Friday, May 19, 2017
Long before current fears about incivility in public life – before anxieties about Twitter-shaming and cable-news name-calling – politeness was very much on the minds of United States leaders. In 1808, the US president Thomas Jefferson ranked the ‘qualities of mind’ he valued. Not surprisingly, he included ‘integrity’, ‘industry’, and ‘science’. These traits were particularly important to American revolutionaries seeking a society based on independent citizens, rather than harsh rulers and inherited privilege. But at the top of his list, Jefferson chose not these familiar Enlightenment values but ‘good humour’ – or what contemporaries usually called ‘politeness’.