James Fenimore Cooper.

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geography is certainly as well understood as in any
other part of the earth. With an excusable sensi-
tiveness, he showed me, in a recent edition of an au-
thorized geography, the account of his own confede-
ration. It is said to be composed of eighteen States,
though iii;enty-one are actually named, and twenty-
four^ in truth, existed ! Even the palpable contradic-
tion seems to have escaped the proof-readers of the
work. Now this book, excessively meagre in itself,
is put into the hands of the future mothers of France.
Their own kingdom is certainly dealt with a little
more liberally ; but, though it is perhaps the highest
etfort of human knowledge, to know one's self, in
order to a right understanding of our own character,
it is absolutely necessary to have a pretty intimate
acquaintance with those of other people. 1 speak


understandinglv, when I tell jou, that the geographies
and modern histories which are read by the com-
monest American children, are vastly more minute
and accurate than those read in most of the fashion-
able pensions of Paris.

The eflfect of this diffusion of common instruction
is pre-eminently apparent throughout New-England,
in the self-respect, decency, order, and individuahty
of its inhabitants. I say individuality, because, by
giving ideas to a man, you impart the principles of a
new existence, which suoply additional motives of
concern to his respectabi'ity and well-being. You
are not to suppose that men become selfish by arriv-
ing nearer to a right understanding of their own na-
tures and true interests, since all experience proves
that we become humane and charitable precisely as
we become conscious of our own defects, and obtain
a knowledge of the means necessary to repair them.
A remarkable example of this truth is to be found in
N'-W" England itself. Beyond a doubt, nowhere is to
be found a population so well instructed, in element-
ary knowledge, as the people of these six States. It
is equally true, that I have nowhere witnessed such an
universality of that self-respect which preserves men
from moral degradation. I very well know that in
Europe, while we lend a faint attention to these
statements concerning American order and prosper-
ity, we are fond of seeking causes which shall refer
their origin to circumstances peculiar to lirer geo-
graphical situation, and which soothe our self-love,
by enabling us to predict their downfall, when the
existence of European pressure shall reduce the
American to the level of our own necessities. I
confess, I entered the country with very similar im-
pressions myself; but nearer observation has dis-
turbed a theory which is generally adopted, because
it is both consolatory and simple. We are apt to say
that the ability of the Americans to maintain order at


SO little cost of money and personal freedom, is de-
rived from the thinness of population and the absence
of want : but the American will tell you it proceeds
from the high civilization of his country, which gives
to every member of the community a certain interest
in its quiet and character. T confess, I was a little
startled to hear a people who scarcely possess a work
of art that attains to mediocrity, — among whom most
of the sciences are comparatively in their infancy, —
who rarely push learning beyond its practical and
most useful points, and who deal far less in the graces
than in the more simple forms of manners, speak of
their pre-eminent civilization with so evident a com-
placency. But there is a simple dignity in moral
truths, that dims the lustre of all the meretricious gloss
which art and elegance can confer on life. I fear that
it is very possible to live in a gilded palace — to feast
the eyes on the beau ideal of form and pioportions, —
to he an adept in the polished deceptions of conven-
tional intercourse, — to smile when others smile, and
weep when others weep, — to patronize and to court,
— to cringe and to domineer, in short, to reach the
nt p.us ultra of eastern refinement, and still to have
a strong flavour of barbarity about one after all. There
can be no true humanity, which is the essence of all
civilization, until man comes to treat and consider man
as his fellow. That society can never exist, or, at least,
that it could never advance, under a too fastidiously
strict interpretation of this duty, needs no proof, since
all incentive to exertion would be deadened in a con-
dition where each member of the community had an
equal right to participate in the general abundance.
The great desideratum of the social compact would
then seem to be, to produce such a state of things as
shall call the most individual enterprise into action,
while it should secure a proper consideration for the
interests of the whole ; — to avail of the talents of the
gifted few, while the long train of humbler beings


shall have scope and leisure also for the privileges of
their mortality : in short, to profit by the suggestions
of pohcy, without forgetting the eternal obhgations
of humanity. If a union of the utmost scope to indi-
vidual enterprise with the most sacred regard to the
rights and feelings of the less fortunate of our species,
be any evidence of an approximation to this desired
condition of society, I think the inhabitant of New-
England has a better right to claim an elevated state
of being than any other people I have ever visited.
The activity of personal efforts is every where visible
on the face of the land, in their comforts, abundance,
improvements, and progressive wealth, while the
effect of a humanity that approaches almost to refine-
ment, was felt at every house I entered. Let me not
be misunderstood : I can readily conceive that an
European gentleman, who had not been, hke myself,
put on his guard, would have found numberless
grounds of complaint, because he was not treated as
belonging to a superior class of beings by those with
whom he was compelled to hold communication.
Servility forms no part of the civihzation of New-
England, though civility be its essence. I can say
with truth, that after traversing the country for near
a thousand miles, in no instance did I hear or witness
a rude act : not the slightest imposition was practised,
or attempted, on my purse ; all my inquiries were
heard with patience, and answered with extraordi-
nary intelligence : not a farthing was asked for divers
extra services that were performed in my behalf; but,
on the contrary, money otFered in the way of douceurs
was repeatedly dechned, and that too with perfect
modesty, as if it were unusual to receive rewards for
trifles. My comforts and tastes, too, were uniformly
consulted ; and, although I often travelled in a portion
of the country that was but little frequented, at every
inn I met with neatness, abundance, and a manner in
which a desire to oblige mc was blended with a


singular respect for themselves. Nor was this rare
combination of advantages at all the effect of that
simphcity which is the attendant of a half-civilized
condition; on the contrary, I found an intelligence
that surprised me at every turn, and which, in itself,
gave the true character to the humanity of which I
was the subject. I repeatedly found copies of your
standard English authors, in retired dwellings where
one would not expect to meet any production of a
cast higher than an almanac, or a horn-book ; nor
were they read with that acquiescent criticism which
gives a fashion to taste, and which makes a joke of
Moliere better than a joke of any other man. Young
women (with whom my situation, no less than my
tastes, oftenest brought me into literary discussions)
frequently surprised me with the extent of their ac-
qaiiitance with, and the soundness of their opinions
concerning the merits and morality of Fope and Ad-
dison, of Young and Tillotson, and even of Milton and
Shakspeare. This may sound to you ridiculous, and
certainly, if taken without a saving clause for the other
acquirements of my female critics, it is liable to some
exception ; but I repeat I have often known professed
blues acquit themselves with less credit than did
several of my passing acquaintances at the tea-tables
of different New-England inns. I can, however,
readily conceive that a traveller might pass weeks in
this very portion of the country, and remain pro-
foundly ignorant of all these things. In order to ac-
quire information, one must possess the disposition to
learn. I sought out these traits of national character,
and I flatter myself that by the aid of good disposi-
tions, and a certain something that distinguishes all
of our fraternity in the presence of the softer sex, a
commendable progress, in reference to the time and
opportunity, was always made in their kind estima-
tion. The great roads, as I have said, and as you
well know, are rarely favourable in any country to an
Vol. T. K


accurate acquaintance with the character of its in-
habitants. One may arrive at a general knowledge
of the standard of honesty, disinterestedness, and civi-
lization of a people, it is true, by mingling with them
in much frequented places, for these qualities are
always comparative ; but he who would form an
opinion of the whole by such specimens, must do it
under the correction of great allowances. I believe
the New-Englandman, however, has less reason than
common to deprecate a general decision of this nature.
A good deal of my journey was unavoidably on a
great route, and though I found some inconveniences,
and rather more ditHculty in penetrating their domes-
tic reserve there, than in the retired valleys of the in-
terior, still the great distinctive features of the popu-
lation were every where decidedly the same.

It is worthy of remark that nearly all of the English
travellers who have written of America, pass lightly
over this important section of the Union. Neither
do they seem to dwell with much complacency on
those adjoining states, where the habits and charac-
teristics of New England prevail to a great extent,
through the emigrants or their immediate descend-
ants. I am taught to believe that, including the in-
habitants of the six original States, not less than four
milHons of the American people are descended from
the settlers of Plymouth, and their successors. This
number is about four-tenths of the white population.
l( one recalls the peculiar energy and activity which
distinguish these people, he may be able to form some
idea of their probable influence on the character of
the whole country. The distinctive habits of the
Dutch, which lingered among the possessors of the
adjoining province of New- York even until the com-
mencement of the present century, have nearly dis-
appeared before the tide of eastern emigration ; and
there is said to be scarcely a State in the whole con-


federation which has not imbihed more or less of the
impetus of its inexhaustible activity.

Suspicion might easily ascribe an unworthy motive
to a silence that is so very uniform on the part of in-
terested observers. Volumes have been written con-
cerning the half-tenanted districts of the west, while
the manners and condition of the original States, where
the true effects of the American system can alone be
traced, are usually disposed of in a few hurried pages.
It is true there are some few of the authors in my
collection, who have been more impartial in their
notices, but most of them appear to have sought so
eagerly for subjects of derision, as to have overlooked
the more dignified materials of observation. Even
the respectable Mr. Hodgson, who seems at all times
ready to do justice to the Americans, has contented
himself with giving some thirty or forty pages to the
State of New- York, and disposes of all New-England
(if the extraneous matter be deducted), Pennsylvania,
New-Jersey, and Ohio, in about the same space that
he has devoted to a passage through the wild regions
on the Gulf of Mexico. Though the states just men-
tioned make but a comparatively indifferent figure
on the map, they contain nearly, if not quite, half
of the entire population of the country. If to this be
added the fact, that in extent they cover a surface
about equal to that of the kingdom of France, one
may be permitted to express some surprise that they
are usually treated with so littl 3 deference. An Ame-
rican would be very much inclined to ascribe this
uniform neglect to an ilhberahty which found no
pleasure in any description but caricature, though I
think few of them would judge so harshly of the
author whose name I have just mentioned. As Cad-
walladcr expressed it, even the mistal^es of such a
man are entitled to be treated with respect. A much
more charitable, and in the instance of Mr. Hodgson,



I am fully persuaded a more just explanation would
be to ascribe this apparent partiality to the woods,
rather to a love of novelty, than to any bare thirst of
detraction. There is little to appease the longings of
curiosity, even in the most striking characteristics ot
common sense : nor does a picture of the best endow-
ed and most rational state of being, present half the
attractions to our imaginations, as one in which scenes
of civilization are a little coloured by the fresher and
more vivid tints of a border life.

Still he who would seek the great moving principles
which give no small part of its peculiar tone to the
American character, must study the people of New-
England deeply. It is there that he will find the
germ of that tree of intelligence which has shot forth
so luxuriantly, and is already shading the land with
its branches, bringing forth most excellent fruits. It
is there that religion, and order, and frugality, and
even liberty, have taken deepest root : and no liberal
American, however he may cherish some of the pe-
culiarities of his own particular State, will deny them
the meed of these high and honourable distinctions.
It may be premature in one who has kept aloof from
their large towns, to pronounce on the polish of a
people whom he has only seen in the retirement and
simphcity of the provinces. Their more southern
neighbours say they are wanting in some of the nicer
tact of polite intercourse, and that however they may
shine in the more homely and domestic virtues, they
are somewhat deficient in those of manner. I think
nothing, taken with a certain limitation, to be more

I saw every where the strongest evidences of a
greater equahty of condition than I remember ever
before to ha^»e witnessed. Where this equality exists,
it has an obvious tendency to bring the extremes of
the community together. What the peasant gains,
the gentleman must in some measure lose. The


colours get intermingled, where the sli^des in society
are so much softened. Great leisure, nay, even idle-
ness, is perhaps necessary to exclusive attention to
manner. How fev%% dear Waller, excel in it, even in
your own aristocratic island, where it is found that a
man needs no small servitude in the more graceful
schools of the continent, to figure to advantage in a
saloon. Perhaps there is something in the common
habits of the parent and the child that is not favour-
able to a cultivation of the graces. Institutions which
serve to give man pride in himself, sometimes lessen
his respect for others : and yet I see nothing in
a republican government that is at all incompatible
with the highest possible refmement. It is diffi-
cult to conceive that a state of things which has a
tendency to elevate the less fortunate classes of our
species, should necessarily debase those whose lots
have been cast in the highest. The peculiar exterior
of the New-Englandman may be ascribed with more
justice to the restrained and little enticing manner^
of his puritan ancestors. Climate, habits of thrift,
and unexampled equality of rights and fortune, may
have aided to perpetuate a rigid aspect. But after all,
this defect in manner m.ust, as I have already said,
be taken under great limitation. Considered in ref-
erence to every class below those in which, from
their pursuits and education, more refinement and
tact might ceitainly be expected, it does not exist.
On the contrary, as they are more universally intel-
ligent than their counterparts in the most favoured
European countries, so do they exhibit, in their de-
portment, a happier union of self-respect with con-
sideration for others. The deficiency is oftener man-
ifested in certain probing inquiries into the individual
concerns of other people, and in a neglect of forms
entirely conventional, but which by their generality
have become established rules of breeding, than by
any coarse or brutal transgressions of natural polite-
K 2


ness. The former liberty may indeed easily degene-
rate into every thing that is both repulsive and dis-
agreeable ; but there is that in the manner of a New-
Englandman, when he most startles you by bis fa-
miliarity, which proves he means no harm. The
common, vulgar account of such questions, as " How
far are you travelling, stranger ? and where do you
come from ? and what may your name be ?" if ever
true, is now a gross caricature. The New-Englandman
is too kind in all his habits to call any man stranger.'^
His usual address is " friend," or sometimes he com-
pliments a stranger of a gentlemanly appearance, with
the title of " squire." I sought the least reserved
intercourse that was possible with them, and in no
instance was I the subject of the smallest intentional
rudeness.! I say intentional, for the country phy-
sician, or lawyer, or divine (and I mingled with them
all,) was ignorant that he trespassed on the rules of
rigid breeding, when he made allusions, however
guarded, to my individual movements or situation,
hideed I am inclined to suspect that the Americans,
in all parts of the Union, are less reserved on per-
sonal subjects than we of Europe, and precisely for
the reason that in general they have less to conceal.
I cannot attribute a coarser motive than innocent
curiosity, to the familiar habits of a people who in
every other particular are so singularly tender of
each other's feelings. The usage is not denied even
by themselves ; and a professor of one of their uni-
versities accounted for it in the following manner.
The people of New-England were, and are still, inti-
mately allied in feehng no less than in blood. Their

* Cadwallader told me that this appellation is, indeed, used in
the new States to the south-west, where it is more apposite, and
subsequent observation has confirmed the fact.

t It is singular that every English traveller the writer has
read, in the midst of all his exaggerations, either directly or in-
directly admits this fact.


enteiprise early separated them from each other by
wide tracts of country; and before the introduction
of journals and public mails, the inhabitants must
have been dependent on travellers for most of theii
passing intelligence. It is not difficult to conceive
that, in a country where thought is so active, inquiry
was not suffered to slumber. You may probably
remember to have seen, when we were last at Pom-
peii, the little place where the townsmen were said
to collect in order to glean intelligence from Upper
Italy. A similar state of things must, in a greater or
less degree, have existed in all civilized countries
before the art of printing was known ; and, in this
particular, the only ditference between New and
Old England probably was, that as the people of the
former had more ideas to appease, they were com-
pelled to use greater exertions to attain their object.
But apart from this, I will confess startling familiarity,
there was a delicacy of demeanour that is surprising
in a population so remote from the polish of the large
towns. I have often seen the wishes of the meanest
individual consulted before any trifling change was
made that might be supposed to affect the comfort
of all. In this species of courtesy, I think them a
people unequalled. Scarcely any one, however ele-
vated his rank, would presume to make a change in
any of the dispositions of a pubhc coach, (for I left
my wagon for a time,) in a window of a hotel, or in-
deed in any thing in which others might have an
equal concern, without a suitable deference to their
wishes. And yet I have seen the glance of one wo-
man's eye, and she of humble condition too, instantly
change the unanimous decision of a dozen men.

By the hand of the fair Isabel, Waller, there is
something noble and touching, in the universal and
yet simple and unpretending homage with which
these people treat the weaker sex. I am sure a wo-
man here has only to respect herself in order to meet


with universal deference. I now understand what
Cadwallader meant when he said that America was
the real Paradise of woman. The attention and man-
hness which he exhibited for the Abigail of the httle
Isabel, is common to the meanest man, at least in
New-England. I traversed the country in harvest
time, and scarcely recollect to have seen six females
in the fields, and even they appeared there only on
the emergency of some passing shower. When one
considers the price which labour bears, this solitary
fact is in itself pregnant with meaning. A little boy
whom I conveyed with his father in my wagon a
dozen miles, (for I neglected no opportunity to mix
with the people,) laughed aloud as he pointed with
his finger and cried, " There is a woman at work
among the men !" Had he seen her riding a war-
horse ' en militaire^'' he could scarcely have been
more amused. After all, what nobler or more con-
vincing proof of high civilization can be given than
this habitual respect of the strong for the weak ?
The condition of women in this country is solely
owins; to the elevation of its moral feelin^;. As she
is never misplaced in society, her influence is only
felt in the channels of ordinary and domestic life.

I have heard young and silly Europeans, whose
vanity has probably been wounded in finding them-
selves objects of secondary interest, affect to ridicule
the absorbed attention which the youthful American
matron bestows on her family ; and some have gone
so far in my presence, as to assert that a lady of this
country was no more than an upper servant in the
house of her husband. They pay us of the eastern
hemisphere but an indifferent compliment, when they
assume that this beautiful devotion to the first, the
highest, and most lovely office of the sex, is peculiar
to the women of station in America only. I have
ever repelled the insinuation as becomes a man ;
but, alas ! what is the testimony of one who cau


point to no fireside, or household of his own, but the
dreaming reverie of a heated brain ? hnaginary or
not, I think one might repose his atTections on hun-
dreds of the fair, artless creatures he meets with
jere, with an entire confidence that the world has
not the first place in her thoughts. To me, woman
appears to fill in America the very station for which
she w^as designed by nature. In the lowest conditions
of hfe she is treated with the tenderness and respect
that is due to beings whom we believe to be the
repositories of the better principles of our nature.
Retired within the sacred precincts of her own abode,
she is preserved from the destroying taint of exces-
sive intercourse with the world. She rhakes no bar-
gains beyond those which supply her own little per-
sonal wants, and her heart is not early corrupted by
the baneful and unfeminine vice of selfishness ; she
is often the friend and adviser of her husband, but
never his chapman. She must be sought in the haunts
of her domestic privacy, and not amid the wranglings,
deceptions, and heart-burnings of keen and sordid
traffic. So true and general is this fact, that I have
remarked a vast proportion of that class who fre-
quent the markets, or vend trifles in the streets of
this city, occupations that are not unsuited to the
feebleness of the sex, are either foreigners, or fe-
males descended from certain insulated colonies of
the Dutch, which still retain many of the habits of
tlieir ancestors amidst the improvements that are
throwing them among the forgotten usages of an-

Online LibraryJames Fenimore CooperNotions of the Americans: picked up by a travelling bachelor (Volume 1-2) → online text (page 9 of 58)