James Fenimore Cooper.

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than I possess. Though it is quite apparent that
those conventional castes which divide the whole
civilized world into classes, are to be found here, just
as they are in Europe, they appear to be separated


by less impassable barriers. The features of society
are substantially the same, though less strongly mark-
ed. You, as an Enghshman, can find no difficulty in
understanding, that the opinions and habits of all the
difl'erent divisions in life may prevail without patents
of nobility. They are the unavoidable consequences
of differences in fortune, education and manners. In
no particular, that I can discover, does the situation
of an American gentleman differ from that of an
English gentleman, except that the former must be
content to enjoy his advantages as a concession of the
public opinion, and not as a right. I can readily be-
lieve that the American, whatever might be his name,
fortune, or even personal endow^ments, who should
arrogate that manner of superiority over his less for-
tunate countrymen that the aristocracy of your coun-
try so often assume to their inferiors, would be in
great danger of humiliation ; but I cannot see that he
is in any sense the less of a gentleman for the re-
straint. I think I have already discovered the source
of a very general error on the subject of American
society. Short as has been my residence in the coun-
try, I have met w^ith many individuals of manners
and characters so very equivocal, as scarcely to know
in w^hat conventional order they ought to be placed.
There has been so singular a compound of intelli-
gence, kindness, natural politeness, coarseness, and
even vulgarity, in many of these persons, that I am
often utterly baffled in the attempt to give them a
place in the social scale. One is ashamed to admit
that men w4io at every instant are asserting their su-
periority in intellect and information, can belong to
an inferior condition ; and yet one is equally reluc-
tant to allow a claim to perfect equahty, on the part
of those who are constantly violating the rules of
conventional courtesy. That the forms of even polite
intercourse, in this country, are different in very many
particulars from our own, is quite evident, but it is


far less apparent that Europe enjoys any very de-
cided advantage on this account. If I should venture
to give an opinion, thus early, on a question that ii.
its nature is so very delicate, I should say, that we
give to hundreds of Americans a place in their own
society, which, in fact, they cannot claim, merely be-
cause we discover in them certain quahfications that
few or none possess in Europe, who are not actually
members of her social f//<e. But this is anticipating
a subject on vs hich I may be much better prepared
to write a twelvemonth hence.

I have told you that otHcial rank in America has
very little connexion with rank in ordinary society.
This assertion, however, is liable to some little excep-
tion. There are certain political stations of so much
dignity, as in a great measure to entail on their pos-
sessors, and even on their families, the indefinable
privileges of caste, here as elsewhere, though from
what I can learn this is far from being invariably the
case. Thus, while the office of President of the
United States, or of Governor of a State, will, in their
very nature, open the doors of most houses to their
incumbents, a man may be a member of Congress, or
even a Senator, and continue to fill his original station
in ordinary life. This, also, you, as an Englishman,
ought to understand, nor will it be much longer un-
intelligible in all those other countries of Europe,
where representative governments are opening the
avenues of political power to all men. Indeed, in
France, even under the old regime, government and
society were perfectly distinct. Now, just as America
is more democratic in her institutions, just so much
the more is this blending of conditions discernible in
her distribution of political favours. Your country-
men are very apt to make themselves merry with the
colonels and majors that are inn-keepers in America;
but really it appears to me that these people have
much the best right to laugh in the matter, sip^.p ti^^^'


can find individuals fit to fill such stations, in a condi-
tion of life, that, in common, is occupied by men
qualified to do little or nothing else than discharge
the duties of their ordinary calling. But you have
had your train-bands, with their pastry-cook, and
fishmonger colonels, as well as the Americans. I
know of but two points, then, in which you differ in
this particular from the very people whom you affect
to ridicule. I have not heard of any of your city
warriors, who can show their scars, or who have ever
encountered a danger, more formidable than eflecting
a defile in face of a pump, without throwing their
phalanxes into confusion ; whereas, I have seen more
than one American veteran perform the offices of a
host, who had faced with credit the best of your
battalions, and who makes a matter of honest boast-
ing that he has as often seen the back as the face of
his enemies, they too, having been both English and
French grenadiers. This is one, and no trifling point
of distinction between the two classes. The other is,
that your train-bands are rarely found beyond the in-
fluence of the household troops, or such other mer-
cenaries as may serve to set them a proper example
of loyalty, while the Americans, unhesitatingly, put
arms into the hands of all their people who are of an
age to carry them. I believe the latter, after all, is
the true reason why colonels and majors so much
abound in this country.

While crossing the state of Massachusetts the last
time, I passed a night in the house of one of these
military Bonifaces. He was precisely the sort of
man Cadwallader had described ;.kind, independent,
unassuming in fact, but unyielding in appearance ; a
colonel in the militia, a member of the State legisla-
ture, and, in short, one who at need would give
you his own blanket and think no more of it, but who
would refuse your money unless it were offered with
civiUty, and as a just return for what he had bestowed.


I passed a half hour conversing with the old man
who had seen a good deal of service during the wars
of ''5Q and '76. We spoke of the different mihtary
systems pursued by England and America, and he
not only seemed willing to do justice to the troops of
the former, but he readily admitted that men who
did nothing but 'train,' as he termed it, ought to be
better soldiers than militia who entered the ranks
but once or twice a year. Encouraged by this con-
cession, I ventured to suggest it was possible that his
nation was wrong in her policy, and that she might
do better to imitate the example of other countries in
her mihtary policy at least. His answer was cer-
tainly characteristic, and I thought it not without
some practical point. " Each people to their wants,'
he said. " In Europe you keep large standing armies
because you can't hold together without them, and I
conclude you pay for it. America has managed so
far to do her own fighting, nor do I see that she has
much need of doing that of any other people. As to
the quality of the troops, we often handled the French
roughly ; we drove the English out of the Bay State
in '76, and we have contrived to keep them out ever
since : so far as I can see, that is all we want of a
soldier, whether he be dressed in scarlet, or a coat
of brown homespun. As to keeping order at home,
we can still do that without using our muskets, thank
God." Now, whether a nation that has managed to
keep foreign invaders from her shores, and to preserve
the most perfect order within her borders, without
the agency of any better colonels, than such as some-
times act as inn-keepers, is entitled to the respect, or
to the derision of the rest of the world, is a question
I leave to your philosophy. At all events, communi-
ties which husband their resources, enjoy the com-
fortable assurance of having them at command, when
their possession may become a matter of the last im-


But all this is leading me from the subject. Al-
though a description of the establishment of Mr. Jay
should not mislead you into an impression that all
those who have enjoyed public favour, in this coun-
try, live in a similar manner, it is certainly more true
as to those who have arrived to the high dignities he
once possessed. In point of size and convenience
the dwelling of this distinguished American is abou
on a level with a third-rate English country house, or
a second-rate French chateau. It has most of the
comforts of the former, with some luxuries that are
not easy to obtain in your island, and it is conse-
quently both inferior and superior to the latter, in
very many particulars. There is a mixture of use
and appearance in the disposition of the grounds,
that I am inclined to think very common about the
residences of gentlemen of this country. The farm
buildings, &c., though a little removed, were in plain
view, as if their proprietor, while he was wilhng to
escape from the inconveniences of a closer proximity,
found a pleasure in keeping them at all times under
his immediate eye. The house itself was partly of
stone, and partly of wood, it having been built at
different periods ; but, as is usual here, with most of
the better sort of dwellings, it w^as painted, and
having a comfortable and spacious piazza along its
facade^ another common practice in this climate, it
is not without some pretension externally; still its
exterior, as well as its internal character, is that of
respectable comfort, rather than of elegance, or
show. The interior arrangements of this, no less
than of most of the houses I have entered here, are
decidedly of an English character. The furniture
is commonly of mahogany, and carpets almost uni-
versally prevail, summer and winter. There is a
great air of abundance in the houses of the Ameri-
cans generally, and in those of the wealthy, it is min-
gled with something that we are apt to consider lux-

\'0L I I '


urious. I might have counted ten or twelve domestics
about the estabhshment of Mr. Jay, all quiet, orderly,
and respectful. They were both white and black.
You probably know that the latter are all free here,
slavery having been virtually abolished in New-
York."^ The servants wore no hveries, nor did I
see many that did out of the city of New-York
Though sometimes given, even there, they are fai
from frequent. They are always exceedingly plain,
rarely amounting to more than a round hat with a
gold or a silver band, and a coat, with cuffs and col-
lars faced with a different cloth. Armorial bearings
on carriages are much more frequent, though Cad-
wallader tells me it is getting to be more genteel to
do without even them. He says the most ancient
and honourable families, those whose descent is uni-
versally known, are the first to neglect their use. I
saw the carriages of Mr. Jay, but their pannels were
without any blazonry. I remarked, however, ancient
plate in the house that bore those European marks
of an honourable name, and which I did not hesitate
to refer to the period of the colonial government.
Mr. Jay himself is of French descent, his ancestor
having been a refugee from the religious persecution
that succeeded the revocation of the edict of Nantes.
There are many families of similar descent in the
United States, and among them are some of the first
names of the country. I passed a little town in the
county of West-Chester, that was said to have been
originally settled by emigrants from the persecuted
city of Rochelle. It bears the name of New Ro-
chelle, and to this hour, though much blended by
intermarriages with those of English origin, the peo-
ple retain something of the pecuhar look of their
French ancestry. I saw on the signs, the names of

* It finally expired by law, July 4th, 1827,


Guion, Renaud, Bonnet, Florence, Flandemu, Cou-
tant, &LC. &€., all of whicl are clearly French, though
the sound is commonly so perverted, that it may be
said properly to belong to no language. There are
also one or two others of these settlements in this
state, and many more in different parts of the Union,
but their peculiar national customs have long since
been swallowed in the overwhelming influence of
the English. The language is entirely lost among
these children of France. I had, however, a trifling
evidence of the length of time ancient usages will
linger in our habits, even under the most unfavour-
able circumstances. My driver encountered, near
New Rochelle, an old acquaintance, standing before
the door of his own habitation. The horses either
needed breath to mount a hill, or the worthy disciple
of Phaeton chose to assume it. " Why do you leave
the stumps of those dead apple-trees in your orch-
ard ?" demanded the coachman, who very soon be-
gan to throw a critical eye over the husbandry of his
acquaintance. " Oh ! I gather all my morelles around
their roots. Without the mushrooms in the fall,"^ and
the morelles in the spring, I should be as badly found
as one of my oxen without salt." " Now, that is for
his French blood," said my driver to Fritz, while
mounting the hill ; " for my part, I count a man a fool
who will run the risk of being poisoned in order to
tickle his palate with a mushroom." I have been told
that these little peculiarities of their ancient French
habits were all that was national which remained to
the descendants of the Huguenots. Their religion
had even undergone a change; the original French
Protestants being Calvinists, whereas their descend-
ants have almost all become united to what is here
called the Episcopalian, or the Church of England.

* The Americans commonly call the autumn the ' fall ;'' from
t]}e falling of the leaf.


I scarcely remember to have mingled with an}
family, where there was a more happy union of quiet
decorum, and high courtesy, than I met beneath the
roof of Mr. Jay. The venerable statesman himself is
distinguished, as much now, for his dignified simphc-
it}^ as he was, formerly, for his political sagacity,
integrity, and firmness. By one class of his country-
men he is never spoken of without the profoundest
respect. It is evident that there are some who have
been accustomed to oppose him, though it is not diffi-
cult to see that they begin to wonder why. During
my short stay beneath this hospitable roof, several of
the yeomanry came to make visits of respect, or of
business, to their distinguished neighbour. Their re-
ception was frank and cordial, each man receiving
the hand of the " Governor," as he is called, though
it was quite evident that all approached him with the
reverence a great man only Can inspire. For my
own part, I confess, I thought it a beautiful sight to
see one who had mingled in the councils of nations,
who had instructed a foreign minister in his own
policy, and who had borne himself with high honour
and lasting credit in the courts of mighty sovereigns,
soothing the evening of his days by these little acts
of bland courtesy, which, while they elevated others,
in no respect subtracted from his own glory. His age
and infirmities prevented as much intercourse as I
could have wished with such a man, but the little he
did communicate on the scenes in which he had been
an actor, was uttered with so much clearness, sim-
phcity, modesty, and discretion, that one was left to
regret that he could not hear more.

There is a very general opinion in America, that
Mr. Jay has been much occupied, in later life, in
writing on the prophecies. Of course this is a sub-
ject on which I know nothing, but something occurred
in the course of conversation which strongly inclines
me to hazard a conjecture that they are not true. We


were speaking of some recent English works on the
Apocalypse, when he expressed, in general terms, his
sense of the friiitlessness of any inquiry, at the present
hour, into their hidden meaning. I am rather inclined
to think, that as this eminent man has endeavoured
so to model his life, that he may be prepared for any
and every developement of the mighty mystery, some
curious, but incompetent observers of his habits have
mistaken his motive, attributing that to a love of the-
ory, which might, with more justice, be ascribed to
the humbler and safer cause of practice. And here
I must bid adieu to this estimable statesman ; but
before I take leave of you, I will mention a queer
enough instance of the vagaries of the human mind,
which has recently come under my observation, and
which is oddly enough recalled by the connexion be-
tween Mr. J a}" and his fancied avocations in retire-
ment. It furnishes another proof of the precarious
quality of all conjecture.

Every body has heard of Zerah Colburne, one of
those inexplicable prodigies, whose faculties enable
them to assume a command over the powers of num-
bers that is, probably, quitQ as much of a mystery to
themselves, as to the rest of mankind. High expect-
ations were raised of the effects which education
might produce on the capacity of this boy. He went
to England ; exhibited ; calculated ; astonished every
body; was patronized; sent to school; became a man;
returned to his native country lately, and brought
back with him the literary offering of a tragedy ! I
have seen the manuscript, and must say that I think,
for once at least, " he has missed a figure." — Adieu.

( 90 )

Sec. kc.

New- York,

The six North-Eastem States of this great union
compose what is called New-England.* The appel-
lation is one of convention, and is unknown to the laws.
It is a name given by a King of England, who ap-
peared willing to conciliate that portion of his sub-
jects, who had deserted their homes in quest of liberty
of conscience, by a high-sounding title. It will be
remembered that colonies of the Dutch and Swedes,
at that time, separated the northern possessions of the
English from those they held in Virginia. It is most
probably owing to the latter circumstance that the
inhabitants of the New-England provinces so long
retained their distinctive character, which was scarce-
ly less at variance with that of the slave-holding plant-
ers of the south, than with that of their more imme-
diate neighbours, the Dutch. The pacific colonists
of Penn brought with them but little to soften the
lines of distinction, and after New- York became sub-
ject to the Crown of Britain, it was a mtlange of
Dutch quietude and English aristocracy. It was not
until the Revolution had broken down the barriers of
provincial prejudices, and cleared the way for the
unrestrained exercise of the true national enterprise,
that these territorial obstacles were entirely removed,
and a thorough amalgamation of the people com-
menced. A few observations on the effect of this
amalgamation, and the influence it has had on the char-

* Maine, Massachusetts, New-Hampshire, Vermont, Rhode
Island, and Connecticut.


acter of the nation, may not be thrown away here.
The Httle I shall say is written under the inspection
of Cadwallader, confirmed, if not improved, by my
own observation.

The people of New-England are, even to this hour,
distinguished among their own active and quick-witted
countrymen, for their enterprise, frugality, order, and
intelligence. The three latter qualities, taken in con-
junction, I believe they have a right to claim to a de-
gree that is elsewhere unequalled. The Scot and the
Swiss, the Dane and the Swede, the German, the
Belgian, or even the Frenchman, may be often as
frugal, but there is always something of compulsion
in European frugality. The inhabitant of New-Eng-
land seems thrifty on principle ; since he neglects no
duty, forgets no decency, nor overlooks any of the
higher obligations in order to save his money. He is
eminently economical and provident in the midst of
abundance. A sentiment of deep morality seems to
Hifluence his savings, which he hoards, in order that
the superfluity of his wealth may be serviceable, as
wealth should be, in securing his own private re-
spectability, and in advancing the interests of the
whole. No doubt, in a great community, where
economy is rigidly practised as a virtue, some mistake
its object, and pervert a quality, which is so eminently
adapted to advance the general good, to the purposes
of individual rapacity. But it is impossible to jour-
ney through New-England, and witness its air of
abundance, its decency, the absence of want, the ele-
vation of character, which is imparted to the meanest
of its people, without respecting the sources whence
they flow. A prudent and discreet economy is, in
itself, an evidence of a reflecting and instructed being,
as order is the necessary attendant of abundance and
thought. You may form some estimate of the degree
of intelligence which is diflused throughout the com-
munity in New-England, by the facts contained in a


report I lately read concerning the progress of gen-
eral instruction in Massachusetts. That State con-
tains nearly 600,000 souls, all of whom (of proper
age,) with the exception of ahout 400, could read and
write. It is probable that the latter number was
composed chiefly of foreigners, blacks from other
States, and those who laboured under natural disa-
bilities. But reading, writmg, and arithmetic, are far
from being the limits of the ordinary instruction of
the lower American schools. A vast deal of useful
and creditable knowledge, moral and useful, is also
obtained in learning to read. I have known Cad-
waliader to say repeatedly, that in referring to fa-
miliar history and geography, he invariably passes by
all his later acquisitions in the academies and uni-
versity, to draw upon the stores he obtained during
his infancy in one of the common schools of the coun-
try. Perhaps, in this particular, he differs but little
from most educated men every where ; but it is an
important fact to remember that the children of his
father's tradesmen, and indeed of every other man. in
the place, enjoyed precisely the same means of ob-
taining this species of information, as the son of the
affluent landlord. He also pointed out another im-
portant fact, as distinguishing the quahty of the know-
ledge acquired in the schools of America from that
which is obtained in a similar manner, in most, if not
all, of Europe. There is no lethargy of ideas in this
country. What is known to one (under the usual
limits of learning) soon becomes the property of all.
This is strictly true, as respects all the minor acqui-
sitions of the school. It is also true as respects every
sudden and important political event, in any quarter
of the world. The former species of information is
obtained through new and improved editions of their
geographies, histories, and grammars, and the latter
through the powerful agency of the public press. A
new division of the German empire, for instance,


would be change enough to circulate a new geography
through all the schools of America. Improved systems
of arithmetic are as numerous as the leaves on the
trees, nor is there any scarcity of annals to record the
events of the day. My companion pointed out the
difference between his own countr}' and France for
instance, in this particular. He has three or four
young female relatives at school in the latter country.
Curiosity had induced him to bring away several of
the class-books that had been put into their hands, in
conformity to the system which governs these matters
there. In the history of Fr ance itself, the Revolution
is scarcely mentioned ! The reign of Napoleon is
passed over in silence, and the events of 1814 and
1815 consigned to an oblivion, which does not con-
ceal 'the siege of Troy. One can understand the
motives of this doubtful policy; but Cadwallader
pointed out defects in the geographies, which can only
be accounted for on the grounds of utter indillbrence.
One example shall sutiice for numberless similar in-
stances of gross and culpable neglect, since it could
not be ignorance, in a country where the science of

Online LibraryJames Fenimore CooperNotions of the Americans: picked up by a travelling bachelor (Volume 1-2) → online text (page 8 of 58)