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Creating the Patriarchs, 1872

 Permission To Use Granted By Eric Homberger, Professor of American Studies at the University of Anglia in Norwich, UK.

When you become very rich and powerful, and people pay you court, it follows in many cases that you become exacting and domineering. It soon became evident that people of moderate means, who had no social power to boast of, must needs be set aside and crowded out if the one-man power, or even the united power of two or three colossally rich men, controlled society. One reflected that that would not work. The homage we pay to a society must come from the esteem and admiration which is felt for him, but must not be exacting or forced. It occurred then to me, that is one in any way got out with the powers that be, his position might become critical, and he so forced out of the way as to really lose his social footing. Where then was the remedy for all this? How avoid this contingency? On reflection, I reached this conclusion, that in a country like ours there was always strength in union; that to blend together the solid, respectable element of any community for any project, was to create a power that would carry to success almost any enterprise; therefore, returning to New York for the winter, I looked around society and invoked the aid of the then quiet representative men of this city, to help me form an association for the purpose of giving out winter balls. (209-10)

. . . I resolved in 1872 to establish in New York an American Almack's [1], taking men instead of women, being careful to select only the leading representative men of the city, who had the right to create and lead society. I knew all would depend upon our making a proper selection.

There is one rule in life I invariably carry out-never to rely on my own judgment, but to get the advice of others, weigh it well and satisfy myself of its correctness, and then act upon it. I went in this city to those who could make the best analysis of men; who knew their past as well as their present, and could foresee their future. In this way, I made up an Executive Committee of three gentlemen, who daily met at my house, and we went to work in earnest to make a list of those we should ask to join in the undertaking. One of this Committee, a very bright, clever man, hit upon the name of Patriarchs for the Association, which was at once adopted, and then, after some discussion, we limited the number of Patriarchs to twenty-five [2], and that each Patriarch, for his subscription, should have the right of inviting to each ball four ladies and five gentlemen, including himself and family; that all distinguished strangers, up to fifty, should be asked; and then established the rules governing the giving of these balls-all of which, with some slight modifications, have been carried out to the letter to this day. (212-13)

'The object we had in view was to make these balls thoroughly representative; to embrace the old Colonial New Yorkers, our adopted citizens, and men whose ability and integrity had won the esteem of the community, and who formed an important element in society. We wanted the money power, but not in any way to be controlled by it. Patriarchs were chosen solely for their fitness; on each of them promising to invite to each ball only such people as would do credit to the ball. We then resolved that the responsibility of inviting each batch of nine guests should rest upon the shoulders of the Patriarch who invited them, and that if any objectionable element was introduced, it was the Management's duty to at once let it be known by whom such objectionable party was invited, and to notify the Patriarch so offending, that he had done us an injury, and pray him to be more circumspect.' (214)

'We knew then, and we knew now, that the whole secret of the success of the Patriarch Balls lay in making them select; in making them the most brilliant balls of each winter; in making it extremely difficult to obtain an invitation to them, and to make such invitations of great value; to make them the stepping-stone to the best New York society, that one might be sure that any one repeatedly invited to them had a secure social position, and to make them the best managed, the best looked-after balls given in this city.' (215)

'We thought it would not be wise to allow a handful of men having royal fortunes to have a sovereign's prerogative, i.e., to say whom society shall receive, and whom society shall shut out. We though it better to try and place such power in the hands of representative men, the choice falling on them solely because of their worth, respectability, and responsibility. (216-17)

McAllister (1827-1895) was a leader of New York society.

[1] Exclusive London venue and club, whose management was in the hands of a group of powerful society women.
[2] The first Patriarchs were: John Jacob Astor, Royal Phelps, William Astor, Edwin A. Post, De Lancey Kane, Archibald Gracie King, Ward McAllister, Lewis Morris Rutherfurd, George Henry Warren, Robert G. Remsen, Eugene A. Livingston, William. C. Schermerhorn, William Butler Duncan, Francis R. Rives, Edward Templeton Snelling, Maturin Livingston, Lewis Colford Jones, Alexander Van Rensselaer, John W. Hamersley, Walter Langdon, Benjamin S. Welles, Frederick G. d'Hauteville, Frederick Sheldon, C.C. Goodhue, William R. Travers.


Website: The History
Article Name: Creating the Patriarchs, 1872
Researcher/Transcriber: Miriam Medina


 Ward McAllister, Society as I Have Found It (New York: Cassell, 1890)
Permission To Use Granted By Eric Homberger, Professor of American Studies at the University of Anglia in Norwich, UK.
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