Sunday, January 27, 2008

The “American Ideal not that Gentlemen should Cease to Be.”

As Americans marched into the nineteenth century, they discarded many of the social forms and practices of the Old World as if they were garments that no longer fit the form for which they were tailored.
After defeating the British in the War of 1812, Americans expanded their territory to reach the Rio Grande and the Pacific. The creation of the railroad and the construction of waterways like the Erie Canal encouraged citizens to reach into the interior of the country, allowing new towns to spring up. Some of the towns grew into cities as new industries forever changed the nation’s landscape. Andrew Jackson, son of a destitute immigrant, moved into the White House in 1828, into an office previously held by the Harvard-educated Adamses and wealthy and powerful Virginia landholders. Ordinary people believed they could make themselves into whatever they wanted to be. The idea was that any man could become a gentleman—not that gentlemen should cease to be.
From the 1830s until the Civil War, Americans had their choice of homegrown etiquette advice books. In these we see a shift away from an emphasis on probity, valor, modesty, and compassion and a move toward the view that etiquette is a set of rules to be learned. Americans did not want to be lectured to about character, chivalry, and morality. They wanted to learn the rules of behavior that would enable them to move comfortably in high society.
Some of this advice came tongue-in-cheek:
  • Always keep callers waiting, till they have had time to notice the outlay of money in your parlors.
  • Always whisper and laugh at concerts by way of compliment to the performers and to show your neighbors a sovereign contempt for their comfort.
The emphasis shifted away from being meek, pliant, and weak and toward more strength and independence. One author advised bluntly that crying was no longer fashionable.
Etiquette “experts” in journals and books advised Americans to avoid “the stiff and stately pomp” of manners honed in European courts. In 1851, Nathaniel Willis wrote, “We should be glad to see a distinctively American school of good manners, in which all useless etiquettes were thrown aside, but every politeness adopted or invented which could promote sensible and easy exchanges of good will and sensibility.” And he advised getting rid of “imported superfluities.”

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