The American Gentleman

— I think that we are all rather fond of speculating about “ gentlemen ; " partly, no doubt, because the subject is elusive and indefinite, so that it affords much room for speculation. Then, again, it is almost a tabooed subject ; if handled at all in public, as in a speech, or a newspaper, or even a book, it must be handled very gingerly. Thus, should any one attempt a classification or definition of “ gentlemen,” he must be careful not to draw his lines so closely as by any chance to exclude a member of the public that he addresses. Dr. Holmes, it will be remembered, in one of his novels, got around this obstacle very cleverly by speaking of the “Brahmin class.” Now, nobody would mind being put in a nonBrahmin category, and nobody would feel jealous at hearing the “ Brahmins ” praised or exalted in any manner. It was Dr. Holmes, also, I believe, who once ventured to draw a distinction between “ gentlemen ” and “ gents ; ” but this was treading upon dangerous ground.

However, I am not now concerned with any delicate question of that kind, but with the very safe inquiry, first, whether there is, and secondly, whether there ought to be, such a thing as an American gentleman, a type distinct from that which obtains in countries other than our own. We often hear it said that a gentleman is the same the world over ; and this is substantially true. What makes a gentleman is, I suppose, the two qualities of an inherent selfrespect and an inherent courtesy ; and a class possessing these qualities exists in every nation and in every tribe. Emerson justly remarked that “good breeding and personal superiority of whatever country readily fraternize with those of every other. The chiefs of savage tribes have distinguished themselves in London and Paris by the purity of their tournure.”

And yet the Fiji Island prince would have his little peculiarities, — his manner would not be quite the same as that of an English gentleman ; and so of all other races. The Frenchman is more cordial, the Spaniard more ceremonious, than the Englishman, and they have forms of courtesy different from the English forms. We, of course, are more like English people than the French or Spanish are, — more like them, perhaps, than are the Germans or Scandinavians ; but nevertheless the American upbringing and surroundings are so different from the English that there ought to be a similar and resulting difference between the kalokagathoi of the two countries.

Carlyle made a suggestive remark upon this subject in reference to Daniel Webster, whom he met at a breakfast party in London. He spoke of him as “ a man of breeding, but not of English breeding ; ” and this, I should say, is a remark that ought to apply to every American gentleman. But, looking about me, I see few persons to whom it would apply. We have, instead, Anglomaniacs in plenty ; occasionally I meet dapper young men with pointed beards whom I take to be imitation Frenchmen ; and recently I have noticed some specimens of a tufted, soft-hatted, romantic-looking kind, formed apparently upon a German model.

In Webster’s time, and in times further back, the American gentleman was more abundant. Seventy years ago, for example, there were three classmates at a small “ down East ” college where the tone and manners must have been purely American. These three men would doubtless have been described as gentlemen by the most severe of European critics ; but such a critic would have said, also, as Carlyle said of Webster, that their breeding was not English breeding. I need hardly say that I mean Hawthorne, Longfellow, and Franklin Pierce.

Now, by way of a slight though exact illustration of such differences as ought to exist between the well-bred Englishman and the well-bred American, I will take the use of the word “sir.” In England, as I understand, this term is employed by gentlemen only in case the person spoken to is a royal person ; and it is thought vulgar for one gentleman to apply it to another, even though there may be a great disparity of years between them. On the historic occasion when Sir William Gordon Camming called the attention of the Prince of Wales to the banknote which he had surreptitiously placed on the table before him, he said, “ There is a tenner here, sir.” If he had addressed the same remark to Mr. Gladstone or to Cardinal Manning, who was then alive, he would have left out the “ sir.”

Now, the modern American gentleman copies this usage, very ignobly as I think. It is natural for an American to use the word “sir ” plentifully, just as it is natural for Frenchmen to be profuse with “ monsieur ; ” and this is precisely one of those little peculiarities that ought to distinguish the American from the Englishman. Such was formerly the case. I well remember the ceremony with which my grandfather, a country doctor, used to greet his acquaintances from the buggy where I rode with him. “ Sir, your most obedient,” doffing his tall hat meanwhile, and not infrequently letting fall a shower of letters which he had put in that receptacle for safe-keeping.

But there is one respect in which a difference, and an important one, does exist between English and American gentlemen, though in some quarters even that is disappearing. I mean in their behavior toward servants and inferiors generally. The English servant or underling likes to be treated brusquely and arrogantly ; it is a part of his traditions to be so treated, and the English gentleman seldom fails to gratify him. But in the United States, and for very good reasons, we order this matter differently. The fact is, of course, that the American gentleman exists only by sufferance and anonymously, as it were ; whereas the English gentleman is a wellrecognized part of the British Constitution. And so it behooves the American to be simple and unassuming in his manners, to be courteous to his inferiors (as he regards them), to say “sir” to his equals without shame, and in general to bear himself, not as an Anglomaniac, but as one who has inherited customs and a standard of his own.