Front Page Titles (by Subject) LETTER XXIX.: THE EMPIRE STATE. - Society, Manners and Politics in the United States
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LETTER XXIX.: THE EMPIRE STATE. - 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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THE EMPIRE STATE.
Albany, September 11, 1835.
It has been already shown (Letter X.), that there are in the United States two strongly marked types, the Yankee and the Virginian, the mutual action and reaction of which have hitherto been the life of the Union. A third is rising in the West, which seems destined to become the bond and umpire of the two others, if it is able to preserve its own unity; which will not, however, be easy, for the West comprises slave-holding and non-slave-holding States. For the present, this high office is filled by the Middle States, or rather by New York, which is the most important State not only of this group, but of the whole Union. To be a mediator between two types, it is necessary to unite in one person the principal qualities of both; the State of New York, then, should combine the large views of the South with the spirit of detail that marks the North. To be, even imperfectly, the personification of the principle of unity in the great American confederation, it is indispensable that the claimant of that honour should possess in a high degree the spirit of unity. To achieve the work of centralisation or consolidation in America, even partially, demands a high degree of the genius of centralisation. For some time there has appeared in the administration of the State of New York, a character of grandeur, unity, and centralisation, that has procured it the title of the Empire-State. Although it is the nearest neighbour of the New England States, and actually borders upon three of them, although a large number of its inhabitants are of New England origin, it has succeeded in freeing itself from the spirit of extreme division that is characteristic of the Yankees, or rather in counterbalancing it by a proportional development of the spirit of unity.
The Opposition, which is in the minority in the legislature in the State, and does not, therefore, feel in good humour, endeavours to create among the people a dislike to this control of the central power. “You are led,” it says, “by the Albany Regency; a half-dozen of the friends of Mr Mr Van Buren, taking their cue from Governor Marcy, make you their puppets.” The Opposition exaggerates; but it is certain, that the organisation of the State, and the forms of administration, which have been established of late years under the influence of Mr Van Buren, and which form a precedent for the future, bear the impress of a centralism, at which the friends of unlimited individual independence have a right to take alarm, but which wise men must applaud; for it is by means of it that the State of New York is become superiour to the others, and it is by it alone that it can maintain its superiority. This combination of expansive force, which prevails every where else in the American confederacy, with a sufficient cohesive power, has given to the constitution of New York an elasticity, which, for communities as well as for individuals, is the condition of a long and prosperous existence.
The organisation of the public schools and of public instruction in general is centralised. Most of the States have a school-fund, the income of which in New England is distributed among the towns, who dispose of it according to their own good pleasure, without the State having the right to exercise any real control over it, or imposing any conditions in regard to it. New York proceeds more imperially; it obliges the different towns to raise a sum equal to that to which they are entitled from the State, under penalty of not receiving their share of the State fund. This method is preferable to that followed in Connecticut, which distributes annually among the towns about the same sum as New York, but exacts no account of the manner in which it has been employed, and cannot even be sure that it has been actually devoted to the purpose of instruction.
In 1834, the public schools in New York were attended by 541,400 pupils; now the number of children between five and sixteen years of age in the districts from which returns were received, comprising very nearly the whole State, was only 543,085. The whole expenditure for schools was 1,310,000 dollars, of which 750,000 dollars was for pay of teachers. The amount expended in France for the same object is only three times as great as that expended by New York, which has one sixteenth of the population of France. The number of children in our schools is 2,450,000, or one thirteenth of the population, which is only one third of the proportion in New York.
All the common schools in New York are under the supervision and control of a board of commissioners, mostly composed of several of the chief officers of the government, and of which the Secretary of State is the most active member. The commissioners make provision for the instruction of teachers, require an account of the condition of the school, and select the text books. Virginia, Ohio, and some other States have adopted a similar system in this respect; but New York has this peculiarity, that it has also a board, styled the board of Regents of the University, who are appointed by the legislature, and have the control of the higher schools called academies. There are seven colleges in the State, one of which is styled the University of New York, and corresponds, very remotely it is true, to the English and German Universities.
The control of the government over the academies is at present very limited; it is little more than an annual visit by one or more of the Regents of the University, but it can easily be extended, whenever the State shall think proper, by means of the system of pecuniary aid; in 1834, the sum distributed among these seminaries was 12,500 dollars. The number of pupils in the Academies was a little more than 5,000, or two and a half pupils out of each thousand souls. In France, there were 80,000 pupils in the colleges, which is the same ratio to the whole population. It would appear from this comparison, that in the United States, where the advantages of elementary instruction are universally realised, the desire for a higher degree of instruction is less general than with us, for the number of families that can afford to pay is proportionably much greater in the United States than in France. Thus in regard to a higher education, we recover, in some measure, the superiority, which the Americans, at least in New York, have over us in respect to elementary education.
The same spirit of unity and centralisation has dictated a general regulation of a singular character in respect to the banks, which may prove to be of great value in practice, and to which there is nothing similar, either in the other States, or in any other country. The Safety-Fund-Act establishes a bank fund appropriated to making good any losses incurred by the failure of any of the banks. Each bank is required to pay annually to the State treasurer, a sum equal to one half of one per cent. on its capital, until it shall have so paid in the sum of three per cent. on the capital stock. Whenever the bank fund is reduced by paying the debts of an insolvent bank, it must be restored to the proper amount by the same process. The banks, together with the fund, are under the supervision of three Commissioners, one of whom is appointed by the Governor, and the two others by the banks. The Commissioners visit each bank at least once in four months, examine into its operations, and satisfy themselves that it has conformed itself to the provisions of its charter. They are beside required to make a particular examination of any bank on the demand of three other banks, and in case of detecting any violation of the charter, to apply to the court of chancery for an injunction against it.
This law contains several sections designed to aid the Commissioners in the execution of their duties, and to prevent their being imposed on by the banks; it gives them the right to inspect the books, and to examine the officers of the bank under oath. The salary of the Commissioners is 2,000 dollars, which is paid out of the bank fund. Any bank director or officer who shall make false returns to the legislature, or false entries in the books, or exhibit false papers with intent to deceive the Commissioners, is subject to imprisonment for not less than three nor more than ten years. Every bank subject to this act may receive legal interest on loan and discounts; but on notes which shall be mature in sixtythree days from the time of discount, it shall receive only six per cent. per annum. It is further provided that the issues or circulation of any bank shall not exceed twice its capital stock, and that its loans and discounts shall never exceed twice and a half that amount; but this provision has not hitherto been rigidly observed.
The number of banks in the State is eightyseven, of which only seventyseven are subject to the provisions of the Safety-Fund-Act, the others having been established before the date of the act. But as all will be obliged to renew their charters within ten years, with the exception of the Manhattan bank alone, which has a perpetual charter, they will all, with one exception, be brought under the act. The aggregate of the bank capital in the State is 31,280,000 dollars; the bank fund amounts to above 538,000 dollars. The annual amount of the loans and discounts of the banks is estimated at about 300 millions, exclusive of the operations of the three branches of the United States Bank; that of the banks of the city of New York alone, is about 180 million, or twice as much as that of the Bank of France.
Nothing, however, has contributed so much to give New York its imperial reputation, as the energy it has displayed in canalling its territory. All the resources of the State were devoted to this object; all the energies of its citizens were bent for eight years on the accomplishment of this great work. In spite of the worst predictions and earnest remonstrances of some of the most respected men in the Union, the confidence of this young State never faltered for a moment. Complete success attended its efforts; the great canal, begun in 1817, was finished in 1825. The State has since executed a great number of canals, at an expense of above twelve millions, the greater part of which has been raised by loan. Several others are still in progress.
The Erie canal, the most important of these works, is simple in construction, not very deep nor very wide. But if it is not peculiarly interesting as an object of art, it is an object of admiration considered as a great commercial artery. From our canals, which are navigated by heavy and clumsy boats slowly and painfully dragged forward by a man, you can get no idea of this great channel, with its fleet of light, elegant, covered barks gliding along at a rapid rate, and drawn by a powerful team. Every minute boats are passing each other, and the boatman’s horn warns the lock-master to be in readiness. Each moment the landscape varies; now you pass a river by an aqueduct, now you traverse large new towns, fine as capitals, with all their houses having pillared porticos and looking externally like little palaces; it is an admirable spectacle of life and variety. The amount of property annually transported on the Erie Canal is 430,000 tons, on the Champlain canal, 307,000 tons, at very moderate rates of toll. The annual amount of tolls is 1,500,000 dollars; that on the French canals and rivers is only 900,000 dollars.
In 1817, when it began the great canal, the State of New York contained 1,250,000 inhabitants, scattered over a surface about one fourth as large as France. Whilst in Europe, grave publicists were discussing the question, whether a State should undertake the execution of public works, and the most powerful governments were listening scrupulously to the debate, in order to determine whether they had the right to enrich their subjects by productive enterprises,—the same governments who never doubted their right to waste millions of men and treasure in devastating Europe,—the modest authorities of this miniature empire solved the question, without dreaming that it could embarrass great potentates in other quarters. The State of New York undertook the execution of public works, and has found its advantage in them; after having executed them, it has managed them itself on its own account, and found even greater advantages in this. The income from the canals, with the aid of some slight additions, has been sufficient to sink nearly half the debt contracted in their construction. Thus the brilliant success of the Erie canal, became the signal for the greatest undertakings of a similar character by the other States. Pennsylvania, Ohio, Maryland, Virginia, and Indiana have followed the example of New York, and have undertaken to open routes of communication of every kind, through their territories, at their own expense, even at the risk of incurring the reproaches of the timid economists of Europe.
New York has carried her interference in public works still further; in all the charters for railroad companies, the State reserves to itself the right of acquiring the property of the railroad, after the expiration of ten years, and on certain conditions named in the act of incorporation, which are truly liberal on the part of the State; they stipulate the re-payment of the first cost and the sums expended in repairs, and the supply of any deficiency in the dividends below ten per cent.*
Thus the State of New York, in its imperial humour, has laid hands on public instruction, banks, and the means of communication, with the purpose of centralising them; the design is already effected in respect to public works; it is not yet fully accomplished in regard to the schools and the banks; but its fulfilment approaches gradually and surely. As I have already said, the spirit of centralisation has penetrated more deeply into the administration of the State, than into the acts of the legislature; a guarantee, that the laws of unity will not remain paper rules.
The lessons of New York have turned to the profit of its neighbours; like it, they also begin the work of centralisation, in embracing schools, banks, and public works within the action of the State. They see, by its example, that the spirit of individual enterprise does not suffer, when the government subjects to its control and its authority these three great springs of national prosperity, and even when it sets them in action on its own account; for nowhere is the spirit of enterprise more vigourous and clearsighted than in New York. In spite of the Safety-Fund-Act, there are nowhere more numerous applications for the incorporation of banking companies. Notwithstanding the school laws, nowhere do institutions of education increase more rapidly. Nowhere are there more railroads in progress. The State contains 80 miles of canal and 100 of railroads, constructed by companies; from 150 to 200 miles of railroad are now in process of construction, and a company has been organised for constructing a railroad from the Hudson to Lake Erie through the southern counties, a distance of 350 miles.
It would be too much to suppose that a country like France, where so much value is set on the principles of unity and centralisation, would be less courageous than these little republics, born under the influence of the individual principle, and that we should any longer delay to take an imperial course in regard to institutions of credit, public works, and industrial education. The object to be accomplished is not merely to increase the wealth of the country. But there are other and more elevated motives to induce modern governments to take part in such institutions, and thus to extend their control over the interests and operations of industry.
The progress of civilisation, considered with reference to the individual, consists in this; that each becomes more and more suited to bear the weight of his individuality. Social order, being thus supplied with stronger individual guarantees, seems to require less and less of legal and public ones; but in this matter, there is an important distinction to be kept in view. Civilisation gradually strips man of the grosser habits and the brutal propensities of savage life. There are many prohibitions and commands in the Deuteronomy, which in our day would be perfectly superfluous. Mankind hardly has further need to be taught: Thou shalt not kill. The lictor and the headsman are losing their social importance; the constable, the sheriff, and the gaoler are, it is to be hoped, on the eve of taking their places every where. Public order has begun, and will continue more and more, to dispense with the use of the sword; and thus individual reason substitutes its voluntary sanction for the imperative sanction of political power and the force of arms.
The human understanding is expanded and enlightened by cultivation; the heart is elevated and purified; yet the elementary passions are the same. They are combined under different forms, and are turned to different objects; but if they are moderated, it is only in outward appearances; if they are polished, it is only on the surface; within all is as rough and fierce as ever.* In politics, particularly, jealousy and ambition exist in the same degree amongst us as they did amongst the Greeks and Romans; they no longer wield the dagger or administer the poison, they do not even employ an assassin or a Locusta; but they are neither less unjust, nor less insatiable, nor less bitter than in ancient times; they do not stab the body, but they wound the honour; slander takes the place of the stiletto, and serves them as well as the juices of venomous plants; civilisation furnishes them a thousand new means of assuaging their thirst. I do not believe that Sylla and Marius, Cæsar and Pompey, hated each other more cordially than General Jackson, President of the United States, and Mr Biddle, president of the United States’ Bank. If one were to search out the types of Cain and Abel among modern statesmen, the list would be of frightful length.
To that force of dissolution, which increases instead of diminishing, in proportion to the increasing number of individuals admitted to a share of political influence, it is necessary to oppose cohesive elements of equal activity and intensity. It is for this reason that in the future, as well as in the past, the existence of society involves that of religion. Even did not religion touch the tenderest cords and stir the liveliest sensibilities of the human heart; if it did not offer to the imagination a vast field in which to wander in safety; even if it were not indispensable to peace of conscience and to domestic tranquillity, it would be impossible to get along without it, for it has also a political necessity. It has been rightly said, that if there were no God, it would be necessary to feign one.
A single institution, however, would not suffice to regulate and govern the passions at all times and in all places, unless it were to follow men in all their movements, control them in all their acts, bind them hands and feet, or, in a word, unless it were despotic, after the image of the old theocracies. It is not, then, to be hoped, that, in our free countries, religion alone can counterbalance human passions and confine them within the limits, in which they subserve the progress of society; or at least, if it can do this in one of the social hemispheres, the family, it will always be insufficient in the other, the state. For this reason, the Middle Ages established a salutary principle, when they separated the temporal power from the spiritual authority, and gave strength and independence to each. From that time, all efforts to confound these two powers, or, which amounts to the same thing, to dispense with one of them, have been completely unsuccessful; they have generally resulted in establishing a tyranny.*
A temporal authority, armed with ample prerogatives, is, then, indispensable at the present day, even in behalf of liberty itself. On the other hand it is impossible to deny that the tendency of civilisation is to strip the throne of its ancient attributes, either in whole or in part. On this head, our age has taken a decided stand. The resistance of kings to the efforts of those who have assailed the throne, has served to exasperate the latter to such a pitch, that a party,—that of the republicans,—has been formed, the sole object of which is the complete and radical abolition of monarchy, and the singular doctrine of the inutility and even the danger of all power has found numerous and warm adherents.
The people are right to desire the kings to lay down or to curtail their old prerogatives; the governments, that are the heirs of conquest, ought to abdicate whatever there is of violence and brutality in their authority. It would be premature to assert that universal peace is about to dawn on the earth; it is not so to affirm that war is henceforth to be a secondary and accidental matter in the history of nations. Industry, that is to say, the art of creating wealth, multiplying the means of happiness, and adorning the globe, the residence of the human family, will henceforth take precedence of the art of slaying and wasting. The sword is ceasing to be the highest emblem of power. But kings are right, in their turn, to prevent their power being reduced to an empty shadow. Independently of all individual ambition, from the lofty height on which they are placed, they see that the preservation of the order of society demands the presence of a power worthy of the name. And what proves the justness of their view is the fact, that men of all parties who have taken part in the government during our revolutionary crisis, have all agreed in this point whatever may have been their former opinions; it is the only point on which they have been unanimous.
The truth is, that while we are taking from governments, we must also be giving to them. War is no longer the principal object of the activity of nations; the employment of brute force becomes less and less necessary to the preservation of society; let us then gradually reduce, with a firm hand, those prerogatives of power which give it an exclusively warlike character, and which leave our lives and liberties at the discretion of its armed creatures! Since industry is occupying a wider and wider space in the existence of the individual and the nation, let us cause it to enter more and more completely into the sphere of government, by including in the attributes of government its three springs, banks, means of communication, and schools; on condition, be it understood, that government shall use the new powers with which it shall be thus invested, for the general good.
The banks, means of communication, and schools are instruments of governments, which it would be unwise to leave wholly out of the influence of the public authority, but which there could be no harm in partially incorporating with it, in such a manner as not to stifle the spirit of individual enterprise. The public authority would then exercise its functions conformably with the tendencies of the national character, and would preside over the most important events of the national life; it would then really deserve the name of government; it would possess a new means of coercion and restraint, which is the only one compatible with the progress of the spirit of liberty. Instead of having a hold on the body and blood of the subject, it would have a hold on his industry and his purse. A new degree of inviolability would thus be secured to the individual, without the social order losing its needful guarantees. By this means in fine the political advent of industry would be accomplished. Instead of being a cause of agitation and change, once sure of its rank and secure in its seat, industry would act an important conservative part in society.
Every thing is now ripe for this political transfiguration. Forty years ago, the people looked for their own elevation in the overthrow of the old order of things. Hatred has now ceased to be their chief counsellor; the thirst for destruction is cooled; they think less of shaking off the yoke of tyrants, more of freeing themselves from the burdens of ignorance and poverty. The road to liberty which would now be preferred in Europe, passes through competency, education, and industry. Those who were once the temporal and spiritual heads of the people would soon regain their lost rank, if calming the fears with which the curses uttered against the last of kings and the last of priests had filled them, they knew how to put themselves at the head of such a march; for the people could follow them with joy. By what fatality is it, that they still doubt and hesitate?
I know not if I deceive myself, but it seems to me, that, in this matter, the example must come from France. Not that she has greater sums in her treasury; not that she counts more soldiers under her flag, more ships in her ports, more cannon in her fortresses, but that she has the most sagacious intellect, and the noblest heart; that the world is accustomed to receive the watchword from her. London, with its thousands of ships, might be burnt to the ground, and the rest of the world would be no otherwise affected by the event, than as by a lamentable disaster which has befallen a foreigner; the recoil of a mere riot in Paris is felt to the ends of the world. The revolution of July gave birth to Parliamentary Reform; the Reform bill would never have brought forth July. It is because France is the heart of the world; the affairs of France interest all; the cause which she espouses is not that of a selfish ambition, but that of civilisation. When France speaks, she is listened to, because she speaks not her own feelings merely, but those of the human race. When she acts, her example is followed, because she does what all desire to do.
France was the first on the European continent to enthrone liberty; it is for her to re-seat the principle of authority, for the fulness of its time is come. She protected the people when protection was necessary; it is now for her to protect kings; not by the edge of the sword, although she must not break her own, which has done so much for civilisation (for that would be sacrilege), but by the wisdom and the moral superiority of her new principles of government, by the creative power of the new attributes with which she invests authority.
[* ] Several States have reserved to themselves a similar right, but generally on less liberal conditions. Massachusetts, however, has adopted the same, extending the term of possession by the company to twenty years. New Jersey has stipulated that it shall have the right of acquiring the property of several works, at a price not exceeding their first cost.
[* ] Mde. de Stael exclaims; “Strange destiny of mankind, condemned ever to retrace the same circle by the passions, whilst it is ever advancing in the career of thought!”
[* ] I have already said, that when the Puritans landed in New England they wished above all things to found a religious society. They organised themselves by the laws of Moses. Political society did not exist in fact, although there was a nominal governor to represent the temporal authority, or was swallowed up in the church; the town was merged in the congregation. Thus in a short time, their government came to resemble that of the Jesuits in Paraguay, with only this difference, that each one here had his share in the tyranny. The Blue Laws of Connecticut are a monument of this state of things, in which the common acts of life were subjected to the most vexatious restrictions. The New Englanders were soon obliged to renounce their Mosaic system of government, and without perfectly separating politics from religion, they gave to each of the two powers an independent existence They did not establish the political power firmly beyond the town; but the municipal constitution was solid and firm, sometimes even to excess, for the very reason that it started from the religious organisation.