The political philosophy of manners—and a chance to win a new book on how to start a Renaissance!

Infusing goodness, beauty, and truth into our public discourse

Issue No. 7

Gracious Reader, 

Merry Christmas! I hope you had a wonderful holiday with loved ones. Among the many things I am grateful for this Advent season is people like you—curious and committed to moral and intellectual renewal in America today. Such renewal is the end and purpose of this monthly missive. To that end, thank you for being a part of this newsletter! As always, I promise to do my utmost to make it worth your while, sharing with you the latest of my work, as well as other simulating stories and features from around the world and web.

In the news: 

Essay in TIME Magazine on what our manners reveal about our values
Sunday, October 27th was the one-hundred-forty-seventh anniversary of the birth of Emily Post, America’s most famous manners expert. And in my first essay for TIME, I explore what  manners  show about American cultural values—a faith in social equality and meritocracy. For a member of the social elite, Post was very egalitarian: As she wrote in her seminal 1922 book, “Best Society is not a fellowship of the wealthy, nor does it take to exclude those who are not of exulted birth; but it is an association of gentle folk, of which good form in speech, charm of manner, knowledge of the social amenities, and instinctive consideration for the feelings of others, are the credentials by which society the world over recognize it’s chosen members.” According to Post, kindness and good breeding are open to anyone who takes the time to study and practice their ways. Her lesson is timeless, and still very much relevant today. Read the essay here.

Essay in Spectator USA on the relationship between manners and morals
Across time and place, philosophers, moralists, and self-help gurus have teased out about the relationship between manners and morality. Among the people who recognize the deeper moral significance of norms include Petrarch, Erasmus of Rotterdam, Edmund Burke, Jane Austen, and Emily Post; all claimed that the foundation of true civility is ethics, a word derived from the Greek ethos, or character. Conduct formed character, the concluded, with Edmund Burke famously concluding that ‘Manners are of more importance than laws.’  Burke explained that ‘Upon them in a great measure, the Laws depend. The Law touches us but here and there, and now and then. Manners are what vex or soothe, corrupt or purify, exalt or debase, barbarize or refine us, by a constant, steady, uniform, insensible operation, like that of the air we breathe in.’ Continuing reading here

Essay in The American Conservative comparing the life and thought of J.S Mill and Emily Post
In order to make completely sure that I cornered the Emily Post market for October, I published an essay for The American Conservative comparing the thought of J.S. Mill—the ultimate non-conformist, with Emily Post—the ultimate conformist. Strange bedfellows, I know! But it made for an interesting essay to write and—I hope an intriguing one to read! Mill famously condemned the social expectations of the Victorian era in which he lived: “[Society’s] ideal of character is to be without any marked character; to maim by compression, like a Chinese lady’s foot, every part of human nature which stands out prominently, and tends to make the person markedly dissimilar in outline to commonplace humanity.” Whereas Post encouraged her readers to “Try to do and say those things only which will be agreeable to others” and to “follow the customs of the locality in which they live. In other words to do exactly as your neighbors do is the only sensible rule.” Can we learn from them both? Read more of the piece here and find out! 

Read this before claiming social media is bad for democracy
It was great to speak with a journalist from PBS’s Rewire to discuss how social media skews our perception of the level of incivility in our current moment. It’s easy to look at the good parts of the past through rose colored glasses—for example, the statesmanship and gentility of Ancient Rome or the American founding era— and compare them with the worst elements of our own, such as toxic discourse on social media, which neither Ancient Rome nor the Founding Fathers could have ever imagined. The good news, though, is that what we hear and read on social media isn’t reflective of our how divided our body politic really is. I’m very grateful for the chance to discuss this—as well as how to bring back civility to our current public discourse, which you can learn about here—with Rewire in November. 

Lecture on Civil Discourse Across Political Divides
What a pleasure it was to travel to St. Lawrence University in beautiful (and snowy!) Canton, NY to spend a day with students and faculty talking about civility. I spent the morning with students in a senior seminar class who had spent the semester studying Jane Austen’s works. I spoke about civility in Austen, her works, and the Victorian era. Among the ideas I discussed was the difference between civility and politeness, civility as a tool of social division versus as a tool of unity, and civility as a means of using people as ends versus  respecting people as ends in themselves. In the evening, it was an honor to deliver the inaugural lecture in a series called Civil Discourse Across Political Divides. I spoke about the importance of civility to American democracy specifically, and human flourishing generally. Grateful that St. Lawrence is leading such an important and timely conversation, which you can learn more about here.

A curious invitation pertaining to Russia and free markets

I received an unexpected request earlier this December: would I like to appear on RT (formerly Russia Today) and talk about the importance of capitalism? I’ve had few more peculiar Thursdays! It ended up being a great opportunity to talk about a few of my favorite things to an audience in over one hundred countries around the world: the social and cultural dispositions of trust and civic virtue necessary to sustain democratic and free market institutions, Adam Smith and personal morality, and the conditions of human flourishing. See part of the clip here.

I had the great honor of meeting Steve Forbes this past September at the awards ceremony for the Novak Fellowship. It was wonderful to lunch with him a few months later, this past November, and to learn the story of how his grandfather started a nascent publication from scratch in the early 1900s, and saw it through worldwide crisis and economic depression with hard work and self-sacrifice. During the Great Depression, for example, he asked his workers to take a salary cut—but he didn’t take a salary at all for a number of years!  Thankful for gentlemen such as Mr. Forbes who care about the importance of good theory and ideas informing our political discourse today.

Things I’m reading:

We are not as divided as we think

The New York Times ran an interesting article on partisanship in America that argued that partisanship—at least at the individual level—is not as bad as many might think.  The reality is that most people are not as ideologically rigid or extreme as either our political leaders or social media and television personalities. In fact, for most people, politics is not the be all end all. This is hopeful reminder for the future of our nation. Find the full article here.

The surprising roots of modern social justice concepts
This fascinating essay published by Heterodox Academy explains how many of the progressive social justice concepts we associate with college campuses today—including “trigger warnings,” “safe spaces,” and more—have their roots in a good and important cultural shift during the post-Vietnam War era, when experts began to take seriously post-traumatic stress disorders. These concepts were studied and introduced as a means of taking the psychological trauma of war seriously. Well worth the read!

The Forgotten Virtue
In this article, Dr. James Hankins, a professor of Renaissance and intellectual history at Harvard University,  revives insights from the Renaissance value of humanitas—love of humanity—that a liberal arts education was intended to cultivate. Renaissance humanists understood humanitas roughly in the way we think of  civility; it  was intended to counteract our natural predisposition to immanitas, our innate human impulse to dominate and be cruel to our fellow man. Dr. Hankins’ insights have caused me to think more about the nature of true civility—as something more that merely an aesthetic penchant or conversational virtue, but as something truly moral and foundational to human community. Read the essay and let me know what you think!

Virtue Politics: Soulcraft and Statecraft in Renaissance Italy
This just-released book by Dr. James Hankins, whose work I first discovered last year via the article discussed above, offers many insights into how to bring about intellectual and moral reform in our own moment. Stay tuned for my interview with him on his new book for Quillette’s podcast this coming month. For a chance to win this important new book, forward this newsletter to a friend and let me know, or share it on social media—Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc.—and tag me (so I see it!). I’ll enter all names, and draw one Jan 1st. Good luck! The link to share this newsletter can be found hereI will draw a winner January 1st, 2020!

Make “Porching” Great Again

Novak 2019 Fellowship
It is my profound honor to have been awarded 2019 Novak Fellowship for my original journalism on American civic renewal.  Run by The Fund for American Studies and named after eminent journalist Robert Novak, the awards ceremony occurred at the Metropolitan Club in New York Sept 12th. Throughout the year that I am a Novak Fellow, the program offers financial support and writing mentorship. Find the link to the official announcement here.

The project for which I won the Novak Fellowship is my current book project, tentatively entitled Make “Porching” Great Again: How Front Porch Citizenship Can Save Democracy and the Soul of a Nation. This book relays my research over the last year and a half, investigating ways that Americans across the country are healing their social fabric, creating new institutions, and fixing problems that effect our nation everywhere, right where they are. My research shows that, as Tocqueville praised in 1835, America is still a nation of fixers. Inspired by the seminal essay “From Front Porch to Patio” in The Palimpsest by Richard H. Thomas, my book unpacks the concept of “porching” as a cultural metaphor for the ways that people engage in local solutions to fix local problems—and how people are “Front Porch Citizens” no matter where they live. Stay tuned for more updates about my forthcoming book!

To Heal Polarization, It’s Time To Revive Popular Art
It was a surprising privilege to be asked by POLITICO Magazine to contribute to their series “How to Fix Our Politics.” In the “How to Fix Polarization” sub category, my proposal of reviving thoughtful and inspiring patriotic art was alongside many other fascinating ideas, from Jonathan Haidt, Francis Fukuyama, Mitt Romney, and many other great leaders of our day. Would love your thoughts on my essay, and on what you think is the most innovative solution in the series! Find it here.

Things I’m reading: 

When the Culture War Comes for the Kids. This fascinating essay in The Atlantic recounts one father’s experience navigating the complex and convoluted system of New York’s private and public schools. He describes his disillusionment with the radical and doctrinal approach schools and administrators took toward very personal and controversial policy issues. Touching on important questions of our day such as education, meritocracy, and the definition of “equality,” I think you’ll find this essay thoughtful and worth your time.

The Reporter Fired In The “Busch Light Guy” Scandal Said He Feels “Abandoned” By The Des Moines Register.  When a reporter published unflattering tweets made by a local celebrity in Iowa—who had become famous for appearing on television holding a sign asking for beer money, and then ultimately raising a million dollars for charity—crowds retaliated against the reporter by people uncovering tweets that the reporter had made. This story gets to the heart of questions about “cancel culture” and the extent to which we should hold others accountable for words said, deeds done, and tweets sent years or decades in the past. In our post-Christian era, it seems we have kept notions of judgement, but forgone the concept of grace. Why? 

Trickle Down Norms. This National Affairs essay argues that, a la Charles Murray’s thesis in Coming Apart, the lifestyle habits of elites trickle down to effect the rest of the nation for better and for worse. Though the essay’s author is optimistic that elites have good habits today, he is rather pessimistic about issues of growing inequality and lessening economic opportunity for people outside of the middle class. I think the author is unduly pessimistic because he misses some key data points—such as the fact that parental involvement has increased over the last three decades across racial and socioeconomic lines. I’m also of the opinion that the author hasn’t sufficiently studied and observed some of the community building at the local level across the country—all across socio-economic lines—the gap in our national conversation I hope my book will fill. All in all, an interesting read! 

The Goodwood Revival: My husband and I stepped back in time earlier this month when we attended the Goodwood Revival, a vintage car race in southern England. All the cars raced were from the 1940s through the 1960’s, and—in proper, peak-English manner—all of the attendees were dressed to the nines in era-appropriate attire.

Can Popular Art Revive American Identity?

Debut on Fox News
Has our existential crisis of meaning in America contributed to mass shootings? Why is American health care so expensive? It was great to discuss these important topics and more with Steve Hilton on Fox News’ Next Revolution in-studio last weekend in New York. You can watch here—I welcome your thoughts!

How Did the ‘Religion of Humanity’ Replace Christianity?
In The Catholic Herald, I reviewed Dan Mahoney’s latest book, about the idol of our age in our post-Christian culture. Read the review–and find a Dostoyevskian interpretation of our secular, materialist age–here.

Can Popular Art Revive American Identity?
It was a wonderfully full July as I hosted over six events for our rare books and art exhibit about American identity, including a day with over 150 high school students, a conversation on citizenship with an esteemed panel, and more. It was amazing to see students and audiences come alive with excitement about ideas and this important conversation about what we have in common as Americans. Find a two-minute documentary of the exhibit here.

A Little American Myth-Making Never Hurt Anyone
We live in a myth-starved world. Throughout time and place, people have understood themselves and the world around them through stories. From Gilgamesh, Odysseus, Aeneas, and Hercules, to Sinbad, King Arthur, and Thor, heroes have served an important role in embodying cultural ideals. And no figure better embodies American mythology and ideals than our nation’s first President. Here you can read about mythmaking in America, past and present—and how a revival of storytelling can heal our country.

The Truth About Civility

I had a lovely time talking about civility with my friend Ericka Andersen on her podcast. You can listen to our conversation here.

Discussing Forgiveness & Stand-Up Comedy on the Lisa Valentine Show
In our post-Christian culture, we’ve kept the Christian notion of judgment but forgotten the Christian virtue of forgiveness. This applies to the evolving landscape of stand-up comedy, and that’s a major problem; time and place, comics have been society’s truth-tellers. I talked about this and much more on the Lisa Valentine Show on BYU Radio. Listen here.

Interviewing EconTalk’s Russ Roberts
Can capitalism without morality survive? I asked Russ Roberts, of EconTalk and the Hoover Institution, this question and many more. Listen to our Adam Smith-filled conversation, for the American Institute for Economic Research’s new podcast, here.

Things I’m reading: 
Training your mind the way athletes train their bodies.
No son of mine is going to be a Benthamite Utilitarian. This is a John Stuart Mill family, dammit!
When memes dehumanize: the story of Florida Man.
How might we recover our lost love of humanity? A look to the Renaissance might help.


I had a very fun evening on set in San Antonio with the cast of the new Karl Marx and Ludwig von Mises rap video produced by AIER—coming this September! Our AIER team were extras, pretending to be the “wealthy patrons,” and Marx’s nemeses!

The Surprising Lesson About American History Hidden in Emily Post’s Classic Etiquette

When Emily Post (née Price) was born on Oct. 27, 1872, it was into a life of privilege. She was raised among America’s elite, her sole formal education was at finishing school and she met her future husband, Edwin Main Post, at a seasonal New York ball. She tried her hand as a columnist and novelist, but it was decades after she divorced her husband for infidelity that she began the career that has made her name famous all these years later, finding nationwide success with her 1922 book Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics, and at Home.

As members of a “society of equals”—and without a God-ordained order of birth and rank—Americans have always suffered from a collective case of status anxiety. For this reason, they have often looked to manners manuals to guide them in interacting with others to succeed in business and in life. But that’s not all that etiquette books can offer. As the norms of a society always reflect the values it treasures, such books are also a window into the evolution of American values.

Most etiquette books popular in early American history were reprints or adaptations from English or French Sources—for example, widely read in the colonial era was Eleazar Moody’s School of Good Manners, originally based on a French courtesy book from the 16th century, first printed in the U.S. in 1715, and running through 33 editions into the mid-19th century. By the time Post’s Etiquette came along, however, the U.S. was undergoing many social and demographic changes. Mass urbanization meant people moved from close-knit communities and were thrust in close proximity with perfect strangers. Post’s work—alongside many other works of manners that proliferated in this era—helped Americans navigate the new world of anonymous commerce.
She wrote about manners from a position of affluence, though her philosophy of etiquette can be read as surprisingly egalitarian. Everyone who does not live alone in a cave is part of society, Post claimed, but becoming a part of “Best Society” requires education, cultivation and training. It is commonly thought, she asserted, that in Europe, Best Society is constituted by those of aristocracy of birth. In the U.S., by contrast, Best Society is made up of an aristocracy of wealth. But for Post, wealth or rank without cultivation was merely pretense; people who thought their wealth or status was sufficient to make them fit for Best Society were more accurately “classified as the court jesters of to-day,” she wrote in the first edition of Etiquette.
Post’s interest in an etiquette of equality during this time was noteworthy. Her Etiquette, published during the roaring 1920sspoke to both the old money and the new, upwardly mobile middle class alike. The resentment the former felt for the parvenus had intensified a few decades earlier during the Gilded Age, the era in which many new industrialists made their wealth. In order to distinguish themselves from the nouveau riche, the old elite established a series of elaborate and arbitrary norms in order to show explicitly who was “in” and who was “out.” One holdover from this era is the “no white after Labor Day” rule.
But, as historian John F. Kasson describes in his 1990 study Rudeness and Civility: Manners in Nineteenth Century Urban America, the fluid cultural setting that social change produced made it difficult to impose a common code of public conduct. However, Post was up to the task.
She insisted that good breeding was far more than knowledge of, and compliance with, the rules: “Best Society is not a fellowship of the wealthy, nor does it take to exclude those who are not of exulted birth; but it is an association of gentle folk, of which good form in speech, charm of manner, knowledge of the social amenities, and instinctive consideration for the feelings of others, are the credentials by which society the world over recognize it’s chosen members.” Kindness and good breeding were open to anyone who took time to study and practice their ways.
Many of her admonitions are still relevant today. Thank-you notes were a sign of good character, Post argued. She also recommended ignoring “elephants at large in the garden,” otherwise known as wealthy know-it-alls: “Why a man, because he has millions, should assume they confer omniscience in all branches of knowledge, it something which may be left to the psychologist to answer.”
Above all, however, one must avoid pretense! Hence her indictment of the tastelessness of what today might be called a “McMansion”: “But the ‘mansion’ with coarse lace… and the bell answered at eleven in the morning by a butler in an ill-fitting dress suit and wearing a mustache, might as well be placarded: ‘Here lives a vulgarian who has never had an opportunity to acquire cultivation.’”

Nearly a century later, Etiquette is in its 19th edition. Post’s offspring ensure her immortality by maintaining the Emily Post Institute, which offers training and commentary on modern manners, and periodically updating her book to reflect cultural and social changes in society. For example, gone are the chaperone protocols from the first edition, or the ashtray etiquette from the 12th. Instead, there are sections on managing social media and mobile devices when with others.

It may seem that we live in a post-shame era, where each day reveals new norms breached. Yet the truth is that norms never go away: they merely change. Indeed, as Kasson notes in his book, each society tends to think its own era is the most uncivil. He recommends taking a historical perspective to disabuse us of that notion, finding that human nature—with its capacity for benevolence and predisposition for rudeness—doesn’t change much. But this only underscores the enduring need of latter-day Emily Posts, such as Judith Martin (“Miss Manners”) or Steven Petrow (“The Civilist”) who still help their readers navigate life with others.

In a moment where civility is under fire, this task—demystifying norms, and connecting them to deeper cultural values—can be a thankless one. But it’s not hard to guess what Emily Post might recommend if she were still around: a thank you note.

Alexandra O. Hudson is a writer based in Indianapolis, currently working on a book on American civility

Bring Back Patriotic Art

Alexandra Hudson is a former civil servant and a research fellow at the American Institute for Economic Research. She is working on her first book, about American civic renewal.
“Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel,” held Samuel Johnson. This unflattering sentiment has been adopted widely by today’s chattering class. Some claim that, even at its best, love of country is merely the purview of the undereducated; others argue it is actively harmful. Yet in a moment of deep social and political division—when many question whether to be proud of being American—it can no longer be taboo to celebrate and discuss our national history and identity.

Popular art might just be the answer. Although patriotic art often gets a bad rap—it’s often derided as mawkish or uncritical—I’ve seen how it can bring people together.

Over the summer, I curated an art and rare books exhibit at Indianapolis’ Harrison Center meant to encourage viewers to confront our country’s shortcomings while also appreciating the good in our past. The manuscripts in the exhibit—on loan from The Remnant Trust, a private collection of rare books—ranged from a first English translation of Plato’s Republic to an original printing of the Gettysburg Address. Local artists responded to and interpreted the themes of these manuscripts in different visual media. For instance, we paired an original printing of Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman with a local artist’s oil painting of Madam C.J. Walker—an African-American entrepreneur who became one of the wealthiest self-made women in U.S. history, and who was an important advocate for racial equality and women’s rights.

At the opening of our exhibit, I spoke with an African American woman about Walker’s legacy, reflecting on the reality that there are villains in our history—but also heroes who fought against slavery, institutional racism and the marginalization of women. By reminding us of our shared past, art can galvanize Americans to strive to more perfectly live up to our ideals. Just think of the runaway success of Hamilton or the enduring popularity of the Statue of Liberty.

Artists can use their craft to provoke and heal in creating this type of art; state and local governments can subsidize their art in the interest of social cohesion. Individual Americans can recommit to studying our past. As former Congressman Lee Hamilton said to an audience at the exhibit, “The primary duty of citizenship is to make your community a little bit more beautiful when you leave than when you got there.”

Maners Maketh Man: How Conduct Formed Washington’s Character

When our first president was sixteen, he hand-copied 110 Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation, a book of etiquette originally compiled by a group of French Jesuits. Though Washington is not known as the most intellectually gifted of the Founding Fathers, he is remembered for his character, which he formed by serving others through his seemingly insignificant, everyday conduct.

It was through the diligent performance of mundane tasks that Washington learned what the ancient sages taught: character is formed by conduct.

The very first of the 110 Rules of Civility emphasizes that civil conduct involves a mindfulness of others in all circumstances—“Every action done in company ought to be with some sign of respect to those that are present”—and then explains the importance of not killing vermin like lice and flees (at least in the presence of others!) and the peril of spitting or picking your teeth at the dinner table.[1] These rules may seem hopelessly antiquarian, but they demonstrate an important truth that Washington understood: we owe, and are owed, a bare minimum of civility because of our inherent human dignity, and that respect for others in ways great and small is the stuff of character.

This first maxim of civility informed all the rest and guided Washington throughout his life. He strove to demonstrate respect to all he encountered and often made a good first impression—especially among the ladies. His presence so impressed the wife of his vice president, Abigail Adams, that she gushed to a friend after meeting him: “He is polite with dignity, affable without familiarity, distant without Haughtiness, Grave without Austerity, Modest, Wise & Good. These are traits in his Character which peculiarly fit him for the exalted station he holds.”

Even amid this sort of praise, and even as a young man, Washington’s conduct reflected an other-regarding humility.


For example, in 1754, when he was twenty-two years old and a colonel stationed in Alexandria, Washington argued with one William Payne over competing candidates for a Virginia Assembly seat. The argument became so passionate that Washington hurled an insult Payne’s way, prompting Payne to take a swing at Washington, knocking him to the ground. Washington’s men rose to avenge their leader, but he stopped them. He instead asked Payne to meet him at the local tavern the following day.

Payne arrived armed and prepared for a duel. He was surprised instead to see Washington seated with two wine glasses before him. Washington rose, greeted him with a smile, and extended his hand. “Mr. Payne, to err is nature; to rectify error is glory,” Washington said. “I believe I was wrong yesterday; you have already had some satisfaction, and if you deem that sufficient, here is my hand—let us be friends.”

Washington’s willingness to put aside his pride benefitted not only him but also his country. One crisp afternoon in February 1781, Washington summoned Alexander Hamilton, his aide-de-camp. On his way to meet Washington, Hamilton was met by the Marquis de Lafayette. After a brief exchange, Hamilton finally made his way to the general.

Washington fumed. “Colonel Hamilton, you have kept me waiting at the head of the stairs these ten minutes. I must tell you, sir, that you treat me with great disrespect!” Hamilton replied, “I am not conscious of it, sir, but since you have thought it necessary to tell me so, we part.” With that, Hamilton resigned.

Within the hour, Washington sent Hamilton a message apologizing for the outburst. They reconciled, and Washington in the end elevated the talented Hamilton to a post of active command at Yorktown. Washington knew that exercising true civility is to employ moderate words and actions for the sake of respecting the dignity of others.


Washington realized, too, that true civility must also be true to the literal sense of the word: conduct befitting membership in the civis—being a good citizen in a republic. This meant respecting the humanity and dignity of others with whom one might have deep differences. Moses Seixas, a member of the first Jewish congregation in Newport, wrote to Washington in advance of his trip to Rhode Island, thanking him and his government for “generously affording to all liberty of conscience, and immunities of citizenship: deeming every one, of whatever nation, tongue, or language, equal parts of the great governmental machine.”

Washington’s letter in response affirmed the U.S. government’s commitment to respecting the varying beliefs, backgrounds, and practices of all citizens: “For happily the Government of the United States gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens.”

These stories and examples show that Washington was a man with great inner strength and moral fortitude, which he built over a life of practicing respect for others. Washington’s interior life—the motives of his heart that drove his outer action—was not perfect, but we know that he strove to demonstrate respect for others despite differences, to acknowledge his own shortcomings, and, above all, to consider the good of others alongside his own. Such was the strength of Washington’s character, fortified by years of repetition—starting with his hand-copied etiquette rules.

Washington began practicing his humility, selflessness, and other-orientedness at an early age, cultivating a habit of mind and soul that culminated in his ultimate selfless act: refusing a royal crown for the sake of the republic for which he had fought.

Parson Weems, Washington’s first biographer, wrote of him, “No wonder every body honoured him who honoured every body.”

[1] Washington’s Rules No. 13, 95 and 100, respectively.

Alexandra Hudson is passionate about the way that ideas and storytelling can change people’s lives. A writer, bibliophile, and refugee from federal politics, she earned her MSc from the London School of Economics, currently lives in the American Midwest, and is writing a book on civility. Follow her on Twitter @LexiOHudson.

George Washington’s Commitment to Human Dignity

The drive for recognition is among the most basic and universal of human motivations. It is the mainspring of human action, having motivated the Alexanders, Caesars, and Napoleons of the world, but also the Michelangelos, Marie Curies, as well as our own George Washington, whose birthday we celebrate this month.

Recognition is necessarily zero-sum: to praise is to identify in something a good that is out of the ordinary—and by definition, not everyone can be extraordinary. In remembering Washington this President’s Day, we celebrate his courage and moral fortitude. America exists because he was not, in these respects, ordinary.

There exists a tension between the idea that all people have equal worth and that some people are more praiseworthy than others. It feels almost un-American to elevate some over others, and contrary to the all-men-are-created-equal credo of the Declaration of Independence. Yet we also—rightly—celebrate the sacrifice of men and women in our armed forces, the achievements of the best athletes, and the talents of artists. Making “top 100” lists is almost an American pastime, and shows that we are not egalitarian absolutists. We understand that recognizing the achievements of others is right and good.

We should not try to dissolve this tension in favor of one principle or the other. Both are true: the fact of difference doesn’t negate our fundamental equality. Take Washington, who was himself praiseworthy, but also dedicated to the natural equality of all.

Washington was a legend, even in his day. His first biographer, Mason Locke “Parson” Weems, insisted that he embodied all virtues: “It is hardly an exaggeration to say that Washington was pious as Numa; just as Aristides; temperate as Epictetus; patriotic as Regulus; in giving public trusts, impartial as Severus; in victory, modest as Scipio; prudent as Fabius; rapid as Marcellus; undaunted as Hannibal; as Cincinnatus disinterested; to liberty as firm as Cato; as respectful to the laws as Socrates.”

Retelling famous stories about Washington’s virtue and ability—such as his honesty after cutting down his father’s cherry tree (popularized by Weems) or surviving two horses being shot out from under him—buttressed his exalted status, past and present.

However, Washington was committed to the equality of all persons, and acted on that commitment in important ways. Most famously, after the American Revolution, it was out of his dedication to the rule of equal citizens that he declined the would-be American throne. According to King George III, this decision made him “the most distinguished of any man living…the greatest character of the age.”

Of course, Washington did not fully live up to his ideal of equality. He was a slave owner until his death. He undoubtedly thought slavery was a harm to the American project, and he criticized the abhorrent institution during and after the American revolutionary war: “I never mean (unless some particular circumstance should compel me to it) to possess another slave by purchase: it being among my first wishes to see some plan adopted by the legislature by which slavery in the Country may be abolished by slow, sure, & imperceptible degrees.” Washington provided for the manumission of his slaves in his will, but there can be no doubt that he was unwilling to bear the costs that truly confronting the evil of slavery would require during his lifetime.

It is not unusual that Washington refused to live out his ideals in every aspect of his life. Today, as then, many of us, out of selfishness or prejudice, fail to live in the way we know we ought. This does not begin to excuse Washington, of course, but it does make our understanding of our first President more authentic and relatable—it is our fallibility that makes us human. We can learn not only from Washington’s egalitarian ideals, but also from his failure to live up to them.

When Washington was in the first national capital of New York City, his desire to treat everyone equally and avoid appearing to play favorites caused him apprehension over how to respond to dinner invitations. If he accepted the offer to dine at the house of one person, would he be obligated to dine with everyone? If he declined, would he appear haughty and—God forbid—monarchical? Being evenhanded in his treatment of all American citizens, out of respect for their fundamental equality, was a real concern for him.

Thomas Jefferson, perhaps our second most esteemed Founding Father, reminds us that our distinctions matter less than what we have in common. In a letter to Henry of Gregoir in 1809, he wrote, “Degree of talent can be no measure of rights. If it were, it would mean Isaac Newton would have more rights than the local butcher.”

We study Newton’s scientific achievements in history textbooks because his achievements in the natural sciences were more pronounced than the butcher’s. Similarly, many of us will never lead a revolutionary war as Washington did. But for Jefferson, those differences—between Newton and the Butcher, Washington and ourselves—are less important than the similarities: our intrinsic equality as human beings, the thesis of the Declaration of Independence.

Today, some condemn America’s recognition of merit, claiming it promotes hierarchy and injustice. Jefferson’s point is salient. Though recognizing difference—in talent, interest, qualification, or accomplishment—invariably produces hierarchy, a society that recognizes the praiseworthy is tolerable and good only if we understand that our differences matter less than our essential commonality: the innate and equal dignity of all.

Washington recognized this truth. For that reason, among others, we honor him.

Alexandra Hudson is a writer, bibliophile, and former federal civil servant based in the Midwest. She contributes to the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Examiner, and Quillette. She is currently writing a book on civility. Follow her on Twitter @LexiOHudson.

The Curious Reemergence of Little Platoons

“What does your part of the country think about what’s happening in Washington, D.C. right now?” a man in his mid sixties read aloud from a sheet of paper to the group of six Republicans and six Democrats. I had just arrived at the small, split-level home in a wooded neighborhood in Bloomington, Indiana—miffed by the uncommon, light-to-medium traffic that had delayed my arrival from Indianapolis—and hurriedly joined a group of twelve seated in a circle. This was a Better Angels workshop, one of hundreds of such gatherings happening in communities across the country, which aims to unify a deeply divided nation. The organization’s name derives from Abraham Lincoln’s First Inaugural address, delivered while our country was on the precipice of a civil war, where he implored Americans to prevent difference from “break[ing] our bonds of affection,” and to appeal to “the better angels of our nature.” Like Lincoln, Better Angels seeks to heal a broken America by improving our public discourse. The volunteer-led workshops teach skills of human connection— paraphrasing, listening, asking questions of …

The Value of Exercising Civility—in Both Oikos and Polis

“I’m done with my grandfather,” a friend confided in me after a recent family gathering. “He compulsively talks about how George Soros is to blame for everything—and then refuses to recognize any evidence to the contrary,” she said. “He has his talking points, and there’s no changing his mind. It’s not even worth having a conversation.” In our polarized moment, we sometimes struggle to fulfill basic social or professional obligations with family, friends and co-workers who hold views we find objectionable. But we ought not cut people off without thinking carefully the consequences. It’s not just that we risk losing important relationships. People whose ideological or political opinions we oppose may still have something to offer. Cutting them off leaves us both intellectually and emotionally poorer. Most of us have stories like the one my friend told me. And while the details differ, they all go to a central question: What is the unspoken social contract that governs how we discuss ideas? At what point do we no longer have to listen to what another …

What Does the Universal Declaration of Human Rights Mean Today?

“What is man, that you are mindful of him, human beings that you should care for them?”

The question the Psalmist asks God is the same question philosophers have been asking one another for more than three millennia: What does it mean to be human? What makes us different from the rest of creation?

For Aristotle, the answer was man’s political, or “social,” nature. For Blaise Pascal, it was man’s intellect: “Man is only a reed, the weakest in nature, but he is a thinking reed.” Renaissance philosopher Pico della Mirandola, author of the famous Oration on the Dignity of Man, maintained that man’s distinguishing feature is his volition. Immanuel Kant located humanity’s uniqueness in our moral nature.

The United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which turned 70 on December 10 this year, offers a different answer: to be human is to have an innate dignity that gives us an irreducible moral worth—a worth that makes all human individuals fundamentally equal to one another and distinct from other forms of life. The UDHR’s first line proudly recognizes “the inherent dignity and . . . equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family,” principles that are “the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.”

The UDHR’s crucial claim is that the question of man’s nature is not merely academic or philosophical. It has moral consequences. Philosophers have long argued that man is distinct from animals or plants by emphasizing different aspects of his person. But the UDHR’s claim is different in asserting that a shared human nature gives us each equal moral worth. For most of human history, the notion that all humans are morally valuable was widely rejected.

Indeed, it is entirely possible that the UDHR’s foundational statement—that we all share an inherent dignity that implies certain inalienable rights—will one day again fall into global disfavor. For this reason, it is imperative that each successive generation understand the values of this document. To do so, we must remember the atrocities that led to it.

The decision of the United Nations’ Human Rights Commission to ground human rights in the idea of universal human dignity was not due to the philosophical force of the idea of dignity itself. As an astute essay by Remy Debes shows, the idea and terminology of dignity in intellectual history is rather amorphous. In his De Officiis (On Duties), Cicero uses dignitas to describe those holding an “honored place.”1 Such has been the case for most of dignity’s history, with the word often being used to describe the respect to which a particular kind of person—of a certain birth of rank—was entitled. In his De Oratore, Cicero uses dignitas and the related notion of gravitas to describe speech that is magisterial and weighty. It was not merely who spoke; dignity also aptly specified an aesthetic quality: i.e. persons who conducted themselves in a “dignified” manner.

This view of dignity would not change for many centuries. In Diderot and D’Alembert’s Encyclopédiethe crowning achievement of the European Enlightenment, the entry on Duty is an early proponent of the notion that our common nature, “endowed by [our] Creator with certain faculties,” means that we have certain moral obligations to all members of the human community:

The first absolute duty, of each man towards all others, is to harm no one… The second general, absolute duty of men is that each person must respect and treat others as naturally equal beings; that is, as beings who are as good as oneself, because this is a matter of a natural or moral equality. See Equality. The third general duty respective of men considered as members of society, is that each must contribute, as much as one can possibly do, to the utility of others.2

Immanuel Kant was the first to explicitly link man’s equal nature and moral obligations to our innate dignity.3 He claimed that all persons possess dignity by virtue of being moral beings—and humans alone are moral. More importantly, he asserted that our dignity has certain ethical implications. It is man’s “transcendent kernel” that endows all humans with unconditional, intrinsic worth, which is why in Kant’s famous categorical imperative people must be treated as ends in themselves, and never merely as means to ends.

In the kingdom of ends everything has either a price or a dignity. What has a price can be replaced by something else as its equivalent; what on the other hand is above all price and therefore admits of no equivalent has a dignity… but that which constitutes the condition under which alone something can be an end in itself has not merely a relative worth, that is, a price, but an inner worth, that is, dignity. Now, morality is the condition under which a rational being can be an end in itself, since only through this is it possible to be a lawgiving member in the kingdom of ends. Hence morality, and humanity insofar as it is capable of morality, is that which alone has dignity.4

It is perhaps with this tradition in mind that the UDHR uses humanity’s universal dignity to condemn the senseless loss of human life the world had so painfully endured (there is no scholarly consensus regarding why the United Nations’ Human Rights Commission chose to ground human rights in human dignity).

More important than the abstract philosophical reasoning, however, was the practical, lived experience of people in the mid-twentieth century. Humanity had just been through one of the bloodiest half-centuries in human history: two disastrous World Wars, the first use of nuclear weapons (on civilians, no less), the Rape of Nanking, the Russian Gulags, the Armenian Genocide, the Holocaust—which together caused the deaths of more than 100 million human beings—and other, some perhaps still unknown, atrocities. East to West, North to South, the world had been devastated by humankind’s brutality against itself.

The four decades leading up to 1948 confronted those still alive with humanity’s seemingly limitless capacity for evil. It seemed to the survivors that civilization had been resting on a narrow precipice, inches away from complete annihilation. They immediately set about determining how to move humanity further away from such a ledge, and they soon realized that any solution would require recognition of the importance of our irreducible worth as persons. They understood what Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn would so eloquently describe 25 years later in The Gulag Archipelago: the line between good and evil cuts through every human heart. Atrocities can be and were perpetrated by people not so different from us.

With the recent passing of George H.W. Bush, we are reminded that as we lose those who lived through those dark moments—the Greatest Generation who saw the evil of which humanity is capable—we become more nonchalant about concepts such as human dignity. Yet it is important to keep humanity’s capacity for evil salient to avoid losing sight of the need to respect everyone’s inherent worth. Philosophical contemplation is not sufficient for moral growth. Ethical development requires us to reflect on human tragedy and evil—which is why it is so important to study and remember the Holocaust and other atrocities. It is of course perfectly reasonable to disagree about how to apply the principle of human dignity to international affairs or to domestic policy questions, but—as history shows us—we dismiss it at our peril.

Human dignity matters because it takes certain options off the table: it means that we cannot casually dismiss costs to human life or wellbeing when we take decisions. Adam Smith famously observed in his Theory of Moral Sentiments that we do not feel the same degree of concern for those in China who suffer from an earthquake that we do for our own minor disturbances.5 As a descriptive matter, this is of course entirely true. Yet the fact that we share human dignity means that we ought not to entirely disregard the value of the lives of those who are different or distant from us.

The Book of Genesis tells of God creating man “in his own image.” This gave rise to the theological concept of imago dei—a rich and deeply-mined idea in the Judeo-Christian tradition. That man was created in the image and likeness of God separates him from the rest of life on earth, giving him a moral worth (this concept is also found in Sufism). It is likely that this view of human dignity influenced the United Nations’ Human Rights Commission: some of the Commission’s most influential members—Eleanor Roosevelt, Charles Malik (Lebanese existentialist philosopher turned diplomat), and General Carlos P. Romulo of the Philippines—were Episcopalian, Orthodox Christian, and Roman Catholic, respectively.

Yet they knew that if the document were to be taken seriously and have any impact outside the West, the document’s principles needed grounding in a broad cross-cultural consensus. Otherwise, the declaration would be thought of as a manifestation of merely “Western” values that were inapplicable to other cultures. The Commission consulted philosophers from all cultures and religions, from far East to far West, to distill a basic set of values that they could agree upon and unify around. The result was a proclamation of universal human rights grounded in our inherent dignity, affirming the fundamental unity of the human race. The dominant religious and philosophical traditions—Buddhism, Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Taoism, Hinduism, and many of their respective offshoots—take for granted that all members of mankind have basic attributes in common, and that we share a common humanity. These traditions may differ over how to deal with life’s miseries, but not the what of who we are as a human race. It is this common essence that the UDHR captures: for the framers, the fact that every man, woman, and child shared the most fundamental thing in common put other racial, linguistic, national, and religious differences into perspective. As the French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain mused, many songs can be played on the document’s thirty strings.

That the Human Rights Commission found such a consensus illustrates the universality of basic truths about the world and the human condition. It recognized that human nature is the same throughout time and culture, and that people everywhere are able to infer certain fundamental principles regarding the nature of freedom, human dignity, and communal flourishing. This ought to be a reminder to us in our own deeply divided moment: it is only when we agree upon shared fundamental values, such as the inherent dignity of all persons, that it is possible to debate the Good. It is also an encouragement: we were able to reach an agreement on first principles in the pursuit of a more just world.

However, today we are in danger of forgetting the consensus of values that once united us. Memories of past atrocities, which once galvanized the world to make such a statement of human value, are fading. This is particularly worrying because the UDHR is not legally binding: there are no armed forces, police, or courts to enforce its 30 articles. Indeed, critics often disparage the utility of the UDHR by pointing to the horrible human rights violations that have been committed in the decades since it was enacted. Yet in declaring the value of each human being—and outlining what they are owed, and owe to others, in light of their personhood—the UDHR was, and continues to be, a beacon of moral authority to the world.

The UDHR is in many ways analogous to America’s Declaration of Independence: another non-binding document which enshrined universal truths of the inviolability of human equality and rights.6 In his speech on the Dred Scott Decision on June 26, 1857, Abraham Lincoln discussed the denial of slaves’ equality and rights, and acknowledged the way in which the Declaration of Independence neither brought about perfect equality nor recognition of fundamental rights:

[America’s framers] did not mean to assert the obvious untruth, that all were then actually enjoying that equality, nor yet, that they were about to confer it immediately upon them. In fact they had no power to confer such a boon. They meant simply to declare the right, so that the enforcement of it might follow as fast as circumstances should permit. They meant to set up a standard maxim for free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere.

The principles of the Declaration of Independence reveal the moral wrong of slavery. The Declaration did not abolish that abhorrent institution, but as abolitionist Fredrick Douglass would argue, its moral clarity contributed to slavery’s eventual destruction.

The same may be said of the UDHR. The 70 years since its enactment have seen many advancements in the cause of human rights. The UDHR precipitated decolonization and the independence of post-colonial countries. Specific references to the UDHR are made in the constitutions of Algeria, Congo, Chad, Cameroon, Madagascar, Mali, Niger, Rwanda, Togo, Somalia, Mauritania, Senegal, Ivory Coast, Equitorial Guinea, Burundi, and Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso)—and even informed the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in Canada and other countries.7 The UDHR also contributed to the fall of apartheid in South Africa, and to the collapse of the totalitarian regimes of the former Soviet Bloc. In the United States, it hastened a proliferation of civil rights legislation protecting the freedoms and promoting equality for formerly oppressed and marginalized groups, such as the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act, and many others.

No one would argue that the UDHR was a sufficient cause for these developments. (It plainly was insufficient to prevent many of the atrocities that have occurred in the decades following its enactment—the genocides in Darfur, Cambodia, Rwanda, and Serbia, the totalitarianism in North Korea, the Congolese Civil War, and many other brutalities.) But its moral authority was undoubtedly an important instrument to those who worked so hard to effect progressive change.

The UDHR brought the world into a new era. It articulated a new standard to which states were to be accountable in how they treat their citizens. But the UDHR’s demands are not restricted to governments. The UDHR also sets a standard for our moral obligation to one another—citizen to citizen, person to person. The UDHR’s framers understood that culture is prior to law and institutions. The conduct they wished to deter or promote had to be instilled in hearts of minds of leaders and citizens alike.

Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of FDR and a key contributor to the UDHR, knew that a declaration of abstract ideals carried “no weight unless the people understand them, unless the people demand they be lived.” Judicial decisions and law change only when individuals “progress inwardly.”8 Universal human rights begin with each of us, she said, “in small places, close to home—so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. They are the world of the individual person.”

In her remarkable biography of the UDHR, A World Made New, Mary Ann Glendon eloquently describes how seriously the UDHR’s framers took the idea that respect for human rights, and for human dignity, begins at home: “[Small places] are where people first learn about their rights and how to exercise them responsibly—families, schools, workplaces, and religious and other associations. These little seedbeds of character and competence, together with the rule of law, political freedoms, social security, international cooperation, are all part of the Declaration’s dynamic ecology of freedom.”

Seven decades ago, world leaders sought to bring from the ashes of humanity’s evil and darkest moments a document declaring humankind’s commitment to, and capacity for, justice and good. The UDHR was the fruit of this effort, but it was only the beginning. The survival of its principles depends on the decisions we take each day to recognize the inherent, inviolable dignity of all those with whom we interact.

Far from being a document that was an end in itself, let us see this seventieth anniversary as fresh start—a starting point with which we see ourselves as everyday architects of a more just, harmonious world.

Alexandra Hudson is a writer, bibliophile, and refugee from federal politics. She earned an M.S. in comparative social policy at the London School of Economics as a Rotary Scholar, lives in the American Midwest, and is currently writing a book on civility. She contributes to the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Examiner, and The Hill. You can contact her at and follow her on Twitter @LexiOHudson

Notes and References:

1 Rosen, Michael. Dignity: It’s History and Meaning. Cambridge: Harvard University Press (accessed December 9th, 2018), 11.
2 Jaucourt, Louis, chevalier de. “Duty” The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d’Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. Translated by Jeremy Caradonna. Ann Arbor: Michigan Publishing, University of Michigan Library, 2004. (accessed December 8th, 2018). Originally published as “Devoir,” Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, 4:915–917 (Paris, 1754).
3 Rosen, Michael. Dignity: It’s History and Meaning. Cambridge: Harvard University Press (accessed December 9th, 2018), 19.
4 Kant, Immanuel. Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, translated and edited by Mary Gregor [NY:  Cambridge, 1998], pp. 42-43.
5 “Let us suppose that the great empire of China, with all its myriads of inhabitants, was suddenly swallowed up by an earthquake, and let us consider how a man of humanity in Europe, who had no sort of connection with that part of the world, would be affected upon receiving intelligence of this dreadful calamity. He would, I imagine, first of all, express very strongly his sorrow for the misfortune of that unhappy people, he would make many melancholy reflections upon the precariousness of human life, and the vanity of all the labours of man, which could thus be annihilated in a moment. He would too, perhaps, if he was a man of speculation, enter into many reasonings concerning the effects which this disaster might produce upon the commerce of Europe, and the trade and business of the world in general. And when all this fine philosophy was over, when all these humane sentiments had been once fairly expressed, he would pursue his business or his pleasure, take his repose or his diversion, with the same ease and tranquillity, as if no such accident had happened. The most frivolous disaster which could befall himself would occasion a more real disturbance. If he was to lose his little finger to-morrow, he would not sleep to-night; but, provided he never saw them, he will snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren, and the destruction of that immense multitude seems plainly an object less interesting to him, than this paltry misfortune of his own. To prevent, therefore, this paltry misfortune to himself, would a man of humanity be willing to sacrifice the lives of a hundred millions of his brethren, provided he had never seen them? Human nature startles with horror at the thought, and the world, in its greatest depravity and corruption, never produced such a villain as could be capable of entertaining it. But what makes this difference? When our passive feelings are almost always so sordid and so selfish, how comes it that our active principles should often be so generous and so noble? When we are always so much more deeply affected by whatever concerns ourselves, than by whatever concerns other men; what is it which prompts the generous, upon all occasions, and the mean upon many, to sacrifice their own interests to the greater interests of others? It is not the soft power of humanity, it is not that feeble spark of benevolence which Nature has lighted up in the human heart, that is thus capable of counteracting the strongest impulses of self-love. It is a stronger power, a more forcible motive, which exerts itself upon such occasions. It is reason, principle, conscience, the inhabitant of the breast, the man within, the great judge and arbiter of our conduct.”
6 Gendon, Mary Ann. Louis, chevalier de. A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declariatio of Human Rights. New York: Random House Publishing (accessed December 8th, 2018).
7 Ibid, 228.
8 Ibid, 239.
9 Ibid, 240.