Introduction to the Laws of Etiquette

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 remodeling 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 parlor. 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.

A writer who is popularly unpopular, has remarked, that the test of standing in Boston, is literary eminence; in New York, wealth; and in Philadelphia, purity of blood.

To this remark, we can only oppose our opinion, that none of these are indispensable, and none of them sufficient. The society of this country, unlike that of England, does not court literary talent. We have cases in our recollection, which prove the remark, in relation to the highest ranks, even of Boston. Wealth has no pretensions to be the standard anywhere. In New York, the Liverpool of America, although the rich may make greater display and bruit, yet all of the merely rich, will find that there does exist a small and unchanging circle, whether above or below them, ‘it is not ours to say,’ yet completely apart from them, into which they would rejoice to find entrance, and from which they would be glad to receive emigrants.

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.

We do not pretend that a man will be metamorphosed into a gentleman by reading this book, or any other book. Refined manners are like refined style which Cicero compares to the color of the cheeks, which is not acquired by sudden or violent exposure to heat, but by continual walking in the sun. Good manners can certainly only be acquired by much usage in good company. But there are a number of little forms, imperiously enacted by custom, which may be taught in this manner, and the conscious ignorance of which often prevents persons from going into company at all.

These forms may be abundantly absurd, but still they must be attended to; for one half the world does and always will observe them, and the other half is at a great disadvantage if it does not. Intercourse is constantly taking place, and an awkward man of letters, in the society of a polished man of the world, is like a strong man contending with a skilful fencer. Mr. Addison says, that he once saw the ablest mathematician in the kingdom utterly embarrassed, from not knowing whether he ought to stand or sit when my lord duke drank his health.

Some of the many errors which are liable to be committed through ignorance of usage, are pleasantly pointed out in the following story, which is related by a French writer.

The Abb, Cosson, professor in the College Mazarin, thoroughly accomplished in the art of teaching, saturated with Greek, Latin, and literature, considered himself a perfect well of science: he had no conception that a man who knew all Persius and Horace by heart could possibly commit an error—above all, an error at table. But it was not long before he discovered his mistake. One day, after dining with the Abb, de Radonvillers at Versailles, in company with several courtiers and marshals of France, he was boasting of the rare acquaintance with etiquette and custom which he had exhibited at dinner. The Abb, Delille, who heard this eulogy upon his own conduct, interrupted his harangue, by offering to wager that he had committed at least a hundred improprieties at the table. “How is it possible!” exclaimed Cosson. “I did exactly like the rest of the company.”

“What absurdity!” said the other. “You did a thousand things which no one else did. First, when you sat down at the table, what did you do with your napkin?” “My napkin? Why just what every body else did with theirs. I unfolded it entirely, and fastened it to my buttonhole.” “Well, my dear friend,” said Delille, “you were the only one that did that, at all events. No one hangs up his napkin in that style; they are contented with placing it on their knees. And what did you, do when you took your soup?” “Like the others, I believe. I took my spoon in one hand, and my fork in the other—“ “Your fork! Who ever eat soup with a fork?--But to proceed; after your soup, what did you eat?” “A fresh egg.” “And what did you do with the shell?” “Handed it to the servant who stood behind my chair.” “With out breaking it?” “Without breaking it, of course.” “Well, my dear Abb,, nobody ever eats an egg without breaking the shell. And after your egg--?” “I asked the Abb, Radonvillers to send me a piece of the hen near him.” “Bless my soul! a piece of the hen? You never speak of hens excepting in the barn-yard. You should have asked for fowl or chicken. But you say nothing of your mode of drinking.” “Like all the rest, I asked for claret and champagne.” “Let me inform you, then, that persons always ask for claret wine and champagne wine. But, tell me, how did you eat your bread?” “Surely I did that properly. I cut it with my knife, in the most regular manner possible.” “Bread should always be broken, not cut. But the coffee, how did you manage it?” “It was rather too hot, and I poured a little of it into my saucer.” “Well, you committed here the greatest fault of all. You should never pour  your coffee into the saucer, but always drink it from the cup.” The poor Abb, was confounded. He felt that though one might be master of the seven sciences, yet that there was another species of knowledge which, if less dignified, was equally important.

This occurred many years ago, but there is not one of the observances neglected by the Abb, Cosson, which is not enforced with equal rigidness in the present day.


This is taken from The Laws of Etiquette.





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