The Lost Museum Archive

"The distinction of classes," 1836

In the antebellum era, creating and policing middle-class society was a collective endeavor, requiring both the performance of good manners and the recognition of that performance by the like-minded. This introduction to an 1836 etiquette manual captures the paradoxical nature of middle-class American attitudes toward manners. While an acknowledged method of distinguishing among social classes by excluding some and including others, Americans also saw good manners as an essentially democratic route to social acceptance. This author, identified only as “a gentleman,” argues that the American social system is both more democratic and more exclusive than its European counterparts.

The great error into which nearly all foreigners and most Americans fall, who write or speak of society in this country, arises from confounding the political with the social system. In most other countries, in England, France, and all those nations whose government is monarchical or aristocratic, these systems are indeed similar. Society is there intimately connected with the government, and the distinctions in one are the origin of gradations in the other. The chief part of the society of the kingdom is assembled in the capital, and the same persons who legislate for the country legislate also for it. But in America the two systems are totally unconnected, and altogether different in character. In remodelling the form of the administration, society remained unrepublican. There is perfect freedom of political privilege, all are the same upon the hustings, or at a political meeting; but this equality does not extend to the drawing-room or the parlour. None are excluded from the highest councils of the nation, but it does not follow that all can enter into the highest ranks, of society. In point of fact, we think that there is more exclusiveness in the society of this country, than there is in that even of England--far more than there is in France. And the explanation may perhaps be found in the fact which we hate mentioned above. There being there less danger of permanent disarrangement or confusion of ranks by the occasional admission of the low-born aspirant, there does not exist the same necessity for a jealous guarding of the barriers as there does here. The distinction of classes, also, after the first or second, is actually more clearly defined, and more rigidly observed in America, than in any country of Europe. Persons unaccustomed to look searchingly at these matters, may be surprised to hear it; but we know from observation, that there are among the respectable, in any city of the United States, at least ten distinct ranks. We cannot, of course, here point them out, because we could not do it without mentioning names.

Every man is naturally desirous of finding entrance into the best society of his country, and it becomes therefore a matter of importance to ascertain what qualifications are demanded for admittance. . . .

Whatever may be the accomplishments necessary to render one capable of reaching the highest platform of social eminence, and it is not easy to define clearly what they are, there is one thing, and one alone, which will enable any man to retain his station there; and that is, GOOD BREEDING. Without it, we believe that literature, wealth, and even blood, will be unsuccessful. By it, if it co-exist with a certain capacity of affording pleasure by conversation, any one, we imagine, could frequent the very best society in every city of America, and perhaps the very best alone. To obtain, then, the manners of a gentleman is a matter of no small importance.

Source: The Laws of Etiquette, or, Short Rules and Reflections for Conduct in Society. By a Gentleman. Philadelphia: 1836.