James Fenimore Cooper.

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known, though I have been present at a dispute of a
very remarkable character. The parties were a Bap-
tist and an Universalist. They met in a field at an


appointed hour, and the ceremonial of the rencontre
was arranged with as much precision as if they had
met for a less pacific interview. They were to be
placed so many feet asunder, in order that their voices
should be audible. They were to speak alternately,
and by the watch, so many minutes at a time ; and
each was to confine hiVnself, according to an estab-
lished protocol, to a certain set of opinions, during
particular hours. The audience stood around as
silent listeners.

It was a remarkable, and not an uninteresting scene.
As you may suppose, the learning brought into the
combat was none' of the deepest, but the zeal and
native shrewdness v\'ere great, and the discretion was
admirable. 1 left the mooted point in as much doubt
as I found it, though a great deal of absurdity was
disposed of in the controversy, in a rough but sen-
sible manner. This exhibition was, of course, as
much of a novelty to the people of the country as it
was to me.

I witnessed other scenes, that were alike impres-
sive and beautiful. The Methodists have, at stated
periods, what are called camp meetings. They as-
semble in thousands in some wood, and hold their
religious festivals in a manner that is as striking by
its peculiar simplicity, as it is touching by the inter-
est and evident enjoyment they experience.

It is a fashion to ridicule and condemn these meet-
ings, on the plea that they lead to excesses and en-
courage superstition. As to the former, the abuse is
enormously exaggerated ; though, beyond a doubt,
there are individuals who attend them that would
seek any other crowd to shield their vices ; and as to
the latter, the facts show, that while new and awak-
ened zeal, in ignorant persons, frequently breaks out
in extravagance and folly, they pass away with the
exciting cause, and leave behind them tender con-
sciences and a chastened practice. What are the


weaknesses of these men, to those that are exhibited
in countries where faith is fettered by the law? Or,
if you maintain an estabhshment, and let men follow
their private opinions, in what does America differ
from otlier countries, except in things that are entirely
dependent on the peculiar temporal condition of the
republic, and which could not be avoided, if the cit-
izens were all in full communion with the church of
Rome itself?

It is a mistake to believe that the liberality on re-
ligious subjects, which certainly exists to so eminent
a degree in this country, is the effect of there being
no establishment. On the contrary, the fact that
there is no estabhshment is owing to the liberal insti-
tutions, and to the sentiments of the people. You
will remember, that the same political right to create
establishments is to be found in the State governments,
here, as is to be found any where else. All power
that can belong to governments, and which has not
been ceded to the United States, is the property of
the States themselves, in tlieir corporate capacities.
It is true that most of them have decreed, in their
constitutions, that no religious tests shall be known ;
but it is necessary to remember who have framed
these imperative and paramount ordinances. The
powers, too, that decreed these limitations can change
them. But let us examine into the actual state of the
law on this interesting subject.

The provision contained in the constitution of the
United States is altogether prohibitory. It goes to
say, that the government of the confederacy shall pass
no law to create a religious establishment, or to pro-
hibit the free exercise of religion. It is contained in
an amendment, and is embodied in a paragraph which
exposes rather a declaration of the limits of congres-
sional power, than any concession of power itself.
The object of this amendment w^as unquestionably to
affoi'd a clearer evidence of the public mind, and to


set at rest for ever any questions which, by construc-
tions of any previously-conceded rights, might by
possibility arise on matters of such importance. Still
the declaration that Congress shall not have power
to do this or that thing, only leaves the individual
States more unequivocally in possession of the right
to do it, since they possess all the rights of govern-
ment except those conceded to the Union.

New-England was settled by the Puritans. What-
ever might have been the other good qualities of these
zealots, religious liberality was not one of their vir-
tues. It argues a somewhat superficial knowledge
of the subject to contend that the Americans owe all
their mental advancement, and freedom from preju-
dices, to the circumstance that they came into the
country as reformers. It would be more true to say,
that they came as dissentients ; but though dissent
may, it does not necessarily, infer liberahty. The fact
is, that no country ever possessed a more odious and
bigoted set of laws, on the subject of conscience, than
those first enacted by the Puritans. Independently
of the httle favour that was extended to witchcraft,
it was made death for a Quaker to enter several of
their colonies ! This spirit, which they brought with
them from England, was part of that noble and much-
vaunted mental gift that the Americans received from
the mother country. Fortunately, they had wisdom
enough left to establish schools and colleges; and
although it is quite probable that many worthy secta-
rians, who aided in this labour, thought they were
merely fortifying their exclusive doctrines, the result
has shown that they then took the very measure that
was likely to introduce liberality and promote Chris-
tian charity in their land.

The Quakers themselves, though less sanguinary,
for they did not deal in death at all, were net much
more disposed to the intercourse than their eastern
brethren. Tjic Catholics in Maryland enacted tlic

Vol. n. X ■


laws that Catholics are fond of adopting, and, in
short, genuine, religious liberality was only to be
found in those colonies where the subject was thought
to be of so little interest as not to invite bigotry. Out
of this state of things the present rational, just, char-
itable, novel, and, so far as man can judge, religious,
condition of society, has grown.

The unavoidable collision of sects has no doubt
contributed to the result. It was not in nature to
embitter life by personal and useless conflicts, and
collected force did not exist in situations to produce
combined oppositions. The Puritans had it all in
their own way in New-England, until time had been
given for reason to gather force : and, in the other
colonies, adventitious circumstances aided to smother
discussions. Liberality in politics, in some degree,
drew religious freedom in its train ; and when the
separation from England occurred, the public mind
was prepared to admit of great equality of rights in
ail things. Slavery, which was certainly retained,
was retained much more from necessity than from
any other cause.

Still the advancement of thought in America was
rather gradual than sudden. Many of the original
provisions of the States, on the subject of religion,
imply a timid and undecided policy. In New-Jersey
no Protestant can he denied any civil right on account
of religion. This is clearly a defensive enactment.
In Pennsylvania, Mississippi, and Tennessee, a belief
in God, and a future state of rewards and punish-
ments, is necessary to hold ofiice. In North Carolina,
no person who denies the truth o( the Protestant reli-
gion^ or the divine authority of the Old and New
Testament, was capable of holding office. Many of
these provisions have been changed, though some of
them still remain. There is scarcely a year passes, in
which some law, that has been a dead letter, is not
repealed in some one of the States, in order to bring


the theory of the government more in unison with
the practice. I beheve I have quoted, above, all the
States in which any thing approaching to religious
tests has existed, within the last ten years. Massachu-
setts has certainly altered its constitution since that
period ; and a law disfranchising the Jews has just
l3een repealed in the State of Maryland, which you
know was originally a Catholic colony.

In New-Hampshire, the constitution mithorizes
the legislature to make provision for the support
of Protestant ministers ; and in Massachusetts, the
same duty is enjoined. The practice is simply this.
An assessment is laid on all the inhabitants according
to their estates. It is, like all other assessments in this
country, exceedingly light, as its amount is regulated
by the people themselves, through their immediate
representatives. If a Baptist, for instance, resides in
a parish where there is no Baptist church, he is at
liberty to prove that he has paid the assessment to a
Baptist church any where else ; but should he not be
disposed to take this trouble, the money is paid to the
town collector, who gives it to the church nearest
his place of residence, I believe. A similar practice
prevailed not long since in Connecticut; but, as I
have already said, gradual changes are making, and it
is a little difficult to get at the precise conditions of
the laws of so many different communities, that are
fearlessly adapting their institutions to the spirit of
the age.

In Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, and Ten-
nessee, ministers of the gospel are not eligible to the
State legislatures. In South Carolina, Kentucky, and
Mississippi, they can be neither governors nor legis-
lators. In Missouri, they can fill no other civil office,
but that of justices of the peace. In New- York,
Delaware, and Louisiana, they can hold no civil
offices at alL The constitution of the United States,
and o( all the other States, I believe, are silent on the


matter ; and, of course, clergymen can serve in any
situation to which they may happen to be called. In
all cases, I understand, the construction put on these
regulations is applicable only to men in the actual ex-
ercise of clerical functions. The opinions of the whole
nation are directly opposed to the union of civil and
rehgious duties in the same person.

I have already told you, and I wish to repeat it, as
an important fact that is always to be remembered,
that, considering their scattered condition and cir-
cumstances, the people of this country manifest great
zeal and interest in behalf of religion : I honestly
think more than any other nation I know, and I be-
lieve it is simply because they are obliged to depend
solely on themselves, for its comforts and security.
Perhaps the activity of the nation has its influence
on this as on other things. Mind, I do not say that we
see spires and holy places as often here as in Europe:
if we did, America would contain twenty times as
many places of worship as the largest empire we
have, being, Russia excepted, twenty times as large ;
and the State of New- York alone, with 1,750,000
souls, (1828) would possess two-thirds as many
churches as England with her twelve or fourteen
millions of people.

English writers have not been ashamed to dwell on
the comparative scarcity of churches in this country,
compared with those in their own, as if the circum-
stance afforded any argument of a want of religion in
the people. They might just as well quote the fact
that there were not as many tombstones, to prove
the same thing ; or the American might make the cir-
cumstance that this country possesses more trees than
England, a matter of moral exultation.

You would be astonished to witness the perfect
liberality between the sects, which has grown up
under this state of things. In the first place, there
is nothing temporal to quarrel about, and the clergy


are driven to their bibles for their influence and
power. I have asked several members of Congress
how many Catholics there were in that body, and no-
body knew. I once asked an individual, in the in-
terior of New- York (and in a thriving and beautiful
village,) to what denomination a certain person we
had just left belonged. " He is an Episcopahan," was
the answer. This was disputed by a third person
present. Proof was then adduced to show which was
right. All parties agreed that the individual in ques-
tion was a strictly religious man. One insisted that he
had seen him commune the preceding Sunday in the
Episcopal church. "What of that?" returned the
other ; " and I have seen his wife commune among
the Presbyterians ; and every body knows that she
and all her family are EpiscopaHans." But every
body did not know any such thing, for the other dis-
putant maintained exactly the converse of the propo-
sition. An umpire was chosen in the street. This
worthy citizen " really did not know, but he thought
that man and wife were very pious people ! Stop,"
he continued, as he was coolly walking away, " you

are right, John ; Mr. is a Presbyterian, for I paid

him the pew money last fall myself; and he would
not have collected for the Episcopalians." But even
this was disputed, and so, determined to settle the
point, I went and asked the individual himself. He
was a Presbyterian. " But you sometimes commune
with the Episcopahans?" "Often." "And your wife?"
" Is an Episcopalian." " And your children ?" " We
endeavour to make them Christians, without saying
much of sects ; when they are old enough, they will
choose for themselves." " But which church do they
go to ?" " Sometimes to one, and sometimes to the
other." "But they are baptized?" "Certainly."
"And by which clergyman ?" "By the Episcopahan ;
because my church does not deny the validity of his
ordination, though my wife's church disputes a little
X2 .


the validity of the ordination of the Presbyterian,"
" And your wife, what does she think about it her-
self?" " I beheve she is of opinion that there is a
good deal more said about it than is necessary." And
there the matter rested. Now this may, according to
some people's opinion, be dangerous intercourse, but,
on the whole, I am inchned to think Christianity is
the gainer.

Religion is kept as distinct as possible from the
State. It is known that Mr. Adams, the President
just elected, is an Unitarian ; a persuasion that is
repugnant to most Christian sects, and yet you see
that he is in the chair. People at a distance would
infer indifference to the subject of religion from such
an excess of liberality, but the fact is, the most zeal-
ous religionist in this country knows that the salva-
tion of Mr. Adams' soul is a matter of more moment
to himself than to any body else, and that if he be in
error, it is misfortune enough, without condemning
him to a worldly persecution. Besides, they have
sagacity enough to know that there is no more infal-
lible way to give strength to any party that cannot be
positively crushed, than by giving it importance and
energy by resistance.

The sheriff of the city of New-York, an officer
elected by the people, was, a few years ago, a Jew !
Now all the Jews in New- York united, would not
probably make three hundred voters. Some kind-
hearted people got up a society to convert the Jews
there, a short time since ; and a notice soon appeared
in a paper inviting the Jews to meet to concert
means of converting the Christians.

Notwithstanding all this, the country is as much,
or more, a Protestant and Christian country than any
other nation on earth. I merely state a simple fact,
on which you are at liberty to reason at pleasure.
The sects are about as numerous as they are in the
mother country, and all that one hears concerning


Thumpers and Dunkers, and other enthusiasts, ia
grossly caricatured. They exist, when they do exist
at all, as insulated and meagre exceptions ; and it is
odd enough, that perhaps half of these fantastical sects
have been got up by emigrants from disciplined Eu-
rope, instead of being the natural offspring of the libe-
ral institutions of the country itself. There is no doubt
that many people come from our side of the ocean
with strange notions of liberty and equality, and that
they either quarrel with the Americans for not being
as big fools as themselves, and then set to work, in
order to raise up creeds and political doctrines that
they fondly hope will elevate m,an far above any
thing heretofore known. In the mean time, the na-
tives go on in their common sense and practical way,
and say as little as possible about liberty, equality, or
bigotry, and contrive to be the freest and the hap-
piest, as they will shortly be, in my poor opinion, the
wealthiest and most powerful nation of the globe, let
other people like the prediction as they may.

I shall close this letter with giving you an account
of one sect, that is as remarkable for its faith as for
its practices. J mean the Shaking Quakers. I have
been at three of the establishments of these people,
viz. Hancock (in Massachusetts,) and Lebanon and
Niskayuna (in New-York.) 1 believe there is still
another establishment, in one of the* south-western
States. The whole number of the sectarians is,
however, far from great, nor is it hkely to increase,
since their doctrine denies the legitimacy of matri-
m.ony, or any of its results. There may be a thousand
or fifteen hundred of them altogether.

The temporalities of the Shakers are held in com-
mon. They are not an incorporated company, but
confidence is reposed in certain trustees, who are
selected as managers and guardians of all their real
estates, goods and chattels. They are an orderly,
industrious sect, and models of decency, cleanliness,


and of morality too, so far as the human eye can
penetrate. I have never seen, in any country, vil-
lages so neat, and so perfectly beautiful, as to order
and arrangement, without, however, being picturesque
or ornamented, as those of the Shakers. At Hancock,
the gate-posts of the fences are made of white marble,
hewn into shape and proportions. They are manu-
facturers of various things, and they drive a consider-
able trade with the cities of New-York, Albany, and
Boston. They are renowned retailers of garden-
seeds, brushes, farming utensils, &c. &;c.

Though men and women, who, while living in the
world, were man and wife, are often to be found as
members of these communities, the sexes live apart
from each other. They have separate dormitories,
separate tables, and even separate doors by which to
enter the temple.

But it is to the singular mode of worship of these
deluded fanatics, that I wish to direct your attention.
You know, already, that no small portion of their
worship consists in what they term the " labour of
dancing." Their founder has contrived to lay his
finger on one or two verses of the Old Testament, in
which allusion is made to the custom of the Jews in
dancing before the ark : and, I believe, they also
place particular stress on the declaration of Solomon,
when he says, " the^e is a time for all things," among
which, dancing is enumerated. It is scarcely neces-
sary to say, that none but the most ignorant, and,
perhaps, the weakest-minded men, can join such a
sect from motives of conscience. I saw several ne-
groes among them.

I went to attend their worship at Niskayuna. It
was natural to suppose that their dancing was a sort
of imitation of that of the dervishes, in which eu'
thusiasm is the commencement, and exhaustion the
close. On the contrary, it was quite a matter of grave
preparation. The congregation (the Shakers) entered


the meeting by different doors at the same time, the
elders of the two sexes leading the advance, and one
following the other in what is called single file. The
men arranged themselves on one side of the room,
and the women on the other. Their attire was rig-
idly simple, and fastidiously neat. It was made
nearly in the fashion of the highly respectable sect
of Friends, though less rich in material. When si-
lence was obtained, after the movement of the entree^
the whole group, who were formed in regular lines,
commenced singing certain spiritual songs of their
own composition (I beheve) to lively tunes, and with
a most villanous nasal cadency. These songs were
accompanied by a constant swinging of the bodies ;
and, from this commencement, I expected the access
of the infatuated worship would grow by a regular
increase of excitement. On the contrary, the songs
were ended tranquilly, and others were sung, and
always with the same quiet termination. At length,
one of the elders gravely said, " Let us labour," ju?t
as you hear priests say from their desks, " Let us
pray." The men then proceeded with gravity to take
off their coats, and to suspend them from pegs ; after
which they arranged themselves in rows on one side
of the room, the women occupying the other in the
same order. Those who did not join the sets, lined
the walls, and performed the duties of musicians with
their voices. At the commencement of the song, the
dancers moved forward, in a body, about three feet
each, turned, shuffled, and kept repeating the same
evolutions during the whole time of this remarkable
service. It is scarcely possible to conceive any thing
more ludicrous, and yet more lamientable. I felt dis-
posed to laugh, and yet 1 could scarcely restrain my
tears. I think, after the surprise of the ludicrous
had subsided, that the sight of so much miserable in-
fatuation left a deep and melancholy regret on tlie


They appear to have an idea that a certain amount
of this labour is requisite to salvation, for T learned
that many of the elders had reached perfection, and
that they had long since ceased to strive to reach
heaven by pirouetting.

Now the laws of the different States where the
small fragments of this sect exist, are far too wise and
too humane to give their deluded followers any trouble.
They are inoffensive and industrious citizens, and,
in one or two instances, the courts have interpret-
ed the laws as humanely in their favour as circum-
stances would reasonably allov/. It is plain that the
true bond of their union is the effect which concerted
action and strict domestic government produce on
the comforts of the grossly ignorant ; but as the class
of the very ignorant is quite limited in this country,
and is daily getting to be comparatively still less nu-
merous, there is no fear that this, or any other re-
ligious sect that is founded altogether on fanaticism
and folly, will ever arrive to the smallest importance.


SfC. Sfc.


— You know not what you ask ! I have already
sent you an imperfect account (I must confess) of the
jurisprudence of the United States, and now you ask
me for what you are pleased to call an outline of its
civil and criminal law. Do you know there are
four-and-twenty States, one district, and four territories
in this country, and that each of them has its own
laws, varying in some particulars of form and of.
policy from those of all the rest ? My answer shall,


therefore, be very short; nor should it be given at all,
did I not know that various absurdities are circulated
in Europe, on this very matter, by men who travel
here, and who rarely possess a knowledge of, or give
themselves the trouble to inquire into, the true con-
dition of the society, whether considered in reference
to its conventional tone, of to its positive institutions.

The criminal law of the United States is more
sanguinary than that of any particular State. Piracy,
treason, murder, robberies of the mail, in which the
life of the person in charge is jeoparded, and a few
')ther offences, are punished with death. Crimes
committed on the high seas, in certain reservations,
such as forts, light-houses, &:c., are also punished by
the laws of the confederation. Smaller offences are
punished by fines, or imprisonment, or by both. Some
of the States inflict death for a variety of offences,
especially the slave-holding communities ; others again
are very tender of human life. In New-York, mur-
der, arson, if the building be an inhabited dwelling,
and treason, can be punished with death. All crimes
that are exclusively military, are punished by the
military code of the general government.

Online LibraryJames Fenimore CooperNotions of the Americans: picked up by a travelling bachelor (Volume 1-2) → online text (page 49 of 58)