The Menace of Privilege
Amusements, Dissipations and Martial Relations
Henry George Jr.
TURN to the amusements of the privileged rich and ask if they run
with the customs and habits of the mass of our people.
A despatch from Saratoga last summer told how Mr. John W. Gates,
with smiles, lost $10,000 in a six hours' game of faro. Mr. Reginald
C. Vanderbilt enjoys the distinction of having lost many times that
amount during a single night in a high-priced gambling establishment
in New York. To the very rich, either winning or losing is nothing
in itself. It can add little to or take little from their wealth.
The end sought is stimulation. Those who have a surfeit of all that
mere wealth can bring seek change in excitement. And so there is
much recourse to gambling of one kind or another, from bridge whist
to plain "buck the tiger." (The very rich may indulge this
weakness without fear of ordinary exposure. But those less rich,
belonging to what corresponds in England to the middle and the upper
middle classes, are not so fortunate. Several select, sumptuously
furnished gambling houses for women have been raided by the New York
police within the year.) "Good-by, my dear," said a lady
of quality to a guest, taking her departure from a house party. "So
glad you came; enjoyed your company so much - and do remember, dear,
you lost a trifle to me at bridge - $300."
What stimulates, or, at any rate, what accompanies this growing
passion for card gaming is a passion for the race-track. Our princes
not only bet heavily, they are the owners of the biggest and most
expensive racing stables, with some horses worth $100,000 apiece.
More than that, in New York some of them control the State Racing
Commission, which controls the racing. In this way they conduct
racing matters, ostensibly to improve the breed of horses, but
really as large-scale gambling enterprises, and this in the very
teeth of the law. (Act I, Sect. 9, of the Constitution of the State
of New York runs: "Nor shall any lottery or the sale of any
lottery tickets, pool-selling, book-making or any other kind of
gambling hereafter be authorized or allowed within this State, and
the Legislature shall pass appropriate laws to prevent offenses
against any of the provisions of this section." Overtly, at
least, this mandate is observed everywhere except on the race-track.
Certain corporations have exclusive right by statute to
conduct races. These race-track corporations have obtained
legislative exemptions or modifications of penalty, so that, while a
man caught "making a book" outside of a racing
corporation's fence would be sentenced to two years' imprisonment,
for doing the same thing inside that fence there is practically no
penalty at all. The State Constitution is so much of a dead letter
on the racing corporations' grounds that these associations actually
sell the right to gamblers to make books on the track. The statute
law makes a monopoly of race-track gambling, and gives that monopoly
to the race-track associations, controlled by the State Racing
Multitudes of the general public - that is, of the middle class
and plain people - attend the races under the auspices of these and
other race-track princes, and on the whole they lose, and lose
heavily. The race-track princes come in for a handsome share of the
winnings. (The New York State Comptroller's report shows that the
profits for 1904 of the eight great more or less allied tracks
coming under the jurisdiction of the State Racing Commission were
$3,805,125.51. This was aside from the huge betting receipts.) But
other of the princes go there merely for the excitement. They are
careless whether they win or lose. They are imbued with something of
the reckless spirit of the early California miner, who suggested to
another miner, as a test of their relative riches, that each
alternately cast twenty-dollar gold pieces into San Francisco Bay
until one of them be "cleaned out."
The automobile brought a novelty into racing excitement. In the
fall of 1904 the first big race was held -- the 284-mile
international contest on Long Island, for a silver cup offered by
Mr. W. K. Vanderbilt, Jr. For the amusement of those conducting and
witnessing the race, thirty miles of public roadway were practically
closed against general use -- proof of the degree to which common
rights bend to Privilege! No danger to the public? No, not if the
public keep out of the way; but death and destruction to any who get
in the way. As it was, one participant was killed outright, another
very badly hurt, and for a time paralyzed. Many other fatalities
have since attended high speeding. But what of that? There will be
such racing and high speeding so long as a craving for excitement
exists and finds no other outlet. The very danger involved adds fire
to the agitation. Are not jockeys killed every year in the horse
races? Does that increase or lessen interest?
Would this imply that our Princes of Privilege have brutal
tastes? What I assert is that, lifted above interest in normal
things, our princes as a class crave unusual stimulants. So far has
this appetite advanced, that women of the privileged order are now
seen at prize-fights. Fifty of them were found among the spectators
at a private "mill" raided by the police in Brooklyn not
long since. Of the three thousand persons who witnessed the
six-round "bout" between two prize-ring celebrities in
Philadelphia within the year, four hundred were women -- women of
station in that city. One of them, in a newspaper statement, to
which her name was attached, said of her presence there, and the
sensations she experienced: --
- I didn't want to go, because I think all such things very
brutal; but I was asked, and I didn't want to refuse. So I went,
and I am very glad I did. Thinking it over, I feel surprised at
myself. But to be candid, from the minute the men started I liked
it. There was a funny little shock, a revulsion, at first. But
after that the blood began to tingle in one's veins, and one felt
alive all over. I'd never go to another prize-fight. But I
certainly understand why men like to go.
This is the utterance of a highly respected woman. She spoke so in
the face of the fact that, although the fight was only "six
rounds" in length, and was declared a "draw" at the
end, there was a frightful lot of hard hitting. One man's eye was
split open, and both men, bleeding profusely, were smeared with
their own and each other's blood. Brutality was there, but it was
forgotten in the mad excitement. This was also true of many who
attended the gladiatorial fights in Roman days. In his "History
of European Morals," Lecky repeats the story related by St.
Augustine, how one of the latter's friends, being drawn to the
gladiatorial spectacle, endeavored by closing his eyes to guard
against a fascination he knew to be sinful. A sudden cry caused him
to break his resolution, and he never could withdraw his gaze again.
Mr. Bryce notices (The Outlook, March 25, 1905) a change common to
all classes, "all the more noticeable in America, because it is
there quite recent." This change is "the passion for
looking on and reading about athletic sports " -- of being, not
actors, but mere spectators.
- The love of playing and watching games which require strength
and skill is as old as mankind, and needs no explanation. So the
desire not to play, but to look on at chariot races and
gladiatorial combats, was a passion among the people of Rome for
many centuries. The circus factions at Constantinople have their
place in history, and a bad place it is. But this taste is in
America a thing almost of yesterday. It has now grown to vast
proportions. It occupies the minds, not only of the youth at the
universities, but also of their parents and of the general public.
Baseball matches and football matches excite an interest greater
than any other public events except the presidential election, and
that comes only once in four years.
The interest of the universities is attested by the huge revenues
of their athletics. The receipts from athletics at Yale for the
fiscal year ending September 30, 1904, aggregated more than
$106,000, while the total expenses were $75,174. And some of the
games are essentially brutal, especially football. It appears to be
a settled feature of the coaching in the latter game to pick out the
most dangerous man on the opposing team, and "put him out"
in the first few minutes' play, "putting him out" meaning
to injure him in some foul way, so as to incapacitate him from
Nor is the preeminently national game, baseball, free of
brutality. If it does not take the form of crippling players, it
prejudices pure sport. Association owners engage players to win
games by any method, with the intention of getting the biggest
possible gate receipts. Polite, generous usages succumb to coarse,
brutal hustling. There is unseemly wrangling among players, almost
fist fights with umpires, and tolerance of the loosest shoutings
from the roughest and most turbulent part of the spectators, who
thrive on disorder. Among the colleges there is complaint that many
of the best players are practicing deception to evade the amateur
restrictions against taking pay, and that they descend to the pay
and the hurly-burly of professionalism.
Or with small thought for all this, and finding occupation in
other channels, see how some of our princes study and practice what
they are pleased to call "The Science of Philanthropy." It
really is not a science. It is not effectual, nor can it be. It does
not go to fundamentals; it merely touches here and there on the
surface. It does not stop the robbery of the masses, the robbery
that reduces them to poverty. It simply gives a few sops to them out
of the spoil taken from them. If the beneficiaries do not see this,
yet it is so. With the best intentions in the world, they can do
nothing far-reaching or permanent unless they do justice, and
justice means stopping the robbery of some for the enriching of
others. With justice in respect to privileges, the practice of "philanthropy"
would not be required. With justice not practiced, the "science
of philanthropy" can only be a study of how, in Tolstoy's
words, to do "anything for the poor but get off their backs."
What then if the Charity Organization Society of New York, for
instance, be built up into a sort of "clearing house to the
other charitable societies," enabling those philanthropically
disposed to quickly ascertain "what to give and how to give it"?
What if the "Tenement Shade Tree Committee of the Tree Planting
Association of New York City" line the streets of poor
districts with trees? What if Mr. Carnegie appoint a "Hero
Commission," and transfer to it from the vast fortune he
accumulated through privileges, $5,000,000 in first collateral five
per cent. gold bonds of the United States Steel Corporation, the
interest of which is to be used by the Commission for the awarding
of medals to heroes and pecuniary aid to the injured heroes and the
wives and children of those heroes who die? What if Mr. Henry
Phipps, for so long a partner in the Carnegie Company, establish
tenement houses on a basis of five per cent. income on the
investment? What if societies be established to enable "the
worthy poor" to pawn their small personal effects at lower than
the legal rates? What if hospital beds be endowed, and a thousand
other things in themselves more or less good, which "the
science of philanthropy" can suggest be done? What of it all?
It falls far short of justice, which is all that is needed. But
justice is something that Privilege does not and will not see.
Many of the privileged pursue "the science of philanthropy"
as an intermittent occupation or amusement; some of them, perhaps,
as a conscience easer.
And what are the offsets to this seeking for excitement or
searching for occupation and peace of mind? Often it is misdirected
interest in things. For instance, one lady daily sends her dog out
in her victoria for a "constitutional," liveried driver
and footman on the box. Another treats her toy spaniel to the opera,
on one occasion taking him to hear Caruso. Another has her darling
quadruped massaged, in order that "his spirits may be kept
high, and his life may be prolonged." Yet another has the teeth
of her pedigreed pet gold-filled, just as the Empress Poppaea had
her horse gold-shod, -- the horse that the Emperor Nero made consul.
Then there are those who choose snakes, lions, pigs and bears for
At other times there is the very madness of inanity: valentine
dinners, golden-dish dinners, appendicitis dinners, horseback
dinners, monkey dinners, bull and bear dinners, clown dinners and
Egyptian desert dinners -- the latter given by a New Yorker who
lives abroad, the table being set as a miniature desert, where each
guest dug up jewels with tiny gold pick and shovel.
A twist is given to the inanity by introduction of the English
revival of falconry. Many cotes containing merlins, bastards,
bobbies and goshawks are reported to have been set up on large
private estates in western New York and the Berkshire Hills within
the past two or three years. Then there are colonial fox-hunts and
English "squire balls"; also revels and pastoral
vapidities, such as were so favored in the dry-rot days of the
French court, before ingulfment by the revolution. There are
midnight beach parties, wild animal cotillions and vegetable
parties, the latter in various ways suggestive of those mindless
growths of the earth in imitation of which the participants dress.
Perhaps there is a flocking to some such place as Sherry's in New
York, to listen to the "melancholy apostle of beauty"
descant on "The Mystery of Blue Hydrangeas"; or to some
place like Delmonico's to applaud a more matter-of-fact person read
from a manuscript book on "Marital Unrest," or another
discourse on "How to Get Rid of a Lover."
These are the conditions in which our Princes of Privilege raise
their offspring. As in all other courts of princes, flattery,
cajolery and temptation fawn, snare and pander. Is it any wonder
that pride, slothfulness and self-indulgence seek to possess the
There are honorable exceptions. Some of the heirs to empires of
power choose deliberately to work and to work seriously. There are
princelings, however, of a very different kind. Having slipped
through college, by some sort of oiled process, they make no
pretense of troubling with any more serious business than how to
dress in the pink of fashion. If outwardly some are more seriously
inclined, their thoughts are not so. I have a princeling in mind who
entered a banking house to become fitted to follow his
banker-father's footsteps. Though of voting age, his lack of
interest in the business qualified him for no better place in the
establishment than that of high-class messenger boy. Odd intervals
he devoted to study. But what kind of study? To the difficult art of
picking horses, to the delicate one of mixing drinks. For the most
part the young scions are not troubling themselves about any kind of
industry save that of amusement. They pay $40 or $50 for choice
seats at championship fights. They nonchalantly stake large sums on
the speed of a horse, the turn of a wheel, the chance of a card.
Focus on Women
Time was when the universal habit in the Eastern and Middle States
followed St. Paul's precept, "If any will not work, neither
shall he eat." There was no such occupation as "gentleman."
But in the circle of Privilege this is passing. Where the public
marriage license asks for statement of the occupation of the groom,
and of the fathers of the contracting parties, more and more
frequently the word "gentleman" is written in.
Is it strange, then, that with nothing serious to engage them, and
with great riches at their command, these princelings should fall
into the arms of deadly dissipations?
And if it is so with the sons of our Princes of Privilege, what of
Fifty years ago the keen French observer and commentator, De
Tocqueville, paid our women the highest tribute. After citing the
fact that adultery was a crime punishable with death in colonial
Connecticut and Massachusetts, he said: "If I were asked . . .
to what the singular prosperity and growing strength" of the
people of the United States "ought mainly to be attributed, I
should reply: To the superiority of their women . . . No free
communities ever existed without morals, and morals are the work of
w omen . . . There is certainly no country in the world where the
tie of marriage is more respected than in America, or where conjugal
happiness is more highly or worthily appreciated." ('"Democracy
in America" (1898), Vol. I, pp.46, 389, and Vol.11, p. 2 62.)
This was written before the advent in America of great fortunes
from special privileges. Our people then were far, far more
homogeneous than they are now. The multimillionaire was very rare,
and on the other hand De Tocqueville said he never met with a lackey
in the United States; that all regarded themselves as equal citizens
of the Commonwealth -- as men. ( "Democracy in America,"
Vol.11, pp.215-217.) Of course an aristocratic feeling did to some
degree exist. But it was not marked as to fortune or to outward
bearing. De Tocqueville knew of the effects of the fruit of the evil
tree of aristocracy on women as well as on men, and he plainly
specified them: --
- Among aristocratic nations, birth and fortune make two such
different beings of men and women, that they can never be united
to each other. Their passions draw them together, but the
conditions of society, and the notions suggested by it, prevent
them fr om contracting a permanent and ostensible tie. The
necessary consequence is a great number of transient and
clandestine connections. Nature secretly avenges herself for the
constraint imposed upon her by the laws of man.( "Democracy
in America;" Vol.11, p.250.)
Does not this aptly describe much that we see in the "smart
set" of our aristocracy of privilege? The old true love, the
deep love, the love rooted in respect, seems to be going out of date
among our princes. Power, money; money, power: that is the thing
most thought of and talked of. Money seeks money in marriage. Or,
surrounded by all that money can suppl y, the daughters of our
Princes of Power yearn for the regalia of Princes of Title. Their
eyes turn abroad, and many of them marry English, French, German,
Austrian, Russian, Italian and Spanish coronets.
There are doubtless among these foreign nobles men of estimable
character and parts. But waiving the question of departure from
democratic-republican principles, the too frequent tale of
infelicity and separation makes such matches as a rule unwholesome.
For that matter, nuptial alliances made at home or abroad seem, as a
rule, to have much the same result among our Princes of Privilege, -
A cynic, touching upon superficial aspects, remarks that the
prevalence of divorce among the privileged class comes from dancing
the fashionable cotillion; that in that dance the young women become
fascinated with the idea of changing partners, and they a pply it to
marriage. One case of rapid change of marital partners filled the
press of the country and excited much caustic comment. The sister of
Mrs. Reginald Vanderbilt was in the course of fifty minutes divorced
from Mr. Arthur T. Kemp and married to Mr. Hollis T. Hunnewell. This
occurred at Newport, and Justice Dubois of the Appellate division of
the Supreme Court of Rhode Island broke the old and sealed the new
bond. Dr. Felix Adler has cited a woman who has been divorced and
remarried five times, being twice married and twice divorced from
Now the weakness or sins of divorce in this country are not to be
laid solely at the door of Princes of Privilege. We know full well
that our churches are profoundly disturbed over the alarming
increase of the evil among all but the very lowest classes of this
country. The truth seems to be that divorces are not only more
numerous in the United States in proportion to marriages than in any
other country showing records, but that they are rapidly
increasing.(According to Mr. W. F. Wilcox in "The Divorce P
roblem," in 1870 the relation of divorces to marriages was 3.5
per cent; in 188o, 4.8 per cent; in 1890, 6.2 per cent. According to
the 1900 United States Census report the proportion of divorces to
marriages in 1890 was 5 per cent; in 1900, 7 per cent.) And this
increase is occurring in face of the growing stringency of the laws.
There were sixty thousand divorces in the United States in 1903.
"Thirty years ago divorce was hardly ever talked about,"
said Rev. Dr. Leighton Parks recently, from his pulpit in St.
Bartholomew's Episcopal church, New York City. "We scarcely
knew of a case that had occurred among respectable people. But
to-day it ha s usurped the center of the stage. It is the problem of
the novel; it is the subject of conversation at the dinner party; it
is talked over between mother and child; it clamors in the police
courts; it demands that legislators change the laws; and it con
fuses the councils of the Church. It would seem at times as if
marriage had disappeared, and that the chief human interest was
So far is this from being an exaggeration that many gravely
discuss the feasibility of the proposal made by the veteran English
novelist, Mr. George Meredith that marriage be made a brief-term
contract, instead of for life. Others think the marriage and divorce
laws should be strengthened, and we find the President of the United
States calling the attention of Congress to the "dangerously
lax and indifferently administered" divorce laws in some of the
States, and expressing the hope that "cooperation amo ng the
several States can be secured to the end that there may be enacted
upon the subject . . . uniform laws." (Presidential message,
January 30, 1905.)
Now if divorce is so general and increasing, what is its cause? It
must be general. It cannot lie in the lack of uniformity or
indifferent administration of divorce laws. For, as Mr. Louis F.
Post truly observes in a most suggestive little book on the di vorce
problem ("Ethical Principles of Marriage and Divorce"),
the ceremonial of marriage is not marriage proper, but the "symbol,"
or "outward proof" of it. The real marriage is the
establishing of a relationship of love. Each must be in love with
the h igher intellectual qualities and the deeper moral impulses of
But it is a part of ancient wisdom that "love flies out of
the window when poverty enters the door." So that the
continuance of love depends in no small degree upon keeping poverty
at a distance. If poverty be not kept away, love may vanish; and
with lo ve gone, many of those bound by wedlock will want
separation, and many will endeavor to get it either by help of a
divorce law, or in spite of it.
That is to say, the prevalence and increase of divorces does not
lie primarily in loose divorce laws or lax administration, for if
marriage unions were happy, permission freely to separate would have
no effect upon the bonds of love. The cause is social. It is the
offspring of Privilege, which intoxicates some and kills happiness
in others by holding them threateningly upon the brink of ruin. The
harassing dread of many even in good circumstances is that in the
upheavals and overthrows constantly occurr ing under present social
conditions, they will be reduced to the straits of poverty.
But the Princes of Privilege, while always on the defensive for
their special advantages, are little subject to the unhappiness that
springs from fear of poverty. The main cause of divorces among them
is the antithesis of want or its fear. Their ills ar e not the lean
ills of scarcity, but the fat ills of superabundance. Possessing
privileges that lift them in wealth and power above the mass of
their fellows, these favored ones are prone to feel more or less
exempted from many of the common social rules . Among these
exemptions they set various obligations governing matrimony.
Increasing numbers enter wedlock lightly; they hold it lightly. They
come by degrees to regard themselves as Napoleon said of himself: "I
am not an ordinary, but an extraordinar y man. Ordinary rules of
conduct, therefore, do not apply to me."
And the worst of it is that if open divorces are rapidly
increasing, there is graver suspicion that secret connubial
inconstancy is still more general. Yet it must be borne in mind that
the startling change of manners in the country with respect to happi
ness, sanctity and permanence of marriage does not arise from any
antecedent characteristic, but from Privilege, which harries many
into unhappiness and pampers others into false notions.
And just as the marriage tie is coming to be held lightly, so the
fruit of marriage is coming to be lightly regarded. There is a
diminution in the number of births in the households of our princes.
Yet let us not make false assumptions. Births in the natural order
of things, and taken as a whole, cannot occur haphazard. Nature must
surely govern generation by law, just as she governs every other
province of her vast domains. She appears to bring twenty-one boy
babies into the world for every twenty girl babies. Likewise she
appears to provide that there shall be increased births when the
life of the race is threatened either by sparsity of population or
by poverty, disease or other adverse condi tion in a dense
Reversely, Nature seems to provide that when the perpetuity of the
race is assured, there shall be diminished births.
This is apart from conscious human direction. It indicates a
natural law -- a law that accords with and is subordinate to
intellectual development. Where intellectual development is low, as
in sparse or in slum populations, Nature begets many children. Where
intellectual development is high, as among the classes of material
ease and comfort, Nature brings forth fewer children. This is not to
say that intellectual development suggests artificial checks on
generation. It may; but aside from that, Nature herself,
automatically -- acting without conscious direction of human will --
appears to lessen births, probably by bringing into play subtle
differentiations and refinements, and also probably by opening up
new realms that invite and absorb the mind's at tention.
This appears to be the result where Nature is allowed to take her
course. Hence we should expect to find, not invariably, but on the
average, more births to a marriage on the lower East Side of New
York City than in the better sections. But what we find is more than
this. The birth rate on the lower East Side, while high, is normal
for that social condition. But there is more than a normal
diminution among all the classes above the very poor elsewhere. And
this diminution is progressing.
This marked falling off in the rate of births cannot be due to
natural causes. Its cause must be artificial. However reluctantly,
we are forced to the conclusion of New York State's recent Public
Health Commissioner, Dr. Cyrus Edson, and must admit that the cause
is "voluntary avoidance and prevention."
To what is this due? With the middle class it is due, I believe,
to the cause which is increasing divorces. That cause in most
instances is the intensifying financial strain in keeping up with a
former, or in rising to a newly conceived, standard of livi ng.
Where this is not so, the cause is to be found in the constant
heart-racking and mindracking dread of financial losses, and the
deprivations that that would involve. Hence refusal to give "hostages
to fortune" in the persons of children.
This practice of "race" or class suicide among what we
call our "comfortable classes" in itself denotes anything
but a healthy social condition in the Republic. But what shall we
say respecting the diminishing birth-rate among our Princes of
Privilege? T heir great wealth lifts them above the fear of poverty.
With them children would not be "hostages to fortune."
There superabundance is assured for the largest families possible.
If "voluntary avoidance and prevention" is practiced among
the middle clas ses because of social straits or fear of being
reduced to poverty, it would seem to be practiced among the princes
for far different reasons. Is the chief one desire for freedom to
cast themselves into the arms of frivolity and voluptuous