James Fenimore Cooper.

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

. (page 32 of 58)
Online LibraryJames Fenimore CooperNotions of the Americans: picked up by a travelling bachelor (Volume 1-2) → online text (page 32 of 58)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

is only separated from those of the actual members
by a slight division. Under his auspices, and by the
aid of a little interest, I was permitted to be his

The hall of the House of Representatives, with-
out being particularly rich, or highly wrought, is
one of the most beautiful apartments I have ever en-
tered. The form is semicircular. Jt is lighted from
above, and from windows on its straight side. Be-
tween these windows and the body of the hall, is a
sort of lobby or gallery, which is separated from the
other parts by a colonnade. Here the members and
privileged persons promenade, converse, stand, Hsten,
or repose, without, in fact, quitting the room. It is

sion to express his surprise at the very different view which he
has taken of visible objects from those of some others of the
class, who, hke himself, have been pleased to put their observa-
tions before the world. In the " Personal Narrative of Lieuten-
ant the Honourable Frederic de Roos," p. 15, is the following^
sentence, while speaking of the apartment just named: "The
walls are destitute of ornament, if we except some pieces of
sculpture, representing various wars and treaties with the In-
dians. The artist might have selected subjects more creditable
to his country." Now, if the writer has not been greatly de-
ceived, these four bas-reliefs are on the following subjects : the
landing of the pilgrims on the Rock of Plymouth; the Treaty
of William Penn with the natives for the possession of their
soil ; the beautiful and touching story of Pocahontas saving the
life of Captain Smith, and a personal rencontre of Colonel
Boon, the patriarch of Kentucky, v/ith the savages. These are
four distinct historical events, which are connected with the set-
tlement of the four principal parts of the Union. More illustri-
ous incidents might have been chosen, beyond a doubt: but
there is certainly nothing discreditable to the American charac-
ter in those they have selected for this purpose.
C 2


sufficiently withdrawn to prevent the appearance of
disorder, and yet near enough to render the debates

In the centre of the diameter which cuts the circle
is the Speaker's chair. It is, in fact, a httle sofa, suf-
ficiently large to hold, on occasion, the President of
the United States, the President of the Senate, and
the Speaker. Immediately in front, and four or five
feet lower, is a chair for the presiding member, when
the house acts as a committee. On a line with the
Speaker the clerks have their places.. In front of the
chair there is a vacant semicircular space of perhaps
five-and-tvii'enty feet in diameter. Then the seats of
the members conjmence. They are arranged in semi-
circular rows, preserving the form of the exterior
walls, and are separated by a great number of little
openings, to admit of a passage betv/een them. Each
member has an arm-chair and a low desk, in mahog-
any. In the first row, they sit in pairs, or there is a
vacant space between every two, and each successive
row increases its number by one member. Thus, in
the last row, some six or seven are placed side by
side, as on a bench (though actually on chairs), while
those in front are in pairs. The practice is for those
who arrive first to choose their seats, and the choice
is invariably respected.

There is no such thing known as a political division
of seats. Members of the same politics certainly
often choose to be placed near to each other, and
sometimes the entire representation of a particular
State is to be seen as near together as possible. But
there is no rule in the matter.

The seats of the members are separated from the
semicircular passage m which Cadwallader and my-
self were placed, by no other division than a low rail-
ing. Sofas lined the whole of the exterior wall : and
as the floor rises a Wttle from the centre, or the area
ill front of the Speaker, we had the best possible op


portunity for seeing and hearing. A spacious and
commodious gallery, of the same form as the hall,
completed the outline of the apartment. It was
raised several feet above the level of the chamber,
and is intended for the use of spectators.

The house was organized when we entered, and
was engaged in some business of form. Nearly all
the seats were occupied ; and, as the message was
expected, the gallery was crowded with ladies and
well-dressed men. The privileged places around the
floor of the hall were nearly all tilled. The Speaker
was uncovered, but most of the members wore their
hats. No one appeared in costume, nor is there any
othcial dress prescribed to the members of Congress
for any ceremony whatever.

After what Cadwallader had told me of the true
character of the representation of his country, I con-
fess I was rather surprised with the appearance of
the individuals who composed this assembly. It was
to be expected that they should all be well attired,
but, oil the whole, with some very few exceptions,
they had quite as much the air of the world about
them as those who compose the chambers of the two
tirst nations of Europe. No one is allowed to sit in
the lower house who has not attained the age of five-
and-twenty; but, in point of fact, there is not, proba-
bly, a single member of Congress who has seen less
than thirty years. The greater number seemed to
be men between the ages of thirty-five and fifty-five.
There were but very few who could be termed old.
All, or very nearly all, were natives of the country.

I was struck with the simple but imposing aspect
of this assembly. Though so totally destitute of any
personal decorations, the beauty of the hall, with its
magnificent row of massive columns,* the great neat-

* The roof of the hall of the House of Representatives is sup-
ported by a noble semicircle of columns of pudding-stone. They


ness of the fauteuil and desks, the beautifully carpeted
floors, and the long range of sofas, serve to relieve a
scene that might otherwise have been too naked. It
appeared as if the members had said, thus much may
you do for the benefit of comfort, for the encourage-
ment of the arts, and, perhaps, as a testimonial of the
respect due to the sacred uses of the place, but man
must be left in the fullest force of his simplicity. None
of the attendants even wore any badges of their
oiiices. There were neither swords, chains, collars,
stars, bayonets, nor maces, seen about the place,
though a quiet, and order, and decency, reigned in
the hall that bespoke the despotic dominion of that
mighty, though invisible, monarch — the Law.

A discussion on some question of order was getting
to be a little general, and one member was addressing
the chair [they speak from their places, as in the
British Parliament] with some earnestness, when the
principal door was thrown open, and an officer pro-
claimed aloud, " A message from the President.""
The members all rose in their places, the Speaker
included, when a young gentleman entered, and pass-
ed through the body of the house to the chair. He
was attired in a neat morning-dress, and having placed
his document in the hand of the Speaker, he bowed
and withdrew. It was then decided that the commu-
nication should be read."^ There was much interest

are highly polished, and have a pleasing no less than a striking

* The instances of a propensity in Europeans to misconstrue
the political and moral condition of the United States are num-
berless. One may be quoted here with propriety. Since the
return of the writer to Europe, he has, on more than one occa-
sion, heard the fact that the President of the United States sends
a message to Congress, commented on in a significant manner,
as if the circumstance were portentous of some great political
change ! " Parliament would scarcely brook a message''' said an
Englishman, with emphasis, when the subject was alluded to.
The writer saw nothing, at the time, in the thing itself, but the


to hear this document, which always contains a p;rcat
outline of the state of the republic. It was a clear,
succinct narrative of what had been done in the
course of the past year, of the condition of the

most perfect simplicity ; but, determined to sift the matter to the
bottom, he mentioned the subject in a letter to his American
friend, and extracts a part of his reply : " I am not at all sur-
prised," said Cadwallader, " that thousands in Europe should
easily pervert every possible circumstance into an evidence of a
state of things which they rather desire than seriously expect.
There has not been a single change, however, in all our usages,
which goes less to prove the justness of their anticipations, tiian
the fact you have mentioned. When the government, as it now
exists, was first organized, Washington met the two houses and
made his annual communication in a speech. The practice had
prevailed in the colonial legislatures. We have never been in a
hurry to make unnecessary innovations. Reform marches with
a dignified pace — it is revolution that is violent. The States
continued the practice of the colonies. It was quite natural that
the first Presidents should conform to existing usages for a time.
We have never been great sticklers for shadows, though no
principle is ever listened to that is likely to entail a disadvantage.
In the course of a few years, men began to ask themselves, v.l.y
does the President make a speech at the opening of a session ?
He sends messages at all other times, and why not on this occa-
sion ? The substance of what he has to communicate, can be
told by a message quite as well as by a speech. The atnount of
it all then is, that the parade of a speech is a mere matter of state
and show, and although some little ceremony is, perhaps, neces-
sary, we ought to have as little as possible, since common sense,
which is our palladium, is always a sufferer in ceremonies. You
will understand me; a state of society may exist, in which it is
good sense to adopt ceremony, but such is not the case in the
year 18-27, in the United States of America. Every sage physi-
cian adapts his remedy to the disease. ]Mr. Jetierson dispensed
v.-ith speeches, because they did no good, and might do harm by
drawing us nearer to the usages of Europe, when it is so often
our business to recede from them. For my own part, I think it
rather better as it is, though it caimot be a matter of much mo-
ment. It is, however, odd enough, that the very usage which
has been adopted for its simplicity and republicanism, should be
tortured into a proof of a directly contrary tendency. It may
be a sufficient answer to the remark of your Enghsh friend,
'that the British Parliament v\ould be apt to grumble at receiv-
ing a message from the king,' to say that should Congress not


finances, of the several negotiations, and concluded
with a statement of what the people had a right to
anticipate for the future.

When the message was ended, Cadwallader intro-
duced me to several of the members to v»diom he was
personally known. Most of them were men of good
manners, and of education, though one or two were
certainly individuals who had paid far more attention
to the substance of things than to forms. The former
were of course of that class of society which, in
Europe, would be termed the gentry, and the others
were probably farmers, if not mechanics. There was
an air of great self-possession and decorum in the lat-
ter; noF could the slightest visible difference be traced
between the respect which they received, and that
which their more polished confederates bestowed on
each other. A simple, quiet courtesy is certainly the
tone of manners in Congress. While we stood to-
gether in the lobby, a grave-looking, middle-aged
mnn, of a slightly rustic air, approached, and address-
ed niy companion. His manner was manly and inde-
pendent, but at the same time decent, and I think it
was to be distinguished by a shade of respect. They
shook hands, and conversed a little concerning some
questions of local politics. Promises were made of

exchanging visits. " This is my friend, the ,"

said Cadwallader; "a gentleman who is travelHng in
our country."" The stranger saluted me, offering
his hand with the utmost simplicity. " If this gentle-
man comes into our part of the country, I hope to see
him," he said, and soon after took his leave. When
he was gone, I learned that this individual was a mem-
ber of Congress from the county in which the pater-

rei eive one from the President^at a pretty early day in the ses-
sion, they would be very apt to* appoint a committee to inquire
why he had forgotten to lay the state of the nation before them.
I am no quarreller about terms, and I leave you to decide whero
the fiubstance of things is to be found."


nal estates of my friend lie; that he was a farmer of
moderate means and good character, whom his fel-
low-citizens had sent to represent them. His con-
stituents might very possibly have made a better
choice, and yet this man was not useless, since he
served as a check on the schemes of those who would
be legislating for effect. A gentleman-like man of
sixty came next, and he and my friend met as equals
in all respects, except that the latter paid a slight
deference to the years of his acquaintance. 1 was
introduced. We touched our hats, and exchanged a
few words. The next day, I received this gentle-
man's card, and as soon as his visit was returned, an
invitation to dine in his private lodgings followed.

This was Mr. , a man of immense hereditary

landed estate. His alliances, fortune, and habits,
(though tempered by the institutions of his country,)
are, to all intents and purposes, the same as those of
a gentleman or nobleman in Europe. His character
is excellent, and, in consequence, he is now, and
may be to the day of his death, the representative of
his native district. Here you have the two extremes
of the representation of this country — a yeoman, and
a great proprietor whose income would put him on
a level with most of the great men of our hemisphere.
They represent no particular interests, for all interests
unite to send them here. They happen to please their
constituents, and the fact that the one is a yeoman,
and the other a species of lord of the manor, pro-
duces no effect whatever. These men meet in Con-
gress on terms of perfect equality. It often happens,
that a yeoman, possessed of a vigorous native mind,
has vast influence.

While quitting the Capitol, two more members of
Congress spoke to Cadwallader. T'hey walked with
us the whole length of the avenue. One of them was
a man of a fashionable air, and of exceedingly good
manners. He spoke French, and we conversed to-


gether for some time in that tongue. I found him
agreeable and intelHgeut, and was glad to perceive
he was disposed to renew the interview. But the
other individual puzzled me not a little. In dress
and externals, he differed but little from his more
agreeable companion. His air, however, was not
that of a man of the world, and his language was suf-
ficiently provincial to be remarked. I should not
have taken him for one of a station in life to be found
in such company, did I not know his official rank,
and were I not prepared for the great admixture of
ordinary American society. But if I VN^as a little per-
plexed by the provincialisms of this individual, I was
not less surprised at his shrewdness and intelligence.
He used his words with great discrimination, and
with perfect grammatical accuracy; and he spoke
not only with good sense, but frequently with power,
and always with prodigious clearness. When we
parted, I again expressed surprise at the manifest
difference in manners that existed between the two

" You will begin to know us in time,'* returned
Cadwallader. " Those men are both lawyers. He
whose air and language are so unexceptionable, is a
member of a family long known in this country for
its importance. You see he has not lost, nor will he
be likely to let his posterity lose, the manners of the
world. He is far from being rich, nor is he remark-
able for talent, though rather clever. You find he
Jias a seat in Congress. The other is the child of an
affluent tradesman, who has given his son an educa-
tion for the bar, but who could not give him what he
had not himself, — a polished exterior. But he is
gleaning, and, before he dies, he will be in the way
of imparting a better air to his descendants. In this
manner is the whole of our community slowly rising
in the scale of mere manners. As to talent, this pro-
vincial lawyer, for he is provincial in practice as


well as by birth, has, as you must have observed,
enough of it. He is a good man in Congress, what-
ever he may be in the saloons. He has got the in-
telligence, and no small part of the feelings, of a gen-
tleman ; he may never get the air, for he began too
late for that, and, like most men, he probably affects
to despise an unattainable advantage. But as it is
in nature to wish for distinction, rely on it, he is se-
cretly determined to amend. Perhaps one of these
parties loses a little by the intimate association which
is a necessary consequence of their common situation ;
but the gradual approximation is, on the whole, pro-
duced by the improvement of the other. In the great
essentials of soundness of feeling, morals, and com-
mon sense, they are quite on an equality."


&:c. &:c.



I HAVE been a daily visiter at the Capitol. The
proceedings of the two houses are never without in-
terest, since they control the entire foreign policy of
this growing repubhc, which is daily becoming of
more importance in the eyes of Christendom. Some
of the peculiar practice of American legislation may
be of interest, and before I write of individuals, I will
attempt a brief outline of their forms.

You probably know already that the President of
the United States is assisted by a cabinet. It is com-
posed of four Secretaries, (state, treasury, war, and
navy,) and of the Attorney-General. As the President
is alone answerable for his proper acts, fhese minis-

VoL. II. D


ters have no further responsibiUty than as their own
individual agency is concerned. They have no seats
in Congress, since the constitution forbids that any
officer of the general government should be a repre-
sentative either of a State (a Senator), or of the
people (a member of the House of Representatives).
Thus, the judges and generals, and colonels, of which
one reads in Congress, are not officers of the United
States, but of the States themselves. The difference
is material, since the authorities by whom they are
commissioned have no power over the measures on
which they are called to legislate. You will under-
stand me better if I go a little into detail.

The President of the United States has no voice in
the appointment of any officer whatever, under the
government of a State. The government of a State
has no voice whatever in the enactment of the laws,
or in the appointment of the officers, of the United
States. There may be, and unquestionably there
sometimes is, a reciprocal influence exerted between
them ; but the instances are rare, and liable to a good
deal of explanation. It is not probable that the gov-
ernment of the United States ever interests itself
at all in the appointments of a State ; but, as the
appointments of the United States are bften of a
nature to produce a direct effect on the interests of a
particular State, it is not uncommon for the members
of its government to lend their influence to such ap-
plicants as they believe the most likely to be of benefit
to its community. Still, it is no more than influence ;
no two governments in the world being more per-
tectly distinct from each other, than that of the
United States and that of an individual member of
the confederation, if we make the single exception,
that both are bound to respect the great principles
of the constitution.

It is an unsettled point whether Congress has a right
to admit the ministers to possess consultative voices in


the two houses. I think the better opinion is, that they
have ; but the practice has never yet been adopted.
Indeed, there is a sort of fastidious deUcacy observed
on this subject, which, in effect, prevents the Secre-
taries froni attending the debates even as auditors.
I have never yet seen any member of the cabinet in
the chamber of either body. On the last day of the
session, it is the practice of the President to come to
the Capitol, and to occupy an apartment which is
fitted expressly for his use. The object of this visit
IS to be near the legislative bodies, in order that he
may give his assent to, or rejection of, the bills that
always accumulate at that time. He is, of course,
attended by his cabinet, the members of which, I
am told, are then in the habit of sometimes entering
the halls. This is the only occasion on which the
President appears in the Capitol, unless it be at his
inauguration, or at some ceremony not at all con-
nected with government.

The exclusion of the ministers from the debates is
thought, by many people, to be a defect, since, instead
of the verbal explanations which they might give, if
present, it is now necessary to make formal demands
on the different departments for information. On the
other hand, it is contended that the existing practice
compels members to make themselves familiar with
details, and that they are none the worse legislators
for their labour, hi no case could the minister be
allowed to vote, or even to propose a law, directly.

For the introduction of the laws, there are two
courses in practice, though only one in theory. Each
Secretary makes a formal report of the state of his
particular department at the commencement of every
session. In this report, he takes care to recommend
those measures that he deems needful for his imme-
diate branch of the public service. The substance
.of these reports is embodied in the messcige of the
President ; and it is the duty of that high officer to


invite the attention of the legislature to such subjects
as he may consider of national importance. The
matter of the message is necessarily divided into a
certain number of leading topics. Regular, or, as
they are here called, standing committees, are ap-
pointed at the commencement of every Congress.*
To these committees all the usual matter of the
message is referred. Thus, whatever relates to the
finances is referred to " the committee of ways and
means ;" to the army, to " the military committee," &c.
&LC. If the message should include any extrao.rdinary
matter, as is usually the case, a special committee is
appointed to attend to it. At the head of each com-
mittee, (they exist in both houses), there is placed
some member who is supposed to be more than com-
monly acquainted with its business. As Congress is
so completely composed of practical men, these duties
are generally discharged with a good deal of dexterity,
and often with rare ability. These committees have
rooms of their own, where they assemble and get
through with all the drudgery of their duties. They
communicate with the departments ; and when there
is an agreement of opinion, the necessary bills are
framed between them. The chairman is the usual
organ of communication with the house. We will,
however, assume a case, and follow it through its
legislative forms, in order to render the usage as clear
as possible.

The President and his cabinet believe the pubhc
good requires that a dozen regiments should be added
to the army. The fact is communicated to Congress,
in the annual message, accompanied by a statement
of the political events which have induced the neces-
sity. Then comes the report of the Secretary, with
a detailed view of the present force, and a general
comparative statement of that which it is thought will

* Once in two years.


be needed. The military committees enter into a
minute examination of the circumstances and esti-
mates, and make such reports to the two houses as
they deem prudent. If it be in favour of an increase,
they recommend a bill. In order to get rid of certain
forms, and with a view to render legislation deliberate,

Online LibraryJames Fenimore CooperNotions of the Americans: picked up by a travelling bachelor (Volume 1-2) → online text (page 32 of 58)