by Tom Horton
Mr. Horton has been kind enough to grant us permission to reprint the article in its entirety. He is the great-grandson of Pvt. Lawrence Churchill Jones of the Kershaw Brigade that watched the gallant Pelham (my first cousin, 2 generations removed) from Marye’s Heights that day he was magnificent at Fredericksburg.
Scarcely a sighting of him has been reported since Y2K. A decade ago it was said that he could often be found in Charleston before noon walking briskly along Broad Street, Wall Street Journal in one hand, legal folder in another.
Someone mentioned walking over plowed cotton fields in the upstate with a true southern gentleman. Yet, another thinks she spotted one in the general assembly – attired in a three-piece suit complete with gold pocket watch. Several seekers noted seeing one elderly gentleman, a cardiologist, making grand rounds with residents at MUSC. Think back to the last time when you had a confirmed sighting of a southern gentleman. Could it be that the breed that flourished here for so many years is now going extinct?
It might be simpler to get a consensus on nationalized health care than to define what is meant today by the out-of-date term “gentleman.” Three centuries ago a gentleman was that most favored of males for whom the expression “to the manor born” was coined. Inherited property, formal education, a stint in the military – there frequently appear as items in their obituary.
However, elevating one’s station by the principles of industry and thrift seems more often a part of the American gentleman’s mystique than is the inheritance of great wealth and properties.
The manor house tradition is almost exclusively the English model of the gentleman. Tax laws in the United Kingdom and the exclusion of hereditary peers from the House of Lords have relegated the traditional English gentleman to the realm of Victorian literature.
Far more significant for defining him than the southern gentleman’s ancestry, abode, and list of diplomas is the long-standing reputation that he has for being foremost in service to the common good. He can be counted on time and again to do the right thing in the right way.
But where does the southern gentleman acquire the background for this princely expectation that the new south for him? The answer is simpler than one would expect – he’s been held accountable to a high standard since his early youth —first by his mother who taught him the duty to obey a higher calling. The gentleman’s mother knows instinctively that our culture revolves around two treasured ideals —that of motherhood and the ideal of the gentleman.
For the gentleman, standing up for the weak, assisting those less fortunate, defending what is noble from that which is vulgar and impure is not just a byproduct of anachronistic chivalry – Walter Scott’s notion of noblesse oblige. Advancing what is virtuous and thwarting that which is tawdry is the noble calling of today’s gentleman just as much as it was when Arthur and Guinevere set the standard.
From his father, grandfather, and likely, his Boy Scout leaders, the southern male learns to weigh the consequences of his words and his actions. And if he errs in judgment, as he surely will from time to time, he stands ready to accept the responsibility of the ill-chosen words and actions. A gentleman does not let the sun go down on an injustice that he has had a hand in, albeit unintentionally.
Observers have never mistaken the southern gentleman for a candidate for sainthood, however. Since the gentleman, by nature of having early-on set high expectations for himself, is often among the decision-makers – he is blamed when decisions weigh more heavily upon one faction than another.
To the charge of favoritism, he can only plead that he has done his best to bring fairness where injustice had been the norm.
The gentleman knows that often he will fall short.
In western culture it was an Italian courtier of Lombardy, Baldassaar Castiglione (d. 1529), who first set pen to paper listing the qualities of the modern gentleman. Of course, Castiglione’s little book, The Courtier, had one objective – preferment at the court of the king. Every dictate was designed to make the adherent influential within a circle of elites.
The Brits have had centuries to perfect their notion of the idea of the gentleman.
Douglas Sutherland wrote a delightful book entitled The English Gentleman (DeBrett, 1978). Sutherlanland did for etiquette what Machiavelli did for kings and the use of power.
One of Sutherland’s maxims states that a gentleman always uses a bread knife and a bread plate, even when he is dining alone in his home. That stipulation discourages practically every South Carolina contender for the distinction.
Southerners have long looked to the old Cavalier state, Virginia, to set the standard for what might be done and what might not be done in terms of gentlemanly conduct. Mr. Jefferson’s school in Charlottesville has long been accustomed to refining the young males of the South. The same applies to Washington and Lee.
Virginia Military Institute still requires the male cadets to live by the “Code of the Gentleman.” “Without a strict observance of the fundamental Code of Honor, no man, no matter how polished,’ can be considered a gentleman. The honor of a gentleman demands the inviolability of his word, and the incorruptibility of his principles. He is the descendant of the knight, the crusader; he is the defender of the defenseless and the champion of justice . . . or he is not a Gentleman. A gentleman . . . Does not display his wealth, money or possessions. Does not put his manners on and off, whether in the club or in a ballroom. He treats people with courtesy, no matter what their social position may be. Does not slap strangers on the back nor so much as lay a finger on a lady.”
Hampden-Sidney College in Farmville, Virginia, continues to instruct its young men in the age-old art of gentlemanly deportment. One can easily spot a Hampden-Sidney man; he’s usually the one in charge.
The Citadel has been a name synonymous with the ideal of gentlemanly demeanor for over a 160 years, recent unfortunate events notwithstanding. A generation ago cadets went through hours of training in the social graces with Mrs. Dufour, the school’s hostess. Passing the Blue Book’s test of do’s and don’t’s was part of the plebe year rigors.
Let’s not allow our beloved South to lose its reputation for requiring its males to live up to the old-fashioned Code of the Gentleman.
As the VMI Code states, “A gentleman can become what he wills to be.”
Reprinted with permission.
(Dr. Thomas B. Horton is a history teacher at Porter-Gaud School. He lives in the Old Village of Mount Pleasant. Visit his Web site at www.historyslostmoments.com)