Lincoln and the 19th-Century Gentleman’s Code of Conduct
As a society, we are a very casual lot these days. It was different in Lincoln’s time. A man’s worth was wrapped up in his honor and how he was esteemed by others. Only gentlemen were allowed in upper-class social circles and in many business and political dealings. To be considered a gentleman, a man needed to be well-bred and well-educated (even if self-educated), and he was expected to exhibit refined and gentlemanly deportment and cultural prowess. Above all, he was to present the right appearance. In 1843, Charles Dickens understood the pressures of this class system when he wrote, “keep up appearances whatever you do,” in his Martin Chuzzlewit novel.
Being a gentleman required a standard of etiquette and moral conduct, with rules like “Never scratch your head, pick your teeth, clean your nails, or worse of all, pick your nose in company. Spit as little as possible and never upon the floor.” And, “if you are going into the presence of ladies, beware of onions, spirits, and tobacco.” We laugh at such “rules” today, but in the class system of the 19th century, such behaviors betrayed one’s class.
One 1843 book of etiquette states that “courtesy is the cement of society.” Indeed, hat-tipping, bowing, conversing intellectually, writing formal notes and letters, and never talking or writing about another gentleman behind his back—it was all a way to show respect and avoid offending the honor of another person. Oh, and it gave the appearance of self-importance.
If a gentleman crossed the line and offended another gentleman, a challenge could be issued and they could land on the field of honor. A gentleman would never lower himself by dueling against a man from a lower class. So, how did Lincoln—a backwoods, self-taught man of no breeding, land in a duel with Shields? One must assume that, though he didn’t have the pedigree or advantages of the standard gentleman, Lincoln was in the process of building himself, and he had earned the respect of those around him. He was an avid reader, an active young politician, an involved community member, and he was a smart and likable guy. And, who wouldn’t be drawn to a man with his ready wit and knack for storytelling? Lincoln was a truly self-made man who fit in with multiple classes.