An accomplished English writer, endeavoring to explain to Americans
, as many have done before him, how it is that educated men in England
do not feel aggrieved at giving precedence to persons of mere hereditary rank, gives a curious illustration of the very habit criticised.
He says that “no sensible Englishman ever sees in it a want of real consideration for himself.”
The hosts simply employ a convenient rule, he says: the titled guests follow the order of their rank; but the person held in the greatest esteem may be some one who comes in last of all. “How frequently do we discern, from biographies and memoirs, that some untitled man, living in perfect obscurity so far as the world is concerned, has been looked up to with unaffected deference by people of exalted station!”
In saying this he seems to feel that he has said all that was needed; and that he fully justifies this curious practice, by which the very guest for whom the entertainment is made, instead of being placed at his hostess's side and treated with honor, may find himself utterly subordinated
to every person in the room who happens to count among his ancestors a royal mistress or a brewer sufficiently wealthy to have been rewarded with a peerage.
To the average republican mind he simply justifies the criticism, and prolongs that attitude which seems to most Americans
so cringing; and which does more than any one difference, perhaps, to transmit from one generation to another the alienation between the two races.
When some defender of slavery once claimed, in Dr. W. E. Channing
's presence, that the slaves of our Southern States were contented, that great moralist answered, “You have stated the crowning argument against the system.”
It is the worst part of any degrading practice that it makes men accustomed to its working.
It may be that no sensible Englishman ever sees in this a want of consideration for himself personally-that is a small matter; but if he does not see in it something which is insulting to the dignity of human nature itself he differs inconceivably from a sensible American.
A cast-iron etiquette like this puts a ceremony above a man ; a descent above a character; and above all, a social rule above that instinct of hospitality which bids even the Bedouin Arab
and the American Indian
give the guest the place of honor at his board.
In the long series of social insults which General Grant
, according to his
chronicler, General Badeau
, received in England
, the point of disrespect lay not in the fact that he was the greatest general of the age or an ex-President of the United States
, but in the circumstance that he was the guest for whom the entertainment was in most cases made.
He being the guest, all this subordination was as essentially degrading as when the guests of some Oriental
potentate are expected.to enter his presence on all fours.
That, no doubt, is esteemed by his loyal subjects a most “convenient” arrangement, for which the king himself is “in nowise personally responsible.”
Probably no sensible inhabitant of Madagascar or Dahomey
is ever supposed to find it in the least objectionable; it is only the tests of reason and civilization which make it intolerable.
But it is in the closing sentence of the defence, after all, that the weakest point lies.
People of exalted station, it is said, may often look up to some untitled man. In a right condition of society-even in a republican condition of society, as sixty millions of people here maintain it-how can there be such a thing as an exalted station?
It is character that should be exalted, not station; and the more the character counts for, the less important is the station.
sits, there is the head of the table.
This ideal may not yet be fulfilled anywhere, but it certainly comes far nearer
fulfilment in this country than in any monarchy.
What station in the United States
could be regarded, properly speaking, as exalted?
I can think of none except the Presidency, and even as to that such a phrase would seem too fulsome for truth.
For although this post involves far more of direct personal power than do most thrones, yet it has no permanence; it is held by a four years lease, after which the occupant reverts to the ranks of common men. By our theory the President
himself is the servant of the people, or, as the present incumbent has expressed it, “public office is a public trust.”
The question has been seriously raised by European
reformers, such as Mazzini
and Louis Blanc
, whether the same trust could not more fitly be exercised by the mere chairman of a committee, and Mr. M. D. Conway
has of late revived this theory.
Surely the phrase “exalted station” is too extravagant for a function thus temporary and derivative; and setting the President
aside, there is no one else among us on whose position it could be fitly bestowed.
We can recognize the exaltation of a great public character, but hardly of a “station.”
For there is no station which any American might not aspire to hold; and it would be the spirit in which he held it that made it exalted.
This is at least the American
habit of mind, and the interest we habitually take in what are called
“exalted stations” in other countries is like that we feel in the Blue-coat School or the picturesque “Beefeaters” who do duty at the Tower of London
, or the powdered footmen who are gradually vanishing from the streets of that city.
The English habit of mind is different; as Matthew Arnold
has said, it worships inequality.
I remember a poor English woman, in an American city, who was thrilled with gratitude for a visit from a certain good-natured old lady, the widow of a very respectable physician.
“Only think,” she said, “Mrs. Came
to see c — that great lady of rank!”
It seemed as if one born in the British Islands
could not be quite contented without an “exalted station” to reverence.