Today’s America is marked by wide disparities of wealth. The art of the transactional deal—getting the best bargain to grow personal wealth no matter what—has been lionized.
But what if social constraints compelled the wealthy and powerful to deliberately take on the needs of others? To consider the needs of those born to modest wealth? To feel a sense of social obligation?
Such is the idea behind noblesse oblige, defined as honorable, generous, and responsible behavior associated with high rank or birth, which reached its height in the United States during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, another era marked by great disparity in wealth.
The concept of noblesse oblige has been around for centuries. One study of a Scottish village described the complex social relationship between landlords and their tenants. Landlords, the village aristocrats, were expected to provide benevolent, paternalistic service to those who were their long-term tenants, establishing equilibrium in a complex social structure which looked warily upon outsiders and displays of wealth.
In the United States, noblesse oblige has long been associated with politics, with leaders from the upper social classes acting on behalf of those left behind. Franklin Roosevelt, the patrician of Hyde Park, was considered a traitor to his class by his political enemies. But he long enjoyed the support of those who benefitted from New Deal programs, largely the growing numbers of poor people in the Great Depression.
Another family with a long history of noblesse oblige is the Rockefellers, famous for using the oil wealth of patriarch John D. Rockefeller in support of the arts and social services. The Rockefellers often used wealth to advance social causes.
They included Winthrop Rockefeller, the grandson of the oil patriarch. Born in New York, he attended elite schools and entered the Army during World War II as a private. He moved across the country, eventually settling in Arkansas, where he immersed himself in politics. Rockefeller was elected governor in 1966, the first Republican to do so in nearly a century. As governor of a state wracked by politicians who fought racial integration, including one who tried to prevent the court-ordered integration of Little Rock Central High School, Rockefeller offered a different approach, more attuned to social justice.
Rockefeller’s family background might indicate little personal stake in the civil rights movement. But he was the only southern governor to publicly commemorate Martin Luther King in 1968, singing “We Shall Overcome” at a memorial service outside the state capitol after King’s assassination. Rockefeller’s tenure as governor was marked by inroads into equal hiring and school integration. While no radical, in the racially-charged context of Arkansas in the 1960’s Rockefeller earned a reputation for being pro-civil rights. In his first run for governor in 1966, he won 90 percent of the black vote. In an era marked by riots, Arkansas remained calm.
Rockefeller’s support for civil rights was not pure political calculation; in fact, it hurt him at times. But it was a part of his family lineage. His grandfather was a benefactor for black colleges, contributing to Spelman and Morehouse. His mother’s family was part of the Underground Railroad.
While living in Texas, Winthrop promoted health care for African Americans after his maid found difficulty finding care after an appendicitis attack. In the post-World War II era, he worked to find jobs for black veterans and decried how they were often left out of programs that benefitted other veterans.
In 1970, Rockefeller ran for a third term as Arkansas governor but lost out to a Democrat. When he died just three years later, the African American leadership in Arkansas praised the northeastern scion of a wealthy family for supporting a civil rights cause that moved him far beyond his own privileged background.