James Fenimore Cooper.

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Of one truth, however, I am firmly persuaded, that
nineteen out of twenty of the strangers who visit this
country, can give no correct analysis of the manners
which prevail in the different circles that divide this,
like all other great communities. The pursuits and
the inclinations of the men bring them much oftener
together than those of the women. It is therefore
among the females that the nicer and more delicate
shades of distinction are to be sought. The very prev-


alent notion of Europe, that society must, of necessity,
exist, in a pure democracy, on terms of promiscuous
association, is too manifestly absurd to need any con-
tradiction with one who knows hfe as well as yourself.

It would require the magical power which that
renowned philanthropist, Mr. Owen, ascribes to his
system, to destroy the influence of education, talents,
money, or even of birth. They all, in fact, exist in
America, just as they do with us, only modified, and
in some degree curtailed.

You may perhaps be startled to hear of distinction
conferred by birth among a people whose laws deny
it a single privilege or immunity. Even thousands
of Americans themselves, who have scarcely de-
scended into their own system farther than is abso-
lutely requisite to acquire its general maxims, will
stoutly maintain that it has no reality. I remember
to have heard one of these generalizers characterize
the folly of a young acquaintance by saying, with pe-
culiar bitterness of tone, " he presumes on his being

the son of ."" Now, if some portion of the

consideration of the father were not transmissible to
the descendant, the latter clearly could in no degree
presume on his birth. It is fortunate here, as else-
where, to be the child of a worthy, or even of an
affluent parent. The goods of the latter descend,
by process of law, to the offspring, and, by aid of
public opinion, the son receives some portion of the
renown that has been earned by the merit of the
father. It is useless to dwell on those secret and
deep-rooted feelings by which man, in all ages, and
under every circumstance, has been willing to per-
mit this hereditary reflection of character, in order
to prove that human nature must have sway in the
republics of North America, as in the monarchies of
the east. A thousand examples might be quoted to
show that the influence of this sentiment of birth,
(just so far as it is a sentiment and not a prejudice,)


is not only felt by the people, but is openly acknow-
ledged by the government of the country in its prac-
tices. Unless I am grossly misinformed, the relative
of one who had served the state, for instance, would,
cceteris paribus^ prevail in an application for the pub-
lic favour, over a competitor who could urge no such
additional claim ; and the reason of the decision
would be deemed satisfactory by the nation. No one
would be hardy enough to deny, that, had Washington
left a child, he would have passed through society,
or even before the public, on a perfect equality with
men similarly endowed, though not similarly born.
Just as this hereditary advantage would be true in
the case of a son of Washington, it is true, with a
lessened effect, in those of other men. It would be
a weak and a vain, because an impracticable and an
unwise attempt, in any people, to reject so sweet an
incentive to virtue on the part of the parent, or so
noble a motive of emulation on that of the child. It
is enough for the most democratic opinions, that the
feeling should be kept within the Hmits of reason.
The community, in a government trammelled by so
few factitious forms, always holds in its own power
a sufficient check on the abuse of the privilege ; and
here, in fact, is to be found the true point of distinc-
tion, not only between the governments of this and
other countries, but between the conditions of their
ordinary society also. In America, while the claims
of individuals are admitted, it is easy to satisfy, to
weaken, or to lose them. It is not enough simply to
be the son of a great man ; in order to render it of
essential advantage, some portion of his merit must
t)ecome hereditary, or the claim had better be sup-
pressed. Even an honourable name may become
matter of reproach, since, when the public esteem is
once forfeited, the recollection of the ancestor only
serves to heighten the demerit of his delinquent child.
There is no privileged rank under which he can
Vol. I. P


stalk abroad and flout at the morals, or offend the
honesty of men better than himself, and the councils
of the nation are for ever hermetically sealed against
his entrance.

In society, the punishment of this un worthiness,
though necessarily less imposing, is scarcely less direct
and salutary. Nothing is easier than for a member
of any circle to forfeit the privileges of caste. It is a
fact highly creditable to the morals of this people,
unless close observation and the opinions of Cad-
wallader greatly mislead me, that a circle confessedly
inferior v^ill not receive an outcast from one above it.
The gceat qualifications for all are, in moral essen-
tials, the same. It is not pretended that all men, or
even all women, in the United States, are exemplary
in their habits, or that they live in a state of entire
innocence, compared with that of their fellow-mortals
elsewhere ; but there is not a doubt that the tone of
manners here requires the utmost seemliness of de-
portment ; that suspicion even may become danger-
ous to a man, and is almost always fatal to a woman ;
and that as access to the circles is effected with less
diliiculty than with us, so is the path of egress much
more readily to be found.

There is a very summary way of accounting for
these things, by saying that all this is no more than
the result of a simple state of society, and that in the
absence of luxury, and especially in a country where
the population is scattered, the result is precisely that
which was to be expected. Why then is not the tone
of manners as high in South as in North America, or
why are the moralists in the cities quite as fastidious,
or even more so, than those on the most remote bor-
ders ? The truth is, that neither the polity nor the
manners of the Americans bear that recent origin we
are wont to give them. Both have substantially en-
dured the test of two centuries ; and though they are
becoming meliorated and more accommodating by


time, it is idle to saj that they are merely the expe-
riments of the hour. Nor is it very safe to ascribe
any quality, good or bad, to the Americans on account
of their being removed from the temptations of Lixury.
That they have abstained from excessive indulgence,
is more the effect of taste or principle, than of neces-
sity. I have never yet visited any country where
luxuries w^ere so completely within the reach of the
majority. It is true that their manners are not ex-
posed to the temptations of courts ; but it is equally
true that they have deliberately rejected the use of
such a form of government as renders them necessary.
Before leaving this subject I must explain a little,
or what I have already written may possibly lead you
into error. The influence of birth, though undoubted,
is not to be understood as existing here in any thing
like the extent, or even under the same forms, as in
Europe.* The very nation, which, in tenderness to
the father, might be disposed to accord a certain de-
ference to the child who had received his early im-
pressions under such a man as Washington, would be
very apt to turn a cold and displeased eye on the
follies or vices of a more distant descendant. You
may be prepared to answer, ' all this reads well, but
we will wait the effects of time on a system that pre-
tends to elevate itself above the established prejudices

* We have the authority of a great contemporary (the hiog
rapher of Napoleon) for believing that the science of- heraldry
reverses the inferences of reason, by shedding more lustre on the
remote descendant than on the founder of an illustrious name.
This is, at the best, but an equivocal acknowledgment, and it is
undeniably far too sublimated for the straight-going common
sense of the Americans. The writer is inclined to believe that
the very opposite ground is maintained by the proficients in
American heraldry, or, in other words, that the great man him-
self is thought to be the greatest man of his family, and that the
reflection of his talents, probity, courage, or for whatever quality
he may have been most rtmarkablc, is thought to shed most lustre
on tnote of hiS olFspriug who have lived nearest to its influence.


of the rest of the world/ But in what is reason
weaker than prejudice, after its conclusions have
been confirmed by practice ? I repeat, these people
are net experimenting, but living in conformity to
usages, and under institutions that have already been
subject to the trials of two hundred years. So far as
I can learn, instead of imperceptibly falling into the
train of European ideas, they have rather been silently
receding ; and if there has been the least approxima-
tion between the opinions of the two hemispheres on
these subjects, the change has been wrought among
ourselves. While travelling in the interior of New-
England, an honest looking farmer endeavoured to
read the blazonry that, by the negligence of a servant,
had been suffered to remain on the plate of one of
my travelling cases. I endeavoured to solve the dif-
ficulties of the good man by explaining the use and
meaning of the arms. No sooner did the American
find that I was disposed to humour his curiosity, than
he asked several home questions, that, it must be con-
fessed, were not without their embarrassment. It
was necessary finally to tell him that these were dis-
tinctions that had been conferred by different sove-
reigns on the ancestors of the owner of the case. " If
there is no harm in't, may I ask for what?" "For
their courage in battle, and devotion to their princes."
The worthy republican regarded the plate for some
time intently; and then bluntly inquired "if this was
all the reward they had received ?" As it was use-
less to contend against the prejudices of an ignorant
man, a retreat was effected as soon as convenient.*

* The simplicity which one finds on these subjects in America,
is often not without amusement. The general use of books, and
the multitude of journals in the United Stater, certainly prevent
the inhabitants of the country from being as ignorant of the
usages of Europe, as the people of Europe, even of the better
classes, are commonly of thein ; still there are thousands who


Notwithstanding these instances of ignorance, the
mass of the people are surprisingly familiar with the
divisions of a society that is so different from their
own. While alluding to armorial bearings, it may be
well to add, that I saw^ a great number, emblazoned
in different materials, suspended from the walls of the
dwellings, especially in New-England. They are
frequently seen on carriages, and perhaps oftener still
on watch-seals. My travelling companion was asked
to explain why these evidences of an aristocratic al
feeling w^ere seen among a people so thoroughly dem-
ocratic. The substance of his answer shall be given :
" Though the Americans do not always venerate their
ancestors, for precisely the same reasons as are ac-
knowledged in Europe, they are nevertheless descend-
ed from the same sort of progenitors. Those who
emigrated to this hemisphere, brought with them most
of the opinions of the old world. Such of them as bore
coats of arms did not forget the distinction, and those
that you see are the relics of times long since past.
They have not been disposed of, for no other reason
that I can discover, than because it is difficult to find
a use for them. Most of the trinkets are heir-looms ;
though many individuals find a personal convenience
in the use of seals which are appropriate to themselves.
There are others who openly adopt arms for the sake
of this convenience, sometimes rejecting those which
have long been used by their families, simply because
they are not sufficiently exclusive ; and there are cer-

form droll opinions on the subject of our distinctive habits. A
German prince of the family of Saxe Weimar, was travelling in
the United States during the visit of the writer. He made him
self acceptable every where, by his simplicity and good sense. A
little crowd had collected round an inn where he had stopped,
and a new comer inquired of one of his acquaintance, "■ why he
stared at the big man in the piazza ?" " Oh, for nothing at all,
only tliey say he is a Duke I" " A Duke I I wonder what he does
for a living:"'

P 2


tainly some who are willing to creep under the man-
tle of gentility at so cheap a rate. Foreigners, when
they see these exhibitions, and find self-established
heralds in the shape of seal-cutters, &;c. in the country,
sometimes believe that wealth is gradually producing
a change in the manners of the people to the prejudice
of democracy. But they fall into an egregious error.
The fact is, that even this innocent, though perhaiis
absurd vanity, is getting rapidly into disuse, together
with most of the other distinctive usages of orders in
society, that are not purely connected with character
and deportment. No one, for instance, thinks now
of exhibiting the arms on any portion of the dwelling,
in hatchments, or on tombstones, though all were
practised openly within thirty years. Liveries are
scarcely so frequent now as formerly, while coaches,
coachmen, and footmen are multiplied fifty- fold. In
short, the whole country, not only in its government,
but in all its habits, is daily getting to be more purely
democratic, instead of making the smallest approaches
to the opposite extreme. I state this merely as a fact
that any well-informed American will corroborate,
leaving you to your own reasoning and inferences."

It is a peculiar feature of American democracy,
and it is one which marks its ancient date and its
entire security, that it is unaccompanied by any
jealousy of aristocracy beyond that which distin-
guishes the usual rancour of personal envy. One
may sometimes hear remarks that denote the sour-
ness of an unsuccessful rivalry, but the feeling can
nowhere be traced in the conduct of tlie nation. The
little States of Connecticut and Rhode Island contain,
beyond a doubt, the two most purely democratic
communities in the civilized world. In both, the pub-
lic will is obeyed with the submission that a despot
would exact; and, in the latter, it is consulted to a
minuteness of detail that would be inconvenient, if
not impracticable, in a community of more extended


Interests. Now, mark one effect of this excessive
democracy which you may not be prepared to ex-
pect. No less than three governors of Connecticut
have been named to me, who, in due progress of time,
and at suitable ages, have been selected to sit in the
chair which their fathers had tilled with credit.
Many inferior offices also exist, which, were it not
for the annual decision of the people, might be
thought to have become hereditary in certain fami-
lies.* Here is proof that the sovereign people can
be as stable in their will, as the will of any other
sovereign. Of the five Presidents who have filled the
chair, since the adoption of the present constitution
in 1789, but one has left a son. That son is now a
candidate for the same high office; and though the
circumstance, amid a thousand other absurdities, is
sometimes urged against his election, it is plain there
is not a man in the whole nation who deems it of
the least importance.!

As might be expected, the general society of New-
York bears a strong impression of its commercial
character. In consequence of the rapid growth of
the city, the number of families that may be prop-
erly classed among those which have long been
distinguished in its history for their wealth and im-
portance, bears a much smaller proportion to its
entire population than that of most other places. A
great many of the principal personages were swept
away by the Revolution. Under these constant and
progressive changes, as might be expected, the influ-
ence of their manners is, I think, less perceptible
than, for instance, in Philadelphia. Still, a much
larger class of what in Europe forms the elite of so-

* The writer was assured that the office of Secretary of State,
in Rhode Island, had been in one family for near seventy years.

tMr. John Quincy Adams : he was chosen the following win-
ter, and is now President.


ciety exists here, than strangers commonly suppose*
My letters tirst threw me, as a matter of course,
among the mercantile men; and I found that mixture
of manners, information, and character, that distin-
guishes the class every where. It was my lot fre-
quently to occupy a seat at a banquet between some
fine, spirited, intelligent individual, whose mind and
manners had been improved by travel and education,
and, perhaps, another votary of Plutus, (one hardly
dare say of Mercury, in this stage of the world,) whose
ideas were never above the level of a sordid calcula-
tion, and all of whose calculations were as egotistical
as his discourse. It strikes me that both a higher and
a lower order of men mingle in commerce here, than
is seen elsewhere, if, perhaps, the better sort of Eng-
lish merchants be excepted. Their intimate relations
on "'Change'' bring them all, more or less, together
in the saloons ; nor can the associations well be avoid-
ed, until the place shall attain a size, which must leave
every one the perfect master of his own manner of
living. That hour is fast approaching for New-York,
and with it, I think, must come a corresponding change
in the marshalling of its coteries.

When Cadwallader returned from the country, I
fell into a very different circle. His connexions were
strictly of New- York, and they were altogether among
the principal and longest established families. Here
I met with many men of great leisure and large for-
tunes, who had imparted to their children what they
had received from their fathers ; and it would not have
been easy, after making some slight allowances for a
trifling tinge of Dutch customs, to have distinguished
between their society and that portion of the English
who live in great abundance, without falling into the
current of what is called high or fashionable life.
Although many, not only of the best informed, but of
the best bred of the Americans, are merchants, the
tone of manners in this circle was decidedly more


even and graceful than in that which strictly belongs
to the former. But it is not difficult to see that so-
ciety in New-York, in consequence of its extraordi-
nary increase, is rather in a state of effervescence
than settled, and, where that is the case, I presume
you will not be surprised to know, that the lees some-
times get nearer to the surface than is desirable.
Nothing is easier than for a well-behaved man, who
is tolerably recommended, to get admission into the
houses of the larger proportion of those who seek no-
toriety by courting a general intercourse; but I am
inclined to think that the doors of those who are
secure of their stations are guarded with the cus-
tomary watchfulness. Still you will always remem-
ber, that suspicion is less alert than in Europe; for
where temptations to abuse confidence are so rare,
one is not much disposed to clog the enjoyments of
life by admitting so sullen a guest. The effect of this
general confidence is a less restrained and more
natural communication.

There is a common accusation against the Amer-
icans, men and women, of being cold in their man-
ners. Some carry their distaste of the alleged defect
so far, as to impute it to a want of feeling. I have
even hstened to speculations so ingenious, as to refer
it to a peculiarity in the climate — a reasoning that
was thought to be supported by the well-known im-
perturbability of the Aborigines. Whether the theory
be true or false, the argument that is brought to
maintain it is of most unfortunate application. The
tornado itself is not more furious than the anger of
the Indian, nor is it easy to imagine a conformation
of the human mind that embraces a wider range of
emotions, from the fiercest to the most gentle, than
what the original owners of this country possess.
Civilization might multiply the changes of their hu-
mour, but it would scarcely exhibit it in more de-
cided forms. I confess, however, that even in Cad-


wallader, I thought, during the first weeks of our
intercourse, something of this restraint of manner
was perceptible. In his countrymen, and more par-
ticularly his countrywomen, the defect seemed no
less apparent. In New-England, notwithstanding
their extraordinary kindness in deeds, there was often
an apparent coldness of demeanour that certainly
lessened, though it could not destroy its effect.*

* An instance of this suppressed manner occurred while the
author was at New- York in the summer of 1825. An English
frigate (the Hussar) entered the port, and anchored a short dis-
tance below the town. Her captain was the owner of a London-
built wherry, which he kept for his private sport, as his country-
iren on shore are known to keep racers. It seems that some
conversation concerning the model of this boat, and of those of
New-York, and perhaps, too, respecting the comparative skill of
four London watermen whom he was said to retain as a sort of
grooms, and the renowned Whitehallers, induced him to insert a
challenge in the journals, wherein he threw down the glove, for
a trial of speed, to all the mariners or sportsmen of the city.
The ^Vhitehallers took up the gage, and a day was publicly
jiLLUied for the trial. It was quite evident that the citizens, who
are keenly alive to any thing that affects their reputation on the
water, let it be ever so trifling, took great interest in the result.
Thousands of spectators assembled on the Battery ; and, to keep
alive the excitement, there were not five Englishmen or English-
women in the city who did not appear to back the enterprise of
their countrymen. The distance run (about two miles) was
from the frigate to a boat anchored in the Hudson, and thence to
another which lay at a short distance from the Castle Garden,
already described. On board of the latter, the judges (who, it
is presumed, were of both nations,) had adopted those delicate
symbols of victory which had so recently been pitted against each
other in far less friendly encounters, i. e. the national flags. The
writer and his friend, who, notwithstanding his philosophy, felt
great interest in the result, took their stand on the belvidere of
the castle, which commanded a fine view of the whole bay. On
their right hand stood a young American naval officer, and on
their left a pretty and highly excited young Englishwoman.
The frigate fired a gun, and the two boats were seen dashing
ahead at the signal. One soon took the lead, and maintained it
to the end of the race, beating by near a quarter of a mile, though
the oarsmen came in pulling only with one hand each. For some
time, tiie distance prevented a clear view of which was likely to


This national trait can neither be likened to, nor
accounted for, by any of those causes which are sup-
posed to produce the approximating qualities in some
of the people of our hemisphere. It is not the effect
of climate, since it exists equally in 45° and 30°. It
is not the phlegm of the German, for no one can be
more vivacious, frank, cordial, and communicative
than the American, when you have effected the easy
task of breaking through the barrier of his reserve.
It cannot be the insulated pride of the Spaniard,
brooding under his cloak on the miserable condition
of to-day, or dreaming of the glories of the past; nor
is it the repulsive hauteur of the Englishman, for no

be the victor. A report spread on the left that it was the boat of the
frigate. The eyes of thefair Englishwoman danced with pleasure,
and she murmured her satisfaction so audibly as to reach the ears
of all near her. The writer turned to see the etfect on his right-hand

Online LibraryJames Fenimore CooperNotions of the Americans: picked up by a travelling bachelor (Volume 1-2) → online text (page 14 of 58)