Reading american books about that time, (mostly Mark Twain), I often met the term "gentleman". But what did it require to be "gentleman" these times in America? Were there some official definitions of the term? Or do you know about some definition in the literature?

How non-gentleman could become a gentleman? And vice-versa.

Were there some regional differences?

(I am not talking about the times of O'Henry, for his heroes became gentlemen simply taking on a suit.)

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    Not certain this is a history question. Maybe better for English Language and Usage? My 2¢ is a gentleman was a man who is not a laborer and is not morally suspect. books.google.com/books/…
    – AllInOne
    Aug 4, 2017 at 13:13
  • A lot of info in the Wikipedia page. I would say it is covered between historically starting with Landed Gentry , and , in the referenced time frame, the definition of the social and moral aspects expanded by Lee's statements.
    – justCal
    Aug 4, 2017 at 14:05
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    The Wikipedia page is of limited help because it was devoted mostly to 16th century Europe. The OP is asking about the US in Tom Sawyer's time, three centuries later. For this reason, it's not really an ELU question.
    – Tom Au
    Aug 4, 2017 at 14:26

2 Answers 2


Difficult question, and I doubt there is an objective answer. Tom Au's answer is correct, but I believe it is.... perhaps incomplete... "Gentleman" was an important cultural concept for Americans of the period, difficult to define, but very much present in social and political affairs.

I believe Gordon Wood in Revolutionary Americans characterized "Gentleman" as someone who was more independent than a tradesman. He provided the example that Benjamin Franklin sold his business(es) before entering politics. (I am paraphrasing an entire chapter of a book; this is not a direct quote)

Constitutionally, there are no gentle men or women in America. That said, much of the cultural context of the Constitutional convention was arranged around removing political power from tradesmen, and the laboring classes. America rejected the English class based society, but that was a rejection of class from birth, in favor of class based on outcome. (If I recall, this was one of the major themes of McCullogh's biography of Adams).

There was a general recognition that people who were dependent on others for their livelihood were not truly independent. Laborers, and tradesmen (historically there was a third category, but it escapes my mind) were dependent on others for their livelihood. Their opinions must never diverge too far from their customers and patrons.

Large landowners were truly independent. They did not rely on anyone, so they could be free to think deeply and to argue their opinions without fear of reprisal. (Any reading of American history will reveal that reprisal was a major force... Why was Madison not a Senator? Burr vs Hamilton? etc.)

Although America had renounced an inherited aristocracy, they still had a keen appreciation for honor. Hamilton's duel with Burr was over honor. Washington nearly refused to participate in the Constitutional Convention because he had pledged to retire from public life and going back on his word would diminish his honor. Jackson fought duels. Once you start looking, it is easy to develop additional examples. A gentleman had to behave as though he valued his honor and his reputation as a gentleman. (and only someone who was financially self-actualized could actually do that; tradesmen were perceived as unable to challenge those on whom their livelihood depended).

A Gentleman in a European country was an artifact of birth. In the US, Gentle was not a status granted by birth, but by some combination of self-actualization, wealth, education, reputation, and other factors. Lawyers considered themselves gentlemen (esquires) - likewise other prosperous professionals (who could, in theory, ignore the hostile opinions of others.)

I think this interpretation of "gentle" is more in line with the use of the term "gentleman" in Tom Sawyer - the couple of critical reviews I consulted point out that the irony is that almost all the men in Sawyer are definitely not gentlemen and would not have been treated as such by their neighbors.

Bit of an abstraction with more indirect references than I prefer in a good answer, but I think it is a useful complement to Mr. Au's.

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    @MarkCWallace: That caning was certainly not fought as a duel and it was basically one guy was pissed off at another guy, attacked him while sitting with a weapon and almost killed him. How is that different that someone today calling a guy an asshole in a bar and the other guy trying to kill him with a pool cue when his back incidentally was turned?
    – Jeff
    Aug 5, 2017 at 1:17
  • Excellent point. - I did not say it was a duel, I said it was an issue of honor. The root issue was whether the perpetrator had been a coward. I think though that I'll remove the example because it doesn't support my thesis strongly enough.
    – MCW
    Aug 5, 2017 at 11:39

In the 19th century U.S., there were basically two types of "gentlemen."

The first was the landed gentry. Obvious enough, the idea came from England and Europe generally. This may have represented 1% of the population.

The second type was "professional" men; doctor, lawyer, scientist, all with university degrees. These were expensive in terms of money and "time spent" that could have been used to earn money. Perhaps 2% of the population had such a degree., like Judge Thatcher in Tom Sawyer.

Basically, we're talking about 3% of the population; 5% tops. Apart from the fact that e.g. a successful gold miner in California or oil driller in Texas might be considered a gentleman "locally" (but not elsewhere until the second generation, because it was "new" money), the definition didn't vary much from region to region, but the mix did. For instance, there were more professional men in New England, and a larger proportion of landowners in the South.

So one would become a gentlemen by acquiring either a university degree and a profession, or land. "Once a gentleman, always a gentlemen," (that is professional or landowner) so this status was hard to lose, except by the next generation, or by a nouveaux riche (it was possible to lose all your gold, but not all your land).

Source: Generations, by William Strauss and Neil Howe.

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    Are you sure it's that accurate to say a 4-year degree would cost 10% of one's typical life expectancy of 47 years? It's arguably mathematical, but if you strip out childhood deaths and women dying as a consequence of childbirth, and also break out exceptionally unhealthy occupations like coal mining in a separate bucket, I'd expect a typical adult's life expectancy (male or female) to be quite higher. Also, wasn't there a bit of "Manners Make'eth the Man"? Aug 4, 2017 at 16:23
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    This source, for instance, suggests an English aristocrat living to age 21 would live for another 40+ years on average, except when the bubonic plague was around. Aug 4, 2017 at 16:48
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    Concur with @DenisdeBernardy; if you remove deaths in the first year of life and deaths due to childbirth (neither of whom could qualify to be a professional), then the expected lifespan was far higher. Your overall point is solid, but these particular statistics don't support your point as strongly as I think you would like.
    – MCW
    Aug 4, 2017 at 20:45
  • @DenisdeBernardy: Removed the reference to life expectancy.
    – Tom Au
    Aug 5, 2017 at 0:30
  • @DenisdeBernardy: Becoming a doctor or a lawyer for much of the 19th century could be achieved with different schooling, far less of it, than today. Law could be entered by passing an exam without even attending school. Not sure about doctor but pretty sure it was not 4 years undergrad and plus med school and being an intern.
    – Jeff
    Aug 5, 2017 at 1:13

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