Front Page Titles (by Subject) LETTER XXX.: SYMPTOMS OF REVOLUTION. - Society, Manners and Politics in the United States
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LETTER XXX.: SYMPTOMS OF REVOLUTION. - 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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SYMPTOMS OF REVOLUTION.
Baltimore, September 25, 1835.
Two years ago Mr Clay began a speech in the Senate, with these words, which have become celebrated on this side of the Atlantic: “We are in the midst of a revolution.” It was at the time, when by an act of authority before unheard of in American history, General Jackson had just settled the bank question, which his friends in Congress and even his own ministers had refused to decide. These words have often been repeated by others. More recently, since the scenes of murder, outrage, and destruction which have been exhibited through the United States, both in the slave-holding States, and in those in which slavery does not exist, in the country as well as in the towns, at Boston, the republican city par excellence, as as well as at Baltimore, for which the bloody excesses of which it was the theatre in 1812, have gained the title of the Mob Town, good citizens have repeated with grief; “We are in the midst of a revolution.”
It must be granted to the honour of the English race, that it is, more deeply than any other, imbued with a feeling of reverence for the law. Until lately, the Americans have shown themselves in this respect, as well as in others, to be double-distilled Englishmen. There are nations, who conceive of law under a living form, that is, only so far as it is personified in a man. They know how to obey a leader, but they cannot learn to respect a dead letter. With them the glory and prosperity of a State depend little on the character of the laws, but much on that of the men who are their organs. In their view, the empire rises and falls by turns, according as the sovereign, whatever may be his title, is a superior man or an ordinary personage. Such appears to be, in general, the character of the Asiatics. The Englishman is formed in a different mould; he willingly bows to the authority of a text; but he stoops to man with reluctance. He does not need that obedience to law should be inculcated by the voice of man, he obeys it without an effort and by instinct. In a word the Englishman has in himself the principle of self-government. This fact accounts for the success of his political system in the United States, where the native character of the English race is fairly developed.
Unfortunately the reverence for the laws seems to be wearing out with the Americans. This people, eminently practical in every thing else, have allowed themselves to be pushed into the excess of theory in politics, and have here taken up the quand même logic; they have shrunk from none of the consequences of popular sovereignty, at least while those consequences were flattering to their pride; as if there were a single principle in the world, not excepting Christian charity itself, which could be carried to its extreme logical consequences without resulting in absolute absurdity. They have, therefore, been driven in the United States to deny that there is any principle true in and by itself, and to assert that the will of the people is, always and necessarily, justice; the infallibility of the people in every thing and at all times, has, in fact, become the received doctrine, and thus a door has been opened to the tyranny of a turbulent minority, which always calls itself the people.*
The appearance of this miscalled popular justice, administered by the hands of a few desperate or furious men, who call themselves the successors of the Boston Tea Party of 1773, is a great calamity in the bosom of a country, where there is no other guarantee of the public peace than a reverence of the laws, and where the legislator, taking for granted the prevalence of order, has made no provisions against disorder. This popular justice has the greater condemnation of being for the most part grossly unjust. Most of the men who have been atrociously hanged, or flogged, or tortured in twenty other ways in the South,* as abolitionists, that is as guilty of instigating the slaves to rise against their masters, were, according to all appearances, merely guilty of having expressed their abhorrence of slavery with too little caution. It is even doubtful whether the pretended plots, for being engaged in which whites and blacks have been summarily executed, had a real existence. At least no proof of their reality has yet been brought forward, which would be admitted by a court of justice. During the outrages last month at Baltimore, which were continued for four days, this self-styled justice was most stupidly unjust. The mob gave out that it wished to punish those knaves who had shamefully abused the credulity of the poor in the affair of the Bank of Maryland. It is a matter of public notoriety, that the bankruptcy of the bank was fraudulent; that just before it stopped payment, it had offered a high rate of interest on deposits of any amount, in order to attract to its counter the savings of the labouring classes; but it was also a matter of notoriety, that the criminal acts of the bank were wholly the work of one Evan Poultney, who alone was, in fact, the bank. Instead of going to take vengeance for the ruin of the artisan, the widow, and the orphan, on the author of it, the mob went to call to account the bankruptcy commissioners, appointed by the court. It was not till the third day that it bethought itself to make a visit to Poultney, who, without being at all disconcerted, began to cry out that he was a sinner, that he had been guilty of wronging his neighbour. He beat his breast in sign of repentance, and in a puritanical slang accused himself more loudly than the rioters had done. Blinded, like Orgon, by so much sanctity, they excused themselves to Tartufe like him, carefully swept the hall and the marble door-steps which they had soiled, and hastened to sack the house of the mayor, because a small detachment of militia, spontaneously assembled, had fired upon them in self-defence, after having stood patient for some time under a shower of stones.
These disorders are alarming from their general prevalence, and from their frequent repetitions, and they are the more so, the less their importance is realised. They meet with few voices to condemn them, but they find many to excuse them. One of the defects of democracy is that it is forgetful of the past, and careless of the future. A riot, which in France would put a stop to business, prevents no one here from going to the Exchange, speculating, turning over the dollars, and making money. On meeting in the morning, each one asks and tells the news; here a negro has been hanged, there a white man has been flogged; at Philadelphia, ten houses have been demolished; at Buffalo, at Utica, some people of colour have been scourged. Then they go on to the price of cotton and coffee, the arrivals of flour, lumber, and tobacco, and become absorbed in calculations the rest of the day. I am surprised to see how dead the word equality falls, when a good citizen pronounces it; the reign of law seems to be at an end; we have fallen under that of expediency. Farewell to justice, farewell to the great principles of 1776 and 1789! All hail to the interest of the moment, interpreted by nobody knows who, for the success of some petty intrigue of politics or business!
Five men, five white men, have been hanged at Vicksburg in Mississippi, without even the form of a trial; they were gamblers, you are told, the scourge of the country. The most respectable citizens of Vicksburg assisted in their execution. But the law which guaranties to all your fellow-citizens the trial by a jury of peers; but that old Saxon justice of which you boast! What is become of them? No tribunal would have been able to rid us of the rogues; morality and religion condemn them, and their decree, for want of others, we have executed; it was necessary. Expediency! In Virginia, travellers from the Northern States, on the slightest pretences, for some tavern gossip, or some conversation in the coach, have been dragged before the self-styled Committees of Vigilance, beaten, tarred, and feathered. Others, whose crime consisted in inadvertently having in their pocket, some papers which the slave-holder has been pleased to pronounce abolition writings, have been seized by these fanatics, and hanged as emissaries of insurrection. What is become of that article of the constitution, which secures to the citizens of each State the protection of the laws in every other State? If we were to insist on these points, we should endanger our union with the South. Expediency! Merchants of New York! The planters of one of the parishes of Louisiana have set a price on the head of one of your number, because, as they say, he is an abolitionist, an amalgamator. Will not your national sensibility, so lively in regard to France, be touched by this act of audacity? Our commerce with the South constitutes half the prosperity of New York. Expediency! Men of New England! Citizens of the cradle of American liberty! Sons of the pilgrims, self-exiled first to Holland, and then to the sandy shores of Massachusetts, rather than bow their opinions to the will of the Stuarts! You, so proud of your liberties, how can you abandon the dearest of all, the liberty of the press, to the hands of a postmaster? Always the same reply: Expediency!
It would seem as if political principles no longer existed in the United States but at the pleasure of the passions, and the laws had no force when they jarred with interest. When a State feels itself injured by a tariff, it declares the law null and void, arms its militia, buys powder and throws down the glove to Congress. When another State, as Ohio, is dissatisfied with the boundary line assigned to it, it declares war against Michigan, its neighbour, in order to extend its frontiers by force. When the fanatics of Massachusetts, in their savage intolerance, feel offended by the presence of a Catholic convent, in which the sisters devote themselves to the work of educating young girls without distinction of sect, they plunder it and set it on fire, and the sacred edifice is burnt, in sight of a city with 70,000 inhabitants, without a drop of water being thrown upon the flames, and without its being possible to find a jury that would convict the authors of the cowardly outrage. When a Governor of Georgia* comes into collision with an upright magistrate, who interposes his authority between the rapacity of the whites and the poor Indian whom they are impatient to rob, he denounces the just judge to the legislature, and urges the passing of a law that will make him a State criminal. And, I repeat it, the worst and most fatal symptom of the times is, that the perpetration of these outrages, however frequent they become, excites no sensation. The destruction of the churches and school-houses of the blacks in New York was looked upon as a show, and the merchants of the city as they passed, paused to take a moment’s relaxation from the sight; the fall of the buildings was greeted with loud cheers. In Baltimore, a numerous crowd applauded the work of demolition without inquiring whose house was pulled down, and the women, in the excitement of the moment, waved their handkerchiefs in the air.
Another symptom still more alarming! Civil courage, the virtue of the Hampdens, the glory of the English race, which shone with so pure a lustre in the United States whilst the authors of their independence survived, seems to be for a time extinct; I say for a time, for there is a stock of energy in the American character, which cannot fail some time or another to revive and put forth its strength anew. The press, which with a few honourable exceptions, does not possess and does not merit, in the United States, the consideration which it enjoys in France; the press, which is here so outrageously violent and brutal in its treatment of members of Congress belonging to the opposite party, is, on the other hand, more cautious and reserved in regard to the multitude. The American press is free in so far as it gives no bonds and pays no stamp duty, but it is dependent on a capricious, despotic, and not very enlightened public opinion, which requires it to flatter the passion of the hour, and does not look to it for lessons of morality. The public opinion of the democracy is a master who is easily offended, and who quickly shows his displeasure. The American journalist is well aware that for the slightest display of boldness he will be deserted; and since the late events, this is not his only fear, for he knows that if his enemies should choose to brand him as an abolitionist, for example, it would be easy to raise a mob of vagabonds, who would pillage and pull down his house, tar and feather his person, and drive him from home without any interference by the public authorities.* He is therefore exceedingly circumspect. In a word, the reign of terrour is begun in the United States. Men of courage and devotion to the cause of law have no rallying point in the press; and even when the public authority would be disposed to support them, it proves insufficient, either through fear, or concern for party interests, or want of physical force. To the small number of good citizens in whom the state of the country excites the liveliest alarm, there appears to be no resource left, but that of organising themselves in patriotic societies, forming themselves into military companies, of creating, in fine, a national guard, under the form which the laws and national customs would sanction. They feel that this step is necessary, but they hesitate, because they fear to kindle a civil war. The Baltimoreans, however, seem determined to make the trial.† It has also been proposed to make the towns responsible by law for the damages committed within their limits. Such a law, if it did not have the effect wholly to prevent the disorders, for the taxes here are mostly paid by the rich, would at least have the merit of repairing the losses suffered by means of them.
The present generation in the United States, brought up in devotion to business, living in an atmosphere of interest, if it is superiour to the last generation in commercial intelligence and industrial enterprise, is inferiour to it in civil courage and love of the public good. Deplorable fact! When Baltimore was not long since given up to the geinus of destruction four whole days, when the protection of the city had been vainly transferred from the mayor to the sheriff, and from the sheriff to the commanding officer of the militia, when the prisons had been forced, and the spirit of order began at last to revive, not a man was found in this city of 100,000 souls to put himself at the head of the movement. When the most respectable citizens, and those most deeply interested in the restoration of the public tranquillity held a meeting in the Exchange, the mountain in labour brought forth only a long series of whereases on the advantage of public order, and a string of wordy resolutions which resolved nothing. Nothing, shameful to relate, but the presence of a veteran relic of the Revolution with the weight of eightyfour years on his head, who had retired from Congress to end his long career in repose, but who felt his blood boil in his veins and mantle in his cheeks at the spectacle before him,—nothing but his presence gave courage to this assembly of men in the vigour of life, who were letting their city fall a prey to a handful of drunkards and depraved boys. The indignant old man, started up and interrupted the reading of the resolutions; “Damn your resolutions!” cried he; “give me a sword and thirty men, and I will restore order?” “What! General Smith,” said one of these irresolute makers of resolutions, “would you fire upon your fellow citizens?” “Those who break the laws, drive their neighbour from his house, plunder his property and reduce his wife and children to beggary,” answered Gen. Smith, “such fellows are not my fellow-citizens.” These words, which expressed the thoughts of all, but which no one dared utter, were received with a thunder of applause. The aged senator was named commander of the military force by acclamation, and a few days after was chosen mayor. Since that time Baltimore has been quiet. But when we reflect that order has been restored in a large and flourishing city, only because there happened to be present a veteran whom death had spared, and who had energy enough, with one foot in the grave, to come forward and teach his fellow citizens, by example, the lessons of the golden age of American liberty, are we not forced to exclaim with Mr Clay; “We are in the midst of a revolution.”
Mr Clay is no false prophet; for the events that have succeeded each other since he uttered these words, announce that a crisis is at hand. The American system no longer works well. In the North, the removal of all restrictions on the right of suffrage, without the creation of any counterpoise, has destroyed the equilibrium. In the South, the old foundation borrowed from the ante-Christian ages, on which it has been attempted to raise the superstructure of a new social order in the nineteenth century, shakes and threatens to bury the thoughtless builders under the ruins of their half-finished work. In the West, a population sprung from the soil under the influence of circumstances unparallelled in the history of the world, already affects a superiority, or rather lays claim to dominion, over the North and South. Everywhere, the relations established by the old federal compact, become unsuited to the new state of things. The dissolution of the Union, the mere thought of which would have caused a shudder of horrour, ten years ago, which was numbered among those acts of infamy that are not to be named,—the dissolution of the Union has been demanded, and no thunder fell upon the head of the perpetrator of the sacrilege. At present it is a common topic of conversation. The dissolution of the Union, if it should take place, would be the most complete of all revolutions.
What will be the character of this revolution, which is felt to be approaching? To what institutions will it give birth? Who must perish in the day of account? Who will rise on the storm? Who will resist the action of ages? I have not the gift of prophecy, and I shall not try to pierce the mystery of the destinies of the New World. But I have a firm faith, that a people with the energy and intelligence which the Americans possess; a people which has like it the genius of industry, which combines perseverance with the resources of ingenuity, which is essentially regular in its habits and orderly in its disposition, which is deeply imbued with religious habits, even when a lively faith is wanting, such a people cannot be born of yesterday to vanish on the morrow. The American people, in spite of its original defects, in spite of the numerous voids which a hasty growth and a superficial education have left in its ideas, feelings, and customs, is still a great and powerful people. For such nations, the most violent storms are wholesome trials which strengthen, solemn warnings which teach, elevate, and purify them.
[* ] It has been observed, that the disorders are always committed by a handful of men followed by a train of a mischievous boys. It is rare that more than one hundred persons take part in the acts of violence, and often not half that number is engaged in them.
[* ] A Virginia newspaper relates that an abolitionist, having fallen into the hands of a Commitee of Vigilance, was stript naked, and stretched at his length on his face, when a cat was several times dragged across his bare back by the ruffians. A New York Journal repeats the statement with no other comment than some witticism.
[* ] Gov. Lumpkin.
[* ] An editor of a newspaper was lately driven from Boston by a mob, on account of his abolition principles, and not long since another was subjected to the same ostracism in New Orleans for having offended a militia company by his remarks.
[† ] The question of an armed police has for some time attracted the attention of enlightened individuals in the United States; the constable’s staff and the posse comitatus of the sheriff are no longer sufficient to maintain order and keep the peace. Independently of political difficulties, however, economical considerations stand in the way of the project. Virginia, for example, has nearly two-fifths of the superficial area of France. An armed police of one thousand men, which would be inconsiderable for that extent of country, would cost her about 800,000 dollars a year, a sum, say the calculators, which would more than pay the interest of a loan that would enable us to construct a canal or a railroad from Richmond to the Ohio. So the canal is made, and the armed police put off for another day. Meanwhile if some travellers from the North are hanged or flogged as abolitionists by the slaveholders, in a moment of excitement, the affair is regretted at first, but it is thought to be more important to have a canal or railroad which shall make Richmond the rival of New York, than to save two or three fanatics from the lash or the halter. This system is deplorable. But I know not that we have a right to denounce it, for we must confess, that something analogous prevails amongst us. We demand money without hesitation for war, for organising and keeping up a large military force, for filling our arsenals with cannon; but how difficult is it to procure any for useful enterprises, roads, canals, railroads, schools, penitentiaries, to which the United States devote almost all their resources?