James Fenimore Cooper.

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

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dition of the ages in which the two have been con-
structed, has induced some very sensible alterations
in the plans of the buildings ; but, still the outline is
the same.

I was surprised at the sterility and nakedness of
the country through which we journeyed, though I
was given to understand that a great deal of the State
of Maryland is land of the richest quality. There
vv^ere one or two small villages on the route, but
v\'hich, after those we had seen further north, wore
a miserable air. I am not certain, however, that
they are not quite as good in every particular as the
ordinary villages of Europe. Here I first saw fields
for the tobacco plant. It grows in hills, not unlike
the maize, and is rarely, or never, fenced, no animal
but man having a relish for the unsavoury weed.

At the distance of six or seven miles from Wash-
ington, we stopped at the village of Bladensburgh, a
place notorious for two circumstances. It lies just
without the territory of the district of Columbia, and
is the spot usually chosen for the decision of private
combats ; and it is the place where the affair be-
tween the English and the Americans was fought a
few hours before the former entered the city.

I confess I had thought it surprising that so small a
force (about 5000 men) could have taken possession
of the capital of so powerful a nation ; but a nearer
view has entirely dissipated the wonder. It was a
point where the Americans, having nothing of mili-
A2



6 BATTLE OF BLADENSBURGH.

tary importance to defend, had assembled no force,
and there is not probably on the whole line of their
coast, a more deserted and tenantless region than the
country traversed by the invaders. The troops ral-
lied to resist the English, as their intention became
known, were merely the citizens of the adjoining
country, who assembled in a very imperfect state of
preparation, and who were very little, if at all, supe-
rior in numbers to their antagonists. They had not
even the ordinary inducements to risk their lives
against those of hireling troops ; for, even to this hour,
it is difficult to find what object General Ross could
have had in hazarding his army in an expedition that
might have been attended with destruction. A man
like Jackson to oppose him would have insured it.

I alighted at Bladensburgh, and, accompanied by
my friend, walked in advance of the carriage over
the ground, attended by a sufHciently intelligent man
who had witnessed the whole affair. As it is a little
in your way, the details I gleaned shall be rendered
as an offering to your military gout. Should they fail
of the interest which has so often been thrown over
the entrances of Moscow and Paris, you know how
to make allowances for an inferiority in dramatic ef-
fect, which is no more than a natural consequence
of the difierence between the conquest of a city of
half a million of inhabitants, and of a town of eight
or nine thousand.

The country around Bladensburgh is gently undu-
lating and moderately wooded. A small stream lies
near the village, and between it and the capital. It
is crossed by a wooden bridge. So much hurry and
indecision appear to have existed among the defend-
ers, that even this bridge was not destroyed, though
it might have been rendered impassable in ten min-
utes. It would seem, however, that many of their
troops, such as they were, only reached the ground
at the critical moment when they were wanted in



A LAWYER FOR A CKNERAL. 7

the combat. The dispositions for resistance were
made along the crest of a gentle acclivity, at the dis-
tance of rather more than a mile from this bridge.
The centre of their position was on the highway,
and its defence was intrusted to a few seamen and
two or three hundred marines, the only disciplined
forces on the ground. A few light troops (all militia)
were pushed in front to the banks of the stream, and
two pieces of artillery were placed at a point to
command the passage of the bridge. There was a
little skirmishing here ; and it seems, by the English
accounts, that they suffered severely from the artil-
lery in crossing the bridge. The ground in front of
the seamen and marines was a gentle acclivity, and
perfectly open. Here there was some sharp fighting.
The British columns were obliged to open, and Gen-
eral Ross began to manoeuvre. But the militia did
not wait to be turned, for they retired to a man (the
skirmishers excepted), without firing a gun. The
seamen and marines stood well, and were necessarily
brought off to prevent capture. The artillery was
all, or nearly all, taken. This is, in substance, what
is called the Battle of Bladensburgh. The Ameri-
can loss was trifling, less than two hundred, and that
of the English perhaps three or four hundred.

It is easy to criticise the disposition of the Ameri-
can commander. This gentleman was an able law-
yer of the adjoining State of Maryland, who had lis-
tened to the whisperings of that uneasy ambition
which sometimes makes men heroes. He had quitted
the gown for the sword a short time before, and
probably knew as httle about his new profession as
you know of the one he had deserted. Lawyer or
not, had this gentleman placed his fellow-citizens (for
soldiers they cannot be called) in and about the Cap-
itol, and had they only fought as well as they did, he
taking care not to give them any particularly favour-
able opportunity of dispersing, I think General Ross



8 CITY OF WASHINGTON.

would have been spared the very equivocal glory of
burning all that then existed of that edifice ; viz. the
two wings. He listened to other counsels.

As we approached the capital, we saw before us
an extent of open country that did not appear to be
used for any agricultural purposes. It lay, without
fences, neglected, and waste. This appearance ^^i
common just here, and is owing to the circumstance
that tobacco exhausts the soil so much, that, in a
country where land and its products are still so cheap,
it is not worth the cost of restoring it. We soon got
a view of the dome of the Capitol, and the w^hole of
the facade of that noble edifice came into view, as
we mounted a slight eminence which had partly con-
cealed it. As my eye first wandered eagerly around,
at this point, to gather together the scattered particles
of the city, I will take the present occasion to con
vey a general impression of its appearance.

The seat of government was removed from Phila-
delphia to this place, in order that it might be more
central. So far as a line drawn north and south is in
question, this object is sufficiently answered. But
Washington stands so very far east of a central meri-
dian as to render it probable that other considera-
tions influenced the change. I have never heard il
30 said, but nothing is more probable than that the
slave-holding States required some such concession
to their physical inferiority. At all events, every
body appears perfectly satisfied with the present
position of the capital. Perhaps, notwithstanding
the difference on the map, the place is practically
nearer the centre than if it stood farther west. The
member from Alabama, or Louisiana, or Missouri,
arrives by sea, or by means of the great rivers of the
west, with about the same expense of money and of
labour as the member from Vermont, Maine, or New-
Hampshire. Some one must always have the benefit
of being nearest the political centre, and \^ is of no



PLAN OF THE CITY. 9

great moment whether he be a Virginian or an
Ohiese. As the capital is now placed, it is more
convenient for quick communication with Europe
than if farther inland, and it is certainly nearer the
centre of interests where it standi than it would be
in almost any other spot in the confederation.

Had the plan of the city been as well conceived
as its locality, there would be less ground of com-
plaint. The perspective of American character was
certainly exhibited to great advantage in the concep-
tions of the individual who laid out the site of this
town. It is scarcely possible to imagine a more un-
fortunate theory than the one he assumed for th0
occasion. Ke appears to have egregiously mistaken
the relative connexion between streets and houses,
since it is fair to infer he would not have been so
lavish of the one without the aid of the other, did he
not believe the latter to be made use of as accessories
to the former, instead of the reverse, as is every
where else found to be the case. And, yet I think,
both nature and art had united to point out the true
plan for this city, as I shall endeavour to convince
you without delay.

The ground occupied by the city of Washington,
may be described as forming a tolerably regular tri-
angle. Two of its sides are washed by the two
branches of the Potomac, which diverge towards
the north-east and north-west, while on its third,
there are no limits to its extent, the land being a
somewhat gentle acclivity, gradual on the whole,
though undulating, and often broken in its minute
parts. The river below the point is a noble stream,
stretching for many miles to the southward, in full
view of the town. Both of its branches are naviga-
ble for near a league. At the distance of about two
miles from the point, the main river (west branch),
which had hitherto washed a champaign country,
enters a range of low mountains, and makes a still



10 DESCRIPTION OF WASHINGTON.

more decided inclination to the west. Here is the
head of tide and of navigation. The latter circum-
stance had early pointed out the place for the site of
a town, and accordingly a little city grew on the spot,
whence tobacco and lumber were shipped for other
ports, long before the neighbourhood was thought of,
as the capital of a great nation. This place is called
Georgetown. It is rather well built than otherwise,
and the heights, in its rear, for it hes against an ac-
clivity, are not only beautiful in themselves, but they
are occupied by many pretty villas. It contains in
itself, perhaps 9000 inhabitants. It has a college and
five churches, two of which are Episcopal.

Georgetown is divided, from what is termed Wash-
ington City, by a rapid little stream called Rock
Creek.* The land, for a considerable distance after
the creek is crossed, is well adapted for a town. It
is sufficiently unequal to carry off the water, and yet
sufficiently level for convenient streets. Here is the
spot, I think, where the buildings should have been
collected for the new city. But at the distance of
about a mile and a quarter from the bridge, a vast
square is laid out. On one of its sides is the Presi-
dent's House,! flanked by the public offices. A few
houses and a church are on two more of its sides,
though the one opposite to the ' White House ' is as
yet entirely naked. From this square, sundry great
avenues diverge, as do others from another centre,
distant a mile and a half still further east. The
latter square is adorned by the Capitol. Across all

* Tlie Americans often call a small river a creek, and brooks
of a large size are oftener called creeks than any thing- else.
Schoharie Creek is as large as the Seine, at Paris. It is, to all
intents, a rapid river ; but the size of many of their rivers is so
great as to produce a sort of impression that the smaller streams
should be of a different class.

t The Americans familiarly call the exceedingly pretty little
palace in which their chief magistrate resides, the " White
House," but the true appellation is the President's House.



POPULATION OF WASHINGTON. 11

these avenues, which are parallel to nothing, there
IS a sort of net- work of streets, running at right
angles with each other. Such is Washington on the
map.

In point of fact, but few of the avenues or streets
are opened, and fewer still are built on. There is
one of the former running from the bridge at George-
town to the first square, and another leads from the
President's House to the capitol. There are two or
three more which connect important points, though
only the two named are sufficiently built on to have
the least of the character of a town. There are
rather m.ore streets open, though not one of them all
is absolutely built up from one end to the other.

In consequence of the gigantic scale on which
Washington is planned, and the different interests
which influence the population, its inhabitants (in-
cluding Georgetown) are separated into four distinct
little towns, distant from each other about a mile.
Thus we have Georgetown in the west, containing
9000 souls ; the town immediately around the Presi-
denfs House, (extending towards the Capitol,) with
perhaps 10,000; that around the Capitol, of some
two or three thousand souls ; and the buildings at
the Navy-Yard, which lies on the east branch, still a
mile further. The whole cz/y,* including its three
divisions, with here and there a few scattered build-
ings, may now contain about 16,000 souls.

When the people of the United States determined
to have a more central capital, it was thought best
to give the general government absolute jurisdiction
over it. In order to effect this object, it was neces-
sary to extinguish the State rights. This was done

* Georgetown, it will be remembered, is not properly a part
of the cit]/ of Washington, though in the district of Columbia;
but, in point of fact, it is as nigh the President's House, as is the
Capitol. There is also a little group of houses at the junction
of the two branches of the Potomac.



12 GOVERNMENT OF THE UNITED STATES.

bj Virginia and Maryland ceding sufficient territory
to make a district of ten miles square at the point 1
have described. In this little territory the President
exercises the authority which a governor commonly
exercises in a State, or rather, there is no interme-
diate or concurrent executive authority between hira
and the people, as in the several States ; and Con-
gress, though in fact elected by the citizens of the
States, does all the legislation. Thus the inhabitants
of this territory have no representation whatever;
neither voting for members of Congress, nor for mem-
bers of any State legislature. But their voices are
often heard in the way of petitions and demands. It
is probable that when they shall become as numerous
as the smallest State, they will receive the right of
electing representatives.*



* The Avriter will take this opportunity of introducing a short
account of the formation of the government of the United
States, since it will assist to explain a good deal of that which
is to follow.

The executive power is in the President. He nominates to
office ; pardons all offences, except convictions under impeach-
ments ; conducts negotiations ; sees that the laws are admin-
istered, and is the military chief of the army and navy, subject
to the laws. He makes treaties with the consent of the Senate,
and gives his assent to. all laws, though a law can be passed
without him, if two-thirds of both houses vote in its favour.
The Senate is the representation of the sovereignty of the States,
each State sending two members, who are chosen by their re-
spective legislatures. They serve for six years, one-third va-
cating their seats every new Congress. They have a concur-
rent power with the lower house in enacting laws ; they ratify
treaties ; they approve of nominations to office, and they con-
stitute a High Court of Impeachment. The Representatives
are elected directly by the people, one member bemg sent from
a regulated number of electors. They serve for one Congress,
which exists two years, commencing on the 4th of March of
one year, and ending on the 3d of March of the year but one
that follows. The official term of the President 'is for two of
these Congresses, and that of a Senator for three. The Repre-
sentatives, or members of the lower house, have concurrent
power in the enactment of the laws, and being the grand in-
quest of the nation, they can impeach any officer of the gov-
ernment.



GOVERNMENT OF THE UNITED STATES. 13

I think you must be enabled to understand the
anomaly of the district of Columbia. It has been
necessarily fostered by the nation, for as it has been
entirely called into existence, as a separate commu-

Eyery citizen of the United States, who is twenty-one years
of age, and who possesses certain trifling qualifications, can
vote for a member of the House of Representatives, provided
he himself be a resident of a State. The confederation is only
of the States ; but there are vast regions belonging to them as
common property, which do not lie within the boundaries of any
State. This country is subdivided for the purposes of conve-
nience, and IS governed entirely by the authority of the Presi-
dent and Congress, or according to laws enacted for that pur-
pose. With The exception of one (the District of Columbia)
they are called territories. Thus, besides the twenty-four
States, there are the North-western, Michigan, Arkansas, and
Florida territories. Certain legislative rights are granted to
ail the territories that have a sufficient population, but none is
yet granted to the District of Columbia. Some of the territories
even send delegates to Congress. These delegates can speak,
but they cannot vote. As the territories reach an established
rate of population, they are uniformly admitted into the con-
federation, as States. It is probable that Michigan, Florida,
and Arkansas will be admitted as States soon after the next
census, after which a long period will be likely to elapse with-
out any farther increase of the number of the States. The great
difficulty in making a foreigner comprehend the institutions of
the United States, exists in the double form of its government.
Neither the President, nor Congress, nor both, have authority
to interfere with government beyond the power which has been
conceded to them by the States. They can make war, raise
armies, lay taxes, send fleets to sea, and do many other things,
but they cannot punish a theft, unless committed on the high
seas, to which their jurisdiction of course extends, or in some
other place where they have the exclusive or a concurrent
power. Thus, the President of the United States, may pardon
a man convicted of robbing the United States' mail, though the
act should have been done in the most crowded street of the
city of New-York, because the regulation of the mail, being a
matt-^i-of public convenience, is vested in the government of
the/ conit^6''^tion, with all power necessary to its safety and
despatch; \>nt, if the same coach should be robbed in a forest,
and it did not contain a mail, or something else over which the
United States have jurisdiction, the robber would be pun-
ished by the laws of the State where the offence was committed.
In order that these laws may be executed, each government
has its own agents. Thus, there are judges of the State courts,
and judges of the courts of the United States. The former have
jnnsdiction in cases that are strictlv municipal, or ratlier which
Vol. II. B '



14 GOVERNMENT OF THE UNITED STATES.

nity, for their use, it owes most of all it possesses te
the public grants and to the presence of the ministers
of the government. With a view to force a town,
establishments have been formed which will probably
linger in a doubtful state of existence for a long time
to come, if, indeed, they ever prosper. Among
others is that of the Navy- Yard.

The village around the Navy- Yard is the least im-
portant of the three which properly constitute the
community assembled at Washington Proper. You
will remember that I now exclude Georgetown from
this enumeration. It possesses a different city gov-
ernment, though it is, in point of fact, quite as near
the centre, or the President's House, as the Capitol.
Alexandria, a little city, also, of about 9000 inhabit-



are confined to their respective States, ^nd the latter in cases
which arise under the laws of the United States, or in cases in
which the citizens of different States are parties. This latter
power of the courts of the general government is one of the
most important features of the confederation. It has a tendency
to equalize the State laws, by rendering them all subject to the
great principles of the constitution, as well as to those of natural
justice. It will be seen at once, that this confederation differs
from all that we have hitherto known by the complicated nature
of the action and re-action between the people and their general
government. It is much the same, in fact, as if charters were
given to certain towns, in a constitutional government, whether
monarchical or not, under favour of which the inhabitants of
those towns were authorized to enact certain laws for their own
private convenience, while they continued subject at the same
time to the general laws of the empire. The theory is cer-
tainly different ; for here the power which belongs to the gen-
eral government, is a concession from the particular States,
whereas, in the other case, the power exercised by the corpo-
rations would be a concession from the principal government.
Still the cases bear so stronga resemblance, that one ca^yeao'ily
imderstand the nature of the two authorities which eii^t in tViis
country. But we in Europe, while we are accustomed to see
cities and universities, and even parts of empires, exercising
this species of divided sovereignty, have not been accustomed
to see them exercising it to the extent that is practised in
America. The difference arises from the common circum-
stance, that the conceding party has, in both cases, seen fit to
retain the most of the power in its own hands.



NAVY-YARD. 15

ants, is equally within the limits of the District, but
it lies on the opposite side of the Potomac, and at a
distance of six miles. There are not many good
houses in the quarter of the Navy- Yard, and I should
think that a great portion of its inhabitants are people
aependent on the establishment for support. Notwith-
standing there is a long river to navigate before a ship
can get into the bays below, a very considerable num-
ber of the public vessels are built and repaired at this
spot. Seamen, there are none at Washington, for the
simple reason that there is no commerce. A few
ships are, indeed, seen at the wharfs of Georgetown
and Alexandria, but the navigation of the two places
united is far less than that of most of the fourth-rate
commercial towns of the Union.

As the department of the navy, and the board of
naval commissioners, are both established at Wash-
ington, this yard may be of some service in the way
of modelling, and for the superintendence of inven-
tions. A ship built here is said to cost more than
one built in any of the more northern ports, and it is
therefore plain, that when the size of their marine
shall compel the Americans to observe a rigid econ-
omy in its construction, the relative importance of
this yard must cease. It may long continue a school
for experiments, but it can never become what was
once anticipated for it, a large and flourishing build-
ing establishment.

I saw, in the Navy-Yard at Washington, the only
public monument in commemoration of the dead that
I could find in the city, unless a few simple stones,
erected around the graves of members of Congress,
ivho have died while here in the discharge of their
official duties, can be so termed. This little monu-
ment was erected to commemorate the deaths of the
officers who fell in the war with Tripoli ; a war to
which the United States' marine owes its present
high, and merited character. It is a simple column,



IQ A MONUMENT.

wrought in Italy at the expense of the survivors, and
erected on this spot under the impulse of that stub-
born feeling of independence which distinguishes this
people. The high-spirited contributors to the little
work, thought the Congress did not pay a suitable
respect to th^ir petition for a site in a more public
situation. They were masters of the Navy- Yard,
and in disgust they caused their modest memorial to
be put up in the centre of its area. It may be doubt-
ed, after all, if any other situation so appropriate, or
so touching, could have been found. This monument
has received some injury, by having one or two of its
ornamental figures broken. On one of its sides I read
the following inscription : " Mutilated by Britons,
August, 181 4." This was the date of the inroad of
the English.

Now it struck me that this inscription was in sin-
gularly bad taste. The incursion of General Ross
was not an affair in which either party should exult.
It was no extraordinary military achievement for



Online LibraryJames Fenimore CooperNotions of the Americans: picked up by a travelling bachelor (Volume 1-2) → online text (page 30 of 58)