Tea Sets and Tyranny: The Politics of Politeness in Early America

Tea Sets and Tyranny: The Politics of Politeness in Early America

Tea Sets and Tyranny: The Politics of Politeness in Early America

Tea Sets and Tyranny: The Politics of Politeness in Early America


Even as eighteenth-century thinkers from John Locke to Thomas Jefferson struggled to find effective means to restrain power, contemporary discussions of society gave increasing attention to ideals of refinement, moderation, and polished self-presentation. These two sets of ideas have long seemed separate, one dignified as political theory, the other primarily concerned with manners and material culture. Tea Sets and Tyranny challenges that division. In its original context, Steven C. Bullock suggests, politeness also raised important issues of power, leadership, and human relationships. This politics of politeness helped make opposition to overbearing power central to early American thought and practice.

Although these views spanned the English Atlantic world, they were particularly significant in America, most notably in helping shape its Revolution. By the end of the eighteenth century, the politics of politeness was already breaking apart, however its ideals continued to be important. Opposition to arbitrary governing became central to American political culture; self-control became a major part of nineteenth-century values, but these ideals increasingly seemed to belong in separate spheres. This division between public power and personal life continues to shape thinking about liberty so fully that it has been difficult to recognize its origins in the eighteenth-century politics of politeness.

Tea Sets and Tyranny follows the experiences of six extraordinary individuals, each seeking to establish public authority and personal standing: a cast of characters that includes a Virginia governor consumed by fits of towering rage; a Carolina woman who befriended a British princess; and a former Harvard student who became America's first confidence man.


Benjamin Franklin was twelve years old when he was apprenticed to his older brother. It was an unpleasant experience. James, himself only twenty-one, was a difficult young man, as headstrong and argumentative as his younger sibling. The memories still rankled a half century later. In the autobiography he began when he was sixty-five, Franklin complained that James had “considered himself as my master,” an odd comment since James had been just that, both by time-honored usage and by the cold realities of law. But Franklin expected more. James, he noted, had been “passionate and had often beaten” him, rather than treating him with “more Indulgence”— as “a Brother.” Franklin eventually found the situation so oppressive that he revolted. Taking advantage of a legal technicality, he fled his brother’s custody at sixteen.

Almost two decades after writing his original 1770s account, Franklin returned to his manuscript, adding a note explaining the larger significance of his relationship with James. “I fancy his harsh and tyrannical Treatment of me,” he wrote, “might be a means of impressing me with that Aversion to arbitrary Power that has stuck to me thro’ my whole life.”

Franklin’s footnote clearly recalled the American Revolution that he had done so much to further. Like his brother, Britain had also ignored its family obligations in order to press its prerogatives. The adolescent boy considered himself “demean’d.” So too the mature man. But Franklin’s addition went beyond individual experiences. His critique of his two would-be masters, his brother and his mother country, reveals an understanding of the connections between social relationships and political rule that had been widely shared for almost a century. Eighteenth-century American leaders such as Franklin had been deeply concerned about the dangers of anger and violence in both political and personal life. Both government leaders and individuals, they held, should reject arbitrary rule in favor of sympathetic concern.

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