Republic of Manners

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The original American idea was that everyone should be treated with equal respect and dignity. European etiquette was all very well for those snobs and sycophants in class-stratified societies, but it would not do for the proud citizens of an enlightened and free republic. So George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and others put their formidable philosophical powers to work developing a new American etiquette.

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This turned out to be easier to proclaim than to practice. General Washington backslid and ruled that his inferiors, the members of the United States Congress, could not answer back when he condescended to address them from his elevated throne with its canopy of crimson damask. Mr. Jefferson slid dangerously forward with what he called “Pell-mell Etiquette,” a system so innocent of rules and distinctions that his guests took to mob action at the White House dinner table. Dr. Franklin happily played the part of the Simple But Honest American, and then used that character to make himself the darling of French aristocratic female society.

By the mid-19th century, a distinctly American style of plain and open manners, which had provoked foreigners to wonderment (Mr. Tocqueville) and to sneers (Mrs. Trollope), prevailed. Equality did not prevail. Exempt from being treated with respect were African Americans, whether enslaved or free; white men in low-paying jobs; and women who had any jobs at all. The tip-off was being addressed by one’s given name, even in official situations such as court proceedings, while being required to use titles and surnames to address others.

Gradually, these groups and others demanded not just legal rights, but etiquette rights. American manners, now a major influence on much of the modern world, have roughly achieved the goal of equal treatment.

Except—whoops. What happened to the respect and dignity part?

Judith Martin writes Miss Manners columns for United Feature Syndicate and the Microsoft Network, and is the author of more than a dozen books.
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