Front Page Titles (by Subject) LETTER XXVI.: POWER AND LIBERTY. - Society, Manners and Politics in the United States
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LETTER XXVI.: POWER AND LIBERTY. - 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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POWER AND LIBERTY.
Richmond, Aug. 16, 1835.
Richmond stands in an admirable situation on the slope of a hill whose base is bathed by the James River. Its Capitol, with its brick columns covered with plaster, with its cornice and architrave of painted wood, produces an effect, at a distance, which even the Parthenon, in the days of Pericles, could not have surpassed; for the sky of Virginia, when it is not darkened by a storm, or veiled with snow, is as beautiful as that of Attica. Richmond has its port nearer than the Piræus was to Athens, while, at the same time it stands upon the falls of James River. Richmond enchanted me from the first by its charming situation and the cordiality of its inhabitants; and it pleases me by its ambition, for it aspires to be a metropolis, and it is making the due preparations to assume that character by the great works which it is executing or aiding to execute, canals, railroads, water-works, huge mills, workshops, for which the fall in the river affords an almost unlimited motive power. Here I also found some countrymen, whose love for their country had not been chilled by fifty years of absence and eighty years of age, and who have preserved, amidst the simplicity of American manners, that fine flower of courtesy, of which the germ is daily disappearing amongst us. I went yesterday, for the second time, to visit the cannon and mortars, given to America during her struggle for independence, by Louis XVI. In the Capitol, by the side of the statue of Washington, I found the bust of Lafayette. I heard the names of Rochambeau and d’Estaing pronounced, as if they were old friends who had left but yesterday. I seem to myself, at times to have been miraculously transported, not into France, but on the frontiers.
My admiration of Richmond is not, however, blind; the founders of the new city have plotted out streets one hundred feet wide, like the highways in the style of Louis XIV.; but in our great roads, between the quagmires on the right and left, there is at least a strip of passable pavement or roadway. The streets of new Richmond have neither pavement nor light. In the rainy season, they are dangerous bogs, in which, I am told, that several cows, who are here allowed by the municipal authorities to go at large, have met with the fate of the master of Ravensworth in the Kelpie. Richmond has, also, something of the aspect of Washington; with the exception of the business part of the town, it is neither city nor country; the houses are scattered about on an imaginary plan, and it is almost impossible to find any lines to guide you, or to recognise the street K, F, or D, to which you are referred; for the alphabet has furnished the names here, as the arithmetic has done at Washington. The plot of Richmond has, however, this advantage over that of Washington, that it is on a smaller scale and will be more speedily filled up; whilst Washington with its arrangements for a million inhabitants, will not, perhaps, have fifty thousand, twenty years hence.
There is something in Richmond which offends me more than its bottomless mudholes, and shocks me more than the rudeness of the western Virginians,* whom I met here during the session of the legislature; it is slavery. Half of the population is black or mulatto; physically, the negroes are well used in Virginia, partly from motives of humanity, and partly, because they are so much live stock raised for exportation to Louisiana; morally, they are treated as if they did not belong to the human race. Free or slave, the black is here denied all that can give him the dignity of man. The law forbids the instruction of the slave or the free man of colour in the simplest rudiments of learning, under the severest penalties; the slave has no family; he has no civil rights; he holds no property. The white man knows that the slave has opened his ear to the word which every thing here proclaims aloud, liberty; he knows that in secret the negro broods over hopes and schemes of vengeance, and that the exploits and martyrdom of Gabriel, the leader of an old conspiracy, and of Turner, the hero of a more recent insurrection, are still related in the negro cabins.* The precautionary measures which this knowledge has induced the whites to adopt, are such as freeze the heart of a stranger with horror.
Richmond is noted for its tobacco and flour market. The Richmond flour is prized at Rio Janeiro as much as at New York, at Lima as well as at Havana. The largest flour-mill in the world is at Richmond, running twenty pair of stones, containing a great variety of accessory machinery, and capable of manufacturing 600 barrels of flour a day. The reputation of the Richmond flour in foreign markets, like that of the American flour in general, depends upon a system of inspection peculiar to the country, which contravenes, indeed, the theory of absolute commercial freedom, but is essential to the prosperity of American commerce, and has never, that I have heard of, been a subject of complaint. The flour is inspected previous to its being exported. The weight of each barrel and the quality of of the flour are ascertained by the inspector, and branded on the barrel-head. The superior qualities only can be exported; the inspection is real and thorough, and is performed at the expense of the holder. The Havana, Brasilian, or Peruvian merchant is thus perfectly sure of the quality of the merchandise he buys; both the buyer and the seller find their advantage in it. Commerce can no more dispense with confidence in the market than with credit in the counting-house.
Tobacco is subjected to the same system of inspection, and in general, all the coast States, all those from which produce is exported to foreign parts, have established this system, and applied it to almost all articles in which frauds can be committed. Thus in New York wheat-flour and Indian corn-meal, beef, pork, salt fish, potash, whale oil, lumber, staves, flax-seed, leather, tobacco, hops, spirits, are all inspected. In regard to flour, the law is more rigourous than in respect to other articles. The inspector brands with the word light those barrels which are not of the legal weight, and the exportation of which is also prohibited, and with the word bad those which are of poor quality. As for Indian corn, it is required that the grain shall have been kiln-dried before grinding. Flour from other States cannot be sold in the city of New York, even for local consumption, unless it has been inspected the same as if for exportation. Every inspector has the right to search vessels in which he suspects that there is flour that has not been inspected, and to seize what has been so shipped, or what it has been attempted to ship. There are beside various other provisions and penalties to prevent fraud.
If the necessity of these inspections were not sufficiently proved by their good effects and by long experience, it would be by the abuses that prevail in those articles of commerce which are not subjected to the system. Complaints have already been made in Liverpool, that bales of cotton are often made up of an inferior article concealed beneath an outer layer of good quality. From a report addressed to the Chamber of American Commerce in this metropolis of the cotton trade, by the principal cotton-brokers, it appears that this has not been confined to two or three bales, amidst large quantities, but that whole lots of one or two hundred bales have been found thus deficient.
What! it will be said, is there not, then, freedom of commerce in this classic land of liberty? No! the foreign commerce is not free in the United States, because the American people is not willing to expose the industry and commerce of a whole country to be ruined by the first rogue that comes along. The people of this country is eminently a working people; every one is at liberty to work, to choose his profession, and to change it twenty times; every one has the right to go and come on his business, at pleasure, and to transport his person and his industry from the centre to the circumference, and from the circumference to the centre. If the country does not enjoy the political advantages of administrative unity, neither is it hampered in the most petty details of industry by excessive centralisation. No man is obliged to go six hundred miles to solicit the license and personal signature of a minister, overloaded with business, and harassed by parliamentary solicitudes. But American liberty is not a mystical, undefined liberty; it is a practical liberty, in harmony with the peculiar genius of the people and its peculiar destiny; it is a liberty of action and motion, of which the American avails himself to spread himself over the vast territory that Providence has given him, and to subdue it to his uses. The liberty of locomotion is almost absolute with the exception of some restraints imposed by the observance of the Sabbath. The liberty, or rather independence, in matters of industry is also ample; but if it is abused by some individuals, the general tendency is to restrain them by law or by dictatorial measures, or by the influence of public opinion, sometimes expressed in the shape of mobs.
The restraints on internal trade are few; there are, however, some restrictions upon hawkers and pedlers who impose on the credulity of the country people. If no effective bankrupt-law has yet been enacted, severe penalties are provided against false pretences. If stock-jobbing has not been prohibited, it is not from want of will on the part of the legislators, for they are fully alive to the evils of unproductive speculation, which diverts from industry the needful capital; but because they do not see how it is to be effectually prevented. Besides, it is not easy to commit frauds in the United States, in the home trade; for here every body knows every body else, and every one is on the watch against others; and it is not difficult to ascend to the sources of a fraud. In respect to articles designed for the foreign trade, detection is not so easy. There is also here a sort of patriotism, which is by no means at war with the real interests of the parties, and which operates with the fear of public opinion, in keeping up a certain degree of honesty in domestic transactions, and a tone of morality, which, if not wholly above reproach, is certainly far superior to what prevails amongst us; whilst, to many persons, all is fair in dealings with foreigners, whom they look upon as a kind of barbarians.
Previous to 1789, we had numerous restrictions not only on foreign commerce, but on domestic industry, in France. These were all blown away by the Revolution; and certainly the destruction of most of them, which had become antiquated and inapplicable to the existing state of things, was a great gain; but we have run into the contrary extreme, and abolished not only the burdensome restraints, but the most salutary checks, and among them the inspection of exported articles. Yet on the whole we have gained in respect to domestic industry, by sweeping away those often cumbersome regulations; but in regard to our foreign trade, the evil has certainly overborne the good, as the decline of our maritime commerce fully proves.
On the peace of 1814, when the sea was again opened to our vessels, our foreign commerce fell into the hands of petty traffickers, whose cupidity exhausted the vocabulary of fraud. During the first years after the Restoration, the French name became discredited in all the markets of the Old and the New World. The Levant trade, of which we had the monopoly, passed into the hands of the English and Austrians. The stuffs, with which we formerly supplied the East, being no longer subject to inspection on exportation, fell short in measure and were inferior in quality. Formerly packages of our goods changed hands without distrust and without search; but it became necessary to submit them to a rigourous examination, for their contents often turned out to be quite different from the invoice. South America was the great theatre of these frauds; water was actually sold for Burgundy, rolls of wood for rolls of ribands. The Bordelese, who, not without reason, charge the prohibitive system with the decline of their prosperity, cannot be blind to the fact, that their own unscrupulous rapacity contributed pretty largely to this result.
As customers could no longer be found to deal with us, these frauds have necessarily been checked. Our foreign trade has gradually fallen into the hands of a few great houses, and this concentration, which has powerfully contributed to the prevalence of honorable dealings in English commerce, has done something towards reviving ours. The small dealers have been driven out of the field; and it is to this cause that we have to attribute the good condition of our trade with the United States. But let us not deceive ourselves; some sleights of hand are still played off; Bordeaux is not yet wholly purged of the infection; French commerce abroad is yet cankered by foul sores. It must be confessed, that, if our public policy has been marked by a good faith and a spirit of disinterestedness, that give us a right to denounce the Punic faith of perfidious Albion, the English race can proudly oppose the bold and honourable spirit of its commercial dealings to the pusillanimity and unworthy shifts of our own. Let us confess our shame, and submit to the necessary diet for the cure of so loathsome a leprosy.
The United States constitute a society which moves under the impulse and by the guidance of instinct, rather than according to any premeditated plan; it does not know itself. It rejects the tyranny of a past, which is exclusively military in its character, and yet it is deeply imbued with the sentiment of order. It has been nurtured in the hatred of the old political systems of Europe; but a feeling of the necessity of self-restraint runs through its veins. It is divided between its instinctive perceptions of the future and its aversion to the past; between its thirst after freedom, and its hunger for social order; between its religious veneration of experience, and its horror of the violence of past ages. Hence the apparent contradictions which appear in its tastes and its tendencies; but the confusion is only apparent.
In each State there are two authorities, distinct in their composition and their attributes. The one corresponds to the government in the European social system, to the old Cæsar. At its head is a magistrate who bears the old name of Governor,* with the pompous title of commander-in-chief of the sea and land forces. This authority is reduced to a shadow. In the new States of the West, which have come into the world since the establishment of Independence, its attributes have been gradually suppressed, or rather the citizens have reserved the exercise of them to themselves. Thus the people itself appoint most of the public officers. The management of funds is rarely confided to the Governor, but is generally entrusted to a special board of Commissioners. The Governor has not the control of the forces of the State; strictly speaking, indeed, there are none; but in case of necessity, the Sheriff has the right to summon the posse comitatus, and to oblige all bystanders, armed or not, to render him assistance, and to act as police officers. There is no regular police, there are no passports; but nobody can stop at an inn without entering his name and residence on the register. This register is open to the examination of all in the bar-room, which is a necessary appendage of every public place, and there it remains at all times to be turned over by all. The bar-keeper fills, in fact, the post of commissioner of police, and the crowd that assembles in the bar-room to read the newspapers, smoke, drink whiskey, and talk politics, that is to say all travellers, would, in case of necessity, be ready to act the part of constables. This is real self-government; these are the obligations and responsibilities, that every citizen takes upon himself when he disarms authority. The power of the Governor, who was formerly the representative of royalty, the brilliant reflexion of the omnipotence of the proud monarchs of Europe, is crumbled to dust. Even the exterior of power has not been kept up; he has no guards, no palace, no money. The Governors of Indiana and Illinois have a salary of 1000 dollars a year, without a house or any accessories. There is not a trader in Cincinnati, who does not pay his head-clerk better; the clerks at Washington have 700 dollars a year.
This fall of power is to be explained by other considerations than those drawn from the principle of self-government. The ancient power was Cæsar, was military in its character. American society has denied Cæsar. In Europe, it has been necessary that Cæsar should be strong for the security of national independence; for in Europe we are always on the eve of war. The United States, on the contrary, are organised on the principle, that war between the States is an impossibility, and that a foreign war is scarcely probable. The Americans, therefore, can dispense with Cæsar, but we are obliged to cleave to him. Yet it is not to be inferred that they can and will long dispense with authority, or that they are even now free from its control. There is, in America, religious authority, which never closes its eyes; there is the authority of opinion, which is severe to rigour; there is the authority of the legislatures, which sometimes savours of the omnipotence of parliament; there is the dictatorial authority of mobs.
Still more; by the side of the power of Cæsar, in political affairs, another regular authority is beginning to show itself, which embraces within its domain the modern institutions and new establishments of public utility, such as the public routes, banks, and elementary schools, that, in the United States, have acquired an unparallelled magnitude. Thus there are Canal Commissioners, Bank Commissioners, School Commissioners. Their power is great and real. The Canal Commissioners establish administrative regulations, which they change at will, without previous notice. They fix and change the rate of tolls; they are surrounded by a large body of agents, entirely dependent upon them and removeable at pleasure; they are charged with the management of large sums of money; the sums that passed through the hands of the Pennsylvania Commissioners amounted to nearly 23,000,000 dollars. They are certainly subjected to a less minute and rigourous control, than is extended to the most trifling affairs of our Board of Public Works or our Engineer Department. If they had had our financial regulations, our system of responsibility, our court of accounts, they would, certainly, have spent ten years more in executing the works entrusted to them, and they would have executed them no better and no cheaper. The Bank Commissioners in the State of New York, by the provisions of the Safety Fund Act, are clothed, by right, if not in fact, with a sort of dictatorship; they have, in certain cases, power of life and death over the banks.
It is in the new States, especially, that one should see the Commissioners exercise their powers. Last summer the Ohio Canal Commissioners, perceiving or thinking that they perceived, a conspiracy among the persons engaged in the transportation of goods on the New York canals to raise the rates of freight, immediately adopted a resolution to this effect; whereas certain persons have shown a disposition to make exorbitant charges, the rates of toll on all articles that may have paid on the New York canal, above a certain rate of freight, shall be double. This was establishing a maximum, not only on their own territory, but on that of a neighbouring State. A director-general of our public routes, who should take such a liberty, would be forthwith denounced as violating the principles of commercial freedom. In the United States, every body agrees that the Ohio Commissioners were right; that the profits of the transportation companies would be somewhat less, but the public would be the gainer, and the former accordingly submitted.
In the United States, then, the general weal is the supreme law; and it immediately raises its head and vindicates its rights, when it feels the encroachments of private interest. The system of government in this country is, therefore, not so much a system of absolute liberty and free will, as a system of equality, or rather it takes the character of a strong rule by the majority. In looking at some of the provisions in the charters of incorporated companies, one is tempted to ask how associations could be formed on such conditions, and how they have been able to procure capital. In Massachusetts, the share-holders are individually responsible for the debts of the company. In Pennsylvania, it is expressly provided, that, if at any time the privileges granted to the corporation shall prove to be contrary to the public good, the legislature may revoke them. This is the germ of despotism; but in the United States, Cæsar is disarmed; the old feudal line has neither fangs nor claws. Industry is prompt to take alarm at the exercise of despotism by Cæsar; but it is only in extreme cases, that it will feel any distrust of a society which lives and flourishes by labour, and all whose ends and aims, public and private, are self-aggrandisement by means of productive labour.
To understand fully the meaning of the word liberty, as it is used in this country, it is necessary to go to the sources of the American population; that is to say, to the origin of the distinction between the Yankee and the Virginian race. They have arrived at their notions of liberty by different avenues, the one by the gate of religion, and the other by that of politics, and have, therefore, understood it very differently.
When the Yankee came to settle himself in the New World, it was not for the purpose of founding an empire, but to establish a church. He fled from a land, which had shaken off the yoke of the papal Babylon, only to fall under that of the Babylon of episcopacy. He left behind him Satan, his pomp, and his works; he shook from the soles of his feet the dust of the inhospitable land of the Stuarts and the Anglican bishops; he sought a refuge in which he might practise his own mode of worship and obey what he believed to be the law of God. The Pilgrims, landed on Plymouth rock, established a liberty according to their own notion; it was a liberty for their own use exclusively, within whose embrace they felt perfectly at ease themselves, without caring if others were stifled by it. It might have been expected, that, proscribed themselves, they would at least have admitted religious toleration; but they did not grant it the narrowest corner, and even now it is far from having elbow room among them. Originally, the right of citizenship was extended only to Puritans like themselves; the state and the church were confounded; it was not until 1832 that they were definitely and completely separated in Massachusetts. The Jew and the Quaker were forbidden to touch the soil under the severest penalties, and in case of return, under pain of death. At present, if the law tolerates the Roman Catholic, public opinion does not, as the burning of the Ursuline convent in 1834, and the scandalous scenes exhibited at the trials of the incendiaries, testify. Still less mercy is shown to unbelief; witness the trial of Abner Kneeland for blasphemy, on account of his pantheistic writings.*
The Yankee type exhibits little variety; all Yankees seem to be cast in the same mould; it was, therefore, very easy for them to organise a system of liberty for themselves, that is, to construct a frame, within which they should have the necessary freedom of motion. On their arrival they accordingly formed the plan of one, not merely tracing its general outlines and form, but dividing it into numerous compartments controlling all the details of life, with as much minuteness as the Mosaic law did that of the Hebrews. Thus organised, it became impossible for any man not cut to the same pattern, to establish himself among them. Although most of those laws which thus reduced life to rules,* have been abrogated, especially since the Revolution, still their spirit survives. The habits which gave them birth, and to which, by a natural reaction, they gave strength, still exist, and to this day it is observable, that no foreigner settles in New England.
As for us, who resemble each other in nothing, except in differing from every body else, for us, to whom variety is as necessary as the air, to whom a life of rules would be a subject of horrour, the Yankee system would be torture. Their liberty is not the liberty to outrage all that is sacred on earth, to set religion at defiance, to laugh morals to scorn, to undermine the foundations of social order, to mock at all traditions and all received opinions; it is neither the liberty of being a monarchist in a republican country, nor that of sacrificing the honour of the poor man’s wife or daughter to one’s base passions; it is not even the liberty to enjoy one’s wealth by a public display, for public opinion has its sumptuary laws, to which all must conform under pain of moral outlawry; nor even that of living in private different from the rest of the world. The liberty of the Yankee is essentially limited and special like the nature of the race. We should consider it as framed after the model of the liberty of Figaro; but the Yankee is satisfied with it, because it leaves him all the latitude he desires, and because of all the lessons of the Bible, that of the forbidden fruit, which we have not been able to fix in our brain, has made the deepest impression on his.
As the Yankee does not suffer under these restraints, as he is, or what amounts to the same thing, thinks himself, free, a preventive authority is unnecessary for him. This is the reason why there is no appearance of authority in New England, and that an armed force, a police, are even more unknown there than in the rest of the Union. The absence of a visible authority imposes on us, and we think that the American in general, and the Yankee in particular, is more free than we are. I am persuaded, however, that if we measure liberty by the number of actions that are permitted or tolerated in public and private life, the advantage is on our side, not only in comparison with New England, but also with the white population of the South.
The Virginian is more disposed to understand liberty in our manner. His disposition has a greater resemblance to ours; his faculties are much less special, more general than those of the Yankee; his mind is more ardent, his tastes more varied. But it is the Yankee that now rules the Union; it is his liberty which has given its principal features to the model of American liberty. Yet to extend its empire, it has been obliged to borrow some of the characteristic traits of Virginian liberty; or, I might say, of French liberty, for the high-priest of American democracy was a Virginian, who had imbibed in Paris the doctrines of the philosophy of the 18th century. American liberty, as it now is, may be considered the result of a mixture, in unequal proportions, of the theories of Jefferson with the New England usages. From these dissimilar tendencies has resulted a series of contradictory measures, which have become strangely complicated with each other, and which might puzzle and deceive a careless observer. It is in consequence of these opposite influences in the bosom of American society, that such conflicting judgments have been passed upon it; it is because the Yankee type is at present the stronger, whilst the Virginian was superior in the period of the revolution, that the ideas which the sight of America now suggests, are so different from those which she inspired at the epoch of Independence.
[* ] When the assembly is in session, Richmond is full of country gentlemen from Western Virginia, real giants, taller, stouter, and broader than the giants who are exhibited among us for money. When I found myself surrounded by these men, with their loud voices and Herculean frame, I experienced the same feeling with the companions of Magellan, when they found themselves alone amidst a crowd of Patagonians. These good people, to testify their good will, lavish upon you the same weighty caresses, as those which the Spaniards at first took for blows, and when you feel their heavy hands fall like a sledge upon your European shoulders, nothing less than the frank smile that lights up their broad faces, would convince you of their friendly disposition. The first time I was in Richmond, I occupied the chamber, that had just been left by one of these gentlemen; wishing to consult some of the papers of the session, I sought in vain for any thing like his library. His whole parliamentary outfit consisted of a mass of empty bottles, a barrel of biscuit, a case of liquors, and the fragments of a huge cheese.
[* ] A gang of negroes rose against their masters in Southampton in 1831, and murdered several white families, without distinction of age or sex, and the alarm became general through the country. The murderers were soon captured and executed.
[* ] The respect of the Americans for old names and titles is shown in their retaining most of those that were in use under the English rule. Thus the States are divided into counties, and there are in several towns, for instance, in Charleston, a King’s Street and a Queen’s Street. In Virginia, there are Prince Edward’s, Prince George’s, King’s and Queen’s, King George’s and King William’s Counties. Georgia retained its name, even when at war with the monarch in honour of whom it bore it. I was very much surprised to hear a court of justice in Pennsylvania opened with the old French word oyez! oyez! oyez! repeated by the crier, without his understanding the meaning. The English received it from the Normans, and the Americans have retained it, because they received it from their fathers. In France we not only changed the name of Choisy-le-Roi into Choisy-le-Peuple, but we even suppressed the prefix of Saint, in the names of the Streets.
[* ] It is unnecessary to say that the author has here fallen into a gross error. Even in the affair of the convent at Charlestown, it was the supposed abuse of a particular institution, not the Roman Catholic religion itself, that kindled the flame.—Transl.
[* ] I doubt if the power of the community over the individual has been pushed to such an extent anywhere else as in New England; in Connecticut there were laws forbidding a person to continue tippling more than half an hour at a tavern, or to drink more than half a pint of wine, and it was ordered that taverns and victualling-houses should be closed at half past nine o’clock. No young man not married could keep house without the consent of the town; and no housekeeper could receive a young man to sojourn in his family without the same permission. Laws were made against swearing, lying, uttering false news or reports, or using tobacco without a certificate from a physician that it was necessary to health. Other regulations prohibited smoking in public places, and this very year the city government of Boston has forbidden smoking in the Mall, which, however, I do not consider a measure of excessive rigour. It is unnecessary to say that the laws of the New England colonies were extremely severe in religious matters; every individual was required to join some Congregational society, and no one was eligible to any public trust, unless he had so done. Dissenters were taxed for the support of the established church. Jews and Quakers were banished, and forbidden to return under pain of death. The Blue Laws of Connecticut contained some curious provisions in respect to marriage, and at Taunton, in Massachusetts, in 1836, two justices forbade the bans of matrimony, on the ground that the parties could not provide for themselves after the marriage, and that they had not sufficient discernment to enter into a contract of such moment.