Front Page Titles (by Subject) LETTER XVIII.: CINCINNATI. - Society, Manners and Politics in the United States
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LETTER XVIII.: CINCINNATI. - 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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Memphis, (Tenn.), Jan. 1, 1835.
Cincinnati has been made famous by Mrs Trollope, whose aristocratic feelings were offended by the pork-trade, which is here carried on on a great scale. From her accounts many persons have thought that every body in Cincinnati was a pork merchant, and the city a mere slaughter-house. The fact is that Cincinnati is a large and beautiful town charmingly situated in one of those bends which the Ohio makes, as if unwilling to leave the spot. The hills which border the Belle Rivière (Beautiful River, the French name of the Ohio) through its whole course, seem here to have receded from the river bank, in order to form a lofty plain, to which they serve as walls, whenever the Ohio does not serve as a foss, and on which man might build a town above the reach of the terrible floods of the river. Geologists, who have no faith in the favours of the fabled Oreads, will merely attribute this table-land to the washing away of the mountains, in the diluvian period, by the River Licking, now a modest little stream, which, descending from the highlands of Kentucky, empties itself into the Ohio opposite Cincinnati. However this may be, there is not, in the whole course of the river, a single spot which offers such attractions to the founders of a town.
The architectural appearance of Cincinnati is very nearly the same with that of the new quarters of the English towns. The houses are generally of brick, most commonly three stories high, with the windows shining with cleanliness, calculated each for a single family, and regularly placed along well paved and spacious streets, sixty feet in width. Here and there the prevailing uniformity is interrupted by some more imposing edifice, and there are some houses of hewn stone in very good taste, real palaces in miniature, with neat porticoes, inhabited by the aristocratical portion of Mrs Trollope’s hog-merchants, and several very pretty mansions surrounded with gardens and terraces. Then there are the common school-houses, where girls and boys together learn reading, writing, cyphering, and geography, under the simultaneous direction of a master and mistress.* In another direction you see a small, plain church, without sculpture or paintings, without coloured glass or gothic arches, but snug, well carpeted, and well-warmed by stoves. In Cincinnati, as everywhere else in the United States, there is a great number of churches; each sect has its own, from Anglican Episcopalianism, which enlists under its banner the wealth of the country, to the Baptist and Methodist sects, the religion of the labourers and negroes. On another side, stands a huge hotel, which from its exterior you would take for a royal residence, but in which, as I can testify, you will not experience a princely hospitality; or a museum, which is merely a private speculation, as all American museums are, and which consists of some few crystals, some mammoth-bones, which are very abundant in the United States, an Egyptian mummy, some Indian weapons and dresses, and a half-dozen wax-figures, representing, for instance, Washington, General Jackson, and the Indian Chiefs, Black Hawk and Tecumseh, a figure of Napoleon afoot or on horseback, a French cuirass from Waterloo, a collection of portraits of distinguished Americans, comprising Lafayette and some of the leading men of the town, another of stuffed birds, snakes preserved in spirits, and particularly a large living snake, a boa constrictor, or an anaconda. One of these museums in Cincinnati is remarkable for its collection of Indian antiquities, derived from the huge caves of Kentucky, or from the numerous mounds on the banks of the Ohio, of which there were several on the site of Cincinnati.*
As for the banks they are modestly lodged at Cincinnati, but a plan of a handsome edifice, worthy of their high fortune, and sufficient to accommodate them all, is at present under consideration. The founderies for casting steam-engines, the yards for building steamboats, the noisy, unwholesome, or unpleasant work-shops, are in the adjoining village of Fulton, in Covington or Newport on the Kentucky bank of the river, or in the country. As to the enormous slaughter of hogs, about 150,000 annually, and the preparation of the lard, which follows, the town is not in the least incommoded by it; the whole process takes place on the banks of a little stream called Deer Creek, which has received the nickname of the Bloody Run, from the colour of its waters during the season of the massacre, or near the basins of the great canal, which extends from Cincinnati towards the Maumee of Lake Erie. Cincinnati has, however, no squares planted with trees in the English taste, no parks nor walks, no fountains, although it would be very easy to have them. It is necessary to wait for the ornamental, until the taste for it prevails among the inhabitants; at present the useful occupies all thoughts. Besides, all improvements require an increase of taxes, and in the United States it is not easy to persuade the people to submit to this. (See Note 20 .) Cincinnati also stands in need of some public provision for lighting the streets, which this repugnance to taxes has hitherto prevented.
Cincinnati has had water-works, for supplying the inhabitants with water, for about 20 years; for an annual rate, which amounts to about 8 or 12 dollars for a family, each has a quantity amply sufficient for all its wants. A steam-engine on the banks of the river raises the water to a reservoir on one of the hills near the city, 300 feet high, whence it is conducted in iron pipes in every direction. The height of the reservoir is such that the water rises to the top of every house, and fire-plugs are placed at intervals along the streets to supply the engines in case of fire. Several of the new towns in the United States have water-works, and Philadelphia, among the older cities, has an admirable system of works, which, owing to a series of unsuccessful experiments, have cost a large sum.* At this moment, a plan for supplying Boston with water is under discussion, which will cost several millions, because the water must be brought from a distance. New York is also engaged in a similar work, the expense of which will be about five millions. The Cincinnati water-works have not cost much above 150,000 dollars, although they have been several times completely reconstructed. It is generally thought in the United States, that the water-works ought to be owned by the towns, but those in Cincinnati belong to a company, and the water-rate is, therefore, higher than in Philadelphia and Pittsburg. The city has three times been in negociation for the purchase of the works, and has always declined buying on advantageous terms; the first time the establishment was offered for 35,000 dollars, and the second time for 80,000; the third time, 125,000 dollars were demanded, and 300,000 or 400,000 will finally be paid for it. In this case, as in regard to lighting the streets, the principal cause of the refusal of the city to buy was the unwillingness to lay new taxes.
The appearance of Cincinnati as it is approached from the water, is imposing, and it is still more so when it is viewed from one of the neighbouring hills. The eye takes in the windings of the Ohio and the course of the Licking, which enters the former at right angles, the steamboats that fill the port, the basin of the Miami canal, with the warehouses that line it and the locks that connect it with the river, the white-washed spinning works of Newport and Covington with their tall chimnies, the Federal arsenal, above which floats the starry banner, and the numerous wooden spires that crown the churches. On all sides the view is terminated by ranges of hills, forming an amphitheatre yet covered with the vigorous growth of the primitive forest. This rich verdure is here and there interrupted by country houses surrounded by colonnades, which are furnished by the forest. The population which occupies this amphitheatre, lives in the midst of plenty; it is industrious, sober, frugal, thirsting after knowledge, and if, with a very few exceptions, it is entirely a stranger to the delicate pleasures and elegant manners of the refined society of our European capitals, it is equally ignorant of its vices, dissipation, and follies.
At the first glance one does not perceive any difference between the right and left bank of the river; from a distance, the prosperity of Cincinnati seems to extend to the opposite shore. This is an illusion; on the right bank, that is, in Ohio, there are none but freemen; slavery exists on the other side. You may descend the river hundreds of miles, with slavery on the left and liberty on the right, although it is the same soil, and equally capable of being cultivated by the white man. When you enter the Mississippi you have slavery on both sides of you. A blind carelessness, or rather a fatal weakness in the rulers, and a deplorable selfishness in the people, have allowed this plague to become fixed in a country where there was no need of tolerating its existence. Who can tell when and how, and through what sufferings, it will be possible to eradicate it?
I met with one incident in Cincinnati, which I shall long remember. I had observed at the hotel table a man of about the medium height, stout and muscular, and of about the age of sixty years, yet with the active step and lively air of youth. I had been struck with his open and cheerful expression, the amenity of his manners, and a certain air of command, which appeared through his plain dress. “That is,” said my friend, “General Harrison, clerk of the Cincinnati Court of Common Pleas”—“What! General Harrison of the Tippecanoe and the Thames?” “The same; the ex-general, the conqueror of Tecumseh and Proctor; the avenger of our disasters on the Raisin and at Detroit; the ex-governor of the Territory of Indiana, the ex-senator in Congress, the ex-minister of the United States to one of the South American republics. He has grown old in the service of his country, he has passed twenty years of his life in those fierce wars with the Indians, in which there was less glory to be won, but more dangers to be encountered, than at Rivoli and Austerlitz. He is now poor, with a numerous family, neglected by the Federal government, although yet vigorous, because he has the independence to think for himself. As the Opposition is in the majority here, his friends have bethought themselves of coming to his relief by removing the clerk of the court of Common Pleas, who was a Jackson man, and giving him the place, which is a lucrative one, as a sort of retiring pension. His friends in the East talk of making him President of the United States. Meanwhile we have made him clerk of an inferior court.” After a pause my informant added, “At this wretched table you may see another candidate for the presidency, who seems to have a better chance than General Harrison; it is Mr McLean, now one of the judges of the Supreme Court of the United States.”
Examples of this abandonment of men, whose career has been in the highest degree honourable, are not rare in the United States. I had already seen the illustrious Gallatin at New York, who, after having grown old in the service of the republic, after having been for forty years a legislator, a member of the cabinet, a minister abroad, after having taken an active part in every wise and good measure of the Federal government, was dismissed without any provision, and would have terminated his laborious career in poverty, had not his friends offered him the place of president of one of the banks in New York. The distress of President Jefferson in his old age is well known, and that he was reduced to the necessity of asking permission of the Virginia legislature to dispose of his estate by lottery; while President Munroe, still more destitute, after having spent his patrimony in the service of the State, was constrained to implore the compassion of Congress; and these are the men to whom their country owes the invaluable acquisitions of Louisiana and Florida. The system of retiring pensions is unknown in the United States. No provision is made for the old age of eminent men who accept the highest offices in the State, although it is impossible for them to lay up anything out of their comparatively moderate salaries, and several of them have seen their fortunes disappear with their health in the public service. The public functionaries are treated like menial servants; the system of domestic life is such in the United States, that every American, in private life, treats the humblest of his white domestics with more respect, than most of them show, in public life, to officers of the highest rank. On every occasion and in a thousand forms, the latter are reminded, that they are nothing but dust, and that a frown of the people can annihilate them.
This treatment of their public officers by the Americans is the mathematical consequence of the principle of popular sovereignty; but I consider it as consistent neither with reason nor justice. If it is true, that nations have an imprescriptible right to regulate the conduct of the depositaries of power conformably to their own interests, it is equally true, that men of superior abilities and worth have a natural and sacred right to be invested with high powers and functions. If it is criminal to sport with the welfare of the mass, it is no less so to trample under foot the wise and good. And if those whom talents and zeal for the public good call to important posts, are repulsed by the prospect of ingratitude and contempt, to what hands shall the care of the commonwealth be confided? What will then be the fate of the sovereign people? There is no less despotism in a people, who, impatient of all superiority, repays the services of illustrious citizens only with neglect, and capriciously throws them aside, like so much garbage, than in an Asiatic prince, who reduces all to the same level of servitude, treats all with the same insolence and brutality, and considers virtue and genius overpaid by the honour of being permitted to kneel on the steps of his throne.
In conformity with the prevailing ideas on the subject of offices and officers, no sort of provision has been made for the protection of the latter. They are removeable without any kind of pretence or formality, without being informed of the ground of their removal, and without any reason being given to the public. In this way a terrible rod of tyranny hangs over them, although under the mild and moderate administration of former Presidents little use was made of it; but, since the accession of General Jackson, a regular system of removal from office has been sanctioned, and office has become the reward of party-services; it has been publicly declared, that the spoils of victory belong to the conquerors. President Jackson has filled all the custom-houses and post offices with his creatures, and this policy has gained over some States, counties, and towns; at every change of opinion, the State changes its executive officers; the legislators change their secretaries, printers, and even their messengers; the courts, their clerks; the towns, their treasurers, their inspectors of markets, weights and measures, and even their scavengers and watchmen. Men in office now understand, that the preservation of their places and the bread of their families are hazarded at every municipal. State, or Federal election, according as they hold of the town, State, or general government. Formerly they took no part in election manœuvres, the Presidents having expressly forbidden the officers of the Federal government to meddle with them; at present, they are the most active agents in them. The President has now at his command an army of 60,000 voters,* dependent on his will, whose interests are bound up in his, and who are his forlorn hope. So true is it that extremes meet, and that, by pushing to excess a single principle, however true, we shall come to conclusions, which, practically speaking, amount to the overthrow of the principle itself. Thus by drawing out too fine the principle of the popular sovereignty, we may come nearer and nearer to tyranny and the oppression of the people. Is not this a proof that logic is not always reason, and that truth is often, if not always, to be found in the harmonious combinations of seemingly contradictory principles?
[* ] According to the official report of the Trustees and visiters of the common schools, dated July 30, 1833, there were then in Cincinnati 6,000 children between the ages of 6 and 16 years, exclusive of 230 children of colour for whom there is a separate school. About 2,300 children attended the common schools and 1,700 private schools. The number of common schools is 18, under the care of 12 masters and 5 assistants, 6 mistresses and 7 assistant mistresses. The masters receive 400 dollars a year, and the assistants 250; the school mistresses 216, and the assistants 168 These salaries are thought to be too low.
[* ] This museum has one show which I never saw anywhere else; it is a representation of the Infernal Regions, to which the young Cincinnati girls resort in quest of that excitement which a comfortable and peaceful, but cold and monotonous manner of life denies them. This strange spectacle seems to afford a delicious agitation to their nerves, and is the principal source of revenue to the museum.
[* ] The water used in Philadelphia is supplied by the Schuylkill, a fall in which is made to drive the pumps, by which the reservoirs are filled. The Fairmount works are arranged and ornamented with much taste, and at very little expense; the ornamental part, strictly speaking, merely consists of some lawns, wooden balustrades, and two wretched statues; yet the effect is very elegant.
[* ] In a report on executive patronage lately made to the Senate by Mr Calhoun, the following statement of the number of persons employed by the Federal government is given.
[Note 20—page 193.]Taxation.
It has repeatedly been made a question of late, whether the United States were more or less heavily taxed than France. The subject may be considered under several points of view. The systems of Taxation in the two countries are very different. The taxes in the United States are less numerous then they are in France, and are differently distributed. The country population, that is the great majority, pay much less in the United States than in France; but in the large towns the inhabitants pay nearly as much as with us, except in Paris. The disproportion between the two countries becomes much greater, if instead of estimating the amount in money, we give it in day’s labour, which is the most rational manner. The day-wages of a labourer being about threefold as much in the United States as they are with us, and other things being in the same proportion, it follows, that, in the former, a tax of three dollars to three dollars and a half, which is about the general average, is not more burdensome to the mass of the people, than a tax of one third that sum would be in France. The average tax in France, or six dollars a head, is equivalent to twentysix days’ work in our country; while the average in the United States is only equivalent to four days’ work in that country.
It is true, that, amongst us, all the public expenditures are comprised in the budget; all our taxes amount to 190 million dollars. But in the United States, there are various expenses supported by individuals and companies, which do not appear in the sum of the public taxes. Toll is paid on a very large number of roads: public worship is maintained at the expense of the worshippers; hence heavy charges on the rich.
It is important to remark, that the public revenue in the United States is almost wholly employed in a productive manner, in useful undertakings, in public works, schools, and various kinds of improvements. There is no Federal debt, that of most of the States and towns is inconsiderable, there are no retiring pensions, and the army is small; whilst more than half of our budget, or 118 million dollars, is devoted to the charges on the public debt, pensions, and the sea and land forces, we cannot expect to restore the balance in our favour, because we cannot dismiss our soldiers, nor declare a national bankruptcy; but we might diminish our present inferiority (paradoxical as it may seem), by adding some millions to our budget for useful and productive works.
The military service itself is a public burden and a very heavy one; but it is difficult to rate the amount of this in money. In France it takes one man out of eighty inhabitants from labour, but in the United States only one out of 2,300. This tax might be lightened, by employing the army in public works.
We may also notice the two following differences, which appear to me essential ones, between American and French taxes:—
1. The American taxes, whether it be from the mode of their assessment, or from the difference of conditions of the two countries, never press heavily upon the taxables, nor give them any uneasiness; they never embarrass transactions nor interrupt business. On the contrary, amongst us the tax is often an oppressive burden; our registry dues, and excise on property changing hands, often occasion serious embarrassments and even insurmountable obstacles in the way of enterprise.
2. In the United States the treasury fears to incur the public odium; amongst us the most respectable citizens are subjected to the most vexatious treatment; our officers of the customs have adopted practices unworthy of a civilised people; our wives and daughters must submit to be searched in the most shameless manner by vile hags, and these brutal proceedings have not the poor excuse of being useful to the customs. Their avowed object is to prevent the smuggling of articles, with which, in spite of three lines of custom-house officers, the country is inundated, and which it is well known are brought in by dogs* on a large scale, and not in the pockets of private persons. The branches of industry, which they are designed to protect, are altogether of secondary importance, and cannot be weighed in the balance against public decency.
[* ] On the northern frontier there are from 500,000 to 600,000 dogs which enter annually; not more than 6,000 or 7,000 are seized.