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Whatever Happened to the Gentleman?

"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.