Front Page Titles (by Subject) LETTER XV.: PITTSBURG. - Society, Manners and Politics in the United States
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
LETTER XV.: PITTSBURG. - 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).
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
Pittsburg, November 24, 1834.
Seventysix years ago this day, a handful of Frenchmen sorrowfully evacuated a fort, which stood on the point of land where the Alleghany and Monongahela mingle their waters to form the Ohio. The French, with their faithful allies the Indians, had made a vigourous resistance; they had defeated the expedition sent against them in 1754, and compelled Washington, then a lieutenant-colonel in the Virginia militia, to surrender Fort Necessity. They had routed the troops of the boastful Braddock, and spread terror, of which the memory is not yet effaced, through the English colonies. But the destiny of France was then in the hands of him, who of all her kings will be most severely judged by the tribunal of history. Under that most dissolute and selfish prince, France, sacrificed to the paltry intrigues of the bed-chamber, humbled at home, could not triumph abroad. The French were, therefore, obliged to abandon Fort Duquesne; on that day, November 24, 1758, one of the most magnificent schemes ever projected, was annihilated.
France had then possession of Canada and Louisiana; we were then masters of the two finest rivers, the two largest and richest basins of North America, that of the St. Lawrence and that of the Mississippi.* Between these two basins nature has raised no barrier, so that in the rainy seasons, canoes can pass from Lake Michigan into the bed of the Illinois, and continue their course thence without any obstruction to the Gulf of Mexico. The plan of our heroic pioneers, priests, sailors, and soldiers, had been to found the empire of New France in this great valley. It is beyond a doubt, that this idea had attracted the attention of Louis XIV., and that its execution was already begun by the erection of a chain of posts, the sites of which were admirably chosen. There is no country in the world which comprises such an amount of so highly fertile land; none which offers natural routes of communication comparable to the net-work of navigable rivers and streams spread over this great region. There is none more healthy, for with the exception of a few points or tracts subject to autumnal fevers, but which rapidly lose this character when brought under cultivation, there are only two infected spots, New Orleans and Natchez, in which the yellow fever occasionally makes its appearance, during a few months in the year. The sums swallowed up by one of the foolish wars of Louis XV., would probably have been amply sufficient to accomplish this noble project. But the enterprise, although pushed forward by the local agents with admirable zeal and sagacity, encountered only indifference from the ministers at home, the great point of whose policy was to know, who was to be the favourite mistress of his Most Christian Majesty on the morrow. The capture of Fort Duquesne was soon followed by the conquest of all Canada by the English; and in 1763, by the treaty of Paris (these treaties of Paris never bode us any good), France, exhibiting an example of that complete submission and flat despair, of which our annals exhibit so many instances, and the English so few, ceded the basin of the St. Lawrence and the left bank of the Mississippi to England, with one hand, and the right bank of that great river to Spain, with the other.
Thus it came to pass, that the empire of New France, like so many other magnificent schemes conceived in our country, existed only on paper, or in the visions of youthful officers, full of sagacity and boldness, and intrepid missionaries, heroes alike without a name, whose memory is honoured only in the wigwam of some poor exiled Sachem. Fort Duquesne is now become Pittsburg; in vain did I piously search for some relics of the French fortress; there is no longer a stone, a brick, on the Ohio, to attest that France bore sway here.*
Pittsburg is at present essentially pacific; if cannon and balls are seen here, it is because a trading people make it a rule to supply the market with whatever is wanted. The cannon are new, fresh from the mould, and equally at the disposition of the Sultan Mahmoud, or the Emperor of Morocco, or the government of the States, whichever will pay for them. Pittsburg is a manufacturing town, which will one day become the Birmingham of America; one of its suburbs has already received that name. It is surrounded, like Birmingham and Manchester, with a dense, black smoke, which, bursting forth in volumes from the founderies, forges, glass-houses, and the chimneys of all the manufactories and houses, falls in flakes of soot upon the dwellings and persons of the inhabitants; it is, therefore, the dirtiest town in the United States. Pittsburg is far from being as populous as Birmingham, but it exhibits proportionally a greater activity. Nowhere in the world is everybody so regularly and continually busy as in Pittsburg; I do not believe there is on the face of the earth, including the United States, where in general very little time is given to pleasure, a single town in which the idea of amusement so seldom enters the heads of the inhabitants. Pittsburg is, therefore, one of the least amusing cities in the world; there is no interruption of business for six days in the week, except during the three meals, the longest of which occupies hardly ten minutes, and Sunday in the United States, instead of being, as with us, a day of recreation and gaiety, is, according to the English custom, carried to a greater degree of rigour by the Anglo-Americans, consecrated to prayer, meditation, and retirement. By means of this energetic assiduity in work, which is common to all ages and classes, and by the aid of numerous steam-engines which labour like humble slaves, the inhabitants of Pittsburg create an amount of products, altogether disproportioned to their number. The nature, bulk, and weight of the articles make this disproportion more striking; for, whether it be that American art, yet a novice, cannot give the finish required for articles of luxury and ornament, or that the Americans have the good sense to discern at a glance, that the manufacture of objects of the first necessity or of essential use, is more profitable than that of the trinkets with which civilisation seeks to adorn herself wherever there is wealth, and even where there is none, only the ruder and coarser kinds of work are done in Pittsburg.
Although Pittsburg is at this moment the first manufacturing town in the Union, it is yet far from what it is destined one day to become. It stands in the midst of an extensive coal-formation, the beds of which are very easily worked. The district east of Pittsburg furnishes much pig-iron, which is brought hither to be converted into malleable iron, or into all kinds of machines, tools, and utensils. Pittsburg has then coal and iron within reach; that is to say, power, and the lever by which the power is to be applied. The vent for its wares is still more vast than its means, for the whole basin of the Mississippi, with all its lateral valleys, which on our continent would be basins of the first class, lies open to it. The population, which improves in its condition, as rapidly as it increases in numbers,* creates an indefinite demand for the engines and machines, hollow-ware, nails, horse-shoes, glass, tools and implements, pottery, and stuffs of Pittsburg. It needs axes to fell the primitive forests, saws to convert the trees into boards, plough-shares and spades to turn up the soil once cleared. It requires steam-engines for the fleet of steamers, which throng the western waters. It must have nails, hinges, latches, and other kinds of hardware for houses; it must have white lead to paint them, glass to light them; and all these new households must have furniture and bed linen, for here every one makes himself comfortable.
Thus Pittsburg is beginning to be what Birmingham and St Etienne are, and what several places in the departments of the Aveyron and Gard will become, when we become more enterprising, and use the proper exertions to develop all the resources now buried in the bowels of our belle France, for so it is called everywhere abroad. Pittsburg is beside and must be a commercial city, a great mart. Standing at the head of steam navigation on the Ohio, it is, directly or indirectly, that is through the medium of the more central cities of Cincinnati and Louisville, the natural entrepot between the upper and lower country, the North and the South. Pennsylvania has spared no pains to secure and extend the advantages resulting from this situation. It has made Pittsburg one of the pivots of its great system of internal improvements, which was undertaken with such boldness, and has been pursued with such perseverance. Pittsburg is connected with Philadelphia by a line of railroads and canals nearly four hundred miles in length, and the numerous branches of the Pennsylvania Canal give it a communication with all the most important points in the State. A direct communication with Lake Erie is, indeed, wanting, but it will soon have a double and triple one. A railroad, 300 miles in length is projected between Baltimore and the Ohio, and one third of the distance is already completed; the legislature of Pennsylvania have made it a condition that the western terminus of this work shall be at Pittsburg. A canal, for which the plans and drawings were furnished by General Bernard, is to connect Chesapeake Bay by the way of Washington with the Ohio, and the same condition in favour of Pittsburg has been prescribed in this case.
Pittsburg is one of the few American towns, which owe their birth to war; it was at first one of the chain of French forts, and was afterward occupied by the English as a frontier post against the savages. In 1781, Pittsburg consisted of a few houses under the protection of the cannon of Fort Pitt. The origin of Cincinnati was similar; both commenced with a fortress, but more fortunate than some of our great commercial towns, such as Havre, which is stifled in the embrace of its fortifications, Pittsburg and Cincinnati have caused all traces of their original destination to disappear. Of Fort Pitt, which the English constructed just above the site of Fort Duquesne, nothing remains but a small magazine which has been converted into a dwelling house: another trace of the martial epoch (which here forms the mythological ages), is the name of Redoubt Alley, which is taken from a battery once erected there, to sweep the Monongahela. At Cincinnati, Fort Washington has been razed, and on its site now stands a bazaar built by Mrs Trollope. Not one of the least singular changes that have taken place in America within a half century, is the difference between the old mode of founding a town, and the manner in which they are at present made to rise out of the ground.
Some weeks ago I visited the anthracite coal district in Pennsylvania (see Note 18 ); the Anthracite, the most convenient kind of fuel, is at present in general use all along the Atlantic coast from Washington to Boston, and its introduction has made a revolution in household matters. Six or seven years since, when the demand for it was suddenly very much increased, the district which contains the coal-beds became the subject of speculation, at first prudently conducted, but finally growing wild and extravagant. The speculators vied with each other in tracing out town-plots; I have seen detailed plans, with straight streets and fine public squares scrupulously reserved, of cities which do not actually consist of a single street, of towns which hardly contain three houses. This frenzy gave birth, however, to one town of 3,000 inhabitants, Pottsville, to ten or twelve railroads, great and small, to several canals, basins, and mining explorations, that have proved pretty successful. As for the great cities. several of them have really become flourishing villages, although the dreams of their founders have not proved true.
In this anthracite region, in the manufacturing districts of the North East, along the New York canals, and in all parts of the West, a traveller often has an opportunity of seeing the process of building towns. First rises a huge hotel with a wooden colonnade, a real barrack, in which all the movements, rising, breakfasting, dining, and supping, are regulated by the sound of a bell with military precision, uniformity, and rapidity, the landlord being, as a matter of course, a general or, at least, a colonel of the militia. The bar-room is at once the exchange, where hundreds of bargains are made under the influence of a glass of whiskey or gin, and the club-room, which resounds with political debate, and is the theatre of preparations for civil and military elections. At about the same time a post-office is established; at first the landlord commonly exercising the functions of postmaster. As soon as there are any dwelling-houses built, a church or meeting-house is erected at the charge of the rising community: then follow a school-house and a printing press with a newspaper, and soon after appears a bank, to complete the threefold representation of religion, learning, and industry.
A European of continental Europe, in whose mind the existence of a bank is intimately associated with that of a great capital, is very much surprised even for the hundredth time, at finding one of these institutions in spots yet in an intermediate state between a village and the primitive forest inhabited by bears and rattle-snakes. On the banks of the Schuylkill, which has lately been canalled, and which, flowing from the coal-region, empties itself into the Delaware near Philadelphia, may be seen the beginnings of a town, built during the time of the mining speculations, at the head of navigation. Port Carbon, for that is its name, consists of about thirty houses standing on the declivity of a valley, and disposed according to the plan of the embryo city. Such was the haste in which the houses were built, that there was no time to remove the stumps of the trees that covered the spot; the standing trees were partially burnt and then felled with the axe, and their long, charred trunks still cumber the ground. Some of them have been converted into piles for supporting the railroads that bring down the coal to the boats; the blackened stumps, four or five feet high, are still standing, and you make your way from one house to another by leaping over the prostrate trunks and winding round the standing stumps. In the midst of this strange scene, appears a large building with the words, Office of Deposit and Discount. SCHUYLKILL BANK. The existence of a bank amidst the stumps of Port Carbon, surprised me as much as the universal neatness and elegance of the peaceful Philadelphia, or the vast fleet which is constantly receiving and discharging at the quays of New York, the products of all parts of the world.
I return to the triple emblem of the church, the school with the printing-press, and the bank. A society which is formed by accretion around such a nucleus, must differ more and more from the present European society, which was formed chiefly under the auspices of war, and by a succession of conquests, following one upon another. American society, taking for its point of departure labour, based upon a condition of general ease on one side, and on a system of common elementary education on the other, and moving forward with the religious principle for its lode-star, seems destined to reach a degree of prosperity, power, and happiness, much superior to what we have attained with our semi-feudal organisation, and our fixed antipathy against all moral rule and all authority. It presents, doubtless, especially in the newer States, many imperfections, and it will have to submit to various modifications; this is the lot of all unfinished works, even when God himself is the maker. But a few errors and follies are of little import in the eyes of those whose thoughts are occupied with the great interests of the future rather than with the paltry troubles of the present hour. Of little moment are the disgust and disappointment that a European of delicate nerves may have to encounter, if, for the purpose of killing time, he ventures upon a western steamboat, or into a western tavern; so much the worse for him, if he has fallen into a country where there is no place for an idle tourist, seeking only for amusement! Let the foreigner smile at the simplicity and extravagance of national vanity. That patriotic pride, rendered excusable by brilliant success, will be moderated; the errors and the follies are daily correcting themselves; the unavoidable rudeness of the backwoodsman will be softened, as soon as there are no more forests to fell, no more swamps to drain, no more wild beasts to destroy. The evil will pass away, and is passing away; the good remains and grows and spreads, like a grain of mustard.
[* ] The valley of the Mississippi with a small part of that of the St. Lawrence belonging to the United States, is six times larger than all France. A large tract in the extreme west is sterile; but the most fertile portion, already occupied by States and Territories, is three times as large as France.
[* ] At Kingston, (U. C.) the site of Fort Frontenac, I found the remains of a wall built by La Salle, or one of his successors, in the barrack yard of one of the English regiments.
[* ] The valley of the Mississippi contained, exclusive of Indians,
The Indians, now mostly removed to the west of the Mississippi, number only about 300,000 souls.
[Note 18—page 172.]Omitted.