The American dream remains

SAN SIMEON, Calif. – When I lived in Europe, I used to marvel at the chateaux and palaces dotting the Old World. Squinting at exquisite details and gawking at elaborate displays of wealth, I would think to myself, “We don’t have anything like this in America.”

I was only partially right.

Over the past month, a combination of travel for business and pleasure has afforded me the opportunity to see castles made right here in the U.S. of A., from coast to coast. I mean the Gilded Age mansions of Newport, Rhode Island, and the stunning hilltop complex that publisher William Randolph Hearst built here above California’s Central Coast, which inspired the palatial Xanadu estate in “Citizen Kane.”

These mansions – if that overused word does them justice – hold their own against many of their European cousins.

They are half-European anyway, decorated with medieval Flemish tapestries, first-century Roman monuments, Spanish ceilings, Italian marble and endless other works large and small. If their architects weren’t importing artifacts from Europe, they were commissioning European craftsmen to create building materials.

These monuments to art and architecture have largely passed from private hands to organizations: the nonprofit Preservation Society of Newport County in the case of summer “cottages” like The Breakers, and the California State Parks system for the Hearst Castle. Which raises some fascinating points.

The first is that, unlike most of the European castles, these homes were built privately. The Alcazar of Spain, Neuschwanstein of Germany, Chambord of France, Windsor of England – all were built by and for royal families who tapped their national treasuries. 

Now, it’s true that systems have changed over the past thousand years; centuries ago, there simply was no division like that between the modern public and private sectors. “L’etat, c’est moi” was the royal attitude.

Still, the fortunes underwriting America’s personal fortresses were collected not by the taxman but by the builders of private empires: in transportation (railroads), energy (coal) and media (newspapers). Fortunes are being made similarly today in electric vehicles, renewable energy and social media.

Setting aside the question of whether today’s multibillionaires will leave behind physical legacies like these museums, it’s worth asking what the popularity of these places says about our politics of envy.

The crowds at The Breakers, Marble House and Hearst Castle on the days I visited were not small, despite ticket prices that started around $30 for adults. I didn’t survey everyone to ask about their income, but they appeared to represent a cross-section of society.

While certain politicians preach class envy and resentment, the American people are surprisingly resistant to these screeds. In any event, there is more nuance than is often portrayed: A 2019 survey by YouGov for the libertarian Cato Institute found that while 61% of Americans support tax increases for families with annual incomes over $200,000, 62% oppose redistributing wealth to the poor from the rich. Some 84% agreed “there’s nothing wrong with a person trying to make as much money as they honestly can,” down only a bit from 95% in 1958.

There’s a partisan divide here, of course: Democrats are more supportive of higher taxes and redistribution than Republicans. Perhaps that’s because Democrats tended to say wealth comes from family connections, inheritance and getting lucky, compared to Republicans’ answers of hard work, ambition and self-discipline.

Here, America’s castles suggest the truth lies in between. Hearst’s father made a small fortune mining silver in California, working hard and taking risks – but also getting a little lucky, for he wasn’t certain he was unearthing silver. Among his other investments, George Hearst bought the San Francisco Examiner; his only son ambitiously turned that single property into a vast media empire, expanding the family’s net worth tenfold. 

Ultimately, most Americans are skeptical of schemes against the wealthy because they believe they, or maybe their children, could be wealthy themselves someday. Having the freedom to enjoy the fruits of one’s own labor, however large they may grow, remains an essentially American dream.

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