James Fenimore Cooper.

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and even of some individuals who were known among
the earlier settlers of this very spot. I cannot pledge
myself for the accuracy of this opinion, nor could any
one be found here who appeared to possess sufficient
information on the subject to confirm it. But, so far
as natural objects are concerned, the descriptions are
sufficiently exact, and will fortunately save me the
trouble of repetition. My present object, however,
in referring to the book, is to lead you to a peculiarity
that, I think, distinguishes not only this precise spot,
but most others, within the limits of what is called
the "new countries."t Yo i will find the stumps,
wild-looking and dead trees, with other evidences of
a recent origin, frequently alluded to in the descrip-
tions of the Pioneers. There is certainly some dif-
ference in the duration of these relics of the forest,
according to the durable qualities of the original
growth of timber. Still, more or less of these rude

* The Americans, like the English, rarely put their names to
any light works.

t The Americans call all that portion of their territory which
has been settled since the revolution "new." If the State has
been created since that period, it is a " new State ;" but Otsego,
and indeed all of New-York, is already getting, by comparison,
to be " old."


and ungainly accompaniments are still to be found
in two thirds of the landscapes of these regions. The
stumps of the deciduous trees disappear in a few sea-
sons ; but where there have been many of a peren-
nial growth, a century wall scarcely serve to destroy

You will recollect, that those descriptions of
girdled trees, of which we read in Europe, as forming
a part of American scenery, are rather exceptions,
than characteristic. It is a manner of improving
certainly m rh practised at the south, and sometimes
in the more northern States ; but it is far from being
either the best, or the ordinary mode of clearing land,
in any great section of the country. The tree is
commonly felled by cutting it at such a distance from
the earth, as may be most convenient to the stature
of the chopper. The trunk is then divided into suit-
able lengths, and the branches are severed, and col-
lected. With the exceptions of such trees as are
selected for lumber, the whole are piled in heaps of
sufficient size to insure their consumption by fire.
The latter process is called logging. The brand is
next applied, and the whole field is subjected to a
temporary, but fierce action of the element. . Nothing
can be more dreary and savage in aspect, than an
extensive plain, or a valley, which has thus been com-
pletely blackened by fire. They are frequent in the
newer districts, but comparatively rare in those of
ten or fifteen years' establishment.

The admixture of civilization with these wild-
looking memorials of a state of nature, is, indeed, the
chief distinctive feature between a landscape in the
newer districts of America, and one in our own Eu-
rope. There are certainly other points of difference,
but I should describe this as the principal and most
striking. One can soon become accustomed to the
universal use of fences ; to even what appears to be


a prodigal waste of wood in their construction ;'^ and
to that air of newness and freshness which is so very
striking, in the villages, farm-houses, out-buildings,
and, indeed, every thing artificial one sees. But time
and reflection are necessary to understand the situa-
tion of a country, in which academies, churches,
towns, and, in short, most things which an advanced
state of civilization can produce, are blended with
objects that commonly mark an infant state of society.
There is no difficulty in comprehending the growth
of Petersburg, or of Odessa, for one s'^es the hand
of the autocrat in their works; but in America,
all beyond that which nature has done, is the spon-
taneous work of the population. There are certainly
vast tracts of country where these coarser evidences
of infancy have already disappeared; but they are
still to be found in many others, even in the com-
paratively old establishments of the western parts
of New-York and Pennsylvania.

* The American fences vary according to the quarter of the
country in which they are situated. They are often well built,
and even handsome, low walls of stone. The writer saw not
only farms, but large districts, subdivided into fields of from five
to fifty acres in this manner. Next to these, are fences, of which
the basements are made of stone, and the summits of rails. Posts
and rails come next, and are found every where in the second
stage of improvement. A fence that is called a "• worm fence,"
from its being composed of rails with the ends alternately laid
on each other, in the form of a screen, is much in use, especially
where the abundance of timber renders labour a greater object
than wood. The first, and certainly the most natural, if not
the most durable, division of the land, is by what is called the
" log-fence." This is formed by laying the trunks of trees in a
line, with their ends doubling for a couple of feet. Notches are
cut in the ends of these logs, and billets of wood are laid in them
to connect the ends. The upper sides of the billets are also
notched, and they serve for the foundations of new tiers. Three
logs piled in this manner make an efficient fence. The duration
is, of course, according to the quality of the tree. Perhaps ten
years may be fixed for the 'average. Hedges are very rare.
Fences are sometimes made of stumps, extracted by the roots
from the earth.

V 257 )

&c. Sec.


The day after we had quitted Cooperstown, w
saw a collection of people assembled in front of an
inn, which was the principal edifice in a hamlet of
perhaps a dozen houses. Cadwallader told me this
was the first day of the State election, and that this
spot was one of the polls, a name which answers in
some defrree to the Ensjlish term, "hustinfijs.'" Fortu-
nately, the stage changed horses at the inn, and I had
an opportunity of examining the incipient step in
that process which literally dictates all the national
policy of this great republic.

Although each State controls its own forms, not
only in the elections, but in every thing else, a de-
scription of the usages of one poll will be sufficiently
near the truth to give a correct general idea of them
all. I now speak literally only of the State of New-
York, though, generally, of the whole Union. The
elections occur once a year.* They last three days.
In the large towns, they are stationary, there being
no inconvenience in such an arrangement where the
population is dense, and the distances short. But in
the country they are held on each successive day at
a different place, in order to accommodate the voters.
The State is divided into counties, which cover, on
an average, 900 square miles each. Some are, how-

* There is one State where they occur twice — the little State
of Rhode Island, which is still governed by the form of its an-
cient charter, as granted by Charles II. in 1663. As this is prac-
tically the most democratic State in the Union, it affords pretty
good evidence that the experiment of a democratic government
is nol so new in America as some pretend.

Z 2


ever, larger, and some snx^Ker. These counties are
again subdivided into townships, covering, perhaps
eighty or ninety square miles. There is, also, great
niequaiity in the size of these minor districts. These
are the two great divisions of territory for all the
ordinary purposes of government and police. The
counties have courts of their own, and a certain
sort of legislative body, which regulates many of
their financial affairs. In order that the whole sub-
ject, however, may be rendered as clear as possible,
we v/ill begin at the base, and ascend to the super-
structure of their government.

The most democratic assemblage knovin to the
laws, in which legal and binding resolutions can be
enacted, are the town meetings. Any number of the
people may assemble when and where they please,
to remonstrate, to petition, or even to plot, if they
see lit ; but their acts can only be recommendatory.
The town meetings are held annually, and every citi-
zen who has attained his majority can vote. A mode-
rator (no bad name for a perfectly popular assembly)
is chosen by acclamation to preside. The meeting
is commonly held in some school-house, but very often
in the open air. In some places, though rarely,
there are tov/n-houses. At these meetings, all the
town officers are chosen. They consist of a super-
visor ; three assessors, w^ho apportion all the taxes
on the individuals, whether imposed by town, county,
state, or United States ; collectors, who collect all
the taxes, except those laid by the United States
government, which in time of peace, are just nothing
at all ; a tovv^n-clerk, who keeps certain registers ;
constable, -poor-officers, overseers of highways, path-
masters, and a few others. The names of most of
these officers indicate their duties. The overseers
of the highway are the men who lay out the ordinary
roads of the town, and who say how m.uch tax each
individual shall contribute in work or in money; and


the path-masters inspect the labour. Men of prop-
erty and education frequently seek the latter employ-
ment. The voting in this popular assembly may be
by ballot, but it is generally done by acclamation.
There is a penalty if an individual refuse to serve,
though they are sometimes excused by the citizens,
if a good reason can be rendered. The courts have
also a discretionary power in imposing and in laying
fines. I was present during the course of this excur-
sion at one of these town meetings. There might
have been two hundred citizens assembled before the
door of a large school-house. Much good-humour
was blended with a sufficient despatch of business.
The Americans mingle with a perfect consciousness
of their influence on the government, an admirable
respect for the laws and institutions of their country.
T heard jokes, and one or two open nominations of
men of property and character, to till the humble
offices of constable and pound-keeper; but the most
perfect good sense and practical usefulness appeared
to distin^pish all their decisions. There was a con-
test for the office of supervisor, and it was decided
by a close vote. The two candidates were present,
and on seemingly very good terms. They were re-
spectable looking yeomen, and he who lost told his
rival that he thought the people had shown their
judgment. There was no noise, no drinking, nor
anyexcitement beyond that which one would feel
in seeing an ordinary foot-race. One farmer ob-
served, that the crows had got the taste of his
corn, and unless something was done, there could
be little hope for the year's crop. He therefore
would propose that a reward of six cents should be
paid for every dozen that should be killed, within
their town, for the next six months. The resolution
was opposed by a hatter, who insisted that he could
take care of his hats, and that the farmers ought to
take care of their corn. This logic was unsucccss-


ful; the price was reduced a trifle, and the resolution
was passed. It was then just as much a law as that
which hangs a man for murder. The sum voted to
meet the expense was to be apportioned with the
other taxes, among the citizens, by the assessors, col-
lected by the collector, received and paid by another
officer, &c. &:c. After this important act of legisla-
tion, the meeting adjourned.

The next body in the scale of the government is
the board of supervisors. It is composed of the su-
pervisors of each town in a county, who have a very
similar legislative authority over the more familiar
interests of the county, as is possessed by their con-
stituents in the towns themselves. They impose
taxes for all objects connected with the expenses of
the county. Their authority is, however, a good
deal circumscribed ; enactments by the State legisla-
ture being often necessary to enforce their recom-
mendations. When the question involves an expense
heavier than common, and its effects are entirely
local, the question is often referred to a finaj decision
of the people in their town meetings. This board
audits the accounts, and I believe it appoints a trea-
surer for the county. So far you see the process of
government is exceedingly simple. The whole legis-
lative duty is discharged in three or four days, and
yet the decisions have great influence on the comfort
and property of the people. The duties of the offi-
cers named, continue for one year, but the same in
cumbents are frequently continued for a whole life
especially the collectors, treasurers, constables, and

Each town is also subdivided into school districts,
and road districts. There are overseers of the schools,
who regulate all that belongs to the familiar duties of
the common schools of the country, to which any
body may go.

Each towiiship is also a petty electoral district of


itself, for all the ordinary purposes of the State and the
United States' elections, which are held at the same
time and place. The three stations taken for the
convenience of the elections, as already mentioned,
are selected by the inspectors of the poll, who are
five or six of the town officers, named by law, and of
course chosen annually by the people in their original
capacity. Each county chooses its own represeiita
tives to the lower branch of the State legislature, the
number being according to the amount of the popu-
lation. The State is again divided into what are
called senatorial districts, composed of several con-
tiguous counties, each of which chooses a certain
number of representatives, who sit in the upper body
of the State legislature. Each State has a right to
send to the lower House of Congress a number of re-
presentatives, in proportion to its entire population.
These representatives must be chosen by the people,
but the States themselves may regulate the form.
Some choose them by a general ticket ; that is to say,
each citizen votes for the whole number; and some
choose them by districts, in which case each citizen
votes for the member, or members, who represent
his particular district. The latter is the course
adopted by New- York, and in most of the other large
States, in which it is diihcult for the characters of so
many individuals to be intimately known to every

Now, complicated as this system may seem in
words, it is perfectly simple in practice. It is aston-
ishing how clearly it is understood by those who ex-
ercise it, and how difficult it is to make a foreigner
get a correct idea of its details. All the elections,
except those which are made at the town meetings,
where other duties necessarily assemble the citizens,
are held at the same time, and at the same place.
Thus an American, in one of the more populous
States, can exercise all his constitutional rights at an


expense commonly of a ride of four or five miles at
the outside, and of three hours of time.

The election on the present occasion embraced
senators, (always for the State,) representatives in
the assembly,* governor, lieutenant-governor, &;c.
The inspectors were assembled in a quiet room of
the inn, with the ballot-boxes placed before them, on
a table. The voters entered at their leisure, and de-
livered their different ballots to the officers, who,
holding them up as lottery numbers are usually ex-
hibited, called the name of the voter aloud, and then
deposited the ballot in its proper box. " I challenge
that vote," cried an individual, as the name of one
man w^as thus proclaimed. It appeared that there
were doubts of its legality. An inquiry was instituted,
an oath proffered, explanations were made, and the
challenge was withdrawn. The vote was then re-
ceived. Any one who votes may challenge. No-
thing could be more quiet and orderly than this meet-
\:v^. A few handbills were posted around the house,
pioclaiming the names, and extolling the qualities of
the different candidates, and I heard one or two men
disputing the wisdom of certain public measures,
rather in irony than in heat. The election was not,
however, esteemed a warm one, and perhaps quite
one third of the people did not attend the polls at all.
Mr. Clinton, the governor, under whose administra-
tion the canal policy, as it is called, has been fostered,
had declined a re-election, at the expiration of the
official term preceding the one now in existence.
His place had been filled by another. In the mean
time, his political adversaries, profiting by a momen-
tary possession of a legislative majority, had ventured

* The more popular branch of the State legislature, as it is
«ometimes called, though both are popular alike. The difference
« principally in the term of service, and in some little exercise
of power.


to assail him in a manner the people were not dis-
posed to relish. He was removed from a seat at the
" canal board," a measure which was undoubtedly
intended to separate him, as far as possible, from a
policy that was already conferring incalculable ad-
vantage on the State. The instant Cadwallader was
told of this ill-advised and illiberal measure, he ex
claimed, that the political adversaries of this gentle
man had reseated him in the chair of the government.
When asked for an explanation, my friend answered,
that the people, though they sometimes visited politi-
cal blunders with great severity, rarely tolerated per-
secution. The event has justified his predictions.
Although a popular candidate was selected to oppose
him, Mr. Clinton has triumphed in this election by
an immense majority, and, in a few days, he will
become governor of the State for another term of two

After quitting the poll, we famiharly discussed the
merits and demerits of this system of popular elec-
tions. In order to extract the opinions of my friend,
several of the more obvious and ordinary objections
were started, with a freedom that induced him to
speak with some seriousness.

" You see a thousand dangers in universal suffrage,"
he said, " merely because you have been taught to
think so, without ever having seen the experiment
tried. The Austrian would be very apt to say, under
the influence of mere speculation too, that it would
be fatal to government to have any representation at
all ; and a vizier of the Grand Turk might find the
mild exercise of the laws, which is certainly practised
in Austria Proper, altogether fatal to good order.

* No voter can put in two ballots, since all are compelled to
place them in tlie hands of an inspector. In case two ballots
are found rolled together, both are rejected. Thus fraud is im-


Now we know, not from the practice of fifty years
only, bat from the practice of two centuries, that it
is very possible to have both order and prosperity
under a form of government which admits of the ut-
most extension of the suffrage. It is a never-faihng
argument on these subjects, that American order is
owing to the morahty of a simple condition of life,
a id that our prosperity is incidental to our particular
geographical situation. There ^re many good men,
and, in other respects, wise men, even among our-
selves, who retain so much of the political theory
which pervades the literature of our language, as to
believe the same thing. For myself, I cannot see the
truth of either of these positions. Our prosperity is
owing to our intelligence, and our intelligence to our
institutions. Every discreet man in America is deeply
impressed with the importance of diffusing instruction
among our people, just as many very well-meaning
persons in your hemisphere honestly enough entertain
a singular horror of the danger of school-books. Thus
it is, our natural means of safety to do the very thing
which must, of necessity, have the greatest possible
influence on the happiness, civilization, and power,
of a nation.

" There can be no doubt that, under a bald theory,
a representation would be all the better if the most
ignorant, profligate, and vagabond part of the com-
munity, were excluded from the right of voting. It
is just as true, that if all the rogues and corrupt poli-
ticians, even including those who read Latin, and
have well-lined pockets, could be refused the right
of voting, honest men would fare all the better. But
as it is very well known that the latter are not, nor
cannot well be excluded from the right of suffrage
any where, except in a despotism, we have come to
the conclusion, that it is scarcely worth while to do
so much violence to natural justice, without sufficieni
reason, as to disfranchise a man merely because he


is poor. Though a trifling qualification of property
may sometimes he useful, in particular conditions of
society, there can be no greater fallacy than its re-
presentation. The most vehement declaimers in fa-
vour of the justice of the representation of property,
overlook two or three very important points of the
argument. A man may be a voluntary associate in
a joint-stock company, and justly have a right to a
participation in its management, in proportion to his
pecuniary interest ; but life is not a chartered insti-
tution. Men are born with all their wants and pas-
sions, their means of enjoyment, and their sources of
misery, without any agency of their own, and fre-
quently to their great discomfort. Now, though gov-
ernment is, beyond a doubt, a sort of compact, it
would seem that those who prescribe its conditions
are under a natural obligation to consult the rights
of the whole. If m.en, when a little better than com-
mon, were any thing like perfect, we might hope to
see power lodged with safety in the hands of a rea-
sonable portion of the enlightened, without any dan-
ger of its abuse. But the experience of the world
goes to prove, that there is a tendency to monopoly,
wherever power is reposed in the hands of a minor-
ity. Nothing is more likely to be true, than that
twenty wise men will unite in opinion in opposition
to a hundred fools ; but nothing is more certain than
that, if placed in situations to control all the interests
of their less gifted neighbours, the chance is, that
fifteen or sixteen of them would pervert their phi-
losophy to selfishness. This was at least our political
creed, and we therefore admitted a vast majority of
the community to a right of voting. Since the hour of
the revolution, the habits, opinions, laws, and I may
say principles of the Americans, are getting daily to
be more democratic. We are perfectly aware, that
while the votes of a few thousand scattered individu-
als can make no great or lasting impression on the
Vol, T. , Aa


prosperity or policy of the country, their disaffection
at being excluded might give a great deal of trouble.
I do not mean to say that the suffrage may not, in
most countries, be extended too far. I only wish to
show you that it is not here.

" The theory of representation of property says,
that the man who has little shall not dispose of the
money of him who has more.* Now, what say ex-
perience and common sense? It is the man who
has much that is prodigal of the public purse. A sum
that is trifling in his account, may constitute the sub-
stance of one who is poorer. Beyond all doubt, the
government of the world, which is most reckless of
the public money, is that in which power is the ex-
clusive property of the very rich ; and, beyond all
doubt, the government of the world which, compared
with its means, is infinitely the most sparing of its
resources, is that in which they who enact the laws
are compelled to consult the wishes of those who
have the least to bestow. It is idle to say that an
enlarged and liberal policy governs the measures of
the one, and that the other is renowned for a narrow-
ness which has lessened its influence and circum-
scribed its prosperity. I know not, nor care not,
what men, who are dazzled with the glitter of things,
may choose to say, but I am thoroughly convinced,
from observation, that if the advice of those wlio
were influenced by what is called a liberal policy,

Online LibraryJames Fenimore CooperNotions of the Americans: picked up by a travelling bachelor (Volume 1-2) → online text (page 22 of 58)