There are WASPs (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants), the demographic that dominated American culture well into the 20th century, and there are WASPs, the subset of the demographic that the late political columnist Joseph W. Alsop labeled the “WASP Ascendancy.” These were the Americans who, Michael Gross writes in his delightfully provocative new book, formed “a hereditary oligarchic upper class” for most of our history. This ruling class, Gross admits, was not a monolith. But despite internal disputes, it ran the government and economy and defined the culture of the American experiment for 350 years.
Now WASP power is in eclipse. That’s not a completely bad thing, Gross says, because in addition to founding the Republic and enshrining lofty ideals, WASPs enslaved some, excluded others, fattened their wallets and jealously guarded their privileges. He writes that the presidency of Donald Trump “represented the clan’s nadir—a repudiation of the tattered remains of WASP virtue.” Still, Gross wonders if today, “a selfish, narcissistic, tribal, atomized nation might still look to WASPs for a restorative example of America’s civic conscience.”
This is the argument of Flight of the WASP: The Rise, Fall, and Future of America’s Original Ruling Class. The theory—though absorbing and debatable—isn’t the star of the show. The book’s real delight lies in its brisk biographies of the people who illustrate the ascent and descent of WASP hegemony. Gross begins with the Pilgrim leader William Bradford, who helped establish the New England theocracy that eventually gave rise to the ideals and practices of American self-government. A marvelous chapter spotlights the too-little appreciated Gouverneur Morris, often called “Penman of the Constitution.” Gross also describes less savory figures like John Randolph of Virginia, a virulent advocate for slavery who infamously caned an opponent on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives, and Henry Fairfield Osborn, an esteemed paleontologist and longtime head of the American Museum of Natural History—and, alas, co-founder of the wildly racist American Eugenics Society.
Gross’ choices of biographical subjects are unexpected, even idiosyncratic. They will convince many readers of his overall argument, or send them on to further reading. Well-researched and well-written, Gross’ portrait gallery will, if nothing else, illuminate the odd corners of the lives of our nation’s elite and American history itself.