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LETTER X.: THE YANKEE AND THE VIRGINIAN. - 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 YANKEE AND THE VIRGINIAN.
Charleston, May 28, 1834.
The great flood of civilisation, which has poured over the vast regions of the West, in the south and the north, from the great lakes to the Cape of Florida, has flowed on with a wonderful power and an admirable regularity. Emigration has taken place, along the whole line of march, from east to west. The inhabitants of New England,* after having first spread themselves over their original territory, and founded the States of Maine and Vermont, have thrown themselves into the State of New York; thence, keeping as much as possible along the northern frontier of the United States, they have extended all along the coasts of Lake Ontario and Lake Erie, and overrun the vast delta comprised between the Ohio and the Upper Mississippi, which now contains the States of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, and the Territory of Michigan. The New York and Pennsylvania emigrants have spread themselves comparatively little beyond the limits of their own territory, which are very extensive, and were thinly peopled in 1783. They have, however, furnished a small contingent to the great army of emigration from New England, and have helped to occupy the vast tract above-mentioned. Virginia, after having settled her western part with her own sons, has given birth to Kentucky, and then, acting the same part in the south as New England in the north, has sent forth to the Gulf of Mexico those numerous swarms that have invaded the southwest. North Carolina has taken part in this task, and has beside a child of her own in Tennessee. Georgia and South Carolina have contributed to create Alabama and Mississippi, and Tennessee and Kentucky have in turn furnished offsets for Missouri and Arkansas.
Thus the States in which there are no slaves, have brought forth a family of truly democratic republics, that is to say, with an essentially farming population, holding no slaves, and, excepting the vine, cultivating all the productions of temperate Europe. These young States are founded on equality and the subdivision of property, for most of the farms do not exceed 80 to 160 acres. The Southern States, on the other hand, have created aristocratical republics, based on slavery and the accumulation of property in a few hands, still more exclusively agricultural than the north-western States, and chiefly occupied in cultivating cotton, a precious commodity, which now furnishes for exportation, inclusive of what is consumed in the North, an annual value of 40 or 50 million dollars.* Thus amongst all the columns of emigration, two particularly attract attention, and form of themselves the main body of the army, the others are only auxiliaries; these two great masses are the New England and the Virginia columns.
That part of Virginia which was most peopled during the war of Independence has a low and nearly level surface, and a sandy, and in general, very poor soil. Along the rivers there are tracts formerly productive, but even these have been exhausted by the cultivation of tobacco. The proprietors of these estates must have been early led to think of quitting their plantations for the fertile lands of Kentucky, then occupied, or rather overrun, by warlike savages, of whom they were the favourite hunting-ground. Some bold and hardy pioneers, at the head of whom was Boon, first ventured across the mountains with their rifles, and bravely sustained a bloody contest with the Indians. After many desperate fights, in which more than one unknown hero fell under the bullet or the tomahawk of some red-skinned Hector, after numerous assaults, in which more than one matron enacted the part of our Jeanne Hachette,* after many alarms and much suffering, the genius of civilisation carried it. At the call of the pioneers, roused by the fame of their exploits, the planters of the coast set out on their pilgrimage; arriving with their slaves, they cleared and cultivated large tracts, in the midst of which they led a patriarchal life, surrounded by their servants and flocks, following with ardour the chase of wild beasts, and sometimes of Indians, and too often spending the proceeds of their crop in betting on the speed of their horses, of which they are very proud, and whose pedigree is better known to them than their own. More lately, when the demand for cotton had increased, in consequence of the improvements in machinery, and the steamboat had opened the way into the heart of the Mississippi Valley, they have removed southwards, always taking their slaves with them; a prospect of future wealth and prosperity was thus opened for the south.
The industrious sons of New England likewise bade farewell to the rocky and ungrateful soil of their birthplace; loading a wagon with a plough, a bed, a barrel of salt meat, the indispensable supply of tea and molasses, a Bible and a wife, and with his axe on his shoulder, the Yankee sets out for the West, without a servant, without an assistant, often without a companion, to build himself a log hut, six hundred miles from his father’s roof, and clear away a spot for a farm in the midst of the boundless forest. The first of these wanderers went from Connecticut, the land of steady habits, of Puritans among Puritans.
The Virginian and the Yankee have planted themselves in the wilderness, each in a manner conformable to his nature and condition. The part they have taken in founding the new States of the West, explains the fact so often mentioned of fifty or sixty members of Congress being natives of Virginia or Connecticut. In this conquest over nature, Europe has not remained an idle spectator; she has sent forth vigorous labourers, who have co-operated with the sons of New England, for slavery drives them from the men of the South. Many Irish and Scotch, a number of Germans, Swiss, and some French, are now settled in Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. The traveller who descends the Ohio, passes on the way Gallipolis, a French settlement, Vevay, a Swiss village, and Marietta, so called in honour of Marie Antoinette.* The terminations in burg are scattered amongst Indian names, Jacksonvilles, Washingtons, and Columbias. But the co-operation of Europeans does not deprive the Yankees of the principal share in the honour of the work; they began it, they have borne and still bear the burden and heat of the day. In comparison with them, the European has been only the eleventh-hour-man, the apprentice, the hireling. The fusion of the European with the Yankee takes place but slowly, even on the new soil of the West: for the Yankee is not a man of promiscuous society: he believes that Adam’s oldest son was a Yankee. Enough, however, of foreign blood has been mingled with the Yankee blood to modify the primitive character of the New England race, and to form a third American type, that of the West, whose features are not yet sharply defined, but are daily assuming more distinctness; this type is characterised by its athletic forms and ambitious pretensions, and seems destined ultimately to become superior to the others.
The Yankee and the Virginian are very unlike each other; they have no great love for each other, and are often at variance. They are the same men who cut each other’s throats in England, under the name of Roundheads and Cavaliers. In England, they patched up a peace by the interposition of a third dynasty, which was neither Stuart nor Cromwell. In America, where there was no power to mediate between them, they would have devoured each other as they did in England, had not Providence thrown them wide apart, one party at the south, the other at the north, leaving between them the territory now occupied by the justes-milieux States of New York and Pennsylvania, with their satellites, New Jersey and Delaware.
The Virginian of pure race is frank, hearty, open, cordial in his manners, noble in his sentiments, elevated in his notions, he is a worthy descendant of the English gentleman. Surrounded, from infancy, by his slaves, who relieve him from all personal exertion, he is rather indisposed to activity, and is even indolent. He is generous and profuse; around him, but rather in the new States than in impoverished Virginia, abundance reigns. When the cotton crop has been good and the price is high, he invites everybody, excepting only the slaves that cultivate his fields, to partake in his wealth, without much thought of next year’s produce. To him, the practice of hospitality is at once a duty, a pleasure, and a happiness. Like the Eastern patriarchs or Homer’s heroes, he spits an ox to regale the guest whom Providence sends him and an old friend recommends to his attention, and to moisten this solid repast, he offers Madeira, of which he is as proud as of his horses, which has been twice to the East Indies, and has been ripening full twenty years. He loves the institutions of his country, yet he shows with pride his family plate, the arms on which, half effaced by time, attest his descent from the first colonists, and prove that his ancestors were of a good family in England. When his mind has been cultivated by study, and a tour in Europe has polished his manners and refined his imagination, there is no place in the world in which he would not appear to advantage, no destiny too high for him to reach; he is one of those, whom a man is glad to have as a companion, and desires as a friend. Ardent and warm-hearted, he is of the block from which great orators are made. He is better able to command men, than to conquer nature and subdue the soil. When he has a certain degree of the spirit of method, and, I will not say of will, (for he has enough of that), but of that active perseverance so common among his brethren of the North, he has all the qualities needful to form a great statesman.
The Yankee, on the contrary, is reserved, cautious, distrustful; he is thoughtful and pensive, but equable; his manners are without grace, modest but dignified, cold, and often unprepossessing; he is narrow in his ideas, but practical, and possessing the idea of the proper, he never rises to the grand. He has nothing chivalric about him, and yet he is adventurous, and he loves a roving life. His imagination is active and original, producing, however, not poetry, but drollery. The Yankee is the laborious ant; he is industrious and sober, frugal, and, on the sterile soil of New England, niggardly; transplanted to the promised land in the West, he continues moderate in his habits, but less inclined to count the cents. In New England he has a large share of prudence, but once thrown into the midst of the treasures of the West, he becomes a speculator, a gambler even, although he has a great horror of cards, dice, and all games of hazard and even of skill, except the innocent game at bowls. He is crafty, sly, always calculating, boasting even of the tricks which he plays upon the careless or trusting buyer, because he looks upon them as marks of his superior sagacity, and well provided with mental reservations to lull his conscience. With all his nice subtleties, he is, nevertheless, expeditious in business, because he knows the value of time. His house is a sanctuary, which he does not open to the profane; he is little given to hospitality, or rather he displays it only on rare occasions, and then he does so on a great scale. He is a ready speaker, and a close reasoner, but not a brilliant orator. For a statesman, he wants that greatness of mind and soul which enables a man to enter into and love another’s nature, and leads him naturally to consult his neighbour’s good, in consulting his own. He is individualism incarnate; in him the spirit of locality and division is carried to the utmost.* But if he is not a great statesman, he is an able administrator, an unrivalled man of business. If he is not suited to command men, he has no equal in acting upon things, in combining, arranging, and giving them a value. There are nowhere merchants of more consummate ability than those of Boston.
But it is particularly as the colonist of the wilderness, that the Yankee is admirable; fatigue has no hold on him. He has not, like the Spaniard, the capacity to bear hunger and thirst, but he has the much superior faculty of finding, at all times and in all places, something to eat and to drink, and of being always able to contrive a shelter from the cold, first for his wife and children, and afterward for himself. He grapples with nature in close fight, and more unyielding than she, subdues her at last, obliging her to surrender at discretion, to yield whatever he wills, and to take the shape he chooses. Like Hercules, he conquers the hydra of the pestilential morass, and chains the rivers; more daring than Hercules, he extends his dominion not only over the land, but over the sea; he is the best sailor in the world, the ocean is his tributary, and enriches him with the oil of her whales and with all her lesser fry. More wise than the hero of the twelve labours, he knows no Omphale that is able to seduce, no Dejanira, whose poisoned gifts can balk his searching glance. In this respect he is rather a Ulysses, who has his Penelope, counts upon her faith, and remains steadfastly true to her. He does not even need to stop his ears, when he passes near the Syrens, for in him the tenderest passions are deadened by religious austerity and devotion to his business. Like Ulysses in another point, he has a bag full of shifts; overtaken at night by a storm in the woods, in a half hour, with no other resource than his knife, he will have made a shelter for himself and his horse. In winter, caught in one of those snow-storms, which are unknown among us, he will construct a sled in the twinkling of an eye, and keep on his way, like an Indian, by watching the bark of the trees. Thus to the genius of business, by means of which he turns to profit whatever the earth yields him, he joins the genius of industry, which makes her prolific, and that of mechanical skill, which fashions her produce to his wants. He is incomparable as a pioneer, unequalled as a settler of the wilderness.
The Yankee has set his mark on the United States during the last half century. He has been eclipsed by Virginia in the counsels of the nation;* but he has in turn had the upper hand throughout the country, and eclipsed her on her own soil; for in order to arouse the Virginian from his southern indolence, it has been necessary that the Yankee should come to set him an example of activity and enterprise at his own door. But for the Yankee, the vast cotton plantations of the South would still be an uncultivated waste. It was a Yankee, Ely Whitney, who, toward the end of the last century, invented the cotton-gin, which has made the fortune of the South. To give a speculation success in the South, some Yankee must have come a thousand miles to suggest the idea to the natives, and carry off the profit before their eyes. New England has given only two Presidents to the Union, both popular on the eve of their election, both unpopular on the morrow, both rejected at the end of their first term, while all the others have been natives of Virginia or South Carolina, and have been rechosen for a second term. But then what a revenge has she taken in business matters, at the North and the South, in the East as well as the West! Here the Yankee is a true Marquis of Carabas. At Baltimore as well as at Boston, in New Orleans as well as at Salem, in New York as well as at Portland, if a merchant is mentioned who has made and kept a large fortune by sagacity and forecast, you will find that he is a Yankee. If you pass a plantation in the South in better order than the others, with finer avenues, with the negroes’ cabins better arranged and more comfortable, you will be told, “Oh! that is a Yankee’s; he is a smart man!” In a village in Missouri, by the side of a house with broken windows, dirty in its outward appearance, around the door of which a parcel of ragged children are quarrelling and fighting, you may see another, freshly painted, surrounded by a simple, but neat and nicely white-washed fence, with a dozen of carefully trimmed trees about it, and through the windows in a small room shining with cleanliness, you may espy some nicely combed little boys, and some young girls dressed in almost the last Paris fashion. Both houses belong to farmers, but one of them is from North Carolina, and the other from New England. On the western rivers, you will hear a boat mentioned which never meets with an accident, and in which all travellers and merchants are eager to take their passage; the master is a Yankee. Along side of the levée at New Orleans, you may be struck with the fine appearance of a ship, which all the passers-by stop to admire; the master is also a Yankee.
The preëminence of the Yankee in the colonisation of the country, has made him the arbiter of manners and customs. It is from him that the country has taken a general hue of austere severity, that is religious and even bigoted; it is through him that all sorts of amusements, which among us are considered as innocent relaxations, are here proscribed as immoral pleasures. It is he that has introduced the Prison Reform, multiplied schools, founded Temperance Societies (See Note 13 ). It is through his agency, with his money, that the Missionaries are endeavouring silently to found colonies in the South Seas, for the benefit of the Union. If we wished to form a single type, representing the American character of the present moment as a single whole, it would be necessary to take at least three-fourths of the Yankee race, and to mix with it hardly one fourth of the Virginian. The physical labour of colonisation is now nearly brought to an end; the physical basis of society is laid. On this base it becomes necessary to raise a social structure of yet unknown form, but which, I am fully convinced, will be on a new plan, for all the materials are new; and besides, neither humanity nor Providence ever repeats itself. Which of the two races is best suited to execute this new task? I cannot tell; but it seems to me that the Virginian is now about to take his turn, and that in the phase which the United States are now on the point of entering, the social qualities of the Virginian will obtain the superiority, that naturally belonged to the laborious Yankee in the period of settling the forest. In a word, I believe, that, if the Union lasts, and the West continues to form a united mass from the falls of Niagara to New Orleans, this third type of the west, which is now forming and already aspires to rule over the others, will take a great deal from the Virginian and very little from the Yankee.
It is no small advantage to a people to combine within itself two types with different characteristics, when they unite harmoniously in composing a common national character. A people of which all the individual members are referrible to a single type, is among nations what an unmarried man is among individuals; it is a sort of hermit, its life is monotonous; the strongest and sweetest feelings of human nature are dormant in it; it continues stationaary; there is nothing to spur it forward. Such was ancient Egypt. A people consisting of two types, on the contrary, when neither has an oppressive superiority over the other, enjoys a complete existence; its life is a perpetual interchange of ideas and sensations, like that of a married pair. It has the power of reproducing and regenerating itself. Each of the two natures alternately acts and reposes itself, without ever being inactive. By turns each gains the superiority and yields to the other; and thus according to circumstances, different qualities come into play. The two natures mutually support and relieve each other, they stimulate each other, and through this wholesome rivalry, the nation that combines them in itself, reaches high destinies.
History shows that the progress of humanity has been constantly promoted by the reciprocal action and reaction of two natures, or two races, sometimes friends, oftener enemies or rivals. The most general fact in the history of our civilisation is the struggle between the East and the West, from the expedition of the Argonauts and the war of Troy, to the battle of Lepanto and the siege of Vienna by the Turks. In this great drama, it was not merely to shed rivers of blood, that Providence has dashed against each other Europeans and Asiatics, Greeks and Persians, Romans, Carthaginians, and Parthians, Saracens and Franks, Venitians, Turks, and Poles; blows have not been the only thing exchanged between Europe and the Orient. If you wish to know what the West has gained from contact with the East, even when they met sword in hand, look around you; most of the fruit trees that enrich your fields, the vine which gladdens the heart, the silk and cotton that adorn your houses and your persons, these are the spoils of your Eastern wars; sugar and coffee, the cultivation of which has changed the political balance of the world, were brought into Europe from the East, the one by yourselves, the other by the Arabs, when they made themselves masters of Spain. The mariner’s compass, which has given a new continent to civilisation, and established the dominion of man over the before unconquered deep, was the gift of the East. Your arts and your sciences are of Oriental origin; the secrets of Algebra were stolen from the Moors of Spain by a monk; your system of numeration, the basis of all your financial improvements, bears the name of the Arabs; your chivalry was brought from Asia by the Crusaders. Christianity, the mother of modern Europe, would not have existed in the West, had not the Roman legions conquered Judea which contained its germ, had not the Roman empire contained the school of Alexandria in which that germ could put forth, and had not the Rome of the Cæsars been raised as a pedestal for the successors of St. Peter, from which they might rule over the East and the West.
Behold the Roman people; its noble career was a continual succession of wars, followed by as many incorporations of the conquered, alliances, real marriages, which always give it a new vigour. It begins with the double figure of Romulus and Remus; then follow the Romans and Sabines, then Rome and Alba, next Rome and the Latins, and next Rome and Carthage. It might be called a young sultan, who carries off a captive at the point of the sword, and makes her his favourite until he grows tired of her, or until he finds another more worthy of his love. It goes on in this way, changing, and daily rising in the successive subjects of its choice, until it meets with Greece, which becomes not an object of a passing caprice, but a favorite sultana. This Union of the Greek and Roman natures gave its splendour to imperial Rome, and rest to the world. Its destiny once entwined with that of Greece, the Roman people paused to enjoy; and with this purpose, substituted the rule of the Cæsars for the republican constitution, and Greek rhetoricians and players, and emperors, voluptuous like the disciples of Epicurus, or philosophers, like Pericles, for the stern and severe aristocracy of earlier days. What is the history of Greece, but a continual oscillation between the austere Lacedæmon and the brilliant Athens, between the country of Lycurgus and Leonidas, and that of Solon, Aspasia, and Alcibiades. United, they acquired an indomitable energy, and supported the shock of all Asia. Unfortunately they had too little feeling of a common nationality, and too much of local jealousy; almost perpetually divided, they never completely extended their sway over Greece itself, and when the Greek race was about to reach its zenith, neither was destined to lead it thither, but Providence raised up a man in the North, before whom the earth was silent.
Whilst a nation comprises an indefinite number of types mixed together without order and without rank, it resembles a body not yet in a state of consistency; it has no definable character, no fixed destination; it is incapable of achieving any thing great. Thus from the time of the war of the old German electors against the Holy Empire, and of the treaty of Westphalia, which sanctioned their independence and broke in pieces the former unity of the nation, Germany continued under an eclipse, until the period of the rise of the house of Brandenburg from the midst of the anarchy of the little German States, when a rival was given to the house of Austria and a strong dualism established. Dualism is not, however, the only mode in which a society can be constituted, at once solid and elastic. When a third type, whose superiority is admitted by the others, or which partakes sufficiently of the nature of each to serve as a bond and a mediator between them, exists, the social organisation is then in a high degree vigourous; for then, the harmony between the two primitive types has ceased to be an abstraction, it has become a substance. In some cases this third personage of the drama becomes so indispensable to the action, that it must be supplied at any rate, and its great prerogatives devolve on a transient actor; thus in Greece, Thebes played this part during a short period. Sometimes it has been filled by an aristocracy, which has served as a check to both parties in turn; an aristocracy worthy of the name is eminently qualified for this task, because it combines the two natures in itself, feels the reaction of their passions influencing itself, and has the energy necessary either to curb or spur them on, as the exigency of the case requires. There is no country in which dualism is more admirably developed than in the United States; each of the two natures has an open field, each a distinct career of industry; each possesses in the highest degree the qualities necessary for its peculiar position. Considered in respect to a triple type, the United States are not less favorably situated; the young giant that is growing up in the West, seems destined to fulfil the prophecy the last shall be first, and to bind together the North and the South in his vigourous gripe.
In France we have two distinct types, that of the North and that of the South; but instead of employing the principle of centralisation as a means of developing the nature of both, and giving them a free and harmonious action, we have endeavoured to confound them in a narrow and sterile unity. We have especially thwarted the most reasonable and legitimate wishes of the South, which has been overborne and crushed by the North. It takes its revenge, indeed, in furnishing us with most of our statesmen, very much as Ireland has the privilege of giving premiers to England; but like Irish ministers in England, our Southern statesmen, ungrateful sons of a neglected mother, govern wholly in the interest of the North, as if France contained towns only, and had no rural population, as if we were chiefly a manufacturing, and but partially an agricultural people, and, what is worse, as if we were a school of philosophers, and not a nation longing for religious faith and political love.
[* ] The name of Yankee was first applied in derision, but the New Englanders, thinking that they have ennobled it, have adopted it.
[* ] Exports of cotton from the United States (Doc. 146, Ho. of Reps. Sess. 24 Cong.)
The domestic consumption at present amounts to about 250,000 bales, or about 100 million pounds, of the value of about ten millions. The crop of 1835 was 1,350,000 bales or about 500 million pounds, of the value of 60 millions. The yearly value of the wine made in France is about twice that sum, but the value of the export does not exceed thirteen and a half million dollars.
[* ] [This French heroine distinguished herself at the siege of Beauvais, in 1472, when she snatched a standard from the hands of the assailants. Her real name seems to have been Fourquet, that of Hachette (Hatchet) having been probably assumed or given to her, like those of Wat Tyler and Jack Carter, of English history—Trans.]
[* ] [If the author means to imply that it was so called by French settlers he is in error, as it is well known to have been founded and named by the first New England colony in Ohio. Neither is he correct, if, as seems tobe the case, he supposes all the burgs to be German towns.—Trans.]
[* ] In Massachusetts, with a population of 610,000 souls, the House of Representatives consists of about 600 members, the most petty village must have its Representative.
[* ] At this time, for instance, ten Senators out of 48 are natives of Virginia. Of seven presidents four have been from Virginia. Many of the members of Congress are natives of New England, and particularly of Connecticut, but they are generally laborious, second-rate men, rather than men of influence and superior abilities.
[Note 13 —page 119.]Temperance Societies. Omitted.