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Editor’s Note, January/February 2005

Protocol for a Republic

By Mary Lou Beatty | HUMANITIES, January/February 2005 | Volume 26, Number 1

"They all went into the etiquette business. Jefferson wrote about etiquette, and Benjamin Franklin, of course, and others," Miss Manners tells us. "First of all, they had to establish what would be an appropriate protocol for a republic."

As the presidential inauguration approaches, Miss Manners--the writer Judith Martin--talks with NEH Chairman Bruce Cole about the creation of a new political and social structure as America freed itself from England.

From that day to this, she says, "Every president and other officials have to deal with the fact that we are all equal, yes, but we're not all equal in rank, and we want to have some dignity and some order."

George Washington favored being addressed as "His High and Mightiness," a title that mercifully vanished. Thomas Jefferson went in the opposite direction. "In social circles," he wrote, "all are equal, whether in, or out, of office, foreign or domestic; & the same equality exists among ladies as among gentlemen." He eliminated drawing-room evenings and shocked some dignitaries by receiving them in his house slippers. He sat guests at round tables to avoid issues of rank; he invited the Republicans one evening and the Federalists the next to avoid outbursts at the dinner table; he served fine French wines; and he had the charming Dolley Madison serve as hostess as the occasion demanded.

"Even now, every president is accused of either being arrogant or being too folksy," Miss Manners reassures us. Americans today are just as interested in etiquette as their predecessors, but they are not as concerned about rank. Many of the questioners these days, she says, have a misplaced indignation. They want her to chastise somebody of their acquaintance. "Everybody wants as much freedom as possible, so they don't want to recognize restrictions on their own behavior, but they certainly want to recognize restrictions on other people's behavior." She adds, "If you want other people to be restricted, then you have to accept some restrictions yourself."

Civility in a society is a theme echoed in the work of an eminent Victorian scholar, the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb. The Victorians, she found, had their own list of virtues: respectability, responsibility, decency, industriousness, prudence, temperance. "They were the virtues of citizens, not of heroes or saints--and of citizens of democratic countries, not aristocratic ones."

She is one of the winners of the 2004 National Humanities Medal, which is awarded for distinction in broadening the humanities to a public audience.

In this issue of Humanities, we profile seven people and an institution that have added to the richness of present-day America. Along with Professor Himmelfarb they include two university philosophy professors, an art critic, a social critic, an education reformer, a writer of tales for the young, and the United States Capitol Historical Society.

"There is so much more to be told about our nation's history from inside this building than simply the making of laws," says Ronald Sarasin, a former congressman and now president of the historical society. It is still a working building, he points out, and visitors can see members of the House and Senate walking the halls as they go about the nation's business. The goal is straightforward, he says, quoting a founder: it is to have people "catch something of the fire that burned in the hearts of the men and women who served here."