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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

Bostonians and Their Manners

By William Tudor (1779–1830)

[Born in Boston, Mass., 1779. Died at Rio Janeiro, Brazil, 1830. Letters on the Eastern States. Revised Edition. 1821.]

THERE is so much liberty, such entire equality of privileges; enterprise is so unfettered, that there must be great intensity in thought, and great energy in action. There are no people more capable of measured excitement, or more steadily persevering; there are none who can be made to feel so much, and, at the same time, exhibit so little exterior emotion. Pantomime is absolutely unknown. Those who have been taught to give their feelings vent in gesticulations and exclamations, are confounded at the tranquillity of one of our audiences; yet the proof, that this is not owing to insensibility, is the profound and motionless attention which an able orator, either at the bar, in the pulpit, or the senate-chamber, will produce among his hearers of every description; this, after all, is the highest scale of applause, the most animating and glorious to the speaker. But an orator must be very cautious in order to create this effect: it must depend rather on the steady heat, than on the warmth of his manner, to succeed. He must have complete control of his passions, and resort to vehemence of expression, and a display of emotion, in a very sparing method. I have witnessed a discussion at the Institute, where all the philosophers of France were assembled, that would have provoked open laughter here. I have heard debates in both Houses of the British Parliament, where the tone would have been much too impetuous for a caucus; I have heard speeches in Congress commence in such a mock impassioned style, and terminate in heroics, as would have been deemed flatly ludicrous. An orator here loses all influence who gets in a passion; everybody is on guard against the contagion; he excites only pity or ridicule; a fiery speaker, in any of our assemblies, is like a live coal fallen on ice; he may sputter for a moment, but is soon extinguished. He who uses the words that burn, must be so tempered as not to become heated by their emission; he must resemble those mountains from which the lava makes way over a belt of snow, to overwhelm all before it….

The cold, passionless appearance which our manners exhibit must not, therefore, be taken as the foundation of our character. Under this exterior will be often found a force of humor, an ardor of thought, and energy of action, which surprise those unacquainted with the disposition of the inhabitants. There is a slow, deliberative manner, that is sometimes very provoking to irritable dispositions; but when the occasion calls for it, there is no sluggishness, indifference, or faltering. An eminent individual—who, when the occasion required, led his gallant regiment, sword in hand, through the breach, with an impetuosity that insured victory—relates of himself an anecdote, which will illustrate these remarks. Talking one day with his superior officer, the passionate, impatient General Charles Lee, the latter exclaimed, “Why the devil do you stare at me with your mouth open; why don’t you reply quicker? I say everything off-hand, that comes into my head, and by G—d I am ashamed of my own questions long before I get your answer.” He explained to him (slowly, however), “that the habit was inveterate; that he supposed it grew out of the situation in which the Puritans were placed; they were persecuted, and obliged to be very cautious with the answers they gave, to avoid difficulties; and this, with many of their habits, had been handed down, and became a part of our education.” Watch these people when a conflagration takes place, or any sudden emergency, demanding promptitude, courage, and expedients, and then observe a collection of them, taken anywhere; the difficulty will be discovered to exist in the abundance, rather than in the deficiency of these qualities….

The style of manners is in the right line to reach perfection; for this consists in chastened ease, polished simplicity, and total absence of affectation and pretension. If none can boast of having reached this point, yet at least, in pursuit of it, they have not deviated into false methods. That sort of bustling importance, a loud step, a spreading diameter of movement, a rustling approach, an affected tone of voice, an assumed confidence, and all the train of restless manœuvres to obtain personal consequence, which are so fashionable in some countries of Europe, fail here entirely. It is quite amusing to observe some foreigners, or some of our young men on their first return from abroad, practising these airs in vain: there is no corresponding flutter; they are met with such a calm, ruinous composure, that they are soon abashed, and forced to adopt a natural, tranquil demeanor. If they have not intrinsic merit enough to sustain themselves in this simple state, they must sink till they find their level, and remain quiet in a corner….

There is a strong relish throughout this region for a kind of dry humor, that turns upon what is ludicrous in the contrasts and inconsistencies of character. A fondness for quaint comparisons; a good deal of skill in defeating argument, by involving it in some unexpected conclusion; a happy adaptation of a story or a parable to the subject in discussion; an expression of a very strong opinion, with an inevitable inference, but in an indirect way; with a tone of unyielding gravity and simplicity,—are the chief modes in which this humor is displayed.