Read CHAPTER XII - ON DOMESTIC MANNERS of A Treatise on Domestic Economy, free online book, by Catherine Esther Beecher, on

Good-manners are the expressions of benevolence in personal intercourse, by which we endeavor to promote the comfort and enjoyment of others, and to avoid all that gives needless uneasiness. It is the exterior exhibition of the Divine precept, which requires us to do to others, as we would that they should do to us. It is saying, by our deportment, to all around, that we consider their feelings, tastes, and convenience, as equal in value to our own.

Good-manners lead us to avoid all practices which offend the taste of others; all violations of the conventional rules of propriety; all rude and disrespectful language and deportment; and all remarks, which would tend to wound the feelings of another.

There is a serious defect, in the manners of the American people, especially in the free States, which can never be efficiently remedied, except in the domestic circle, and during early life. It is a deficiency in the free expression of kindly feelings and sympathetic emotions, and a want of courtesy in deportment. The causes, which have led to this result, may easily be traced.

The forefathers of this Nation, to a wide extent, were men who were driven from their native land, by laws and customs which they believed to be opposed both to civil and religious freedom. The sufferings they were called to endure, the subduing of those gentler feelings which bind us to country, kindred, and home, and the constant subordination of the passions to stern principle, induced characters of great firmness and self-control. They gave up the comforts and refinements of a civilized country, and came, as pilgrims, to a hard soil, a cold clime, and a heathen shore. They were continually forced to encounter danger, privations, sickness, loneliness, and death; and all these, their religion taught them to meet with calmness, fortitude, and submission. And thus it became the custom and habit of the whole mass, to repress, rather than to encourage, the expression of feeling.

Persons who are called to constant and protracted suffering and privation, are forced to subdue and conceal emotion; for the free expression of it would double their own suffering, and increase the sufferings of others. Those, only, who are free from care and anxiety, and whose minds are mainly occupied by cheerful emotions, are at full liberty to unveil their feelings.

It was under such stern and rigorous discipline, that the first children in New England were reared; and the manners and habits of parents are usually, to a great extent, transmitted to children. Thus it comes to pass, that the descendants of the Puritans, now scattered over every part of the Nation, are predisposed to conceal the gentler emotions, while their manners are calm, decided, and cold, rather than free and impulsive. Of course, there are very many exceptions to these predominating results.

The causes, to which we may attribute a general want of courtesy in manners, are certain incidental results of our democratic institutions. Our ancestors, and their descendants, have constantly been combating the aristocratic principle, which would exalt one class of men at the expense of another. They have had to contend with this principle, not only in civil, but in social, life. Almost every American, in his own person, as well as in behalf of his class, has had to assume and defend the main principle of democracy, that every man’s feelings and interests are equal in value to those of every other man. But, in doing this, there has been some want of clear discrimination. Because claims, based on distinctions of mere birth, fortune, or position, were found to be injurious, many have gone to the extreme of inferring that all distinctions, involving subordination, are useless. Such, would regard children as equals to parents, pupils to teachers, domestics to their employers, and subjects to magistrates; and that, too, in all respects.

The fact, that certain grades of superiority and subordination are needful, both for individual and public benefit, has not been clearly discerned; and there has been a gradual tendency to an extreme, which has sensibly affected our manners. All the proprieties and courtesies, which depend on the recognition of the relative duties of superior and subordinate, have been warred upon; and thus we see, to an increasing extent, disrespectful treatment of parents, from children; of teachers, from pupils; of employers, from domestics; and of the aged, from the young. In all classes and circles, there is a gradual decay in courtesy of address.

In cases, too, where kindness is rendered, it is often accompanied with a cold, unsympathizing manner, which greatly lessens its value, while kindness or politeness is received in a similar style of coolness, as if it were but the payment of a just due.

It is owing to these causes, that the American people, especially the inhabitants of New England, do not do themselves justice. For, while those, who are near enough to learn their real character and feelings, can discern the most generous impulses, and the most kindly sympathies, they are so veiled, in a composed and indifferent demeanor, as to be almost entirely concealed from strangers.

These defects in our national manners, it especially falls to the care of mothers, and all who have charge of the young, to rectify; and if they seriously undertake the matter, and wisely adapt means to ends, these defects will be remedied. With reference to this object, the following ideas are suggested.

The law of Christianity and of democracy, which teaches that all men are born equal, and that their interests and feelings should be regarded as of equal value, seems to be adopted in aristocratic circles, with exclusive reference to the class in which the individual moves. The courtly gentleman, addresses all of his own class with politeness and respect; and, in all his actions, seems to allow that the feelings and convenience of others are to be regarded, the same as his own. But his demeanor to those of inferior station, is not based on the same rule.

Among those, who make up aristocratic circles, such as are above them, are deemed of superior, and such as are below, of inferior, value. Thus, if a young, ignorant, and vicious coxcomb, happens to be born a lord, the aged, the virtuous, the learned, and the wellbred, of another class, must give his convenience the precedence, and must address him in terms of respect. So, when a man of noble birth is thrown among the lower classes, he demeans himself in a style, which, to persons of his own class, would be deemed the height of assumption and rudeness.

Now, the principles of democracy require, that the same courtesy, which we accord to our own circle, shall be extended to every class and condition; and that distinctions, of superiority and subordination, shall depend, not on accidents of birth, fortune, or occupation, but solely on those relations, which the good of all classes equally require. The distinctions demanded, in a democratic state, are simply those, which result from relations, that are common to every class, and are for the benefit of all.

It is for the benefit of every class, that children be subordinate to parents, pupils to teachers, the employed to their employers, and subjects to magistrates. In addition to this, it is for the general wellbeing, that the comfort or convenience of the delicate and feeble, should be preferred to that of the strong and healthy, who would suffer less by any deprivation, and that precedence should be given to their elders, by the young, and that reverence should be given to the hoary head.

The rules of good-breeding, in a democratic state, must be founded on these principles. It is, indeed, assumed, that the value of the happiness of each individual, is the same as that of every other; but, as there must be occasions, where there are advantages which all cannot enjoy, there must be general rules for regulating a selection. Otherwise, there would be constant scrambling, among those of equal claims, and brute force must be the final resort; in which case the strongest would have the best of every thing. The democratic rule, then, is, that superiors, in age, station, or office, have precedence of subordinates; age and feebleness, of youth and strength; and the feebler sex, of more vigorous man.

There is, also, a style of deportment and address, which is appropriate to these different relations. It is suitable for a superior to secure compliance with his wishes, from those subordinate to him, by commands; but a subordinate must secure compliance with his wishes, from a superior, by requests. It is suitable for a parent, teacher, or employer, to admonish for neglect of duty; but not for an inferior to adopt such a course towards a superior. It is suitable for a superior to take precedence of a subordinate, without any remark; but not for an inferior, without previously asking leave, or offering an apology. It is proper for a superior to use language and manners of freedom and familiarity, which would be improper from a subordinate to a superior.

The want of due regard to these proprieties, occasions the chief defect in American manners. It is very common to hear children talk to their parents, in a style proper only between companions and equals; so, also, the young address their elders, those employed, their employers, and domestics, the members of the family and their visiters, in a style, which is inappropriate to their relative positions. A respectful address is required not merely towards superiors; every person desires to be treated with courtesy and respect, and therefore, the law of benevolence demands such demeanor, towards all whom we meet in the social intercourse of life. “Be ye courteous,” is the direction of the Apostle in reference to our treatment of all.

Good-manners can be successfully cultivated, only in early life, and in the domestic circle. There is nothing which depends so much upon habit, as the constantly recurring proprieties of good-breeding; and, if a child grows up without forming such habits, it is very rarely the case that they can be formed at a later period. The feeling, that it is of little consequence how we behave at home, if we conduct properly abroad, is a very fallacious one. Persons, who are careless and ill bred at home, may imagine that they can assume good-manners abroad; but they mistake. Fixed habits of tone, manner, language, and movements, cannot be suddenly altered; and those who are illbred at home, even when they try to hide their bad habits, are sure to violate many of the obvious rules of propriety, and yet be unconscious of it.

And there is nothing, which would so effectually remove prejudice against our democratic institutions, as the general cultivation of good-breeding in the domestic circle. Good-manners are the exterior of benevolence, the minute and often recurring exhibitions of “peace and good-will;” and the nation, as well as the individual, which most excels in the external, as well as the internal, principle, will be most respected and beloved.

The following are the leading points, which claim attention from those who have the care of the young.

In the first place, in the family, there should be required, a strict attention to the rules of precedence, and those modes of address appropriate to the various relations to be sustained. Children should always be required to offer their superiors, in age or station, the precedence in all comforts and conveniences, and always address them in a respectful tone and manner. The custom of adding “Sir,” or “Ma’am,” to “Yes,” or “No,” is valuable, as a perpetual indication of a respectful recognition of superiority. It is now going out of fashion, even among the most wellbred people; probably from a want of consideration of its importance. Every remnant of courtesy of address, in our customs, should be carefully cherished, by all who feel a value for the proprieties of good-breeding.

If parents allow their children to talk to them, and to the grown persons in the family, in the same style in which they address each other, it will be vain to hope for the courtesy of manner and tone, which good-breeding demands in the general intercourse of society. In a large family, where the elder children are grown up, and the younger are small, it is important to require the latter to treat the elder as superiors. There are none, so ready as young children to assume airs of equality; and, if they are allowed to treat one class of superiors in age and character disrespectfully, they will soon use the privilege universally. This is the reason, why the youngest children of a family are most apt to be pert, forward, and unmannerly.

Another point to be aimed at, is, to require children always to acknowledge every act of kindness and attention, either by words or manner. If they are so trained as always to make grateful acknowledgements, when receiving favors, one of the objectionable features in American manners will be avoided.

Again, children should be required to ask leave, whenever they wish to gratify curiosity, or use an article which belongs to another. And if cases occur, when they cannot comply with the rules of good-breeding, as, for instance, when they must step between a person and the fire, or take the chair of an older person, they should be required either to ask leave, or to offer an apology.

There is another point of good-breeding, which cannot, in all cases, be understood and applied by children, in its widest extent. It is that, which requires us to avoid all remarks which tend to embarrass, vex, mortify, or in any way wound the feelings, of another. To notice personal defects; to allude to others’ faults, or the faults of their friends; to speak disparagingly of the sect or party to which a person belongs; to be inattentive, when addressed in conversation; to contradict flatly; to speak in contemptuous tones of opinions expressed by another; all these, are violations of the rules of good-breeding, which children should be taught to regard. Under this head, comes the practice of whispering, and staring about, when a teacher, or lecturer, or clergyman, is addressing a class or audience. Such inattention, is practically saying, that what the person is uttering is not worth attending to; and persons of real good-breeding always avoid it. Loud talking and laughing, in a large assembly, even when no exercises are going on; yawning and gaping in company; and not looking in the face a person who is addressing you, are deemed marks of ill-breeding.

Another branch of good-manners, relates to the duties of hospitality. Politeness requires us to welcome visiters with cordiality; to offer them the best accommodations; to address conversation to them; and to express, by tone and manner, kindness and respect. Offering the hand to all visiters, at one’s own house, is a courteous and hospitable custom; and a cordial shake of the hand, when friends meet, would abate much of the coldness of manner ascribed to Americans.

The last point of good-breeding, to be noticed, refers to the conventional rules of propriety and good taste. Of these, the first class relates to the avoidance of all disgusting or offensive personal habits, such as fingering the hair; cleaning the teeth or nails; picking the nose; spitting on carpets; snuffing, instead of using a handkerchief, or using the article in an offensive manner; lifting up the boots or shoes, as some men do, to tend them on the knee, or to finger them; all these tricks, either at home or in society, children should be taught to avoid.

Another branch, under this head, may be called table manners. To persons of good-breeding, nothing is more annoying, than violating the conventional proprieties of the table. Reaching over another person’s plate; standing up, to reach distant articles, instead of asking to have them passed; using one’s own knife, and spoon, for butter, salt, or sugar, when it is the custom of the family to provide separate utensils for the purpose; setting cups, with tea dripping from them, on the tablecloth, instead of the mats or small plates furnished; using the tablecloth, instead of the napkins; eating fast, and in a noisy manner; putting large pieces in the mouth; looking and eating as if very hungry, or as if anxious to get at certain dishes; sitting at too great a distance from the table, and dropping food; laying the knife and fork on the tablecloth, instead of on the bread, or the edge of the plate; all these particulars, children should be taught to avoid. It is always desirable, too, to require children, when at table with grown persons, to be silent, except when addressed by others; or else their chattering will interrupt the conversation and comfort of their elders. They should always be required, too, to wait, in silence, till all the older persons are helped.

All these things should be taught to children, gradually, and with great patience and gentleness. Some parents, with whom good-manners is a great object, are in danger of making their children perpetually uncomfortable, by suddenly surrounding them with so many rules, that they must inevitably violate some one or other, a great part of the time. It is much better to begin with a few rules, and be steady and persevering with these, till a habit is formed, and then take a few more, thus making the process easy and gradual. Otherwise, the temper of children will be injured; or, hopeless of fulfilling so many requisitions, they will become reckless and indifferent to all.

But, in reference to those who have enjoyed advantages for the cultivation of good-manners, and who duly estimate its importance, one caution is necessary. Those, who never have had such habits formed in youth, are under disadvantages, which no benevolence of temper can remedy. They may often violate the tastes and feelings of others, not from a want of proper regard for them, but from ignorance of custom, or want of habit, or abstraction of mind, or from other causes, which demand forbearance and sympathy, rather than displeasure. An ability to bear patiently with defects in manners, and to make candid and considerate allowance for a want of advantages, or for peculiarities in mental habits, is one mark of the benevolence of real good-breeding.

The advocates of monarchical and aristocratic institutions, have always had great plausibility given to their views, by the seeming tendencies to insubordination and bad-manners, of our institutions. And it has been too indiscriminately conceded, by the defenders of the latter, that such are these tendencies, and that the offensive points, in American manners, are the necessary result of democratic principles.

But it is believed, that both facts and reasoning are in opposition to this opinion. The following extract from the work of De Tocqueville, exhibits the opinion of an impartial observer, when comparing American manners with those of the English, who are confessedly the most aristocratic of all people.

He previously remarks on the tendency of aristocracy to make men more sympathizing with persons of their own peculiar class, and less so towards those of lower degree; and he then contrasts American manners with the English, claiming that the Americans are much the most affable, mild, and social. “In America, where the privileges of birth never existed, and where riches confer no peculiar rights on their possessors, men acquainted with each other are very ready to frequent the same places, and find neither peril nor advantage in the free interchange of their thoughts. If they meet, by accident, they neither seek nor avoid intercourse; their manner is therefore natural, frank, and open.” “If their demeanor is often cold and serious, it is never haughty or constrained.” But an “aristocratic pride is still extremely great among the English; and, as the limits of aristocracy are ill-defined, every body lives in constant dread, lest advantage should be taken of his familiarity. Unable to judge, at once, of the social position of those he meets, an Englishman prudently avoids all contact with them. Men are afraid, lest some slight service rendered should draw them into an unsuitable acquaintance; they dread civilities, and they avoid the obtrusive gratitude of a stranger, as much as his hatred.”

Thus, facts seem to show that when the most aristocratic nation in the world is compared, as to manners, with the most democratic, the judgement of strangers is in favor of the latter.

And if good-manners are the outward exhibition of the democratic principle of impartial benevolence and equal rights, surely the nation which adopts this rule, both in social and civil life, is the most likely to secure the desirable exterior. The aristocrat, by his principles, extends the exterior of impartial benevolence to his own class, only; the democratic principle, requires it to be extended to all.

There is reason, therefore, to hope and expect more refined and polished manners in America, than in any other land; while all the developements of taste and refinement, such as poetry, music, painting, sculpture, and architecture, it may be expected, will come to a higher state of perfection, here, than in any other nation.

If this Country increases in virtue and intelligence, as it may, there is no end to the wealth which will pour in as the result of our resources of climate, soil, and navigation, and the skill, industry, energy, and enterprise, of our countrymen. This wealth, if used as intelligence and virtue dictate, will furnish the means for a superior education to all classes, and every facility for the refinement of taste, intellect, and feeling.

Moreover, in this Country, labor is ceasing to be the badge of a lower class; so that already it is disreputable for a man to be “a lazy gentleman.” And this feeling must increase, till there is such an equalisation of labor, as will afford all the time needful for every class to improve the many advantages offered to them. Already, in Boston, through the munificence of some of her citizens, there are literary and scientific advantages, offered to all classes, rarely enjoyed elsewhere. In Cincinnati, too, the advantages of education, now offered to the poorest classes, without charge, surpass what, some years ago, most wealthy men could purchase, for any price. And it is believed, that a time will come, when the poorest boy in America can secure advantages, which will equal what the heir of the proudest peerage can now command.

The records of the courts of France and Germany, (as detailed by the Duchess of Orleans,) in and succeeding the brilliant reign of Louis the Fourteenth, a period which was deemed the acme of elegance and refinement, exhibit a grossness, a vulgarity, and a coarseness, not to be found among the lowest of our respectable poor. And the biography of Beau Nash, who attempted to reform the manners of the gentry, in the times of Queen Anne, exhibits violations of the rules of decency among the aristocracy, which the commonest yeoman of this Land would feel disgraced in perpetrating.

This shows, that our lowest classes, at this period, are more refined, than were the highest in aristocratic lands, a hundred years ago; and another century may show the lowest classes, in wealth, in this Country, attaining as high a polish, as adorns those who now are leaders of good-manners in the courts of kings.