The Politics of Civility: From George Washington to Donald Trump

Richard D. Brown & Richard L. Bushman—

A century ago, a grandson and great-grandson of presidents, Henry Adams, observed, “the progress of evolution from President Washington to President Grant was alone evidence enough to upset Darwin.”  Today, considering the succession from Washington to Trump, it appears Darwin has not merely been “upset.” In American politics, evolutionary progress has been entirely disproved. Where once the president set an example of self-control and courtesy for American citizens, President Trump models a rude, insulting style.

How did U.S. politics come to this? Observers agree President Trump is not the first public figure to employ coarse language to nourish angry resentments. Decades ago, presidential contender George Wallace made similar appeals.  But formerly, as secret tapes of Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson have revealed, crude and abusive language was actively concealed from the public. Instead, presidents posed as civilized and courteous. Washington’s successors accepted their role as models of decorum for children and adults.

Some would argue this presidential pose was hypocritical, and that President Trump deserves praise for blunt, rough-and-ready-candor.  But they are mistaken.  Often candor is desirable, but not always; and the American public has good reason to lament the decline of civility in our public discourse. Civility, a legacy from classical antiquity, was invented to facilitate political action at the seat of government. Civility restrains contending forces that inevitably battle at centers of power. It subjects adversaries to rules of civil discourse. Consequently, when political manners decay, government suffers.

Renaissance courtiers revived Greek and Roman civility so that European monarchs could tame feudal warlords. When barons entered royal palaces to defend their interests, kings forced them to adopt courtly manners.  Half-barbaric warriors learned to become courtiers, exchanging swords and battle-axes for political negotiation.  Princely courts transformed the primitive quest for power.  Lord Chesterfield, whose letters to his son supplied the eighteenth-century’s most widely read courtesy handbook in the English-speaking world, declared courts must be “seats of politeness and good-breeding; were they not so they would be the seat of slaughter and desolation.”

Civility became a primary goal for educating young gentlemen. John Locke’s Thoughts Concerning Education, widely read in the American colonies, went to the heart of civility.  Every child must learn “Respect and good Will to all People,” and “the Principles of good Nature and Kindness.”  Well-bred meant “General Goodwill and Regard for all People.”  Courtesy book writers dreamed of a society where good will prevailed.

This genteel code crossed the Atlantic.  George Washington’s tutor directed the youth to copy 110 “Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation.” This teaching worked, making George a paragon of good manners.  Some rules instructed young gentlemen in merely superficial conduct: they must not spit in the fire; they must cover the nose with a handkerchief when they sneezed. But more importantly, there were rules for cordial discourse too.  “Let your Conversation be without Malice or Envy, for this a Sign of a Tractable and Commendable Nature:  And in all Causes of Passion admit Reason to Govern.”  Washington, the most polite of all our presidents, presided over one of the most tempestuous decades in American history; yet he formed a government that worked because his cabinet room, containing such radically different visionaries as Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, was a place of order and civil discourse.

Ironically, Donald Trump has succeeded beyond all expectations precisely because he upends the rules of civil discourse.  Recognizing how closely manners are bound to social class, he knows that calls for civility reek of condescension.  This president’s outspoken rudeness thrills and liberates supporters who resent the snobbishness implicit in polite conventions and especially Congressional politesse. Trump voters may practice good manners privately, but they revel in Trump’s rule-breaking because it expresses their resentment of polite elites.

But indulging in class resentment is costly. As Charlottesville and Ferguson demonstrate, breaking the rules of civil discourse destroys restraints on political passions. Chesterfield warned that politicians “would affront and stab each other if manners did not interpose.” The White House—America’s court—once the school of good manners, now instructs Americans in bad manners.  The nation and the world are suffering the consequences.

Richard D. Brown is Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor of History, Emeritus, at the University of Connecticut. His previous books include Knowledge Is Power: The Diffusion of Information in Early America, 1700–1865;The Strength of a People: The Idea of an Informed Citizenry in Early America, 1650-1870; and the coauthored microhistory The Hanging of Ephraim Wheeler: A Story of Rape, Incest, and Justice in Early America.

Richard Lyman Bushman is Gouverneur Morris Professor of History Emeritus at Columbia University. A winner of the Bancroft Prize, he is the author of The Refinement of America: Persons, Houses, Cities.

Further reading

Featured images: Gilbert Stuart Williamstown Portrait of George Washington via Wikimedia Commons, Donald Trump by Gage Skidmore via Flickr

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