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Have Our Manners Gone To Hell?
A controversial recent book suggests that what we think of as good manners is a relatively new thing, a commodity manufactured to meet the needs of an industrial age. But now that the Industrial Revolution is over, we may need them more than ever—for very different reasons.
September 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 5
In the American colonies, Kasson says, “attempts to establish that European model of society never quite fit.” The Jamestown settlement reflects how quickly and utterly the vastly different conditions in the New World dismantled the old social pyramid. New crops like tobacco and the availability of great tracts of land mutated the old economic order, making prosperous landowners out of families with no previous claim to rank. Slavery, introduced in the 1660s, was another factor that forever altered the old relationships. The new social network was far-flung and more highly mobile, with vastly more distance, both physically and politically, between citizens and the old centers of authority.
The changes in the social order that continued during the eighteenth century were “not just an American phenomenon,” Kasson explains, “but it certainly took on a special tinge in America. It has to do with both the establishment of a republican government and the development of an industrial capitalist economy, bringing in turn the development of a class society. The two—liberal democracy and a new stage in capitalism—are very much merged in American history. By the mid-eighteenth century, even before the Revolution, people were less and less willing to pay the kind of deference to gentlemen and ladies that inferiors traditionally had given.”
In Rudeness & Civility Kasson cites the accounts of European gentlemen visiting America in the 1700s, who were by turn appalled and amused at the egalitarian spirit of local manners. One such gentleman was a Scottish physician, Dr. Alexander Hamilton, who visited Maine in 1744.
“Hamilton traveled as befitted his gentlemanly status,” Kasson writes. “He dressed in elegant clothes, laced hat, and sword and rode on horseback, attended by his personal servant, a slave named Dromo. By no means an arrogant man, he nonetheless expected the quiet deference and honor that were his proper due.” He rarely found it. Instead, he discovered what Kasson calls “a society acting out a perpetual comedy of manners,” where rustic plowmen chatted with him as equals and common innkeepers’ wives affected the rank of great ladies. “At a Newcastle, Delaware, inn Hamilton came upon another bit of social farce performed by a man named William Morison, ‘a very rough spun, forward, clownish blade, much addicted to swearing, at the same time desirous to pass for a gentleman.’ Conscious of his lapses in manners, Morison both apologized for and defended them, saying, ‘Damn me, gentlemen, excuse me; I am a plain, honest fellow; all is right down plain dealing, by God.’ The landlady, observing Morison’s ‘greasy jacket and breeches and a dirty worsted cap’ as well as his crudity, mistook him for a plowman or cart driver and served him a menial’s breakfast of cold veal scraps. The would-be gentleman was enraged. ‘Damn [me],’ Morison thundered; only respect for ‘the gentleman in company’—Hamilton himself—kept him from hurling the breakfast out the window and breaking the landlady’s ‘table all to pieces should it cost him 100 pounds for damages.’ Then he pulled his worsted nightcap off his head, clapped on a linen one in its stead and declared, ‘Now … I’m upon the border of Pennsylvania and must look like a gentleman; ‘tother was good enough for Maryland.’ ”
Morison was at great pains to impress on Hamilton that “tho he seemed to be but a plain, homely fellow, yet he would have us know that he was able to afford better than many that went finer: He had good linen in his bags, a pair of silver buckles, silver clasps, and gold sleeve buttons, two Holland shirts, and some neat nightcaps; and that his little woman at home drank tea twice a day.” In effect, Kasson writes, Morison was appealing to “a new measure of social status, one that determined rank not according to fixed ‘qualities’ compounding ancestry, power, learning, and prestige, but instead on the basis of the quantity of a family’s wealth.” Thus he represented the beginnings of a new social order, where “gentility itself became something to be purchased, and such items as linen, silver, and tea were for rising men such as himself powerful symbols of its achievement.”
Even the most well bred of today’s Americans might be taken for boors if they had to make their way through a dinner party given in the 1880s.
This ability simply to buy the signs and outward appearances of rank and status was not entirely a new American phenomenon. But in eighteenth-century America upward mobility began to take on a new pragmatism. Kasson finds one of its clearest expressions in the life of no less a Revolutionary figure than Benjamin Franklin, who, he says, “embodied the transformation from a hierarchical society to a republican and capitalist one.”