OBITUARY : E. Digby Baltzell

The serendipitous invention of the word Wasp, denoting not the yellow-and-black striped insect, vespula vulgaris, but a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant, has changed perceptions of American society and even American history. The world owes it to an eminent sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania with the magnificently appropriate Wasp name of E. Digby Baltzell. Not all his friends and students knew that the E. stood for Edward.

This pregnant neologism saw the light of day because Baltzell found that while crisper appellations such as "Jews" or even "Roman Catholics" fitted into statistical tables, "White Anglo-Saxon Protestants" did so only with difficulty.

Baltzell and his coinage of the word Wasp have helped to draw attention to the dirty little secret that in a society that boasts of being classless, there is and has always been an American aristocracy. Not that there was anything dirty about this secret for Baltzell.

He was, and I think he would have been prepared to admit, in a benign sense a snob. He dedicated one of his books to "all my undergraduate friends at the University of Pennsylvania, many of them grandsons of immigrants to the urban frontier, who, in spite of their possessing too many Jaguars and mink-coated mothers, have constantly been renewed by faith in the American Dream of unlimited opportunity".

Baltzell was born in Philadelphia and grew up in Chestnut Hill, then the best address in the city. He went to St Paul's, an Episcopalian boarding school in New Hampshire and then to the University of Pennsylvania, not a state institution, but an Ivy League school.

After serving as a pilot in the US Navy, he did his doctorate in Sociology before returning to Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia, to teach, which he continued to do until his retirement in 1986.

I remember him from the 1950s, a dapper figure in tweed jackets and bow ties, popular in a slightly aloof way, but always courteous and accessible. Far more important to him than his personal preference for English clothes and for the ethos and manners of the gentleman was his conviction that aristocracy was necessary for the provision of leadership, both nationally and internationally.

He began his best-known and most influential book, The Protestant Establishment (1964), by asserting that while socialist faiths might aim for a classless society, the United States stressed equality of opportunity in an open class system.

He quoted Karl Marx to the effect that "the more a ruling class is able to assimilate the most prominent men of the dominated classes, the more stable and dangerous is its rule". He used the Lincoln family as an example. Everyone knew, he pointed out, that Abraham Lincoln came of humble origins. Not everyone remembered that he sent his son to Phillips Andover, the American Eton, and to Harvard College, and that Robert Todd Lincoln was altogether the epitome of the Victorian aristocrat, clubman and gentleman.

In spite of his preference for an aristocratic leadership in society, Baltzell's views were liberal. He believed that the American upper class, the Protestant aristocracy, had made a historic mistake, damaging to the nation, when it failed to assimilate the most successful and talented members of other groups, and especially Jews, into its social system.

Much of The Protestant Establishment is devoted to the social exclusion of Jews from Wasp clubs, which he called "the dishonourable treatment of distinguished Jews by members of the old-stock establishment". But behind this specific and arguably somewhat parochial concern, his abiding interest was the decline of authority in American society, which he attributed in part to the decline of aristocracy.

In another study, Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia (1979), he concluded that the Protestant elite of Boston, for all its snootiness and hardness, had been more effective than Philadelphia's dominant Quakers, whose traditions of modesty made them less effective.

In a 1958 book, he described the rise of the Philadelphia elite from which he sprang: his father was a successful insurance broker. In the 1960s, he argued strongly that the existing elites must assimilate talented black leaders into a national aristocracy.

In his later years he was much exercised by the way the Wasps were losing influence. He considered, and taught, that they had failed the nation by abandoning their tradition of public service, and that they were just not up to the job in competition with Jewish, Irish and Asian leaders.

Edward Digby Baltzell, sociologist: born Philadelphia 14 November 1915; married 1943 Jan Piper (deceased; two daughters), 1991 Jocelyn Carlson; died Philadelphia 17 August 1996.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Ashdown Group: HR Manager - West London - £50,000

£40000 - £50000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: HR Manager - West London - £...

Recruitment Genius: Recruitment & HR Administrator

£17000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Guru Careers: HR Manager / HR Business Partner

£55 - 65k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: A HR Manager / HR Business Partner i...

Recruitment Genius: Senior HR Assistant

£23000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Company's vision is to be t...

Day In a Page

Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

Making of a killer

What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most
Katy Perry prevented from buying California convent for $14.5m after nuns sell to local businesswoman instead

No grace of God for Katy Perry as sisters act to stop her buying convent

Archdiocese sues nuns who turned down star’s $14.5m because they don’t approve of her
Ajmer: The ancient Indian metropolis chosen to be a 'smart city' where residents would just be happy to have power and running water

Residents just want water and power in a city chosen to be a ‘smart’ metropolis

The Indian Government has launched an ambitious plan to transform 100 of its crumbling cities
Michael Fassbender in 'Macbeth': The Scottish play on film, from Welles to Cheggers

Something wicked?

Films of Macbeth don’t always end well - just ask Orson Welles... and Keith Chegwin
10 best sun creams for body

10 best sun creams for body

Make sure you’re protected from head to toe in the heatwave
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon files

Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games
Women's World Cup 2015: How England's semi-final success could do wonders for both sexes

There is more than a shiny trophy to be won by England’s World Cup women

The success of the decidedly non-famous females wearing the Three Lions could do wonders for a ‘man’s game’ riddled with cynicism and greed
How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

One day to find €1.6bn

Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

Historians map out untold LGBT histories

Public are being asked to help improve the map