Political philosophers have noted that while modern democracies define dignity as universal human worth, nineteenth-century Americans conceptualized it in terms of social status and rank hierarchy. However, there was considerable tension in this period between the traditional aristocratic ideal and a more modern liberal philosophy of where this rank-based dignity came from and how someone could possess it. This article demonstrates that Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables narrates an encounter between these two philosophies and asks whether either of them, or some combination, can be reconciled with democracy’s egalitarian ideals. By contrasting the Colonel with the Judge and Hepzibah with Holgrave, Hawthorne identifies the elitism that underlies both concepts of dignity in America and investigates whether they can be excised or reformed. Ultimately, I argue that the novel portrays dignity, as conceived in the nineteenth century, as a fundamentally undemocratic remnant of the aristocratic past that has become deeply rooted beneath a democratic façade in America.

You do not currently have access to this content.