James Fenimore Cooper.

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

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by the pretty lips of such or such a belle of quality
and high degree; but the American sees too many
pretty lips at home, to be very submissive to any
foreign dictation of this sort. I think it plain, there-
fore, that the language must be reduced to known
general rules, and rules, too, that shall be respected
as such rules should be, or else we shall have a dialect
distinct from that of the mother country. I have
not, however, the slightest apprehensions of any thing
of the kind arriving, since any one who understands
the use of figures can estimate the probable influence
of the two nations half a century hence. I think it
will be just as much the desire of England then to
be in our fashion, as it was our desire twenty years
ago to be in hers, and for precisely the same reason.
The influence of fifty millions of people, living under
one government, backed by enormous wealth, extend-
ed intelligence, a powerful literature, and unrivalled,
freedom, cannot be very problematical, in the eyes
of any man who is capable of regarding the subject
free from prejudice or passion. I very well know
there is a fashion of predicting the separation of our
States, and a consequent disorganization of society,
which would certainly weaken that influence. These
predictions were made fifty years ago with rather
more confidence than they are made now, and those
who know most in the matter, treat them with very
little deference. But, admitting that they should h&


realized, in what particular will the result materially
affect the question before us ? A division of this re-
public into two or three republics, is the utmost that
can be expected. There would still exist those inti-
mate relations between the parts of our present em-
pire which find their support in a conformity of
principles, and our intercourse and literature would
necessarily be essentially the same. I cannot see
that the impression on the language would in any
degree be weakened, except that, by dividing our
power, we might retard a little the period when the
weight of that power should obtain its ntrtural and
necessary preponderance. You may be assured,
that, in thinking on this subject, I have not forgotten
that history supplies sufiicient evidence that small
communities may exercise a vast influence over
larger; but I do not know where to find a precedent
for a large community, possessing equal activity and
intelligence, submitting to be controlled, either mor-
ally or politically, by one physically much weaker. Qv.r
own history already furnishes a striking example of
the very reverse ; and as we are bent on perpetuating
all the means of our present independence, it is fair to
presume that we shall gain a moral ascendancy in
the world, in proportion as we gain physical force.
If a pretty duchess can now set a fashion in speech,
what will not a combination of two hundred millions
of persons do, (the number is not at all exaggerated
if we carry the time forward a century and a half,)
more especially if all of them shall happen to possess
a reasonable knowledge of the use of letters.

" You may have a curiosity to know something of
the present state of the language in America. I have
already said that there is no patois throughout the
whole of this country. There is broken English
among the Germans, French, and other foreigners,
but nothing that is very widely distinct from the lan-
guage of Jjondon. Still there are words of perfectly


provincial use, most of which were brought from
certain parts of the mother countrj^, and which have
been preserved here, and a few which have been in-
troduced from wantonness or necessity. There is
much more difference in intonation, and in the pro-
nunciation of particular words, than in the use of
terms unknown to England. The best English is
spoken by the natives of the middle States, who are
purely the descendants of English parents, without
being the descendants of emigrants from New-Eng-
land. The educated men of all the southern Atlantic
States, especially the members of those families which
have long been accustomed to the better society of
their towns, also speak an English but little to be
distinguished from that of the best circles of the
mother country. Still there are shades of difference
between these very persons, that a nice and prac-
tised ear can detect, and which, as they denote the
parts of the Union to which they belong, must be
rilled provincialisms. These little irregularities of
language solely arise from the want of a capital.

"Throughout all New-England, and among most
of the descendants of the people of New-England,
the English language is spoken with more or less of
an intonation derived, I believe, from the western
counties of England, and with a pronunciation that
is often peculiar to themselves. They form so large
a proportion of the entire population of the country,
that some of their provincialisms are getting to form
a part of our ordinary language. The peculiarity
of the New-England dialect (the term is almost
too strong) is most discernible in the manner in
'which they dwell on the last word of a sentence,
or the last syllable of a word. It is not properly
drawling, for they speak very quick in common,
much quicker than the English; so quick, indeed,
as to render syllables frequently indistinct: but, in
consequence of the peculiar pause they make on the


last word, I question if they utter a sentence in
less time than those who dwell more equally on its
separate parts.* Among men of the world and of
education, this pecuharity is, of course, often lost,
but education is so common, and the state of society
so simple in New-England, as to produce less apparent
distinction in speech and manners than it is usual to
find elsewhere.

"Another marked peculiarity of New-England is
in the pronunciation of a great many words. The
fact that a vast improvement has occurred in this
respect within the last thirty years, however, goes to
prove the truth of what 1 have just told you, no less
than of the increasing intelligence of the nation,

"When I was a boy, I was sent from a middle
State, for my education, to Connecticut. I took with
me, of course, the language of my father's house. In
the t\rst year I was laughed out of a great many cor-
rect sounds, and into a great many vulgar and dis-
agreeable substitutes. At my return home to pass a
vacation, I almost threw a sister into fits by calling
one of her female friends a 'virtoous an-gel,' pro-
nouncing the first syllable of the last v/ord like the
article. It was in vain that I supported my new
reading by the authorities of the university. The
whole six weeks were passed in hot discussions be-
tween my sister and myself, amidst the laughter and
merriment of a facetious father, who had the habit
of trotting me through my Connecticut prosody by
inducing me to recite Pope's Temple of Fame, to the
infinite delight of two or three waggish elder brothers,
who had got their English longs and shorts in a more
southern school. It was at a time of life when shav-

* The phrase of " I wonder if he did," is very common in New-
England. It is usually uttered " I wonder if he de-e-e-e-ed,"
with a falling of the voice at the last word, to nearly an octave
Delow the rest of the sentence. Sometimes there is more than
one resting point, in a sentence of any length.


ing was a delight instead of a torment. I remember
thej were always sure of drawing me out by intro-
ducing the subject of my beard, which I pedantically
called herd^ or, for which, if pushed a little harder
than common, I gave them a choice between herd
and haird. Even to this hour, it is rare to find a
native of New-England who does not possess some
of these marked provinciahsms of speech. By a sin-
gular corruption, the word stone is often pronounced
stun^ while none is pronounced noane^ or nearly hke
known. The latter is almost a shibboleth, as is
nothings pronounced according to the natural power
of the letters, instead of nuihing. I think, however,
a great deal of the peculiarity of New-England pro-
nunciation is to be ascribed to the intelligence of its
inhabitants. This may appear a paradox ; but it can
easily be explained. They all read and write ; but
the New-Englandman, at home, is a man of exceed-
ingly domestic habits. He has a theoretical know-
ledge of the language, without its practice. Those
who migrate lose many of their peculiarities in the
mixed multitudes they encounter; but into New-
England the current of emigration, with the excep-
tion of that which originally came from the mother
country, has never set. It is vain to tell a man who
has his book before him, that chanfi spells chame^ as
in chamber j or «n, ane^ as in angel ^ or dan^ dane, as
in danger. He replies by asking what sound is pro-
duced by an, dan^ and cham. I believe it would be
found, on pursuing the inquiry, that a great number
of their peculiar sounds are introduced through their
spelling-books, and yet there are some, certainly, that
cannot be thus explained. It is not too much to say
that nine people in ten, in New-England, pronounce
doe^^ dooze, when the mere power of the letters would
make it nearer doze. There is one more singular
corruption, which I shall mention before I go farther
south, and which often comes /rom the mouths of


lien, even in Boston, who, in other respects, would
not be much criticised for their language : the verb
to show was formerly, and is even now, spelt shew^
and shewed in its participle ; I have heard men of
education and manners, in Boston, say, "he shezu me
that,'' for, he showed me that.

"With these exceptions, which are sufficiently
numerous, and the hard sound they almost always
give the letter i/, the people of New-England speak
the language more like the people of Old-England
than any other parts of our country. They speak
with a closer mouth, both physically and morally,
than those who live further south and west. There
is also a little of a nasal sound among some of them,
but it is far from being as general as the other pecu-
liarities 1 have named.

" The middle States certainly speak a softer Eng-
lish than their brethren of the east. I should say,
that when you get as far south as Marjland, the soft-
est, and perhaps as pure an English is spoken as is
any where heard. No rule on such a subject, how-
ever, is without many exceptions in the United States.
The emigration alone would, as yet, prevent perfect
uniformity. The voices of the American females are
particularly soft and silvery; and I think the language,
a harsh one at the best, is made softer by our women,
especially of the middle and southern States, than
you often hear it in Europe.

"New-York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore, have
each their peculiar phrases. Some of the women
have a habit of dwelling a little too long on the final
syllables, but I think it is rare among the higher
classes of society. I don't know that it exists at all,
as far south as Baltimore. As you go further south,
it is true, you get a slower utterance, and other slight
varieties of provincialism. In Georgia, you find a
positive drawl, among what are called the " crack-
ers." More or less of this drawl, and of all the pe-

VoL. 11. M


culiar sounds, are found in the south-western and
western States ; but they are all too new to have any
fixed habits of speech of their own.

" The usual vulgar phrases which are put into the
mouths of Americans, are commonly caricatured,
though always founded in truth. 'I guess,' is a phrase
of New-England. It is used a great deal, though not
as often, as ' you know,' by a cockney. It proceeds,
I think, from the cautious and subdued habit of speak-
ing which is characteristic of these people. The
gentlemen rarely use it, though I confess I have heard
it, interlarding the conversation of pretty lips that
derived none of their beauty from the Puritans. You
see, therefore, that it has been partially introduced
by the emigrants into the middle States. Criticism
is here so active, just now, that it is rapidly getting
into disuse. The New-Yorker frequently says, ' 1
suspect,' and the Virginian, ' I reckon.' But the two
last are often used in the best society in the mother

" The difference in pronunciation and in the use
of words, between the really good society of this
country and that of England, is not very great. In
America, we can always tell an Englishman by what
we are pleased to call his provincialisms (and, quite
half the time, the term is correct,) I was struck at
the close resemblance between the language of the
higher classes in the mother country, and the higher
classes of my own, especially if the latter belong to
the middle States. There are certainly points of dif-
ference, but they as often proceed from affectation in
individuals, as from the general habits of the two
countries. Cockneyisms are quite as frequent in the
language of an English gentleman, as provincialisms

* The negroes have a habit of saying, " you sabber dat," for,
you know that; can this be one of their African terms, or is it
a corruption of" saber," or of" savoir," that has found its way
to the continent from the neighbouring islands ?


\n the mouth of an American gentleman of the middle
States. 1 now use the word gentleman in its strict
meaning. I have heard many people of high rank in
England, for instance, pronounce 'yours' as if it were
spelt 'yers.' If affectations are to become laws, be-
cause they are conceived in the smoke of London,
then they are right ; but, if old usage, the rules of the
language, and the voices of even educated men are
to prevail, then are they wrong. This is but one
among a hundred similar alTectations that arc detected
every day by an attentive and critical ear. But mere
rank, after all, is not always a criterion of correct
pronunciation in an Englishman or an Englishwoman.
1 have met with people of rank who have spoken in
very perceptible provincial dialects. Parliament is
very far from being faultless in its English, putting the
Irish, Scotch, and aldermen out of the question. I
have heard a minister of state speak of the 'o-casion,'
with a heavy emphasis ; and just before we sailed, 1
remember to have burst into involuntary laughter at
hearing a distinguished orator denounce a man for
having been the 'recipient of a bribe of ten guineas.'
The language of Parliament is undeniably far more
correct than that of Congress ; but when it is recol-
lected that the one body is a representation of the
aristocracy of a condensed community, and the other
a representation of the various classes of a widely-
spread people, the rational odds is immensely in our
favour. I am not sure that one, who took pleasure
in finding fault, might not detect quite as many cor-
ruptions of the English language in the good society
of the mother country, as in the good society of our
own. The latter, strictly considered, bears a less pro-
portion to our numbers, however, than the same class
bears to the population of England. The amount of
the whole subject I take to be simply this : allowing
for all the difference in numbers, there is vastly more
bad EngUsh, and a thousand times more bad gram-


mar spoken in England than in America ; and there
is much more good English (also allowing for the dif-
ference in numbers) spoken there than here. Among
the higher and better educated classes, there are
purists in both countries, who may write and talk to
the end of time ; innovations have been made, are
made, and will be made in both countries ; but as
two nations now sit in judgment on them, I think
when words once get fairly into use, their triumph
affords a sufficient evidence of merit to entitle them
to patronage.



If I have said nothing for a long time, concerning
your distinguished countryman, it has not been for
want of materials. The eclat which attends his pas-
sage. through thQ country, is as hrilliant as it was the
day he landed ; but were I to attempt to give you a
continuous history of the ceremonies and pageants
that grow out of his visit, my letters would be tilled
with nothing else. One of the former has, however,
just occurred here, which may have a particular in-
terest. I shall, therefore, attempt to describe a few
of its outlines. Before proceeding to this task, per-
mit me to mention one circumstance, that has struck
me with pecuhar force, and which I beg you will
communicate to our friend the Abbate, when next
you write to him.

At Philadelphia, after a triumphal entry, in which
something like twenty thousand of the militia were


uniier arms, the citizens of all classes, according to
custom, paid visits of congratulation to their guest,
who received them in that famous hall, which has
become celebrated for being the place v/here the
separation of a portion of this continent from Europe
was first solemnly declared. Among the thousands
who crowded around the venerable Frenchman,
were all the clergy of the city. They were more
than sixty in number, and at their head appeared the
Bishop of the Protestant Episcopal Church, with the
Bishop of the Roman Catholic Church at his side.
The former, who is a native of the country, and one
of its oldest divines, delivered the sentiments of his
brethren ; but had the latter, who is a foreigner, been
of a greater age, and of longer service, he would, un-
doubtedly, have been selected to have performed
the same ceremony. It is much the fashion, in Eu-
rope, to say there is no religion in the United States,
for no better reason than that tlfere is no church es-
tablishment, and, consequently, no exaltation of one
particular sect, and a consequent depression of all
others. But you will allow there is one evidence
of a Christian spirit, that is not always found else-
where, viz. charity. Although, in theory, all de-
nominations in the United States are equal before
the law, there is, in point of fact, no country in the
world that is more decidedly Protestant than this,
and yet, I do believe, it would give scandal to the
whole nation, to learn that a slight, or an offence
of any nature, were given to a priest, merely be-
cause he happened to belong to the Roman Catholic

La Fayette arrived in Washington some time be-
fore the meeting of Congress. He had an appropri-
ate reception from the inhabitants of the district, and
was received into the house of the President. But
his time was too precious to be unnecessarily lost.
All were anxious to see him, and he was, apparently,


just as anxious to see all. Leaving Washington, after
a short residence, he paid a visit to Virginia, where
he found Jefferson and Madison, the two last Presi-
dents, living in retirement, and where he must also
have spent several delightful days on the theatre of
that hrilhant campaign, where, though but a boy, he
foiled all the sagacity and activity of an experienced
and enterprising general, (Cornwallis,) and prepared
the way for the final and glorious success with which
the wdiY of 1776 was terminated.

On his return to this pl^ce, it was announced that
the House of Representatives intended to give him a
public and solemn reception. He was received by
the Senate in a simple, and more private, but in an
aflectionate manner, I was in their hall, on this oc-
casion, and was greatly struck with the quiet dignity
of the ceremony. There was a short address, and a
simple reply, after which La Fayette was invited to
take his seat on the sofa, by the side of the President
of the Senate.^ He afterwards frequently visited
the Senate chamber, to hear the debates, and, on all
these occasions, he was seated in the same place.
There was something noble, as well as touching, in
the sight of a veteran returning to the scene of his
services, after a hfe like that of La Fayette, and of
being thus received so familiarly and affectionately
into the bosom of the highest legislative body of a
nation, that was enjoying a prosperity and ease far
exceeding that known to any otlier people.

On the day of the more public ceremony in the
hall of the Representatives, every one was seen
mounting the Capitol hill at an early hour. We got
places, as usual, on the floor of the house, where
we could both hear and see. The galleries were

* The Vice-President of that day, being often indisposed,
rarely presided, and a President pro tem., according to a cus-
tom, performed his duties. The Vice-President (Mr. Tomp-
kins) died soon after.


crowded to overflowing, being filled with fine women
and well-dressed men. The body of the house was,
of course, occupied by none but the members, while
the inner lobbies, or the circular space along the
walls, and behind the Speaker's chair, were occnpied
by those who, of right, or by virtue of sufficient in-
fluence, were allowed to enter.

The Speaker of the House of Representatives is a
man of singular talents, and of great native eloquence.
In person he is tall and spare, and he is far from be-
ing graceful in his ordinary air and attitudes. His
countenance is one of those in which a pleasing
whole is produced by parts that are far from being
particularly attractive. In face and form, Mr. Clay
(the Speaker) is not unlike the pictures of the last
Pitt, nor is he unlike him in the power of addressing
public bodies. Notwithstanding these defects of the
physique, few men are capable of producing as great
an effect as Mr. Clay, when he is placed in situations
to exhibit his talents. His gesticulation is graceful,
and exceedingly dignified, his utterance slow, dis-
tinct, and gentlemanly, and his voice one of the
sweetest imaginable.*

At the appointed hour, the doors of the hall were
thrown open, and a simple little procession advanced
with dignity into the body of the house. It was com-
posed of the Senators of the United States, preceded
by a delegation of the lower house, who had been
sent to invite them to attend at the approaching cere-
mony. They were in pairs ; the Senators of each
State walking together. Forty-eight chairs were
placed near the Speaker for their reception, and, after
exchanging bows with the members of the lower

* The Attorney-General of the United States (IMr. Wirt}
has the sweetest voice the writer ever heard in a pubhc
speaker. It is something in the style of that of Mr. Peel,
though nothing can be more different than their usual man-
ner of speaking.


house, who were standing, the whole were seated
together. As the Senators never wear their hats, the
Representatives, on this occasion, took their seats
uncovered. A few minutes after, M. George La
Fayette and the secretary of the general, were shown
into the hall and provided with places.

The doors now opened again, and a deputation of
twenty-four members of Congress (one from each
State) slowly entered the hall. In their front was La
Fayette, supported by their chairman and a repre-
sentative from Louisiana. The whole assembly rose;
the guest was led into the centre of the hall, and
then the chairman of the deputation said, in an audi-
ble voice,

" Mr. Speaker, your committee have the honour
to introduce General La Fayette to the House of

A sofa had been placed for La Fayette, and he was
now invited to be seated. Both houses resumed their
chairs, and the guest occupied his sofa. A short pause
succeeded, when the Speaker rose with deliberation
and dignity. The instant the tones of his sweet voice
were heard in the hall, a silence reigned among the
auditors that equalled the stillness of death. La
Fayette stood to listen. The address was evidently
extempore^ but it was delivered with the ease of a
man long accustomed to rely on himself, in scenes
of high excitement. He was evidently moved, though
the grace of manner and the command of words were
rather heightened than suppressed, by his emotions.
I shall endeavour to give you the substance of what
he said:

"General, — The House of Representatives of the
United States, impelled alike by its own feelings,
and by those of the whole American people,^could
not have assigned to me a more gratifying duty, than
that of presenting to you cordial congratulations on

Online LibraryJames Fenimore CooperNotions of the Americans: picked up by a travelling bachelor (Volume 1-2) → online text (page 40 of 58)