American Royalty

This entry is a part of a series. To clearly understand the material below in context,
you may wish to begin at the beginning with the introduction to the series.

The standard American Narrative insists that the founders of our country fully intended to leave behind the Old World social structures when forming the United States of America. There would be no class of royalty, living the high life just because of genetic inheritance, at the top; no class of hereditary, groveling peasants at the bottom. They would instead establish a level playing field for all willing to work diligently—no nobles and knights, no kings and queens. There would be no American “King George I.”



I’m suspicious most Americans don’t really know enough about American history to realize that this level playing field was a mythical aspiration. No, we’ve not had any actual “royalty” in this country, but we have from the earliest days had an aristocracy. Not an aristocracy of merit, either…just a plain ol’ aristocracy of inheritance. A powerful “class” of people who considered themselves the “upper crust,” and who resented any of the hoi polloi—the unwashed masses—putting on airs and trying to pretend to be one of them. By the last half of the 1800s, this aristocracy was so entrenched that even the richest of recently “self-made” entrepreneurs, giants of industry with fortunes that would be measured in the billions of dollars in modern value, had a difficult time breaking into their social circles.

These aristocratic families could trace their roots back to colonial days, could point to great-great grandfathers who had been colonial governors and the like. Some of these grandfathers may have actually been self-made entrepreneurs such as merchants and bankers—but they were early merchants and bankers, and made large enough fortunes to establish permanent wealth that was self-perpetuating through the coming generations. Many of their great-great grandsons had no need to establish themselves in a profitable career just to earn money…they could be men of leisure, or dabble in philanthropy, or indulge a taste for adventure as military men or explorers. (The female progeny could marry such men of their own class…) Or…they could become lawyers or politicians.

Theodore Roosevelt’s family was part of this aristocracy. Many children in such families in the latter half of the 1800s had their education enhanced by tours of Europe, and possibly North Africa and the Middle East. Roosevelt’s went to Europe twice, and to Egypt. Sons of these “patrician” families almost invariably attended Ivy League colleges such as Harvard and Yale. After graduating, and perhaps attending Columbia Law School, most would establish families, build a nice mansion, and find their niche in their social class.

Their daily “jobs” might differ, but in the evenings, almost all pursued the same type of “leisure”…they went “clubbing.” Oh, not to go dancing and drinking or drugging at the kind of “disco club” of modern times. No, they each had a stable of “social clubs” where they could spend their evenings eating and drinking, discussing and debating with other men of their social class. ALWAYS styled “men’s clubs” or “gentlemen’s clubs.” No women allowed.

Yes…I know. Places labeled “gentlemen’s clubs” these days actually “feature” naked women! But this was not so in Victorian times. Not that Victorian gentlemen were averse to naked women. They just sought them out elsewhere than their Social Clubs. Perhaps at a sumptuous high class, high-priced bordello, which were quite common in big cities of the time. It is my understanding that most men’s clubs didn’t even have women serving meals in their dining room. It was way late in their history before most such clubs let ANY woman through the door of their sacrosanct Manly retreats for any purpose.

Some clubs were strictly aimed at socialization, others were built around a common interest or cause. Some young aristocrats belonged to so many such clubs that they could visit a different one every night of the week…or month. (Many no doubt escaping to the quiet oasis from a wife and squalling babies and toddlers at home…) Each club would have a dining room serving gourmet meals, and then lavishly-decorated rooms to relax and hobnob in. The lounge area of most such clubs in the 1800s would likely have looked quite a bit like this interior of the same kind of club in London from that period—lots of leather, lots of dark wood, high ceilings with lots of carved trim, lots of gloomy paintings.

club interior

Although these clubs were particularly aimed at socializing, they also were a very significant element in the “circle of influence” each man had. Many political alliances, philanthropic groups, and social “causes” were established and developed over cigars and brandy after dinner at such clubs. In some cases, history-making events and trends in the US have been the direct result of what went on behind closed doors at such clubs.

Which brings us back to the Boone and Crockett Club of NY, described in the previous entry in this series, founded in 1887 by 29-year old aristocrat Theodore Roosevelt and some of his young aristocratic friends.

young teddyThey all no doubt already belonged to several New York clubs, but decided they needed one more, where they could hang out with “their kind” … men who had plenty of time and money to spend on elaborate big game hunting trips. Membership was limited to 100 men, and the primary membership requirement, other than being from an “acceptably elite” family, was that you must have killed at least three different species of North American big game animals, such as bison, bear, or moose. And love swapping tales about the hunt.

You also had to be a true “sportsman,” not just a “hunter.” To join the B&C Club…

…the trophies must have been killed “in fair chase,” which meant that such unsportsmanlike practices as “crusting” (killing game rendered helpless in deep snow), “jacking” (shining lanterns into the darkness to hypnotize passing animals), and “hounding” (driving prey into a lake with dogs) were verboten. Well-bred hunters like Theodore Roosevelt and George Bird Grinnell [editor of Forest and Stream from 1876 to 1911] were outraged by such uncouth practices, which were “unworthy of gentlemen or of sportsmen.” After all, anyone strong enough to pull a trigger could be a “hunter”; the true sportsman therefore had to find a way to set himself apart from the rude killers.

I don’t know how many members they already had five years later in 1893, but there must have been at least one slot open. Because one evening in 1893 George Grinnell brought in a handsome prospective new member, Mr. Grant.

cary 1933No, right age (Cary was in his late 20s in this pic) but wrong era and wrong Grant. Cary was born in 1904. Mr. Madison Grant was born in 1865, and was 28 when he joined the Boone and Crockett Club. But he did have a bit in common with Cary…he was considered to be handsome, debonair, dashing, quite the clothes-horse, and a ladies’ man.

young grant

He also had a lot in common with Teddy Roosevelt. He’d grown up in a similar aristocratic New York family, in a mansion only eight blocks from the Roosevelt mansion. He traveled in his youth with his dad to Europe and the Middle East, and attended an Ivy League school (Yale).

Upon graduating from Yale, Grant returned to New York to attend Columbia Law School. He was admitted to the bar in 1890 and, after a brief stint with Seward, Guthrie & Morawetz, opened a law office of his own next to the New York Stock Exchange. But Grant had neither the financial need—nor the intellectual desire—to pursue seriously a legal career. Instead, for the first half of the Gay Nineties, the “breezy young New York lawyer” (as one friend described Grant in those days) devoted himself wholeheartedly to two endeavors: socializing and hunting.

In rapid succession, he joined all the elite men’s clubs of Manhattan, including the Union, Knickerbocker, University, Down Town, and Tuxedo Clubs, ensuring that every evening of the week could be spent hobnobbing with the Herrenrasse [German term meaning “people of the master race”] in a different salon. These clubs included many of the nation’s wealthiest and most powerful figures, and Grant, according to his friend Henry Fairfield Osborn, “figured very prominently at the time and was regarded as a typical society and club man.”

And of course—he loved hunting.

When Madison Grant was not pursuing the life of a bon vivant in the clubs of Manhattan or paying obeisance to his respected ancestors [in 1892 he had helped found a “Society of Colonial Wars” club strictly limited to men whose forebears had played some distinctive role in the wars of the Colonial period], he was engaging in another sort of escape from modern life: hunting expeditions. Accompanied usually by his brother DeForest, Madison spent at least four months of every year tracking big game in far-off locations all over the North American continent. A friend remembered that Grant “had all the independence of a well-groomed musketeer—and more,” and his excursions in those years took him at various times from Newfoundland to Alaska and most places in between.

He was a perfect fit for the Boone and Crockett Club.

Grant immediately became one of the most active members of the Boone and Crockett Club, and he and the club’s president, Theodore Roosevelt, soon became good friends. Roosevelt admired Grant’s devotion to the principles of sportsmanship, and—being TR—was greatly attracted to Grant’s youthful energy. “I am inclined to think,” Roosevelt confided to Grinnell, “that Madison Grant is a real acquisition; he strikes me as a good fellow.”

And he came at just the right time. By 1893 Roosevelt and other members of the club had begun to have a suspicion that the B&C needed to take an active role in seeing that the big game animals of North America didn’t ALL go the way of the vanishing buffalo. Otherwise their own descendants wouldn’t be able to continue the aristocratic pleasure of collecting hunting trophies to put on the walls of their clubs and the dens in their mansions. Like Teddy’s mancave below…the “Trophy Room” of his Long Island mansion. Note the pair of bison heads framing the fireplace and the bear rug in front of it.

teddy trophy roomMadison Grant had recently come to some similar conclusions.

As he pursued wild game over the passes of the Rockies, down the tributaries of the Fraser, and up the fjords of the Kenai Peninsula, Grant began to realize that the large mammals of North America were dwindling, in terms of both sheer numbers and individual size. It was clear that the devastating predations of market hunters, along with the unsportsmanlike practices of amateur riflemen, were decimating the native fauna.

… And it struck him that he had been working via the Society of Colonial Wars to perpetuate the heritage of his forefathers, when right in front of his eyes the natural inheritance of the entire continent was being wiped out by hunters. “No more destructive animal has ever appeared on the face of the earth,” he was forced to concede, “than the American back-woodsman with his axe and his rifle. Since the Civil War, we have plundered half a continent.”

Grant accepted that those in a position of power and prominence were obligated to husband the nation’s wealth for the benefit of their less farsighted neighbors. And so, as he had done in founding the Society of Colonial Wars, Grant took up the patrician burden of stewardship over his native land. He decided that his role would be to alert his countrymen that “it is our duty as Americans to hand down to our posterity some portion of the heritage of wild life and of wild nature that was ours. In other words, to leave to them a country worth living in, with trees on the hillsides; with beasts in the forests; with fish in the streams; and with birds in the air.

At some point in the early 1890s, Grant was transformed from a reckless rake known for his carousing and his shooting into a man committed to the cause of conservation (although that term would not be invented for another fifteen years).

And the Boone and Crockett Club was the perfect forum from which he could launch a variety of projects to promote the cause.

His first project, within the year, was to convince the New York legislature to enact laws to outlaw “unsportsmanlike” hunting in the state.

The matter was of particular urgency because in the early 1890s newly built railroads were spiriting an influx of hunters to upstate New York, and the animals of the Adirondacks were under siege by urban neophytes [beginners to hunting] who rudely flouted the code of sportsmanship

If you are unfamiliar with New York, here is a view of the lush Adirondack Mountains area.


An aghast Teddy Roosevelt told George Bird Grinnell, “I wish to see the Boone and Crockett Club do something”—and as always the phrase “do something” meant push for legislation. Roosevelt suggested that the new fellow, Madison Grant, though still in his twenties, be sent to Albany to secure a law outlawing unsportsmanlike hunting in the Adirondacks. Grant did just that, and brought to the legislature the Adirondack Deer Bill, banning in the state of New York all those practices that were so abhorrent to gentlemen hunters.

But introducing a law is not the same as securing its passage.

But a coalition of market hunters, railroad companies, resort owners, and Adirondack guides came together to oppose the measure. They protested that an elite group of Manhattan amateurs was conspiring to deprive them of their liberty, not to mention their livelihood. Furthermore, they claimed that the wealthy Grant and his fellow Boone and Crocketteers did not truly care about the welfare of the deer: they were simply piqued that the Adirondacks, which had heretofore been their private hunting reserve, was now accessible to the general public thanks to the railroads. The opposition shrewdly insisted that the Deer Bill was the work of “monopolists” who did not want the “poor man” to have an opportunity to bag a deer.

It would be nice to think that Madison and his buddies were all totally altruistic, and were pushing for this legislation on behalf of the masses. But that wouldn’t be totally honest with the facts.

…for many upstaters [those in northern New York], Grant’s interference in local affairs aroused a resentment that was quite genuine. Surely they, the inhabitants of the Adirondacks, were better qualified to run their own region than some pampered Ivy Leaguer.

We might bear in mind that the conservation “movement” at that time consisted of a few dozen persons—some big-game hunters, some professional foresters, a handful of naturalists, and perhaps a hydrologist [water specialist] or two. It was by definition an elitist movement, and most definitely did not represent the will of the people.

The conservationists were few in number, and when a tiny minority of outsiders—even one that possesses a better education and a broader vision— tries to impose its views on a larger group of local residents, the situation poses a dilemma for a nation that worships democracy.

For politicians, this is a problem. You don’t get votes by telling “the little people” of your voting district that they are…little people. You must at least give the impression that you are just plain folks yourself, and that you are looking out for the interest of the masses. But Madison Grant wasn’t a politician, and didn’t have to play that game!

Of course, the one advantage Madison Grant possessed whenever the anti-conservation forces played the populist card was that he was not at all uncomfortable being labeled an elitist. Quite the contrary: he was proud to be a member of the haut monde [“high society”], and indeed through his work with the Society of Colonial Wars he was making every effort to remind the public of his exalted status.

America, after all, had been founded and built by his family. This was his country, and as its steward he would not sit idly by while an unholy alliance of market hunters, railroad corporations, and tourism magnates tried to despoil it. Grant and his fellow patricians from the city would save the democracy-loving residents of upstate New York from their own destructive inclinations, and devil take the hindmost.

This was the first of many such projects that Madison Grant tackled in which he used his connections in aristocratic circles, including many in high political office, to batter down resistance to what he believed to be noble causes.

To get the Adirondack Deer Law passed, Grant waged a three-year campaign in which he wrote letters to newspapers such as the New York Times, published articles in magazines such as Harper’s Weekly, and carried on a series of face-to-face negotiations with key politicians in which he called on them to ignore their constituents and instead protect the game of New York from unregulated hunting.

He didn’t need the votes of the average citizen…he needed the votes of those in the legislature of New York, many of whom were from his own social class. And his methods worked.

As an American patrician and an 1887 graduate of Yale University, he never doubted that he would succeed. And so it was that—with numerous revisions and amendments, and after a bitter floor fight—the Adirondack Deer Law, which banned unsportsmanlike hunting, was enacted. It took effect on June 1, 1897. Madison Grant had saved the wildlife of New York.

An elated George Bird Grinnell congratulated Grant on the bill’s passage: “Great credit is due you for having accomplished something that I thought two years ago quite impossible.” Theodore Roosevelt told Grant that he had performed “wonders” and added: “I am extremely pleased with what you have accomplished.”

And looking back, it turned out that the results benefited everyone, not just the elite.

The Adirondack Deer Law, states Marvin Kranz, the historian of the New York conservation movement, “was of great significance.” And it was also quite effective: not only did the deer of New York thrive, but it was not long before the beaver and the bear moved back to the Adirondacks, and in recent years even the moose (whose last-known Adirondack ancestor was killed in 1861) has returned.

Yes, they are back, as you can see from these New York pictures from the past five years or so.

2010 moose2010moose2moose3

So many now that there are enough car/moose collisions that they decided to make a new law that if someone accidently kills a moose with a vehicle, they can claim the carcass.

And Madison Grant’s efforts affected not just the citizens and wildlife of New York of the past and present. They were far more widespread and longlasting.

More importantly, with New York’s Deer Law as the model, most of the other states in the Union soon adopted similar legislation. Throughout the country, practices like hounding, night hunting, and the killing of females all but disappeared. In a relatively short period of time, Grant had gone a long way toward ending unsportsmanlike hunting in the United States.

But this was only the beginning. Madison Grant’s efforts in many areas of social influence have cast a very long…and sometimes very dark…shadow over the USA.

We’ll examine more of his legacy in the next entry in this series:

Let the Buffalo Roam

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