The Accolade of Democracy
— How much will you endure for the sake of a principle ? I am bent on enlisting volunteers in a new reform. It is, you may think, a very trifling reform, but I assure you it will demand some of that indifference to convention which is the lowest phase of heroism. Perhaps you will say that the aim is not worth the effort. Well, then, cling to fashion, and be no reformer.
The matter is briefly this, whether to address John Smith as “Mr.” or as “Esq.” Fashion promptly replies, “Write ‘ John Smith, Esq.,’ of course ! ” But it is not “ of course ; ” there are distinctions ; we must discriminate ; not everybody is to have the title “ Esq.” Your butcher is “ Mr. J. Smith; your lawyer or broker is “John Smith, Esq.” The rule, as it was given me long ago in England, when I was a boy, is to address a “ shopkeeper ” as “ Mr.” and a “gentleman” as “Esq.”
For some time I followed the rule without question ; then I began to have doubts ; finally I abandoned it altogether, and now I write only “ Mr.” I found it, in the first place, a great bother, in many cases, to have to decide whether my correspondent was worthy of the alleged higher title. When my tailor, for example, moved to Beacon Street, and when, as reported in the society newspapers, he actually had a dinner from time to time, I could no longer deny him the “Esq.;” and yet he was still “in trade,” and to admit him into the select circle of those who were not was to encourage him to think more highly of himself than he ought to think. On the other hand, by addressing as “ Mr.” some poor but haughty do-nothing scion of Mayflower stock caused him pain, as he thought that I was trying to snub him on account of his poverty. At last, as I have said, the bother of classifying became too irksome, and I took refuge in uniformly using plain “ Mr.”
But there is a deeper reason for abandoning this English custom : it is snobbish, it is undemocratic. In England, while society was constituted according to blood, and while each family’s position on the social scale was regulated by official decree, “ Mr.” meant one definite social rank, and “ Esq.” another. In this country, however, such distinctions were obliterated on July 4, 1776. We have no authorized Knight of the Social Yardstick,no recognized Analyzer of Blood. Fashionable society is based on money, and not on pedigree. But money, as we know, is the most unstable of objects, rolling from pocket to pocket, and slipping from family to family ; and so the man whom you addressed as “ Mr.” last year may require “ Esq.” this year. For a busy person to follow these fluctuations of fortune is intolerable ; for a democrat to cringe to a plutocratic custom is inconsistent : therefore I have dropped “ Esq.,” and shall write plain “ Mr.” to the end.
Surely we ought to insist that in all things a symbol, or title, shall keep its distinct meaning; otherwise, we shall be overwhelmed by shams ; and since “ Esq.” no longer carries with it the original connotation, we may well abolish its use. If our society, based on plutocratic principles, wishes to indulge in titles, let it adopt those which are appropriate to a plutocracy. Any business directory will furnish information as to Brown’s or Smith’s wealth recent enough to be applicable. Instead of either “ Mr.” or “ Esq.” we might use the dollar symbol ($), with the further advantage that by one stroke, or two, or three (thus, $, $ $), we could differentiate simple millionaires from those of larger wealth. There would be no doubt about this method, no horrid qualms as to whether you had given your correspondent a higher or lower title than he deserved. If he made any fuss, you need simply refer him to Bradstreet’s. Moreover, this system would be an honest product of our plutocratic conditions and ideals. It is not honest, nor is it convenient, to go on using “Esq.,” an appellation borrowed from England when England was aristocratic.
’T is a small reform, but will you join it? Some courage you must have, or you will not persevere in it. One does not like to be thought ignorant of social usages ; but if you refuse “ Esq.” to certain persons, you will certainly have to bear that imputation. It happens to be my duty to correspond with eminent persons, to whom, if to any, “ Esq.,” or a higher title, might be given, and whom I should like so to honor, were it not for the scruples I have stated. Some of those emiment persons, whether to heap coals of fire on me, or to teach me subtly by example, reply to me as “ Esq.; ” others, after trying “Esq.” on me, and finding that I do not reciprocate, drop to “ Mr.,” and then I know that they have written me down in their books as one unfamiliar with society’s delicate shades. Not to be comme il faut, much more to appear to be disrespectful, may cause even a reformer to wince ; but is not the gain in consistency and in the abolition of snobbishness more than worth the pain ? If you think so, join me ; the social pillory ceases to be a pillory as soon as a few resolute persons, by mounting it of their own accord, make it an honorable station.