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In the Classroom > Course Overview > Unit Overview > Lesson 2
Lesson 2
The Age of Refinement

(with information from In Pursuit of Refinement, by Philip Zea, Historic Deerfield, Inc. 1998; "The Genteel Republic" by Richard Bushman, 1996; and Susan McGowan)

Between 1750 and 1850, there is evidence of changing standards of living and the growth of personal belongings in Deerfield, Massachusetts. A refinement prevailed. Some residents were more engaged in refinement than others, but every citizen was affected.

Throughout New England, a search was on for a national identity and an improved standard of living, based on advancing the mind as well as providing comfort for body and soul. The Revolutionary War had made change inevitable; consider only the vast unlocked wealth of the country's natural resources and the demand for labor to develop them.

Achieving refinement was one way to climb the social ladder or, once there, to stay at the top. More than a decorative flourish adorning life at court, it was a form of power, a means of gaining favor and asserting cultural superiority. It included status, knowledge, ability, and ambition, and was "performed" in public before an audience.

What were the demands of refinement? First it demanded the knowledge to use and to discuss in genteel ways the fine things that money could buy. After that was accomplished, well-bred and ambitious individuals developed a kit of beliefs, manners, and material goods for presenting what they deemed to be appropriate social conduct.

Like the wealthy in busy coastal cities, the rural elite in places like Deerfield imagined they were judged according to standards established abroad. To make life a little easier and more pleasurable, while still subscribing to the accepted standards of refinement, genteel living in rural areas was adapted to personal budgets and needs. Their words, preserved in their correspondence, and their possessions, accessible through estate inventories, reveal how available resources shaped lifestyle at home and how family members made social, economic, and aesthetic decisions to improve their standing.

Increased agricultural surpluses provided capital for rural people to purchase refined goods on the world market. They learned how to use these refined goods by observing peers and betters in a public setting. Listening and looking opened the door to status with the application of the proper speech, dress, and conversation.

Deerfield's minister, Jonathan Ashley (1712-1780), wanted his oldest daughter, Dolly (b. 1743), to learn the graces suitable to her social class, and was aware that she needed access to more worldly knowledge than was available in rural Deerfield. He sent her to school in Boston in the spring of 1760 and wrote her two letters of concern and advice. The following is excerpted from the letter of May 31, 1760:

My dear Child, ... it may be lawfull to visit populous
places if we aim thereby to acquaint our Selves with
the decent Customs of mankind yt we may know how
to behave our Selves more decently in our stations:
but it is by no means lawfull to endeavor to learn
more of the pride & ______of this life, for there is
too much of that reigning in country as well as in
large towns; it only serves to make a young woman
contemptible of nothing but dress and fashions; it is
worthwhile to take some pains to attain a decent
behaviour, but there it must be natual not stiff and
awkward. You will my child see a variety of Behaviours
as you will see a variety of persons; endeavour to
imitate them who are the most easy & natural. Labour
to be wise and to know when to speak and when to
hold your tongue; this is a great degree of wisdom.
you must remember that you will be exposed to
innumerable temptations; you must allways there-
fore be upon your watch; consider well the company
you are in; & trust no body you are unacquainted with;
there are thousands who will pose no pains to entice
you into ruin ... I shall rejoyce to see you return with
some usefull improvments; having learned to despise the
world & to live above it...
I am your affectionate Father.
Jonathan Ashley

Reverend Ashley wrote again on June 18 of the same year:

I hope you will improve your time to learn
every thing to make you more amiable in
your life; but shun everything that is sinfull and
that savours of pride & haughtiness; be upon
your guard against every temptation; learn to
be frugal amidst an abundance & moderate your
desires whilst a thousand things court your fancy

The quest for knowledge and beautiful things created tension, and that quest was risky but irresistible to many. Those who remained ignorant of how to secure status and comfort on the world's stage risked embarrassment, fear of damnation, and more importantly, loss of influence.

Note to the teacher ...

In May 1776, when Virginians met at Williamsburg and declared themselves independent of Great Britain, George Mason provided the philosophic justification for this revolutionary step by drafting a "Declaration of Rights." His statement included the phrase: "All men are created equally free and independent, and have certain inherent natural rights ... among which are the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety."

Mason's wording runs exactly parallel to the famous phrase that Thomas Jefferson wrote into the Declaration of Independence one month later. It suggests that happiness is not opposed to property but is an extension of it.
One of the overriding reasons the colonies would revolt from English rule would be the feeling that the "pursuit of happiness" was being thwarted by rule from abroad. It is important to remember that the American Revolution would not be the result of only a series of abuses of power but also a product of the way the colonists perceived and interpreted these events. When Great Britain began to tax, regulate trade, and curtail westward expansion, the colonists felt themselves deprived of property with a design to reduce them to slavery.

The founding fathers, however, harbored a fear that refinement and democracy were contradictory. Gentility, after all, was the product of an elite culture, a way of distinguishing ladies and gentlemen from common people, and thus hardly suited to a republican society. After 1776, the middle-class people who would be empowered by democracy -- middling farmers, well-to-do artisans, clerks, and schoolteachers -- would lay claim to their own version of gentility. Encouraged by entrepreneurs eager to sell them the trappings of what was touted as 'respectable existence,' Americans installed parlors in simple houses, purchased carpets for the floors, drank tea from imported creamware, planted shrubs and grass in front yards where there had been weeds and packed earth, and bought books of instruction in comportment and etiquette. From this combination of republican conviction, capitalist enterprise, and genteel practice there emerged a middle-class -- a democracy with the remains of an aristocratic culture embedded in its core.

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