Foreign Observations

Foreigners often had some interesting things to say about American manners that help put the words of the etiquette books into perspective. Here are a few of them, followed by a rebuttal from the redoubtable "Dame Shirley".

"...in democracies, no such thing as a regular code of good breeding can be laid down...In aristocracies, the rules of propriety impose the same demeanor on everyone; they make all the members of the same class appear alike...Amongst a democratic people, manners are neither so tutored nor so uniform, but they are frequently more sincere...Thus it may be said, in one sense, that the effect of democracy is not exactly to give men any particular manners, but to prevent them from having any manners at all"
Alexis deTocqueville. Democracy in America 1835

"Any man's son may become the equal of any other man's son, and the consciousness of that is certainly a spur to exertion; on the other hand, it is also a spur to that coarse familiarity, untempered by any shadow of respect, which is assumed by the grossest and the lowest in their intercourse with the highest and most refined."
Fanny Trollope, Domestic Manners of the Americans, 1832

"The moral sense [of the American] is on every point blunter than with us [the English]. Make an American believe that his next door neighbor is a very worthless fellow, then I dare say (if he were sure he could make nothing by him) he would drop his acquaintance; but as to what constitutes a worthless fellow; people differ on opposite sides of the Atlantic..."
Fanny Trollope, Domestic Manners of the Americans.

"We labor under great disadvantages in the judgment of foreigners. Our peculiar political institutions and the prevalence of common schools give all our people an arrogant assurance that is mistaken for the American beau ideal of a gentleman.

They are unable to distinguish those nice shades of manner which as effectually separate the clown from the gentleman with us, as do...broader lines, which mark these two classes among all other nations. They think that it is the grand characteristic of Columbia's children to be prejudiced, opinionated, selfish, avaricious and unjust. It is vain to tell them that such are not specimens of American gentlemen. They will answer "They call themselves gentlemen, and you receive them in your houses as such". It is utterly impossible for foreigners to thoroughly comprehend and make due allowance for that want of delicacy, and that vulgar "I'm as good as you are" spirit, which is, it must be confessed, peculiar to the lower classes of our people, and which would lead the majority of them to--

Enter a palace with their old felt hat on
To address the King with the title of Mister
And ask him the price of the throne he sat on."