“An able man shows his spirit by gentle words and resolute actions.” — Lord Chesterfield (1694-1773)1

John Trumbull's painting depicting the five-man committee charged with drafting the Declaration of Independence, 1776 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

John Trumbull’s painting depicts the five-man committee charged with drafting the Declaration of Independence presenting their work to the Second Continental Congress in 1776. The original painting hangs in the U.S. Capital rotunda. (Source: Wikimedia Commons [PD—1923])

The long, arduous, ugly, disheartening US election is over. Today’s sunrise is a reminder that the world still turns on its axis; we may not be content, but we continue to live and breathe. Now is a good time to pause for reflection: What is missing in society today that we find ourselves exposed daily to heavy doses of contempt and incivility at all levels of society? Vulgarity in word and deed is commonplace on TV, in movies, in video games, in sports and, sadly, in politics, as we’ve observed throughout this election. We’ve lost the ability to discuss, debate, and compromise.

The Regency Idea of Good Breeding

Philip Dormer Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Philip Dormer Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield (Source: Wikimedia Commons [PD—1923])

Perhaps we lack good breeding. In a post last year I wrote about this essential quality of the true Regency gentleman. A gentleman with good breeding in Jane Austen’s day governed his speech and behavior so as not to offend others. He made an effort to be pleasing in company and to show goodwill to all he met. He was not rude or crude.2

Recently I have been reading a collection of Lord Chesterfield’s letters to his illegitimate son, Philip. Lord Chesterfield—or more properly, Philip Dormer Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield (1694-1773)—was a British politician, a statesman, a good debater, and a man of letters. Lord Chesterfield was born in the Stuart era but he died during the Georgian period. (In fact, he died a mere two years before Jane Austen was born.) His lordship appears not to have always practiced what he preached, for he has been described as selfish, calculating, and often ungenerous, but those qualities only make him human.

Lord Chesterfield’s General Rules of Good Breeding

In a letter to his son dated July 24, 1739, his lordship opens with the endearing salutation: “My dear boy …” After a few pleasantries he begins a proper discourse: “One of the most important points in life is decency; which is to do what is proper and where it is proper.”3 In a letter written the next year he reminds his son that good breeding makes a man “welcome and agreeable in conversation and common life.”Over a span of some thirty years, Lord Chesterfield wrote dozens of letters to his son, which often included comments about good breeding. A few of his general rules are listed here:5

  • Pay proper attention and provide a civil answer when someone speaks to you. Do not allow yourself to be distracted, rude or thoughtless during a conversation.
  • Think of others before thinking of yourself. (“You should always endeavor to procure all the conveniences you can to the people you are with.”)
  • Be civil with ease. (In other words, work to make other people comfortable in your presence.)
  • Never be ashamed of doing what is right.

What’s Missing in 21st-Century America Today

Drafting the Declaration of Independence, 1776: Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Drafting the Declaration of Independence, 1776: Benjamin Franklin (at left), John Adams (in the middle), and Thomas Jefferson. The three met at Jefferson’s house in Philadelphia to review a draft of the declaration. The original painting is located at the Virginia Historical Society. (Source: Wikimedia Commons [PD—US—not renewed])

The word I choose to describe what’s missing in today’s society is mentioned in Lord Chesterfield’s letters: decency. It’s a word we all recognize but perhaps don’t think much about. The first definition of “decency” given by the Free Dictionary is this: a) characterized by conformity to recognized standards of propriety or morality; b) morally upright; moral or respectable; c) kind or obliging; d) showing thoughtfulness or consideration. In short, a decent person is one with good breeding.

I am reminded of a comment made by a Canadian friend. When asked “How do you describe Canadians?” he responded: “Canadians are decent people in comfortable shoes.” After living there for many years I understood precisely what he meant … and it’s true!

When I asked Canadians what they thought of Americans, the answer was invariably the same, no matter the city or town: “Americans are deeply patriotic.” Canadians marvel at our passionate patriotism, at how we celebrate our country in large ways and small: fireworks and parades on July 4th, American flags hoisted atop homes on any given day, T-shirts and coffee mugs and jeans emblazoned with the American flag, stars and stripes painted on our faces. We are admired for our patriotic fervor.

Look—really look—at those paintings of the men charged with drafting the Declaration of Independence. Here are the familiar images of the foundation of our country. Were not those decent and honorable men? They were not perfect beings. They did not always agree on the wording or content of the declaration they were charged with writing, but they chose to compromise for a belief in something greater and better than themselves.

During these troubled times, can we not do the same? Can we not strive for decency moving forward as a nation? We are a nation divided at the moment, but I hope that we can settle our differences, that we continue to define ourselves as believers in democracy and freedom, that we choose to be the city on the hill rather than descend into chaos. I hope … I trust … that we remember—and, if necessary, fight for—who we are: republicans6 and democrats7 in the oldest, best and truest meanings of the words.

1Source of quote: Wikipedia entry for Lord Chesterfield.
2Locke, John. Some Thoughts Concerning Education (London, 1693), pp. 166-170 (PDF pp. 181-185).
3Lord Chesterfield. Letters to His Son and Others. (Dent: London and Melbourne, 1984), p. 1.
4Ibid., p. 7.
5Ibid., pp. 7-8.
6Origin of the word “republican” from dictionary.com: (adj.) 1712, “belonging to a republic, of the nature of a republic, consonant to the principles of a republic” — (n.) “one who favors a republic or republican principles” (or, as Johnson puts it, “One who thinks a commonwealth without monarchy the best government”) — With capital R-, in reference to a member of a specific U.S. political party (the Anti-Federalists) from 1782, though this was not the ancestor of the modern U.S. Republican Party, which dates from 1854.
7Origin of the word “democrat” from dictionary.com: (n.) 1790, “adherent of democracy,” with reference to France, from French démocrate (18c., opposed to aristocrate), back-formation from démocratie (see democracy); revived in U.S. as a political party affiliation 1798, with a capital D. As a shortening of this, Demo (1793) is older than Dem (c. 1840).