After a steady diet of period films, literature, and historical nonfiction, I’ve realized that in some ways, our culture has changed dramatically in the last 250 years or so. If you or I were transported to say, 1820, and we mingled with Americans then, we would struggle to fit in. We often grouse about the loss of shared values over time, and it is true that some of the beliefs that strengthened family units and held our culture together have been eroded. However, a few of those entrenched traditional attitudes were harmful and encumbered our progress. Some of them were held in opposition to the self-evident truths proclaimed in our founding documents, or worked against the family unit–and I say good riddance. Here are some examples:
Marrying Advantageously: One is probably wise to consider a prospective mate’s financial situation (especially to the degree that they reflect work ethic). However, novelists such as Jane Austen–who were contemporaneous to rank-and riches-conscious cultures–detail for us a milieu of shameless social climbing and gold-digging. Behaviors that would today be considered tacky seemed to be somewhat acceptable then, even expected: discussing openly how many pounds a year one was given as an allowance, or whether there was an inheritance to be had. One’s spouse needed to be of the right social class, and (as one biographer argued was true of George Washington’s marriage) even calculated to move one up the social ladder. We might argue that today’s criteria for marriage–a sense of romantic connection, for example–are even flimsier than they were in the past. Even so, we ordinarily do recognize today that character, kindness, and work ethic come into play in choosing of a good spouse and likelihood of a productive future together.
Looking Down on Earning One’s Wealth: The consensus today, partly evidenced by the way most Americans live their lives and discuss public figures such as Donald Trump, is that one’s living should be earned. We love stories of individuals clawing their way to a better life, and frown on accounts of inherited wealth that may bequeath unfair advantages or cheat the heir of valuable life experiences. We hold up as an ideal the prospering local business whose founder started from nothing and worked long hours to move forward. In the past, however, the best people in society wrinkled their noses at honest work for those in their station. Losing one’s status and having to become a governess (a job I would enjoy) was considered a shameful event to be painfully borne. The newly wealthy of the Gilded Age were not easily welcomed into the ranks of the noble classes because they (sniff) had earned their money. Apparently, one’s position was to be considered intrinsic to the individual, and not shaped by life choices and the availability of opportunities. A life of idleness was a respectable option. And the upper classes wanted to keep it that way.
Condescension Towards the Lower Classes: The upper classes saw a clear divide between themselves and those born into families without title or rank. Perhaps in more feudalistic eras, nobility had served a function–that of providing structure and protection for those in their vicinity. However, as the world changed, the system became less necessary, even as the upper classes did what they could to preserve its advantages for themselves. Thus it was acceptable, despite feudalism being slowly replaced, for lords and ladies to stay separate from the common folk, even insisting that the masses adopt a particular manner of addressing them that would acknowledge their mutual stations. (Arguably, overt racism was allowed with the same mindset of protecting societal structure.) Today’s America does not tolerate such affectation, and anyone who behaves as the (en)titled did in the past would be shut out of our society. In order to progress, we must live together, work together, and do what we can to encourage all of our young people to take advantage of their opportunities.
Open Snobbery Within the Ranks of the Rich: In the old days, the rich ate one another. During the Gilded Age, for example, perhaps in attempts to protect their way of life, wealthy socialites were the self-proclaimed gatekeepers of society, deciding who was in and who was out. New wealth earned through involvement with railways and industry were understandably snubbed. These people were crude, ignorant, and alien to ways of the upper crust. Also, violating strict behavior codes in the past, or even associating with the wrong people, could get one pilloried and excluded. Perhaps snubbing wasn’t effective for those who didn’t prioritize being included in the top levels of society. But for those who held rank and privilege dear, excommunication would be devastating. Today, we are more likely to mix with almost any social group on the premise that we are all essentially the same. Such “mean girls” behavior acceptable in earlier ages is considered ugly and contemptible, and even the most celebrated among us are judged based upon whether or not they are friendly in person.
Double Standards for Male Dalliances: Faithfulness to one’s wife was not always upheld as virtue. Perhaps it was an ideal, but in practice, men often kept mistresses, visited brothels, or otherwise indulged in illicit encounters with other women when they were away from home. For instance, explorers of the past included journal entries that describe their exciting cross-cultural sexual experiences for posterity, apparently without much shame. As long as the naughty behavior wasn’t too open, society looked the other way for men. However, decent marriageable women and wives were held to a high standard if they were to avoid public censure. Even associating in the wrong context with a man to whom one was not married or engaged could open one to ruinous gossip. (This high standard for women was perhaps less rigid starting from the Gilded Age. Churchill’s American mother, for instance, had numerous affairs.) I am not sure when our culture began viewing adultery by either husband or wife, and even unfaithfulness in our serially monogamous affairs, as betrayal. Men who fool around on their wives are faithless scoundrels; women in extra-marital affairs are held equally culpable. We call it “cheating” and we have a body of music that laments the heartbreak it brings. Today, news of one’s husband acquiring a mistress would shatter the wife’s ability to continue her commitment, and we would all support her decision in bringing to an end such a sham marriage.
In light of these traditions of the past that we’ve justifiably rejected, we can agree that even though our culture has decayed in some ways, we have improved in other respects. These changes, arguably, have been brought about by the influence of the Bible and its explicit teachings on the God-given dignity of every man and woman, the importance of hard work, and the lifetime commitment of marriage. But that’s a discussion for another day.