Study Guide

Elites in American History

by Philip H. Burch

Elites in American History Summary

Elites in American History (Literary Masterpieces, Volume 15)

Philip H. Burch, Jr., a Professor of Political Science at Rutgers University, has published the third volume in his study of elites in American history. His particular interest has been to investigate the backgrounds of the significant presidential appointees in order to develop an analysis of decisionmaking in Washington, D.C. His coverage includes cabinet and subcabinet positions, major ambassadors, Supreme Court members, and important presidential and governmental advisers. Major attention is given to all the cabinet members, the background of each being thoroughly documented. Burch is particularly concerned about such factors as: college education, prior governmental experience, primary nongovernmental occupations, important secondary economic affiliations, family and other socioeconomic ties, and, finally, whether he would categorize them as having elite or nonelite status.

While Burch argues that most recent presidents have selected their appointees from a very small slice of American society—the social and economic elite—the process has not been uniform or entirely predictable. In Burch’s first two volumes, covering the Federalist Years to the New Deal, he argues that while all of the presidents from George Washington to William H. Taft recruited their appointees from the nation’s elites, the emphasis shifted from the South to the North, and from agrarian to business interests. Woodrow Wilson’s choice of office-holders was fairly democratic, but in the 1920’s the Republican presidents returned to the practice of selecting from the business class. Major administrative decisions were of a similar elite orientation.

While Franklin Delano Roosevelt was himself from one of the nation’s elite families, his appointments broke considerably from tradition. His Secretary of State, Cordell Hull, for example, had no business ties, unlike his predecessors, and his Attorney General, Frank Murphy, had been a long-time governmental official. While many of his other appointees had strong corporate business ties, they were often individuals who had made their mark in other pursuits, such as Secretary of the Treasurey Henry Morgenthau, who had been a farmer and publisher of a farm journal. Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins had been a social worker. Roosevelt, while conscious of the need to placate the country’s various economic interests, was also interested in securing people of talent, whatever their connections. While his cabinet appointments were eclectic, many of the early New Deal programs, such as the National Recovery Administration (NRA) were dominated by big-business interests. By 1953, however, as the administration adopted more liberal programs, such as the Wagner Act, granting workers the right to organize and bargain with their employers, major business interests were becoming hostile. This growing split was mirrored in the President’s Supreme Court appointments. Hugo Black, Felix Frankfurter, William O. Douglas, Frank Murphy, and Stanley F. Reed, with a few exceptions, proved to be politically liberal, unlike their staunchly conservative predecessors.

During his third term, Roosevelt was preoccupied with winning the war, and to do so he often appointed business leaders to high office, particularly regarding war production and economic concerns. Moreover, under pressure from the party’s conservative wing, he agreed to replace Henry A. Wallace as his vice-presidential running mate in 1944 with Harry Truman. This decision had crucial ramifications upon Roosevelt’s death in early 1945. Of a more conservative temperament, Truman preferred to select his appointees from the business community, but there were exceptions. As Burch notes, “during the Truman years the State, Defense, Treasury, and Commerce departments were dominated by big business forces, whereas other less vital departments such as Justice, Labor, Interior, and Agriculture were directed by men drawn from a variety of sources, many of whom were still firmly committed to the...

(The entire section is 1632 words.)