“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).