Glenn Uminowicz - November 2009
We Are All Riding Democracy's Railroad
We are riding on a railroad, singing someone else’s song.
Forever standing by the crossroad, take a side and step along.
We are sailing away on a river to the sea.
Maybe you and me can meet again.
We are riding on a railroad, singing someone else’s song.
Lyrics from Riding on a Railroad (1971) by James Taylor
During an address on health care reform to a joint session of congress in September, Congressman Joe Wilson directed his now infamous remark at President Obama. At one point, the congressman audibly uttered the words “You lie.” Within a week’s time, Americans also witnessed tennis star Serena Williams unleash an expletive-filled challenge to an official’s ruling and rapper Kanye West seize a microphone from a music award winner, insisting that the prize should have gone to someone else’s song.
Not surprisingly, political pundits and social critics quickly launched into a discussion of the decline of civility in American public life. One poll indicated that three quarters of the nation’s citizens believed that Americans are getting ruder. All the discussion and polling numbers revealed one important point. The majority of Americans lack an adequate understanding concerning the role of etiquette in politics and public life.
In Civility: Manners, Morals, and the Etiquette of Democracy (1998), Stephen L. Carter pointed out that observers of American life from the colonial period onward commented on declining American civility. He admitted, however, that the observation might have proven correct by the late 20th century.
To make his point, Carter pointed to 19th-century etiquette books that encouraged train travelers to treat each other well. The behavior thus encouraged illustrated the two gifts that civility brings to our lives. First, it calls on us to sacrifice for others as we travel through life. Second, it makes our ride together tolerable.
Today, however, we infrequently find ourselves riding on a railroad. We drive automobiles that Carter insisted render the “illusion that we are traveling alone.” That illusion has seeped into every aspect of public and private life. Carter concluded, “We care less and less about our fellow citizens, because we no longer see them as our fellow passengers.” The result is that we tend to join advocacy groups that advance our own self-interest. Moreover, those who disagree with us are often portrayed as political enemies. We display too little tolerance for those humming a different tune and respond to campaigns in which the “best mud-slinger” wins. In short, Carter argued that we have met the uncivil and they are us.
Rules of etiquette were once a common subject for books and articles, including in Eastern Shore newspapers. From the early 1900s into the 1950s, for example, readers of the Denton Journal learned how handshaking differed in Mexico compared to the United States, the correct way to arrange a wedding, and whether it was acceptable to eat a “too soft and thin” slice of lemon pie with a spoon. In 1922, they even learned that “etiquette is rigid” when entering a Mongolian Yurt. One should not take the riding whip used on your pony into the domed structure. To do so would be regarded as a “simple breach of manners, such as taking your umbrella into the drawing room when paying a call in this country.”
In attempting to place Congressman Wilson’s recent outburst in historical context, pundits continually referenced two violent political episodes. In 1804, Aaron Burr fought a duel with Alexander Hamilton and the latter died of his wounds. In 1856, Congressman Preston Brooks of South Carolina attacked abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner with a cane on the floor of the Senate.
In 1900, readers of the Denton Journal learned that dueling was indeed common among “fiery Americans in antebellum days.” Duels were fought between gentlemen according to the “strictest rules of the code of honor.” Historian Beth Bailey noted the beneficial effects of the code of dueling etiquette. In a culture marked by physical violence and hotheadedness, she concluded that dueling may have served to mediate extremes of violence. It provided for a cooling-off period during which intermediaries might mediate a settlement with honor.
Congressman Wilson committed a breach of congressional etiquette. By contrast, dueling was conducted under a strict code of honor. As in Hamilton’s case, sometimes the results were tragic, but sometimes violence could be avoided entirely.
In 1914, newspaper readers in Caroline County also learned that presidential etiquette was never more severe than in the time of George Washington, who insisted on “well nigh as much deference as royalty.” At public receptions, guests needed to be aware that the president greeted them with a “stately bow.” He never shook hands.
In fact, as our first president, Washington was acutely aware of his responsibility for establishing the dignity of his office. In Star-Spangled Manners (2003), Judith Martin, popularly known as Miss Manners, identified Washington, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson as the architects of a new etiquette for an emerging democracy. Washington’s carefully cultivated presidential demeanor masked his well-known flaring temper. The Father of Our Country understood that rules of etiquette are prescriptive. They define proper manners, but do not always describe actual behavior. Washington was well aware that the code of presidential conduct applied to his own temperament and actions as well as those of others.
In crafting a new etiquette for democracy, Martin cited Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac as “a brilliant mixture of morals with manners, and courtesy with careerism.” She also noted that Jefferson displayed a “lack of faith in the etiquette capacity of legislators.” As President of the Senate, he compiled A Manual of Parliamentary Practice (1801). Martin concluded that Jefferson nurtured the hope that lawmakers would turn to the book “rather than to insult and violence when in need of guidance in methods of attending to the people’s business.”
Jefferson’s manual still serves as a reference tool for members of the House of Representatives. It contains advice such as “no one is to disturb another in his speech by hissing, coughing, spitting, speaking, or whispering to another.”
Such admonitions needed repeating. In The Sights and Secrets of the National Capital (1869), John B. Ellis observed, “The Senators during their deliberations afford a marked contrast to the Representatives. In the Senate Chamber the proceedings are generally quiet and dignified; in the House noisy and without dignity.” Bitter political rivalries and “heartburnings” over issues could produce some “Disgraceful Scenes in the House,” whose members bandied “the most insulting epithets with true bar-room proficiency.” The caning of fellow legislators was verbal. Preston Brooks’s attack on Charles Sumner proved the exception and not the rule.
While rules of etiquette do not always describe behavior, Beth Bailey insisted that they have played an important role in American life. Those rules, for example, could be employed to exclude certain groups from “genteel” society, but they also might provide for inclusion. In upwardly mobile America, understanding the rules of the game widened the range of opportunities for many citizens. In the wake of the incident during President Obama’s health care address, the bipartisan insistence that the office of the president be respected regardless of who held that office provided one healthy sign for our “drama of democracy” – a sign that George Washington would have appreciated.
In 1939, Margie Rue reported in the local newspaper that members of the Denton Social Club determined to learn the rules that defined civility in our democracy. At a previous meeting, they had viewed pictures from an etiquette book illustrating “mistakes young people make.” Asked what the club should focus on, members decided to “learn etiquette and learn how to dance.” Like riding on a railroad, they wanted to learn how to make their trip through life together tolerable and even enjoyable. Maybe those Eastern Shore youngsters were on to something.