Refinement and Gentility

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In the eighteenth century, "refinement" and "gentility" were used interchangeably to refer to the inner qualities of sensibility, taste, and virtue and their outward manifestation in the kinetics of the body, dress, conversation, and manners. Men and women demonstrated their refinement not only in their persons, but through the built environment, religion, and literary culture. Although refinement was often thought to be innate and to vary enormously among individuals, most commentators agreed that education, exposure to other refined persons, and rigorous self-scrutiny could enhance one's capacity for it. The culture of refinement simultaneously excluded the vulgar, invited the participation of anyone who possessed a modicum of gentility, and then ranked the participants according to their performance. This combination of hierarchy, inclusiveness, and competition was well suited to the social and economic aspirations of many Anglo-Americans. As those aspirations changed, so too did the cultures of refinement and gentility.

eighteenth-century gentility

Eighteenth-century standards for gentility owed much to British conduct manuals and didactic novels, which derived from the manners that distinguished European court society. These books emphasized the salience of social rank, control over one's body, and regard for the feelings of others. They also encouraged the performative dimensions of gentility by urging readers to imagine how they appeared to others and by focusing on sociability as the litmus test of refinement. In theory, gentility drew sharp distinctions between the rude masses and the polite few, most of whom had been born to their station. But in practice the boundaries were more porous than didactic literature allowed. And conduct manuals themselves held out the promise that refinement—or at least its outward manifestations—might be acquired. Accordingly, readers devoured the advice dispensed in The Spectator, a literary magazine; Samuel Richardson's Sir Charles Grandison (1753–1754), a novel whose hero is an ideal eighteenth-century gentleman; and especially Lord Chesterfield's Letters to His Son (1774), which portrays a social realm of ideal conduct and deportment. By the mid-eighteenth century, Anglo-Americans of the middling and better classes had integrated much of this advice into daily life: They championed deference and avoided the appearance of overt social climbing; they monitored their table manners, posture, and penmanship; and they read not only for their own edification, but to enrich their conversation with other refined individuals. They created new spaces like parlors and formal gardens to serve as settings for polite leisure. This concern with refinement extended beyond the secular world, prompting Anglo-Americans to embellish their churches with paintings and draperies. Not coincidentally, the spread of gentility intersected with the eighteenth-century consumer revolution, which made the props of refinement—mirrors, tea sets, books—available to growing numbers of Anglo-Americans.

republican refinement

During and after the Revolution, when manners and ideals derived from aristocratic courts became suspect, Anglo-Americans creatively revised the meaning of refinement to correspond with the values and practices demanded by a republic. Historians disagree about the broader implications of this process. Some, like Richard Bushman, suggest that the aristocratic origins of refinement presented persistent, vexing contradictions for Americans bent on establishing a republic. Others, including C. Dallett Hemphill, argue that men and women harnessed older codes of conduct to the aspirations of a more fluid society, partly by extending the promise of refinement to growing segments of the population and partly by replacing idealized deferential social relationships with egalitarian ones.

In the wake of the Revolution, Anglo-Americans expressed new anxieties about excessive refinement, associating it with aristocratic pretense and decadent luxury. But Americans never abandoned "refinement" and "gentility" as ideals. Instead, they infused them with republican meaning. In effect, Americans displaced the potential dangers of gentility onto others: the pretensions and vices of European aristocrats and avaricious elites closer to home served as foils for a distinctly American, supremely virtuous refinement. Republican refinement demanded taste, simplicity, and sincerity and manifested itself in what Jay Fleigelman called "natural theatricality"—the painstaking orchestration of posture, facial expression, and voice so to appear natural and unaffected. Mastery of these codes of behavior took on new, explicitly political significance. Manners were no longer simply an index to an individual's character. They were the social glue that bound citizens together, ensuring that Americans avoided both affectation and servility.

The material world also registered this republican refinement. Political leaders dressed down, abandoning bright colors and exuberant trimmings in favor of the somber colors and plain style depicted in Gilbert Stuart's famous portraits of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Neoclassical architecture and design and Empire dress, which recalled the ancient republics, allowed elite and middling Americans to partake of fashion, novelty, and virtuous simplicity all at the same time. Never mind that these styles were wildly popular on both sides of the Atlantic; Americans read them as particularly suited to and evocative of the new nation.

democratization of refinement?

The first decades of the nineteenth century saw both the democratization of refinement among the middle class and new efforts to exclude members of the working class and African Americans from the ranks of the genteel. Growing numbers of conduct manuals made the increasingly arcane rules for genteel behavior accessible to growing numbers of readers, helping them to negotiate the social encounters that accompanied geographic and social mobility. Refinement extended beyond cosmopolitan centers. Members of the rural middle class, though careful to distinguish themselves from "aristocratic" urban excess, began to incorporate the props and rituals of refinement into domestic life, sociability, and self-presentation. As refinement became the special preserve of the middle class, it became infused with domestic values. Parlors, for example, became sites for family gatherings rather than worldly sociability. And middle-class women gained new visibility as exemplars of domestic gentility. Although Evangelicals cast genteel pretense as a distraction from Christian duty, by the end of the 1820s even Methodists and Baptists sanctioned politeness. At the same time, social arbiters stridently condemned attempts by the working class and African Americans to appropriate refinement for themselves. Conduct manuals drew sharp distinctions between the genteel and the lowly, and clearly advocated servility from the latter. In Life in Philadelphia (1828–1829), the caricaturist Edward W. Clay viciously lampooned the dress, manners, and sociability of upwardly mobile blacks. Such evidence indicates the challenges that confronted the hegemony of an explicitly white, middle-class culture of refinement and the urgency with which that culture was defended.

See alsoClass: Rise of the Middle Class; Clothing; Consumerism and Consumption; Fashion; Fiction; Home; Manners; Market Revolution .


Bushman, Richard L. The Refinement of America: Persons, Houses, Cities. New York: Knopf, 1992.

Fleigelman, Jay. Declaring Independence: Jefferson, Natural Language, and the Culture of Performance. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1993.

Hemphill, C. Dallett. Bowing to Necessities: A History of Manners in America, 1620–1860. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Jaffee, David. "The Village Enlightenment in New England, 1760–1820." William and Mary Quarterly 47 (1990): 327–346.

Kelly, Catherine E. In the New England Fashion: Reshaping Women's Lives in the Nineteenth Century. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1999.

Catherine E. Kelly