In this episode we do an overview of what it meant to be a Gentleman in the 18th Century. This was a very important concept for the time. In this episode we’ll cover: What is a Gentleman, The Social Gentleman, Gentlemen of War, Dueling.
Welcome back to the 18th Century Podcast, I’m your host Cj. Today’s episode will cover a very important concept to the 18th Century, the idea of a Gentleman. Being a Gentleman was a matter of honor, and was extremely important to the people of the 18th Century. If you’d like to read the transcript for this episode and its citations, go to https://18thcentury.home.blog that’s 1, 8, t h, century dot home dot blog. Type the numbers don’t spell them. Now let’s get into what it meant to be a Gentleman of the 18th Century!
PART 1: What is a Gentleman?
Though we are discussing the concept of a Gentleman in the 18th Century, it’s origins date back far earlier. So to get a better understanding of this concept of a Gentleman, let’s go through a brief history of the concept. The word of, “Gentleman” has its roots in Latin, surprise surprise. The “Gentle” part of Gentleman is derived from the Latin, “gentilis” which it could be defined as, “belonging to the same clan… etc.” Jumping forward a bit into the Middle Ages, the concept of a Gentleman was held in a more Military tradition. Though this concept was unsurprisingly geared more towards the nobility. Though there were certain expectations of these early Gentlemen, and codes of conduct arose. As time marched onwards, the ideals of the Gentleman in regards to the Military began to change. Though the concept of action would remain in one form or another. Getting closer to the 17th Century, the concept of a Gentleman was moving from the Military towards the Royal Court. Though those in the Royal Court probably held Military aspects themselves, a Gentleman was moving towards the more social arts. As we start to move towards the 18th Century, the idea of a Gentleman began to move out of politics. The idea of a Gentleman began to be considered by the virtue of a man. Thus it can be inferred that you no longer needed to be born at the very top of the social-political hierarchy, but it was more in the style of how you would conduct yourself. Yes, a Duke could be considered a Gentleman still, but also a wealthy merchant could too. In a sense gave way to more social mobility. Though not in all senses of the word, it leaned towards it. Some common markers of a Gentleman of the 18th Century were education, manners, the type of clothing they wore, among other things as well. Though being a Gentleman in social circles was the trend, it was still present in the Miltary. Let’s cover this in two aspects, the first being in a social manner, and the second being in the Military. Let’s first get into the social.
PART 2: The Social Gentleman
A Gentleman in society was held to certain expectations. There were multiple books written on the topic during the 18th Century. Manners were important to Gentlemen, but the focus laid more heavily towards their morals. As can be inferred, a moral man was part of his virtue. There was an expectation of modesty among these men. One should not speak too highly of themselves. During dinner parties, it was considered polite to only speak among those close to you. It would have been considered impolite to yell from one end of the table to the other. Doing these actions would reflect on your status as a Gentleman. I should note, many of the ideas presented in this section reflect upon the more English idea of a Gentleman, however, there were many common threads across Europe and the Americas which share a commonality with the English. An interesting rule of etiquette which I came across was called, “give the wall” and the thought behind this was as follows, if you as a Gentleman were walking out in public with your Lady, then you would have her walk closest to the walls of shops or other buildings. The purpose was to keep her further away from the filth of the street. And some streets were pretty dirty during the time. In social functions, you would address someone by their last name and their title if they had one. Regarding the education of a Gentleman, they were schooled in the classics. Greek and Latin were very common for the upper-class Gentleman to learn. Other languages might have been taught as well, such as French. Ancient History could have been acquired too. As they would grow into their later teens, they could attend University. At a University a wide array of Academic pursuits could be had. Some of these young Gentleman would skip University and go into the Military. To the educated Gentleman, there were many paths in life to chose from. There was also a certain aspect of how a Gentleman would dress. A Gentleman could be found wearing a three-piece suit. Though the three-piece suit had its origins in the 17th Century, it was popular in the 18th Century. Starting from the basics, underwear. Now, underwear was conceived very differently during the 18th Century than today. The undergarment for Gentlemen was a shirt. To us, this would be very odd just to wear a shirt, but during the time, it was the fashion. Now the shirt would be fairly long and would drop down to about your knees, and it was made from linen. Instead of wearing what we would conceive of as socks, a Gentleman would wear stockings. In our modern setting, women typically wear stockings rather than men, however, in the 18th Century it was worn by both. If you felt like wearing particularly fashionable stockings as a Gentleman, then you would wear your cotton or maybe your silk ones. Regarding your pants, you would wear a common garment which could be found at any level of society, breeches. Your breeches could have been made from a verity of materials. There were breeches made from the like of cotton, wool, and linen, among other materials as well. Then we come to one of the most defining articles of clothing for the time period, in my opinion, the waistcoat. The waistcoat was worn by just about every Gentleman and could be made from a verity of fabrics such as linen, cotton, silk, etc… it would also come in a verity of colors and styles. You might find one man wearing an embroidered waistcoat, and another wearing one more plain. The waistcoat could also be found in a verity of colors, such as red, brown, gold, or whatever your taste was. Then on top of your clothing, you’d wear a coat. The coat was worn with just about every suit and dropped down to about knee length. Upon your head, you’d be wearing another hallmark of the time, a wig. The fashion was to wear a white powdered wig. It was considered in style for the majority of the 18th Century. On top of your wig, you may wear a hat. There was a verity of style of the 18th Century hats, one of the most common which we would recognize would be the tricone, or it could also be called a cocked hat. A quick note on footwear, a Gentleman would typically wear a low heel black shoe made from leather. Boots were also worn, given the proper circumstances. I want to finish this off with the neckwear. One of the most common articles of neckwear was the cravat. The cravat was a piece of white linen which could have been worn in a verity of styles. I’ll cover the cravat more in-depth in another episode along with other clothing. I think I’ve covered the basics of a Gentleman, during the 18th Century in a social setting. I’m going to take a short break and when I get back, we’ll discuss what it meant to be a Gentleman in the Military during the 18th Century. I’ll be right back.
PART 3: Gentlemen of War
Welcome back to the show. We’ll continue our second half of this episode with Gentlemen during times of war. I think it’s obvious to say that the majority of Gentlemen during 18th Century Warfare were Officers. I’ll cover the basics and how they would interact with each other. The topic of war during the 18th Century is a whole episode in and of itself. I’ll be covering the general aspects of warfare in another episode and at some point, I’ll cover specific wars and events related to them. The question I seek to answer here is, how did the Gentlemenly Officers interact with one another. One thing which we may find surprising about the 18th Century Generals was they would keep correspondence with the opposing sides General. For example, during the American War For Independence, British General Howe, once wrote a letter to American General Washington, addressing him as, “George Washington Esquire” instead of the more properly address of “His Excellency General” and General Washington took this as a slight against him and refused to even open the letter. It was looked down upon if you sniped an Officer from a distance, or to shot one in the back. One famous story of this happened during the American Revolution. British Colonel Patrick Ferguson once came upon an American Officer talking with a Hussar. Colonel Ferguson could have shot the men in the back and would have been done with it. He was within range, and he was concealed. However, it would have been ungentlemanly to shoot a man in the back. So, Colonel Ferguson called out to the Americans. Alerting them of his presence was considered the Gentlemanly thing to do. The American Officer and the Hussar fled. It’s thought that that American Officer, was George Washington. There was something else which was unique to the European Officers, and during the 18th Century, they were able to leave one Army to go and serve another. This was an acceptable practice during the time. And because of this, a sense of comradery was built among these Officer Gentlemen. If side A surrendered to side B, then the captured Officers were typically treated well. They were typically viewed as equal Gentlemen to one another. One example of this could be seen after British General Cornwallis’s surrender during the American Revolution. The evening of the surrender, American General Washington hosted a social event for the surrendered Officers. He invited them to dinner. General Cornwallis declined the invitation, claiming to be in poor health, so he sent Brigadier General Charles O’Hara to represent him at the dinner. The proceeding nights brought about a series of these types of dinners where Officers among the Americans and French, would dine with the British and Germans. Though it should be noted that not all the American Officers were too fond of this, as most of them weren’t raised in this tradition. However, General Washington observed the European custom. One could say, it was the Gentlemanly thing to do. This brings us to the end of this segment, and now you’d think this episode would draw to a close, but I’ve prepared a bonus segment for you, Dueling.
PART 4: Dueling
I thought this would be a nice little surprise for you guys. I’m not going into the mechanics of a duel, as that will be a future episode. I’m only going to explain the reasoning behind duels, or a basic sense of their purpose. A duel was a more personal form of combat between Gentleman, and Officers. If one man’s honor was slighted by another, then the first may challenge the offender to a Duel. Dueling was illegal in most places, as it could result in death. The Duel was typically fought with either swords or firearms, typically pistols. Swords were more favored in the 17th Century but as the 18th Century came about, pistols came into fashion. There were pistols specially made just for the purpose of Dueling. There were rules to the Duels. A written version came about in 1777, known as the Code Duello. Here are a few things which you may have been challenged to a Duel for, insulting a man, a disagreement, or in the Military for accusations of cowardice. Perhaps one of the most famous Duels in history was between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton and Burr really weren’t fans of each other in the realm of politics to oversimplify it. Though we’re stepping a little out of the 18th Century and into the early 19th Century, the story is still relevant to the topic presented. Burr had thrown his hat in for a Governorship bid, and Hamilton was publically attacked Burr’s character. Outraged by this, Burr challenged Hamilton to a Duel which was held the morning of July 11th, 1804. Hamilton fired into the air, and Burr fired at Hamilton. By the end of the whole affair, Hamilton was dead. This was just one example of Dueling as it related to Gentleman, and I’ll go more in-depth in another episode dedicated to Dueling.
This brings us to an end of our overview of the 18th Century Gentleman. Like I said at the beginning, the transcript and citations for this episode, and all other episodes can be found at https://18thcentury.home.blog that’s 1, 8, t h, century dot home dot blog. Type the numbers don’t spell them. I know I’ve been talking a bit more about the British and the Americans, but as the episodes go on, I’ll expand outwards to other countries as well. So, if you’d like to support the show, please share it. I’ve been your host Cj, and thank you for listening to this episode of the 18th Century Podcast.
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