James Fenimore Cooper.

Notions of the Americans: picked up by a travelling bachelor (Volume 1-2) online

. (page 27 of 58)
Online LibraryJames Fenimore CooperNotions of the Americans: picked up by a travelling bachelor (Volume 1-2) → online text (page 27 of 58)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

and control policy, acted on by directly contrary influences
While the American was fondly, and, one might say, blindly
clinging to his ancient attachments, his advances were met
by jealousy, or repelled by contempt. Whatever may be the
future consequences of this unnatural repulse, America has
no reason to lament its occurrence. It has already relieved
her from the thraldom of mental bondage. So generally and
so forcibly is this truth felt, that while the w^ar of "76 is called
the war of the revolution, that of '12 is emphatically termed
the war of independence. It is beyond a doubt that, as there
were in America men of spirits too lofty, and of an intelh-
ffence too enlightened not to have rebelled against the besot-
ted dependence of their countrymen on foreign opinion, so
there were in England philanthropists too pure and too gene-
rous not to rejoice in any human prosperity. But these were
no more tlian exceptions to those general rules which marked

316 NOTES.

the feelings and opinions of the two nations, so far as those
of England were at all active in the matter. I say a<:tive,
for it id certain that, even to this hour, the great majority of
that nation neither think nor care m the least about a people
so remote, and who have never acted a conspicuous part in
the struggles of their own hemisphere. Indeed, the Amer-
ican, conscious of the possession of physical advantages which
are beyond most of the chances of worldly vicissitudes, and
firm in the belief that he enjoys a higher state of moral ex-
istence than any other people whatever, little suspects, even
now, how completely his country is without the pale of Euro-
pean thought. A vigorous and intellectual population of
twelve millions must ever force itself on the notice of states-
men; but, could the fact be ascertained, I do believe it would
be found that three out of four of the inhabitants of Europe
not only believe we are a people of barbarous manners, but
that we have, to say the least, but doubtful claims to be com-
puted among the descendants of Japhet at all. The proofs
of this opinion have often occurred to me during my travels ;

nor are you, my dear , the only European of education,

by a dozen, who has asked me if my liaxen hair and blue eyes
were not deemed a sort of physical anomaly on the other side
of the Atlantic !•-

" Mr. Hodgson says, he was assured by an intelligent
American, that had a man, like_ Wilberforce-, travelled among
us, and given to the world a fair and honest t'ccount of the
state of society he saw^tlie war of 1812 would have been
averted. There can be but little doubt that the periodical
writers of England dipt tlieii pens too deep in gall. They
overacted their parts, and the consequence must fall where it
may. I can only say, as a citizen of the United States, v»'ho
not only loves, but, strange as you may think it, who glories
in his country, that if such were the power of that excellent
friend of humanity, I rejoice he did not exert it. Though no
admirer of the wisdom in which that war v/as conceived, nor
of tJie skill with which it was conducted, I should be blind to
palpable truths, did I not see that it has left my country in
the occupancy of a station more worthy of her reo,l power
and true character, than the equivocal condition from which
she emerged.

" With my opinions, then, of the cir^rflcter of most of the
works which form your travelling library, vou cannot be sur-
prised that I ha:d so little desire to read them The contents
of most of them, however, are already krf'^wn to me. It
would 1)6 vain to deny that they contain mam^ d:->agreeable
truths, for it would be arrogating/ to ourselves a perfectioi?

NOTES. 317

which exists nowhere, to' say that a traveller of ordinary ca-
pacity, who journeys with a view to find fault, should be
baffled of his object in the States of America, alone. StDl,
in most of the cases where I am willing to believe there did
exist, on the part of the writers, a fair proportion of honest
intention, there was so much utter incapacity to judge of a
state of society to which they were worse than strangers,
that their opinions may safely be considered little better than
worthless. It is often said that we are the subjects of a
peculiarly exacting national vanity, and that notliing short of
eulogies will ever meet with a favourable reception among
us. The good opinion which nations entertain of themselves,
is far from being limited to America, though it is not difficult
to understand that our pretensions should be particularly
offensive to a people, who have so long claimed an exclusive
right to those very properties on which we ground our pride.
This vanity is imputed to us, however, chiefly because it is
thought that, in contemplating the future, expectation out-
runs probability too* far. If it be meant that the people of
the United States anticipate more for their country than what
reason and experience will justify, I do not believe it. On
the contrary, I think that nine out of ten of mankind, there,
as elsewhere, fail in the ability to estimate the probable, and
speedy importance too, of our country in the scale of nations.
Your author, Mr. Hodgson, after a tolerably close inspection
of our means, frankly admits, that, were he an American, his
hopes would greatly outstrip those of the natives with whom
he conversed. But, if it be meant that the American often
fails in manner, when he is disposed to drav»' a comparison
between the prospects of his own country, and those of other
people, I think nothing is more probable. It is quite evident,
that the greater the truth of these predictions, tlie heavier is
the offence against the comity of intercourse. A large ma-
jority of those whose voices are loudest on this theme, are
men of a class that, in other nations, would either be too
ignorant to indulge in any rational speculations on the future
at all, or too much engaged in providing for the wants of the
hour, to waste their breath on a subject that did not teem
with mstant profit. But, in what degree is this offence pecu-
liar to Americans, except as hope is more grateful than recol-
lection ? I have fifty times listened to the most self-compla-
cent and sweeping claims to national superiority, that were
uttered by Englishmen, and by Englishmen of rank, too, who
should at least have had the taste to conceal their exultation
in the presence of a foreigner. I apprehend that we are
shmed against quite as much as we sin in this particular. No

318 NOTES.

gentleman can deny that the coarse demands of general su-
periority are alike offensive to taste and breeding. They
have created a disgust in the minds of the m.ore intelligent
classes, who often, in the spirit of distaste, oppose the very
anticipations in w^hich they fondly confids, for no other reason
tlianthat tliey find them oppressive by the Treedom with which
they are urged. But vanity is the foible of age in communi-
ties, as it is of youth in individuals. We have not yet reached
that period of national dotage. There is little in the past,
however, of v/hich England can fairly boast, in which Amer-
ica may not claim to participate. The arms of our ancestors
were wielded in her most vaunted fields; the geniuses of
Shakspeare and Milton were awakened in the bosom of a so-
ciety from which we received our impressions, and if liberty
and the law have been transmitted to us from the days of
Hampden and Bacon, we have not received them as boons,
but taken them as tlie portions of a birthright. Glorious and
ample as has been our heritage, we challenge the keen-eyed
and ready criticism of the rest of the world, to decide whether
we have imitated the example of the prodigal son. And yet,
if It be permitted to a people, to value themselves on any
thmg, it is surely more reasonable to exult in the cheering
prospects of a probable future, than to turn their eyes through
tlie perspective of recollections, in quest of a sickly renown
from the past. The greatness of the ancestor may, and dues
often, prove a reproach to him who would claim a vain dis-
tinction from circumstances that he could not have controlled,
wliile he who looks ahead, may justly point with pride to the
foundations of glory Vv^hich his own hand has laid.

" I have said that feeling, no less than calculation, formed
one of the causes of the calumny England has undeniably
heaped upon America. The operation of this dislike is as
various and characteristic, as were the pursuits and humours
of its subjects. It was an offence against the geographical
sovereignty, which marks England for the seat of empire,
to ihe prejudice of Scotland, Ireland, and Wales, to presume
to renounce her dominion at all. It was and is, a constant
oflTence to aristocracy every where, to exhibit an instance of
a prosperous and happy democracy. It was a bitter oifence
against the hierarchical estabhshmcnt, to demonstrate that
rehgion and order, and morals, could exist without its aid ;
and it was an offence to the pride of that numerous class,
who exulted in being the bravest, because the freest people
of the earth, to argue at the bayonet's point, that there wag
another quite as brave, who was determined to be a little
more free. To the American, the different expedients which

NOTES. 319

have been adopted to disprove, or to undervalue these advan-
tages, are not w^ithout amusement. Our government has
been termed mibecile, for no better reason than that it did
not possess the power to suppress evils which have no ex-
istence among us, though it does possess the inestimable
power of adapting itself to circumstances, without endanger-
ing its foundations by the change. Our manners have been
derided, for the simple cause that they differed, and that too,
perhaps, less than might be wished, from their own, while
their own are far from being a model to the rest of Europe.
Our order has been denied, though it is rarely disturbed, ex-
ce})t by the iUves of her own disciplined system, and our re-
ligion scoffed at, though, I think, a reference to the use of
figures would demonstrate that while (since the separation)
their peculiar faith has been on a comparative decrease among
themselves, in consequence of the opposition created by the
estabhshment,it has, with us, been on a comparative increase,
because men seldom fail to confess the merits of that which
is not too violently obtruded on their notice.

" But, a more general and far safer method of disposing of
the question of our unworthhiess, is by keeping America en-
tirely out of view. To this hour, and \\\i\\ all the facts
known to the world, one reads every day, in works and jour-
nals of talent and reputation, that England is the freest
among the nations ! You may see her claims to philanthropy
supported by the fact, that she was the first to destroy the
traffic in human fiesh ; and her distinguished statesmen have
not hesitated to affirm, in the face of Europe, that to her is
the southern moiety of our hemisphere indebted, for the ori-
ginal acknowledgment of its national existence ! It is easy to
predict that this is a manner of disposing of things, which may
be practised with more facility in the year 1825, than in the
year 1850.

" As respects the w^ork of Mr. Hodgson, I have read it,
with both pain and plea-sure. There is satisfaction at all
times, in dwelling on the opinions, though they may prove
erroneous, of a discreet and honest man. As he evidently
seeks the truth, with a desire of proclaiming it, his very errors
are entitled to be treated with respect. Notliing, for instance,
however, is more untrue, than to say that service in the revo-
lution forms the chief, or even a very material claim to dis-
tinction, in our ordinary intercourse. Society, in America, is
constituted precisely as in every other Christian country,
breeding, education, family alliances, and wealth, exerting
most of their customary influences. It is more true, cer-
tainly, as to political distinction, though cases abound of

320 NOTES.

individuals who even opposed the war of '76, but who have
not been thought unworthy of popular favour by their placa-
ble countrymen. He has been thrown, by accident, into a
highly respectable circle of ancient soldiers, whom he has
found in the enjoyment of all their native and merited con-
sideration, and he has mistaken the particular instance for a
general rule. "He has not, at least, like most of those who
went before him, passed wilfrdly over tlie abundance of order,
morals, religion, and intelligence which eminently distin-
guishes the bosom of our community, to seek exceptions in
the skirts of society, which might serve to amuse at home
by their freshness, or to gratify the spleen of our haters by
their deformities.

" But there are deep sources of pain in finding, by the con-
fessions of this very writer, how much more inveterate have
been the prejudices of his nation, than even one as familiar
with the subject as a traveller could have behoved. To nine
millions of the population of America, it will appear incred-
ible, that England has doubted, nay, still doubts, whether
rehgion or religious instruction exists among them ! I write
under the observation of four visits to England, and an exten-
sive acquaintance with tlie habits of my own country, when
I affirm, that religion, to say the least, is as much inculcated,
and its prescriptions as rigidly observed, in all the northern
and middle, and some of the southern States of America, as
in the most favoured quarters of England. It is lamentable
that an error so injurious in its consequences, so false and so
uncharitable in its nature, should have an existence among
men who evidently wish to believe the best. Still, while as a
man, I lament this miserable error, as an American, I do not
fear the consequences. Wilful ignorance is sure to entail its
punishment. It has been the misfortune of England to re-
main in is^rance of America, and of American character,
from the day when the pilgrims first touched the rock of Ply-
mouth to the present hour. She banished our ancestors from
her bosom, because they would not submit to an oppression
against which she herself has since revolted. She cumbered
our infant eflforts with her vicious legislation, and drove us to
a premature majority. It remains to be seen whether she
will have us, in our strength, as a friend or an enemy. The
time for her election is getting short, and more may hang on
the issue than millions, who exult in their present power, are
willing to believe. The steady, deluded and confiding frienci
we once were, it is too late to expect. But a nation which
feels no pressure, and which is conscious of no unworthiness,
IS neither vindictive nor obdurate. We may be disposed to

iNOTES. 321

forgive, tlioiigh it will be hard indeed to forget. Even the
moderated and cautious tone, Avhich is certainly beginning to
prevail among her politicians and writers, is not extended to
the youthful Hercules with the grace that it might have been
offbred to the infant in his cradle. We know as well as her-
self, that the next duplication of our numbers will raise us to
her own level. Her dominion over our minds could not have
continued, it is true, after we had obtained a literature of our
own ; still the hold might have been relinquished in amity,
and not cast from her in disdam. But a generation- has grown
to maturity during the prevalence of a miserable infatuation.
What a noble promise for the future has England not jeop-
arded ! The decline of empires, though more tardy, is not
less certain th"n that of man. The wane of the British do-
minion might have been distinguished by features that the
world has never yet witnessed. Her language, her institu-
tions, and her distinctive opinions are spread wherever enter-
prise has penetrated. Colonization, under her reign, has
been fruitful and prosperous beyond a parallel. Mighty na-
tions are rising around her, as generations succeed genera-
tions in the more familiar descent of famihes. Wisdom
might prescribe a course which would have secured a devoted
friend in every dependant as it was released fiom the do-
minion of the parent. How far that course has been pursued
in respect to us, the past and the present time sufficiently
show. Why is Russia already occupying that place in Amer-
ican politics which England should have nobly filled ? Why
did America choose England for her foe, when equal cause
of war was given by France, and when the former was cer-
tainly most able to do her harm ? These are questions easily
answered by any man conversant with the state of the pubhc
mind in our nation ; but I shall leave you to make your own

'- 1 have treated this matter gravely ; for to me it always
seems a subject fraught with the gravest consequences. The
day is not far distant when the conflicting interests of the
two nations shall receive support from equal power. Whether
the struggle is to be maintahied by the ordmary rivalry of
enterprise and mdustry, or by the fiercer conflict of arms,
depends greatly on the temper of America. To us the ques-
tion is purely one of time. The result may be retarded ; but
he is deplorably ignorant of our character, of our resources,
and of our high intentions, who believes it can ever be avert-
ed. That Almighty Being who holds the destinies of nations
in his hands; must change the ordinary direction of his own
great laws, or the American populatioii wiii stand at the

322 . x^OTES.

head of civilized nations, long ere the close of this century
It is natural that they who falsely identify individual happi-
ness with national power, should rack their ingenuity in quest
of argimients that may refute omens that seem so un propi-
tious. The most common, because, in truth, the only plausi-
ble anticipation is, that our confederation will dissolve. It is
remarkable that England, with her party-coloured empire,
Austria, Prussia, Belgium, Sweden, and even our constant
friend the Russ, should shut their eyes to the fragments of
nations that compose their several powers, and complacently
predict, that we, a people of common origin, of common
opinions, of identified interests, and of perfectly equal rights,
should alone be subject to the influence of an unnatural
desire to separate. The people of France itself are not so
thoroughly amalgamated as the people of the United States.
The divisions of Catholics and Protestants alone, kept alive
as they are throughout most of Europe, are a greater source
of hostile feeling than all our causes of difference united.
The fact is, that you are accustomed to consider the strong
arm as the only bond of political union ; and Europe has not
yet had an opportunity of learning that the most durable gov-
ernment is that which makes it the interest of every citizen
to yield it cheerful support. I defy the experience of the
world to bring a parallel case of submission to established
government, equal to that manifested by the people of the
United States, to their own restrictive laws — measures of
doubtful policy, and of nearly fatal effects, not to individuals
alone, but to whole communities — and to communities too,
that possessed all the organized means of separate govern-
ments completely within the reach of their hands. That
which constitutes our weakness in European eyes, we know
to constitute our unconquerabl'3 strength. The bayonets of
England could not subdue us, an infant, impoverished, scatter-
ed, and peaceful people ; but could she have yielded a moiety
of the rights we now enjoy, we might have been persuaded,
for a time longer, that our interests tied us to a nation in the
other hemisphere. And, after all, admitting that we shall
separate, the case, with respect to England, will not be greatly
altered. Instead of having one mighty rival in industry and
enterprise, she will have two. The issue will be protracted,
but not averted. The main question is, whether that rivalry
shall consist in manful, honourable, and amicable efforts, or
in bitter, vindictive, heartless warfare. Every good man will
wish the former, but every wise man must see^how great is
the danger of the latter. More than ordinary prudence is
necessary to temper a struggle between nations, which, by

NOTES. 323

speaking a common language, so thoroughly understand each
other's taunts and revilings. I do not pretend to say that ,
the American, under a consciousness of similar umovations
on his pride and his privileges, would be either more wise or
more generous, than the Englishman has proved : but I do
say, that it behoves the discreet and moderate of both nations
to take heed, lest the growing dislike should degenerate into
a feeling that may prove discreditable to human nature.
There is, however, much mawkish philanthropy uttered on
this subject. For my own part, I believe the fault of Amer-
ica has been that of a too cautious forbearance. Had we
earlier spoken in the open and manly tone that becomes us,
much of the miserable recrimination that I fear is in store
would have been avoided. Still, we begin to feel, tliat while
England has nearly exhausted her darts, our own quiver is
full. She forgets that, when we achieved our independence-
we conquered an equal right to the language ; and slie ought
not to be surprised if we should sometimes descend to adopt
her own mode of using it. No doubt vulgar and im.potent
minds have already commenced the pitiful task of recrimina-
tion : nor can it be denied that men of even higher stamp
have been provoked to a forgetfulness of their self-respect, by
the unceasing taunts and revilings of our unwearied abusers ;
but if the latter think that they have yet felt the force of our
retorts, they have only to continue in their career to be soon
convinced of their error. If England belieyes she is not ob-
noxious to the attacks of sarcasm, it is not the least of her
mistakes ; and nothing but occasion is needed to convince her
that no one can apply it, in her case, with half the malignant
power of those very people she affects to despise.

"At present, the feeling in America, in respect to England,
is rather that of indifference, than of dislike. We certainly
do not worship her government ; if we had, we should prob-
ably have adopted it ; but we are far from being so unreason-
able as to require that she should like our ow'n. I know no
people that trouble themselves less about the pohtical concerns
of other nations than my countrymen. It may be vanity, but
they think they have little to learn, in this particular, except
of themselves. There is, notwithstanding, one great and
saving quality, which, if \\2 are wrong, should plead some-
thing in extenuation of our self-delusion; we are neither
ashamed nor afraid to change.

" When an Englishman tells us of our common descent,
of the ideal homage we should both pay to the land and in-
stitutions of our ancestors, he is heard with cold and incred-
ulous ears ; we are no w^orshippers of stocks and stones. A

324 NOTES.

little extension of his principle would carry iis into the Rges
of monkish misrule, or leave us in the plains of Saxony.
But when an Enghshman speaks to us of those moderated
and chastened principles which characterize our religion, and
refers to that mighty Spirit which inculcates the obligations
of universal charity, he approaches by an avenue that is open
to all, and which 1 pray God may never be closed against
him, or any other of the children of men. •

^ As to the generation that must pass away before our
strength shall entirely equal that of our great relative, there
is httle cause for appreliension. England has already done
and said her worst. We dread her power as a veteran dreads
the whizzing of bullets ; he knows the deadly messengers may
do him harm, but the sound is tar too familiar to excite alarm.
Let those v/ho believe England more powerful now than she
was fifty years since, ask tlieraselves whether she can repeat
her efforts? — let those v/ho wish to think of America in
1G24, as they did in 1776, approach like yourself, and make
their own observations.

" I should describe the difference between the treatment
which the American receives in England, and that which the
Englishman receives in America, as being very marked.
Notwithstanding all that has passed, we admit the English-
man freely and cordially into our houses, and I think we treat
him, even now, rather as ^i distant relative than as an alien.
There is so much natural interest in the feeling which in-
duces us to listen curiously to accounts of the country of our

Online LibraryJames Fenimore CooperNotions of the Americans: picked up by a travelling bachelor (Volume 1-2) → online text (page 27 of 58)