Boston Unitarian is reading "Old World, New World" by Kathleen Burk, a massive study of the relationship between "Great Britain and America From the Beginning." Bristling with information and insight, I was struck just now by this passage on politeness as it emerged in the 18th century:
"...The concept of politeness, of a polite society, was increasingly important in Great Britain...The term polite had a more substantive meaning than today's use of it to mean manners or etiquette: it meant not using violence and the sword to deal with opposition, nor even sharp command or aggressive argument, but persuasion; it meant a lack of bigotry in religion or politics; it meant depending on reason and reflection... It was a means of uplifting society, of separating it from barbarity, of polishing rude manners."
The all too brief era of the Boston Unitarians was, in some ways, the culmination and the last gasp of this (always minority) view of politeness in America. The transcendentalists would seek to usher in a self-consciously American literature and the Jacksonians would foster a democratic celebration of decidedly un-polite virtues. For better and for worse (mainly the latter), the admittedly largely elite concept of politeness would retreat-and the flight goes on to the point that even the more superficial view of politeness as "manners and etiquette" (especially in public discourse) is a fond memory. Politeness is dead. Long live politeness.