The word "aristocracy" tends to be used rather loosely. In the modern world, it is calculated by multiplying wealth by snobbery. During the early republic, on the other hand, it reflected the division of society into distinct ranks. Until the Revolution, wrote historian Bernard Bailyn, Americans had assumed "that a healthy society was a hierarchical society in which it was natural for some to be rich and some poor, some honored and some obscure, some powerful and some weak." Perhaps most important, "it was believed that superiority was unitary, that the attributes of the favored—wealth, wisdom, power—had a natural affinity to each other, and hence that political leadership would naturally rest in the hands of social leaders." In New York in particular, these natural leaders came from a closed set of families distinguished by an inherited prestige. . . .
Property requirements for suffrage under New York's constitution of 1777 hardened the culture of rank into law. Two distinct levels of wealth were required to vote: one for the state assembly, and a second and higher level for the state senators and governor—establishing a "three-tiered scaffolding of society," as Bruegel writes. In 1790, four of ten adult white men could not cast a ballot of any kind, in some places only one out of four could vote for the assembly, and one out of five for governor.
-T. J. Stiles, The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt