The Shirt is Nearest the Skin

“We were entertained with an elegant dispute between a young Quaker and the boatswain of a privateer, concerning the lawfulness of using arms against an enemy.  The Quaker thee’d and thou’d it thro’ the nose to perfection, and the privateer’s boatswain swore just like the boatswain of a privateer, but they were so far from settling the point that the Quaker had almost acted contrary to his principles, clenching his fist at his antagonist to strike him for bidding God damn him.”

Alexander Hamilton, Itinerarium (June 5, 1744)

In another entry in his Itinerarium, Hamilton recalled the old proverb “the shirt is nearest the skin,” and explained that this means “touch a man in his private interests, and you immediately procure his ill will.”  A man may put up with a good deal of roughness in his outer garments, but will hate anyone who tries to set anything but smooth cambric against his flesh.  We see the principle illustrated in Hamilton’s anecdote about the dispute between the Quaker and the boatswain, where the Quaker is prepared to forgive his enemies for every trespass except the trespass that touches him where he is tender and it chafes.

It is easy to be a friend of mankind when all your enemies are dead, just as it is easy to be tolerant when everything you hate has been outlawed.

Hamilton recalled the proverb about shirt and skin after conversing with a clergyman and his wife about a recent reduction in the tithe that Maryland collected to support the church.  He relates that “this reverend gentleman and his wife seemed to express their indignation with some zeal,” and I don’t see why we should be surprised.  Retrenchment is seldom agreeable, nor is exchange of underclothes made of smooth cambric for underclothes made of rough canvas.

But as we see in the anecdote of the dispute between the Quaker and the boatswain, there is more to a man’s private interests than dollars and cents.

We each wish to think well of ourselves, and we each find this easiest when we are ensconced in a “mutual admiration society.” This was, in fact, the unofficial but generally recognized name of a club of five complacent Boston intellectuals who wrote much of The North American Review in the 1840s.  The head of this club was Dr. John Gorham Palfrey, a professor of Divinity at Harvard who resigned his post to edit the Review.  On Sundays, Professor Palfrey received promising young undergraduates at his residence on Divinity Avenue, in Cambridge, and of these audiences one fortunate acolyte had this to say:

“Palfrey makes you think you are the best fellow in the world—and, by Jove, he makes you think he is the next best.”*

Idioms changed in the hundred years that passed between that dispute between the Quaker and Boatswain and this visit of the undergraduate to Palfrey’s house on Divinity Avenue, but I have no doubt that everyone in Professor Palfrey’s parlor was theeing and thouing in spirit, and that they probably did this through their noses and to perfection.  And I have no doubt that they consequently felt that they were very fine fellows who would never hurt a fly, because no one was at that moment proposing to strip them of their smooth cambric shirts.  No one was, for instance, suggesting that, far from being fine fellows, they were in fact honking geese whose preening idealism would very shortly kill half a million American boys.

The shirt is nearest the skin, and our self-regard is that shirt.  The French call this self-regard amour propre, by which they mean the love of one’s own qualities in the comfortable conviction that these qualities are, in fact, perfectly lovely.  As Rochefoucauld wrote in 1665,

“Though rarely bold enough to assert that we have no faults, and that our enemies have no virtues, we are not far from believing.”

The man who comes closest to believing that he has no faults is, of course, an idealist who thee’s and thou’s through his nose, and who perhaps receives undergraduates on Sundays at his residence on Divinity Avenue. Such a man (or woman) has fallen in love with an image of himself as one of “the best fellows in the world,” and when this illusion is contradicted by some dirty boatswain of no quality, his amour propre will naturally cause him to “clench his fist at his antagonist to strike him for bidding God damn him.”

The shirt is nearest the skin.   Or as Hamilton explained,

“touch a man in his private interests, and you immediately procure his ill will.”


*) Edward Everett Hale, James Russell Lowell and His Friends (1899).

10 thoughts on “The Shirt is Nearest the Skin

  1. Pingback: The Shirt is Nearest the Skin | Reaction Times

  2. What a gem of perennial wisdom; and from Hamilton, of whom I’m no great admirer. Your essay once again illustrates the joy, mentioned in the gospel of Matthew, of finding a buried treasure. And “treasure” understood broadly, as you note by drawing upon the sensibilities of those worthy divines of yore. I should have liked to have been an undergraduate in your parlor.

  3. None of the professorettes in my ex-department thous or thees anyone, but all speak through their noses. (Sometimes the nose is all you’re aware of.) They come off like stern-faced big-wigs of the WCTU preaching to the men coming out of the bar. Come to think of it, the professors come off like WCTU cadres, too.

    • No thees and thous, but an affected and unbearably prissy style of speaking. I remember once sitting through a seminar by a professor who gave weight to his words by speaking so softly the audience could not move for fear that the rustle would drown out his voice. The English professor I know vacillate between the speaking style of Hamilton’s Quaker and Boatswain, at one moment theeing and thouing in spirit, and at then cursing like a sailor at the next.

  4. Hamilton’s anecdote is pretty funny. You’ve seen the mini-series, John Adams, I expect. Speaking of ‘the shirt being nearest the skin,’ recall the exchange between Mr. Adams (of Massachusetts) and Mr. Dickenson (of Pennsylvania) in which the former verbally assaults the other and his cohorts for his/their “Quaker Sensibilities,” that indeed Mr. Dickenson is ‘speaking through his nose,’ albeit not exactly to perfection in this rendition as in Hamilton’s humorous story. Below is the relevant clip from the series. Give particular attention to the background reaction of Mr. Dickenson’s brethren at table, who had, as it appears, ‘almost acted contrary to their principles’ upon anticipating Mr. Adams’s accusations, ‘bidding God Damn them.’:

    • Thanks for the link. I didn’t know the series. Quakers are really the eminence grise of American cultural history. They were tremendously influential, and tremendously destructive in my opinion, but everyone today thinks they did nothing but make oatmeal.

  5. As a Civilian, it has always struck me as odd that American tort law has no generalised remedy, such as the Actio Iniuriarum of the Civil Law, in which the protected interest is honour, or dignitas, and the injury suffered through its infringement is affront – A deliberate attack on one’s sense of worth.

    In Scotland, Lord Murray described the Actio Iniuriarum as the remedy for “an offence maliciously committed to the reproach and grievance of another, whereby his fame, dignity or reputation is hurt” (Newton v Fleming (1846) 8 D 677). In this one hears an echo of Ulpian: “Omnemque iniuriam aut in corpus inferri aut ad dignitatem aut ad infamiam pertinere – Every insult is inflicted on the person or pertains to one’s dignity or involves disgrace (Dig. Ulpianus 56 ad ed).

    Starting in the 17th century, the Actio Iniuriarum found its way into the criminal law for what Lord Meadowbank significantly described as “the sort of affront that no gentleman shows another, unless he is prepared to venture his life on the issue.” Thus, “using insulting or abusive words or behaviour, likely to cause a breach of the peace” is a common specification.


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