A Common Weakness by Eliot Gregory

Story type: Essay

Governments may change and all the conditions of life be modified, but certain ambitions and needs of man remain immutable. Climates, customs, centuries, have in no way diminished the craving for consideration, the desire to be somebody, to bear some mark indicating to the world that one is not as other men.

For centuries titles supplied the want. This satisfaction has been denied to us, so ambitious souls are obliged to seek other means to feed their vanity.

Even before we were born into the world of nations, an attempt was made amongst the aristocratically minded court surrounding our chief magistrate, to form a society that should (without the name) be the beginning of a class apart.

The order of the Cincinnati was to have been the nucleus of an American nobility. The tendencies of this society are revealed by the fact that primogeniture was its fundamental law. Nothing could have been more opposed to the spirit of the age, nor more at variance with the declaration of our independence, than the insertion of such a clause. This fact was discovered by the far-seeing eye of Washington, and the society was suppressed in the hope (shared by almost all contemporaries) that with new forms of government the nature of man would undergo a transformation and rise above such puerile ambitions.

Time has shown the fallacy of these dreams. All that has been accomplished is the displacement of the objective point; the desire, the mania for a handle to one’s name is as prevalent as ever. Leave the centres of civilization and wander in the small towns and villages of our country. Every other man you meet is introduced as the Colonel or the Judge, and you will do well not to inquire too closely into the matter, nor to ask to see the title-deeds to such distinctions. On the other hand, to omit his prefix in addressing one of these local magnates, would be to offend him deeply. The women-folk were quick to borrow a little of this distinction, and in Washington to-day one is gravely presented to Mrs. Senator Smith or Mrs. Colonel Jones. The climax being reached by one aspiring female who styles herself on her visiting cards, “Mrs. Acting-Assistant-Paymaster Robinson.” If by any chance it should occur to any one to ask her motive in sporting such an unwieldy handle, she would say that she did it “because one can’t be going about explaining that one is not just ordinary Mrs. Robinson or Thompson, like the thousand others in town.” A woman who cannot find an excuse for assuming such a prefix will sometime have recourse to another stratagem, to particularize an ordinary surname. She remembers that her husband, who ever since he was born has been known to everybody as Jim, is the proud possessor of the middle name Ivanhoe, or Pericles (probably the result of a romantic mother’s reading); so one fine day the young couple bloom out as Mr. and Mrs. J. Pericles Sparks, to the amusement of their friends, their own satisfaction, and the hopeless confusion of their tradespeople.

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Not long ago a Westerner, who went abroad with a travelling show, was received with enthusiasm in England because it was thought “The Honorable” which preceded his name on his cards implied that although an American he was somehow the son of an earl. As a matter of fact he owed this title to having sat, many years before in the Senate of a far-western State. He will cling to that “Honorable” and print it on his cards while life lasts. I was told the other day of an American carpet warrior who appeared at court function abroad decorated with every college badge, and football medal in his possession, to which he added at the last moment a brass trunk check, to complete the brilliancy of the effect. This latter decoration attracted the attention of the Heir Apparent, who inquired the meaning of the mystic “416” upon it. This would have been a “facer” to any but a true son of Uncle Sam. Nothing daunted, however, our “General” replied “That, Sir, is the number of pitched battles I have won.”

I have my doubts as to the absolute veracity of this tale. But that the son of one of our generals, appeared not long ago at a public reception abroad, wearing his father’s medals and decorations, is said to be true. Decorations on the Continent are official badges of distinction conferred and recognized by the different governments. An American who wears, out of his own country, an army or college badge which has no official existence, properly speaking, being recognized by no government, but which is made intentionally to look as much as possible like the “Legion d’Honneur,” is deliberately imposing on the ignorance of foreigners, and is but little less of a pretentious idiot than the owners of the trunk check and the borrowed decorations.

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There seems no end to the ways a little ambitious game can be played. One device much in favor is for the wife to attach her own family name to that of her husband by means of a hyphen. By this arrangement she does not entirely lose her individuality; as a result we have a splendid assortment of hybrid names, such as Van Cortland-Smith and Beekman-Brown. Be they never so incongruous these double-barrelled cognomens serve their purpose and raise ambitious mortals above the level of other Smiths and Browns. Finding that this arrangement works well in their own case, it is passed on to the next generation. There are no more Toms and Bills in these aspiring days. The little boys are all Cadwalladers or Carrolls. Their school-fellows, however, work sad havoc with these high-sounding titles and quickly abbreviate them into humble “Cad” or “Rol.”

It is surprising to notice what a number of middle-aged gentlemen have blossomed out of late with decorations in their button-holes according to the foreign fashion. On inquiry I have discovered that these ornaments designate members of the G.A.R., the Loyal Legion, or some local Post, for the rosettes differ in form and color. When these gentlemen travel abroad, to reduce their waists or improve their minds, the effects on the hotel waiters and cabmen must be immense. They will be charged three times the ordinary tariff instead of only the double which is the stranger’s usual fate at the hands of simple-minded foreigners. The satisfaction must be cheap, however, at that price.

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Even our wise men and sages do not seem to have escaped the contagion. One sees professors and clergymen (who ought to set a better example) trailing half a dozen letters after their names, initials which to the initiated doubtless mean something, but which are also intended to fill the souls of the ignorant with envy. I can recall but one case of a foreign decoration being refused by a compatriot. He was a genius and we all know that geniuses are crazy. This gentleman had done something particularly gratifying to an Eastern potentate, who in return offered him one of his second-best orders. It was at once refused. When urged on him a second time our countryman lost his temper and answered, “If you want to give it to somebody, present it to my valet. He is most anxious to be decorated.” And it was done!

It does not require a deeply meditative mind to discover the motives of ambitious struggles. The first and strongest illusion of the human mind is to believe that we are different from our fellows, and our natural impulse is to try and impress this belief upon others.

Pride of birth is but one of the manifestations of the universal weakness–invariably taking stronger and stronger hold of the people, who from the modest dimension of their income, or other untoward circumstances, can find no outward and visible form with which to dazzle the world. You will find that a desire to shine is the secret of most of the tips and presents that are given while travelling or visiting, for they can hardly be attributed to pure spontaneous generosity.

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How many people does one meet who talk of their poor and unsuccessful relatives while omitting to mention rich and powerful connections? We are told that far from blaming such a tendency we are to admire it. That it is proper pride to put one’s best foot forward and keep an offending member well out of sight, that the man who wears a rosette in the button- hole of his coat and has half the alphabet galloping after his name, is an honor to his family.

Far be it from me to deride this weakness in others, for in my heart I am persuaded that if I lived in China, nothing would please me more than to have my cap adorned with a coral button, while if fate had cast my life in the pleasant places of central Africa, a ring in my nose would doubtless have filled my soul with joy. The fact that I share this weakness does not, however, prevent my laughing at such folly in others.

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