The Founding Fathers Wanted You To Be Polite

PoliteIn his recent piece at Aeon, historian Steven Bullock reminds us that “18th-century Britons and American believed that politeness was essential for a free society.”  This required “respect for other people” and having “sensitivity to their expectations and concerns.”  In fact, it was even an important way of “challenging authoritarian rule.”

Here is a taste:

Jefferson and Lafayette’s extraordinary acceptance of limits on their power (so unlike the impatient Nicholson) points to the formative influence of the politics of politeness. If Revolutionary leaders were not all as cautious about demanding obedience, they still brought with them almost a century of thinking about the need to ground power in restraint and responsiveness. Tellingly calling themselves ‘Whigs’ (and their opponents ‘Tories’), patriots celebrated their military leader, the Virginian George Washington, as a powerful exemplar of these values. Jefferson reported to the general in 1784 that many Americans believed his ‘moderation and virtue’ had kept the Revolution from ending like ‘most others’ – by destroying the ‘liberty it was intended to establish’.

The politics of politeness also helped revolutionaries reconsider social relationships. Resisting attempts to punish loyalists after the war, Alexander Hamilton declared the spirit of the Revolution ‘generous’ and ‘humane’ – and therefore in the best tradition of ‘moderation’. Even captive enemies, Jefferson had similarly argued earlier, should be treated ‘with politeness’. Abigail Adams counselled legal changes in her call to ‘Remember the Ladies’ in 1776, but conceded that new laws were needed primarily for the ‘vicious and Lawless’. More enlightened men, Adams noted, had already willingly ‘give[n] up the harsh title of Master for the more tender and endearing one of Friend’

Read the rest here.

Newspapers and British Identity in 18th-Century Quebec City and Halifax

If you have not discovered Borealia, you should go check it out.  The editors of this blog are pushing us to expand our understanding of early America to include Canada. (Of course scholars have been doing this for a long time, but I appreciate the effort of the folks at Borealia to bring the conversation to a larger reading public).

I just finished reading Keith Grant’s excellent review of Michael Eamon’s Imprinting Britain: Newspapers, Sociability, and the Shaping of British North America. Eamon uses newspapers to show how the so-called “public sphere” found its way to the British cities of Quebec City and Halifax.  I have been fascinated with these kinds of studies since graduate school.  Discussions of print culture, sociability, and the Enlightenment in early America influenced my 2008 book The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America.

Here is a taste of Keith Grant‘s review:

Eamon’s cultural definition of Britishness also includes the moderate Enlightenment’s emphasis on “useful” and “improving” knowledge. He gives us enticing glimpses of Haligonians who participated, however modestly, in the transatlantic Republic of Letters, as well as the surprising liberality of Governor Frederick Haldimand’s Quebec Library. Newspapers, almanacs, and magazines disseminated Enlightenment science in abridged form to a broad reading public.
Colonial newspapers were closely allied with other kinds of face-to-face sociability. The pages of colonial newspapers aired debates about the propriety of Freemasonry, theatres, and coffeehouses, with printers often advocating for their usefulness. As the detailed appendices demonstrate, those papers prove to be one of the few windows into colonial associative life, and readers are indebted to Eamon for cataloguing mentions of societies, coffeehouses, and plays performed in Halifax and Quebec City. Northern winters were no obstacle to flourishing social scenes, as one Quebec City correspondent reported in December 1790: “Tho’ surrounded with Ice and Snow, we enjoy health & are at least as social as in any other quarter of the Globe” (116).
Eamon charts a shift in colonial associative life as the eighteenth century progressed, from sociability for the sheer pleasure of it toward an increasing concern for the public good. “Let the social virtues shine / Doing good is sure divine,” declared a Masonic song printed in a Nova Scotia newspaper (135). (The Illuminati conspiracy theorists among our readership will be interested—perhaps apprehensive—to know that every eighteenth century governor and lieutenant governor of Nova Scotia was a Freemason! [133])
Mention “print” and “sociability” in the same sentence, and cultural theorist Jürgen Habermas’ concept of the “bourgeois public sphere” is sure to come to mind.  However, though it was incubated in similar coffee houses and likewise deliberated through a burgeoning print culture, the public sphere of British North America, Eamon argues, was less egalitarian than its bourgeois European or republican American counterparts. The colonial print community created “hybrid spaces of sociability and social control” (11), and its discourse “favoured consensus and balance over discord and radical change” (189). Imprinting Britain will find a place on reading lists on British North American sociability and the public sphere, alongside works by Jeffrey McNairn, Darren Ferry, and David Sutherland.