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Shaking Hands, by Edward Everett

"I am inclined to think that the practice grew up in the ages of chivalry"


Shaking Hands, by Edward Everett

Edward Everett (1794-1865)

Edward Everett is remembered today as the orator who--on November 19, 1863 at Gettysburg--spoke for over two hours before President Abraham Lincoln delivered his two-minute Gettysburg Address. (See the article Facts and Myths About the Gettysburg Address.) In addition to being a notable speaker, Everett was an editor, essayist, and statesman. He taught Greek at Harvard and served five terms in the U.S. Congress.

In the humorous essay "Shaking Hands," Everett relies on the organizing principle of classification. This version of the essay originally appeared in The Boston Book: Being Specimens of Metropolitan Literature, edited by B.B. Thatcher (1837).

Shaking Hands

by Edward Everett

There are few things of more common occurrence than shaking hands; and yet I do not recollect that much has been speculated upon the subject. I confess, when I consider to what unimportant and futile concerns the attention of writers and readers has been directed, I am surprised that no one has been found to handle so important a matter as this, and attempt to give the public a rational view of the doctrine and discipline of shaking hands. It is a theme on which I have myself theorized a good deal, and I beg leave to offer a few remarks on the origin of the practice, and the various forms in which it is exercised.

I have been unable to find in the ancient writers, any distinct mention of shaking hands. They followed the heartier practice of hugging or embracing, which has not wholly disappeared among grown persons in Europe, and children in our own country, and has unquestionably the advantage on the score of cordiality. When the ancients trusted the business of salutation to the hands alone, they joined but did not shake them; and although I find frequently such phrases as jungere dextras hospitio, I do not recollect to have met with that of agitare dextras. I am inclined to think that the practice grew up in the ages of chivalry, when the cumbrous iron mail, in which the knights were cased, prevented their embracing; and when, with fingers clothed in steel, the simple touch or joining of the hands would have been but cold welcome; so that a prolonged junction was a natural resort, to express cordiality; and as it would have been awkward to keep the hands unemployed in this position, a gentle agitation or shaking might have been naturally introduced. How long the practice may have remained in this incipient stage, it is impossible, in the silence of history, to say; nor is there anything in the Chronicles, in Philip de Comines, or the Byzantine historians, which enables us to trace the progress of the art, into the forms in which it now exists among us.

Without therefore availing myself of the privilege of theorists to supply by conjecture the absence of history or tradition, I shall pass immediately to the enumeration of these forms:

1. The pump-handle shake is the first which deserves notice. It is executed by taking your friend's hand, and working it up and down, through an arc of fifty degrees, for about a minute and a half. To have its nature, force, and character, this shake should be performed with a fair steady motion. No attempt should be made to give it grace, and, still less, vivacity; as the few instances, in which the latter has been tried, have uniformly resulted in dislocating the shoulder of the person on whom it has been attempted. On the contrary, persons who are partial to the pump-handle shake should be at some pains to give an equable, tranquil movement to the operation, which should on no account be continued after perspiration on the part of your friend has commenced.

2. The pendulum shake may be mentioned next, as being somewhat similar in character; but moving, as the name indicates, in a horizontal, instead of a perpendicular direction. It is executed by sweeping your hand horizontally toward your friend's, and after the junction is effected, rowing with it from one side to the other, according to the pleasure of the parties. The only caution in its use, which needs particularly to be given, is not to insist on performing it in a plane, strictly parallel to the horizon, when you meet with a person who has been educated to the pump-handle shake. It is well known that people cling to the forms in which they have been educated, even when the substance is sacrificed in adhering to them. I had two acquaintances, both estimable men, one of whom had been brought up in the pump-handle shake, and another had brought home the pendulum from a foreign voyage. They met, joined hands, and attempted to put them in motion. They were neither of them feeble men. One endeavored to pump, and the other to paddle; their faces reddened; the drops stood on their foreheads; and it was, at last, a pleasing illustration of the doctrine of the composition of forces, to see their hands slanting into an exact diagonal--in which line they ever after shook. But it was plain to see, there was no cordiality in it; and, as is usually the case with compromises, both parties were discontented.

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