Democracy needs politeness

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Drafting the Declaration of Independence by Alonzo Chappel (1828-87). L – r; Robert Livingston, Roger Sherman, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin The Heckscher Museum of Art, Huntington, NY, USA/Bridgeman

Autocrats shouted, cursed, and bullied, while American revolutionaries used politeness as a tool of radical politics

Steven Bullock is professor of history at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts. His research focuses on Colonial and Revolutionary America.

Long before current fears about incivility in public life – before anxieties about Twitter-shaming and cable-news name-calling – politeness was very much on the minds of United States leaders. In 1808, the US president Thomas Jefferson ranked the ‘qualities of mind’ he valued. Not surprisingly, he included ‘integrity’, ‘industry’, and ‘science’. These traits were particularly important to American revolutionaries seeking a society based on independent citizens, rather than harsh rulers and inherited privilege. But at the top of his list, Jefferson chose not these familiar Enlightenment values but ‘good humour’ – or what contemporaries usually called ‘politeness’.

Placing politeness first seems surprising. Today, the term often connotes a lesser, private virtue, reminiscent of antiquated childhood rules and required thank-you notes. At worst, politeness keeps people from revealing themselves or speaking out against injustice. One of the longest-running US reality TV shows, The Real World (1992-), suggests in its introduction that the truth about who people are comes out only when they ‘stop being polite – and start getting real’.

However, 18th-century Britons and Americans believed that politeness was essential for a free society. Autocrats shouted, cursed and berated. But they sought only obedience. Leading a more open society required respect for other people, sensitivity to their expectations and concerns. By the time of Jefferson’s ranking, politeness had been part of the project of challenging authoritarian rule for more than a century.

Later in 1808, Jefferson explained the importance of politeness more fully. The president’s 16-year-old grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, had recently left home for further education in Philadelphia. ‘Safety’ in this situation, Jefferson suggested, required three qualities: moral virtue, ‘prudence’, and ‘good humour’ supported by ‘politeness’. He explained further that politeness was ‘artificial good humour’, the habits and discipline that filled in when good humour flagged. It was, therefore, ‘an acquisition of first-rate value’. Consideration for other people, refraining from disputes in company, and sacrificing one’s own ‘conveniences and preferences’ to please others could ‘win’ their ‘good will’.

Jefferson was not saying anything new. His grandson could already have studied The Polite Student (1748) and The Polite Philosopher (1736) – or works offering the ‘Complete art of polite correspondence’, ‘the principles of politeness’, or ‘the character of a polite young gentleman’. Randolph’s mother might have read The Polite Lady (1760).

But Jefferson also knew that politeness was complicated. The term originally meant polished or smooth. As ‘polite’ came to be applied to humans as well as things towards the end of the 17th century, it became linked to the emerging ideal of refinement. Contemporaries celebrated (or moralised about) ‘polite society’ and the ‘polite world’, sometimes in ‘polite literature’.

‘Politeness’ differed from related terms such as ‘gentility’ and ‘civility’ because it focused on human interactions. Jefferson’s call to ‘conciliate’ other people highlighted this distinction. In 1702, the prolific writer Abel Boyer suggested that ‘politeness’ meant ‘a dextrous management of our Words and Actions, whereby we make other People have better Opinion of us and themselves’. Or, as Benjamin Franklin put it simply in 1750: ‘The polite Man aims at pleasing others.’…



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