James Fenimore Cooper.

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

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liberality on a proper occasion. When La Fayette
first came to America, he did not proceed on his dis-
tant and hazardous expedition empty-handed. The
new States were then so poor, and they had been
kept, by the operation of colonial policy, so com-
pletely dependent on the mother country for supplies,
that the contributions of an individual were not with-
out moment to them. The arms and money of the
young Frenchman were scarcely less acceptable than
his sword and his heart. They had amply returned
his love ; but it still remained to discharge a -debt
whose obligations were scarcely less sacred.

During the last session, a bill was introduced, ap-
propriating two hundred thousand dollars in money,
and a township of land, to extinguish this debt. It
was not pretended that the money borrowed, or
rather given (for the devotion of La Fayette to the
cause he had espoused knew none of the forms of
bargaining) had not been already returned. But the
Americans know that their venerable friend has long
been a heavy sufferer by the revolution in his own
country, and they also know that he took little ac-
count of the pecuniary interests of this life. The
bill was not passed in enthusiasm, and with the hurry
of dramatic eifect, but it went through the forms of
legislation with calmness and dignity. It was even
resisted by one or two sturdy republicans, who paid
a tribute to the manhness of the nation, by openly
contending that, as the infirm and poorer agents of
the revolution were still unrequited, they could not
vote to bestow money on another, for services that
were performed in common. But a vast majority of
the two houses were of opinion that injustice to a part


was no apology for injustice to the whole, and the
case before them was one of too disinterested and
too brilliant service to admit of a parallel.

The claims of La Fayette on America, cannot,
surely, be likened to the claims of even Washington.
The immortal patriot of this country owed his alle-
giance, his services, and his life, to the land of his
birth ; and his exceeding merit is in the faith and
ability with which he discharged the duties. But
nature had imposed no such obligation on La Fay-
ette. We may admire and extol the filial piety of the
child in its degree ; but without it, altogether, the
offspring would become a reproach and a subject of
scorn before mankind. The stranger who yields his
aid under the influence of a general philanthropy, is
alone entitled to deep and unqualified gratitude, since
the universal obligations of society create indissoluble
connexions between the members of families and
the citizens of the same communities.

liut there was still a loftier claim, in the case of
La Fayette, to the homage of a nation. His devo-
tion to the cause of America was a devotion to the
interests of humanity. The service he performed
was chivalrous in its conception, bold in its moral
attributes, and fearless in its execution. He dedicated
youth, person, and fortune, to the principles of lib-
erty ; and it was fitting that an example shou-ld be
given to the world, that he who had suffered in such
a cause was not to go unrequited. In this view of
the case, it was just as incumbent on the Frenchman
to receive, as it was the duty of the American to
bestow. At a time when the servants of despotism
and abject submission are receiving such ample gifts
for their devotion, it is encouraging to see one splen-
did instance, at least, of virtue, and disinterestedness,
and patient suffering, receiving a portion of the
worldly rewards that should be the exclusive prop-
erty of men devoted to the good of mankind.

( 216 )


I HAVE just witnessed one of the most imposing
ceremonies of this government ; 1 allude to the inau-
guration of the President of the United States. It
took place about noon, on the 4th of March, when
the power of the late incumbent ceased, and that of
his successor commenced. It was simple in its forms,
but it may possess sufficient interest to amuse a few
leisure minutes.

Every body was in the Capitol by the appointed
hour. As it is altogether a ceremony of convention
(with the exception of the oath of office) such persons
were admitted to be spectators, as the officers who
controlled the proceedings chose. But in a country
like this, exclusion must proceed on a principle, and
on such a principle, too, as shall satisfy the reason
of the community. In the first place, the galleries
of the hall of the House of Representatives were
thrown open to every body ; a measure that in itself
served to commence with a system of equality. The
floor of the house was next occupied, as a matter of
course, by the Senators and Representatives. The
foreign ministers and their suites, the officers of the
government, including those of the army and navy,
ex-members of Congress, and citizens of eminence
from distant States, and finally strangers, who were
deemed worthy of attention, composed the rest of the

The officers of the army and navy appeared in
uniforms ; and as there were a great many handsome
and well-dressed women present, the scene was suf-


(iciently gaj. But here all attempts at display ceased.
There were no guards, no processions, no wands, no
robes, nor any of the usual accompaniments of an
European ceremony.

At the proper time, the President (Mr. Monroe)
and the President elect (Mr. Quincy Adams) entered
the hall, accompanied by the great officers of state,
the judges of the supreme court, &c. &c. The two
former took their seats on the sofa of the Speaker,
while the others occupied . chairs that had been re-
served for them. After a short pause, the chief jus-
tice of the United States arose, and ascended to the
little elevation on which the sofa stands. He held
in his hand the sacred volume. Mr. Adams then took
the oath, in the presence of the assembly, with so-
lemnity and distinctness. The form was as follows :
" I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully
execute the office of President of the United States,
and will, to the best of my ability, preserve, protect,
and defend, the constitution of the United States."

With this brief but impressive office, a change in
the executive power of this vast repubhc was effected.
The moment Mr. Adams had pronounced the words
just quoted, he was the chief magistrate of a great
nation, and his predecessor retired to the station of a
private citizen.

After a momentary delay, the new President com-
menced what is called his " inaugural address." It
was long, and it was delivered with earnestness and
apparent sincerity. It is customary to recognise, on
this occasion, the leading principles of the constitu-
tion, and for the new functionary to make some man-
ifestation of the particular course of pohcy by which
he intends to be governed. Such professions are,
however, rather general than minute, and seldom, go
farther than a confession of political faith, that de-
pends much more on received axioms than on any
private opinions. Still, there was a simplicity in tlie

Vol. 11. T


air of the President, and in the forms of the ceremo-
ny, which irresistibly led to the belief you were lis-
tening to professions that were entitled to more credit
than those which similar scenes elsewhere are wont
to create. When the address was ended, the assem-
bly intermingled ; and after the congratulations and
compliments proper to such an event, the multitude
quietly dispersed. Immediately after, the Senators
proceeded to their chamber, where the oath was ad-
ministered to Mr. Calhoun, who then took the chair
of that body, in virtue of his office of Vice-President
of the United States. He made a short and pertinent
address, and the Senate soon after adjourned. During
the course of that, or the succeeding day, Mr. Adams
nominated Mr. Clay, the late Speaker of the House
of Representatives, to fill the vacancy (Secretary of
State) occasioned by his own election to the chair
of the chief magistrate. Mr. Crawford, the Secretary
of the Treasury, also retired ; and Mr. Rush, who
had recently been minister in England, was selected
to fill the situation. The place of Mr. Calhoun was
supplied by a gentleman from Virginia (Mr. Barbour.)
With these changes the new cabinet was complete,
the other incumbents retaining office. I understand
it is a practice for every member of the cabinet to
tender his resignation on the election of a new Presi-
dent, which gives the latter an opportunity of making
such alterations as he may deem expedient, in the
most delicate manner possible. Two of the vacan-
cies, in the present instance, were the results of pro-
motions ; and it is understood that Mr. Adams would
have gladly retained Mr. Crawford, had that gentle-
man been disposed to serve.

I confess 1 have been struck with the imposing
simplicity of such a quiet transfer of power. The
office of President of the United States is one of
great dignity and high trust, and its duties have al-
ways been discharged with singular moderation and


zeal. The present incumbent is a prudent and
zealous patriot, and there is no reason to distrust his
intelligence or intentions.

It is a necessary consequence of an European edu-
cation, that we should subject all things to the rules
that are known to govern life in our quarter of the
world. Under these impressions, a thousand absurd
and childish theories have been ui^ed among us,
concerning the probable influence of such an officer,
as the one whose inauguration I have just described.
It would teach some of us moderation, though it did
not teach us wisdom, did we thoroughly understand
the fact, that it is quite as unintelligible to the mass
of the Americans how we contrive to get on under
our systems, as it is to us how they manage to get on
with theirs.

I have already endeavoured to convey some idea
of the nature of the piivate intercourse which the
President holds with his fellows-citizens. He is uni-
formly treated with personal respect, but never with
adulation. The tone of the manners of the country
is so much opposed to the practices of courts, that
artifice itself requires that some sacrifice should be
made to S'mplicity. Whenever the President appears
in his official character, he is received with the quiet
deference that is due to his office ; but whenever he
chooses to appear as a private citizen, he does it
without exciting more attention than is naturally be-
stowed on an individual who occupies an elevated
and responsible station. The late President (Mr.
Monroe) made tours of observation through all the
States, and along the whole line of the national fron-
tier. His journey was rather of a pubhc nature, and
his receptions, in the towns and States, wore a good
deal of a public character. The ceremonies through
which he passed were a species of homage paid, in
remote quarters of the confederation, to the unity of
the nation in his person, though, in no instance, did


they exceed the compliments of the governed to the
man who filled a station to which he had been elect-
ed by the public will. When, on the other hand,
the President chooses to leave the seat of govern-
ment on his private affairs, he passes through the
States like any other citizen, though it is not pos-
sible to separate the man entirely from the consider-
ation, or, indeed, from the actual power which at-
tends the olHce. He journeys, on these occasions,
hke other people, in the steam-boats and public
coaches ; and his passages through the towns are
distinguished by no other marks of attention than the
visits of compliment that he, or any other man of emi-
nence, would naturally receive.

The constitutional power of the President is not
trifling, though it is always rigidly subordinate to the
law. He is commander-in-chief of the army ; but
while it might prove some palhation to plead an ille-
gal order issuing from this source, as an excuse for
violating any law, it would not be the slightest justi-
fication. The only supreme authority in this repub-
lic is the law : and the President, not in words, but
in fact, is just as much its subject as the meanest cor-
poral in the line. Should he venture to order a
subaltern to do an illegal act, the young man might
refuse to obey ; and should he order him to be pun-
ished for his disobedience, there is an authority in
the country that would quietly take the supposed
otTender out of his hands. Now this is not a naked
theory, but a rigid fact ; and the consequence is just
what it should be. Those who wield the public
power for the time being, take all possible care never
to be legally in the wrong ; for they well know, that
neither influence, nor situation, nor fear, nor any
other cause, can save the offender from open accusa-
tion before the nation. It is easy to say that such a
system must give rise to insubordination and tumult,
and a thousand other evils ; but where is the nroof ?


The discipline of the army and navy of the United
States is as p;ood as those in other services, though
submission to arbitrary power is far from being as
common. All the authority is here, though it is not
in the same hands as elsewhere.

1 have mentioned this fact to show you, that while
there exists here the right to command for all legal
purposes, there exists no authority to intimidate
inferiors in<o a dangerous submission. These people
are born and educated in a state of society, which
inculcates deep and settled respect for the laws,
without any respect for individuals. The President
of the United States is commander-in-chief, it is true;
but he could have no security for obedience beyond
the point where his views should become doubtful.

The risk is too certain, and the success too remote
and doubtful, to leave any temptation before the
President to abuse his power. Four years is not time
enough to mature a plan that would be dangerous
to liberty, especially as the agency of a majority
of those who would be the losers by the change,
must be employed to insure success. I do not beUeve
you are silly enough to think that ten millions of
people, who are excessively impatient of any of the
forms of despotism, are likely to be subdued by a
four-years' monarch, though he should happen to be
another Napoleon; more especially w^hen he can
neither obtain, feed, clothe, arm, nor pay his troops,
without begging money annually of those whom. he
would fain crush. If there shall ever be any great
alteration in the principles of this government, rely
on it, it w^ill proceed directly from a conviction, in
the mass of the people themselves, that such a change
is necessary to their happiness.

Though the patronage of the President is great, it

is subject to all the division of political support. In

most cases, he is glad to get rid of the responsibility

of appointments, since they oftener endanger, than



aid his popularity. He serves, therefore, rather as a
check on vicious recommendations, than as an active
source of emoluments and honour. On all high and
dignified appointments, he of course exercises a direct
iiiHuence, because he is supposed to know their duties
familiarly, and he ought to know the quahfications of
those he wishes to discharge them. But should he
be disposed to go wrong, the Senate would not ratify
his nominations, and then his power is just nothing.
Let us suppose a desire of usurpation.

An unprincipled individual finds himself in the
chair of the presidency. He wishes to become a
king. He has but two ways of effecting this object;
force or persuasion. If he has art enough to effect
the latter, he is just as hkely to succeed here as the
King of England, for instance, would be likely to be-
come absolute by the same means. If he be a man
of common discretion, he will know that he must
make a pai*ty, or his force will amount to just nothing
at all. We will suppose him to have blinded the
nation as to his real character, and views, and to have
selected and secured his agents ; two pretty difficult
tasks, in the first place, you must allow. He has then
got to place these agents in offices of trust, or they
are no better than other men. In order to do this,
he must deceive, or corrupt, the Senate. But even
this difficult task must be done in two years, since
one-third of that body go out of office every other
year. Well, he has bribed a majority of the Senate,
and he gets his tools into power. He then goes to
work with the lower house, and soon brings two hun-
dred men, who have been accustomed all their lives
to look on him as an equal, to become his dependants.
The two houses then give him an army, and vote
money freely, in order to bribe that army; for it is out
of the question to think that men who have been
]iursed in liberty, will serve despotism for nothing.
JN^ow, we have him, in the short space of two jea^s,


in possession of the two houses, of the treasur}% and
provided with an armj. It is high time he should
make a bold demonstration, or a new Congress will
require new bribes. He takes the field with a hun-
dred thousand men, and finds himself opposed to a
million and a half of citizens unaccustomed to be'
controlled illegally, and who are bent on resistance.
'I^ be j^i^ are a little against him, you will allow,
^t^J^J^osing all the traitors he has gained to con-
tinue honest men, because they are in his ser\^ice. I
will leave him to fight this second battle of Armaged-
don, under the auspices of those wise heads, who
think they see signs in the clouds, and portents in the

The legislative authority of the President is en-
tirely negative. In this respect, he possesses much
power to do good, and none to do evil. His signature
is necessary to make a law, perhaps; but, if two-
thirds of both houses vote in its favour, he dare not
withhold it. He has, therefore, rather more of a
voice than any one, or any twenty members, without,
in truth, forming a separate estate. As he acts under
a higher res[ onsibility, and it is supposed, with a
greater familiarity with the interests and pohcy of the
country, than the ordinary legislator, his influence
should be greater v/ithout putting it in his power to
defeat the intentions of Congress. It is easy to sup-
pose cases in which the President can do much good.
We will take one that is the most obvious. The con-
federation is nearly equally divided into slave-owning,
and what are called free States. These happen to be,
just now, eleven of the former, and thirteen of the
latter. In a few years more, the numbers will prob-
ably stand thirteen to fourteen. Now each of these
States has two votes in the Senate, without whose
concurrence no lavv^ can be enacted. The superiority
of the representation of the free States, in the popular
branch, can efifect nothing on any question that may


be supposed to touch the delicate interests of slavr j,
without obtaming the acquieGcence of the Senate, It
is not easy to imagine a crse when, at least, two of
the northern Senators would not be inchned to mod-
erate views, should a contest arise that seriously in-
volved any of the more important interests of the
Union, and which was likely to divide men into s^^
tional parties. But should parties in Congress jilB
proceed so far as to produce, by a trifling majSiiiP
(it could not be a large one without materially uniting
northern to southern men, or vice versa,) a law that
should threaten serious danger to the harmony of the
confederation, the President has power to send it
back, and to demand that a question of this magnitude
should receive the assent of a number, that must, of ne-
cessity, include a concesssion on one side or the other;
and concession, as you well know, is a great step to-
wards harmony. It is just as likely that the President,
in the first place, should be a southern man, as a
northern man ; and then he is expected to be, and,
in point of fact, is, commonly, above all the ordinary
excitements of legislative contests. The nation which,
rarely, I may say, never, enters very blindly into the
party heat which affects all legislative bodies, would
expect moderation in the President, and would sup-
port him in it. That such a case has not arisen,
proves nothing but the difficulty of obtaining even a
legislative majority on irritating and alarming ques-
tions ; for it is certain that in one instance, at least,
such a question has been agitated. I mean the law
for the admission of the State of Missouri, (with the
privilege of holding slaves.) Had Congress passed
that law, and had the President good reason to think
that it would seriously endanger the harmony of the
confederation, he must have been an impotent man
indeed, not to have insisted that it should receive
the support of an unequivocal majority. I do not be-
lieve that a refusal to admit Missouri to the Union,


(with the privilege of holding slaves,) would have
produced any other immediate result than applica-
tions to Congress to change their resolution; and time
would therefore be given for the executive, (as well
as the nation,) to estimate and weigh the consequen-
ces, even in the event of indecision on the part of
the President; and it is scarcely possible to conceive
a case, in which executive influence, and evident
danger to the confederation united, could not produce
a change of two votes, especially as the constant
changes in the members themselves, admit of such
an interference without involving personal vacillation.

This is one among a hundred similar familiar
means, by which any great danger that is likely to
arrive to this confederation, may, and would be

The President also possesses the power of refer-
ring a question to Congress, in order to demand a
majority of two-thirds on any question of general
policy. That public opinion will prevent the abuse
of this power, through vexatious interferences wifh
legislation, is known by experience, since it is diih-
cult to conceive a case, unless of extraordinary mag-
nitude, in which an officer so directly amenable to
and dependent on public opinion, not only for his
authority, but for his comfort, w^ould dare to offend.
The long neglect of the prerogative in England, is
sufficient evidence of what public opinion can do in
a case like this. But the neglect of the prerogative
in England does not infer a necessary neglect of the
salutary power of the President, since there is no
jealousy of the exercise of the latter, the person who
holds it being so shortly to be brought back into the
bosom of the nation as a private citizen. Jn short,
this is a power only to be jesorted to in cases in
w^hich the moderate and the wiser majority of the
whole people would be of one mind ; and it is one


that it might then be more injurious to neglect than
to use.

The President commissions all the officers of the
general government, except those, who, by law, re-
ceive their appointments from other functionaries.
The judges of the United States' courts hold their
offices during good behaviour.* "With these excep -
tions, all other officers of the United States' govern-
ment can be removed by, the President. There are
a great many officers of this government whose com-
missions are given but for four years ; and though
they are commonly recommissioned, it is in the
power of the President to pass them by if he should
please. You remember, of course, that in all cases
which Congress has not named, by a law that can at
any time be repealed, the assent of the Senate is
necessary to an appointment.

In the army and navy, a regular system of promo-
tion has been necessarily adopted ; and as the Senate,
without a good reason, would not confirm any irreg-
ular nomination, preferment, in those two branches
of the public service, is always in due course, except
in cases where character is implicated. So admirable
is the practice of checks and balances throughout all
the departments of this government, and so powerful
and certain is the agency of public opinion, that no
pohtical management, except in cases that, by com-
mon consent, are thought to come fairly within the
scope of political manoeuvrings, can easily be exer-
cised. The most commendable impartiality is ob-
served in those appointments, which, in their nature,

* The judges of the State courts hold their oflfices by different

Online LibraryJames Fenimore CooperNotions of the Americans: picked up by a travelling bachelor (Volume 1-2) → online text (page 47 of 58)