Whatever Happened to the Gentleman?

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Ms. Hamilton has a Ph.D. in English from Berkeley. Her website: http://www.carolvanderveerhamilton.com.

"I would rather prove my self to be a Gentleman, by being learned and humble, valiant and inoffensive, vertuous, and communicable, then by a fond ostentation of riches."-- Walton, The Angler (1653)

On the local news in Pittsburgh one evening, I was startled to hear a woman complain to a reporter, “that gentleman exposed himself to my little girl.” By definition, a “gentleman” would never behave in such a fashion. Ever since I have noticed that law enforcement officials are the Americans most likely to use the word “gentleman” and always in reference to some thug—a usage as far removed as imaginable from the original meaning of the word.

Confusion about the words “lady” and “gentleman” is also evident in Congress, where a woman senator or representative is referred to, and addressed, as a “gentlelady.” This is a redundancy (and my computer spelling program correctly underlined it in red). “Lady” by definition requires the possession of gentility and higher social class, hence “Lady Diana.” It is the female counterpart of the male “lord,” as in Lord Peter Wimsey, and in the Middle Ages it meant “a woman who rules over subjects or to whom obedience and feudal homage are due” (OED).

If Congress is striving for parity, the word “gentlewoman” is available and dates back to about 1230. The Book of the Knight of the Tower, translated from the French of Geoffrey de la Tour into English by William Caxton, describes the creature as follows: “For a gentille woman shuld haue no wrathe in hem, for thei aught to haue gentille herte, and faire and softe in ansuere.” But in American usage, “lady,” like “gentleman,” has lost its rich network of connotations and refers only to an adult female.

The prefix “gentle” refers to breeding, in the literal sense. In reference to plants it used to mean “domesticated, not wild.” In reference to human beings, “gentle” meant “well-born, belonging to a family of position” and was originally applicable to the aristocracy, although it later denominated a lower rank. “Gentle” is, of course, related to the words “genteel” and “gentry.” The English word derives from the Latin gentilis, which in turn is derived from gens, meaning “race” or “family.”

Originally, the word gentleman referred to “a man of gentle birth, or having the same heraldic status as those of gentle birth; properly, one who is entitled to bear arms, though not ranking among the nobility but also applied to a person of distinction without precise definition of rank” (OED). A gentleman was a member of the gentry, neither an aristocrat nor a commoner, respectable but not unapproachable.

Gradually, however, the word “gentleman” ceased to refer only to those of “gentle birth” and began to encompass the possession of other traits. As definition 3a, the OED defines a gentleman more broadly as “a man in whom gentle birth is accompanied by appropriate qualities and behaviour; hence, in general, a man of chivalrous instincts and fine feelings.” Education—particularly knowledge of Latin and Greek—politeness, a handsome wardrobe (completed with powdered hair or a wig on formal occasions), an urbanity of manner, speech, and writing—all of these distinguished the 18th-century gentleman from the commoner.

A 1710 edition of Addison and Steele’s Tatler declared, “The Appellation of Gentleman is never to be affixed to a Man's Circumstances, but to his Behaviour in them.” A 1743 sermon stated that “the Gentle-Man will treat every Man with due Respect, and will be friendly, yielding, condescending, obliging, and ready to do a Kindness.”

Originally, a gentleman did not work. In an episode of the 1960s British TV series The Avengers, Patrick McNee infiltrates a shady dating service for upper-class men. “What do you do, Mr. Steed?” asks the interviewer. “Do?” he responds, puzzled.

By the 18th century, gentlemen in the American colonies were allowed to “do” a few things without sinking in caste. Their education, dress, and manners, often acquired in the process of study, distinguished them from manual workers. If they maintained a certain degree of polish, gentlemen could be, like so many of the American founders, lawyers and doctors.

In The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin, Gordon Wood devotes a chapter to Franklin’s ambitions of rising from tradesman, however successful, to gentleman. Franklin could not have realistically cherished such aspirations in a more rigidly hierarchical society. Like Edmund Burke and Alexander Hamilton, he rose to prominence in part by attracting powerful mentors, who for their part were attracted by the younger man’s gifts, merits, and efforts.

“Central to these cultural attributes of gentility,” Wood writes, “was ‘politeness’, which had a far broader and richer significance for the eighteenth century than it does for us. It meant not simply good manners and refinement, but being genial and social, possessing the capacity to relate to other human beings easily and naturally.” In a gentleman, the “natural roughness” of humanity, particularly male humanity, was “softened.” While commoners or ordinary men were awkward in society or among strangers, gentlemen were smooth, affable, courteous, self-possessed, and even ironically self-deprecating in their self-presentation. This is evident in the polite but conventional formulations of 18th-century correspondence. So too is their ability to express “fine feelings,” such as love, grief, friendship, and appreciation of the arts.

One of Senator Barack Obama’s attractive traits is his gentlemanly demeanor. Not since John F. Kennedy have Americans had a presidential candidate who possessed a natural grace, elegance, charm, and self-deprecating wit. Ronald Reagan seems to have charmed many people, but he never seemed upper-class, cosmopolitan, or urbane. (For more on this subject, see Paul Fussell’s book, Class). Obama’s gentlemanliness was probably instilled in him from childhood by his family, but it seems innate.

His demeanor contrasts favorably to the speech and behavior of the current administration. Vice-president Cheney verbally abused Senator Leahy in ungentlemanly language on the floor of the Senate. Our current president seems more comfortable clearing brush than meeting foreign dignitaries. In the new book Dead Certain: The Presidency of George W. Bush, Robert Draper reflects on Bush’s rejection of the upper-middle-class mores of conservative New England—mores that included the behavioral attributes of gentlemen.

In running against the hot-tempered, tough-talking John McCain and the feisty, hectoring Hillary Clinton, Senator Obama may seem at a disadvantage. Let’s hope that he will succeed on his own terms, without compromising his gentility. It took centuries of civilization for men to become gentlemen. Only two centuries after the death of Ben Franklin, the gentleman has become an endangered species. A nation whose police officers refer to the crudest of criminals as “gentlemen” desperately needs better role models on the national stage.

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Maarja Krusten - 5/18/2008

In your comment entitled Grasping at Straws (May 18, 2:00 a.m.), you contrast William F. Buckley's playing of the harpsichord and love of sailing with the affinity for country music and barbecues of many people who vote Republican. I happen to like classical music, it's the type of music to which I turn most often. I never listen to country music. And I greatly enjoyed watching Buckley's Firing Line show during the 1970s, when I was an undergraduate and graduate student. But I don't happen to equate any particular taste in music with classy behavior.

In the 35 years that I have spent in public service in the federal government, one of the civil servants whom I worked with and whom I most admired was a woman whose taste in music centered on country music. That she and I differed in our musical taste made no difference in my overall admiration for her. Which leads to my question for you.

Isn't it as important to focus on questions of character and integrity as on whether someone fits the classical definition of a gentleman or lady? The woman I describe above never would fit the 18th century of a "lady" in that she came from a middle class farming family in Texas. And she did not hold advanced academic degrees. But she performed extremely difficult governmental functions with enormous class and integrity. She had heart and grit and shining integrity of a type that formed a strong throughline in her career. (She now is retired.)

John F. Kennedy had Pablo Cassels perform at his White House. His administration certainly had an elegance to some of its social activities (largely I think because of the First Lady's influence). But his family life hardly was exemplary. The public perception of him dates back to a time period where journalists did not examine a candidate's private life as closely as they do now. Does JFK's messy private life mean his classy image was a sham? Or does it show that a person can exhibit grace and wit in some areas and a total lack of class in others?

Finally, when we discuss gentlemanly behavior, don't we have to take into account the fact that such is easier to display in some professions than others? Here on HNN, some of the people who comment on the message board might even view "acting like a gentleman" as a sign of weakness. The civility and politeness that I admire might be sneered at by others here.

You also have to consider whether people feel safe speaking up. In the instance that I described in my earlier comment, where a professor repeatedly insulted a reader, without cause in my view, I was the only one who spoke up to defend the less educated person who was commenting on the article. Not a single academic called the professor out on his behavior. I don't conclude from that that they all agreed with it, only that some sense of academic solidarity might have kept them from speaking up. Every profession has its unwritten rules and it isn't always easy to unravel what they are and when they are imposed.

Maarja Krusten - 5/18/2008

I understand your basic points and goodness knows, I value good manners and civility. I'm no fan of TV or Internet shoutfests or the tabloids which sustain the paparrazzie by buying their products.

But I think these issues are a bit more complicated than you suggest. People may show grace when criticized despite not having attained high academic degrees. Erudition does not always bring with it the inclination to act as a gentleman or lady. I've been reading HNN's articles and comment boards for four years now. I once saw an academic, someone with clearly defined status in the history profession, hector and insult some of the people who were commenting on various matters below the author's article. (It was not a case of factual disagreement.)

Both the professor and one of the people commenting revealed something about their characters in the exchange. I doubt one of the commenters had anything more than an undergraduate degree. But the dignity and decency with which he responded to the insults showed more class, at least as I define it, than the professor displayed. The professor probably is treated with deference by his peers due to his academic achievements. But in the exchange on HNN, I instead admired for his classy demeanor his less well-educated opponent.

As to rich, they have odd habits sometimes, not all of which spell class. Some relate to money. I've read in their biographies about rich people who seemed to display a lot of grace and elegance in their public personas but who didn't carry much cash and forced aides to pick up the tab when they were out and about. (This is in the days before credit cards were used widely.) Not all received reimbursement.

And then there are people such as Richard Nixon, who could be classy in some areas and not so in others. Memoirs and released archival materials suggest that in the White House, Nixon could be difficult to deal with at the higher staff levels. (Consider released tapes of his conversations with H. r. Haldeman, Charles Colson, John Ehrlichman.) But Nixon showed a great deal of patience in dealing with some of his underlings, such as the White House telephone operators. (You can hear that on the released Nixon tapes which, as a former National Archives employee, I once worked to release.) I don't have the citation on hand, but I remember a biographer commented long ago on how well Nixon treated his secretaries in the period before he became President.

By contrast, some upper class individuals who exuded a gentlemanly, even classy, aura in public turned out on closer examination to have treated subordinates badly in private. So, judging who is a gentleman or a lady can get complicated.

Maarja Krusten - 5/18/2008

There are certainly other means of judging whether someone is classy or not beyond what their adult children choose to do in achieving privacy in a wedding ceremony. People have somewhat varying standards for what constitutes classy behavior by public figures and I doubt all of HNN's readers could come to a consensus here. Some even may believe that being a gentleman or lady comes from within and is shown by certain innate behaviors, how they deal with those around them, more so than class, education, erudition, etc.

But I have to disagree with your comment about the location of Jenna's wedding. You write that "The classy location for this wedding would have been Kennebunkport. The exclusion of reporters and photographers was not evidence of class, only of the desire for privacy, and we all saw Jenna's wedding dress on tv nonetheless."

But from what I understand about the bride, Kennebunkport would have been an imposed solution to where to have the wedding. Jena grew up in Texas not in Kennebunkport and however dreary Crawford may seem to others, that is home to her. That's ok by me. The important thing to consider about the wedding is that a young woman was able to have her ceremony among her family in a place and manner that made her happy. Like most Presidential children, she did not choose a life of politics and I for one see little point in scrutinizing her particular choices in such matters, or deeming them classy or not.

As to seeing the wedding dress on TV, what we saw on tv was not live or filmed shots of the wedding, but a handful of still photos shot by an official photographer and released some 24 hours after the event had taken place. That's not unlike the handful of shots by staff photographers such as Ollie Atkins (Nixon administration) or a David Kennerly (Ford administration) that a previous White House might have released of an Oval Office meeting or other WH event decades ago.

When you compare that against the shots grabbed by paparazzie of other events and peddled to various magazines, it was very much a controlled release and the coverage was spare, as the bride and family wished. Given the fact that some members of the public wanted to see some visual images of the event, and the bride and family wanted privacy, I think they achieved a good balance.

Carol Vanderveer Hamilton - 5/18/2008

That could well be.

Carol Vanderveer Hamilton - 5/18/2008

"Utterly destroyed"? I'm afraid, Mr. Hughes, that you grasp
at the flimsiest of straws in your defense of our current president.
The classy location for this wedding would have been Kennebunkport.
The exclusion of reporters and photographers was not evidence of
class, only of the desire for privacy, and we all saw Jenna's wedding dress on tv nonetheless.

By definition, as Paul Fussell explains, certain places are not classy, and the dreary prairies of Texas belong to that irredeemable geography.

One recent example of Bush's lack of class was the silly tapdance he
did on the steps of the White House while waiting for McCain to show
up. His inability to speak fluently, using a Latinate vocabulary and
complex-compound sentences, is also déclassé, particularly for an Ivy Leaguer whose grandfather was a senator from Connecticut.

European leaders have been shocked at Bush's demeanor abroad in formal
situations. And although Mr. Hughes may express disdain for
Europeans, previous generations of conservatives, realconservatives like Henry Adams and Henry James, respected European customs and behaved appropriately.

As an author has argued recently, the Republicans used to be the party
of the country club; now they are the party of Sam's Club. They
disdain higher education, high culture, foreign travel, and the finer things of life, calling those who do appreciate them
"elitist." The old, true conservatives would have defended

It's a curious thing that William F. Buckley, who played the harpsichord and sailed boats, gave rise to a movement that prefers country music and landlocked barbeques.

If Mr. Hughes is curious about the subject of social class, he
should read Paul Fussell's book Class and its French academic
counterpart, Bourdieu's Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste. He might also read Henry Adams's autobiography.

When Andrew Jackson was elected president, John Quincy Adams lamented the fact that America now had a president who knew neither Greek nor

Maarja Krusten - 5/17/2008

No doubt that who Jenna is reflects her upbringing, seems she came out quite well, indeed.

E. Simon - 5/17/2008

Or need she only pretend to be one after snatching up her marriageble gentleman?

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 5/17/2008

Thanks for your knowledge of this stuff, Maarja. If it was Jenna's good taste that was responsible, of course, her parents deserve a little credit for her acquiring it. :)

Maarja Krusten - 5/14/2008

It's my sense that Jenna Bush Hager set the tone here. Reportedly a rather private person who feels more at home in Texas than Washington, she opted to hold her wedding on her family's property in Texas rather than in the White House. That's a personal choice, one she had every right t5o make. But wasn't that her choice rather than one made and imposed on her by either of her parents?

Even within the White House, one can have a semi-private official function if no photographers are allowed. At any Presidential Library, you can see plenty of events in the President's Daily Diary for which no photographic record exists.

It's my sense that the absence of papparazzi at the Bush-Hager wedding was due to the choices made by the bride (who obviously is an adult), rather than her parents. My guess would be that she said, "here's the type of wedding I want." Mom and Dad most likely said "sure." I don't think either imposed on her their choices. So in my eyes, the credit for how it played out resides largely with Jenna.

Posted on personal time

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 5/14/2008

Whaddya mean? I utterly destroyed Carol's denigration of President George W. Bush with that tidbit, and it was well worth the slurs you allege to be undeserved about the Obamas and Kennedys, even in the unlikely event that they were undeserved.

Oscar Chamberlain - 5/13/2008


Despite your considerable intelligence, you sometimes display one of the hallmarks of an impolite society. That is, believing the worst of someone simply because you oppose them.

Lord knows, it's a common failing. I've fallen into it, too. But it is still a failing.

Thomas R. Cox - 5/12/2008

In a time when talk show hosts delight in insulting and demeaning anyone who doesn't share their views Obama is indeed a refreshing change even if one does not share his politics. But I doubt if such things are innate in the man so much as a product of upbringing and education--and on that score I would suggest an important role during his formative years for the role of his time at Punahou School in Honolulu, which represents the old qualities of gentility at their best even to those of us with a pretty broad populist streak.

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 5/12/2008

Of course, some of us hope he falls flat on his face, however "urbane" he may be!

Your essay reminds me of a remark in the black comedy "Kind Hearts and Coronets" of 50 years ago. In his Bayswater flat Tony D'Ascoyne remarks--about Lionel I think--that, "In my experience, matters said to be of some delicacy are usually quite the reverse."

Our current president betrayed a touch of class last weekend if you noticed, by keeping the paparatzie out of his daughter's wedding. I can't imagine any of the boorish Kennedys doing that, and sort of doubt if the Obamas would have the good taste, either.