traits, like kindness and hospitality, because you could afford to be nice.
So, in short, to show everyone else you had a special role in society that didn't require you having to work, you had to have the right house, the right stuff to fill it with, the right education, and the right manners.
By the 18th century, thanks in large part to transatlantic trade (including the slave trade) there was a lot more money floating about. A lot more newly rich British people. And they wanted to be posh.
Some of them lived in America.
From Zero to Posh in 60 Years
In Virginia in 1720, even if a tobacco planter had loads of land, and enslaved people and/or indentured servants to work it, he wasn't automatically posh.
For one thing, he still probably lived in a one or two-room house: Only about 10% of the richest Virginians occupied more than one room that year.
Take that in for a moment. Rich, but living in a hut with hardly any possessions, rich people were hard to tell from poor people. They had poured all their profits back into buying more land, and indentured servants and enslaved people to work it. Unlike posh people in Britain, they couldn't just rent out their land, because why would anyone want to rent from them when they could claim their own land for free or cheap?
But as slavery arrived on a grand scale, things changed fast for the rich planters who owned lots of land near the coast, with its transportation network of rivers and ocean, and who could afford to buy enslaved workers.
After 1730, we start to see two-story houses in Virginia, like Shirley Plantation house, above. Rich people began filling their new homes with silverware, furniture, books, and other signs that they belonged to an elite class that lived very, very differently, not only from enslaved people but also from free white people, including others who grew tobacco.
And it happened very fast. By the 1740s, the Virginia planter class had already arrived: They were not only rich, with land and large numbers of slaves, and they were not only powerful, running local and colonial government. They also owned grand houses stuffed with expensive items. Their homes said to everyone else, “We’re in charge here.”
But now they needed to show that they deserved to be in charge. That means, as a group, they had to acquire the manners, conversation, and education that would set them entirely apart from other people.
They managed it, over a period of about fifty years, by following the model set by the English elite.
The problem? They didn't quite fit that model.
Being Well Bred
In England in the 1700s, what separated the elite from “vulgar” (common) people was supposedly virtue, meaning values and morals like prudence, courage, and fairness. Because they did not work, they had time to sit around developing their virtue by appreciating art, music, and books, and developing good taste. Because they had an independent income, they could be legislators without becoming corrupt, and make important decisions for everyone else without being pressured. “Good breeding” didn’t just refer to the family tree (although, as we will see, it did), but to being posh.
The key part of all that was financial independence, being rich enough not to have to work, so they had lots of leisure time.
The Virginia elite no longer worked in the fields, sure. But they were still involved in managing fields, workers, and selling their harvests. Unlike posh Englishmen, who left farming on their lands to their inferiors, elite planters actively managed their planting businesses.
Still, they had a lot more free time than anyone else in Virginia, and they figured that was enough to start becoming posh.
But this wasn't enough for the British standards of poshness they followed. Before Virginia planters could claim they were genteel (posh), they also had to present a pedigree, a family tree that showed they had the correct sort of posh ancestors. They couldn’t become genteel through merit, through their own efforts. Nope. They had to have the correct relatives, going back at least three generations.
Without that, they were still rich. But they weren't posh.
Obviously, this was a problem for Virginia planters. Sure, their ancestors probably weren’t poor. Contrary to what most Americans assume, very few indentured servants who came to Virginia ended life rich: Then as now, you need money to make money.
But their ancestors weren’t rich or posh, either. Rich tobacco planters in 1730 typically had British parents and grandparents who had been merchants, craftsmen, and shopkeepers.
So their ancestors weren't poor. But they also weren't posh landed gentry.
As it happens, this was also a problem for newly rich (but not posh) people back in Britain.
Enter Daniel Defoe
Yes, that Daniel Defoe. Robinson Crusoe wasn't the only thing he wrote. Defoe campaigned in print for decades to open up Posh World to wealthy “commoners”, people who didn’t have a posh family tree. Or land. People, in fact, just like him, Daniel Defoe, newly-rich son of a candlemaker and butcher.
He argued that people should become genteel (posh) by their own merit, or efforts. And although he was talking about people in England, you would think his argument would be very helpful to the colonial British American planter gentry, with their less than impressive ancestors.
But no. Despite the fact that their circumstances were very different from those of the English gentry (they still ran their own businesses, remember) Virginia planters ignored Defoe. They didn't try to change the rules. They stuck with the conservative, old-school British idea that gentility started with having posh people on the family tree, and a family coat of arms.
So if rich Virginia planters didn’t actually know of any posh ancestors, they needed to find them fast, or, failing that, invent them. Honestly, almost anyone of British descent who researches family history, if they keep tracing all the lines in a family tree, will likely find a posho in their past.
Having found (or invented) their posh ancestors, Virginia planters needed coats of arms to show instantly that their ancestors were indeed posh. They needed to show off that coat of arms on their silverware, for example, so that anyone who came to dinner was reminded that their hosts were part of the elite, every time they lifted fork to face.
It wasn’t just a silly bit of snobbery, you see. Coats of arms served to show, in ways everyone recognized, that the people in charge in Virginia deserved to be in charge.
As early as 1687, Virginia tobacco planter William Fitzhugh was bugging his brother in England to come up with a family coat of arms, somehow. Since their dad was a woollen draper, meaning the equivalent of the owner of a fabric store, they were pretty unlikely to have had heraldry.
But his brother found and sent a coat of arms.
Unfortunately, William’s brother seems to have pinched the coat of arms belonging to Baron Fitzhugh of Yorkshire, who was not related.
Once he received the stolen coat of arms in Virginia, William Fitzhugh set about using it. He had it engraved onto his silverware, so anyone who came to dinner would be left in no doubt about how posh he was. He didn't stop there, either.
He also adopted the posh Fitzhughs themselves: His descendants in Virginia named the family plantation Ravensworth, after the estate of the posh Fitzhughs, who I am going to guess had absolutely no idea that their family history had been appropriated by a fabric store owner’s son in America.
Once planter families had the money, the house, and the coat of arms, it was time to start proving themselves posh through the use of their leisure time. They wrote witty letters, held posh parties, played music, read books.
Most of all, they went shopping, usually online from London. This was the easiest way to be posh, honestly. By online shopping, I mean ordering long lists of stuff to be sent to America by ship, or, as we would say, and not by coincidence, shipped.
The planters didn’t just want to be accepted as an elite in Virginia: They considered themselves British, since the colonies were part of the great British empire.
Most of all, they wanted to be recognized as posh and accepted by the aristocracy and gentry in England.
You might guess that this was going to be trickier than being posh to a colonial standard. And you would be correct.
Not Good Enough
Meanwhile, back in England, the aristocracy and gentry, the posh people, seldom thought about the colonies and the rich people who made fortunes there. But if they did, they thought of Barbados sugar planters, who tended to be the younger sons of old families from the British elite, who met the pedigree standard, and who would be welcome at London parties. Many early rice planters in South Carolina came over to the mainland from Barbados, so they often qualified, too.
If British poshos ever thought about tobacco planters in Virginia, and they mostly didn't, they were not impressed by what little they knew. If they, for example, heard tell of a Virginia planter, and they didn’t immediately recognize his name as that of an old posh family, he was dismissed as a mere social climber. A nobody.
And that was that.
Virginia tobacco planters might have been rich and flaunted their pretendy coats of arms, but practically every member of the posh landed British elite who bothered to pay any attention to them knew they were faking it.
Sometimes, though, they could almost break down the wall between them and acceptance in England. British gentlemen who met young, second generation tobacco planters in London, might be confused by them. They had posh clothes, English accents, manners, education, good taste, and posh friends. They fit in socially with the British gentry. That’s because these young planters had been dropped off in England at age six or so, and educated ever since in British boarding schools and universities, never to return to America-- or see their parents— until their education was complete.
But posh Englishmen, confused, believed “breeding”, inherited poshness, was the only possible explanation for the young Virginians’ excellent manners and conversation. They must have posh ancestors. They simply must.
Most Virginia gentry were never put to this test. London is, face it, a very long way from Virginia. Even those young planters who were educated in Britain returned to America in their early twenties, where they were out of sight and mind of the British landed elite.
Still, they remained posh gentlemen to each other, and to other people in Virginia, whether they had been educated in Britain or not. So by the 1750s, elite planters were undisputed leaders in the plantation societies of the South.
The fact that Westover, the biggest house in Virginia, owned by planter William Byrd, was only 1/10th the size of, say, Wentworth-Woodhouse, the Marquess of Rockingham’s massive home in England, was neither here nor there.
The Marquess would never cross the Atlantic to point out that he had a bigger one than Byrd. So that was all right.
In colonial Virginia, tobacco planters were able to have the kind of monopoly of power over their institutions that English elites could only dream of: They not only ran the churches and courts, but also colonial legislatures. They not only had power over enslaved people in their fields, but made huge profits from business selling their tobacco to London.
In Britain, the posh landed elite had to share even political power with “commoners”, like merchants. But in Virginia, one small group of people controlled everything.
And, unlike in Britain, they were all closely related to each other.
“One great tangled cousinry” is what Harvard historian Bernard Bailyn called the 18th century Virginia elite. This wasn’t the result of parents arranging marriages with other posh families: Young members of the planter elite married each other because they had practically nothing in common-education, ways of life, values— with anyone who wasn’t part of their group.
And they regarded anyone who wasn’t part of their group as beneath them. In other words, the emerging Virginia elite were not only posh, defined by their education, manners, power, and possessions, but very snotty about it.
That snottiness is perhaps our best clue that they knew, in their hearts, that they really weren’t posh.
They were often first generation Americans, whose wealth was created by their fathers. Some were even first generation rich: Thomas Sumter, poor guy from the Virginia backwoods turned tavernkeeper, married a rich plantation-owning widow, and joined the elite.
Why was this such an obsession for the planters?
They knew they were Johnny-come-latelies. They craved affirmation that they were legitimate, real, rulers. And most of all, they craved affirmation from posh people in England. The standards for poshness the planters followed were set in London, not Williamsburg.
There were practical reasons too. Many posh Americans visited Britain, and, as we see, educated their children at boarding schools there (including Eton), Some even moved across the pond to live, like South Carolinians Ralph and Alice Izard (rhymes with lizard). The Izards preferred to live in exciting, fun-filled London, rather than in mosquito-ridden South Carolina rice swamps, among the enslaved people whose backbreaking work paid their bills. I cannot imagine why. Ahem.
It was very important to Americans who spent time in England that they got invited to posh parties in London.
That meant they had to meet British standards of poshness.
No cheating. No fighting the system.
In fact, even Daniel Defoe, battling for recognition in England by the British elite, didn’t actually walk the walk of his own argument, by insisting on being accepted as a posh person based on his personal merit.
In real life, Defoe worked to be accepted as posh the old-fashioned way. He claimed to be from a posh old family, probably dating to the 1066 Norman conquest (the ideal origin), and that his family's original name was De Beau-foe, which he totally made up, but nobody could go online to check.
Defoe also suggested he might be kin to Sir Walter Raleigh, famous explorer and friend of Elizabeth I. Finally, he began to display a coat of arms in his books. He probably designed it himself.
George Washington’s Path to Poshness
George Washington was never poor. He came from a wealthy family with plenty of land and slaves. But he didn't start out as a member of the elite, either. He didn't get sent to England for his education, unlike his older brothers. When George’s father died, George only inherited a modest farm and ten slaves. While this made him pretty well off, it didn’t make him a member of the elite.
Long, long before he wrote to London to verify his coat of arms, however, George Washington was studying How to Be Posh, following the new 18th century rules of becoming genteel. The process started early, when he was 14, because he had acquired posh in-laws he wanted to fit in with. Young George copied from a book 110 rules of polite behavior, to be sure he would be welcome in posh company, and not commit massive faux pas. Rules like these:
“If others talk at table, be attentive, but talk not with meat in your mouth.”
“When in company, put not your hands to any part of the body, not usually discovered.”
In other words, when in polite company, don’t talk with your mouth full or scratch your bum.
The website at Mount Vernon, Washington’s home and now a museum, stresses the impact of these rules on Washington’s character, as they put it, but don’t tell you why a 14 year old boy cared to learn them in the first place. Now you know.
Washington's fortunes were vastly increased by his marriage to Martha Custis, a rich widow with several kids, which made her an easier catch than a single young woman. In fact, Washington hit the jackpot with his marriage: 15,000 acres, 200 enslaved people (that’s a lot) and $100,000, making him a multi-millionaire in 18th century terms.
Washington’s lessons in poshness had paid off. But they weren’t enough for him.
As Washington’s star rose with his marriage to Mrs. Custis, he also became increasingly concerned with distinguishing himself firmly from the riff-raff. He, too, dismissed the farmers of the Shenandoah Valley as “an uncouth set of people”, i.e. riff-raff. He would show them who was boss, by filling his house with impressive stuff.
Washington sent orders to Robert Carey, the London merchant who handled the sale of his tobacco crops, with lists of all the cool merch he wanted from the city. Since he was shopping sight unseen, he had to trust Carey to buy for him. This was not ideal for the Virginia elite: Part of being a gentleman was not to have depend on others. So, like other tobacco planters, Washington convinced himself that Carey, whom he had never met, was both a gentleman and a friend, just sort of doing him a favor by doing a bit of shopping for him.
Washington told Carey that he wanted everything to be “in the newest taste.” In other words, he wanted what was hip and cutting-edge, not last season’s leftovers.
His 1759 shopping list even included a fancy wooden loo:
1 Mahogany close stool case in the newest taste, with place for chamber pot, etc.
One wonders what use a wooden loo would have been without a chamber pot, but I digress.
Among his other requests were a “fashionable” set of dessert glasses, four “fashionable” china candleholders, a “fashionable” man’s suit, and a half dozen pairs of a specific brand of men’s shoes, “made by one Didsbury”. He also insisted on four chair cushion covers “to make the whole furniture of this room uniformly handsome and genteel.”
Washington clearly wasn’t interested in pursuing uniquely Virginian or American tastes. Virginian and American tastes were those of London, reinforced by fashion reports in the colonial newspaper, the Virginia Gazette.
In 1768, Washington wrote to Carey with very specific instructions for buying a new carriage (think fancy car), with “good quality” leather seats, and enclosing a picture of his coat of arms (which had yet to be verified, of course) to be painted onto the carriage sides.
Fifty years after Daniel Defoe first came up with his new vision of basing poshness (gentility) on merit, the American gentry were still continuing to do the same old things that they hoped would persuade British poshos to let them join the club. They practiced reading their Latin and Greek, played and sang refined music, read books, and wrote witty letters.
Most of all, though, they bought stuff. Carriages, clocks, carpets, desks, chairs, tables. They could hardly engage in the British fashion for drinking tea without buying a posh tea table, could they? Not to mention a silver teapot, cups and saucers (think Wedgwood), a matching sugar bowl, milk jug . . . and so on, in a never-ending parade of new possessions, in the latest London styles.
The Americans played the game by the old rules as long as they could, because they didn’t write them. For decades, like Washington, all the elite Virginia planters sent their tobacco to London, where the merchants they dealt with, entirely by letter, bought the items on their shopping lists and shipped it to Virginia, giving the planters credit if the market value of their tobacco didn’t quite cover everything on the wishlist. Planters convinced themselves that these London merchants with whom they corresponded were gentlemen and friends. In short, Washington was typical.
Desperately Seeking Acceptance
Virginia planters who visited England had long found themselves talked down to. As we saw, many in the English elite had decided that nobody respectable from their class would have settled in America, and that these colonists were not really gentlemen.
Virginia-born planter William Byrd II was living in London in 1723. He reported that “fine ladies'“ in London told him that living in the colonies was like being “buried alive”. Let's be fair. They weren’t wrong. When comparing the many entertainments of London and the charms of English country estates, with the questionable appeal of a remote plantation surrounded by malarial swamps, it’s not an unfair assessment. But still.
Byrd hoped to marry a young English lady, but her wealthy father wouldn’t hear of it. No matter how rich Byrd was, he was still a colonial. “But for God’s sake,” Byrd exclaimed in frustration, “where’s the difference between [my money being] in Virginia or in Berkshire [a county to the west of London] as long as I receive profits of it in London?”
In Virginia, William Byrd was rich, powerful, and sophisticated. In London, he was considered a simple country cousin, a provincial common man pretending to be posh. Yet he kept trying to be posh to British standards, even (and maybe especially) after he got home, and escaped the Posh British gaze.
In 1766, Ben Franklin, living in London, admitted that colonial Americans still looked up to English gentlemen. Try as they might, the American planter elite could not accept themselves as truly posh, but they tried, oh, how they tried, painting, practicing their Latin, writing amusing letters, all in a futile effort to convince themselves that they belonged.
This effort to copy the English poshos is especially strange when you stop and think about the lives that Virginia planters led.
In England in summer, posh people looked out the windows of their tasteful mansions, perhaps through light rain, and saw fabulous gardens, maybe glimpsed farmworkers stacking hay in the distance.
Posh Virginians looked outside in summer, and saw tobacco, being hoed in searing heat by exhausted Africans supervised by a man with a whip, as a thunderstorm approached.
The solution? Fantasy. Elite planters started to talk and think of their plantations as if they were delightful pastoral retreats, ignoring the hot climate and the horrific realities of forced labor all around them. Here, in their pretendy rural paradise, they believed, they could become virtuous, gentlemen of good character and good breeding.
Thomas Jefferson designed and built his house, Monticello, on a hilltop away from white riff-raff, his neighbors in the Shenandoah Valley. He surrounded himself with art, books, and music. He hid his slaves’ service quarters, the kitchens and workshops, beneath the lawn. Enslaved people who worked in the house lived in cabins out of his direct view, while those who worked in the fields were accommodated even further away, about half a mile downhill, out of sight, and out of mind. Jefferson had achieved refinement in a rural area simply by pretending and believing in his own fantasy.
The English gentry and aristocracy who got wind about this sort of thing were not impressed. Increasingly, they began to think that plantation slavery corrupted American slaveowners’ morals, destroying whatever claim to virtue they had. And more and more in the 18th century, having concern for ones inferiors was a large part of what defined British poshness. Slavery wasn't compassionate. Conveniently, this new way of thinking kept the posh club door firmly closed to Americans.
All Men Are Created Equal, So Long as They’re My Friends
If everything so far sounds a bit alien to you, you’re probably American. You probably don’t know any members of the posh elite in America today. In fact, as historian Michal Rozbicki points out, quoting scholars Kenneth Prewitt and Alan Stone, Americans don’t even like the word elite, because it “comes close to denying that all men are created equal.” Americans don’t like the word class for much the same reason.
Yet it’s not a coincidence that billionaires’ kids in 2021 go to posh boarding schools, while yours don’t. American readers, you have heard of Eton College, the posh English boarding school that Princes Harry and William attended, right? It’s actually less likely you have heard of Phillips Exeter or St. Pauls, two of the American equivalents of posh English schools. They exist, all the same. St. Pauls even has an exchange with Eton.
From such schools, which offer an incredible education, many kids get into Ivy League colleges, where they form their own private clubs from which regular American kids who somehow make it into the Ivies are mostly excluded, and we aren't even talking about fraternities. These groups, known as final clubs, make fraternities look highly inclusive. The exclusion they practice is no longer on the basis of race, and indeed, posh schools and colleges have enthusiastically led cries for racial justice. Exclusion now is entirely based on class.
I don’t blame you for being confused by all of this. Haven’t we been talking about the same 18th century Virginia planter class that produced not only George Washington, but Thomas “All Men Are Created Equal So Long As They're Not My Slaves" Jefferson?
All the elite planters ever wanted was for the club to open the door just enough to admit them, and then slam it shut immediately afterwards.
They knew they couldn’t force that door open. The only way to get in was to play by the rules.
But even when they tried, the doors of the British gentry remained firmly closed to them. And that, as you know, is the sort of thing that's likely to make people say, “Fine, your rules are stupid, and I reject them.”
When London’s merchants, the planters’ imaginary gentleman friends in London, ran into economic crisis in the 1770s, and asked the planters to settle their debts, the planters were deeply offended. They felt betrayed by their “gentlemen” “friends”. They felt betrayed, in other words, by Britain.
I think you see where we’re going with this.
Only during the American Revolution did the American gentry start developing a new argument for what gave people virtue, the moral code that was the defining quality of gentlemen. They called it “the aristocracy of merit”. And it looked a lot like what Defoe had originally proposed.
But, like Defoe, the Virginia planters didn’t want democracy. That was a dirty word they associated with the riff-raff (i.e. us), with the people who lacked the necessary independence, education, and breeding to be trusted with power. They certainly didn’t want everyone to have a chance to join the club. Otherwise, what was the point of having a club?
In his day, George Washington was a controversial president, who did not disguise his contempt for ordinary people. How our memory of him changed will need to wait for another post.
But, thanks to the ordinary people of America, who literally bled for the American Revolution, and thanks to the American gentry’s movement toward judging poshness on merit, not birth, Americans began to see power and poshness (or, when applied to the masses, respectability) as their birthrights: All men are created equal worked well with new ideas of democracy, even though the posh planters never meant that to happen, and only meant to be equal among themselves. Ordinary people wanted not to have to remove their hats when a posh person walked in. They wanted to be referred to at the theatre as “ladies and gentlemen”. And they wanted votes.
The posh planters saw this change happening, and scrambled to prevent it: Until 1913, the Constitution required that US senators be elected by state legislatures, to prevent the non-posh from having too much power. Only with the passing of the 17th amendment did Americans get to vote directly for their US senators. And, of course, we still have the electoral college.
Elite planters played a major role in designing the United States of America. And yet, even after the Revolution, they kept on aspiring to British standards of gentility, as you saw at the beginning of this post, when George Washington wrote to London to confirm his coat of arms and family tree. Meanwhile, as generations passed, the goal of becoming a virtuous gentleman of good breeding, which had always been about asserting the right to power, not based on deep belief in education and high culture, morality and good taste for their own sakes, began to fade. Young planters born to wealth carried on shopping, though, and some spent or gambled away their fortunes. New elites emerged, and they carried on aspiring to poshness.
The idea of being posh (or at least respectable), being exclusive by whatever means from the riff-raff, never really faded. It just became the goal of more and more Americans, who could buy stuff, put on airs, and believe they had achieved respectability. They were, in short, posher than actual posh people.
And many Americans who were posh, or who aspired to poshness, never gave up casting eyes toward England. There’s a reason why, even today, ordinary Americans hope to find a duke in their genealogy. Why so many Americans go to England to tour castles and stately homes, and follow the doings of the Royal Family with greater interest than the vast majority of Brits. There is still a lingering self-doubt, a sense that, truly, British poshness remains the gold standard, even when, in reality, British poshness is no longer quite what it was. There’s a lot of money made in London, selling that dream to foreigners.
How To Be Posh
The whole point of poshness is not to give you a set of rules which, if you follow, you become posh, too. No, the point of it is to exclude people. If it stops working, if too many people lay claim to poshness, then the truly posh and powerful change the rules.
This is something the rest of us still haven’t figured out, as we save up for just the right brand of sneakers, or turn to influencers to see how we should dress, or look on, puzzled, as posh white people instruct, say, working-class and middle-class Latinos to identify themselves Latinx if they want to be part of posh schools and colleges’ idea of diversity.
And it’s not just about the wealthy. Dear readers, despite having grown up in England, home of snobbery, where I brushed against, and even knew, people of all ranks, I have never been snobbed as persistently, by so many different kinds of people, as I was in 23 years in Georgia. That value of ranking people, of defining a pecking order, has never left, and now is widespread in Southern society. But I am not letting the rest of America off the hook: In modern cities, nests of ambition, deferring to the rich and powerful, while also asserting one’s place in the hierarchy, remains very much the norm.
Poshness is everyone’s birthright, and everyone’s problem. It grew alongside competing ideas of democracy, of equality, and we keep trying to live with that total contradiction.
Enjoy this and other bits of Non-Boring History?
This post is heavily based on Dr. Michal Rozbicki’s The Complete Colonial Gentleman: Cultural Legitimacy in Plantation America (University Press of Virginia). It’s heavy and academic for the general reader. Since, sadly, Dr. Rozbicki is no longer with us to point out what I got wrong, I warmly invite any academic historian who thinks I botched any of this to get in touch. I am also aware that both Rozbicki and I owe a debt to Richard Bushman and to T.H. Breen, whose book Tobacco Culture is a more accessible look at Virginia tobacco gentry.
Shirley Plantation (Virginia)
Still owned and occupied by the same family since the 18th century, who live on the upper floors. The ground floor is open to the public. I haven’t visited since 1993, so I suggest reading reviews.
Drayton Hall (South Carolina)
Like Shirley, Drayton Hall was built in 1738. I have toured it twice, but not for many years, and thanks to very different tour guides, one tour was better than the other. Built in 1738 for a rice planter, it was never modernized, and is presented in that condition, which makes it fascinating to me. No furniture, empty rooms, but what is there is authentic.