I love a hand that meets my own with a grasp that causes some sensation.
Samuel Osgood is one of those notable Americans who managed to slip into obscurity—despite the fact that his portrait has been hanging in the President’s room at the Capitol since Lincoln’s presidency. When remembered at all, it’s as the nation’s first Postmaster General. But before Washington made that appointment, Osgood had enjoyed a distinguished career in the service of his country. If not actually ranked as a Founding Father, he at least deserves “Founding Cousin” status. He was born in Andover, Massachusetts, on February 3, 1748. He attended the unfortunately named Dummer Academy before moving on to the more auspiciously named Harvard College. An early member of the Massachusetts revolutionary government, he led a company of militia at Lexington and Concord and was part of the contingent that pursued the British back to Boston. He stayed for the siege and rose to the rank of Colonel. He was elected as a Massachusetts State Senator and was a delegate to the Continental Congress. Following that service, he was appointed as a commissioner of the Treasury where he, among other things, negotiated salary advances for the chronically cash-poor Thomas Jefferson. His appointment as Postmaster General came in 1789 under the terms of the new Constitution.
That a politician’s most notable quote would be about handshaking should come as no surprise. It’s the lingua franca of anyone running for office or currying political favor. And folks have been shaking hands for a long time. Archaeologists have discovered Greek texts and bas-reliefs dating back to 5th century BC showing happy handshakers. The origins of the practice are none-the-less shrouded in mystery. Many have theorized that the practice of clasping right hands came about to demonstrate that one was not holding a weapon or had a weapon up their sleeve. If that was true, of course, lefties would have long ago taken over the world. Since that hasn’t happened, we might have to accept that we’ll never really know what started all this handshaking. But there are some things about the handshake that we do know and that probably made it appealing to the republic-minded Osgood. For one thing, it’s an egalitarian acknowledgement unlike other forms such as saluting or bowing. Saluting—with roots in the Crusades—always involves one person saluting and another being saluted. Similarly, bowing—which dates to antiquity—may involve one person bowing to another who does not bow in return or bowing more deeply than another in order to confer status. The handshake, however, implies a meeting of equals. The touch itself establishes a non-sexual intimacy or common bond. It suggests a level of trust. Most importantly, it expresses respect.
Osgood probably was looking for all these things when he sought the hand that caused some sensation. He lived in a time of a fair amount of saluting and a heck of a lot of bowing. It must have been a real sensation for members of a new republic to begin greeting one another as equals. Today the handshake remains a routine aspect of our daily lives. Take a moment to think about what it implies the next time you shake—equality, a common bond, trust, mutual respect. These are essential ingredients in a civil society. So, the next time you extend your hand, go ahead and cause some sensation. —Ebert