Front Page Titles (by Subject) LETTER XXXII.: ARISTOCRACY. - Society, Manners and Politics in the United States
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LETTER XXXII.: ARISTOCRACY. - 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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Philadelphia, Oct. 13, 1835.
No great society can be durable, except in so far as authority is established in it. We may easily imagine a case, however, in which the authority may be temporarily thrown into the shade; when a great nation is in search of political and social forms suited to its wants, when it is obliged to pass from trial to trial, to feel its way, and turn itself successively to different points; when, beside, its separation from the rest of the world guaranties its independence, and frees it from the necessity of organising itself under the apprehension of assaults from abroad, it is then permitted, it is even necessary, that it should provide for the greatest possible freedom of motion, and that it should cast off all unnecessary and unprofitable restraints. But then a society without a fixed order and political ties, is an anomaly, a passing phenomenon. The social bonds of opinion and religion, the only ones which exist here, cannot supply the want of political ties, unless they are straightened to such a degree as to become despotic. Besides, when large towns like New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore, have once grown up, and there is a numerous floating population, which opinion and religion cannot watch closely, manners and belief have need of the firm support of the laws.
The serious character and frequent occurrence of disorders in the American Union, at the present time, prove that the period has come, when it will be necessary for authority to be organised. There are interests in the South, for example, which are filled with alarm, and which for want of legal protection, protect themselves, right or wrong, in a brutal manner, and feel the necessity of a power upon which they can rely for safety. In the Middle Class of the cities of the North, there is a population, enervated or rather refined by wealth, which is no longer ready to exercise that portion of self-government that consists in the suppression of violence by force, and in the democracy, there is a restless and turbulent element which force alone can hold in check. These two classes, which are peculiar to the North, and whose numbers daily increase, will soon be unable to live with each other, without the intervention of power.
Authority has two bases, upon which, to stand firm, it must be supported, like man upon two feet; these are unity or centralisation, and the distinction of ranks. The corresponding bases of liberty are equality, and independence. The spirit of unity or centralisation is already beginning to appear in several of the United States. (See Letter XXIX.).
It is not strictly correct to say that the Americans have renounced the principle of authority; for they have from the beginning adopted the principle of the sovereignty of the people. It is true that they understood it, at first, negatively; that is as a simple denial of authority in the European sense, or of military power founded on conquest; but when the doctrine of equality had once secured to the democracy the superiority over the Middle Class, the democracy gradually took upon itself the exercise of that sovereignty, for its own interest, well or ill understood, at the dictation of its passions good or bad; here, then, was power in the fullest extent of the word, here was a dictatorate: not indeed permanent and steady, but showing itself by starts and at intervals. For the most of the time it may be said to have slumbered, and left the field free to the spirit of individuality; it has roused itself occasionally only to strike a decisive blow, and to sink back again into its slumbers; but however irregular may have been its action, still here has been power, and power legal in its character and bold in its operations, and gradually extending their sphere.
The New England States, which are the incarnation of the spirit of division and individualism, have advanced little in this direction. The old Southern States, although they have more of the spirit of centralisation, have also shown themselves timid in this matter. The Middle States, and particularly New York, have made the greatest progress; those of the West, and particularly of the Northwest, seem disposed to imitate them.
This centripetal power has operated in two ways; negatively, in setting limits, and sometimes narrow ones, to the independence of personal action, whether exercised singly by individuals or collectively by companies. It has, for example, reduced the privileges of incorporated companies in general, and the railroad and banking companies in particular, or rather it has assumed to itself to be omnipotent in regard to them; at this moment, the democracy in the North is raising the hue and cry after all companies. It has imposed various restrictions upon commerce, such for instance, as the inspection laws relative to exported produce. Positively, it has interfered with the private transactions of individuals, and suspended or annulled them; thus in the West, ex post facto laws have been passed in favour of debtors; or the courts which refused to yield, have been abolished in a body, as in Kentucky; or monopolies have been created and sold for the profit of the State, as in New Jersey. Within a few years other measures of a more fundamental and comprehensive nature have been adopted, and the centralisation of the schools, the means of communication, and the banks, the three institutions of the most vital importance in a society devoted to industry, has already been commenced. Thus the germ of a vigourous central authority, which will embrace all the ruling interests of the country, is already beginning to sprout. In this respect the North and the South, the East and the West, with the exception of New England, which is held back by its spirit of subdivision,* seem to be unanimous.
If any danger is to be feared in the Northern States, during the coming period, it is not the absence, but the excess of power that is to be apprehended. Whilst the democracy in these States retains its jealousy of the military, it appears to be regardless of the accumulation of power in the hands of the legislators. It refuses to appeal to arms, even for the suppression of the most brutal violence; but it is willing to use or abuse the omnipotence of the popular representation, and it would not hesitate, in case it should be provoked by circumstances, to exercise it in the most tyrannical manner. A representative government loses the character of a compromise between the different social interests, and degenerates into an instrument of despotism in the hands of the multitude. In America, it had its origin in the concessions of the Middle Class to the democracy. At present the positions are reversed; the Middle Class now stands in need of concessions and does not seem likely to get them.
Instead of the physical tortures of the Inquisition, this despotism, if it gains strength and stability, would practice the most cruel moral tortures, it would have its Procustes’ bed for intellect and wealth; its level for genius. Under pretence of equality it would establish the most fatal uniformity. As it would be successively exercised by the changing favourites of the multitude, it would be eminently fickle and capricious; ever calling in question and unsettling all that was established,* it would end by palsying the spirit of enterprise, which has created the prosperity of the country.
In the Southern States, the white democracy has a pedestal in slavery. In order to realise its own elevation, it is not obliged to be continually engaged in lowering the superiour classes; it exercises its authority on what is beneath, and thinks less of attacking what is over it. In the South, society is divided into masters and slaves; the distinction of higher and lower class is there of secondary importance, particularly at the present time, when the alarming state of their relations with the blacks, obliges all whites to act in concert. In the South, moreover, slavery will soon oblige the local governments to maintain an armed police, which, while it keeps down the slaves, will also serve to prevent the repetition of excesses, by which this section of the union has recently been sullied, and the imitation of those outrages on private property and public order, of which the North has, of late, so frequently been the theatre.
Centralisation is one half of authority; distinction of ranks, the other half, cannot be easily supplied in the United States, particularly in the North, where, however, it is necessary that some institution should give stability and strength to authority. There are two sorts of aristocracy; aristocracy of birth, and aristocracy of talents. I do not now speak of the aristocracy of money, for this has no chance of establishing itself, and can acquire influence only by being merged in one of the two others.
All great societies which have existed up to this time, have established with more or less solidity, one or the other of these aristocracies, or, to speak more correctly, both. An aristocracy of talents existed even in the bosom of the Egyptian and Hindoo castes; but Christianity first distinctly established an order of classification founded on intellect, not only in each nation, but throughout the Catholic Church; the Roman Catholic clergy was organised on this principle. It could not be otherwise; the unity of God and of the human race was an article of faith; for the christian there was only one God, the father of all men, before whom all distinctions of birth were as nothing.
But by the side of this aristocracy of intellect, all nations which have reached a lofty political elevation, and founded durable empires, have had an aristocracy of birth, a civil and military nobility. Among some not very numerous peoples of antiquity, the nobility was composed of all free citizens, who were inferiour in numbers to the slaves. Such were the republics of Greece, whose political superiority, however, was of short duration. Such were the Arabs, among whom there were rayas, christians, and Jews, below the faithful. The nations which have had most weight in the balance of European civilisation, have been differently constituted; above the free citizens, they had a hereditary privileged class. Such was Rome; such is England; in the same way the empire of Islam was not solidly or firmly fixed, until a handful of Turks was placed over the Arabs, as a privileged class.
It is worthy of notice, that the last of the great societies which have passed over the face of the earth, christian society, or that in which the aristocracy of intellect was first fully developed, is also that in which aristocracy of birth has been most strongly marked. The sons of Japhet, who gave the impulse and acted as leaders to this movement of civilisation, brought with them from the North, a strong spirit of family, with which their political systems have been deeply impregnated; thus arose the most strictly hereditary nobility which has ever been seen. Till that time the hereditary system had been applied to caste; the Germans extended hereditary distinctions and functions to family, with the additional restriction of primogeniture. What before had been an exception in favour of royal families, they applied to all noble families. This organisation, more or less modified, still prevails in most of the European States. But yesterday, it seemed as vigourous as ever in England. It is true that it has there conformed itself to the spirit of the age, that it has become pliant and elastic, opened its ranks to the aristocracy of intellect, and consecrated its wealth and employed its privileges, not in gratifying its own caprices, nor in satiating its passions, but in spreading all around it, the network of a vast and beneficent patronage.
At the present day, there is a violent reaction against hereditary distinctions and aristocracy of birth. On all points of the territory occupied by the Western civilisation, the aristocracy of feudal origin is battered down, here by the democracy, there by the Middle Class, and elsewhere by royalty. In the general league against it, the emperor of Russia gives his hand to the American democracy and the French bourgeoisie, and the British democracy in the person of O’Connell, is allied with the king of Prussia and the emperor of Austria.
Whatever opinion we may entertain of the present value of aristocracy of birth, we are obliged to acknowledge, that, in the past, it has rendered great services to the human race. But for the establishment of the feudal system, the barbarian hordes would have continued to drive over the face of Europe, tribe dashing against tribe, nation hurled against nation. The principal distinction between the Germans or Normans, and the followers of Attila or Genghis Khan, is that the former had the instinct of organisation, as is manifested by their conception of the feudal system, and the latter were destitute of it. England is chiefly indebted to her aristocracy for her brilliant success.* I do not regret the past, for our share of glory is still great, although France has been conquered by her rival in the field and in the cabinet, and in every part of the world, in Europe, America, and Asia. Yet I may be permitted to say, that if the French aristocracy had triumphed in its struggle with Richelieu,† the destinies of the world might have been completely changed; and France, perhaps, would then have played the part which has fallen to the lot of England.
The right of primogeniture, extended beyond the limits of the aristocracy, ought not to be looked upon as a senseless imitation of the customs of the nobility by vain commoners. Although it may be difficult to defend this custom, on the ground of equity, yet it has been one of the causes of the greatness of England. It is clear that it is favourable to the accumulation of capital in few hands; now capital is like man, powerful when united in masses, feeble when divided. England is indebted to the law of primogeniture for an ever swarming army of younger sons, eager to exercise their enterprise in the colonies, and contented with their lot, whether because they readily obtain assistance from the head of the family, or because they are full of energy, and know that by industry they will obtain wealth, or because they do not think that the world can be arranged on a different system. Meanwhile, the elder sons have formed an opulent metropolis, which has given ample aid to its distant possessions in all emergencies, and has gradually gained the supremacy in Europe.
But it would be madness to think of repairing the broken walls of feudalism, or to wish to copy, in France or the United States, the English aristocracy, even with its mode of recruiting its ranks by those distinguished for merit and services; these orders of things have had their day. Yet all nations which aim to become or to remain powerful, must have an aristocracy; that is to say, a body, which, whether hereditary or not, may preserve and perpetuate traditions, give system and stability to policy, and devote itself to the most difficult of all arts, which every one at the present day thinks he knows without having learned it, that of governing. A people without an aristocracy may shine in letters and art; but its political glory must be as transitory as a meteor.
I know not if I allow myself to be deceived by my admiration for the past, although I do not conceal from myself how much of tyranny has been exercised over the great mass of mankind. But I cannot bring myself to believe, that the hereditary principle, or, in more general terms, the sentiment of family, should be entirely excluded from the aristocratical part of the new social order, which, although yet wrapped in uncertainty and mystery, is now struggling into existence on both sides of the Atlantic. The sentiment of family is not becoming extinct. Like all other social institutions, the constitution of the family has undergone various changes, since the beginning of the historical period. In the earlier times, every thing was swallowed up in the father, and the individuality—the rights, privileges, and duties—of the wife and children was the successive growth of ages; but through all these changes, the family sentiment has gained, rather than lost. If this progressive movement is not violently checked, the new institutions with which our civilisation is now big, must give a place in the political system to the family sentiment, and it is not easy to conceive how this can be done, without a certain infusion of the hereditary principle.
It may be objected, that, in the United States, the family sentiment is much weaker, than it is in Europe. But we must not confound what is merely accidental and temporary, with the permanent acquisitions of civilisation. The temporary weakness of the family sentiment was one of the necessary results of the general dispersion of individuals, by which the colonisation of America has been accomplished; the effect must cease with the cessation of the temporary cause which produced it, that is, with the interruption of emigration to the West. As soon as they have got their growth, the Yankees, whose spirit now predominates in the Union, quit the paternal roof never to see it again, as naturally and with as little emotion, as young birds desert forever their native nest as soon as they are fledged; but the predominance of the Yankees, at least, as they now are, does not seem to me destined to be perpetual; I do not see in them the ultimate and permanent type of the American.
Even amongst the Yankees themselves the family sentiment has maintained a strong hold, by means of the bible, the sanctity and strictness of the marriage tie, the ample powers left to the father in disposing of his property.
Within the three last centuries, the moveable elements have shot up with a wonderful vigour in western civilisation. Manufactures and the press, the organ of philosophy and profane learning, have destroyed the balance between the opposing forces of innovation and conservation, whose equilibrium is necessary to constitute order. These two new powers, whose tendency is to reform every thing, have gained the advantage over the old powers of society, and trampled down the twofold aristocracy of birth and talents, the clergy and the nobility. Must we, then, conclude that these two aristocracies, or even either of them, are stone dead; or must we not rather admit that order, that is to say, the equipoise of the innovating and the conservative powers, cannot subsist, unless authority is reconstructed in its ancient strength, without, however, retaining the brutal traits of its former character? Is not this a reason that the hierarchy should be established at least as firmly as in past times? Although it need not borrow from the past the unyielding, unelastic, and absolute features of the old aristocracies. And is there any principle of stability and solidity, comparable to that of hereditary transmission? One may be permitted, or rather is obliged, to doubt it.
Systems of great stability have, doubtless, been organised without hereditary succession. The Catholic hierarchy offers the most complete example of this fact; it has now stood eighteen hundred years. But in order to produce this result, it was necessary to root out the sentiment of family from the bosoms of its members, by binding them to celibacy; and to substitute for the natural principle of stability, that of hereditary succession, a merely artificial principle, that of rigorous discipline, and passive obedience,—or in other words, stability has here been obtained at the sacrifice of liberty.
The two powers of commerce and the press are eminently fluctuating and unquiet, only because they are not yet regularly organised. They are susceptible of being modified, and of being restrained in their innovating tendencies, so as to render the restoration of the conservative force in all its vigour less necessary. The industrial interest would certainly be less averse to the privileges of the lay aristocracy, if it were permitted to participate in them, or if it had its own peculiar prerogatives. Learning, of which the press is the sword, would have showed less antipathy towards the spiritual hierarchy, had not the latter repulsed and rejected it. It is not impossible that we may be destined to witness a sort of industrial nobility; it is even possible that we may come, by degrees, in the course of time, to entertain the question of a more or less complete monopoly of learning and the press under some form or another. Instead of throwing down the aristocracy, we might give it additional strength and stability, by connecting it with learning and industry, which would then serve as its buttresses, instead of becoming the instruments of its ruin. In such a system as this, the aristocracy would be less compact and less exclusive; it would soar less loftily over the rest of mankind; but it would cover more ground, it would gain in breadth and length what it lost in height, and it would leave nothing beyond the reach of its influence. Equality would probably gain by this arrangement; but human independence would lose by it.
It would be idle to attempt to guess at the future forms which the hierarchy may assume, to foresee the different interests of which society will hereafter be composed, or to name beforehand the institutions in which they will embody themselves. A multitude of combinations, which no one can divine, are possible. Many will take place, either successively in the same country, or simultaneously in different countries. But two things appear to me to be certain: one of these is, that new social phenomena of great magnitude are on the eve of being exhibited, either in America or in Europe; and the other, that the sentiment of family cannot be ultimately and absolutely erased from the political catalogue.
For Europeans, the immediate and complete abolition of a hereditary aristocracy seems to me beset with the greatest difficulties. The nations of Western Europe have received their laws and usages from the Germans and Romans, that is, from two stocks strongly impregnated with the sentiment of family; there is not an inch of their soil, a stone of their monuments, a line of their national songs, which does not awaken this sentiment by recalling this two-fold origin; it seems, then, impossible that they should be ready to adopt at once a political system, in which it was allowed no place nor consideration. We may, however, be sure that the principle of hereditary succession must henceforth be limited within certain bounds. The idea of perpetuity, whether of punishment or of reward, is foreign from our age, and will not, certainly, be more acceptable to future ages. We live longer in the space of time than our fathers; the same number of years, therefore, represents a much greater duration than formerly. If the aristocratic investiture were to endure only for a few generations, aristocracy would not cease to be the most coveted of privileges and the most stable of institutions; while the jealousy of the nonprivileged classes would be less keen in regard to its prerogatives, if the nobility bore upon its front the inscription; “Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”
This, however, would not be enough; the aristocracy of birth requires a spur. To exercise the most important functions, it is not enough that one has taken the trouble to be born. There is something monstrous in the privilege of the English peerage, of being legislators by hereditary right. In the Middle Ages it was necessary to have gained the spurs, before one could gird on the sword and raise the banner of a knight. In Rome, birth made Patricians, but not Senators. Similar restrictions would be useful in all countries; with a people like the French and the Southern Europeans, they would be indispensable.
It is not easy to say whence a hereditary aristocracy in France is to be derived, if we must really have one. A nucleus of old families or of military men would be wanting, around which the new elements might group themselves. Now, the old French nobility allowed itself to be degraded to the state of menials under Lowis XIV., and sunk into the grossest debauchery under Louis XV.; the trials of exile did nothing for those who escaped the revolutionary axe; when they re-appeared amongst us, they had forgotten nothing, and learned nothing. The infusion of the military aristocracy of the empire has not regenerated it. Is the retirement to which the old nobility has condemned itself since the revolution of 1830, a retreat, in which by meditation and repentence it is to renew its youth, or is it not rather a tomb, in which it has buried itself forever? Will the old soil be heaved by earthquakes into new inequalities of surface? Have we among our peasants some unknown scions of the slayers of Cæsar, or of the children of Brennus, who will be revealed to the world by some mighty convulsions? Or will some Tartar horde from the North, the great hive of nations, put an end to our domestic quarrels, fix themselves in our palaces, seize our most fertile fields, wed our noblest, richest, and loveliest heiresses, and, sword in hand, proclaim to us; “The reign of lawyers is over, ours is begun.”
If the United States have also to constitute an aristocracy, and give political existence to the sentiment of family, their future would be yet more cloudy and uncertain than our own. The hereditary element of aristocracy has always come from conquest, or, at least, has supported itself, by alliance or compromise, by the sword of the conqueror. How can there be a conquest in the United States? It is possible that they may conquer Mexico, but they cannot be conquered by it. It cannot be supposed that some red Alexander or Charlemagne from the distant steppes of the West, heading the fierce tribes of the Pawnee braves, and dragging in his victorious train swarms of revolted negroes, can ever become the founder of a military dynasty and aristocracy. If the Union should ever be dissolved, and the hardy sons of the West, pouring down from the Alleghanies, should ever conquer the people of the North, enervated by luxury and enfeebled by anarchy, and those of the South, weakened by servile wars, still no germ of a hereditary aristocracy would exist in such a conquest; for the victors and vanquished would all be of the same family.
The Southern States, however, are already organised on the principle of hereditary aristocracy. It is true that the privileged class is so numerous, that, unless a privilege is established within a privilege, they do not form an aristocracy properly so called; but the fear of a rising of the blacks keeps the whites closely united and forces them to submit to a vigourous organisation of authority at every sacrifice. The relative situation of the whites and blacks admits of no hesitation.
It is evident that the establishment of a hierarchy possessing any stability, would be the most difficult in the States without slaves, and that the elevation of the sentiment of family to political dominion, would there encounter the most vigourous resistance. In the maritime States north of the Potomac, the difficulty would seem to be insurmountable. These States contain large towns, with an extensive commerce carried on by great houses, great factories in the English style, powerful trading, financial, and manufacturing companies, that is to say, the germs of an extreme inequality; yet their laws consecrate a system of absolute equality, and the sovereign democracy shows itself resolved to maintain it at all costs. Between these two counteracting forces, a struggle is going on, and cases might be imagined in which the contest may assume a terrible character. If any cause were to interrupt the prosperity of these States; if, by means of a separation, which, however, is daily becoming less and less probable, the markets of the South were to be shut against their merchants and manufacturers; if the sons of the farmers and their hired workmen could no longer have access to the lands and growing cities of the West: if, to crown their misery, a foreign war should blockade their harbours, they would be exposed to the most frightful convulsions. The Northern States, then, must remain indissolubly wedded to the Union of the States, and firmly devoted to the policy of peace with the European monarchies.
If, then, it were proved that there was an irresistible necessity for a distinction of ranks in every society, and that the principle of inheritance or sentiment of family must be one of the constituent principles of a privileged class, which is requisite to form the apex of the social pyramid, it must be acknowledged that the prospect of the North is more dark and alarming than that of the South. By the exercise of unyielding vigilance over the slaves, the South may continue to maintain the outward forms of a regular social system. It would, indeed, be a retrograde system, for it would be morally a copy of the ancient order of society, which had its day before the advent of the Christ, patched up with the improved material order of modern times; it would be despotism, but an orderly, organised despotism, which after all would be a less terrible scourge than the anarchy which threatens the North.
Nevertheless, whatever may be the destiny of aristocracy and the political fate of the family sentiment, I am loath to believe, that all that energy and intelligence which I have witnessed in the Northern States of the Anglo-American Union, can be swallowed up and lost. No deductions of logic can force me to conclude, that a society, superiour to any that has yet flourished in our ancient continent, will not, one day, and that soon, exist in the fine regions on the east and the west of the Alleghanies, around the wide basin of the great lakes, and along the far-stretching banks of these mighty rivers. It cannot be that a superiour race has transported its children to these shores to devour each other. If, on the one side, American civilisation seems to be exposed to formidable dangers, it presents itself in other points of view, with strongly marked features of permanency and stability. If great perils encompass its cradle, is it not the cradle of an infant Hercules?
[* ] It has already been mentioned that Massachusetts has lately adopted the new policy in regard to public works. [And it might be added in respect to the school-system.—Transl.]
[* ] In 1834, the Ohio legislature incorporated a Life and Trust Company, with very great powers; the company was organised in 1835, and in 1836, a proposition was made in the legislature the effect of which would have been indirectly to abolish it. Happily the legislature saw the necessity of keeping up the credit of the State by a faithful adherence to its engagements, and the proposition was rejected. Mr Dallas, of Philadelphia, who has been a Senator of the United States, has quite recently urged the adoption of ex post facto measures, with the object of annulling the charter of the United States Bank.
[* ] The English aristocracy is accessible to every man of superior qualities. The king can and often does make a peer of a commoner, and the order of knights, which is the lowest degree of nobility, is essentially an aristocracy of talents and personal services, not being hereditary. But if the aristocracy of intellect has thus got a footing in the aristocracy of birth, the latter has also encroached upon the former, for with the constitution of the Anglican church, and in the absence of monasteries and the numerous gratuitous institutions of the olden time, it is more difficult for a swine-herd, like Sixtus V., to rise in the establishment at the present day, than it would have been for him to reach the summit of the Catholic hierarchy in the Middle Ages.
[† ] The French aristocracy which fought the fight with Richelieu was Protestant, and was more enlightened than the English aristocracy of the same day. French protestantism was the flower of Europe in every respect, even in industry. It is well known that the English and German manufactures made great progress immediately after the revocation of the edict of Nantes, which drove four hundred thousand of our fellow countrymen from France.