James Fenimore Cooper.

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four or five thousand highly disciplined troops, to land
under the protection of an overwhelming naval force,^
and to make a forced march, for a few days, through
a perfectly defenceless, and nearly uninhabited coun-
try ; to attack and disperse a hastily assembled body
of armed citizens, who were but little, if any, superior
to them in numbers ; to enter a line of straggling vil-
lages ; to remain one night, and then to retreat at a
rate that was quite as precipitate as their advance.
Perhaps it was not bad policy, in the abstract, for a
people who possessed the advantages of the British,
to take this means of harassing their enemy. But I
doubt the policy, in a nation situated precisely as
England was and is, of proving so practically to a
nation with the spirit, the resources, maritime char-

The frigates ascended the river to Alexandria.


acter, and prospects of this, that a powerful navy is
so ahsokitely necessary to defend their coast. The
use that was made of the success, too, might admit
of some cavilhng. But, on the other hand, the Amer-
icans fell so far short in their defence of what even
the case admitted, and so very far short of what, even
under less propitious circumstances, they themselves
effected at New-Orleans, that wisdom would pre-
scribe silence as the better course. It is permitted
for the defenders of Bunker's hill to allude to their
defeat, but the chisel of the Americans should have
been industriously employed to erase every vestige
of, and not to commemorate, even thus indirectly, the
occupation of their capital by an enemy. But, even
admitting that the defence of the town had been quite
equal to the means at hand, what was the immediate
offence that called for this particular punishment?
The English occupied the Navy- Yard, and, although
a little hurried, they certainly had time to have de-
stroyed this small monument, instead of midilating it,
by knocking the heads off one or two small marble
angels. The very nature of the injury proves it was
the act of an individual, and not of the authority,
which alone should be considered responsible for any
grave national accusation. Cadwallader is of my
opinion, as, indeed, were half-a-dozen naval officers
who showed us through the yard. The latter said
that the inscription was by order of an officer of rank,
who had reasons for a special degree of antipathy
against their late enemy. No man, especially in a
country like this, should be permitted, however, thus
to interpose his personal resentments between a nation
and its dignity.

It is more than a mile from the quarter of the Na-
vy-Yard to that of the Capitol. I have read accounts
of this place, which convey an idea that it was lately
a forest, and that the wood had been felled in order
to make a space to receive the town. There is some
B 2


error in this impression. Most of the country, for
miles around Washington, was early devoted to the
growth of tobacco. It is a baneful consequence of
the cultivation of this weed, that, for a long time, it
destroys the fertility of the soil. Thus, one sees vast
fields here, which wear the appearance of neglected
heaths. A growth of low, stunted, dwarfish trees
succeeds in time, and bushes must, of course, first
make their appearance. I could see no traces of
wood in any part of this city, nor for some distance
around it, though it is not improbable that some
copses of a second growth did exist at the time the
plan was formed. All I mean to say is, that the vi-
cinity of the Capitol has rather the appearance of an
old and an exhausted, than of what is here called a
new country. A great deal of the land in and about
the town is not fenced, and the whole appearance of
the place is that produced by the separate villages I
have described, lying on a great heath, which is be-
ginning to be cultivated, and whose surface is irregu-
larly waving. The avenues in those parts which are
not built, consequently, cross these open fields, and
the view is perfectly unobstructed on every side.

The quarter of the Capitol stands on elevated
ground, and is certainly the most picturesque portion
of the city proper. The Capitol itself is placed on
the brow of a considerable declivity, and commands
a noble view. There is something exceedingly im-
posing in the aspect of this building, with its power-
ful accessories of scenery and of moral association.
I shall beg your patience while I attempt an imper-
fect description.

The edifice is of a light greyish freestone. It has
been found necessary to paint it white, in order to
conceal the marks of the smoke left by the conflagra-
tion of 1814. This is in better taste than the inscrip-
tion on the monument. The effect of a clear, brilliant
white, under so fine a sun, is in itself exceedingly


striking. The antiquarian may riot in the rust, but
every plain-viewing man sees that the coin is never
so beautiful as when it is new from the mint. This
freshness of air is rather a pecuharity throughout most
of the United States, and it is exactly the appearance
the country should wear in order to be in keeping
with its recollections.

The Capitol is composed of a centre and two
wings. The former is something more than 150 feet
square, or nearly square, and the latter are each just
100. The several parts are in a line on the eastern
front, and consequently the wings are thrown back
on the western. This irregularity of the western fa-
(^ade is a great defect: it impairs the unity, and con-
sequently the majesty, of the edifice. There are too
many angles, those fatal blots on the beauty of archi-
tecture. There is another serious defect in the build-
ing as seen from the west: the centre is not only a
story higher, but it is also a story lower than the wings.
On this side the edifice stands on the brow of the hill.
In order to profit by the formation of the ground, a
basement, which is below the level of the earth to
the east, but not to the west, has been constructed
beneath the centre. But this basement necessarily
comes into the view ; and the fact of its being painted
white, coupled with its airy situation, gives the whole
construction the air of a mighty ostrich which is just
extending its little wings from the centre of a clumsy
body, not to fly, but to scud across the plain beneath.
The effect of a fine colonnade is much weakened by
this substructure of the edifice. But you, who have
so often seen the Louvre, can understand how easy
it is to give the basement too much importance in a
building; and you, too, who know the Garde Meuble
so well, must be sensible of the fine efTect of a judi-
cious observance of the proper proportions. Some
plan is in agitation to conceal this superabundance of
foundation ; but it is rare indeed that a capital defect


in a building is successfully repaired by any second-
hand expedients.

The eastern front of the Capitol promises to be
beautiful : it possesses unity of design, perfect sim-
plicity of outline, and a noble colonnade. As it is
not, however, yet completed, it would be premature
to pronounce with confidence on its final appearance.
The building stands in a spacious inclosure, which is
itself nearly surrounded by houses. These dwellings
are of bricks, three stories high, and decent, without
being in the least elegant. Much the greater part of
them are occupied as lodging-houses for the members
during the session. There are also a few short streets
built about the Capitol.

You will have understood that the plan of the city
is that of an infinite number of wide streets inter-
secting each other at right angles, and which, in
their turn, are obliquely intersected by sundry great
avenues, which are intended to shorten the distances
between the more important points, and, I presume,
to beautify the city. Several of these avenues diverge
from the Capitol square, like radii from a common
centre. They are called after the different States.
One, the Pennsylvania Avenue, is the principal street
of Washington. Standing at the Capitol, the view
along this avenue is somewhat striking. It is built
on more than one-half of its whole length, and it is
terminated by an oblique view of the President's
House. You will bear in mind, that as very few of
the dwellings on this avenue approach the Capitol,
they form part of another quarter. Still, paved walks
and a few scattered buildings, serve to give them
something of the air of beginning to belong to the
same town.

The quarter of the President's House is less compact
and more populous than either of the four. It forms,
properly, the heart of the city. It approaches to-
wards Georgetown on one side, and the Capitol o¬ї


the other, without absolutely joining either. A few
of the streets have the air of a town, though there is
in every part of this place a striking disproportion in
magnitude between the streets and the houses. In
order to produce the effect intended, the buildings on
the Pennsylvania Avenue, for example, should be of six
or seven stories, whereas in fact they are some such
houses as one sees in an English country town. An-
other striking defect in the plan is also made manifest
by the waste of room on this avenue. As the avenues
cross the streets obliquely, it is plain the points of
intersection must make a vast number of acute angles.
There is always on one side of each street, between
that street and the avenue, a gore of land that is so nar-
row that it will u,ever be built on until real estate shall
get to be far more valuable than it is likely soon to
become here. Consequently the distances are un-*
necessarily increased, and by this means, and its four
different quarters, Washington has all the inconve-
nience of an immense town, without any, or scarcely
any, of its counterbalancing conveniences.

It is unnecessary to say any thing more of George-
town, which is a well-built, clean, and rather pretty
town. The avenues between this place and the Navy-
Yard, a distance of near five miles, are Hke so much
grande route which runs through a little cultivated,
but open country, on which stands one straggling town,
and a village, and which terminates in a cluster of
houses. The buildings of the towns, or villages, on
the route, are much like those of other small towns,
with the exception of the public edifices, which are
like those one sees in a city. If you can reconcile all
these contradictions, you may get a tolerably accurate
notion of the capital of the United States of America.
You will recollect that the whole population of the
place, or places, (Georgetown included,) is about
25,000 souls. The whole district, Alexandria in-
cluded, contains 40,000.

22 president's house.

The President's House is a neat, chaste building,
of the Ionic order, built of the same material, and
painted hke the Capitol. It stands on a public
square, and in a considerable garden, and is one
hundred and seventy feet in length, by eighty-five in
breadth. In a parallel line with one of its fronts,^
though a little in advance, stand the offices of the four
great departments. They are large buildings of brick,
and are placed in pairs, on each side of the " white
house," one in front of the other, having open courts
between them. The two most in advance have plain
colonnades, but the other two are as naked as can be.
Besides these buildings there are one or two more in
a distant part of this straggling quarter, which merit
no particular description, ^



My attention, after our arrival at this place, was
early called to the great body, which was about to
assemble. We had taken a little suite of rooms in a
lodging-house, or rather tavern, which soon began to
fill with members of Congress from all quarters of the
country. Perhaps of the whole legislative corps of
the country, there is not a single individual who is
the proprietor of a dwelling at the seat of govern-
ment. Those who are of sufficient estate to main
tain two houses, have their town residences in the
capitals of their own particular States, though a very
large majority of the members are far from being men


of large fcrtiines at all.* There are a few individuals
who appear at the capital with their wives and
families, but by far the greater part of those who have
them, leave them at home. The common practice
is, for a certain number of the members who are ac-
quainted with each other, to make what is called a
" mess," at some chosen boarding-house. Here they
reside together, during the session, like the members
of one large family. Even ladies are often included
in these arrangements. Others again choose to live
entirely secluded : and, in some few instances, fam-
ilies keep their regular winter establishments, in such
narrow accommodations as the place affords. The
fact that a member is so completely dependent on the
public will, for his election, is enough in itself to
prevent any one but a man of very lai^e estate from
incurring the expense of building on so uncertain a

A member of the Congress of the United States is, in
fact, what the olhce professes to be, a representative
of the people. It is not pretended that he should be,
as a matter of course, a gentleman, in the ordinary
acceptation of the term. On the contrary, he is very
rommonly a plain, though always a respectable yeo-
man, and not unfrequently a mechanic. I remember
to have passed a night, in one of the northern States,
in a very good, cleanly, cheap and comfortable inn,
whose master was a member of the lower house, lii
the southern States, where the white men of smaller
fortunes are by no means of so elevated a character
as their brethren of the north, a choice from the
middling classes rarely happens ; but from the more
northern, eastern, and north-western States, such
selections are by no means uncommon.

* Does not this fact go to confirm the opinion of Cadwallader,
that frugality in the public expenditure of a country, is by no
means a necessary consequence of power resting in the hands of
the comparatively poor ?


When Cadwallader first directed my attention to
this fact, I confess a httle surprise entered into my
view of the composition of the American legislature.
Perhaps the circumstance of so material a difference
between the Congress and the British Parliament was
at the bottom of my wonder ; for we in Europe are
perhaps a little too apt to try all experiments in liberty,
l3y those which England has so long practised with
such comparative success. I alluded, a little freely,
to the circumstance of their having so far departed
from the practice of the mother country, with a view
of extracting an opinion on the subject from my com-
panion. The plan was successful.

"If departure from the policy of our ancestors is
to create your wonder, the feeling should be n either
new nor trifling. What we do now, in this particular,
we have practised, not only without inconvenience,
but with signal success, for near seven generations.
The representation under the crown differed but
little from that of the present day. It is, in truth, a
representation ; and the surprise should be, not that
the people choose so many men of a situation in life
closely resembling that of the majority, but rather
that they choose so few. There is a practical good
sense in the mass of the community, here, that tells
them a certain degree of intelligence and of respect-
ability of character is needed in a representative of
the nation. No one will deny that they sometimes
deceive themselves, but, on the whole, they are suffi-
ciently critical. For native talent, practical intelli-
gence, moral character, and political honesty, the
Congress of the United States need not dread a com-
parison with the legislature of any other country. I
do not mean to say that they are perfect, but I am
quite certain, from tolerably close observation, that
they do as much good and as little harm as any other
similar body in the world.

"He who enters the halls of Congress, expectmg


to find the same conventional finish of personal de-
portment, or the same degree of education, as he will
find in the British Parliament, or in the French
Chambers, enters it under a gross misconception of
the nature of its organization. But he who enters
either of the two foreign legislative bodies I have
named, expecting to meet with the same useful and
practical knowledge of life, in those details on which a
legislator is called every hour to act, the same degree
of native capacity, or even the same aptitude of ap-
plying the great principles of government to their
direct and desirable uses, will fall into an error quite
as gross. We have men, and very many men, in our
legislature, that may be safely placed at the side of
the most eminent politicians of Europe ; and perhaps
no people in the world could more easily fill every
chair on the floors of the two houses with represen-
tatives who, by their intelligence, practical know-
ledge, independence, and honesty, would do high
credit to a nation, than ourselves. But there are
many reasons why we do not. The first, and the
most important of all, is, that we have happily got
the country into that onward movement, that there
is little or no occasion for legislative impulses. As a
rule, besides the ordinary grants of money, and the
usual watchfulness over the proceedings of the exec-
utive, the less they do the better. We find it useful to
place the check of plain men, with moderated views
of life, on the speculations of educated theorists.
Besides, every class of society has its interests, and
it is proper that they should have their representation.
It is certainly true, that many members of Congress
sometimes believe it necessary to yield to the mis-
taken prejudices of a majority of their constituents ;
but it may be well questioned, whether as much evil
to the community results from this pliancy, as from
that which obeys the beck of a minister. In America,
we h-ne some of the former and none of the laltcr;
A or.. 11. C


in Europe, you have a great deal of the latter, and
none of the former. Now, in the United States, if
the mistake of the people entails inconvenience on
themselves, they are sure to get rid of it ; but I am
yet to learn in what manner you dispose of a blunder,
or of an intentional innovation, of a minister. You
must always remember that we claim no perfection ;
it is not a quality of earth. All we wish to maintain
is, that our system is the best known, and perhaps
the best practicable ; but if you will show us a better,
we will adopt it. Nothing can be more absurd, than
to accuse almost the only nation on the earth that is
constantly endeavouring to amend its institutions, of
a besotted opinion of its own immaculate wisdom. I
know you will say, that changes are frequently dan-
gerous, and that they too often lead to evil. Now,
1 am not at all disposed to deny that you are partially
right as respects yourselves ; but we know that we
can improve, or even afford to deteriorate a little,
without much danger ; and therein we think we have
no small advantage over all the rest of the world. If
you doubt the fact, compare our actual situation, the
past, and what we have done and are doing, with
what other governments have done and are about,
and let the result speak for itself.

" You will see on the floors of Congress men be-
longing to every condition of society known to our
community, with the exception of that which neces-
sarily infers great ignorance and vulgarity. All the
members are respectable, and very many of them
are gentlemen. There are some who are scholars,
and not a few have been improved by travel and by
observation of other countries. A remote frontier
district, however, must send such men as it possesses,
or trust its peculiar interests to those who have but
little concern in its welfare. The Senate is, in some
respects, rather more select than the lower house,
because their constituents have a State instead of a


district to choose from, and because that body is ex-
pected to temper the proceedings of legislation with
a peculiar degree of moderation and dignity.

" In the British Parliament there is some show of
this universality of representation. Certain corpora-
tions send men of their own stamp ; but in England
every thing has a tendency to aristocracy, while, in
this country, every thing which pertains to the gov-
ernment must seek its support in the democracy. The
*' worthy alderman,"" who may have commenced life
behind a counter, endeavours to forget his apron
when he takes his seat on the opposition benches.
Instead of returning to his shop when the session is
ended, he becomes a deserter to aristocracy, the mo-
ment he has received the seal of office from the peo-
ple. How far he may contribute to the boasted re-
finement of the higlier classes, I cannot pretend to
say; but it is certain that he does not, like his
American prototype, assist to give respectability and
elevation to that of which he was originally a mem-
ber. It is this elevation of character among the mid-
dling, and even among the more inferior classes of
our community, which chiefly distinguishes us from
all other nations, Europe must show a population
as much accustomed to political power, as moderate
in its exercise, as practised in all that controls the
general interests of life, and as shrewd in their esti-
mate of character, as this of ours, before she should
pretend to infer the results of democratic institutions
by any facts drawn from her own experience. We do
not deny the universality of human impulses, we
only insist that governments have not the habit of
giving them fair play. The two houses of Congress
are, and ever have been, living proofs that the major-
ity of men are not disposed to abuse power when it
is once fairly intrusted to them. There 4s not a
doubt that the comparatively poor and ignorant might
fill alJ our legislative chairs with men of their own


class, and yet they rather take pride in seeing the
representation respectable for information. Some
part of this seeming generosity is, no doubt, owing
to the superior influence of intelligence ; but you
must allow there is a prospect of quiet and dura-
bility under a system in which the majority find
no reason to complain, and in which the minority
must see the folly of usurpation. But as the two
houses are by this time organized, we will go to
the Capitol, and hear the message. When on the
spot, I will endeavour to direct your attention to
such individuals as may serve to elucidate what you
have just heard.'"

We proceeded to the Capitol in a coach. Alight-
ing at the foot of the hill, we mounted it to a door on
the western fa(jade, and entered the edifice through
its substratum. Passing among a multitude of eating
rooms, &;c. &c., we ascended, by a noble flight of
massive steps, to the true basement, or to that story
which runs through the whole building. Directly
under the dome is a gloomy vaulted hall, that I have
heard called the " caucus ;" more, I believe, from its
fancied fitness for the pohtical meetings that are thus
termed, than from the fact that it has ever actually
been appropriated to such an use. It has the air,
however, of being admirably adapted to the pur-
poses of a secret conclave, though, in truth, it is a
common thoroughfare of the building. Immediatejy
above the " caucus " is the principal hall. It is cir-
cular, large, high, and covered w^ith a fine dome.
There is not much richness in the ornaments of this
hall, though it is sufficiently wrought to prevent the
appearance of nakedness. It contains, among other
things, four bas-reliefs in stone, which are intended
to illustrate as many of the most striking incidents in
the original settlement of the country.* i have no

* The writer is himself but a traveller, and he should, there-
fore, speak reverently of the craft. But he will seize this occa-


'risposition to criticise their execution. Historical
pictures are to be placed in the panels beneath.

From the great hall we passed into that of the
House of Representatives. My friend was formerly a
member, and by an usage he is permitted to enter the
body of the chamber, or rather to occupy a seat that

Online LibraryJames Fenimore CooperNotions of the Americans: picked up by a travelling bachelor (Volume 1-2) → online text (page 31 of 58)