Magazine article The Spectator

Lessons in Civility from a Great Gentleman Who Put the Public First

Magazine article The Spectator

Lessons in Civility from a Great Gentleman Who Put the Public First

Article excerpt

History sometimes appears as a record of unrelieved human depravity. But it is also lit by flashes of unusual devotion to duty which make one feel ashamed of one's own shortcomings. Recently I have become increasingly uneasy about my failure to deal justly with my correspondence from readers. I get a lot of letters and each one merits a civil reply. But this does not happen. Letters pile up and remain unanswered for weeks, months, even years. Or, when I do answer, the reply is perfunctory. A week ago, in trying to clear a bit of space in my study, I came across a cardboard box of letters which had not even been opened. I have no secretary, apart from my wife Marigold. But she is busier than ever nowadays, being a student psychotherapist, and I am writing a huge book. So matters are clearly going to get worse. I try to lessen my guilt by telling myself I am not the only one to behave like this. Everyone who, for whatever reason, is buttonholed by the public is also neglectful.

Unfortunately, that is not true. History gives accounts of many great men who, however busy they were, treated correspondents, albeit perfect strangers, with courtesy and efficiency. I had long known of the case of the first Duke of Wellington, who received letters from tens of thousands of people. They wrote to him with their requests, complaints, advice and views, and he replied to them all, almost invariably in his own hand and often by return of post. His replies were terse, and not always helpful, but never rude. Thus, to a junior officer who had got in a tangle with a woman and asked for advice, the Duke replied, `Dear Sir, You are in a devilish awkward predicament, and must get out of it as best you can. Yours etc., Wellington.' But even that was better than nothing. And some of the Duke's replies were useful and even generous. He was not above sending money in needy cases.

Now I have come across an even more reproachful example, Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson was a two-term president of the United States, 1801-9. He made it plain at the start he was to be accessible. You could call on him without an appointment or a letter of introduction and, if he could, he would see you. It is true that, unlike Calvin Coolidge, he did not answer the White House front door himself. But one stranger who arrived unannounced at 8 a.m. was immediately ushered into Jefferson's study and left some time later `highly pleased', as he put it, `with the affability, good sense and intelligence of the President of America'. Jefferson also let it be known that he would be glad to receive letters from the public, and that all citizens needed were paper and ink as he would pay the postage himself. This was no light concession. At that time, United States inland postage, depending on distance, ranged from eight to 35 cents for a single sheet of paper. If you wrote two it cost twice as much. Jefferson's kindness was an invitation to prolixity. Some of his correspondents wrote him letters of 12 sheets, and if they lived in Maine or Georgia such a letter cost him over four dollars, at a time when a labourer earned a dollar a day.

A selection of the letters Jefferson got was published a few years ago by a Jefferson specialist, Jack McLaughlin - To His Excellency Thomas Jefferson: Letters to a President (Norton, 1991) - and it opens a curious window onto the lives of ordinary Americans at the beginning of the 19th century. …

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