THERE is a world-wide prejudice, I might almost say superstition, that a gentleman should never soil his hands with work. There was perhaps a time in America, when even those dignified personages in white wigs, knee-breeches, and gilt frames, of whom we are all so proud, - even if they be only distant cousins on the mother's side, - played a part almost manual in laying the foundation of the great country in which we live; but those days are past. The state has successively passed through the ordeals of creation and salvation, in the true old orthodox way; fortunes have accumulated; and there are hundreds of men among us now, who, fully impressed with the sense of their social importance and financial security, are determined to uphold their position in a manner that would be acknowledged by the most exacting to be truly gentlemanly.
This determination deserves admiration. It is the assertion of the privileges of blood and culture. It is the declaration of the existence of a society whose doors are closed against all who do not prove their right to admission. It is evidence that America feels the need of an aristocracy, and that she can afford to support one; and any country which cannot is too poor a relation to be admitted on equal terms into the great family of nations.
To a gentleman of leisure, in the true sense of the word, to one of those elegant ornaments which beautify and perfect society as a good binding beautifies and perfects a book, two things are indispensable, - money and culture. Let either be wanting, and your fine gentleman is an elegant adventurer, or a boorish millionnaire of the class which the experiences of our last war have led us to call shoddy. Neither of these characters is either admirable or respectable; and before any man determines that his life shall be that of a gentleman of leisure, he should assure himself that he is in every way capable of maintaining the position to which he proposes to lay claim.
A natural result of a thoroughly democratic government is that no one is inclined to admit the existence of a society superior to that in which he moves, although he may manfully assert his precedence before those whom fortune has placed beneath him. The impulse of every young man whose allowance or antecedents permit him to mingle with those whose social position is assured, is to rank himself at once with the best of them; and this impulse frequently leads him to the conclusion - to quote the words used the other day by a friend of mine - that "business is degrading."
That this is in a measure true can hardly be denied. A man of taste and fortune cannot busy himself much with the affairs of the counting-house without developing the prosaic and matter-of-fact side of his character to a disproportionate extent, and meeting on terms, perforce equal, hundreds of people whom his self-respect and pride will permit him to regard with nothing but contempt. The degradation involved in a peaceful struggle for dollars and cents with your fellow-man is, however, hardly equal to the humiliation of a life-long squabble with your butcher and your tailor, and of a constant sense of your inability to meet the demands of those importunate tradesmen; and before you determine that you are too good to work, you will do well to assure yourself that you are provided with means enough to employ workmen.
The fortune of every father should, like his sins in the Bible, be visited upon his children. It is reasonable to suppose that a portion of that which is now yours by paternal grace, will in time be yours by inalienable right. But even if you be the first-born, you have a right to expect only your own share; and before concluding that your inheritance will place you beyond the reach of want, you must divide the ancestral income by the number - somewhere between two and ten - of your brothers and sisters, and then turn to statistics and see how much it costs to support a family. If the discrepancy between the sums is too great to be disregarded, you have one more chance. Go to your looking-glass, and talk at yourself. Cast aside prejudice, and tell yourself frankly if your manner and your words would captivate an heiress. If so, well and good; if not, you must work.
It is possible, however, that your expectations, or your natural advantages, or both, may assure you of ample means for life; that you can, without a preliminary struggle for fortune, become the independent gentleman of your dreams. But, if this be, you must not imagine that your duty to society is at an end. The privilege of an independent gentleman is, not to disregard and hold himself aloof from the affairs of his fellow-men, but to mingle in them in the way which his tastes and acquirements lead him to choose. In literature, in politics, in science, in art, he has wide fields open before him, and even if his talents will not permit him to be a professor, nor his means to be a liberal patron of that art for which he feels the greatest fondness, he may, by his conversation in friendly intercourse, diffuse the results of his study, and stimulate interest and activity in others, who could hardly be aroused in any other way.
A finished gentleman, by the very influence of his presence and his manners, cannot fail to excite the admiration and emulation of his inferiors, no matter how much the jealousy of those inferiors may lead them to decry him. He is a fitting head for the great social body beneath him; and if his fortune will permit him to abstain from work, - by work I mean daily exertion whose ultimate object is bread-making, - he may be far more useful to the world than if his tastes and inclinations were fettered by business. But he must never be idle. Noblesse oblige. He must constantly exert himself to maintain with dignity the position to which he lays claim; and in his whole life he must show to the world the fallacy of the popular notion that all that is needed to make an American a gentleman is a little knowledge of wine, a little knowledge of women, a little knowledge of song, and a very thorough knowledge of athletic exercises.