Front Page Titles (by Subject) LETTER XXVIII.: SOCIAL REFORM. - Society, Manners and Politics in the United States
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
LETTER XXVIII.: SOCIAL REFORM. - 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:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
Augusta, (Georgia,) September 3, 1835.
It is impossible to foresee the time when the blacks in this country shall be set free; there is here a great gulf between the black and the white. The difficulty here is not exactly of a pecuniary kind; for, to apply to the two million and a half of American negroes the process which the English have applied to their colonies, only 300 millions would be required, a sum which is not beyond the means of North America. By rendering the process of emancipation more gradual, so as to render it more slow and safe than in the English Islands, a much less sum would be sufficient; but another obstacle occurs, against which money can do nothing. The English nature is exclusive; English society is divided into an endless number of little coteries, each jealous of its superior, and despising its inferior. The Englishman is in his own country, what his country is in reference to the rest of the world, an islander.
This spirit of exclusiveness which prevails in society at home, appears again in the relations of the English with other people. The Englishman cannot fraternise with the Red Skins or the blacks; between him and them there is no sympathy, no mutual confidence. The Anglo-Americans have retained and even exaggerated this trait of their fathers; and to the men of the North as well as to those of the South, to the Yankee as well as to the Virginian, the negro is a Philistine, a son of Ham. In the States without slaves, as well as in those in which slavery is admitted, the elevation of the black seems impossible. An American of the North or of the South, whether he be rich or poor, ignorant or learned, avoids a contact with the negro, as if he were infected with the plague. Free or slave, well or meanly clad, the black or the man of colour is always a Pariah; he is denied a lodging at the inns; at the theatre or in the steamboats he has a distinct place allotted him far from the whites; he is excluded from commerce, for he cannot set his foot on ’Change nor in the banking rooms. Everywhere and always, he is eminently unclean. Thus treated as vile, he almost always becomes so.
In Europe, blacks or coloured persons have sometimes filled high stations; there is not an instance of the kind in the United States. The republic of Hayti has its accredited representatives at the court of France; it has none in Washington. An anecdote was told me at New York of the disappointment of a young Haytian, who was a near relation of one of Boyer’s ministers, and who had received a good education in France; having arrived in New York, he could not get admittance into any hotel, his money was refused at the door of the theatre, he was ordered out of the cabin of a steamboat, and was obliged to quit the country without being able to speak to any body. At Philadelphia, I heard of a man of colour who had acquired wealth, a rare thing among that class, who used sometimes to invite whites to dine with him, and who did not sit at table, but waited upon his guests himself. At the dessert, however, upon their pressing him to be seated with them, he would yield to their urgency. At the end of 1833, in one of the New England States, and I think it was in Massachusetts,* a man of colour being on board a steamer with his wife, wished to get her admitted into the ladies’ cabin; the captain refused her admission. A suit was, therefore, brought against the captain, by the man, who was desirous of having it decided by the courts, whether free people of colour, conducting themselves with propriety, could enjoy the same privileges with whites in a State, in which they were recognised as citizens by the laws. He gained his cause on the first hearing, but was cast on appeal.
The different nations of the great christian family, after having for ages received the doctrines taught by the successors of St. Peter, have selected out of the christian scheme, some one principle most congenial to their nature, and made it the basis of their character. The French, a most christian people, have chosen the principle of universal charity. In our eyes, there are no longer Gentiles; our prepossessions in favour of foreigners increase as the square of the distance that separates their country from ours. The Spanish, a chivalric people, have adopted with enthusiasm the adoration of the Virgin, which is of a more modern origin. The Protestants have taken up the principle of individual conscience, and this is nearly all that they have accepted from Christianity; they have renounced the successive additions of the church to the faith of the Apostles, and they have even rejected a part of what Christ himself had engrafted on the Jewish theology. Among Protestants, the Yankees have carried this retrograde tendency to the greatest extreme; they have, except in some few points, relapsed into Judaism, and returned to to the Mosaic law. They appeal in preference to the maxims and doctrines of the Old Testament; they borrow their names from it, and amongst the peculiarities that strike a Frenchmen in New England, one of the strongest is the great prevalence of Hebrew names, such as Phineas, Ebenezer, Judah, Hiram, Obadiah, Ezra, &c., on the signs and in advertisements.
As the religion of the people exercises a controlling influence over the general tone of its feeling and character, the Yankees, having thus fallen back into Judaism, possess, like the Jews, that exclusive spirit which was already inherent in their insular origin. The fact is, that their religious notions square exactly with this depression of the blacks. The blacks seem to them inferior beings; they revolt against the thought of any assimilation with them, even in the slightest degree; a mixture of the two races, or, as they call it, amalgamation, is in their eyes an abomination, a sacrilege, which would deserve to be punished, as the sin of the Hebrews with the daughters of Moab was punished. The emancipation of the negro comprises two things; the one, formal, that is manumission by the master, which it would not be difficult to effect, if a sufficient indemnity were offered to the planters and the country could pay it; and the other, moral, that is, a real acknowledgment of the rights of the black, by admitting him to the personal privileges of the white man, which would meet with insurmountable obstacles at the North as well as the South, and would, perhaps, be even more repugnant to the former than to the latter.
The principal difficulty of emancipation, so far as regards the slave himself, is also of a moral character. To render him fit for the enjoyment of liberty, it is necessary that he should be initiated in the duties and dignity of man, that he should labour in order to pay his tax to society, and maintain his family with decency, that he should learn to obey other motives than the fear of the lash. He must learn the sentiment of self-respect; he must wish and know how to be a father, son, husband. He only can have a perfect right to liberty, who is in a condition to enjoy it with profit to himself and to society. Slavery, odious as it is, is one form of social order, and should be preserved where no better form can be substituted for it, as it must disappear where the inferior is ripe for a better state of things.
In regard to the lower orders in Europe, the difficulty is of the same kind with that which stands in the way of the emancipation of the American slaves; it is only different in degree, and it is already half overcome. In order that the hireling should be raised from his present abject state, the higher classes must be ready to treat him as a being of the same nature with themselves, and he himself must have acquired higher sentiments than such as belong to his present condition. He must not only be inspired with the desire of being happier, but also with the ambition of being better. To establish new relations between the different classes, both parties must labour with that firm will, which recasts ideas and habits. The question of the improvement of the condition of the lower classes is essentially a moral question. A moral remodelling of society is the necessary preliminary. Now, whoever pronounces the world moral in the wider sense of the term, means religion. Philanthropy and philosophy have no hold on the moral nature of man, unless they borrow it from religion. Religion only can move the hearts of all classes deep enough, and enlighten the minds of all strongly enough, to cause the rich and the poor to conceive new ideas of their mutual relations, and to realize them in practice.
History teaches us, that civilisation, in its successive phases, has gradually improved the condition of the lower classes; it proves also that each of the great changes that have taken place in the condition of the multitude, has been consummated or prepared by religion, and accompanied by a change in religion itself. It was religion that struck off the fetters of the slave, that gradually freed the serf from the glebe. The free principles of the French revolution were only the precepts of the Christian religion practised by persons who were no longer Christians, and the revolutionary actors themselves gave to Christ the title of sans-culotte, in their eyes a title of honour.
To render the efforts of the higher classes in favour of the people vigourous and sustained, they must, then, be directed by religion. To raise the lower orders effectually from their abasement, religion must fix them steadily on that high moral level, to which they have occasionally soared by sublime, but fitful and soon drooping flights. Now, the higher classes have not faith. If among the highest, the irreligious philosophy of the 18th century has of late lost adherents, it restores and increases its numbers from among the lower ranks. Incredulity has lowered its aim a peg; its train has lost in quality, but gained in quantity. Irreligion is at work among the populace of the cities, disposes them to revolt, and would make them unfit for the regular enjoyment of liberty. When we have roads, when schools have taught the whole population to read, which will be soon, you will see irreligion infecting the country people, if you do not provide against its approaches beforehand.
Christianity, or at least Catholicism, seems to be on the eve of suffering a general desertion amongst us. And yet how far are we from having drawn from the Christian principles, which some among us affect to consider as exhausted, all the elements of popular liberty and happiness which they contain! We are a most Christian people in this sense, that we believe in the unity of the whole human family, and we prove it by our good will to all nations; but it seems as if we expend abroad all the heat that Christianity has developed in our souls. We, the apostles of the brotherhood of nations, we have not yet breathed into our relations to each other the principle of the fraternity of men. We of the middle class, the sons of freedmen, think that labourers, the sons of slaves, are of a different nature from ourselves. We have still a remnant of the old pagan leaven at the bottom of our hearts. We do not, indeed, with Aristotle, teach the doctrine of two distinct natures, the free nature and the slave nature, but we act in practice as if we were brought up in that faith. We are not yet become the fathers and elder brothers of the peasant and the operative; but in our relations to them, we are still their masters, and hard masters too.
And unfortunately, whilst society, driven about by the waves, at the mercy of chance and without a compass, is exposed to disasters, which the control of religion alone can prevent, religion makes no effort to resume the helm and recover her authority. In the midst of nations which are rushing onward at every risk, Catholicism stands still, silently shrouded in her mantle, with her arms folded, and her eyes bent on heaven. The Church bore all the shocks of the revolutionary storm with a heroic resignation; she meekly submitted to be scourged with rods, like the Just One; like him she has been fixed to the cross, and has opened her mouth only to pray for her executioners. But the sufferings of the Just have saved sinners and changed the face of the world; nothing betokens that the recent sufferings of the Catholic church will have any saving power. From the tomb where it was laid for dead, we see it bring back no scheme for the restoration of suffering, longing humanity.
The Roman Church is yet what it was four hundred years ago; but within that period the world has become quite another thing; it has made great progress, and freed itself from the meshes of the past, with the firm prupose not to be again involved in them. If civilisation, then, is about to assume a new form, as every thing forebodes, religion, which is at once the beginning and end of society, the key-stone and the corner-stone, religion, must also recast herself. Would it be the first time that Christianity has modified her forms and rules, to adapt herself to the instincts and the tendencies of the nations she has sought to bless?
In this country, religion has wrought the elevation of the lower classes. Puritanism has been the starting point of the democratic movement. The Puritans came to America, not in quest of gold, nor to conquer provinces, but to found a church on the principle of primitive equality. They were as I have before said, new Jews; they wished to govern by the laws of Moses. In the beginning the state was completely swallowed up by the church; they divided themselves into religious congregations, in which all the heads of families were equal, conformably to the Mosaic law, over which the elders and the saints presided, and in which all earthly distinctions were abolished or contemned. One of the first objects of their care, under the influence of their religious views, was to establish schools, in which all the children should be educated together and in the same manner. Although unequal in respect to property, all adopted the same habits of life. The physical exertions, to which all were obliged to devote themselves in common, in order to defend themselves from famine and the savages, strengthened their habits and feelings of equality. Now, New England, which is inhabited exclusively by the sons of the Puritans, and in which their traditions and their faith are still kept unchanged, has ever been, and is yet, the focus of American democracy.
Thus American democracy has been enabled to organise and establish itself. All our efforts, on the contrary, to found a democracy in France in 1793, would have been vain, even had we not been unfitted for democratic habits, because we wished to build on irreligion, on the hatred of religion. Manners and feelings must prepare and inspire the means of social improvement; the laws must express and prescribe them. Politics and religion, then, must join hands in this difficult task. Politics, as well as religion, must be transformed for the furtherance of civilisation, and the safety of the world.
I admire the results, which the political system of the United States has produced in America. But it seems to me impossible, that the institutions by which the condition of the people has been so much bettered here, can be naturalised amongst us. There must be harmony between the political and religious schemes that are suited to any one people. Protestantism is republican; puritanism is absolute self-government in religion, and begets it in politics. The United Provinces were Protestant; the United States are Protestant. Catholicism is essentially monarchical; in countries, which are Catholic, at least by recollections, habits, and education, if not by faith, a regular democracy is impracticable. The anarchy of the former Spanish colonies fully proves to what bitter regrets Catholic nations expose themselves, when they attempt to apply to themselves the political institutions of Protestant countries.
Under the influence of Protestantism and republicanism, the social progress has been effected by the medium of the spirit of individuality; for protestantism, republicanism, and individuality are all one. Individuals stand apart from one another, or if they are associated together, they have formed only limited associations, which have no common bond of union. The republic of the United States is indefinitely subdivided into independent republics of various classes. The States are republics in the general confederation; the towns are republics within the States; a farm is a republic in a county. Banking, canal, and railroad companies, are so many distinct republics. The family is an inviolable republic in the state; each individual is a republic by himself in the family. The only effective militia consists of volunteer companies, which have no connexion with each other. The religious organisation of the country resembles its civil and political organisation. The different sects are independent of each other, and most of them tend to split up into completely detached fragments.
Our national genius, on the contrary, requires that in France we should act chiefly under the influence of association and unity, which are characteristic traits of Catholicism and monarchy. France is a specimen of the completest political and administrative unity that there is in the world. Our individual existence must be bound up with others; we love independence, but we do not feel that we live unless we make a part of a whole. Solitude overpowers us; the personality of the Englishman or the American can sustain itself alone; ours must be linked with that of others. For a people eminently social, like the French, how is it possible that the spirit of association should not be the best? But it must retain the distinction of ranks; for with us, a republican association would degenerate into anarchy.
If, then, I should attempt to define the conditions most favourable to the improvement of society in France, I should say that they require it to be undertaken under the influences of religion; that its accomplishment should be confided to the constituted authorities, central and local, and particularly to royalty; that it should be effected by means of institutions bearing the double impress of unity and hierchical association, and reposing immediately on the general association, which is the state, or supported by powerful intermediary associations, which should be themselves attached to the state. The nearer we approach these conditions, the more complete will be our success, the sooner shall we have the happiness of seeing our beloved France, prosperous within, recover the high station which she ought to occupy in the world.
[* ] In Massachusetts and most of New England the blacks are legally citizens, and, as such, have the right of voting; they do not, however, at present exercise this right, either because they are prevented from doing so, or because their names are designedly omitted on the list of tax-payers, which in some States forms the list of voters. [Blacks vote and always have voted in Massachusetts.—Transl.] The constitution of Connecticut, formed in 1818, excludes them from this franchise. In New York, real estate of the value of 250 dollars, and the payment of taxes is made the electoral qualification of blacks. [The new constitution of Pennsylvania, formed in 1838, restricts the right of suffrage to the whites, although it was extended to blacks by the old constitution.—Transl.] The Western States, in which slavery does not exist, do not admit blacks to vote, and in the slave-holding States, it may readily be imagined that they do not enjoy that privilege.