Front Page Titles (by Subject) LETTER XVII.: PUBLIC OPINION. - Society, Manners and Politics in the United States
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LETTER XVII.: PUBLIC OPINION. - 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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Louisville, December 22, 1834.
The first impression produced in the United States by General Jackson’s Message, was astonishment, as the tone was wholly unexpected to every one. In Europe, I suppose that it will have excited more than surprise, and it will be a matter of wonder, how a measure so rash and reckless could have emanated from a government, which, from its origin, has been characterised by address and prudence. I have already attempted to give an explanation of this mystery, and I have stated, that this quasi declaration of war was altogether an individual affair of General Jackson, that in this, as in every thing else, he has acted from his own impulse. The enlightened statesmen, who surrounded him in the beginning of his government, and whose wise counsels repressed his ardour, no longer have any influence. One after another has been separated from him, and several, such as Mr Calhoun, who, during his first term, was Vice-President, are now become his irreconcileable enemies. His position, as the head of the democratic party, obliges him, therefore, to supply some fuel for the furious passions, which the late contests had kindled.
It would be a mistake to judge of the reception of a document of this character in this country, by what would take place under similar circumstances in Europe. Public opinion has not the same arbiters here as in European societies; what is called public opinion in Europe, is the generally current opinion among the middling and higher classes, that of the merchants, manufacturers, men of letters, and statesmen, of those who, having inherited a competency, devote their time to study, the fine arts, and, unfortunately too often, to idleness. These are the persons, who govern public opinion in Europe, who have seats in the chambers, fill public offices, and manage or direct the most powerful organs of the press. They are the polite and cultivated, who are accustomed to self-control, more inclined to scepticism than fanaticism, and on their guard against the impulses of enthusiasm; to whose feelings all violence is repugnant, all rudeness and all brutality offensive; who cherish moderation often even to excess, and prefer compromises and half-measures. Among persons like these, General Jackson’s message would have met with universal condemnation, or rather if General Jackson had derived his ideas from such a medium, he would never have dictated such a message.
The minority, which in Europe decides public opinion, and by this means is sovereign, is here deposed, and having been successively driven from post to post, has come to influence opinion only in a few saloons in the large cities, and to be itself under as strict guardianship as minors, women, and idiots. Until the accession of General Jackson, it had, however, exercised some influence over all the Presidents, who were generally scholars, and all of whom, aside from their party connections, were attached to it by family and social relations, and by their habits of life. Up to the present time, this class had also preserved some influence over the two houses; but it has now completely broken with the President, or rather the President has broken with it; it has no longer any credit, except with one of the Houses, because the Senate still consists of men whom it may claim as belonging to it by their superior intelligence, education, and property. The democracy does not fail, therefore, to stigmatise the Senate as an aristocratic body, and to call it the House of Lords. The mass, which in Europe bears the pack and receives the law, has here put the pack on the back of the enlightened and cultivated class, which among us on the other hand, has the upper hand. The farmer and the mechanic are the lords of the New World; public opinion is their opinion; the public will is their will; the President is their choice, their agent, their servant. If it is true that the depositaries of power in Europe have been too much disposed to use it in promoting their own interests, without consulting the wishes and the welfare of the mass beneath them, it is no less true that the classes which wield the sceptre in America are equally tainted with selfishness, and that they take less pains to disguise it. In a word, North America is Europe with its head down and its feet up. European society, in London and Paris as well as at St. Petersburg, in the Swiss republic as well as in the Austrian empire, is aristocratical in this sense, that, even after all the great changes of the last fifty years, it is still founded more or less absolutely on the principle of inequality or a difference of ranks. American society is essentially and radically a democracy, not in name merely but in deed. In the United States the democratic spirit is infused into all the national habits, and all the customs of society; it besets and startles at every step the foreigner, who, before landing in the country, had no suspicion to what a degree every nerve and fibre had been steeped in aristocracy by a European education. It has effaced all distinctions, except that of colour; for here a shade in the hue of the skin separates men more widely than in any other country in the world. It pervades all places, one only excepted, and that the very one which in Catholic Europe is consecrated to equality, the church; here all whites are equal, every where, except in the presence of Him, in whose eyes, the distinctions of this world are vanity and nothingness.* Strange inconsistency! Or rather solemn protest, attesting that the principle of rank is firmly seated in the human heart by the side of the principle of equality, that it must have its place in all countries and under all circumstances!
Democracy everywhere has no soft words, no suppleness of forms; it has little address, little of management; it is apt to confound moderation with weakness, violence with heroism. Little used to self-control, it gives itself unreservedly to its friends, and sets them up as idols to whom it burns incense; it utters its indignation and its suspicions against those of whom it thinks that it has cause for complaint, rudely, and in a tone of anger and menace. It is intolerant towards foreign nations; the American democracy in particular, bred up in the belief that the nations of Europe groan ignobly under the yoke of absolute despots, looks upon them with a mixture of pity and contempt. When it throws a glance beyond the Atlantic, it affects the superior air of a freeman looking upon a herd of slaves. Its pride kindles at the idea of humbling the monarchical principle in the person of the “tyrants who tread Europe under foot.”
It may, then, be expected, that public opinion here will approve the Message, both as to its manner and matter, that it will consider it full of moderation and propriety. It is probable, that most of the men and the journals of the Opposition will fear to censure it openly and boldly. Not that the Jackson men themselves are unanimous in its favour; but that the speakers and writers of the Opposition consider themselves and are, bound to pay homage to the sovereign people, that they are all obliged to court the multitude, which is not very manageable in regard to points of national dignity and vanity. A certain number of journals and of political men have expressed their views as to the occasion and the consequences of a declaration of war with independence, and have been able to reconcile their patriotism with a lofty courtesy toward the oldest and the most faithful ally of America; but these are exceptions to the general rule. Some of the best informed and most influential of the Opposition journals have, to the general astonishment, suddenly turned right-about-face, and welcomed the part of the Message relative to France with acclamations. Thus they appear more democratic than the democracy, furious upon a point of honour, ready to sacrifice every thing in order to obtain redress for an outrage, to which, after twenty years, they have now first become sensible. He, who yesterday was a peaceful and reasonable writer, is to-day a thunderbolt of war, can talk of nothing but the violated national dignity, thinks only of blowing up the flame. The cause of this sudden change is this; if the United States were at war, they would spend a great deal of money, and a Bank then would be indispensable to the Federal government. Now a Bank and the Bank is at bottom all one. This is what is called policy, cleverness, but it remains to be seen if the democratic party will be the dupe of such arts, and if those who are most interested in the existence of the Bank, that is, the merchants of New York, Boston, and New Orleans, and even those of Philadelphia, wish to have a Bank at any price.
Happily for the peace of the world, the majority of the Senate of the United States consists of men eminent for their experience, their ability, and their patriotism, who judge the interests of their country on grounds of high policy, and who, among other questions, will not fail to consider this; whether it would not be the worst of all means of securing the liberty of the seas, an object which they have at heart, for the French and American navies to destroy each other. They do not hesitate, when circumstances require it, to take a stand above the demands of an ephemeral popularity, and to meet the difficulties face to face. A handful of firm and eloquent men in this illustrious assembly, was sufficient last winter to sustain the shock of the popular masses, and to check and bear them back. The Senate has only to continue equal to itself, to deserve well of its country and of mankind.
[* ] In Roman Catholic countries, the churches, vast structures, are open to all without distinction; each takes his seat where he pleases; all ranks are confounded. In the United States the churches are very numerous and very small, being built by joint-stock companies. They are appropriated to the exclusive use of the proprietors, with the exception of one free-seat for the poor, each one’s share of property being designated by an enclosed space or a pew. The whole floor of the church is thus occupied by pews, and the gallery is generally divided in the same manner, though a part of the latter is generally open and free to all. Each pew is sold and transferred like any other property; the price varies according to the town, the sect, or the situation. The proprietors pay an annual tax for the support of public worship, lighting, and warming the church, and the minister’s salary, the amount of the tax being proportioned to the value of the pew. Sometimes the church itself owns the pews, and the rent covers the expenses of the public worship. According to this system, the place occupied by the worshippers depends on their wealth, or, at least, on the price they are able or willing to pay for their pews.