Front Page Titles (by Subject) LETTER XXV.: BEDFORD SPRINGS. - Society, Manners and Politics in the United States
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LETTER XXV.: BEDFORD SPRINGS. - 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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BedfordSprings, (Pa.) Aug. 7, 1835.
Here I am at Bedford, one of the American watering-places; it is hardly three days since I arrived, and I am already in haste to quit it. The Americans, and, still more especially, the American women, must be desperately listless at home, to be willing to exchange its quiet comfort for the stupid bustle, and dull wretchedness of such a residence. It would seem that in a country truly democratic, as is the case here in the Northern States, nothing like our watering-places can exist; and you will see that in proportion as Europe grows democratic, if such is its destiny, your delightful summer resorts will lose their charm. Man is naturally exclusive; there are few pleasures, which do not cease to be such, the moment they become accessible to all, and for that reason only. At Saratoga or at Bedford, the American soon grows weary, because he sees that there are twenty thousand heads of families in Philadelphia and New York, who can, as well as he, if the notion seizes them, and it actually does seize them, have the satisfaction of bringing their wives and daughters to the same place, and, once there, of gaping on a chair in the piazza the whole day; of going, arms in hand (I mean the knife and fork,) to secure their share of a wretched dinner; of being stifled in the crowd of the ball-room during the evening, and of sleeping, if it is possible, in the midst of such a hubbub, upon a miserable pallet in a cell echoing one’s tread from its floor of pine boards. The American passes through the magnificent landscapes on the Hudson without noticing them, because he is one of six hundred or a thousand on board the steamer. And to confess the truth, I have become an American myself in this respect, and I admired the panorama of West Point and the Highlands, only when I found myself alone in my boat on the river.
Democracy is too new a comer upon the earth, to have been able as yet to organise its pleasures and its amusements. In Europe, our pleasures are essentially exclusive, they are aristocratic like Europe itself, and cannot, therefore, be at the command and for the use of the multitude. In this matter, then, as in politics, the American democracy has yet to create every thing afresh. The problem is difficult, but it is not insoluble, for it was once resolved among us. The religious festivals of the Catholic church were eminently democratic; all were called to them, all took part in them. To what transports of joy did not all Europe, great and small, nobles, burgesses, and serfs, give itself up in the time of the crusades, when the victory of Antioch or the capture of Jerusalem was celebrated by processions and Te Deums? Even to this day, in our southern provinces, where faith is not yet extinct, there are ceremonies truly popular; such are the festival of Easter with the representations of the Passion exhibited in the churches, and the processions with banners and crosses, the brotherhoods of penitents with their quaint frocks and flowing robes, and their long files of women and children; with the effigies of the saints in full dress, and their relics piously carried about; and, finally, with the military and civil pomp, which, notwithstanding the atheism of the law, is mingled with the show. This is the poor man’s spectacle, and one which leaves on his mind better and more vivid recollections, than the atrocious dramas of the boulevard and the fire-works of the Barrier of the Throne, leave to the suburban of Paris.
Already democracy, especially in the Western States, is beginning to have its festivals, which thrill its fibres, and stir it with agreeable emotions. There are religious festivals, the Methodist camp-meetings, to which the people press with eager delight, in spite of the philosophical remonstrances of the more refined sects, who find fault with their heated zeal and noisy ranting, and in spite, or rather in consequence, of the convulsionary and hysterical scenes of the anxious bench. In the older States of the North, there are political processions, for the most part mere party exhibitions, but which are interesting in this respect, that the democracy has a share in them; for it is the democratic party that gets up the most brilliant and animated. Beside the camp-meetings, the political processions are the only things in this country, which bear any resemblance to festivals. The party dinners, with their speeches and deluge of toasts, are frigid, if not repulsive; and I have never seen a more miserable affair, than the dinner given by the Opposition, that is to say, by the middle class, at Powelton, in the neighbourhood of Philadelphia. But I stopped involuntarily at the sight of the gigantic hickory-poles which made their solemn entry on eight wheels, for the purpose of being planted by the democracy on the eve of the election. I remember one of these poles, with its top still crowned with green foliage, which came on to the sound of fifes and drums, and was preceded by ranks of democrats, bearing no other badge than a twig of the sacred tree in their hats. It was drawn by eight horses, decorated with ribbands and mottoes; Astride on the tree itself, were a dozen Jackson men of the first water, waving flags with an air of anticipated triumph, and shouting, Hurrah for Jackson!
But this entry of the hickory was but a by-matter compared with the procession I witnessed in New York. It was in the night after the closing of the polls, when victory had pronounced in favour of the democratic party. (See Letter XV.). The procession was nearly a mile long; the democrats marched in good order to the glare of torches; the banners were more numerous than I had ever seen them in any religious festival; all were in transparency, on account of the darkness. On some were inscribed the names of the democratic societies or sections; Democratic young men of the ninth or eleventh ward; others bore imprecations against the Bank of the United States; Nick Biddle and Old Nick here figured largely, and formed the pendant of our libera nos a malo. Then came portraits of General Jackson afoot and on horseback; there was one in the uniform of a general, and another in the person of the Tennessee farmer, with the famous hickory cane in his hand. Those of Washington and Jefferson, surrounded with democratic mottoes, were mingled with emblems in all tastes and of all colours. Among these figured an eagle, not a painting, but a real live eagle, tied by the legs, surrounded by a wreath of leaves, and hoisted upon a pole, after the manner of the Roman standards. The imperial bird was carried by a stout sailor, more pleased than ever was a sergeant permitted to hold one of the strings of the canopy, in a catholic ceremony. From further than the eye could reach, came marching on the democrats. I was struck with the resemblance of their air to the train that escorts the viaticum in Mexico or Puebla. The American standard-bearers were as grave as the Mexican Indians who bore the sacred tapers. The democratic procession, also, like the Catholic procession, had its halting places; it stopped before the houses of the Jackson men to fill the air with cheers, and halted at the doors of the leaders of the Opposition, to give three, six, or nine groans. If these scenes were to find a painter, they would be admired at a distance, not less than the triumphs and sacrificial pomps, which the ancients have left us delineated in marble and brass; for they are not mere grotesques after the manner of Rembrandt, they belong to history, they partake of the grand; they are the episodes of a wondrous epic which will bequeath a lasting memory to posterity; that of the coming of democracy.
Yet as festivals and spectacles, these processions are much inferior to revivals, which take place in the camp-meetings. All festivals and ceremonies in which woman does not take part, are incomplete. Why is it that our constitutional ceremonies are so entirely devoid of interest? It is not because the actors are merely commoners, very respectable citizens surely, but very prosaic, and that the pomp of costumes and the fascination of the arts, are banished from them; it is rather because women do not and cannot have a place in them. A wit has said that women are not poets, but they are poetry itself.
I remember what made the charm and the attraction of the processions in my provincial city. We opened our eyes with wonder at the red robe of the chief president; we gazed with delight at the epaulets and gold lace of the general, and more than one youth was inspired with military ardour at that show; we stretched forward with impatience to catch a glimpse of the episcopal train; we threw ourselves on our knees mechanically, on the approach of the canopy with its escort of priests, and the venerable bishop, crowned with the mitre, and bearing the host in his hands; we envied the glory of those boys, who had the privilege of enacting St. Mark or St. Peter for the day; more than one tall stripling was glad to sink his fifteen years, in which he prided himself, for the sake of taking the character of St. John, clad in a sheepskin; but the whole multitude held their breath, when, beneath the forest of banners, through the peaked frocks of the penitents and the bayonets of the garrison, amidst the surplices and albs of the priests, there appeared in sight one of those young girls in white robes, who represented the holy women and the Mother of the seven woes; or she, who in the person of St. Veronica, displayed the handkerchief, with which the sweat was wiped from the Saviour’s brow as he ascended Mount Calvary; or she, who, loaded with gold chains, ribands, and pearls, represented the empress at the side of the emperor;* or those who had just been confirmed by my lord bishop, and still bore the traces of the emotions excited by that solemn act. So it is because there are women in the camp-meetings, and because they take a not less active part in them than the most rousing preachers, and it is on this account only, that the American democracy throngs to these assemblages. The camp-meetings with their raving Pythonissas have made the fortune of the Methodists, and attracted to their church in America a more numerous body of adherents than is numbered by any of the English sects in Europe.
Take women from the tournaments, and they become nothing more than a fencing-bout; from camp-meetings take away the anxious bench, remove those women who fall into convulsions, shriek, and roll on the ground, who, pale, dishevelled, and haggard, cling to the minister from whom they inhale the holy spirit, or seize the hardened sinner at the door of the tent, or in the passage-way, and strive to melt his stony heart; it will be in vain, that a majestic forest overshadows the scene, of a beautiful summer’s night, under a sky that need not fear a comparison with a Grecian heavens; in vain, will you be surrounded with tents and numberless chariots, that recall to mind the long train of Israel fleeing from Egypt; in vain the distant fires, gleaming amongst the trees, will reveal the forms of the preachers gesticulating above the crowd; in vain, will the echo of the woods fling back the tones of their voice; you will be weary of the spectacle in an hour. But the camp-meetings, as they are now conducted, have the power of holding the people of the West for whole weeks: some have lasted a month.
I allow that the camp-meetings and political processions are as yet only exceptions in America. A people has not a complete national character, until it has its peculiar and appropriate amusements, national festivals, poetry. In this respect, it will not be easy to create American nationality; the American has no past from which to draw inspiration. On quitting the old soil of Europe, on breaking off from England, his fathers left behind them the national chronicles, the traditions, the legends, all that constitutes country, that country which is not carried about on the soles of one’s feet. The American, then, has become poor in ideality, in proportion as he has become rich in material wealth. But a democracy always has some resource, so far as imagination is concerned. I cannot pretend to decide how the American democracy will supply the want of a past and of old recollections, any more than I can undertake to pronounce, in what manner it will bridle itself, and curb its own humours. But I am sure that America will have her festivals, her ceremonies, and her art, as I am that society in America will assume a regular organisation; for I believe in the future of American society, or, to speak more correctly, of the beginnings of society. whose growth is visible on the east and still more on the west of the Alleghanies.
In France we have been for more than a century struggling against ourselves, in the attempt to lay aside our national originality. We are striving to become reasonable according to what we imagine to be the English pattern; and after our example the Southern Europeans are endeavouring to torture themselves into a parliamentary and calculating demeanour. Imagination is treated as a lunatic. Noble sentiments, enthusiasm, chivalric loftiness of soul, all that made the glory of France, and gave Spain half the world, is regarded with contempt and derision. The public festivals and popular ceremonies have become the laughing-stock of the free thinkers. Love of the fine arts is nothing more than a frivolous passion. We make the most desperate efforts to starve the heart and soul, conformably to the prescriptions of our religious and political Sangrados. To strip life of the last vestige of taste and art, we have gone so far as to exchange the majestic elegance of the costume, which we borrowed from the Spaniards when they ruled Europe, for the undress of the English, which may be described in one word, as suited to the climate of Great Britain. This could be borne, if we had merely flung away our tournaments, our carousals, our jubilees, our religious festivals, our elegance of garb. But unhappily we have gone to the sources of all national and social poetry, to religion itself, and tried to dry them up. Our manners and customs scarcely retain the slightest tincture of their boasted grace. Politics is abandoned to the dryest matter of fact. The national genius would have to be given over as past cure, did not now and then some gleams and outbursts prove that it is not dead but sleeps, and that the holy fire is yet smouldering beneath the ashes.
France, and the peoples of Southern Europe, of whom she is the coryphæus, certainly owe much to the philosophy of the 18th century; for that was our Protest, that raised the standard of liberty amongst us, opened a career for the progress of mind, and established individuality. But it must be confessed that it is inferior to German, English, and American Protestantism, because it is irreligious. The writings of the Apostles of that great revolution will survive as literary monuments, but not as lessons of morality; for whatever is irreligious, can have but a transient social value. Place the remains of Voltaire and Montesquieu, of Rousseau and Diderot, in the Pantheon; but on their monuments deposit their works veiled under a shroud. Teach the people to bless their memory; but do not teach it their doctrines, and do not permit it to learn them from servile followers, whom those great writers would disavow, if they could return to the earth; for men like them belong to the present or a future age, but never to the past.
In return for all that has been taken from us, we have received the representative system. This, it has been supposed, would satisfy all our wants, would meet all our wishes in moral and intellectual, as well as in physical things. Far be it from me to undervalue the representative system! I believe in its permanency, although I doubt whether we have yet discovered the form, under which it is suited to the character of the French and the Southern Europeans; but whatever may be its political value, it cannot be denied that it does not, that it never can, of itself alone, make good the place of all that the reformers have robbed us of. It has its ceremonies and its festivals; but these smell too much of the parchment not to disgust our senses. It has, to a certain degree, its dogmas and its mysteries, but it has no hold on the imagination. Art has no sympathy with it; it has not the power to move the heart; and it embraces, therefore, but one fourth of our existence.
I can conceive how representative government should here be made the keystone of the social arch. An American of fifteen years of age is as reasonable as a Frenchman of forty. Then society here is wholly masculine; woman, who in all countries has little of the spirit of the representative system, here possesses no authority; there are no saloons in the United States. But even here the system no longer exists in its primitive purity except on paper. The field of religion, although much narrowed, it is true, still remains open here, and the imagination still finds food, however meagre, within its limits. But among us, it would be sheer fanaticism to set up the representative system as the pivot of social life. All of us, God be thanked, have a period of youth! Among us, women have a real power, although not enumerated in the articles of the Charter; and our national character has many feminine, I will not say effeminate, features. In vain would you decimate France, and leave only the burghers of forty years, who have the senses calmed, the mind clear of illusions, that is to say, unpoetical and dry; you would hardly then have a community that would be satisfied with constitutional emotions.
This is the cause why France is the theatre of a perpetual struggle between the old and the middle-aged on one side, and the young, who find their bounds too narrow, on the other. Youth accuses age of narrow views, of timidity, of selfishness; the old complain of the greedy ambition which devours the young, and of their ungovernable turbulence. That is the only good government, which satisfies at once the demands for order, regularity, stability and physical prosperity on the part of those of riper years, and fills the longings of the young, and of that portion of society which always continues youthful, for lively sensations, brilliant schemes, and lofty aspirations. By the side of their parliament, the English have their vast colonies, by which this spirit finds vent, over the remotest seas. The Anglo-Americans have the West, and also, like Great Britain, the ocean. This double invasion of the East by the fathers, and of the West by the emancipated sons, is a spectacle of gigantic magnitude and sublime interest. To suppose that we, who stand in need of some vast enterprise, in which some may play a part before the eyes of the world, and others may enjoy the spectacle of their prowess,—to suppose that we shall be content to be forever imprisoned within our own territory, with no other occupation than that of watching or turning the wheels of the representative machine, would be to wish that a man of taste, confined to this paltry hamlet of Bedford, should imagine himself in paradise.
[* ] This is one of the recollections of the Roman empire, which has left deep impressions in the South of France.