Front Page Titles (by Subject) LETTER XIX.: CINCINNATI. - Society, Manners and Politics in the United States
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
LETTER XIX.: 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).
About Liberty Fund:
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
Natchez, (Miss.) Jan. 4, 1835.
Cincinnati contains about 40,000 inhabitants, inclusive of the adjoining villages; although founded 40 years ago, its rapid growth dates only about 30 years back. It seems to be the rendezvous of all nations; the Germans and Irish are very numerous, and there are some Alsacians; I have often heard the harsh accents of the Rhenish French in the streets. But the bulk of the population, which gives its tone to all the rest, is of New England origin. What makes the progress of Cincinnati more surprising is, that the city is the daughter of its own works. Other towns, which have sprung up in the United States in the same rapid manner, have been built on shares, so to speak. Lowell, for example, is an enterprise of Boston merchants, who, after having raised the necessary funds, have collected workmen and told them, “Build us a town.” Cincinnati has been gradually extended and embellished, almost wholly without foreign aid, by its inhabitants, who have for the most part arrived on the spot poor. The founders of Cincinnati brought with them nothing but sharp-sighted, wakeful, untiring industry, the only patrimony which they inherited from their New England fathers, and the other inhabitants have scrupulously followed their example and adopted their habits. They seem to have chosen Franklin for their patron-saint, and to have adopted Poor Richard’s maxims as a fifth gospel.
I have said that Cincinnati was admirably situated; this is true in respect of its geographical position, but, if you follow the courses of the rivers on the map, and consider the natural resources of the district, you will find that there are several points on the long line of the rivers of the West as advantageously placed, both for trade and manufactures, and that there are some which are even more favoured in these respects. Pittsburg, which has within reach both coal and iron, that is to say, the daily bread of industry, which stands at the head of the Ohio, at the starting point of steam-navigation, at the confluence of the Monongahela and the Alleghany, coming the one from the south and the other from the north; Pittsburg, which is near the great chain of lakes, appears as the pivot of a vast system of roads, railroads, and canals, several of which are already completed. Pittsburg was marked out by nature at once for a great manufacturing centre and a great mart of trade. Louisville, built at the falls of the Ohio, at the head of navigation for the largest class of boats, is a natural medium between the commerce of the upper Ohio and that of the Mississippi and its tributaries. In respect to manufacturing resources, Louisville is as well provided as Cincinnati, and the latter, setting aside its enchanting situation, seemed destined merely to become the market of the fertile strip between the Great and Little Miami.
But the power of men, when they agree in willing anything and in willing it perseveringly, is sufficient to overbear and conquer that of nature. In spite of the superior advantages of Louisville as an entrepôt, in spite of the manufacturing resources of Pittsburg, Cincinnati is able to maintain a population twice that of Louisville and half as large again as that of Pittsburg in a state of competence, which equals, if it does not surpass, the average condition of that of each of the others. The inhabitants of Cincinnati have fixed this prosperity among them, by one of those instinctive views with which the sons of New England are inspired by their eminently practical and calculating genius. A half-word, they say, is enough for the wise, but cleverer than the wisest, the Yankees understand each other without speaking, and by a tacit consent direct their common efforts toward the same point. To work Boston fashion means, in the United States, to do anything with perfect precision and without words. The object which the Cincinnatians have had in view, almost from the origin of their city, has been nothing less than to make it the capital, or great interior mart of the West. The indirect means which they have employed, have been to secure the manufacture of certain articles, which, though of little value separately considered, form an important aggregate when taken together, and getting the start of their neighbours, with that spirit of diligence that characterises the Yankees, they have accordingly distributed the manufacture of these articles among themselves. This plan has succeeded.
Thus with the exception of the pork trade, one is surprised not to see any branch of industry carried on on the great scale of the manufacturing towns of England and France. The Cincinnatians make a variety of household furniture and utensils, agricultural and mechanical implements and machines, wooden clocks, and a thousand objects of daily use and consumption, soap, candles, paper, leather, &c., for which there is an indefinite demand throughout the flourishing and rapidly growing States of the West, and also in the new States of the Southwest, which are wholly devoted to agriculture, and in which, on account of the existence of slavery, manufactures cannot be carried on. Most of these articles are of ordinary quality; the furniture, for instance, is rarely such as would be approved by Parisian taste, but it is cheap and neat, just what is wanted in a new country, where, with the exception of a part of the South, there is a general ease and but little wealth, and where plenty and comfort are more generally known than the little luxuries of a more refined society. The prosperity of Cincinnati, therefore, rests upon the sure basis of the prosperity of the West, upon the supply of articles of the first necessity to the bulk of the community; a much more solid foundation than the caprice of fashion, upon which, nevertheless, the branches of industry most in favour with us, depend. The intellectual also receives a share of attention; in the first place, there is a large type-foundery in Cincinnati, which supplies the demand of the whole West, and of that army of newspapers that is printed in it. According to the usual English or American mode of proceeding, the place of human labour is supplied as much as possible by machinery, and I have seen several little contrivances here, that are not probably to be found in the establishments of the Royal Press or of the Didots. Then the printing-presses are numerous, and they issue nothing but publications in general demand, such as school-books, and religious books, and newspapers. By means of this variety of manufactures, which, taken separately appear of little consequence, Cincinnati has taken a stand, from which it will be very difficult to remove her, for, in this matter, priority of occupation is no trifling advantage. The country trader, who keeps an assortment of everything vendible, is sure to find almost everything he wants in Cincinnati, and he, therefore, goes thither in preference to any other place in order to lay in his stock of goods. Cincinnati is thus in fact the great central mart of the West; a great quantity and variety of produce and manufactured articles find a vent here, notwithstanding the natural superiority of several other sites, either in regard to the extent of water-communication or mineral resources.
M. Fourrier has characterised the spirit of the 19th century by the term industrial feudalism. The human race, according to some, has thrown off one yoke only to bear another, less burdensome perhaps, but also less noble. The warlike lords of the Middle Ages have passed away, but the industrial lords have come to take their place, the princes of manufactures, banks, and commerce. These new masters will embitter the life of the poor with less distress and privation, but they will also shed less glory upon it. They will increase the body’s pittance, but diminish the soul’s. At the sight of the great manufactories of England and some of those of the European continent, of those which are multiplying so rapidly in New England, in that wonderful creation the city of Lowell, one is tempted to think that the industrial feudalism is already established in the former, and is creeping beneath the democratic institutions, like the snake under the grass, in the latter. Those who do not believe that the human race can go backward, and who prefer to rock themselves in the cradle of hope, rather than to yield to flat despair, while they admit the existence of this tendency of the age, console themselves by the contemplation of its other characteristic features, at the head of which they place the general spirit of emancipation, which breaks down all obstacles in its way. If in England, for instance, there are, in the factories, a thousand germs of despotism, there are, in the working classes, a thousand germs of resistance, in the population a thousand germs of liberalism; there are Trades’ Unions, there are radicals: neither of these opposite forces alone will decide the destinies of the future. From their opposing impulses will result a single force, different from both, yet partaking of both. The force of emancipation will make what to some seems about to become feudalism, simply patronage.
Patronage has not finished its career upon the earth; it will endure while Providence shall continue to cast men in different moulds; it will subsist for the good of the weak and the poor, and for that of the class of men, so numerous in southern Europe, for example, who require the support of somebody more powerful than themselves. But it will be modified in character, growing successively less and less violent, and more and more mild. The inferior has been a slave, a serf, a paid freeman; he may in time become an associate or partner without ceasing to be an inferior. However this may be, there is no germ of industrial feudalism in Cincinnati, there are no great factories or work-shops. Mechanical industry is subdivided there, pretty much as the soil is amongst us; each head of a family, with his sons and some newly arrived emigrants as assistants and servants, has his domain in this great field. Cincinnati is, therefore, as republican in its industrial organisation, as in its political. This subdivision of manufactures has hitherto been attended with no inconvenience, because in the vast West, whose growth is visible to the eye, the production cannot at present keep pace with the consumption. But how will it be in a century, or perhaps in fifty years? Will not the condition of mechanical industry undergo some great change, or rather will not the whole of this vast region undergo a complete change of character and condition, which will involve a reorganisation of the industrial system?
The moral aspect of Cincinnati is delightful in the eyes of him who prefers work to every thing else, and with whom work can take the place of every thing else. But whoever has a taste for pleasure and display, whoever needs occasional relaxation from business, in gaiety and amusement, would find this beautiful city, with its picturesque environs, an insupportable residence. It would be still more so for a man of leisure, desirous of devoting a large part of his time to the cultivation of the fine arts and the rest to pleasure. For such a man, indeed, it would not be possible to live here; he would find himself denounced from political considerations, because men of leisure are looked upon in the United States as so many stepping-stones to aristocracy, and anathematised by religion, for the various sects, however much they may differ on other points, all agree in condemning pleasure, luxury, gallantry, the fine arts themselves. Now the United States are not like some countries in Europe, particularly France, where religion and the pulpit can be braved with impunity. Hemmed in by the laborious habits of the country, by political notions, and by religion, a man must either resign himself to the same mode of life with the mass, or seek a soil less unfriendly to his tastes in the great cities of New York, Philadelphia, or New Orleans, or even in Europe. There is, therefore, no such thing in Cincinnati as a class of men of leisure, living without any regular profession on their patrimony, or on the wealth acquired by their own enterprise in early life, although there are many persons of opulence, having one hundred thousand dollars and upwards. I met a young man there, the future heir of a large fortune, who, after having been educated at West Point and received a commission, had retired from the service in order to live at home. Wearied out with his solitary leisure, burdened with the weight of his own person, he could find no other relief than to open a fancy-goods shop.
Every where in the United States where there are no slaves, and out of the large towns of the sea-coast, a strict watch is kept up in regard to persons of leisure, obliging those who might be seduced by a taste for this kind of life to fall into the ranks and work, at least until age makes repose necessary. Public opinion is on the lookout to banish any habits of dissipation, however innocent, that might get a footing in society, and make a life of leisure tolerable. Religious and philanthropical societies, instituted under various names, take upon themselves the task of enforcing the decrees of public opinion; like vigilant sentinels, they compel a rigid observance of the austerities, or if you choose the ennuis, of Sunday, labour to suppress intemperance and gaming, the spirit of which, if once diffused among a people so wholly devoted to money-making, might lead to the most fatal consequences. These societies and committees pursue their task with a more than British perseverance, and sometimes with a puritanical fanaticism. When Mr John Quincy Adams became President, he had a billiard-table placed in the President’s House, and such is here the real or affected abhorrence of every thing called a game, that this billiard-table was actually one of the arguments against the re-election of Mr Adams. “It is a scandal, the abomination of desolation,” was the general cry. Mr Adams, whose private character is above suspicion, was, if we must believe the Opposition journals of the day, a teacher of immorality, because he had a billiard-table in his house, and General Jackson has doubtless caused that scandalous piece of furniture to be broken up and burnt, since he has become master of the White House. Any where else this rigour would be called intolerance, inquisition; here it is submitted to without a murmur, and few persons are really annoyed by it, or show that they are. The American can support a constant and unrelaxing devotion to labour; he does not feel the need of amusement and recreation. The silence and retirement of his Sunday seem to be a more effectual relaxation for him, than the noisy gaiety of our festivals; one might even say that he was destitute of the sense of pleasure. All his faculties and energies are admirably and vigorously combined for production; he wants those without which pleasure is not enjoyment, and amusement is but a painful effort; and, between these two kinds of work, he would of course prefer that which is gainful, to that which is expensive.
Such a social organisation is the very best for a pioneer people. Without this devotion to business, without this constant direction of the energies of the mind to useful enterprises, without this indifference to pleasure, without those political and religious notions which imperiously repress all passions but those whose objects are business, production, and gain, can any one suppose that the Americans would ever have achieved their great industrial conquests? With any other less exclusive system, they would yet, perhaps, be meditating the passage over the Alleghanies. Instead of having that great domain of the West, immense in its extent and resources, already cleared and cultivated, furrowed with roads and dotted over with farms, they would probably be still confined to the sandy strip that borders the Atlantic. It must be allowed that this ardent and entire devotion to business gives the nation a strange aspect in the eyes of a European: And this explains the fact that the Americans have found so little favour with most foreigners who have visited their country. But, in return, they are sure of the gratitude of that innumerable posterity for whom they are preparing with such energy and sagacity an abode of plenty, a land of promise. This posterity, it is said, will change the habits of their fathers, will adopt new tastes, and even new institutions. So be it! It is of little consequence whether the Americans of the 20th or 21st century, shall retain the national character, customs, and laws of the Americans of the 19th. But the more interesting consideration is, whether the Americans of our day do not fulfil, as perfectly as human nature is capable of doing, the mission which Providence has entrusted to them, that of acting as a nation of pioneers and subduers of the forest; and if they do not deserve to be excused, like all nations and individuals, for having the defects inherent in their good qualities. The question thus stated will be easily answered by every one who sets any value on the interests and welfare of the future.