Accounts vary, and a few say that the story about our civil Founders is apocryphal, but it would seem that the story is true. As one of the more jovial national patriarchs, Gouverneur Morris, a native of New York City, but representing Pennsylvania, willingly accepted a challenge from Alexander Hamilton during the Constitutional Convention in 1787 to pat George Washington on his left shoulder and say “My dear General, how happy I am to see you look so well!” Having vowed, he did exactly that in front of surprised onlookers. The General was a formal man, even austere in manners, and had already assumed a sense of presence that would befit him two years later when he became president of the United States. Washington froze, and then removed Morris’s hand, casting an icy stare at him. The room fell silent save for the sound of the offender’s wooden leg as he withdrew in confusion. Hamilton rewarded him with the promised dinner with wine for a dozen friends, but Morris said: “I have won the bet, but paid dearly for it, and nothing could induce me to repeat it.”
Washington’s grace and tact was capable of eliciting deep affection along with admiration, but he had no patience for what he considered boorishness.
At the age of sixteen, he had laboriously copied out in his fine script a long list of “Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour” compiled by French Jesuits in 1595 and translated around 1640 in London by a twelve-year old boy named Francis Hawkins. Rule 47 said: “Mock not nor Jest at any thing of Importance … and if you Deliver any thing witty and Pleasant abstain from Laughing thereat yourself.” Similarly, Rule 64: “Break not a Jest where none take pleasure in mirth. Laugh not aloud, nor at all without Occasion…” Washington wrote this out in the same year that Lord Chesterfield in one of his famous letters to his teenage son, albeit disparaged by Dr. Johnson, advised: “Many people, at first, from awkwardness and mauvaise honte, have got a very disagreeable and silly trick of laughing whenever they speak.”
None of this was a formula for pomposity. The rules were gentle protocols for avoiding the sort of self-conscious exuberance that masks pride as affability. From Plato and Aristotle to Seneca the Stoic, the virtuous man was one of piety, dignity, courage, and gravity. A man does not soar to moral heights by being a lightweight. Saint Benedict (480-547) raised this up a notch by associating these virtues with true humility, which was an undeveloped concept in pagan times. He writes in his Rule for monks: “The tenth degree of humility is, when a monk is not easily moved and quick for laughter, for it is written, ‘The fool exalteth his voice in laughter.’ ” Then: “The eleventh degree of humility is, that, when a monk speaketh, he speak gently and without laughter, humbly and with gravity, with few and sensible words, and that he be not loud of voice, as it is written: ‘The wise man is known by the fewness of his words.’ ”
Saint Benedict was a happy man and his monasteries were beacons of joy in a darkening society. Not in spite of that but because of it, he carefully carved the difference between serenity and giddiness. In the same vein, no one today would want to buy a used car from a man who is constantly giggling. Slapping a man on the back may be fraternal, but it also may be a subtle form of domination. And clownish behavior can scream insecurity. In the days of vaudeville, if the audience started booing, an actor’s last defense was to hold a baby and wave the American flag. When institutions are failing, false sentiment distracts from the rot, and pantomimes virtue.
Sometimes, affectation of simplicity can be an innocent, if not naïve, indulgence, like Marie Antoinette playing the part of a dairymaid with scented cows in her rustic retreat of Le Hameau. But it was a costly reverie and an expensive pretense. The singer Dolly Parton dressed as a tinseled cowgirl said: “You wouldn’t believe how much it costs to look this cheap.”
On the other hand, the heroically humble John Henry Newman regretted that a photograph of him showing a frayed cuff “advertised poverty.” When he returned from Rome having been made a cardinal, he arrived at the London Oratory where a crowd had gathered to see the new prince of the Church. Advanced in years, and much discomfited, he struggled to don the cassock and ferraiuolo in his carriage before alighting so as not to disappoint those who had come to see some scarlet.
A few days after the battle of the Allia River on July 18, 390 BC, the Senones tribesman of the Celtic Gauls sacked Rome, this being the first of the six notorious pillagings over more than a millennium. While most of the citizens fled by way of the Janiculum Hill where the North American College now stands, patricians sat on ivory chairs outside their houses in their senatorial robes to await death. One of Livy’s most moving passages described the scene:
The houses of the plebeians were barricaded, the halls of the patricians stood open, but they felt greater hesitation about entering the open houses than those which were closed. They gazed with feelings of real veneration upon the men who were seated in the porticoes of their mansions, not only because of the superhuman magnificence of their apparel and their whole bearing and demeanour, but also because of the majestic expression of their countenances, wearing the very aspect of gods. So they stood, gazing at them as if they were statues, till, as it is asserted, one of the patricians, M. Papirius, roused the passion of a Gaul, who began to stroke his beard—which in those days was universally worn long—by smiting him on the head with his ivory staff. He was the first to be killed, the others were butchered in their chairs. After this slaughter of the magnates, no living being was thenceforth spared; the houses were rifled, and then set on fire.
In our reduced culture when wealthy celebrities go about unshaven, neckties are considered an imposition, form letters from the bank address customers by their first names, and no thought is given to how to dress for church, attention to the gravity of one’s office may seem archaic and indeed affected. But the opposite is the case. The amiably eccentric Queen Christina of Sweden, having abdicated her throne to become a Catholic, wrote to a friend: “Dignity does not consist in possessing honors, but in deserving them.” Customs and outward forms signal that one’s duty is greater than one’s self, and neglect of them is an exercise in egotism. The man who says, “Call me brother, call me pal,” would not have to sloganize that way if he really were a brother and a pal.
The irony is this: those who are silly on the outside can be sly on the inside, and the comic can be cruel to those who see through the charade. Chesterton was a genuine wit and champion of the common man, which is precisely why he was skeptical of sham self-deprecation, and warned against the “easy speeches that comfort cruel men.” Cruel men dressed Jesus as a clown on the way to the Cross, but he never abandoned his dignity. His humility made Pontius Pilate so anxious that with deliberate ambiguity the governor hung a sign over his head calling him a king.