Reading President Adams’s 1797 U.S. presidential inaugural address (for the Conventions: The Garden at Paris follow up), and considering those of his predecessor and his successor as well…
…caused me to compare their formality and choice of language to our current day…
It is said also, for instance, that Ulysses S. Grant, as a general and later president (1869-1877), NEVER voiced an obscenity even in private, let alone did he babble on rudely in public.
The ever-increasing coarsening of our public discourse, and particularly that of the presidency – which had been a model for executive leadership not just in politics – is one of the more troubling aspects of our era. Will we ever again see a presidency that does NOT include gutter-sniping on Twitter and other media? Is it to become the norm?
We should be under no illusions about the world inhabited by men such Grant and our first three presidents. In the last couple of years I have spent a great deal of time “in” that world: it was a much “narrower” world than today in nearly all ways – however “enlightened” they as individuals may have been in their lifetimes. Yet any of them ever employing the likes of a word such as “s-ithole” even in private is nearly inconceivable; as well-educated individuals, they simply did not use such disgusting, juvenile and obscene language.
Similarly the ongoing #MeToo debate about sexual assault. Women are usually physically no match for most of us men. Have too many men forgotten that you do NOT pick on someone weaker than yourself, especially not a woman? There would be no need for such a debate in the first place if men behaved as, well, gentlemen – and not just in the “landed gentry” sense.
The past is in many ways increasingly alien and distant to our “norms” – assisted in that distancing by media and social media encouraging our “presentism”: the glib certainty we have it all figured out compared to our forebears.
For example, we giggle at, and also usually roundly criticize, “Victorian” and prior sexual “formality” as treating women as “fragile inferiors” to men, with some today going so far as to label all of the men “misogynists.” In doing so we choose to overlook how “Jane Austen” sexual “rules” were of course to an extent necessary before the invention of modern contraception; intercourse before often resulted in pregnancy – and smugly we also choose to forget our contraception is never foolproof; anytime you have sex you should be prepared for its natural consequences.
We also casually dismiss, and even scoff at, their religiosity as ignorant, childish and suffocating. We ridicule our ancestors’ religiosity in seeking answers to mortality while overlooking there was no such thing as good medical care prior to about “1900” (regardless of how rich you were) and that many of their children died before age 5 and they themselves were unlikely to make even age 50 – yet we choose to forget we are not immortal either but are just more likely to live to an older age; that we can still die of illness at “45” as a friend of mine did in 2014.
Merely one example: Martha Jefferson’s life and fate, which was sadly common.
Overall we appear to consider our ancestors either quaintly superstitious sexually-repressed simpletons or hate-filled bigots and are sure we are vastly superior.
In return, I have long-suspected our ancestors, if they could meet us, would, frankly, not be too wowed by us either.
Without a doubt they would be impressed by our technology and stunned by other social advances (such as greater racial and sexual equality, with the latter in particular coming about mostly because of that contraceptive technology). However, they would probably also consider us, as people, to be vulgar, sexually loose to the point of immoral, and inexcusably blasphemous. “How did you, with all of your amazing technology and widespread education,” they would ask, “sink so low in terms of simple decorum?”
I don’t know, and even if anyone does the answer is probably far too long for a blog post anyway.
Have a good day, wherever you may be.😊