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December 23, 1974

The Decline of American Gentility

Author Affiliations

American Medical Association Chicago

JAMA. 1974;230(12):1703. doi:10.1001/jama.1974.03240120071032

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Democratic America lacked a titled nobility and a hereditary aristocracy, but, nevertheless, there was a long tradition of leadership. This tradition defined an elite and an aristocracy in the sense of the best, and this in turn involved a sense of values. In American society, what values have been most highly regarded and deemed most worthy of emulation? For a long time the concept of the gentleman, representative of the gentry and exhibiting gentility, served as the standard. The Boston Brahmin comes most readily to mind. But values changed and the composition and standards of the elite changed with them.

Professor Persons contrasts the gentry—having its own culture, traditions, education, manners, and talents—with the "social-economic elite"—representing the newly rich— and the "mass man" or the "common man." Persons discusses the interaction of the three groups under various environmental circumstances, eg, the decline of the Old South, Jacksonian democracy, the growth