James Fenimore Cooper.

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

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the occasion of your recent arrival in this country.


In compliance with the wishes of Congress, I assure
you of tlie very high satisfaction which your presence
affords on this early theatre of your glory. Although
but few of the members who compose this body,
shared w'ith you in the war of our revolution, all
have learned from impartial history, or from faithful
tradition, a knowledge of the perils, the sufferings,
and the sacrifices which you voluntarily encounter-
ed, and of the signal services which you performed
in America, and in Europe, for an infant, a distant,
and an alien people. All feel and own the very great
extent of the obligation under which you have placed
the nation. But the relations in which you have ever
stood to the United States, interesting and important
as they have been, do not constitute the only motive
for the respect and admiration of this House. Your
consistency of character, your uniform devotion to
regulated liberty, through all the vicissitudes of a long
and arduous life, command its profound admiration.
During the recent convulsions of Europe, amidst, no
less than after the dispersion of, every political
storm, the people of the United States have beheld
you, true to your principles, erect in every danger,
and cheering, with your well-known voice, the vota-
ries of liberty; a faithful and fearless champion, ready
to shed the last drop of that blood which here you
had already so freely and so nobly spilt in the same
holy cause.

" The vain wish has been sometimes indulged that
Providence would allow the patriot to return to his
country after death, and to contemplate the changes
to which time had given birth. To the American this
would have been to view the forest felled, cities built,
mountains levelled, canals cut, highways constructed,
the progress of the arts, the advancement of learning,
and the increase of population.

"General, — Your present visit is a reahzation of
the consoling object of that wish. You stand in the


midst of posterity. Every where you must have heen
struck with the physical and moral changes which
have occurred since you left us. This very city, bear-
ing a name dear to you and to us, has since emerged
from the forest which then covered its site. In one
thing you behold us unaltered ; the sentiment of con-
tinued devotion to liberty, and of ardent and pro-
found gratitude to your departed friend, the father
of his country, and to you and to your illustrious asso-
ciates in the held and in the cabinet, for the multi-
plied blessings which surround us, and for the very
privilege which I now exercise of addressing you.
This sentiment, now fondly cherished by more than
ten millions of people, will be transmitted, with un-
abated vigour, down the tide of time to the latest pos-
terity, through the countless millions who are des-
tined to inhabit this continent."

During this discourse. La Fayette was visibly af-
fected. Instead of answering immediately, he took
his seat, which he I'etained for a minute, struggling to
conquer his feelings ; then rising, he replied in Eng-
lish, and with powerful feeling, nearly as follows. 1
think the slight evidence of a foreign idiom, which
his reply contains, adds to its interest.

" Mr. Speaker, and Gentlemen of the House of
Representatives — While the people of the United
States, and their honourable Representatives in Con-
gress, have deigned to make choice of me, one of the
American veterans, to signify in his person their es-
teem for our joint services and their attachment to
the principles for which we have had the honour to
fight and bleed, I am proud and happy to share those
extraordinary favours with my dear revolutionary
companions. Yet, it would be, on my part, uncandid
and ungrateful not to acknowledge my personal share
in those testimonies of kindness, as they excite in my
breast emotions Vv^hich no words are adequate to


" My obligations to the United States, Sir, far ex-
ceed any naerit I nnight claim. They date from the
time when I have had the happiness to be adopted
as a young soldier, a favoured son of America ; they
have been continued to me during almost half a cen-
tury of constant affection and confidence; and now,
Sir, thanks to your most gratifying invitation, I find
myself greeted by a series of welcomes, one hour of
which would more than compensate for the public
exertions and sufferings of a whole life.

" The approbation of the American people, and of
their representatives, for my conduct during the
vicissitudes of the European revolution, is the highest
reward I could receive. Well may I stand firm and
erect, when in their names, and by you, Mr. Speak-
er, I am declared to have, in every instance, been
faithful to those American principles of liberty, equal-
ity, and true social order, the devotion to which, as
it has been from my earliest youth, so it shall con-
tinue to be a solemn duty to my latest breath.

" You have been pleased, Mr, Speaker, to allude
to the peculiar felicity of my situation, when, after
so long an absence, T am called to witness the im-
mense improvements, the admirable communications,
of the prodigious creation of which we find an ex-
ample in this city, whose name itself is a venerated
palladium ; in a word, all the grandeur and prosper-
ity of those happy United States, who, at the same
time they nobly secure the complete assertion of
American independence, reflect on every part of the
world the light of a far superior political civilization.

" What better pledge can be given of a persevering
national love of liberty, when those blessings are evi-
dently the result of a virtuous resistance to oppres-
sion, and of institutions founded on the rights of man
and the republican principle of self-government?

" No, Mr. Speaker, posterity has not begun for
me, since, in the sons of my companions and friends,


I find the same public feelings, and, permit me to
add, the same feelings in my behalf, which 1 have
had the happiness to experience in their fathers.

" Sir, I have been allowed, forty years ago, before
a committee of a Congress of thirteen States, to ex-
press the fond wishes of an American heart. On this
day, I have the honour, and enjoy the delight, to
congratulate the representatives of the Union, so
vastly enlarged, on the realization of those wishes,
even beyond every human expectation, and upon the
almost infinite prospects we can with certainty anti-
cipate. Permit me, Mr. Speaker, and Gentlemen of
the House of Representatives, to join to the expres-
sion of those sentiments, a tribute of my lively grati-
tude, affectionate devotion, and profound respect."

A deeper silence never pervaded any assembly
than that with which the audience listened to this
answer. There was so much of nature, of sincerity,
and of affection in the manner of the speaker, and
quite evidently so little of preparation in the lan-
guage of his reply, that it produced a vastly greater
effect than any studied discourse, however elegant in
phraseology and thought.

After a short pause of a few minutes, during which
many of- the members were manifestly stilling their
awakened feelings, the gentleman who had announced
La Fayette arose, and impressively moved that the
house should now adjourn. The question was put
and carried, and then all present, members and spec-
tators, crowded about their guest, to renew welcomes
and felicitations which were reiterated for the thou-
sandth time.

I do not know that the Americans have any par-
ticular tact in their manner of conducting ceremo-
nies, perhaps, on the contrary, they are not much
practised in their mysteries ; but, as natural feelings
are as little disturbed as possible, I have ever found
in the receptions, greetings, diud fetes they have given


to La Fayette, a simplicity and touching affection
that has gone directly to the heart. The veteran
himself has manifested, on all occasions, a wonderful
tact and readiness. Notwithstanding the gravity and
earnest air he has so often been compelled to en-
counter, he has, in every instance, managed to strip
the ceremony of the stiffness of preparation, and to
give to the interviews the warmth and interest that
should distinguish a meeting between a parent and
his children.

After the business of the morning was ended, Cad-
wallader and myself joined a small party which con-
tinued about the person of La Fayette, whom we
accompanied to his lodgings. The heart of the old
man was full, and he took an evident delight in
recurring to those events of the revolution which re-
dounded to the credit of a people, in whose history
and character he seems to take the same pride that a
fond father would feel in witnessing the advance of a
promising son. During our ride, he mentioned sev-
eral little circumstances that are worthy of repetition ;
but the limits of this letter must confine me to two.

In the year 1779 and 1780, La Fayette command-
ed the light infantry of the American army. Most of
the soldiers were natives of New-England, or of the
middle States. With these troops he was sent from
the north to act against Cornwallis, in that mem-
orable campaign in which he did himself so much
honour by his prudence and spirit, and which ter-
minated in the capture of the latter. On reaching
Baltimore, the effects of climate, and of a removal
from home, became quite apparent on the spirits of
his men. They conversed among themselves of the
dangers of a summer passed in the low counties of
Virginia, and for a few nights there vvcre repeated
desertions. It was of the last importance to put a
stop to a feeling that threatened destruction to the
service. The vonuij Frenchman took counsel of )iis

VoT,. 11. N


own heart, and acted accordingly. He issued a gen-
eral order, in which he set forth the dangers of the
climate, and the hazards and hardships of the contem-
plated service in the plainest language, concluding by
calling on those who felt unequal to the trial to pre-
sent themselves, in order that they might be embodied
and sent back to the main army, since it was abso-
lutely necessary that he should know the precise
force on which he might depend. Not a man came
forward to claim the promised favour; and, what is
far more remarkable, not another desertion occurred.
The second anecdote is still more worthy of relation.
Throughout the whole of the war of 1776, the
American army was rarely exempted from severe
suffering. They had to contend with disease and
hunger ; were often without shoes, even in winter,
and frequently without ammunition."^ On one occa-
sion, it is known that famine actually pervaded the
grand army while it lay at no great distance in front
of general Howe, who was at the head of a powerful
and an admirably appointed force. During the cam-
paign of 1780, La Fayette, who, you will remember,
was an American general, was joined by a small
French force. He continued to command as the
senior officer. There was a scarcity in the camp,
and it became necessary to resort to severe measures
in order to provide for the allies. He boldly issued
an order that no American should receive a mouthful
until the French soldiers were furnished with full

* The writer made an acquaintance with two veterans of that
war, while in America. One of them assured him he marched
into the battle of Trenton (he was a lieutenant, and it was in
the depth of winter) without a shirt ; and the other, who was
in the cavalry, assured him, that by charging at the battle of
Eutaw into a thicket of black-jacks, (a sort of thorny bush,)
where the English infantry had thrown themselves, after the
principal rencontre, he lost a far more important vestment,"
which he was not able to replace, until he luckily found a
piece of tow-cloth in the highway.


rations, and for several days the cSimp exhibited the
singular spectacle of one portion of its inmates being
full fed, while the other was on an exceedingly lim-
ited allowance. What renders the forbearance of
the native troops still more worthy of praise, is the
fact, that the officer who commanded the dangerous
distinction, was a countryman of those who were
well fed: yet no man heard a murmur! To me it
seems, that the mutual confidence exhibited in this
fact, is as creditable to him who dared to issue the
order, as to those who knew how to submit to it
without complaint



— It w^as a week before I recovered from the shock
of such an alarm. But on more mature thought,
(especially when I came coolly to reflect on some
recent dangers through which I had myself passed in
triumph, as well as on the numberless instances in
which I had felt symptoms of the same disorder,) I
began to consider your cause as far from hopeless.
We become more liable to these attacks as we ad-
vance in life, and I warn you of being constantly on
your guard against them. I also beg leave to recom-
mend exercise and change of scene as the most
effectual cure. I am fully persuaded that had not
fortune made us all travellers, we should long since
have ceased to be the independent beings we are.
Waller spoke, in his last letter, of a Venetian beauty,


in language that seemed ominous ; but I know too
well that deep inward eccentricitj of the man, which
he so prettily calls mauvaise honte^ to dread any thing
serious from the affair. I think his eminently impar-
tial manner of viewing things, will for ever save him
from the sin of matrimony. Besides, the girl is only
descended from two doges of the fifteenth century,
and four or five old admirals of the thirteenth and
fourteenth, a genealogy that surely cannot pretend to
compete with the descent of a Somersetshire baronet,
whose great-grandfather was an alderman of Lin-
coln, and whose great-grandmother was the youngest
daughter of a British officer. If you doubt the truth
of the last circumstance, 1 refer you to the half-pay
list of lieutenants of dragoons, in the reign of George
the Second.

You have made a much more formidable request
than you appear to think, when you desire that I will
give you a detailed account of the system of juris-
prudence, of the laws, and of the different courts of
this country. The subject, properly and ably con-
sidered, would require a year of time, and infinitely
more legal science than 1 can lay claim to possess.
Still, as I may tell you some things of which you are
as yet a stranger, I shall not shrink from the task of
communicating the little I do know, under the stale
plea of incompetency.

About a week after our arrival in this place, Cad-
wallader and myself had descended from the hall of
the House of Representatives to the caucus, and we
were about to leave the Capitol, when my friend
made a sudden inclination to the left, motioning for
me to follow. -He passed into the basement of the
northern wing of the edifice. I had seen but a few
minutes before, by the naked flag-stalf, that the Sen-
ate had adjourned, "^ and, was about to say as much,

* A flag is kepl*flying over the wings in which tlie two liouses
meet, when they luo in session, and they a;e stiuck as either


when I observed, that in place of ascending the stairs
which led to their chamber, he proceeded deeper into
the lower apartments of the wing. Opening a simple
door, we entered a spacious, but low and far from
brilliant apartment. It was^ lighted only from one of
its sides. Directly in front of the windows, and a
little elevated above the rest of the floor, sat seven
grave looking men, most of whom had passed the
meridian of life. They were clad in simple black
silk robes, not unlike those worn by the students of
universities, and most of them were busily occupied
in taking notes. Immediately in their front, some ten
or twelve respectable men were seated, who had
nothing in attire to distinguish them from the ordinary
gentlemen of the country. There were two or three
others who had the air of being inferior employes of
some grave and important body ; though, with the
exception of the black silk robes, I saw no other
badges of office. On the right, and on the left, there
were benches in rows, and perhaps thirty or forty
more gentlemen were seated on them, listening to
what was said. Among these auditors, there might
have been a dozen genteel looking women. This
assemblage was composed of the judges, the advo-
cates, the officers, and the suitors of the Supreme
Court of the United States. All present who did
not come within one or the other of the above-men-
tioned denominations, were, like ourselves, merely
curious witnesses of the proceedings.

We staid an hour listening to the argument of a
distinguished advocate. He was a member of Con-
gress from one of the eastern States, and by the sim-
plicity of his language, and the acuteness and force
of his thoughts, he was clearly a man who would

body adjourns. These are signals that enable people at a dis-
tance to learn whether the Senate, or lower house, are still to-
gether or not.



have done credit to any tribunal in the world. The
manner of the speaker was rather cold, but it was
dignified, and he paid the highest compliment to his
auditors, by addressing all he said to their reasons.
The judges listened with grave attention, and indeed
the whole scene wore the air of a calm and a highly
reasonable investigation.

My attention was given more to the severe sim-
plicity which marked the aspect and proceedings of
this powerful tribunal, than to the particular subject
before it. I found high authority again reposing with
confidence on the mosfhaked ceremonials, and I
again found it surrounded by an air of deep rever-
ence, which proves how little the vulgar auxiliaries
of our eastern inventions are necessary to insure it
respect and obedience. On no other occasion was I
ever so completely sensible of the feebleness of an
artificial, or of the majesty of a true, because a natu-
ral dignity, as on this. I have heard the wigs, and
robes, and badges of office of half the tribunals of
Europe laughed at, even by those who become fa-
miliar with their absurdities ; but I do not know on
what the most satirical wit could seize, in a body like
this, to turn into ridicule. It is no small proof of the
superiority that is obtained by the habit of consider-
ing things in their direct and natural aspects, that
wigs, and other similar encumbrances, which are
heaped upon the human form, with us, in order to
heighten respect, in this country are avoided, in or-
der ip protect those, who should be venerated, from
undeserved ridicule.

Considered in reference to its functions, and to the
importance of the trusts which it discharges, the Su-
preme Court of the United States is the most august
tribunal of the world. It may not yet be called upon
to decide on causes which involve as great an amount
of propert}^ perhaps, as some of the courts of Eng-
land ; but, as the wealth and power of this country


shall increase with its growth, the matters it decides
will become still greater; and it now produces a
mighty influence on the interests of the whole Union.
You will better understand the subject, if we take a
rapid view of the judicial system of the confedera-
tion, as it is connected with those of the several

You already know that the theory of the American
government assumes that all power is the natural
and necessary right of the people. The accidental
circumstances of colonization had throv/n the settlers
into a certain number of bodies politic, before the era
of their revolution. Until that event arrived, each
province was entirely distinct and independent of all
the others, except as they had common relations
through their allegiance to the crown of England,
and through those commercial and general interests
which united them as the subjects of the same em-

For the purpose of achieving their independence,
the diiTerent provinces entered into a compact which
partook of the nature of an intimate and indissoluble
alliance. The articles of the confederation were a
sort of treaty, that was not, however, limited to defi-
nite, but v.diich embraced general objects, and which
was to know no limits to its duration, but such as
necessity must put to all things. Still it was little
more than an intimate alliance between thirteen
separate and independent governments. Money was
to be raised for avowed and general purposes ; but it
was done in the way of subsidies rather than of tax-
ation. Each State collected its own resources in its
own manner, and it had fultilled most of its obliga-
tions to the confederation when it had paid its quota,
and when it permitted the few pubhc agents appoint-
ed by the Congress to discharge the particular trusts
that were delegated to the Union.


Notwithstanding this imperfect and clumsy organi-
zation of their general government, the inhabitants
of the United States were, even at that early day
essentialh^ the same people. They had the same
views of policy, the same general spirit, substantially
the same origin,* and a community of interests that
constantly invited a more intimate association. The
country was scarcely relieved from the pressure and
struggle of the war of the revolution, before its wises
citizens began to consider the means of effecting so
desirable an object. Peace was concluded in 1783;
and, in 1787, a convention was called to frame a
constitution for the United States. The very word
constiiution implies the control of all those interests
which distinguish an identified community. If we
speak with technical accuracy, the convention of
1787 was assembled for the purpose of improving an
existing compact, rather than for the purpose of
creating one entirely new. But it will simplify our
theory, and answer all the desirable purposes of the
present object, if we assume that the States entered
into the bargain perfectly unencumbered by any pre-
existing engagements.

Under this view of the case, each State possessed
all the rights of a distinct sovereignty, when it sent
its delegates to the convention. There was no powder
which of necessity belongs to any other government
of the world, that each of these States could not of
itself exercise, subject always to the restrictions of
its own institutions and laws. But then, each State
possessed the power of altering its own institutions
as it saw fit; it had its own laws, its ow^n tribunals,
and it preserved its policy in all things, except that,
in point of fact, by the ancient confederation, it was

* A gross error exists in Europe, on the subject of the mixed
character of this people. The whole population of Louisiana,
for instance, but a little exceeded 75,000 souls (blacks included,)
in 1810. It was ceded to the Union in 1804.


bound not to enter into wars, and certain other en-
gagements, with foreign nations, without the rest of
the States being parties to the transaction.

The constitution of 1737 wrought a vital change
in this system. The Americans now became one
people in their institutions, as well as in their origin
and in their feelings. It is important to remember
that the two latter induced the former circumstance,
and not the former the latter.

You can readily imagine that the principal point
to be decided in a body which had professedly as-
sembled with such intentions, was that of the continu-
ation or annihilation of the State governments. There
were not a few in favour of the first policy, though
the influence of those who supported the authority
of the States happily prevailed. I say happily, since,
1 think, it can be made plain that the existence of
the Union at the present hour, no less than its future
continuance, is entirely dependent on the existence
of the government of the several States.

In consequence of the policy that prevailed, a
species of mixed and compHcatcd government was
established, which was before unknown to the world,
but which promises to prove that territory may be
extended ad libitum without materially impairing the
strength of a country by its extent. It strikes me,
that as the confederation of the United States is the
most natural government known, that it is conse-
quently the only empire on whose stability the fullest

Online LibraryJames Fenimore CooperNotions of the Americans: picked up by a travelling bachelor (Volume 1-2) → online text (page 41 of 58)