Front Page Titles (by Subject) LETTER XXII.: LABOUR. - Society, Manners and Politics in the United States
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LETTER XXII.: LABOUR. - 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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Lancaster, (Pennsylvania,) July 20, 1835.
There can be no success without special devotion to some one end; individual or nation, to be successful and prosperous, beware of attempting every thing. Human nature is finite, and, like it, you must set some bounds to your wishes and efforts. Learn how to check yourself and to be content, is the precept of wisdom. If it is a wise rule, then are the Americans, at least partially, wise, for they practise it partially. In general, the American is little disposed to be contented; his idea of equality is to be inferior to none, but he endeavours to rise only in one direction. His only means, and the object of his whole thought, is to subdue the material world, or, in other words, it is industry in its various branches, business, speculation, work, action. To this sole object every thing is made subordinate, education, politics, private and public life. Every thing in American society, from religion and morals to domestic usages and daily habits of life, is bent in the direction of this common aim of each and all. If there are some exceptions to this general rule, they are few, and may be referred to two causes; first, American society, exclusive as it is, is not destined to remain forever imprisoned in this narrow circle, and it already contains the germs of its future condition ages hence, whatever that may be; and secondly, human nature, although bounded, is not exclusive, and no force in the world can stifle its eternal protest against exclusiveness in taste, institutions, and manners. Speculation and business, work and action, these, then, under various forms, make the exclusive object to which the Americans have devoted themselves, with a zeal that amounts to fanaticism; this was marked out for them by the finger of Providence, in order that a continent should be brought under the dominion of civilisation with the least possible delay.
I cannot reflect without sorrow, that at one moment France seem called to take part in this great mission with the two nations, between whom God has placed it, not less morally in regard to character and institutions, than physically in respect to geographical position; namely the English and Spaniards. Whilst Spain, then queen of the world, grasped South America and the vast empire of Mexico, civilised, sword in hand, the native tribes, and built those monumental cities, which will bear witness to its genius and its power, ages after the calumnies of its slanderers shall have been forgotten, whilst England was planting some insignificant colonies on the barren shore of North America, France was exploring the vast basin of the Father of Waters, and taking possession of the St. Lawrence, compared with which our Rhine, tranquille et fier, is but a modest rivulet: we were crowning with fortifications the steep rock of Quebec, building Montreal, founding New Orleans and St. Louis, and here and there subduing the rich plains of Illinois. At that time, we were occupying the most fertile, best watered, and finest portion of North America, the part best suited to become the seat of a magnificent empire, in harmony with our notions of unity. Our engineers, with a sagacity for which the Americans now express the greatest admiration, had marked out by fortresses, the sites most suitable for large towns. Our flag floated over Pittsbug, then Fort Duquesne, Detroit, Chicago, Erie, then Presqu’île, Kingston, then Fort Frontenac, Michillimackmac, Ticonderoga, Vincennes, Fort Charters, Peoria, and St. John, as well as over the capitals of Canada, and Louisiana. Then our language might have set up its claim to be the universal language; the French name bade fair to become the first, not only in the world of ideas, by art and letters, like the Greek; but also in the material and political world, by the number of individuals who would take pride in bearing it, by the immensity of the territory over which its dominion stretched, like the Roman. Louis XIV. in the days of his deification, in the Olympus which he had built himself, meditated this noble destiny for his people and his race. With a lofty pride, he seemed to read their future triumphs on the pages of fate. But there is left to us, who are separated from him only by a single century, there is left, alas! nought but vain and impotent regrets. The English have driven us forever, not only from America, but also from the East Indies, where that great prince had given us a footing. The descendants of our fathers in Canada and Louisiana struggle in vain against the British flood that swallows them up; our language is whelmed in the same deluge; even our names for the cities we founded and the regions we discovered, are corrupted in the harsh throats of our fortunate rivals, and are too Saxonised to be any longer recognised. We have ourselves forgotten, that there was ever a time when we could have claimed to rule the New World; we no longer remember the generous men who devoted themselves, that they might secure the dominion to us. To preserve the name of the heroic La Salle from oblivion, it has become necessary that the American Congress should raise a monument to his memory in the rotunda of the Capital, between those to William Penn and John Smith. We have had no stone for him among all our innumerable sculptures; our painters have covered miles of canvass with their colours, but have not drawn a line in honour of him.
Meanwhile, the gigantic upstarts of Europe defy us, elbow us, and crowd us in. In vain did the genius of the the second Charlemagne restore to us the capital of the first Frank Kaisar, and the finest provinces of Clovis; capital and provinces have been snatched from us almost immediately. One step more downward, and we should have been forever forced back among the secondary states, the worn out and decrepit nations, with no successors to receive and sustain with honor the inheritance of our fathers’ glories. What is it that has thus degraded a great people, and robbed it of its well-earned future? In an absolute monarchy like ours, it was enough, that we should be ridden by such a prince as Louis XV., who had inherited nothing from his great ancestor but his vices; it was enough, that during fifty years, France was the play-thing of his infamous selfishness, and of the shameful imbecility of his creatures. Absolute governments may sometimes produce wonders in a short space of time, but they are exposed to cruel reverses. Had we been the conquerors in America, instead of having been conquered by the English, what would have been the consequences? To judge what the people of New France would have been, by what the Canadians and the Creoles of Louisiana are, the boldness and rapidity of the progress of civilisation would have been much less than it has been. When it is proposed to conquer nations on the field of battle, France may enter the lists with confidence; but when it is proposed to subdue nature, the Englishman is our superior. He has firmer sinews and more vigorous muscle; physically he is better made for labour; he carries it on with more perseverance and method; he becomes interested in it, and obstinately bent upon it. If he meets any obstacle in his task, he attacks it with the devouring passion which a Frenchman can feel only in the presence of an adversary in a human form.
With what zeal and devotion has the Anglo-American fulfilled his mission as a pioneer in a new continent! Behold how he makes his way over the rocks and precipices; see how he struggles in close fight with the rivers, with the swamps, with the primeval forests; see how he slaughters the wolf and the bear, how he exterminates the Indian, who in his eyes is only another wild beast! In this conflict with the external world, with the land and the waters, with mountains and pestilential marshes, he appears full of that impetuosity with which Greece flung itself into Asia at the voice of Alexander; of that fanatical daring with which Mahomet inspired his Arabs for the conquest of the Eastern Empire; of that delirious courage which animated our fathers forty years ago, when they threw themselves upon Europe. On the same rivers, therefore, on which our colonists floated, carelessly singing, in the bark canoe of the savage, they have launched fleets of superb steamers. Where we fraternised with the Red Skins, sleeping with them in the forests, living like them on the chase, travelling, in their manner, through rugged trails afoot, the persevering American has felled the aged trees, guided the plough, inclosed the fields, substituted the best breeds of English cattle for the wild deer, created farms, flourishing villages, and opulent cities, dug canals, and made roads. Those waterfalls which we admired as lovers of the picturesque, and the height of which our officers measured at the risk of their lives, he has shut up for the use of his mills and factories, regardless of the scenery. If these countries had continued to belong to the French, the population would certainly have been more gay than the present American race; it would have enjoyed more highly, whatever it should have possessed, but it would have had less of comfort and wealth, and ages would have passed away, before man had become master of those regions, which have been reclaimed in less than fifty years by the Americans.
If we examine the acts passed by the local legislatures at each session, we shall find that at least three-fourths relate to the banks, which give credit to the working men; to the establishment of new religious societies and churches, which are the citadels where the guardians of industry keep watch; to routes and means of communication, roads, canals, railways, bridges, and steamboats, which facilitate the access of the producer to the markets; to primary instruction for the use of the mechanic and the labourer; to various commercial regulations; or to the incorporation of towns and villages, the work of these hardy pioneers. There is no mention of an army; the fine arts are not so much as named; literary institutions and the higher scientific studies are rarely honoured with notice. The tendency of the laws is above all to promote industry, material labour, the task of the moment. In the older States, they always profess the greatest respect for property, because the legislature feels that the greatest encouragement to industry is to respect its fruits. They are especially conservative of landed property, either from a lingering remembrance of the feudal laws of the mother country, or because they are anxious to preserve some element of stability in the midst of the general change; yet the laws generally pay less regard to the rights of property than is the case in Europe. Wo to whatever is inactive and unproductive, if it can be accused, on however slight a foundation, of resting upon monopoly and privilege! The rights of industry here have the precedence of all others, efface all others, and it is on this account, that, except in in the affair of public credit, in which the towns and States pique themselves on the most scrupulous exactness in fulfilling their engagements, in every dispute between the capitalists and the producer, the latter has almost always the better.
Every thing is here arranged to facilitate industry; the towns are built on the English plan; men of business, instead of being scattered over the town, occupy a particular quarter, which is devoted exclusively to them, in which there is not a building used as a dwelling-house, and nothing but offices and ware-houses are to be seen. The brokers, bankers, and lawyers here have their cells, the merchants their counting-rooms; here the banks, insurance offices, and other companies, have their chambers, and other buildings are filled from cellar to garret with articles of merchandise. At any hour, one merchant has but a few steps to go after any other, after a broker or a lawyer. This, it will be seen, is not according to the Paris fashion, by which a great deal of precious time is lost by men of business in running after one another; in this respect, Paris is the worst arranged commercial city in the world. New York is, however inferior in this particular to London or Liverpool; it has nothing like the great docks and the Commercial House.
The manners and customs are altogether those of a working, busy society. At the age of fifteen years, a man is engaged in business; at twentyone he is established, he has his farm, his workshop, his counting-room, or his office, in a word his employment, whatever it may be. He now also takes a wife, and at twentytwo is the father of a family, and consequently has a powerful stimulus to excite him to industry. A man who has no profession, and, which is nearly the same thing, who is not married, enjoys little consideration; he, who is an active and useful member of society, who contributes his share to augment the national wealth and increase the numbers of the population, he only is looked upon with respect and favour. The American is educated with the idea that he will have some particular occupation, that he is to be a farmer, artisan, manufacturer, merchant, speculator, lawyer, physician, or minister, perhaps all in succession, and that, if he is active and intelligent, he will make his fortune. He has no conception of living without a profession, even when his family is rich, for he sees nobody about him, not engaged in business. The man of leisure is a variety of the human species, of which the Yankee does not suspect the existence, and he knows that if rich to-day, his father may be ruined tomorrow. Besides the father himself is engaged in business, according to custom, and does not think of dispossessing himself of his fortune; if the son wishes to have one at present, let him make it himself!
The habits of life are those of an exclusively working people. From the moment he gets up, the American is at his work, and he is engaged in it till the hour of sleep. Pleasure is never permitted to interrupt his business; public affairs only have the right to occupy a few moments. Even meal-time is not for him a period of relaxation, in which his wearied mind seeks repose in the bosom of his friends; it is only a disagreeable interruption of business, an interruption to which he yields because it cannot be avoided, but which he abridges as much as possible. In the evening, if no political meeting requires his attendance, if he does not go to discuss some question of public interest, or to a religious meeting, he sits at home, thoughtful and absorbed in his meditations, whether on the transactions of the day or the projects of the morrow. He refrains from business on Sunday, because his religion commands it, but it also requires him to abstain from all amusement and recreation, music, cards, dice, or billiards, under penalty of sacrilege. On Sunday an American would not venture to receive his friends; his servants would not consent to it, and he can hardly secure their services for himself, at their own hour, on that day. A few days since, the mayor of New York was accused by one of the newspapers of having entertained on Sunday some English noblemen, who came out in their own yacht to give the American democracy a strange idea of British tastes. The mayor hastened to declare publicly, that he was too well acquainted with his duties as a Christian to entertain his friends on the Sabbath. Nothing is therefore, more melancholy than the seventh day in this country; after such a Sunday, the labour of Monday is a delightful pastime.
Approach an English merchant in his counting-room in the morning, and you will find him stiff and dry, answering you only by monosyllables; accost him at the hour of closing the mails, he will be at no pains to conceal his impatience; he will dismiss you without always taking care to do it politely. The same man, in his drawing-room in the evening, or at his country-house in summer, will be full of courtesy and attention towards you. The Englishman divides his time, and does but one thing at once; in the morning he is wholly absorbed in business; in the evening he plays the man of leisure, reposing and enjoying life; he is a gentleman, having before his eyes, in the English aristocracy, a perfect model to form his manners, and to teach him how to spend his fortune with dignity and grace. The modern Frenchman is a confused mixture of the Englishman of the evening and the Englishman of the morning; in the morning a little of the former, in the evening a little of the latter. The old French model was the former, or rather, to do each one justice, was the original after which the English aristocracy has formed itself. The American of the North and the Northwest, whose character now gives the tone in the United States, is permanently a man of business, he is always the Englishman of the morning. You find many of the Englishmen of the evening on the plantations of the South, and some are beginning to be met with in the great cities of the North.
Tall, slender, and light of figure, the American seems built expressly for labour; he has no equal for despatch of business. Nobody also can conform so easily to new situations and circumstances; he is always ready to adopt new processes and implements, or to change his occupation. He is a mechanic by nature; among us there is not a schoolboy who has not made a vaudeville, a ballad, or a republican or monarchial constitution; in Massachusetts and Connecticut, there is not a labourer who has not invented a machine or a tool. There is not a man of much consideration, who has not his scheme for a railroad, a project for a village or a town, or who has not in petto some grand speculation in the drowned lands of Red River, in the cotton lands of the Yazoo, or in the corn fields of Illinois. Eminently a pioneer, the American who is not more or less Europeanised, the pure Yankee, in a word, is not only a working man, but he is a migratory one. He has no root in the soil, he has no feeling of reverence, and love for the natal spot and the paternal roof; he is always disposed to emigrate, always ready to start in the first steamer that comes along, from the place where he had but just now landed. He is devoured with a passion for locomotion, he cannot stay in one place; he must go and come, he must stretch his limbs and keep his muscles in play. When his feet are not in motion, his fingers must be in action, he must be whittling a piece of wood, cutting the back of his chair, or notching the edge of the table, or his jaws must be at work grinding tobacco. Whether it be that a continual competition has given him the habit, or that he has an exaggerated estimate of the value of time, or that the unsettled state of everything around him, keeps his nervous system in a state of perpetual agitation, or that he has come thus from the hands of nature, he always has something to be done, he is always in a terrible hurry. He is fit for all sorts of work, except those which require slow and minute processes. The idea of these fills him with horror; it is his hell. “We are born in haste,” says an American writer, “we finish our education on the run; we marry on the wing; we make a fortune at a stroke, and lose it in the same manner, to make and lose it again ten times over, in the twinkling of an eye. Our body is a locomotive, going at the rate of twentyfive miles an hour; our soul, a high-pressure engine; our life is like a shooting star, and death overtakes us at last like a flash of lightning.”*
“Work,” says American society to the poor man; “work, and at eighteen years of age, although a mere workman, you shall get more than a captain in Europe. You shall live in plenty, be well-clothed, well-lodged, and be able to lay up a part of your earnings. Be attentive to your work, be sober and religious, and you will find a devoted and submissive partner of your fortunes; you shall have a more comfortable home, than many of the higher classes of the commonalty in Europe. From a journeyman, you will become a master; you will have apprentices and dependents under you in turn; you shall have credit without stint; you shall become a manufacturer or agriculturist on a great scale; you shall speculate and become rich; you shall found a town and give it your own name; you shall be a member of the legislature of the State, or alderman of the city, and finally member of Congress; your son will have as good a chance to be made President as the son of the President himself. Work, and if the fortune of business should be against you, and you fall, you will soon be able to rise again; for a failure is nothing but a wound in battle; it will not deprive you of the esteem or confidence of any one, if you have always been prudent and temperate, a good christian and a faithful husband.”
“Work,” it says to the rich, “work, and do not stop to think of enjoying your wealth. You shall increase your income without increasing your expenses; you shall enlarge you fortune, but it will be only to increase the sources of labour for the poor, and to extend your power over the material world. Be simple and severe in your exterior, but at home you may have the richest carpets, plate in abundance, the finest linens of Ireland and Saxony; externally your house shall be on the same model with all the others of the town; you shall have neither livery nor equipage; you shall not patronise the theatre, which tends to relax morals; you shall avoid play; you shall sign the articles and pledges of the Temperance Society; you shall not even indulge in good cheer; you shall set an example of constant attendance at church; you shall always show the most profound respect for morals and religion, for the farmer and mechanic around you have their eyes fixed upon you; they take you for their pattern, they still acknowledge you to be the arbiter of manners and customs, although they have taken from you the political sceptre. If you give yourself up to pleasure, to parade, to amusement, to dissipation and luxury, they also will give the reins to their gross appetites and their violent passions. Your country will be ruined, and you will be ruined with it.”
It is possible to imagine various social systems differently organised but equally favourable, theoretically, to the promotion of industry. We may imagine a society organised for labour under the influence of the principle of authority; that is, a society composed of a gradation of ranks; we may conceive another constituted under the auspices of the principle of liberty or independence. To organise a priori, for purposes of industry, any given people, it is necessary, under penalty of engendering a Utopian scheme, to consult the circumstances of its origin and the condition of its territory, to know whence and how it has come, and whither it is going. With the people of the United States, a scion of the English stock, and thoroughly imbued with Protestantism, the principle of independence, of individualism, of competition, in fine, could not but be successful. The iron hearts of the Puritans, the Ultras of Protestantism, could not fail to find this principle congenial to them. It is owing to this course that the sons of New England, which was peopled by the Pilgrims, have played the chief part in the occupation of the great valley of the Mississippi.
The civilisation of the West* has sprung from the secret and silent cooperation of two or three hundred thousand young farmers, who started, each on his own account, from New England, often alone, sometimes with a small company of friends. This system would not have succeeded with Frenchmen. The Yankee alone in the woods, with no companion but his wife, is all-sufficient for himself. The Frenchman is eminently social; he could not bear the solitude in which the Yankee would feel at his ease. The latter, although solitary, becomes excited by his own plans and eager to accomplish them. The Frenchman cannot become interested in any industrial enterprise except in connection with others, whose concurrence with him is evident and palpable, or rather he rarely becomes interested in any material task, for he reserves his affections and sympathies for living objects. It is quite impossible for him to fall in love with a clearing, to feel the same transports at the success of a manufacture as for the safety of a friend or the happiness of a mistress; but he is capable of applying himself to the task with ardour, if his characteristic passions, his thirst for glory and his spirit of emulation, are brought into play by contact with human beings. If it were proposed, then, to settle colonies with Frenchmen, it would be necessary to put little reliance on individual efforts. In all things, as well as in a line of battle, a Frenchman must feel his neighbour’s elbow. Americans might be thrown separately upon a new land, they would form little centres round which constantly expanding circles of population and cultivation would grow up. But if the new settlers were Frenchmen, it would be necessary to carry with them a society ready constituted, social bonds already binding them in, or at least a regular social framework, and bolts to which the social bonds are to be attached; that is, they must have, at starting, the great circle with its centre strongly marked.
Canada is almost the only colony that has been founded exclusively by Frenchmen,* and a complete social organisation was carried thither. The country once explored, the royal fleet landed the seigneurs, who had received fiefs from royal grants, and who were followed by vassals transplanted from Normandy and Brittany, among whom the lands were distributed. At the same time an endowed regular and secular clergy, with ample domains and the right of collecting the tithe, was brought to the St. Lawrence. Next came traders and companies, to whom was given the monopoly of the fur-trade and the commerce of the colony. In a word the three orders, the clergy, nobility, and third estate, were imported ready made from Old France into New. The only thing which the colonists left behind them, was the poverty of the greatest number. The system was a good one for that period; the principle of order and of ranks, which prevailed under the only form then practicable, was in keeping with the character of the people. The proof of this is to be found in the fact, that Canada has flourished under this system in which the English conquerors have made no changes, and the population has increased in the bosom of general ease. I have seen nothing which more completely realised the aurea mediocritas, than the pretty villages on the banks of the St. Lawrence. They do not exhibit the ambitious prosperity of those of the United States; they are much more modest than those of the republic; but if there is less show, there is also more content and happiness. Canada reminded me of Switzerland; it is the same aspect of calm contentment and quiet happiness. It would be a subject of admiration were it not by the side of the American colossus; its rapid growth would attract attention, were it not for the miraculous expansion of the United States. Neither would it be right to assert that the progress of Canada has been in spite of the colonial system; the dispute about the because and the although is easily settled in this case. All that was burdensome about the original system remains untouched, and there is no complaint against it. The seignorial dues, the tithe, the seignorial mill, and the four banal, still exist in full vigour; and do not appear in the interminable list of ninetythree grievances, lately drawn up by the Canadians.
[* ] In the hotels and on board the steamboats, the door of the eating-room is beset by a crowd on the approach of a meal-time. As soon as the bell sounds, there is a general rush into the room, and in less than ten minutes every place is occupied. In a quarter of an hour, out of 300 persons, 200 have left the table, and in ten minutes more not an individual is to be seen On my passage from Baltimore to Norfolk, in the winter of 1834, I found that, notwithstanding the cold, three fourths of the passengers had risen at 4 o’clock, and at six, being almost the only person left abed, and feeling sure that we must be near our port, I got up, and went upon deck; but it was not until eight o’clock, that we came in sight of Norfolk. On mentioning the fact afterward to an American, a man of sense, who was on board at the same time, and who, wiser than I, had lain abed till after sunrise; “Ah, sir,” said he, “if you knew my countrymen better, you wouldn’t be at all surprised at their getting up at four o’clock, with the intention of arriving at nine. An American is always on the lookout lest any of his neighbours should get the start of him. If one hundred Americans were going to be shot, they would contend for the priority, so strong is their habit of competition.”
[* ] I allude particularly to the Northwest, or that portion of the West in which slavery does not exist.
[* ] In Louisiana, St Domingo, and the other islands, the mass of the population consisted of blacks.