This scholar says we’ve lost our way

Historians in the News
tags: Founding Fathers, Civility



Think back to America’s founding fathers, and you’d be forgiven for imagining plenty of prudence and self-restraint.

You’d be wrong: A lot of riotous rhetoric sprang from those stiff upper lips. Political bombast is nothing new — it’s in our DNA. But so is the concept of civility in public discourse, which sprang from the colonists’ initial rough-and-tumble approach to nation-building.

Steven Bullock, a professor of humanities at Worcester Polytechnic Institute and the author of a new book, “Tea Sets and Tyranny: The Politics of Politeness in Early America,” thinks we’ve lost our way.

In an interview with The Associated Press, he points to lessons from Benjamin Franklin and others that could help us regain our footing:

AP: You trace Franklin’s political personality. It sounds like he was a real piece of work. He even wrote an article in 1750 titled, “Rules for Making Oneself a Disagreeable Companion,” where he talked about contradicting and interrupting people?

Bullock: He started off as an arrogant know-it-all, a young man who loved to prove people wrong. He was kind of a tough guy to deal with. He wasn’t the smooth person that people in France loved during the Revolution. He was this argumentative kind of fellow — a guy who thought about conversation in terms of winning. As he grew older, however, he realized that winning good will was more valuable than winning arguments. He decided he was never going to contradict somebody in a social setting.

AP: Who else besides Franklin?

Bullock: There was a Virginia governor, Francis Nicholson, who was the opposite of polite. He engaged in these extraordinary tirades — fits of anger that could last for hours, shouting at people. In some ways he was a quite successful colonial leader. The British government kept putting him into positions, even after Virginia leaders said, ‘This guy is crazy — he’s threatening to kill us!’ It was a sign of how he viewed governing. He viewed power and the authority of Britain as something you couldn’t talk back to — that you needed to submit. ...




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