Front Page Titles (by Subject) LETTER IX.: THE FIRST PEOPLE IN THE WORLD. - Society, Manners and Politics in the United States
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LETTER IX.: THE FIRST PEOPLE IN THE WORLD. - Michel Chevalier, Society, Manners and Politics in the United States 
Society, Manners and Politics in the United States: Being a Series of Letters on North America, translated from the third Paris edition (Boston: Weeks, Jordan & Co., 1839).
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THE FIRST PEOPLE IN THE WORLD.
Philadelphia, April 24, 1834.
Which is the first people in the world? There is no nation which does not make pretensions to this superiority. Who in France has not sung in the words of Béranger, “Queen of the world, oh my country! oh France!” in the full conviction, that the French nation was predestined to be forever at the head of the human race, to eclipse all others, in peace and in war? For myself, before I had crossed the frontier, I believed most implicitly, that we were not only the most generous and chivalric of people, the most intellectual and ingenious, the first in the fine arts, the most amiable and brilliant; but also that we were the most enlightened, the first in political and industrial arts, the most inventive and the most practical, in short, the pattern-nation, perfect and unrivalled. Notwithstanding the rains and fogs of Paris, I supposed our climate the mildest and the most serene in the world; in spite of the Landes and Champagne, I considered it undeniable, that our soil was the most fertile, our scenery the most picturesque, in the world. Trusting to the reports of our exhibitions of industrial skill, I was ready to swear that we had left our neighbours of England a hundred leagues behind, and that their manufacturers, to avoid being reduced to beggary by our competition, would soon be obliged to come over to learn how to smelt and refine iron, how to spin cotton, how to manufacture steel, how to manage the most gigantic establishments in the most economical manner, how to despatch mountains of merchandise beyond sea most expeditiously.
After having crossed the frontier one gradually lowers these magnificent pretensions; patriotism becomes purer and stronger. In visiting foreign parts one sees what is wanting to the prosperity and glory of his country, and how it might be possible to add some jewels to her crown. Thus it does not require long observation to see, that if England might borrow much from us, we have not less to receive from her. The English are not only more skilful manufacturers and better merchants than we are, but they possess in a higher degree than we do, those qualities which enable men, after having conceived grand projects, to carry them into execution. The English have that practical sagacity and that unbending perseverance, by which our Titan-like battles of the Revolution and the Empire, our impetuous and devoted enthusiasm, our unparalleled victories, our unmatched triumphs, were reduced to treaties of Vienna, that is to say, were made to result in our own humiliation, and in the enthronement of Great Britain on the apex of the European pyramid. The English have less of the gift of speech, but more capacity for action, than we have. And it is owing to this, that they have found means to extend their colonial possessions, while all other nations were losing theirs; what they lost in the West, they have supplied in the East tenfold. They possess that political sense, to which they owe the peaceful settlement, during the last three years, of questions, that seemed destined to shake the granite foundations of their island and bury it in the sea. They have achieved their Reform; they have abolished the monopoly of the East India Company; they have reconstructed the Bank; they have abolished slavery. During this period, we have been revolving about questions of secondary importance, without being able to make a decision; we do not know how to go to work with monopolies, which, in comparison with the colossal privileges of the East India Company, are grains of sand; we, who have given to the world the most conclusive arguments in favour of liberty of commerce!
If in Paris, we consider ourselves, in all, and for all, and forever, the pattern-people, at London, the opinion is not less exclusively and decidedly in favour of the English. In London, the duke of Wellington is called the conqueror of Napoleon, which, indeed, is true to the letter, but is nevertheless perfectly ridiculous, although Lord Wellington is certainly an extraordinary man. I have seen Englishmen pettishly shake their head, when they were told that the sky of England was foggy; with a little malice, one might drive them to maintain, that they need not envy the climate of Italy, and that even the atmosphere of Manchester, where the sight of the sun is a rarity, has charms, in spite of the slanders of its detractors, even for those who have breathed the air of Naples. At Madrid, that heroic people, which seems to be awaking at last from its long lethargy, has not lost the habit of believing in the supremacy of Spain, and there, they dream that they are yet in the glorious days of Charles V., when the sun never sat on the Spanish dominions. And we can pardon this in the noble Castilians; but I verily believe, also, that Don Pedro and Don Miguel, those interminable pretenders, have each an official journal which tells them daily, that the breathless universe has its eyes fixed on their ragged armies, and that the destinies of the world are settled at Santarem and Setubal. At Constantinople, in the capital of an empire which exists only because the other European powers cannot agree in the division of the spoils, they call us christian dogs. In Rome the people still call themselves Romans, and this ridiculous misnomer really makes the Transtiberine populace believe, that military glory is yet the lot of the country, and that the Romans will soon resume the character of lords of the world, magnanimously raising the humble and crushing the pride of the powerful (Parcere subjectis, &c.)! In Vienna, on the contrary, everybody thinks that Rome is no longer in Rome, but that it is, of right and in fact, in the archducal capital, that the emperor is heir by lineal descent to Augustus and Trajan. The devise of an early prince of the house of Austria (A. E. I. O. U.),* attests that this pretension is almost as old as the house of Hapsburg. In Prussia, meanwhile, the young nobles, proud of having studied at the great universities of Jena and Berlin, and of having worn the sword in an army which was once the great Frederic’s, affect an utter disdain for the Austrians. Elated by the rapid extension of their country, which has not, however, yet reached its full growth, the Prussians look upon their sandy land as the cradle of a new civilisation. It seems as if the waters of the Spree had some miraculous qualities, and that whoever has not tasted them, has but four senses instead of five. At St. Petersburg and Moscow, no one doubts, that the sword of the emperor, thrown into the scales of the world’s destinies, would at once overbear the opposite balance. Perhaps we of Western Europe have done our part in filling the Russians with these high notions of the influence of the Czar. Thus in Europe, each nation arrogates to itself the first rank, and I do not see why the Americans should be more modest than the people on the other side of the Atlantic. The miracles which they have accomplished in fifty years give them a right to be proud, and they, also, in their turn, are persuaded that they are the first people in the world, and they boast loudly of their preëminence.
The fact is, there is no chosen people, on whom superiority is entailed for ages. The Jewish nation, in which this notion of predestination seemed to be most deeply rooted, has for centuries afforded the most melancholy refutation of the doctrine. Since the age of Richelieu and the Revolution of 1688, that is, since Spain has fallen asleep, France and England have been at the head of civilisation, and have divided the supremacy between themselves; the one ruling by the theoretical, the other by the practical; the one giving the tone in politics, the other in taste, the arts, and manners. But what were France and England three centuries ago, in the time of Charles V., when the generals of that emperor and king slew Bayard at Rebecque, made Francis I. prisoner at Pavia, and the Pope in Rome, whilst four thousand miles further west, Cortez was conquering for him the proud empire of Montezuma? Prussia, who now divides with Austria the dominion of Germany, and who is worthy of that dignity, who is the youthful, the aspiring, the ambitious Germany, full of the future, as Austria is the patriarchal, sober, prudent, conservative Germany, clinging to the past and the old,—what was Prussia three generations ago? What shall we all be, French, English, Prussians, and Austrians three centuries hence, or perhaps one hundred years hence? Who can say that some northern blast, finding us divided, and enfeebled by our divisions, will not have laid low those who are now so high and haughty? Who knows if the vigourous race which is now bursting forth from this virgin soil, will not then have passed us in their turn, as we have outstripped our predecessors? Who can foretell, whether the two gigantic figures that are now rising above the horizon, the one in the East with one foot on Moscow and one just ready to fall on Constantinople, the other in the West, as yet half hidden by the vast forests of the New World, whose huge limbs stretch from the mouths of the St. Lawrence to those of the Mississippi; who can foresee, whether these youthful Titans, who are watching each other across the Atlantic, and already touch hands on the Pacific, will not soon divide the empire of the world?
Civilisation is a treasure, to which each generation adds something in transmitting it to its heirs, and which passes from hand to hand, from people to people, from country to country. Setting out from Asia it was four thousand years in reaching the borders of the Atlantic Ocean. Wo to the nations, that having become depositaries of the treasure, instead of keeping it with watchful care and labouring to increase it, lay it down by the road-side, and waste their time and strength in foolish quarrels; for they will soon be robbed of their trust! The Americans are the most enterprising of men, and the most aspiring of people; if we continue to be swallowed up in our barren disputes, they are the people to snatch from us at unawares the precious charge of the destinies of our race, and to place themselves at the head of its march.
Each people has its qualities, which are developed by education, which at certain moments shine with peculiar brilliancy, like a beacon light towards which the eyes of mankind are directed, and by which its march is guided, and which always command the esteem or love or respect of others. The people of the United States most undenibly have theirs. No people is so peculiarly fitted by its intrinsic character, as well as by the circumstances of the territory and the condition of the population, for democratic institutions. The Americans possess, therefore, in the highest degree, the better features of democracy, and they have also its inseparable defects; but if there is something in them to blame, there is still more to praise. There is much here for a European to learn, who should come to seek, not subjects for fault-finding, satire, and sarcasm (which have become vulgar common-places, since the small coin of Voltaire and Byron has passed through so many hands), but positive facts, which might be imitated in our old countries, with the necessary modifications required by the difference between our circumstances and the condition of America. Almost all English travellers in this country have seen a great deal that was bad and scarcely any thing good; the portrait they have drawn of America and the Americans, is a caricature, which, like all good caricatures, has some resemblance to the original. The Americans have a right to deny the jurisdiction of the tribunal, for they have a right to be tried by their peers, and it does not belong to the most complete aristocracy in Europe, the English aristocracy, to sit in judgment on a democracy. Yet all the English travellers in America have belonged to the aristocracy by their connexions or their opinions, or were aspiring to it, or aped its habits and judgments, that they might seem to belong to it.
A Yorkshire farmer or a Birmingham mechanic would certainly pass a very different judgment; they would probably be as exclusively disposed to praise, as the most disdainful tourists have been to blame. And the farmers and mechanics count for something in the numbers of the English population and in the elements of the British prosperity. Suppose an Ohio or Illinois farmer, after having sold his flour and salt pork to advantage, should enact the nabob six months in England, and on his return should describe, with the rude eloquence of the West, the distress of the British operatives, the corn laws, the poor rates, the frightful condition of the Irish peasantry, the impressment of sailors, the sale of military offices, and to complete his picture of manners, should add a boxing match, a scene of the guests at a dinner rolling dead-drunk under the table, and of the sale of a wife by her husband in open market; if he should give such a picture to his countrymen as a political and moral portrait of England, the English would shrug their shoulders, and with reason. Yet his story would be founded on facts, and could not be said to be actually false in any particular. Now such a story would be an exact counterpart of most of the representations of America by English travellers. Do not to others what you would not have others do to you.
There is one thing in the United States that strikes a stranger on stepping ashore, and is of a character to silence his sentiments of national pride, particularly if he is an Englishman; it is the appearance of general ease in the condition of the people of this country. While European communities are more or less cankered with the sore of pauperism, for which their ablest statesmen have as yet been able to find no healing balm, there are here no paupers, at least not in the Northern and Western States, which have protected themselves from the leprosy of slavery. If a few individuals are seen, they are only an imperceptible minority of dissolute or improvident persons, commonly people of colour, or some newly landed emigrants, who have not been able to adopt industrious habits. Nothing is more easy than to live and to live well by labour. Objects of the first necessity, bread, meat, sugar, tea, coffee, fuel, are in general cheaper here than in France, and wages are double or triple. I happened, a few days ago, to be on the line of a railroad in process of construction, where they were throwing up some embankments. This sort of labour, which merely requires force, without skill, is commonly done in the United States by Irish new-comers, who have no resource but their arm, no quality but muscular strength. These Irish labourers are fed and lodged, and hear their bill of fare; three meals a day, and at each meal plenty of meat and wheat bread; coffee and sugar at two meals, and butter* once a day; in the course of the day, from six to eight glasses of whiskey are given them according to the state of the weather. Beside which they receive in money 40 cents a day under the most unfavourable circumstances, often from 60 to 75 cents. In France the same labour is worth about 24 cents a day the labourers finding themselves.
This positive and undeniable fact of the general ease, is connected with another, which gives it a singular importance in the eyes of a European, who is the friend of progressive reforms, and the enemy of violence; the prevalence of radicalism in politics. The term democrat, which elsewhere would fill even the republicans with terror, is here greeted with acclamations, and the name of Democratic is zealously claimed by every party as its exclusive property. But this is the only kind of property which is called in question; it is true that material property rapidly disappears in this country, unless it is preserved by the most constant vigilance, and renewed with untiring industry. But as long as it exists, it is the object of profound respect, which, I must confess, has rather surprised me. I should have expected that the social theory would have borrowed some notions from the predominant political theory; but there are those in Europe, who are not there considered the boldest speculators on this subject, who here would be looked upon as the most audacious innovators. From this simple statement, it seems natural to infer, that valuable lessons are to be learned here by those who seek to solve the great question that now agitates Europe, the amelioration of the greatest number. It would be interesting to inquire into the causes of this state of things, and to examine whether, with certain modifications, it could not be transferred to Europe, and particularly to France.
[* ]Austriæ est imperare orbi universo; the empire of the world belongs to Austria.
[* ] Butter is dearer in the United States than in France.