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UNPUBLISHED WORKS OF ALEXIS DE TOCQUEVILLE. - Alexis de Tocqueville, Memoir, Letters, and Remains of Alexis de Tocqueville, vol. 1 
Memoir, Letters, and Remains of Alexis de Tocqueville. Translated from the French by the translator of Napoleon’s Correspondence with King Joseph. With large Additions. In Two Volumes (London: Macamillan, 1861). Vol. 1.
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UNPUBLISHED WORKS OF ALEXIS DE TOCQUEVILLE.
EXTRACTS FROM THE TOUR IN SICILY.
[Written in 1827.]
The MS. of the tour in Sicily makes a small quarto volume of 350 pages. To give the reader a notion of this first literary performance of Tocqueville, we furnish at random a few extracts taken word for word from the MS., without introducing any reflections or comments.
Tocqueville left Naples with his brother Edward in the beginning of March, 1827. He had scarcely set sail when he encountered a violent storm.
“The ship,” he says, “in which we embarked, was a little brigantine of seventy-five tons. . . . . We sailed on slowly, with the magnificent Bay of Naples before our eyes, and the receding stir of life in that populous city still sounding in our ears. We passed along the shore of Herculaneum. Soon we descried the hill which conceals Pompeii. Night had come on when we neared the cliffs of Capri. On waking the next morning, we had still those precipitous rocks in view, and they continued so all day; they seemed to pursue us like some dreadful remembrance.
“Capri resembles the nest of a bird of prey; it is the fitting abode for a tyrant. Thither it was that Tiberius drew in his victims from all parts of the Roman empire; but thence also (and there is some consolation in the thought), oppressed by the infirmities of a disgraceful old age, completely disabused even as to the enjoyments which he had hoped to find in the sight of human sufferings, and disgusted with his monstrous pleasures, he at length allowed the truth to escape from the bottom of his cruel heart. From Capri is dated his letter to the senate, in which he says:—‘Why do I write to you, conscript fathers? What have I to tell you? May the gods cause me to waste away more miserably even than they now do, if I know!’
“Towards evening, the calm which had stopped us was succeeded by a west wind, and we were forced to tack. At morning we were out of sight of land. All day we struggled against a foul wind. The sea began gradually to swell. The sun had just set; I was sitting in the cabin, with my head resting on my hand, observing the horizon, which from time to time was covered by a black cloud. The white foam of the waves stood out in the distance against this dark background. I saw that a storm was coming, though I did not think it was so close at hand. Soon we began to pitch deeply, and the spray broke over the deck in every direction. Lightning rent the sky, and distant, hollow thunder announced the storm. I have often enjoyed watching the approach of a thunderstorm in the night. There is to me something sublime and attractive in the preceding calm,—in the sort of solemn expectation pervading the whole creation at the instant of the impending crisis; but whoever has not beheld a similar scene on the open sea, has not witnessed the most awful sight in nature.
“At the first clap of thunder for one moment the ship was in agitation. The captain’s voice was heard from the poop, and the monotonous cry of the sailors announced a new manœuvre. The wind rose with frightful suddenness. The thunder came nearer—every flash for one moment illuminated the whole sky, and immediately afterwards we were plunged in perfect darkness. I could have conceived nothing like the violent commotion of the sea. It resembled the seething of a huge caldron. I shall all my life remember the deep impression I felt when, in an instant of calm, I heard near me a low sound of voices repeating verses of a Psalm. I looked whence the voices came, and I found that it was from under a sail, where ten or twelve poor passengers had found shelter. Is there any philosopher so convinced of his own theories as not to have been tempted to do the like at the sight of this terrible display of Almighty power?
“The storm was now almost over our heads. Several times we had seen the bolt fall into the sea not far from us; every moment we feared to be capsized. Suddenly a sea caught the ship on her side, and threw her on her beam ends. The wave tore up the benches and poured into the cabins; frightful cries arose on every side, and a dog that had hid itself among some barrels howled the most dismal accompaniment. The alarm was sharp, but lasted only for a minute; the vessel righted herself.
“Torrents of rain greatly diminished the danger of the storm; and although the sea still ran high, we all thought that we might venture to retire to rest in spite of the flood by which we were inundated. The night must have appeared long to everyone. As for us, when after two hours of a sleep, at every instant interrupted by the violent motions of the ship and by the whistling of the wind in the rigging, we woke up thoroughly, we felt that the sea was far from having gone down. As the sun rose, however, with dazzling brightness, I thought that all danger was over, and, in high spirits, I put my head out of our cabin; the sailors, some hanging to the rigging, and others leaning against the masts, seemed all to be absorbed in the contemplation of one object. Anxiety was painted on every face, and the rigidity of their looks was more terrifying than the uproar of the night. I then examined the sky; on the west a violent wind seemed to be carrying over our heads a huge cloud, charged with rain, and I saw clearly that another storm was at hand. I then tried to discover what was the distant object which so struck the eyes of our crew; at length I saw rise up, through the mist, indistinct shapes of high mountains, extending from north to south, and barring our course; whilst the storm, which was beginning, and the fury of the waves increasing every moment, were driving us in that direction. I crawled along the deck, for no living creature could have moved on foot without being instantly washed overboard, and holding on by one thing after another, at last I reached the wheel of the rudder, which the captain himself held; I asked him if he thought there was danger.
“The man fixed his fierce eye on me, and roughly answered Credo cosi, ‘I think so;’ and would not say another word. As I was returning to the cabin an old sailor caught me by the sleeve, and grinding his teeth, said to me, ‘It was your hurry to leave that made us quit the port. You will soon see what will be the consequence to you and all of us.’ The night before I had seen these very men full of courage and hope, springing from one cable to another, and though between fire and water, crying out as they passed, ‘It is nothing, gentlemen; only a squall,’ E niente signori, una burasca. But this time, I own, I thought that all was over with us. I went back to the cabin; I informed Edward of the state of affairs, adding that we must be ready to snatch the first chance of escape, though I then saw none. At that instant a sailor came to beg a dole for the souls in purgatory. We then remembered the religion we were born in, and to which our earliest thoughts had been directed; we said a short prayer, and sat down at the door of our cabin. I folded my arms and thought over the few years of my past life. I frankly own that, at that moment, when I thought myself on the eve of appearing before the supreme Judge, the object of human life seemed to me to be quite different from what I had always considered it. The pursuits, which till then I had esteemed the most important, now seemed to be infinitely trifling; whilst the giant Eternity, enlarging every instant, hid behind him all other objects. I then bitterly lamented that I was not armed with a conscience prepared for every event; I felt that such a help would have been of more avail than human courage against a danger that I could neither struggle with nor boldly face. But the hardest part was when I came to think of those whom we were leaving behind in this world. When I pictured to myself the moment when the public news of the catastrophe would reach their ears, I felt tears rise to my eyes, and I instantly turned my thoughts to something else that I might not lose the strength which I believed that I was on the point of needing. The cloud burst over us with great violence; the waves became prodigious; in a few minutes we came in sight of several islands. I then learnt that in the night the storm had thrown us forty leagues out of our course into the midst of the Lipari Islands.”
The ship, though freighted for Palermo, could not make it, on account of the contrary winds; but the little port of Olivieri hove in sight.
“It will be easily believed,” continues Tocqueville, “that we were terribly impatient to quit the wooden walls within which we had spent such miserable hours. But, in this country, where the police regulations against travellers are stringent in proportion to their laxity against thieves, all locomotion seemed to be studiously impeded. We were ordered to stay in the ship till the next day, at noon, at which hour it would be the pleasure of the custom-house officers to pay us a visit.
“On the 12th of March, after their search, we landed at last, on a little beach close to us. We jumped out on the grass, shouting joyfully, ‘At last, Sicily, we have you!’
“We immediately began to scamper over the surrounding country. A more enchanting scene was never presented to poor creatures who still fancied they felt the rolling of the vessel under their feet. We did not see the coast edged with those long strips of barren sand which sadden the gaze on the borders of the ocean, and indeed harmonize so well with the misty skies of its coasts. Here the waves washed the turf. Scarce thirty paces from the shore we saw enormous aloes, and long rows of Indian figs, and shrubs in bloom. We had left winter behind in Italy. Here spring, with all its bright colours and sweet odours, met our view. Two musket-shots off rose a village amidst the olive and fig trees. On a green hill opposite were the ruins of a castle. Then the valley, covered with flowers and verdure, mounted rapidly, and assumed a wide triangular figure towards the south. Thus Sicily first presented itself to our view, from the coast of Olivieri. . . . . Then we first learnt that neither the beauty nor the natural wealth of a country constitutes the well-being of its inhabitants. The first thing that struck us was the total absence of glass windows.
“. . . . On the 13th of March, before daybreak, we set off. The caravan proceeded in this order:—A soldier, carrying a musket, with a dagger in his sash, and a cotton cap on his head, opened the march, mounted on a powerful horse. . . . . After him we came in single file; some on horseback, and others rather uncomfortably perched on parts of the baggage. Three young peasants, bare-footed, with the copper hue of Moors, ran continually from one end to the other urging on our mules; now and then uttering the wild cry which is peculiar to Sicily, and every instant repeating their favourite curse, Kasso. . . . .”
The troop proceeded in this way over part of the island, and reached Palermo.
“. . . . The first object that strikes the eye on approaching the town is the Monte Pellegrino, whose square and isolated mass shelters Palermo from the north-westerly winds, and makes the sirocco still more oppressive. Fifteen years ago the people believed, it is said, that if Napoleon made himself master of Sicily, he would cause this mountain to be thrown into the sea. Nothing, perhaps, can better paint the kind of supernatural power which that man was able to acquire over the minds of his contemporaries.
“. . . . On the 17th of March we left Palermo. . . . After going on for two hours through these lonely scenes, the guide signed to us to look at something a long way off on the top of a hill. We were amazed at seeing a Greek temple, standing upright and alone, and in the most complete preservation. It was Segestum. Although since our arrival in Italy we had become accustomed to the sight of ruins of every age, and of every description, and had been enabled by their terrible example to appreciate the fragility of all human works, till now it had not been our fate to meet with (as it were) the corpse of a dead city in the midst of a desert. We had never been so thoroughly and so deeply impressed. We stood as if fixed to the spot; we tried to group round these splendid remains of ancient magnificence other temples, palaces, and porticoes. We wished that we could have restored to the soil the fertility that made Segestum so powerful from its foundation; and then we rejoiced in the absence of petty modern houses in the neighbourhood of this antique colossus.
“. . . . We soon reached the steep banks of a torrent. It is the Xanthus; farther on flows the Simoïs. Why do these Trojan names—the ruins of this Trojan town—and, in general, the relics of this classical antiquity—interest us more than the vestiges of more modern times, even than events which nearly concern us?
“. . . . After quitting Selinonte, we went sometimes over tracts of sand, sometimes across valleys without trees or inhabitants. . . .
“It may be said, though at first it seems hardly credible, that in Sicily there are no villages, but only towns, and these very numerous. One is astonished, after travelling for twenty or thirty miles in almost a desert, suddenly to come upon a town of 20,000 inhabitants, for which one has been prepared by no highroads nor distant sound. Here is to be found the little that exists of industry and comfort, as in a paralytic body the heat retires gradually towards the heart. It is not impossible to assign a cause for this irregular state of things. The only great landed proprietors in Sicily are the nobles, and especially the ecclesiastical bodies; these two classes are far from any thought of improvement, and have long been used to the amount of rents paid to them. The nobles squander theirs in Palermo or Naples, without thinking of their Sicilian property, except to sign the receipt they send thither. We were told that there are many who have never even been to their estates. As for the monks, a race naturally given up to routine, they spend their usual income quietly, without caring to increase it. Meanwhile the people, having little or no interest in the soil, and no market for the produce, gradually leave the country. It is known how few inhabitants are enough to cultivate badly an immense extent of land. The environs of Rome are an evidence of this.
“The visitor who should confine himself to the coast of Sicily, might easily believe her to be rich and flourishing, though there is not a more wretched country in the world; he would consider it populous whilst the fields are deserted, and will remain so till the sub-division of property and an outlet for produce, give the people a sufficient interest in the soil to call them back. . . . . ”
After visiting Sciacca and Siculiano, the travellers proceeded towards Girgenti . . . . . “. . . . . From this point is seen the immense enclosure, formed by the walls of Girgenti (Agrigentum). We estimated it at not less than from twelve to fifteen miles round. Almost all the remains of antiquity are ranged along the natural wall which overlooks the sea. First, we saw the Temple of Juno Lucina, of which the frieze and several columns have fallen. We then went on to the Temple of Concord. I have never seen anything in such extraordinary preservation. Nothing is wanting: pediment, friezes, and interior, all have been spared by time. It has done more, it has given the whole an admirable tint; to us who gaze upon this temple after a lapse of about 2,500 years, it probably is a finer object than it presented to its builders. Both these temples resemble exactly that of Segestum, except that they are smaller; the columns have the same proportions, the lines the same simplicity, the accessories the same arrangement.
“It is remarkable that the Greeks, whose imagination was so versatile, should never have thought of varying in any manner the architectural system they had once adopted. I may be wrong; but this seems to me to show such a stedfast conviction of the really great and beautiful, as could have belonged only to a people so extraordinarily gifted with general artistic capacities.
“On the same line with these temples, but farther on, are the remains of that of Jupiter Olympius. The most remarkable feature of these remains is, that they must have belonged to a building larger than any that has been left us by the ancients. In general, the Greeks, and even the Romans, who had so much grandeur in their genius, and in their conduct of worldly affairs, yet in art never fell into a taste for the gigantic. They considered, and with truth, that it is more difficult to produce the very fine than the very big; and almost impossible to produce at once the very fine, and the very big.”
Our travellers proceeded from Girgenti to Catania, across the fertile plain of the Lestrigones.
“When we reached Catania,” continues Tocqueville, “we determined to start that very evening for Nicolosi, and attempt in the night the feat of ascending Etna. . . . We started at four for Nicolosi. . . . . . . . On leaving the town, our path lay through a few cultivated fields; and then we reached an old deposit of lava, still barren and of horrid aspect. From thence is the best view of Catania surrounded by groves. . . . . .
“Soon we left the lava, and found ourselves immediately in the midst of a kind of enchanted country which anywhere would be striking; but in Sicily it is ravishing. Orchard succeeds orchard, surrounding cottages and pretty villages; no spot is lost; everywhere there is an appearance of prosperity and plenty. In most fields I observed corn, vines, and fruit-trees growing and thriving together. As I went on, I asked myself what was the cause of this great local prosperity? It cannot be attributed only to the richness of the soil, for the whole of Sicily is so fertile as to require less cultivation than most countries. The first reason for the phenomenon that occurred to me was this: Etna being situated between two of the largest towns in Sicily, Catania and Messina, finds on both sides a market for its produce, which does not exist in the centre, nor on the south coast. The second reason, which I was slow in admitting, seemed to me finally to be more conclusive. The land round Etna being subject to frightful ravages, the nobles and the monks grew disgusted with it, and the people became the proprietors. It is now sub-divided almost without any limit. Each cultivator has an interest, however small, in the soil. This is the only part of Sicily where the peasant is a proprietor.
“But whence comes it that this extreme division of property, which so many sensible people consider an evil in France, must be regarded as a blessing, in fact a great blessing, in Sicily? This will be easily understood. I quite acknowledge that in an enlightened country where the climate is favourable to labour, and every class desires to grow rich, as for instance in England, the extreme division of property may be hurtful to agriculture, and therefore to internal prosperity, because it deprives men who would have the will and the power to turn them to account of a great means of improvement, and even of employment; but on the other hand, when the object is to excite and awaken an unhappy people half paralysed, to whom rest is a pleasure; where the higher classes are sunk into hereditary sloth and vice, I know of no better way than to parcel out the land. If then I were king of England, I should favour large properties, and if I were ruler of Sicily, I should encourage as much as possible small estates; but as I am neither the one nor the other, I hasten back to my journal. . . .
“It was dark when we reached Nicolosi; at eleven at night they knocked at our door to tell us to get ready. . .
“As soon as we were in the air, our first care was to examine the state of the weather. We were glad to find that the wind had fallen, and that we could see the stars, but there was no moon. Profound darkness surrounded us. However, we soon discovered that we were riding over vast tracts of volcanic ashes, in which the feet of our mules sank deep. Soon afterwards it seemed as if we were becoming entangled in the windings of a great stream of lava. At last we came upon the wooded region. . . .
“Here we fell into a deep silence. This nocturnal march in the midst of one of the most ancient forests in the world; the strange effects of light produced by our lantern on the knotted trunks of the oaks; the fabulous traditions which seemed to be called up by all around us; even the rustling of the leaves under our feet; all transported us to an unreal world. . . .
“At last we reached the foot of the last cone of Etna. We distinguished the most minute details, and we thought that we were close to the crater. In this we were mistaken, as will presently be shown. We were another hour in gaining the points that we had thought so close to us; and an hour of the most fatiguing walking that I ever had in my life. First we clambered for about twenty minutes up an icy slope covered with irregularities, so sharp and slippery that we could scarcely keep our footing; then we reached the last peaks, formed by successive falls of ashes, and consequently very steep. On this shifting ground, which inclines as rapidly as a roof, one cannot take a step without sinking in deeply, and often slipping back above six feet. I had already experienced the unpleasantness of such an ascent in my visit to Mount Vesuvius. But here it was much worse; to the difficulty of advancing on such a road was joined that of breathing at such a height; and each of these obstacles was increased by the other. We then found ourselves at about 11,000 feet above Catania. The air was rare and yet not light. Volcanic emanations filled it with sulphurous vapours. Every ten or fifteen steps we were obliged to stop. We then threw ourselves on the ashes, and for a few seconds we felt the most extraordinary palpitations of the heart. My head felt as if it were screwed in a tight iron cap. Edward owned to me that he did not feel certain of reaching the summit.
“We were making one of these forced halts when the guide, clapping his hands, exclaimed, in a tone which I seem still to hear—“Il sole, il sole” (the sun). We turned instantly towards the east; clouds covered the sky, yet the sun’s disk, which was like a shield of red-hot iron, pierced through every obstacle, and showed itself half above the Ionian sea. Red and violet tints were diffused over the waves, and gave to the mountains of Calabria, opposite to us, a blood-red and violet hue. It was a sight such as can be beheld but once in a lifetime; an aspect of nature in stern and awful beauty that penetrates and crushes you with a sense of your own insignificance. This grandeur was mingled with something of singular sadness and mournfulness. The immense star gave out only a dubious light. He seemed to drag himself rather than mount to the upper sky. Even so, said we to each other, will he, no doubt, rise on the last day.
“This sight restored our failing strength. We made tremendous efforts, and in a few seconds reached the edge of the crater. It was with a sort of terror that we looked into it. . . . A vapour, white as snow, whirled and tumbled with unceasing noise in the depth which it concealed; it rose to the edge of the enormous basin, and then stopped, sank, and rose again; only a small quantity escaped, but that was enough to form a cloud which covered a quarter of the sky, and in which we were, against our will, often enveloped.
“The sun had scarcely cleared the waves of the sea when he hid himself in a bank of clouds, from which he soon emerged in splendour.
“The sea extended all round us, and Sicily narrowed to a point before our eyes. Etna projected its shadow as far as the environs of Trapani, and covered nearly the whole island with its immense cone. But the shadow was not at rest; like a living creature it appeared in perpetual motion. From minute to minute it contracted, and as it retreated whole provinces came in view. The island seemed to us to be rather rugged than mountainous. In the midst of its numberless hills we saw a blue line wind about—that was a river; a small white plate denoted a lake; something shining in the sun was a town. As for the poor human creatures, they could only have been perceived by the eye of Him who formed with the same ease an insect and Mount Etna.
“Here then, at last, we said, is Sicily, the object of our journey, the topic of our conversation for so many months; here is the whole country spread out beneath our feet. By turning round we can travel all over it in an instant; our eyes can pierce into every nook; scarcely any part escapes us, and yet it is far from reaching the horizon. We had just come from Italy; we had trodden on the ashes of the greatest men that ever lived, and inhaled the dust of their monuments; we were full of the grandeurs of history. But here something of another kind addressed the imagination: every object that struck us, the crowd of thoughts that rushed into our minds, carried us back to primitive times. We came close to the earliest ages of the world, those ages of simplicity and innocence before men were saddened by the remembrance of the past, or terrified by the uncertainty of the future; when satisfied with present happiness, and confident of its duration, they gathered the fruits freely bestowed by the earth, and almost as pure as the gods themselves, met everywhere with the footsteps of their deities, and lived, as it were, among them. It is here that fable shows us the first men. This is the home of the divinities of Grecian mythology. Near this spot Pluto tore Proserpine from her mother’s arms; in the wood we had just passed through, Ceres halted in her rapid pursuit, and, tired with her fruitless search, seated herself on a rock; and, though a goddess, wept, say the Greeks, because she was a mother. Apollo tended his flocks in these valleys; these groves, which reach to the coast, echoed to Pan’s flute; nymphs strayed beneath their shade, and inhaled their perfume. Here Galatæa fled from Polypheme; and Acis, on the eve of falling under his rival’s strokes, still charmed these shores, and left to them his name. The lake of Hercules, and the rocks of the Cyclops, are visible in the distance.
“Land of gods and heroes! Poor Sicily, what has become of thy brilliant chimæras? . . . .”
A few days afterwards, Tocqueville left Sicily to visit the Lipari islands, and chiefly the volcano of Stromboli. He explores and describes it; but when wishing to return to Sicily, he is detained by a contrary wind. This impediment lasts several days, and in this desert spot, to which he is chained without knowing how long his captivity may continue, his mind receives a variety of impressions, which he thus describes:—
“There was in our position on this burning rock, surrounded by the sea, and cut off from the whole world, a feeling of desertion and isolation which fell like a dead weight on our imagination.
“When we had in some degree recovered from this impression, we tried to employ the leisure, of which we had more than of anything else, and we should have then been glad to give away the time which one often would willingly buy so dear. . . . .
“One day I was sitting on the sands, with my head on my hands, looking out on the sea, and turning over carelessly in my mind the saddest thoughts. I had long been looking at a boat coming in; it annoyed me, for it was full of people singing at the top of their voices as they drew near. It was a poor fisherman’s family, husband, wife and children; it comprehended at least three generations. They all rowed, and the boat soon touched the land. The father and the elder ones jumped into the water, and dragged the boat upon the beach. Just then I saw come out of one of the huts on the coast a half-naked child, about two or three years old; he hurried along, crawling on all fours, and shouting for joy.
“This baby became the object of general attention. As soon as a middle-aged woman who had just stepped out of the boat caught sight of him, she ran to embrace him, and raising him in her arms, covered him with kisses, and said to him a thousand things which I could not understand. He was soon surrounded by all the party, each had something to say to him; he was passed from one to the other; the men set their fish before him, and made him touch the scales; the children all brought him some trifle from their recent expedition, and even the little ones of all took pains to put bracelets of shells on his arm, and then ran away quite delighted. He was evidently the last-born of the family.
“Till now I had never understood the misery of banishment, and the reality of those instincts which, however far one may be from one’s country, draw one towards it in spite of obstacles and dangers.
“The recollection of France and of all that is comprehended in that one word, pounced upon me as its prey. The longing that I had to see her again was so vehement, as to be far beyond any wish that I had ever formed for any thing, and I know not what sacrifice I would not have made to find myself instantly on her shores.
“The happiness of living in one’s own country, like all other happiness, is not felt while it is possessed. But let exile or misfortune come upon you, and then leave memory to do its work. You will then learn to value things aright; or rather you will learn nothing, for their value depends on things no longer existing for you.
“In a foreign land there is an element of sadness often mixed even with pleasure, and then many things, which when at home you forgot to notice, many that use had rendered indifferent, insipid, and even tiresome, recur to your mind in banishment, not wearing the same look as when they were present, but bright and vivid, and full of charms which you only now perceive. They could not make you happy, but they now have power enough to make you miserable.
“I remember, before the period of which I am now speaking, once thinking of the risk of imprisonment, for which the experience of the last forty years has shown that it was not absurd to prepare oneself before hand; I had succeeded in forming an almost agreeable idea of a place which is in general so much dreaded. I fancied that a man who was shut up with books, pens, and paper, must find easy means of passing away the time pleasantly enough. Besides, there is a multiplicity of studies which the hurry of public life will not admit of pursuing effectually. And then I wondered at the numbers of people, who, from the years during which they were imprisoned, ought to have written volumes, yet have come out having done nothing at all.
“The days that we spent at Stromboli served to explain to me the phenomenon, and showed me my error. Although time was our greatest foe, we never could make up our minds to fight against it, by employing ourselves. Indeed, in the flattering picture that I had drawn of a prison, I had left out of the account the prevalent anxiety for the future, the indefinite duration of the present, and especially the want of a certain object. You cannot command the mind to work as you do a labourer to dig or delve. There must be a cause, a motive to set it in action; and the term of imprisonment may be lengthened, or it may end the next day. What is the use of beginning what one is not sure of finishing, a work which, perhaps, will never be useful or agreeable to oneself any more than to others? And then time crushes you by its slow progress; a long perspective of similar hours and days discourages you. It always requires an effort to begin. Why should this effort be made now rather than an hour hence, to-day rather than to-morrow? Who is there to urge you? Where is the exciting cause? Ennui, that overpowering kind of ennui which is not produced by idleness alone, but by the influence of a painful position, benumbs the faculties, makes the heart sink, extinguishes the imagination, and at last one dies, like a miser starved in the midst of his riches. . . . . ”
However, just when the travellers had begun to think that they were to be for ever chained by adverse fate to the rock of Stromboli, a favourable wind came to their rescue and enabled them to proceed.
In one part of his narrative, Tocqueville brings on the stage two persons more or less imaginary,—a Sicilian (Don Ambrosio) and a Neapolitan (Don Carlo); he draws their portraits, and records their conversations; and in their dialogue gives the sum of his own opinions on Naples and Sicily. . . . “They were both,” he says, “in the prime of life; but in other respects so different that they might seem to have been born on opposite shores of the ocean. . . .”
“The first impression produced by Don Ambrosio was that of a debased nature. He presented such a mixture of strength with weakness, of courage with cowardice, of pride with meanness, that the sight of him filled us with pity. Discontent and vexation were expressed in his countenance; yet his animated looks and occasional flashes of intelligence led us to conclude that mirth and joy would not have been strangers to him had he dared to yield himself with confidence to their influence. I doubt whether his physiognomy would ever have been good, at whatever time Heaven had given him birth; but the long endurance to which he seemed to have been subjected had heaped up in his mind a load of indignation and resentment which weighed on him the more that he appeared to see no hope of ever shaking it off.
“However unfavourable might be the impression produced by this man, the appearance of his companion was still more repulsive. Every feature, every movement, every word, announced that complacent corruption the worst and most hideous of all.
“Amid the degradation of the first, something of the dignity natural to man remained erect. It was absolutely wanting in the second; his look expressed at once presumption and weakness. In a word, he was a child, but a depraved child.
“There was one point of resemblance, however, between these two men. Both seemed to have acquired a long habit of duplicity; but in the Sicilian it was more like the bitter fruit of slavery and want; while the Neapolitan seemed to deceive simply because fraud was the shortest and easiest road to his ends.
“These two men, though so different, were born under the same sky, subjects of the same king, and under the same laws.
“Soon after we met them, Don Carlo (the Neapolitan) spoke first, and addressed his companion in a mocking tone:—
“ ‘What is this, Don Ambrosio? either I greatly deceive myself, or we seem to be entering on a beaten track. If this vast plain were not untilled, we might almost begin to think ourselves in a civilized country.’
“The Sicilian did not answer, and the other went on:—
“ ‘Own that we must be, as I am, under some stern necessity; or, like these strangers, possessed by an evil spirit of travelling, to abandon the enchanting skies of Naples, and come to lose ourselves in your deserts.’
“ ‘Don Carlo,’ answered the Sicilian, with a gloomy and constrained air, ‘pray do not let us open such a subject, which naturally must be disagreeable to us both. You know that Sicily was not always what she now is. There was a time—remote, I own—when a single town of ours contained more inhabitants than the whole island does in these days of wretchedness and mourning. Then the Sicilians led the van of the human race. Our ships spread even to the shores of the ocean. Our arts, our imagination, and our manners, civilized our neighbours; the fertility of our soil, and the bravery of our soldiers, were celebrated throughout the world; gold ran in the streets of our fortunate cities . . . .”
“Here Don Ambrosio was interrupted by a burst of laughter from the Neapolitan: he bit his lip, and was silent.
“ ‘Yes; there was some truth in what you say in the time of Dionysius the Tyrant,’ replied his companion. . . . ‘But why make so much noise about advantages which are yours no longer? Two or three thousand years ago, indeed, your plains were highly cultivated; now they are barren and deserted. Your towns were large and rich, but now they are small and mean. You used to cover the seas with vessels, but at present your harbours are silting up. Formerly you shone in arts and mental accomplishments; but at this day you are in want of the simple necessaries of life; and what country in the world is more ignorant than Sicily? Finally, you have no soldiers; you would be only too happy if you had hands enough to till your ground!’
“The storm that had long been gathering in the Sicilian’s heart burst out at these last words.
“ ‘It is too hard,’ he cried, ‘to hear the authors of our greatest misfortunes boast before our faces of the fruits of their atrocious machinations. Who is to blame for the unheard of calamities which oppress us? Whom are we to accuse of causing the gradual decay and final ruin of a whole nation? Whom, if not you? And it is you who to-day come to sport with our ruins, to joke in the midst of a desert which you have created, to insult a misery which is your own work! Since Sicily has fallen under your dominion, not by your own conquest, but by a conquest which another made for you, since treaties handed her over to your kingdom, have we ever found in you—I will not say fellow-citizens (although you ought always to have shown yourselves such), but masters who, looking to their own interest, should have sought for it in promoting ours? Without our sad example, would it be possible to imagine, that through a long course of years a whole nation could have been subjected to a system of oppression so disastrous at once to the subject and the prince as to make each useless to the other?’
“ ‘Are you not yourselves,’ quickly rejoined the Neapolitan, ‘your own most cruel oppressors? Did tyranny—if tyranny it be—ever find more despicable instruments fitted to her hand? Are your public functionaries Neapolitans? No—invariably Sicilians. They are Sicilians, none but Sicilians, who offer their necks to the yoke of Naples, and bless it, provided that they are allowed in turn to inflict it upon unhappy Sicily. They are Sicilians who occupy your tribunals and make a public sale of justice! If our desire was to deprave you, you have certainly surpassed our hopes. Your aristocracy has surpassed its rulers! I think that it may justly boast of being the most dissolute in Europe.’
“ ‘Our aristocracy,’ replied Don Ambrosio, ‘is no longer Sicilian. You deprived its members of all interest in public affairs long before you struck the last blow at our constitution. You have drawn them over in a body to Naples. There you have destroyed their primitive energy and national character; you have plunged them into luxury, bastardized their principles, substituting courtly ambition for the desire of reputation, and the influence of court favour for that of merit and valour . . . .’
“Whilst Don Ambrosio was speaking, the Neapolitan’s countenance grew darker and darker. It was evident that the violence of the attack had succeeded in disturbing even the apathy of his nature. As the Sicilian pronounced his last sentence, Don Carlo gave him a look which expressed with more energy than one would have given him credit for,—insolence and the most insulting contempt.
“He thus interrupted him:—
“ ‘Well,’ cried he, with a bitter laugh; ‘as you find our yoke so heavy, why do you delay to break it? Why not sound the tocsin in your fields? What do you wait for? Assemble yourselves! March! But, no; you never will believe that oppression has reached its height; and down to your last posterity you will put off vengeance to the morrow; but, were you even bold enough to raise the standard of revolt, how easily would Naples smash your weak efforts! Recollect, remember 1820. Where are your ships, your troops? Your youths detest the profession of arms. There are no Sicilians in our army. . . . .’
“ ‘That is true,’ replied Don Ambrosio, in a hoarse and constrained tone, ‘all that is but too true; what would be the use of concealing it? . . . . and yet we were not born to be slaves. Our history proves it, and no nation has ever given more terrible lessons to its oppressors. Freedom is still fermenting in our inmost souls. We are far from that lowest degradation in which vengeance is lost sight of, and no different state of things is even thought of. The energy of our national character is not extinguished; its germ lives in every heart, and alone may raise us from our abasement and restore to us our ancient virtues. It is true that we do not defile before you at your reviews; but we never have been seen to fly before the enemy’s sword had left its sheath. Is there a wretch so degraded as not to prefer tilling the land of his ancestors to serving in your army? Distorted by oppression, that hidden strength reveals itself only by criminal acts; as for you, you have nothing but vices. By refusing justice to us, or still better, by selling it to us, you have taught us to consider assassination a right. Perhaps the time will come when political interests will again be conflicting in Europe, and kings will no longer feel obliged to support each other. Some day, France or England will extend a helping hand, and open her arms to us. Now we flatter you, Neapolitans; but then, beware of being amongst us singly!’
“Deep silence followed these words. The boldness which a moment before had animated the looks of Don Carlo, had vanished. He crossed over the way, went up to the Sicilian, and said a few words to him in a low tone, and with a caressing air. At this the other was struck with surprise. But soon, estimating the imprudence of his speech by the effect it produced on his companion, he seemed alarmed in his turn. We saw him force a smile, and turn what had escaped him into a joke. Thus these two men, divided by hostile passions, joined in one common feeling—fear.”
Tocqueville finished this narrative, of which we have given here only a few morsels, with a thought which deserves to be reported. In the simplest and most unassuming manner he touches the main-spring of human existence, and by this one observation takes a place among the men destined to give their lives, at a later time, a value and a purpose.
“It will be perhaps thought strange,” he says, “that we could have endured such a way of life for so long, doing so much, sleeping so little, and never taking a thorough rest. The only explanation that I can give of this phenomenon is this: we willed it, not feebly, or as, for instance, one wills in a sort of general way the good of one’s neighbour, but firmly and resolutely. The aim, it is true, did not correspond with the effort, and it was a test, on our part, of strength and perseverance. But if the aim was trifling, we acted as if it had not been so, and we attained it. As for me, and with these words I will conclude this narrative, I ask of God but one favour. It is that He may grant me to find myself, on some future day, willing in the same manner something worth the exertion.”
VISIT TO LAKE ONEIDA.
[Written in 1831.]
At sunrise on the 8th of July, 1831, we left the little village called Fort Brewington, and turned our steps towards the north-east.
About a mile and a half from the house of our host, we took a path which opened into the forest, as the heat began to be troublesome. A close morning had succeeded to a stormy night. We were soon under shelter from the rays of the sun, and in the midst of one of those dense forests in the New World, whose gloomy and savage majesty seizes the imagination and fills the mind with a sort of religious awe. How can such a scene be described?
A thousand little rivulets, as yet unconfined by the hand of man, trickled and lost themselves in perfect freedom over a marshy ground, in which nature had scattered with incredible profusion the seeds of almost every plant, that either creeps along or rises above the ground.
Over our heads was a vast green vault. Beneath this thick veil and in the damp recesses of the woods, strange confusion meets the eye; a chaos of trees of all ages, leaves of every colour, grasses, fruits, and flowers of a thousand sorts mingled and plaited together. For centuries has one generation of trees succeeded to another, and the ground is covered with their remains. Some seem to have been felled yesterday, others already half buried in the earth exhibit only a shell, others again reduced to dust serve as manure to their latest offshoots. Among them thousands of plants of different kinds struggle in their turn towards the light. They insinuate themselves between these motionless corpses, creep over their surface and under their withered bark, raise and scatter their dust. It is like a struggle between death and life. We sometimes came upon an immense tree uprooted by the winds, but in spite of its weight often unable to reach the ground through the crowded forest, the withered branches still hanging in the air.
A solemn silence reigned in this profound solitude. Scarcely a living creature was to be seen. Man was absent, and yet it was not a desert. On the contrary, nature exhibited a productive force unknown elsewhere. All was activity; the air appeared impregnated with an odour of vegetation; one seemed even to hear nature at work, and to see sap and life circulating through the ever-open channels.
We rode for many hours through this imposing solitude in a dim light, and hearing no sound but that made by our horses trampling over the leaves heaped up by many winters, or forcing their way through the dry branches which covered the ground. We kept silence; our minds filled by the grandeur and strangeness of the scene. At length we heard the first sounds of the axe, which proclaimed from afar the presence of an European. Prostrate trees, burnt and blackened trunks, some of the plants which serve as food for man sown confusedly among all sorts of rubbish, guided us to the abode of the pioneer. In the centre of a narrow circle, cleared by fire and steel, rose the rough dwelling of the precursor of civilization. It was an oasis in the midst of the desert. After talking for a few moments with the inhabitant of this spot, we resumed our journey, and half an hour afterwards reached a fisherman’s hut, built on the shore of the lake we came to see.
Lake Oneida stands in the midst of low hills, and of still virgin forests. A belt of thick foliage surrounds it on every side; its waters bathe the roots of the trees, which are reflected on its calm, transparent face; a single fisherman’s cabin is the only dwelling on its shore. Not a sail was to be seen on its whole expanse, nor even smoke ascending from the woods: for the European, though he has not yet taken possession of its shores, is near enough to expel the populous and warlike tribe from which the lake was named.
About a mile from where we stood were two oval-shaped islands of equal length. These islands are covered with trees so crowded that they hide the ground; they look like two thickets floating quietly on the surface of the lake.
No road passes near. In this region are no vast industrial establishments, nor spots celebrated for their picturesque beauty. It was not, however, chance that had led us towards this solitary lake. For it was the end and aim of our journey.
Many years before, I had met with a book called ‘Voyage au lac Oneida.’ The author related that a young Frenchman and his wife, driven from their country by the storms of our first revolution, sought an asylum in one of the islands on the lake. There, separated from the whole world, far from the tempests of Europe, and cast off by the society in which they were born, they lived for each other, and found mutual consolation in their misfortune.
This book had left a deep and lasting impression on my mind. Whether its effect on me were due to the talent of the author, to the real charm of the incidents, or to my youth, I cannot say; but the remembrance of the French couple on the Lake Oneida was never effaced from my memory. How often I had envied the peaceful joys of their solitude! Domestic bliss, the charms of conjugal union—even love—became mixed up in my mind with the image of the solitary island which my imagination had transformed into a new Eden. The story interested my companion. We often talked of it, and we every time ended by repeating, gaily or sadly—“The only happiness in this world is on the Lake Oneida.”
When unexpected circumstances led us to America, the recollection pressed upon us still more strongly. We determined to visit the French pair, if they still lived, or at least to explore their dwelling. So strong is the power of imagination over the mind, that this wild spot, this still and silent lake, these green islands, did not strike us as new objects; we seemed to see again a place which we had known in our youth.
We at once entered the fisherman’s hut. The man was in the forest; an old woman lived there alone; she hobbled out to her door to greet us. ‘What is the name of that green island about a mile off in the midst of the lake?’ said we. ‘It is called the Frenchman’s island,’ she replied. ‘Do you know why that name was given to it?’ ‘I have been told that it was so called after a Frenchman who, many years ago, came to live there.’ ‘Was he alone?’ ‘No: he brought with him a young wife.’ ‘Do they still live there?’ ‘One and twenty years ago when I settled in this place the French couple had left the island; I remember that I had the curiosity to go to see it. That island, which from hence looks so wild, was then a beautiful spot; the interior was carefully cultivated, the Frenchman’s house was in the middle of an orchard surrounded by fruits and flowers, a great vine climbed up the walls and spread all round it, but the place was already falling to pieces for want of inhabitants.’ ‘What then had become of the French pair?’ ‘The wife had died and the man abandoned the island, and no one knows what became of him.’ ‘Will you lend us the canoe moored at your door that we may cross over to the island?’ ‘Willingly; but it is a long distance to row, and it is hard work for people who are not accustomed to it; and besides, what can you see to interest you in a place which has grown wild again?’
As instead of answering we made haste to push the canoe into the water, ‘I see what it is,’ she said, ‘you want to buy the island. The soil is good, and land is not yet dear in our country.’ We replied that we were travellers. ‘Then,’ said she, ‘you are no doubt related to the Frenchman, and he has desired you to visit his property?’ ‘Not at all; we do not even know his name.’ The good woman shook her head incredulously, and handling our oars we proceeded rapidly to the Frenchman’s island. During this little voyage we were silent. Our hearts were full of sad and tender feelings. The nearer we came the less could we understand that the island had ever been inhabited, so wild was its appearance. We fancied that we had been duped by a fable. At last we reached the shore, and creeping under the huge branches that hung over the lake, we pushed on further. First we penetrated through a belt of venerable trees which seemed to defend the approach. Beyond this leafy fortification we suddenly came upon another scene. A thin growth of underwood and of young forest trees covered the interior of the island. In the woods, through which we had ridden that morning, we had often seen man struggling bodily with nature, and succeeding with difficulty in effacing its wild and fierce character, and subjecting it to his laws. Here we saw the forest re-asserting its supremacy, reconquering the desert, defying man, and rapidly obliterating the fleeting traces of his triumph.
It was easy to perceive that a diligent hand had once cleared the space in the middle of the island now filled by the young race of trees which I mentioned. No ancient trunks lay on the scattered remains. All bore the appearance of youth. We could see that the surrounding trees had thrown offshoots into the deserted fields, grass had grown over the spot which once yielded a harvest to the exile; briars and parasites had returned to the possession of their ancient domain. It was only at rare intervals that the trace of a fence, or the appearance of a field, was visible. We were an hour searching in vain among the trees and other brushwood which choked up the ground for some vestige of the forsaken dwelling. The rustic spot that the fisherman’s wife had just described to us, the lawn, the flowers, the fruit, the products of civilization introduced by intelligent and tender care into the midst of a desert, all had disappeared with the beings who inhabited it. We were about to renounce our undertaking when we espied an apple tree perishing of old age; this first put us in the right direction. Soon we discovered a plant, which we at first took for a convolvulus, climbing up the tall trees, winding round their slender trunks, or hanging like a green wreath from their branches; on further examination we found it to be a vinestock. We then felt certain that we were on the very spot chosen, forty years ago, by our two unfortunate countrymen as their last asylum. But even by digging in the thick layer of leaves which covered the ground we could find only a few fragments falling into dust, and which will soon disappear. Of the remains of her who had not feared to exchange the pleasures of civilized life for a tomb in a desert island in the New World, we could not find a trace. Did the exile leave these precious relics in the desert; or did he remove them to the spot whither he went to end his own days? No one could tell us.
They who read these lines will, perhaps, not be able to conceive the feelings here described, and will deem them, perhaps, exaggerated or fanciful. Still I must say, that it was with hearts full of emotion and agitated with hope and fear, that it was with a kind of pious sentiment that we engaged in these minute researches, and followed the traces of the two beings whose name and family were unknown to us, of whose history we knew little, and whose only claim on us was their having experienced in this spot the joys and sorrows which touch every heart, because every heart contains the spring of them.
Here was an unfortunate being, bruised by his fellow-men, shut out and expelled from their society; forced to renounce their intercourse, and to flee to the desert. One friend clung to him, followed him into solitude, came forward to dress his wounds, succeeded in healing his broken spirit, and in substituting for worldly pleasures the most powerful emotions of the heart. He is reconciled to his lot. He has forgotten revolution, politics, cities; his rank and his family. He at length breathes freely. But his wife dies. Death strikes her and spares him. How will he be able to endure the remaining years? Will he remain alone in the desert? Will he return to the society which has long forgotten him? He is no longer fit for solitude, nor for the world. He can live no longer alone, nor with other men; he is neither a savage nor a civilized man; he is a wreck, like those trees of the American forest that the wind has been strong enough to uproot, but not to prostrate. He is still erect, but he lives no longer.
We explored the island in every direction, examined every relic, and, impressed by the icy silence which now reigns in its woods, we returned to the mainland.
Not without regret I saw disappearing the high verdant bulwark which for so many years had shielded the two exiles against the bullet of the European, and the arrow of the savage, but could not protect their cottage from the invisible stroke of death.
A FORTNIGHT IN THE WILDERNESS.
[Written on board the Steamboat Superior, August 1831.]
One of the things we were most curious about on arriving in America, was to visit the extreme limits of European civilization; and, if we had time, even some of the Indian tribes which have preferred flying to the wildest deserts to accommodating themselves to what the white man calls the enjoyments of social life. But to reach the desert has become more difficult than might be supposed. After we left New York, and advanced towards the north-east, our destination seemed to flee before us. We traversed places celebrated in Indian history; we reached valleys named by them; we crossed streams still called by the names of their tribes; but everywhere the wigwam had given way to the house—the forest had fallen—where there had been solitude there was now life. Still we seemed to be treading in the steps of the aborigines. Ten years ago (we were told) they were here; five years ago, they were there; two years ago, there. “Where you see the finest church in the village,” some one said to us, “I cut down the first tree in the forest.” “Here,” said another, “was held the great council of the Iroquois confederation.” “And what has become of the Indians?” I asked. “The Indians,” replied our host, “are gone I know not whither, beyond the great lakes; the race is becoming extinct; they are not made for civilization—it kills them.”
Man becomes accustomed to everything,—to death on the battle-field, to death in the hospital, to kill and to suffer. Use familiarises all scenes. An ancient people, the first and legitimate masters of the American continent, melts away every day from the earth, as snow before the sun, and disappears. Another race rises up in its place with still more astonishing rapidity; before this race the forests fall, the marshes dry up; vast rivers, and lakes extensive as seas, in vain oppose its triumph and progress. Deserts become villages—villages towns. The American who daily witnesses these marvels sees nothing surprising in them. This wonderful destruction, and still more astonishing progress, seem to him to be the ordinary course of events. He considers them as laws of nature.
It is thus that, always on the search for savages and deserts, we travelled over the 360 miles between New York and Buffalo.
A large body of Indians collected at Buffalo, to receive payment for the land which they have given up to the United States, was the first object that struck us. I do not think that I ever was more completely disappointed than by the appearance of these Indians. I was full of recollections of Chateaubriand and of Cooper, and I expected, in the countenances of these aborigines of America, to discover some traces of the lofty virtues engendered by the spirit of liberty. I thought to see men whose bodies, developed by war and the chase, lost nothing by the absence of covering. My astonishment may be estimated, on comparing these anticipations with the following description.
These Indians were short; their limbs, so far as could be seen under their clothes, were meagre; their skins, instead of being, as is generally supposed, a red copper colour, were dark, almost like those of mulattoes. Their black and shining hair fell straight down their necks and shoulders. Their mouths were in general immoderately large. The mean and malicious expression of their countenances showed the depth of depravity which a long abuse of the benefits of civilization alone can give. One would have taken them for men from the dregs of our great European towns; and yet they were savages. With the vices which they had caught from us was mixed a rude barbarism, which made them a hundred times more revolting. These Indians were unarmed; they wore European clothes, but put on in a different way from ours. It was evident that they were unaccustomed to them, and that they felt imprisoned in their folds. To the ornaments of Europe they joined barbarous finery, feathers, enormous ear-rings, and necklaces of shells. Their movements were quick and irregular; their voices sharp and discordant, their looks wild and restless. At first sight they might have been taken for wild animals, tamed to resemble men, but still brutal. These feeble and degraded creatures belonged, however, to one of the most celebrated tribes of ancient America. We had before us, and it is a sad fact, the last remains of the famous confederation of the Iroquois, whose manly sense was as renowned as their courage, and who long held the balance between the two greatest European nations.
Still it would be wrong to judge of the Indian race from this imperfect specimen; the cuttings of a wild tree which has grown up in the mud of our towns. We ourselves made this mistake, and afterwards had to correct it.
In the evening we walked out of the town, and at a short distance from the last houses, we saw an Indian lying by the side of the road. He was young. He lay still, and we thought him dead. Some stifled sighs which escaped with difficulty from his chest, proved to us that he still lived, and was struggling against the fatal drunkenness produced by brandy. The sun had already set; the ground was growing damper and damper; it was clear that, without help, he would die on the spot. The Indians were leaving Buffalo for their villages; from time to time a group of them passed close to us. As they passed they brutally turned over the body of their countryman to see who it was, and walked on without attending to what we said. Most of them were themselves drunk. At length came an Indian girl who seemed to approach with some interest. I thought that she was the wife or the sister of the dying man. She looked at him attentively, called him aloud by his name, felt his heart, and having ascertained that he was alive, tried to rouse him from his lethargy. But as her efforts were fruitless, we saw her become enraged with the inanimate body that lay before her. She struck him on the head, pulled about his face, and trampled on him. With these brutal acts she mixed wild inarticulate cries, which I seem to have still in my ears. We thought at last that we ought to interfere, and we ordered her away. She obeyed; but we heard her burst into a fit of savage laughter as she went off.
When we returned to the town we talked to several people of the young Indian. We spoke of his imminent danger; we offered to pay his expenses in an inn. It was useless. We could persuade no one to care about him. Some said: “these men are accustomed to drink to excess, and to sleep on the ground; and they do not die of such accidents.” Others owned that the Indian probably would die; but evidently there rose to their lips the half-expressed thought:—What is the life of an Indian? Such was the general feeling. In this society, so proud of its morality and philanthropy, one meets with complete insensibility, with a cold uncompassionating egotism, when the aborigines are in question. The inhabitants of the United States do not hunt the Indians with cries and horns as the Spaniards used to do in Mexico. But an unpitying instinct inspires here as elsewhere the European race.
How often in the course of our travels we met with honest citizens, who said to us, as they sat quietly in the evening at their firesides, “every day the number of the Indians is diminishing; it is not that we often make war upon them, but the brandy which we sell to them at a low price, carries off every year more than our arms could destroy. This western world belongs to us,” they added; “God, by refusing to these first inhabitants the power of civilization, has predestined them to destruction. The true owners of this continent are those who know how to turn its resources to account.”
Satisfied by this reasoning, the American goes to church to hear a minister of the Gospel repeat to him that all men are brothers, and that the Almighty, who made them all on the same model, has imposed on all the duty of helping each other.
On the 19th of July, at 10, a.m. we embarked on the Ohio steamboat, steering towards Detroit; a strong breeze blew from the north-east, and gave to the waters of Lake Erie the appearance of ocean waves. On the right stretched a boundless horizon; on the left we hugged the southern shores of the lake, and sometimes ran so near as to be within earshot. These shores are flat, and unlike those of all the European lakes that I have seen. Nor do they resemble the shores of the sea; immense forests overshadow them, and surround the lake with a thick belt rarely broken. Yet sometimes the aspect of the country changes altogether. At the end of a wood rises an elegant spire, among white houses exquisitely clean, and shops. Two steps further the primitive, apparently impervious, forest re-asserts its empire, and again throws its shadow on the lake.
Those who have travelled in the United States will find in this a picture of American society. All is abrupt and unforeseen. Extreme civilization and unassisted nature are side by side in a manner scarcely to be imagined in France. Like every one else, travellers have their illusions. I had seen in Europe that the more or less retirement of a province or of a town, its wealth or its poverty, and its greater or less extent, exercised an immense influence over the ideas, the manners, the whole civilization of its inhabitants, and often made a difference of many centuries between portions of a single country.
I had thought that this rule would apply, and in an even wider sense, to the New World, and that a country peopled gradually and imperfectly, must present every condition of existence, must exhibit society in all its stages, and, as it were, of every different age. I supposed America to be the country in which every phase which the social scale makes man undergo, could be studied; and in which might be seen all the links of a huge chain, reaching from the opulent patrician of the town, to the savage of the wilderness. There, in short, within a few degrees of longitude, I expected to find, as in a frame, the whole story of the human race.
There is no truth in this picture. Of all countries, America is the least fitted to present the scenes that I sought. In America, more even than in Europe, there is but one society, whether rich or poor, high or low, commercial or agricultural; it is everywhere composed of the same elements. It has all been raised or reduced to the same level of civilization. The man whom you left in the streets of New York you find again in the solitude of the Far West; the same dress, the same tone of mind, the same language, the same habits, the same amusements. No rustic simplicity, nothing characteristic of the wilderness, nothing even like our villages. This peculiarity may be easily explained. The portions of territory first and most fully peopled have reached a high degree of civilization. Education has been prodigally bestowed; the spirit of equality has tinged with singular uniformity the domestic habits. Now, it is remarkable that the men thus educated are those who every year migrate to the desert. In Europe, a man lives and dies where he was born. In America, you do not see the representatives of a race grown and multiplied in retirement, having long lived unknown to the world, and left to its own efforts. The inhabitants of an isolated region arrived yesterday, bringing with them the habits, ideas, and wants of civilization. They adopt only so much of savage life as is absolutely forced upon them; hence you see the strangest contrasts. You step from the wilderness into the streets of a city, from the wildest scenes to the most smiling pictures of civilized life. If night does not surprise you and force you to sleep under a tree, you may reach a village where you will find everything; even French fashions, and caricatures from Paris. The shops of Buffalo or Detroit are as well supplied with all these things as those of New York. The looms of Lyons work for both alike. You leave the high road; you plunge into paths scarcely marked out; you come at length upon a ploughed field, a hut built of rough logs, lighted by a single narrow window; you think that you have at last reached the abode of an American peasant: you are wrong. You enter this hut, which looks the abode of misery; the master is dressed as you are; his language is that of the towns. On his rude table are books and newspapers; he takes you hurriedly aside to be informed of what is going on in Europe, and asks you what has most struck you in his country. He will trace on paper for you the plan of a campaign in Belgium,* and will teach you gravely what remains to be done for the prosperity of France. You might take him for a rich proprietor, come to spend a few nights in a shooting-box. And, in fact, the log-hut is only a halting-place for the American, a temporary submission to necessity. As soon as the surrounding fields are thoroughly cultivated, and their owner has time to occupy himself with superfluities, a more spacious and suitable dwelling will succeed the log-hut, and become the home of a large family of children, who, in their turn, will some day build themselves a dwelling in the wilderness.
To return to our journey. All day we steamed slowly in sight of the coast of Pennsylvania, and afterwards of that of Ohio. We stopped for a minute at “Presqu’Ile,” now called Erie. In the evening, the weather having become fair, we crossed quickly the middle of the lake towards Detroit. On the following morning, we sighted the little island called “Middle Sister,” near to which Commodore Parry gained, in 1814, a celebrated naval victory over the English.
Soon after the flat shores of Canada seemed to approach rapidly; and we saw opening before us the channel of Detroit, and in the distance the walls of Fort Malden. Founded by the French, this town still bears numerous marks of its origin. The houses are built and situated like those of a French village, and in the centre rises a Catholic spire, surmounted by a cock. It might be a hamlet near Caen or Évreux. Whilst we were contemplating, not without emotion, its resemblance to France, a strange object attracted us. On the beach at our right was a Highlander on guard, in full uniform. He wore the dress that Waterloo has made famous; the plumed bonnet, the kilt, all was there; his arms and accoutrements glittered in the sun. On our left, as a contrast, two naked Indians, with painted bodies, and rings in their noses, appeared at the same instant on the opposite bank. They embarked in a little canoe, with a blanket for a sail, committing themselves to the wind and current. They shot in this frail vessel towards our ship, sailed rapidly round us, and then proceeded quietly to fish before the British soldier, who, still standing motionless in his shining uniform, seemed to represent the gorgeous civilization and the military force of Europe.
We reached Detroit at three o’clock. It is a little town of between 2,000 and 3,000 inhabitants, founded by the Jesuits in the midst of the forest, in 1710, and still containing many French families.
We had crossed the State of New York, and steamed 400 miles on Lake Erie; we now were on the frontier of civilization. Still we did not know what course to take. Information was not obtained so easily as might have been expected. To cross almost impenetrable forests; to swim deep rivers; to encounter pestilential marshes; to sleep exposed to the damp air of the woods;—these are efforts which an American easily conceives, if a dollar is to be gained by them—that is the point. But that a man should take such journeys from curiosity, he cannot understand. Besides, dwelling in a wilderness, he prizes only man’s work. He sends you to visit a road, a bridge, a pretty village; but that you should admire large trees, or wild scenery, is to him incomprehensible. We could make no one understand us.
“You want to see forests,” said our hosts to us with a smile: “go straight on—you will find them to your heart’s content. There are fortunately in this neighbourhood new roads and well-cleared paths. As for Indians, you will see more than enough of them in our squares and our streets. You need not go far for that. Those whom you see amongst us are beginning at any rate to be civilized. They look less savage.” We soon felt that it would be impossible to obtain the truth from them in a straightforward manner, and that we must manœuvre.
We therefore went to the United States’ Agent for the sale of wild land, of which there is much in the district of Michigan. We presented ourselves to him as persons who, without having quite made up our minds to establish ourselves in the country, were interested to know the price and situation of the Government lands.
Major Biddle, the officer, now understood perfectly what we wanted, and entered into a number of details, to which we eagerly listened. “This part,” he said, (showing us on the map the river of St. Joseph, which, after many windings, discharges itself into Lake Michigan), “seems to me to be the best suited to your purpose. The land is good, and large villages are already founded there; the road is so well kept up that public conveyances run every day.” Well, we said to ourselves, now we know where not to go, unless we intend to travel post over the wilderness.
We thanked Major Biddle for his advice, and asked him, with an air of indifference bordering on contempt, towards which side of the district the current of emigration had, up to the present time, least tended. “This way,” he said, without attaching more importance to his answer than we had seemed to do to our question, “towards the north-west. About Pontiac and its neighbourhood, some pretty fair establishments have lately been commenced. But you must not think of fixing yourselves farther off; the country is covered by an almost impenetrable forest, which extends uninterruptedly towards the north-west, full of nothing but wild beasts and Indians. The United States propose to open a way through it immediately; but the road is only just begun, and stops at Pontiac. I repeat, that there is nothing to be thought of in that quarter.”
We again thanked Major Biddle for his good advice, and determined to take it in a contrary sense. We were beside ourselves with joy at the prospect of at length finding a place which the torrent of European civilization had not yet invaded.
On the next day (the 23rd of July) we hired two horses; as we intended to keep them about ten days, we wished to leave a certain sum with the owner, but he refused to take it, saying that we should pay on our return; he was not uneasy. Michigan is surrounded on all sides with lakes and woods. He turned us as it were into a sort of riding-school, the door of which he held. Having bought a compass, and some provisions, we set off with our guns over our shoulders, and our hearts as light as if we had been two school-boys going home for the holidays.
Our hosts at Detroit were right in telling us that we need not go far to see woods, for a mile from the town the road enters the forest, and never leaves it. The ground is perfectly flat, and often marshy. Now and then we met with newly-cleared lands. As these settlements are all exactly alike, whether they be on the outskirts of Michigan or of New York, I shall try to describe them once for all.
The little bell which the pioneer takes care to hang round the necks of his cattle, that he may find them in the dense forest, announces from a great distance the approach to the clearing. Soon you hear the stroke of the axe; as you proceed traces of destruction prove the presence of man. Lopped branches cover the road; trunks half calcined by fire, or maimed by steel, are still standing in the path. You go on, and reach a wood, which seems to have been struck with sudden death. Even in the middle of summer the withered branches look wintry. On nearer examination a deep gash is discovered round the bark of each tree, which, preventing the circulation of sap, quickly kills it. This is generally the planter’s first measure. As he cannot in the first year cut down all the trees on his new property, he kills them to prevent their leaves overshadowing the Indian corn which he has sowed under their branches.
Next to this incomplete attempt at a field, the first step of civilization in the wilderness, you come suddenly upon the owner’s dwelling. It stands in a plot more carefully cleared than the rest, but in which man still sustains an unequal struggle with nature. Here the trees have been cut down but not uprooted, and they still encumber with their stumps the ground that they formerly shaded; round these withered remnants, corn, oak saplings, plants, and weeds of every kind spring pell-mell, and grow side by side in the stubborn and half-wild soil. In the centre of this strong and diversified vegetation, stands the planter’s log-house. Like the field round it, this rustic dwelling is evidently a new and hasty work. Its length seldom exceeds thirty feet; its width twenty, and height fifteen.* The walls as well as the roof are composed of half-hewn trees; the interstices are filled up with moss and mud. As the traveller advances the scene becomes more animated; at the sound of his steps a group of children who had been rolling in the dirt jump up hastily, and fly towards the paternal roof, frightened at the sight of man; whilst two great half-wild dogs, with ears erect, and lengthened nose, come out of the hut, and growling, cover the retreat of their young masters.
At this moment the pioneer himself appears at his door. He casts a scrutinizing glance on the new comer, bids his dogs go in, and himself sets immediately the example without exhibiting either uneasiness or curiosity.
On entering the log-house the European looks around with wonder. In general there is but one window, before which sometimes hangs a muslin curtain; for here, in the absence of necessaries, you often meet with superfluities. On the hearth, made of hardened earth, a fire of resinous wood lights up the interior better than the sun. Over the rustic chimney are hung trophies of war or of the chase; a long rifle, a doeskin and eagles’ feathers. On the right hangs a map of the United States, perpetually shaken by the wind which blows through the interstices of the wall. On a rough shelf near it are placed a few odd volumes, among them a Bible, the leaves and binding of which have been spoilt by the devotion of two generations, a Prayer-book, and sometimes one of Milton’s poems, or Shakespeare’s plays. With their backs to the wall are placed some rude seats, the product of the owner’s industry; chests instead of wardrobes, agricultural tools and specimens of the crop. In the middle of the room is an unsteady table, the legs of which, still covered with leaves, seem to have grown where they stand. Round this table the family assemble for their meals; on it is left an English china tea-pot, spoons, generally of wood, a few cracked cups, and some newspapers.
The appearance of the master of this dwelling is as remarkable as his abode. His sharp muscles and slender limbs, shew him at the first glance to be a native of New England; his make indicates that he was not born in the desert. His first years were passed in the heart of an intellectual and cultivated society. Choice impelled him to the toilsome and savage life for which he did not seem intended. But if his physical strength seems unequal to his undertaking, on his features, furrowed by care, is seated an expression of practical intelligence, and of cold and persevering energy. His step is slow and measured, his speech deliberate, and his appearance austere. Habit, and still more pride, have given to his countenance a stoical rigidity, which was belied by his conduct. The pioneer despises (it is true) all that most violently agitates the hearts of men; his fortune or his life will never hang on the turn of a die, or the smiles of a woman; but to obtain competence he has braved exile, solitude, and the numberless ills of savage life; he has slept on the bare earth, he has exposed himself to the fever of the woods, and the Indian’s tomahawk. Many years ago he took the first step. He has never gone back; perhaps twenty years hence he will still be going on without desponding or complaining. Can a man capable of such sacrifices be cold and insensible? Is he not influenced by a passion, not of the heart but of the brain, ardent, persevering, and indomitable?
His whole energies concentrated in the desire to make his fortune, the emigrant at length succeeds in making for himself an entirely independent existence, into which even his domestic affections are absorbed. He may be said to look on his wife and children only as detached parts of himself. Deprived of habitual intercourse with his equals, he has learnt to take pleasure in solitude. When you appear at the door of his lonely dwelling, the pioneer steps forward to meet you; he holds out his hand in compliance with custom, but his countenance expresses neither kindness nor joy. He speaks only to question you, to gratify his intelligence, not his heart; and as soon as he has obtained from you the news that he wanted to hear he relapses into silence. One would take him for a man who, having been all day wearied by applicants and by the noise of the world, has retired home at night to rest. If you question him in turn, he will give you in a clear manner all the information you require; he will even provide for your wants, and will watch over your safety as long as you are under his roof; but, in all that he does there is so much constraint and dryness; you perceive in him such utter indifference as to the result of your undertakings, that your gratitude cools. Still the settler is hospitable in his own way, but there is nothing genial in his hospitality, because, while he exercises it, he seems to submit to one of the painful necessities of the wilderness; it is to him a duty of his position, not a pleasure. This unknown person is the representative of the race to which belongs the future of the New World; a restless, speculating, adventurous race, that performs coldly feats which are usually the result of passionate enthusiasm; a nation of conquerors, who endure savage life without feeling its peculiar charms, value in civilized life only its material comforts and advantages, and bury themselves in the wilds of America, provided only with an axe and a file of newspapers! A mighty race which, as is the case with all great nations, is governed by one idea, and directs its sole efforts to the acquisition of wealth with a perseverance and contempt for life which might be called heroic, if such a term could be applied to any but virtuous efforts. A migratory race, which neither rivers nor lakes can stop, before which the forest falls and the prairie becomes covered with foliage, and which, having reached the Pacific Ocean, will retrace its steps to disturb and to destroy the social communities which it will have formed and left behind. In describing the settler, one cannot forget the partner of his sufferings and perils. Look at the young woman who is sitting on the other side of the fire with her youngest child in her lap, superintending the preparations for supper. Like the emigrant, this woman is in the prime of life; she also recollects an early youth of comfort. The remains of taste are still to be observed in her dress. But time has pressed hardly upon her: in her faded features and attenuated limbs it is easy to see that life has to her been a heavy burden. And, indeed, this fragile creature has already been exposed to incredible suffering. At the very threshold of life she had to tear herself from the tender care of her mother, from the sweet fraternal ties that a young girl can never leave without tears, even when she quits her home to share the luxurious dwelling of a young husband. The wife of the settler, torn at once and for ever from the cradle of her childhood, had to exchange the charms of society and of the domestic circle for the solitude of the forest. Her marriage-bed was placed on the bare ground of the desert. To devote herself to austere duties, to submit to unknown privations, to enter upon an existence for which she was not fitted; such has been the employment of her best years; such have been the delights of her married life. Destitution, suffering, and lassitude, have weakened her delicate frame, but have not dismayed her courage. While deep sadness is painted on her chiselled features, it is easy to descry religious resignation, peace, and a simple, quiet fortitude enabling her to meet all the ills of life without fearing or defying them.
Round this woman crowd the half-clothed children, glowing with health, careless of the morrow, true children of the wilderness. Their mother turns on them from time to time a mingled look of sadness and of joy. Judging from their strength and her weakness, it would seem as if she had exhausted herself in giving them life, and without regretting the cost. The log-house consists of a single room, which shelters the whole family at night: it is a little world, an ark of civilization in the midst of a green ocean. A few steps off the everlasting forest extends its shades, and solitude again reigns.
We did not reach Pontiac till after sunset. Twenty very neat and pretty houses, forming so many well-provided shops, a transparent brook, a clearing of about a square half-mile surrounded by the boundless forest: this is an exact picture of Pontiac, which in twenty years hence may be a city. The sight of this place recalled to me what M. Gallatin had said to me a month before in New York: “There are no villages in America, at least, in your meaning of the word. The houses of the cultivators are scattered all over the fields. The inhabitants congregate only in order to set up a sort of market to supply the surrounding population. In these so called villages you find none but lawyers, printers, and shopkeepers.”
We were taken to the best inn in Pontiac (for there are two), and as usual we were introduced into the barroom; here all, from the most opulent to the humblest shop-keeper, assemble to smoke, think, and talk politics on the footing of the most perfect equality. The owner of the house, or rather the landlord, was, I must not say a burly peasant, for there are no peasants in America, but at any rate a very stout gentleman, whose face had about as much of frankness and simplicity as that of a Norman horse-dealer. This man, for fear of intimidating you, never looked you in the face when he spoke, but waited till you were engaged in talking with some one else to consider you at his leisure; he was a deep politician, and, according to American habits, a pitiless querist. They all looked at us at first with surprise; our travelling dress and our guns proved that we were not traders, and travelling for curiosity was a thing never heard of. In order to avoid explanations, we declared at starting, that we came to buy land. The word had scarcely escaped us, when we discovered that in trying to avoid one evil, we had incurred another still more formidable.
They ceased, indeed, to treat us like extraordinary animals, but each wanted to bargain with us. To get rid of them and their farms, we told our host that before deciding on anything we wished to obtain from him useful information on the price of land, and the course of cultivation. He instantly took us into another apartment, spread out with due solemnity a map of Michigan on the oaken table in the middle of the room, and placing the candle before us, waited in silence for our inquiries. Though the reader has no intention of settling in an American wilderness, he may perhaps be curious to know how the thousands of Europeans and Americans who every year seek a home in this country, set about it. I shall therefore transcribe the information afforded by our host in Pontiac. We often afterwards had occasion to verify its accuracy.
“This country is not like France,” said our host, after listening quietly to all our questions, and snuffing the candle. “With you labour is cheap, and land is dear. Here the price of land is nothing, but hands cannot be bought: I tell you this to show you that to settle in America as well as in Europe, one must have capital, only it must be differently employed. For my part, I should not advise anyone to seek his fortune in our wilds, unless he has 150 or 200 dollars at his disposal. In Michigan, an acre never costs more than four or five shillings, when the land is waste. This is about the price of a day’s work. In one day, therefore, a labourer may earn enough to purchase an acre. But the purchase made, the difficulty begins. This is the way in which we generally try to get over it.
“The settler betakes himself to his newly-acquired property with some cattle, a salted pig, two barrels of meal, and some tea. If there happens to be a hut near, he goes to it, and receives temporary hospitality. If not, he pitches a tent in the middle of the wood which is to be his field. His first care is to cut down the nearest trees; with them he quickly builds the rude log-house which you must have seen. With us, the keep of cattle costs nothing. The emigrant fastens an iron bell to their necks, and turns them into the forest. Animals thus left to themselves seldom stray far from the dwelling.
“The greatest expense is the clearing. If the pioneer brings with him a family able to help him in his first labours, the task is easy. But this is seldom the case. The emigrant is generally young, and if he has children they are small. He is, therefore, obliged either himself to supply all the wants of his family, or to hire the services of his neighbours. It costs from four to five dollars to clear an acre. The ground once prepared, the new owner lays out an acre in potatoes and the rest in wheat and maize. Maize is a providential gift in the wilderness; it grows in our marshes, and flourishes under the shade of the forest better than when exposed to the rays of the sun. Maize saves the emigrant’s family from perishing, when poverty, sickness, or neglect has hindered his reclaiming sufficient land in the first year. The great difficulty is to get over the years which immediately succeed the first clearing. Afterwards comes competence, and later wealth.”
So spake our host. We listened to these simple details with almost as much interest as if we intended to profit by them ourselves. And when he had done, we said to him:—“The soil of these forests left to themselves is generally marshy and unwholesome; has the settler who braves the misery of solitude no cause to fear for his life?” “Cultivation, at first, is always a dangerous undertaking,” replied the American, “and there is scarcely an instance of a pioneer and his family escaping, during the first year, the forest fever: sometimes while travelling in the autumn you find all the occupants of a hut attacked by fever, from the emigrant himself down to his youngest child.” “And what becomes of these poor creatures when thus struck by Providence?” “They resign themselves and hope for better times.” “But have they no prospect of help from their neighbours?” “Scarcely any.” “Can they not at any rate procure the aid of medicine?” “The nearest Doctor often lives sixty miles off. They do as the Indians do, they die or get well as it pleases God.”
We resumed:—“Do the ministrations of religion ever reach them?” “Very seldom. As yet we have not been able to set up public worship in our forest. Almost every summer, indeed, some Methodist Ministers come to visit the new settlements. The news of their arrival spreads rapidly from dwelling to dwelling: it is the great event of the day. At the time fixed, the emigrant, with his wife and children, makes his way through the scarcely cleared paths in the forest towards the place of meeting. Settlers flock from fifty miles round. The congregation have no church to assemble in, they meet in the open air under the arches of the forest. A pulpit of rough logs, great trees cut down to serve as seats, such are the fittings of this rustic temple. The pioneers encamp with their families in the surrounding woods. Here for three days and nights, the people scarcely intermit their devotional exercises. You should see the fervent prayers and the deep attention of these men to the solemn words of the preacher. In the wilderness men are seized with a hunger for religion.”
“One more question: among us it is generally thought that European emigration mainly peoples the deserts of America; how is it then that since we have been travelling in your forests we have not happened to meet a single European?” At these words, a smile of proud satisfaction spread over the countenance of our host.
“None but Americans,” replied he solemnly, “are brave enough to submit to such privations, and are willing to pay such a price for competence. The European emigrant stops in the large towns of the sea-board, or in the surrounding districts. There he becomes a mechanic, a labourer, or a servant. He leads an easier life than in Europe, and appears content that his children should follow his example. The American takes possession of the land, and tries to create out of it a great social position.”
After pronouncing the last words, our host was silent. He let an immense column of smoke escape from his mouth, and seemed prepared to listen to what we had to tell him about our plans.
We first thanked him for his valuable information and wise counsels, assured him that some day we should profit by them, and added, “Before fixing in your country, my dear landlord, we intend to visit Saginaw, and we wish to consult you on this point.” At the name of Saginaw, a remarkable change came over his features. It seemed as if he had been suddenly snatched from real life and transported to a land of wonders. His eyes dilated, his mouth fell open, and the most complete astonishment pervaded his countenance.
“You want to go to Saginaw!” exclaimed he; “to Saginaw Bay! Two foreign gentlemen, two rational men, want to go to Saginaw Bay! It is scarcely credible.” “And why not?” we replied. “But are you well aware,” continued our host, “what you undertake? Do you know that Saginaw is the last inhabited spot towards the Pacific; that between this place and Saginaw lies an uncleared wilderness? Do you know that the forest is full of Indians and musquitoes; that you must sleep, at least, for one night under the damp trees? Have you thought about the fever? Will you be able to get on in the wilderness, and to find your way in the labyrinth of our forests?”
After this tirade, he paused, in order to judge of the effect which he had produced. We replied: “All that may be true, but we start to-morrow for Saginaw Bay.”
Our host reflected for an instant, shrugged his shoulders, and said slowly and positively, “Some paramount interest alone can induce two strangers to take such a step. No doubt you have a mistaken idea, that it is an advantage to fix as far as possible from any competition?”
We do not answer.
He continues: “Perhaps you are sent by the Canadian fur company to establish relations with the Indian tribes on the frontier?”
We maintain our silence.
Our host had come to an end of his conjectures, and he said no more; but he continued to muse on the strangeness of our scheme.
“Have you never been to Saginaw?” we resumed. “I,” he answered, “I have been so unlucky as to go thither five or six times, but I had a motive for doing it, and you do not appear to have any.” “But you forget, my worthy host, that we do not ask you if we had better go to Saginaw, but only how we can get there most easily.”
Brought back thus to the matter in hand, our American recovered his presence of mind and the precision of his ideas. He explained to us in a few words and with excellent practical good sense how we should set about our journey through the wilderness, entered into the minutest details, and provided for every possible contingency. At the end of his recommendations he paused once more, to see if at length we should unfold the mystery of our journey, and perceiving that neither of us had anything more to say, he took the candle, showed us a bedroom, and after giving us a truly democratic shake of the hand, went to finish his evening in the common room.
On the next day we rose with the dawn, and prepared to start. Our host was soon stirring: the night had not revealed to him the motives of our extraordinary conduct. As, however, we appeared quite determined to despise his advice, he dared not return to the charge; but he kept constantly at our side, and now and then reflected, in an under tone:—“I do not well make out what can take two strangers to Saginaw.” . . . till at last I said to him, as I put my foot into the stirrup,—“We have many reasons for going thither, my dear landlord!”
He stopped short at these words, and, looking me in the face for the first time, seemed prepared to receive the revelation of the great mystery. But I, quietly mounting my horse, gave him no other solution than a friendly wave of the hand, after which I trotted off as fast as I could.
We had been advised to apply to a Mr. Williams, who, as he had long dealt with the Chippeway Indians, and had a son established at Saginaw, might give us useful information. After riding some miles in the forest, just as we fancied that we had missed our friend’s house, we saw an old man working in a little garden. We spoke to him, and found that he was Mr. Williams.
He received us with much kindness, and gave us a letter to his son. We asked him if we had anything to fear from the Indian tribes through whose territories we were about to pass. Mr. Williams rejected this idea with a sort of indignation. “No, no,” he said, “you may proceed without fear. For my part, I sleep more fearlessly among Indians than among white people.”
I note this, as the first favourable impression given to me of the Indians since my arrival in America. In the thickly-peopled districts, they are always spoken of with a mixture of fear and contempt; and I think that in those places they deserve both. A few pages back may be seen what I myself thought of them when I met the first specimens at Buffalo. If the reader, however, will go on with this journal, and follow me among the European settlers on the frontier, as well as among the Indian tribes, he will form a higher, and at the same time a juster idea of the aborigines of America.
After we left Mr. Williams, we pursued our road through the woods. From time to time a little lake (this district is full of them) shines like a white tablecloth under the green branches. The charm of these lonely spots, as yet untenanted by man, and where peace and silence reign undisturbed, can hardly be imagined.
I have often climbed the wild and solitary passes of the Alps, where Nature refuses to obey the hand of man, and, displaying all her terrors, fills the mind with an exciting and overwhelming sensation of greatness. The solitude here is equally deep, but the emotions it excites are different. In this flowery wilderness, where, as in Milton’s Paradise, all seems prepared for the reception of man, the feelings produced are tranquil admiration, a soft melancholy, a vague aversion to civilized life, and a sort of savage instinct which causes you to regret that soon this enchanting solitude will be no more. Already, indeed, the white man is approaching through the surrounding woods; in a few years he will have felled the trees now reflected in the limpid waters of the lake, and will have driven to other wilds the animals that feed on its banks.
Still travelling on, we reached a country of a different aspect. The ground was no longer flat, but thrown into hills and valleys. Nothing can be wilder than the appearance of some of these hills.
In one of these picturesque passes, we turned suddenly to contemplate the magnificent scene which we were leaving behind, and, to our great surprise, we saw close to us, and apparently following us step by step, a red Indian. He was a man of about thirty, tall, and admirably proportioned. His black and shining hair fell down upon his shoulders, with the exception of two tresses, which were fastened on the top of his head. His face was smeared with black and red paint. He wore a sort of very short blue blouse. His legs were covered with red mittas, a sort of pantaloon which reaches only to the top of the thigh, and his feet were defended by mocassins. At his side hung a knife. In his right hand he held a long rifle, and in his left two birds that he had just killed.
The first sight of this Indian made on us a far from agreeable impression. The spot was ill-suited for resisting an attack. On our right a forest of lofty pines; on our left a deep ravine, at the bottom of which a stream brawled among the rocks, hidden by the thick foliage, so that we approached it, as it were, blindfold! To seize our guns, turn round and face the Indian in the midst of the path was the affair of an instant. . . . . He halted in the same manner, and for half a minute we all were silent.
His countenance presented the characteristics of the Indian race. In his deep black eyes sparkled the savage fire which still lights up those of the half-caste, and is not lost before two or three crossings of white blood. His nose was aquiline, slightly depressed at the end; his cheek-bones very high; and his wide mouth showed two rows of dazzlingly-white teeth, proving that the savage, more cleanly than his neighbour, the American, did not pass his day in chewing tobacco-leaves.
I said, that when we turned round, arms in hand, the Indian stopped short. He stood our rapid scrutiny with perfect calmness, and with steady and unflinching eye. When he saw that we had no hostile intentions, he smiled: probably he perceived that we had been alarmed.
I never before had remarked how completely a mirthful expression changes the savage physiognomy; I have a hundred times since had occasion to notice it. An Indian grave and an Indian smiling are different men. In the motionless aspect of the former there is a savage majesty which inspires involuntary fear. But, if the same man smiles, his countenance takes an expression of simplicity and benevolence, which is really captivating.
When we saw our Indian thus unbend, we addressed him in English. He allowed us to talk as long as we liked, and then made signs that he did not understand us. We offered him brandy, which he readily accepted without thanking us. Still making signs, we asked him for the birds which he carried; he gave them to us for a little piece of money. Having made acquaintance, we bid him adieu, and trotted off.
At the end of half an hour of rapid riding, on turning round, once more I was astounded by seeing the Indian still at my horse’s heels. He ran with the agility of a wild animal, without speaking a single word or seeming to hurry himself. We stopped; he stopped: we went on; he went on. We darted on at full speed; our horses, natives of the wilderness, leapt easily every obstacle: the Indian doubled his pace: I saw him, sometimes on the right, sometimes on the left of my horse, jumping over the brushwood and alighting on the ground without the slightest noise. He was like one of the wolves of the North, which are said to follow horsemen in hope of their falling and thus becoming a more easy prey.
The sight of this strange figure, now lost in the darkness of the forest, and then again appearing in the daylight, and seeming to fly by our side, became at last an annoyance. As we could not imagine what induced him to follow us at such a rapid rate (he might, indeed, have long accompanied us before we perceived him for the first time), it occurred to us that he was leading us into an ambush.
We were full of these thoughts, when we discovered, right in front of us in the wood, the end of another rifle: we soon came alongside of the bearer. We took him at first for an Indian. He wore a kind of short frock-coat, tight at the waist, showing an upright and well-made figure. His neck was bare, and his feet covered by mocassins. When we were close to him, he raised his head; we at once saw that he was an European, and we stopped short. He came to us, shook us cordially by the hand, and we entered into conversation.
“Do you live in the desert?” “Yes; here is my house.” And he showed us, among the trees, a hut even more miserable than the ordinary log-house. “Alone?” “Alone.” “And what do you do with yourself here?” “I roam about the woods, and I kill right and left the game which comes in my way; but the shooting is not good here now.” “And you like this sort of life?” “Better than any other.” “But are you not afraid of the Indians?” “Afraid of the Indians! I had rather live among them than in the society of white men. No, no; I am not afraid of the Indians; they are better people than we are, unless we have brutalized them with strong liquors, poor creatures!”
We then showed to our new acquaintance the man who followed us so obstinately, and who at that moment was standing stock still a few paces off. “He is a Chippeway,” said our friend, “or, as the French would call him, a ‘sauteur.’ I would lay a wager that he is returning from Canada, where he has received the annual presents from the English. His family cannot be far off.”
So speaking, the American signed to the Indian to approach, and began to talk to him in his language with great fluency. The pleasure that these two men, so different in race and in habits, took in exchanging their ideas, was a striking sight. The conversation evidently turned upon the relative merit of their arms. After examining carefully the rifle of the savage, the white man said to us,—“This is an excellent musket; the English no doubt gave it to him, that he might use it against us, and he will certainly do so in the first war. This is how the Indians call down upon their own heads their misfortunes,—but they know no better poor things!” “Are the Indians skilful in the use of these long heavy guns?” “There are no shots like the Indians,” replied our new friend, in a tone of the greatest admiration. “Look at the little birds which he sold you, sir; there is but one shot in each, and I am sure that he fired at them only twice. Oh!” he added, “there is no man so happy as an Indian in the districts whence we have not yet frightened away the game; but the larger sorts scent our approach at a distance of more than 300 miles; and, as they retire, they leave the country before us a waste, incapable of supporting any longer the poor Indians, unless they cultivate the ground.”
As we were resuming our journey, our new friend called out to us: “When you pass here again, knock at my door. It is a pleasure to meet white faces in this place.”
I have reported this in itself unimportant conversation, in order to give an idea of a description of man that we often met on the borders of the habitable world: they are Europeans, who, in spite of the habits of their youth, have become enamoured of the liberty of the desert. Attached to the wilds of America by taste and inclination, to Europe by their religion, principles, and ideas, they unite a love for savage life with the pride of civilization, and prefer the Indians to their own countrymen, though without acknowledging them as equals.
We proceeded on our way. We maintained the same rapid pace, and in half-an-hour reached the house of a pioneer. Before the door of the hut an Indian family had encamped. An old woman, two young girls, and several children, were crouching round a fire, to the heat of which were exposed the still palpitating limbs of a whole kid. A few steps off an Indian was lying quite naked on the grass, basking in the sun, whilst a little child was rolling about in the dust by his side. Here our silent companion stopped: he left us without bidding us adieu, and sat down gravely among his countrymen.
What could have induced this man to follow our horses for five miles? We never could guess.
After breakfasting in this spot, we remounted, and pursued our journey through a wood of thinly scattered lofty trees. The underwood had been burnt away, as was evident from the calcined remains on the grass. The ground was covered with fern, extending under the trees as far as the eye could reach.
Some miles further on, my horse lost a shoe, which caused us great embarrassment. Not far off, happily, we met a planter, who succeeded in putting it on again. If we had not fallen in with him, I doubt if we could have gone on farther, for we had nearly reached the end of the clearings. The settler who enabled us to continue our journey, advised us to make haste, as the daylight was beginning to fail, and we were at least five miles from Flint River, where we intended to sleep.
Soon, indeed, we were enveloped in perfect darkness. We were forced to push on. The night was fine, but intensely cold. The silence of the forest was so deep, the calm so complete, that the forces of nature seemed paralysed. No sound was heard but the annoying hum of the musquitoes, and the stamp of our horses’ feet. Now and then we saw the distant gleam of a fire, against which we could trace, through the smoke, the stern and motionless profile of an Indian.
At the end of an hour we reached a spot where the roads separated; two paths opened out in different directions—which should we take? The choice was difficult. One led to a stream we did not know how deep; the other to a clearing. The moon just rising showed us a valley full of fallen trees: further on, we descried two houses.
It was of so much consequence not to lose our way in such a place and at such an hour, that we determined to take advice before proceeding. My companion remained to take care of the horses, whilst I, with my gun over my shoulder, descended into the valley.
Soon I perceived that I was entering a new settlement. Immense trunks of trees, their branches as yet unlopped, covered the ground. By jumping from one to another, I soon was near the houses. But the stream separated me from them. Happily, its course was impeded in this place by some huge oaks that the pioneer’s axe had no doubt thrown down. I succeeded in crawling along these trees, and at last reached the opposite side.
I warily approached the two houses which I could see but indistinctly. I feared they might prove Indian wigwams. They were unfinished. The doors were open, and no voice answered mine. I returned to the edge of the stream whence I could not help admiring for a few minutes the awful grandeur of the scene.
The valley seemed a vast amphitheatre, surrounded on all sides by the dark woods as if by a black curtain. In its centre the moonlight played among the shattered remnants of the forest, creating a thousand fantastic shapes. No sound of any kind, no murmur of life was audible.
At last I remembered my companion, and called loudly to tell him of the result of my search, to advise him to cross the rivulet and to join me. The echo repeated my voice over and over again in the solitary woods, but I got no answer. I shouted again, and listened again. The same death-like silence reigned.
I became uneasy, and I ran by the side of the stream till I reached the place lower down where it was fordable.
When I got there, I heard in the distance the sound of horses’ feet, and soon after Beaumont himself appeared. Surprised by my long absence, he had proceeded towards the rivulet. He was already in the shallow when I called him. The sound of my voice, therefore, had not reached him. He told me that he, too, had tried by every means to make himself heard, and, as well as I, had been alarmed at obtaining no answer. If it had not been for this ford which had served us as a meeting place, we should perhaps have been looking for each other half the night.
We resumed our journey with the full resolution of not again separating, and in three quarters of an hour we at last came upon a settlement, consisting of two or three huts and, what was still more satisfactory, a light. A violet-coloured line of water in the hollow of the valley proved that we had arrived at Flint River. Soon, indeed, a loud barking echoed in the woods, and we found ourselves close to a log-house, separated from us only by a fence. As we were preparing to climb over it, we saw in the moonlight a great black bear that, standing on his hind-legs and at the very extremity of his chain, showed as clearly as he could his intention to give us a fraternal embrace.
“What an infernal country is this,” said I, “where they keep bears for watchdogs.” “We must call,” replied my companion; “if we attempted to get over the fence, it would be difficult to make the porter listen to reason.”
We halloed at the top of our voices and with such success, that at last a man appeared at the window. After examining us by the light of the moon: “Enter, gentlemen,” he said, “Trink, go to bed! To the kennel, I say, they are not robbers.”
The bear waddled off, and we got in. We were half dead with fatigue. We asked our host, if we could have oats for our horses. “Certainly,” he replied, and began to mow the nearest field with American sang froid, and as if it were noon-day. Meanwhile we unsaddled our horses, and as there was no stable, fastened them to the paling which we had just passed through.
Having provided for our travelling companions, we began to think of our own rest. There was but one bed in the house; it was allotted to Beaumont. I wrapped myself in my cloak, and lying down on the floor, slept as soundly as a man does who has ridden forty miles.
On the next day (July 25th) our first care was to inquire for a guide.
A wilderness of forty miles separates Flint River from Saginaw, and the road is a narrow pathway, hardly perceivable. Our host approved of our plan, and shortly brought us two Indians whom he assured us that we could perfectly trust. One was a boy of twelve or fourteen; the other a young man of eighteen. The frame of the latter, though it had not yet attained the vigour of maturity, gave the idea of agility united with strength. He was of middle height; his figure was tall and slender, his limbs flexible and well-proportioned. Long tresses fell from his bare head. He had also taken care to paint his face with black and red in symmetrical lines; a ring was passed through his nose, and a necklace and earrings completed his attire. His weapons were no less remarkable. At one side hung the celebrated tomahawk; on the other, a long sharp knife, with which the savages scalp their victims. Round his neck hung a cow-horn, containing his powder; and in his right hand he held a rifle. As is the case with most Indians, his eye was wild, and his smile benevolent. At his side, to complete the picture, trotted a dog, with upright ears and long nose, more like a fox than any other animal, with a look so savage as to be in perfect harmony with the countenance of his master.
After examining our new companion with an attention which he did not seem to notice, we asked him his price for the service that he was about to render to us. The Indian replied in a few words of his native tongue; and the American immediately informed us that what he asked was about equivalent to two dollars.
“As these poor Indians,” charitably added our host, “do not understand the value of money, you will give the dollars to me, and I will willingly give him what they represent.”
I was curious to see what this worthy man considered to be equal to two dollars, and I followed him quietly to the place where the bargain was struck. I saw him give to our guide a pair of mocassins and a pocket-handkerchief, that certainly together did not amount to half the sum. The Indian withdrew quite satisfied, and I made no remark, saying to myself, with Lafontaine,—“Ah! if the lions were painters!”
However, the Indians are not the only dupes of the American pioneers. Every day we were ourselves victims to their extreme cupidity. It is true that they do not steal. They are too intelligent to commit any dangerous breach of the law; but I never saw an innkeeper in a large town overcharge so impudently as these tenants of the wilderness, among whom I fancied I should find primitive honesty and patriarchal simplicity.
All was ready: we mounted our horses, and wading across the rivulet (Flint River) which forms the boundary of civilization, we entered the real desert.
Our two guides ran, or rather leapt like wild cats over the impediments of the road. When we came to a fallen tree, a stream, or a bog, they pointed to the right path, but did not even turn round to see us get out of the difficulty. Accustomed to trust only to himself, the Indian can scarcely understand that others need help. He is willing to serve you in an emergency, but as yet he has not been taught the art of adding value to his services by kindness and solicitude. We might have ventured on some reproofs, but it was impossible to make our companions understand a word. Besides, we felt that we were entirely in their power. Here, in fact, the scale was reversed. Plunged in this impenetrable gloom, reduced to rely on our personal strength, we children of civilization groped blindly on, incapable, not only of threading the labyrinth, but even of finding in it the means of sustenance. In these difficulties lay the triumph of the savage. For him the forest had no secrets, to him it was a home; he walked through it with head erect, guided by an instinct more unerring than the navigator’s compass. At the top of the loftiest tree, under the densest foliage, his eye discovered the game, close to which the European would have passed a hundred times in vain.
From time to time our Indians halted. They placed their fingers on their lips, in token of silence, and signed to us to dismount. Guided by them, we reached the spot whence we could see the bird for which we were searching. It was amusing to observe the contemptuous smile with which they led us by the hand like children, and at last brought us near to the object they themselves had discovered long before.
As we proceeded, we gradually lost sight of the traces of man. Soon all proofs even of savage life disappeared, and before us was the scene that we had so long been seeking—a virgin forest.
Growing in the middle of the thin brushwood, through which objects are perceived at a considerable distance, was a single clump of full-grown trees, almost all pines or oaks. Confined to so narrow a space, and deprived of sunshine, each of these trees had run up rapidly, in search of air and light. As straight as the mast of a ship, the most rapid grower had overtopped every surrounding object; only when it had attained a higher region did it venture to spread out its branches, and clothe itself with leaves. Others followed quickly in this elevated sphere; and the whole group, interlacing their boughs, formed a sort of immense canopy. Underneath this damp, motionless vault, the scene is different.
Majesty and order are overhead—near the ground, all is chaos and confusion: aged trunks, incapable of supporting any longer their branches, are shattered in the middle, and present nothing but a sharp jagged point. Others, long loosened by the wind, have been thrown unbroken on the ground. Torn up from the earth, their roots form a natural barricade, behind which several men might easily find shelter. Huge trees, sustained by the surrounding branches, hang in mid-air, and fall into dust, without reaching the ground.
There is no district with us so scantily peopled as to make it possible for a forest to be so completely abandoned that the trees, after quietly fulfilling the purpose of their existence, attain old age undisturbed, and at last perish from natural decay. Civilized man strikes them while yet in their prime, and clears the ground of their remains. In the solitude of America all-powerful nature is the only instrument of ruin, as well as of reproduction. Here, as well as in the forests over which man rules, death strikes continually; but there is none to clear away the remains; they accumulate day by day. They fall, they are heaped one upon another. Time alone does not work fast enough to reduce them to dust, so as to make way for their successors. Side by side lay several generations of the dead. Some, in the last stage of dissolution, have left on the grass a long line of red dust as the only trace of their presence; others, already half consumed by time, still preserve their outward shape. Others, again, fallen only yesterday, stretch their long branches over the traveller’s path.
I have often at sea enjoyed one of the calm, serene evenings, when the sails, flapping idly from the mast, leave the crew in ignorance even of the quarter whence the breeze will rise. The perfect repose of Nature is as striking in the wilderness as on the ocean. When at noon-day the sun’s rays penetrate the forest, there is often heard a long sob, a kind of plaintive cry echoing in the distance. It is the last breath of the expiring breeze. Deep silence ensues, and such absolute stillness as fills the mind with a kind of superstitious awe. The traveller stops to contemplate the scene.
Pressed against one another, their boughs interlaced, the trees seem to form one vast indestructible edifice, under whose arches reign eternal darkness. Around are violence and destruction, shattered trees, and torn trunks; the traces of long elemental war. But the struggle is suspended. It seems to have been suddenly arrested by the order of a supernatural Being. Half-broken branches seem to hold by some invisible link to the trunk that no longer supports them; trees torn from their roots hang in the air as if they had not had time to reach the ground.
The traveller holds his breath to catch the faintest sound of life. No noise, not even a whisper reaches him. You may be lost in an European forest; but some noise belonging to life is audible. You hear a church-bell, or a woodman’s axe, or the report of a gun, or the barking of a dog, or, at any rate, the indistinct hum of civilized life.
Here not only man is absent, but the voice of no animal is to be heard. The smaller ones have sought the neighbourhood of human dwellings, and the larger have fled to a still greater distance; the few that remain hide in the shade. Thus all is motionless, all is silent beneath the leafy arch. It seems as if the Creator had for a moment withdrawn his countenance, and all Nature had become paralysed.
This was not the only time that we noticed the resemblance of the forest to the ocean. In each case the idea of immensity besets you. The succession of similar scenes; their continual monotony overpowers the imagination. Perhaps even the sensation of loneliness and desolation which oppressed us in the middle of the Atlantic was felt by us still more strongly and acutely in the deserts of the New World.
At sea the voyager sees the horizon to which he is steering. He sees the sky. His view is bounded only by the powers of the human eye. But what is there to inidcate a path across this leafy ocean? In vain you may climb the lofty trees; others still higher will surround you. In vain you climb a hill; everywhere the forest follows you, the forest which extends before you to the Arctic Pole, and to the Pacific Ocean. You may travel thousands of miles beneath its shade, and, though always advancing, never appear to stir from the same spot.
But it is time to return to our journey to Saginaw. We had been riding for five hours in complete ignorance of our whereabouts, when our Indians stopped short, and the elder, whose name was Sagan-Cuisco, traced a line in the sand. He showed us one end, exclaiming, Michi, Conte-ouinque (the Indian name for Flint River), and pointing to the other, pronounced the name of Saginaw. Then, marking a point in the middle, he signed to us that we had achieved half the distance, and that we must rest a little.
The sun was already high, and we should gladly have accepted his invitation, if we could have seen water within reach; but as none was near we motioned to the Indian that we wished to halt where we could eat and drink. He understood us directly, and set off with the same rapidity as before. An hour later he stopped again, and showed us a spot where we might find water about thirty paces off in the forest.
Without waiting for us to answer, or helping us to unsaddle our horses, he went to it himself; we followed as fast as we could. A little while before the wind had thrown down a large tree in this place; in the hollow that had been filled by the root was a little reservoir of rain water. This was the fountain to which our guide conducted us, without the thought apparently having occurred to him that we should hesitate to partake of such a draught. We opened our bag. Another misfortune! The heat had entirely spoilt our provisions, and we found our dinner reduced to the small piece of bread, which was all that we had been able to procure at Flint River.
Add to this, a cloud of musquitoes, attracted by the vicinity of water, which we were forced to fight with one hand while we carried our bread to our mouths with the other, and an idea may be formed of a rustic dinner in a virgin forest.
While we were eating, our Indians sat cross-legged on the prostrate trunk that I have mentioned. When they saw that we had finished, they made signs that they too were hungry. We showed them our empty bag, they shook their heads without speaking. The Indian has no fixed hours for his meals; he gorges food when he can, and fasts afterwards, till he finds wherewith to satisfy his appetite: wolves have similar habits. We soon began to think of starting, but we were dismayed to find that our horses had disappeared. Goaded, no doubt, by hunger, they had strayed from the road in which we had left them, and it was not without trouble that we succeeded in tracing them; we blessed the musquitoes that had forced us to continue our journey.
The path soon became more and more difficult to follow. Every moment our horses had to force their way through thick brushwood, or to leap over the large fallen trees that barred our progress.
At the end of two hours of an extremely toilsome ride we at length reached a stream, which though shallow, was deeply embanked. We waded across it, and from the opposite side we saw a field of maize and two huts that looked like log-houses. As we approached we found that we were in a little Indian settlement, and that the log-houses were wigwams. The solitude was no less perfect than in the surrounding forest.
When we reached the first of these abandoned dwellings, Sagan-Cuisco stopped. He examined attentively everything around him, then laying down his rifle and approaching us, he again traced a line in the sand and showed us by the same method as before that we had accomplished only two-thirds of the road; then he rose and pointing to the sun, signed that it was quickly sinking into the west, next he looked at the wigwam and shut his eyes.
This language was easy to understand, he wished us to sleep in this place. I own that the proposal astonished as much as it annoyed us. It was long since we had eaten, and we were but moderately inclined to sleep without supper. The sombre savage grandeur of scene that we had been contemplating ever since the morning, our utter loneliness, the wild faces of our guides, and the difficulty of communicating with them, all conspired to take away our confidence.
There was a strangeness too in the conduct of the Indians. Our road for the last two hours had been even more untrodden than at the beginning. No one had told us that we should pass through an Indian village, and every one had assured us that we could go in one day from Flint River to Saginaw. We could not therefore imagine why our guides wanted to keep us all night in the desert.
We insisted upon going on. The Indian signed that we should be surprised by darkness in the forest. To force our guides to proceed would have been dangerous. I determined to have recourse to their cupidity. But there is no such a philosopher as the Indian. He has few wants, and consequently few desires. Civilization has no hold over him. He neither knows, nor cares for its advantages.
I had, however, remarked that Sagan-Cuisco had paid particular attention to a little wicker bottle that hung by my side. A bottle that could not be broken. Here was a thing which he had the sense to appreciate. He really admired it. My gun and my bottle were my only European implements that excited his desires. I signed to him that I would give him the bottle if he would take us immediately to Saginaw. He then seemed to undergo a violent struggle. He looked again at the sun; then on the ground. At last he came to a decision, seized his rifle, exclaimed twice, with his hand on his mouth, Ouh! ouh! and rushed off before us through the bushes.
We followed him at a quick pace, and we soon lost sight of the Indian settlement. Our guides continued to run for two hours faster than before.
Still, night was coming on, and the last rays of the sun had disappeared behind the trees, when Sagan-Cuisco was stopped by a violent bleeding at the nose. Accustomed as the young man, as well as his brother, was to bodily exertion, it was evident that fatigue and want of food had exhausted their strength. We began to fear lest our guides should renounce the undertaking, and insist on sleeping under a tree. We therefore proposed to mount them in turns on our horses.
They accepted our offer without surprise or shame. It was curious to see these half-naked men gravely seated on English saddles, carrying our game-bags and guns slung over their shoulders, while we were toiling on before them.
At last night came. The air under the trees became damp, and icy cold. In the dark the forest assumed a new and terrible aspect. Our eyes could distinguish nothing but confused masses without shape or order; strange and disproportioned forms; the sort of fantastic images which haunt the imagination in fever. The echo of our steps had never seemed so loud, nor the silence of the forest so awful. The only sign of life in this sleeping world was the humming of the musquito.
As we advanced the gloom became still deeper. Now and then a fire-fly traced a luminous line upon the darkness. Too late we acknowledged the wisdom of the Indian’s advice; but it was no longer possible to recede.
We therefore pushed on as rapidly as our strength and the night permitted. At the end of an hour we left the woods, and entered a vast prairie. Our guides uttered three times a savage cry, that vibrated like the discordant notes of the tam-tam. It was answered in the distance. Five minutes afterwards we reached a stream; but it was too dark to see the opposite bank.
The Indians halted here. They wrapped their blankets round them, to escape the stings of the musquitoes; and hiding in the long grass, looked like balls of wool, that one might pass by without remarking, and could not possibly suppose to be men.
We ourselves dismounted, and waited patiently for what was to follow. In a few minutes we heard a faint noise, and something approached the bank. It was an Indian canoe, about ten feet long, formed out of a single tree. The man who was curled up in the bottom of this frail bark wore the dress and had the appearance of an Indian. He spoke to our guides, who, by his direction, took the saddles from our horses, and placed them in the canoe.
As I was preparing to get into it, the supposed Indian touched me on the shoulder, and said, with a Norman accent which made me start,
“Ah, you come from Old France! . . . stop—don’t be in a hurry—people sometimes get drowned here.”
If my horse had addressed me, I should not, I think, have been more astonished.
I looked at the speaker, whose face shone in the moonlight like a copper ball. “Who are you, then?” I said. “You speak French, but you look like an Indian.” He replied, that he was a “Bois-brulé,” which means the son of a Canadian and an Indian woman.
I shall often have occasion to mention this singular race of half-castes, which extends over all the frontiers of Canada, and, in fact, over the borders of the United States. At that time I felt only the pleasure of conversing in my mother-tongue.
Following the advice of my countryman, the savage, I seated myself in the bottom of the canoe, and kept as steady as possible; my horse, whose bridle I held, plunged into the water, and swam by my side, meanwhile the Canadian sculled the bark, singing in an undertone to an old French tune some verses, of which I caught only the first couplet,—
We reached the opposite bank without any accident; the canoe immediately returned, to bring over my companion. All my life I shall remember the second time that it neared the shore. The moon, which was full, was just then rising over the prairie behind us, half the disk only appeared above the horizon; it looked like a mysterious door, through which we could catch a glimpse of the light of another world. Its rays were reflected in the stream; and touched the place where I stood. Along the line of their pale, tremulous light, the Indian canoe was advancing. We could not see any sculls, or hear the sound of rullocks. The bark glided rapidly and smoothly—long, narrow, and black, resembling an alligator in pursuit of his prey. Crouching at the prow, Sagan-Cuisco, with his head between his knees, showed only his shiny tresses. Further back, the Canadian was silently sculling, while behind followed Beaumont’s horse, with his powerful chest throwing up the waters of the Saginaw in glittering streams.
In the whole scene there was a wild grandeur which made an impression upon us which has never been effaced.
When all had landed, we immediately proceeded to a house that had just become visible in the moonlight about a hundred yards from the river, and which the Canadian assured us would afford us shelter. We contrived, indeed, to establish ourselves tolerably, and we should probably have repaired our strength by a sound sleep if we could have got rid of the myriads of musquitoes that filled the house; but this was impossible.
The tormentor that in English is called a musquitoe, and in Canadian French, a “maringouin,” is a little insect much resembling the French “cousin” (gnat). It differs only in size. It is generally bigger, and its trunk is so sharp, and so strong, that only woollen garments can save you from its sting. These insects are the curse of the American wilderness. They render a long stay unendurable. I never felt torments such as those which I suffered from them during the whole of this expedition, and especially at Saginaw. In the day they prevented us from drawing, or writing, or sitting still for an instant; in the night thousands of them buzzed around us, settling on every spot in our bodies that was uncovered. Awakened by the irritation of the bite, we hid our heads under the sheets; their sting went through. Thus persecuted and chased by them we rose and went into the air till extreme fatigue at last procured for us an uneasy and broken sleep.
We went out very early, and the first objects that struck us were our Indians, rolled up in their blankets near the door, and sleeping by the side of their dogs.
This was our first daylight view of the village of Saginaw, which we had come so far to see. A small, cultivated plain, bounded on the south by a beautiful and gently flowing river; on the east, west, and north by the forest; constitutes at present the territory of the embryo city.
Near us was a house whose character announced the easy circumstances of its owner. It was the one in which we had passed the night. A similar dwelling was visible at the other extremity of the clearing. Between them, and on the skirts of the woods, two or three log-houses were half hidden in the foliage.
On the opposite side of the river stretched the prairie, resembling a boundless ocean on a calm day. A column of smoke was curling towards the sky. Looking whence it came, we discovered the pointed forms of two or three wigwams, which scarcely stood out from the grass of the prairie. A plough that had upset, its oxen galloping off by themselves to the field, and a few half-wild horses, completed the picture.
On every side the eye searches in vain for a Gothic spire, the moss-covered porch of a clergyman’s house, or a wooden cross by the road-side. These venerable relics of our religion have not been carried into the wilderness. It contains as yet nothing to remind one of the past or of the future. No consecrated home even for those who are no more. Death has not had time to claim his domain, nor to have his close marked out. Here, man still seems to steal into life. Several generations do not assemble round the cradle to utter hopes often deceitful, and rejoicings which the future often belies. The child’s name is not inscribed in the register of the city, religion does not mingle its affecting ceremonies with the solicitude of the family. A woman’s prayers, a few drops sprinkled on the infant’s head by its father’s hand, quietly open to it the gates of Heaven.
The village of Saginaw is the furthest point inhabited by Europeans to the north-west of the vast peninsula of Michigan. It may be considered as an advanced post; a sort of watch-tower, placed by the whites in the midst of the Indian nations.
European revolutions, the continual noisy clamour of politics, reach this spot only at rare intervals and as the echoes of a sound, the source of which the ear can no longer distinguish nor comprehend.
Sometimes an Indian stops on his journey to relate, in the poetical language of the desert, some of the sad realities of social life; sometimes a newspaper dropped out of a hunter’s knapsack, or only the sort of indistinct rumour which spreads one knows not how, and which seldom fails to tell that something strange is passing in the world.
Once a year a vessel steams up the Saginaw to join this stray link to the great European chain which now binds together the world. She carries to the new settlement the products of human industry, and in return takes away the fruits of the soil.
Thirty persons, men, women, old people and children, at the time of our visit composed this little society, as yet scarcely formed—an opening seed thrown upon the desert, there to germinate.
Chance, interest, or inclination, had collected them in this narrow space. No common link existed between them, and they differed widely. Among them were Canadians, Americans, Indians, and half-castes.
Philosophers have thought, that human nature is everywhere the same, varied only according to the laws and institutions of different states of society. This is one of the opinions to which every page of history gives the lie. Nations, under all circumstances, have their peculiar physiognomy and their characteristic features, as well as individuals. Laws, manners, and religion may alter, wealth and power may change; places, dress, and external appearance may differ; prejudices may disappear, or be substituted by others. In the midst of these diversities you still recognise the same race. Though human nature is flexible, it contains elements which are fixed.
The inhabitants of this little oasis belong to two nations which for more than a century have occupied the same country and obeyed the same laws. Yet they have nothing in common. They still are as distinctly English and French as if they lived on the banks of the Seine and the Thames.
Within yonder trellised hut you will find a man whose cordial welcome and open countenance show immediately a taste for social pleasures and careless indifference to life. At first, you may take him for an Indian. Forced to submit to savage life, he has willingly adopted its dress, its customs, and almost its morals: he wears mocassins, an otter-skin cap, and a blanket. He is an indefatigable hunter; he sleeps under arms, and lives on wild honey and bison’s flesh. This man is, nevertheless, still French. He is gay, adventurous, proud of his origin, passionately fond of military glory, more vain than selfish, the creature of impulse rather than of judgment, preferring renown to wealth.
In order to fly to the wilderness he has broken every social tie. He has neither wife nor children. He may not like this, but he easily submits to it, as he does to everything else. By nature his tastes are domestic. He loves his own fireside, and the sight of the steeple of his village. But he was torn from his peaceful occupations, his imagination fired by novel scenes; another hemisphere became his home: and he was suddenly seized with an insatiable desire for violent emotions, vicissitudes and perils. The most civilized of Europeans is now a worshipper of savage life. He prefers the savannah to the street, the chase to the plough. He sports with life, and never thinks of the future.
“The white men from France,” said the Canadian Indians, “are as good hunters as we are. They despise the conveniences of life, and brave danger and death as we do; God created them to live in the hut of the savage and to dwell in the desert.”
A few steps off lives another European who, exposed to the same difficulties, has hardened himself against them. This man is cold, unyielding, and disputatious. He devotes himself to his land, and submits to savage life only so far as is necessary. He is always fighting against it, and every day strips it of some of its attributes. He imports one by one into the desert his laws, his manners and customs, and as much as possible every detail of advanced civilization. The emigrant from the United States cares only for the results of victory; glory is to him an empty name; and he considers that man is born only to obtain fortune and comfort. He is brave, but his bravery is the result of calculation; brave because he has discovered that there are many things more hard to bear than death; though an adventurer he is surrounded by a family, and yet cares little for intellectual or social enjoyments. Encamped on the other side of the river, amid the beds of the Saginaw, the Indian from time to time casts a stoical glance on the habitations of his brothers from Europe. Do not think that he admires their industry or envies their lot. Though for nearly 300 years civilization has invaded and surrounded the American savage, he has not yet learnt to know or to appreciate his enemy. In vain, in both races, is one generation followed by another. Like two parallel rivers, they have flowed for three centuries side by side towards the same ocean, only a narrow space divides them, but their waters do not mingle.
It is not natural talent that is wanting in the aborigines of the New World, but their nature seems obstinately to repel our ideas and our arts. From the interior of his smoky hut, wrapped in his blanket, the Indian contemplates with scorn the convenient dwelling of the European. He has a proud satisfaction in his poverty, his heart swells and triumphs in his barbarous independence. He smiles bitterly when he sees us wear out our lives in heaping up useless riches. What we term industry he calls shameful subjection. He compares the workman to the ox toiling on in a furrow. What we call necessaries of life, he terms childish playthings, or womanish baubles. He envies us only our arms. If a man has a leafy hut to shelter his head by night, a good fire to warm him in winter and to banish the musquitoes in summer, if he has good dogs and plenty of game, what more can he ask of the Great Spirit?
On the opposite bank of the Saginaw, near the European clearings, on the frontier that separates the Old from the New World, rises a hut, more convenient than the wigwam of the savage, more rude than the house of the civilized man: it is the dwelling of a half-caste.
When for the first time we presented ourselves at the door of this half-barbarous cabin, we were surprised at hearing a soft voice from within chanting the penitential psalms to an Indian air. We stopped a moment to listen. The sounds were slowly modulated and deeply melancholy; it was easy to recognise the plaintive harmony which characterises the songs of the desert.
We entered: the owner was absent. Seated cross-legged on a mat, in the middle of the room, was a young woman making moccassins. With her foot she rocked an infant, whose copper hue and European features announced a mixed origin. She was dressed like one of our peasants, except that her feet were bare and her hair fell unbound over her shoulders. When she saw us, she left off, and looked at us with a mixture of fear and respect. We asked her if she were French. “No,” she replied with a smile. English? “No, neither,”—dropping her eyes, she added, “I am only a savage.”
Child of both races, taught to use two languages, brought up in different creeds, and nursed in opposite prejudices, the half-caste forms a compound as inexplicable to himself as to others. The ideas current in the world when reflected in his confused brain, seem to him an inextricable chaos from which he can find no escape. Proud of his European origin, he despises the desert, and yet loves its savage freedom; he admires civilization, but cannot completely submit to its restraints. His tastes contradict his ideas, his convictions are opposed to his habits. Unable to guide his steps by the uncertain light of his reason, his mind struggles painfully in the toils of universal doubt: he adopts opposite customs, he prays at two altars; he believes in the Redeemer of the World and in the amulets of the juggler; and he arrives at the term of his days without having been able to solve the mystery of his existence.
Thus, in this unknown corner of the earth, Providence has sowed the seeds of divers nations. Already many distinct races are to be found here side by side.
A few exiles from the great human family have met in these vast forests. They have the same wants. They have to resist wild animals, hunger, and rough weather. Scarcely thirty of them are collected in one spot in this intractable wilderness, and they look upon each other with nothing but hatred and suspicion. Diversity of colour, poverty or comfort, ignorance or cultivation, have already set up amongst them ineffaceable distinctions. National prejudices, and those of education and birth, divide and isolate them.
Thus a narrow frame contains a complete picture of the contemptible side of our nature. Still one feature is wanting.
The strong lines of demarcation, traced by birth and prejudice, are not confined to the present life. They reach beyond the grave. Six different religions, or sects, share the faith of this infant society.
Catholicism, with its formidable immutability, its absolute dogmas, its terrible anathemas, and its vast rewards; the reformed faith, with its movement and continual changes; and even the old paganism, all find here their disciples. They adore in different ways the One Eternal Being who made man in His own image. They fight for the heaven to which each sect claims to be exclusively entitled. Even amidst the privations of exile, and actual suffering, man exhausts his imagination in conceiving indescribable horrors for the future. The Lutheran damns the Calvinist, the Calvinist the Unitarian, and the Catholic includes them all in one common reprobation.
More tolerant in his rude faith, the Indian is content with excluding his European brother from the happy hunting-fields reserved for himself. Constant to the traditions bequeathed to him by his ancestors, he easily consoles himself for the evils of life, and dies dreaming of the ever-verdant forest untouched by the axe of the pioneer, where he will chase the deer and the beaver through the unnumbered days of eternity.
After breakfast we went to see the richest landowner in the village, Mr. Williams. We found him in his shop engaged in selling to the Indians a number of little articles of small value, such as knives, glass necklaces, ear-rings, &c. It was sad to see how these poor creatures were treated by their civilized brother from Europe.
All, however, whom we saw there were ready to do justice to the savages. They were kind, inoffensive; a thousand times less given to stealing than the whites. It was only a pity that they were beginning to understand the value of things. But why a pity? ‘Because trade with them became every day less profitable.’ Is not the superiority of civilized man apparent in this remark? The Indian in his ignorant simplicity would have said, that he found it every day more difficult to cheat his neighbour; but the white man finds in the refinement of language, a shade which expresses the fact, and yet saves his conscience.
On our return from Mr. Williams’ we went a short way up the Saginaw to shoot wild-ducks. A canoe left the reeds, and its Indian occupants came up to us to examine my double-barrelled gun. This weapon, which is common enough, always attracted especial attention from the savages. A gun that can kill two men in a second, can be fired in the wet and damp, was to them a marvel, a masterpiece beyond all price. These men showed, as usual, great admiration. They asked whence my gun came. Our young guide replied, that it was made on the other side of the great water, where the Fathers of the Canadians lived: and, as may be supposed, this answer did not make it less precious in their eyes. They remarked, however, that, as the aim was not in the centre of the barrel, it could not be sure: an observation which, I own, I could not answer.
When evening came, we returned to our canoe, and trusting to the experience that we had acquired in the morning, we rowed, unaccompanied, up an arm of the Saginaw, of which we had had only a glimpse.
The sky was without a cloud, the atmosphere pure and still. The river watered an immense forest: it flowed so gently that we could scarcely tell the direction of the current.
We always thought that to have an accurate idea of the American forests, we ought to follow the course of some of their rivers. These rivers are the great highways with which Providence has pierced the desert and rendered it accessible to man. In the roads cut through the woods the view is circumscribed, and the path itself is the work of human hands. Rivers do not show the traces of human labour, and you see freely the grandeur of the wild and luxurious vegetation of their banks.
The wilderness was before us just as, six thousand years ago, it showed itself to the fathers of mankind.
It was a delicious, blooming, perfumed, gorgeous dwelling, a living palace made for man, though, as yet, the owner had not taken possession. The canoe glided noiselessly and without effort. All was quiet and serene. We ourselves soon felt softened by the scene. Our words became fewer and fewer; our voices sank to a whisper; at last, we lapsed into silence; and, raising our oars, we each fell into a peaceful and inexpressibly delicious reverie.
How is it that language, which finds an equivalent for every sorrow, is incapable of expressing the simplest and sweetest emotions?
How is it possible adequately to describe those rare moments when the luxury of sensation leads to mental calm, and universal harmony seems to pervade creation; when the mind, only half awake, fluctuates between the present and the future, the actual and the possible; when, amidst the exquisite repose of nature, inhaling the soft still air, a man listens to the even beating of his own heart, every pulse marking the lapse of time flowing drop by drop into eternity!
Many men may have added one year to another of a long life without once having felt anything resembling what I have just described. They will not understand me. But there are others, I am sure, who will fill up my sketch from their hearts and memories, and in whom these lines will awaken the remembrance of some fleeting hours which neither time nor the real cares of life have been able to obliterate.
The report of a gun in the woods roused us from our dream. At first it sounded like an explosion on both sides of the river; the roar then grew fainter, till it was lost in the depth of the surrounding forest. It sounded like the prolonged and fearful war-cry of advancing civilization.
One evening in Sicily we lost ourselves in the extensive marsh, the site of the ancient Himera. The impression produced on us by the desert, all that was left of that famous city, was deep and strong. It was a striking testimony to the instability of human creations, and to the imperfection of human nature.
Here also was solitude; but the imagination, instead of recurring to the past, sprang forward, and lost itself in a boundless future. We asked ourselves, by what singular fate it happened that we, to whom it had been granted to look on the ruins of extinct empires, and tread the deserts made by human hands,—we children of an ancient people, should be called on to witness this scene of the primitive world, and to contemplate the as yet unoccupied cradle of a great nation.
These are not the more or less probable speculations of philosophy. The facts are as certain as if they had already taken place. In a few years these impenetrable forests will have fallen; the sons of civilization and industry will break the silence of the Saginaw; its echoes will cease; the banks will be imprisoned by quays; its current, which now flows on unnoticed and tranquil through a nameless waste, will be stemmed by the prows of vessels. More than 100 miles sever this solitude from the great European settlements; and we were, perhaps, the last travellers allowed to see its primitive grandeur. So strong is the impetus that urges the white man to the entire conquest of the New World.
It is this idea of destruction, with the accompanying thought of near and inevitable change, that gives to the solitudes of America their peculiar character, and their touching loveliness. You look at them with mournful pleasure. You feel that you must not delay admiring them. The impression of wild and natural greatness so soon to expire, mingles with the lofty thoughts to which the progress of civilization gives rise—you are proud of being a man; and yet you reflect, almost with remorse, on the dominion which Providence allots to you over nature. You are distracted by conflicting ideas and feelings. But every impression received is sublime, and leaves a deep trace.
We wished to quit Saginaw on the next day, the 27th July, but one of our horses was galled by the saddle, and we resolved to remain a day longer. To pass the time, we shot over the prairies which border the Saginaw below the clearings.
These prairies are not marshy as might have been expected. They are more or less extensive plains on which no tree grows, though the soil is excellent; the grass is dry, and springs to a height of three or four feet. We found but little game, and we came back early. The heat was stifling, as if a storm were in the air, and the musquitoes more annoying than usual. As we walked we were enveloped in a cloud of these insects, and had to fight our way. Woe betide the loiterer! he is abandoned to a merciless enemy. I remember being forced to load my gun running, it was so painful to stand still for an instant.
As we were returning across the prairie we remarked that our Canadian guide followed a narrow path, and looked very carefully where he placed his feet. “Why are you so cautious,” I said, “are you afraid of the damp?” “No,” he replied, “but when I walk in the prairie I have acquired the habit of always looking at my feet lest I should tread on a rattle-snake.” “Diable,” I exclaimed, with a start, “are there any rattle-snakes here?” “Oh, yes, indeed!” answered my American Norman with perfect indifference, “the place is full of them.”
I found fault with him for not telling us sooner; he declared that as we were well shod, and the rattle-snake never bites above the heel, he did not think that we ran any great danger. I asked him if the bite of the rattle-snake were mortal; he replied, “Always in less than twenty-four hours, unless recourse be had to the Indians. They know of a remedy which, given in time, saves the patient.”
However that might be, during the rest of the way we imitated our guide, and looked, as he did, at our feet.
The night which followed this burning day was one of the most disagreeable that I ever passed. The musquitoes had become so troublesome, that though overpowered with fatigue, I could not close my eyes.
Towards midnight the storm which had long been threatening broke. As there was no longer any hope of sleeping, I rose and went to the door of our hut to breathe the cool night-air.
The rain had not begun. The air seemed still. But the forest was already in motion—from time to time a deep sigh or a long cry escaped from it. Now and then a flash of lightning illumined the sky. The gentle flow of the Saginaw, the little clearing on each side of its banks, the roofs of five or six huts, and the belt of trees that surrounded us, appeared then for a moment like a revelation of the future. All vanished again in perfect darkness, and the awful voice of the desert was once more heard.
I was looking with emotion at this grand spectacle, when I heard a sigh close to me, and the lightning showed to me an Indian leaning, as I was, against the wall of our dwelling. No doubt the storm had disturbed him, for he cast a fixed and perturbed glance on all around.
Was he afraid of the lightning? or, could he see in the shock of the elements something beyond a passing convulsion of nature? Those fleeting pictures of civilization springing up, as it were, of themselves in the wilderness, were they to him prophetic? Those sobs of the forest which seemed to struggle in an unequal combat, did they reach his ears as a secret warning from Heaven; a solemn revelation of the fate finally reserved for the savage races? It was impossible to say. But his trembling lips appeared to murmur a prayer, and his features were stamped with superstitious terror.
At five a.m. we resolved to start. Every Indian from the neighbourhood of Saginaw had disappeared. They were gone to receive the annual presents from the English; the Europeans were engaged in the harvest. We were, therefore, obliged to make up our minds to recross the forest without a guide.
The undertaking was not so arduous as it might appear. In general, there is but one path through these vast wildernesses; if you do not lose sight of it you must reach your journey’s end.
So, at five a.m. we recrossed the Saginaw. We received the farewell and last advice of our host, and turning our horses’ heads, found ourselves alone in the forest.
I own that it was not without a solemn sensation that we began again to penetrate its damp recesses. The forest stretched behind us to the Pole and to the Pacific. But one inhabited spot was between us and the boundless desert, and we had just quitted it. These thoughts, however, made us only press on our horses, and in three hours we reached a deserted wigwam on the lonely banks of the river Cass. A grassy bank overhanging the water, shaded by large trees, served for a table; and we breakfasted, looking on the reaches of the river, which wound among the trees as clear as crystal.
On leaving the wigwam, we found several paths. We had been told which we were to take. But such directions are not always full or precise. We had been told of two paths: there were three. It was true that of these three roads two, farther on, joined together in one; but of this we were not aware, and our perplexity was great.
After due examination and discussion, we could think of nothing better than to throw the bridle on our horses’ necks to leave them to solve the difficulty. In this way we forded the river as well as we could, and were carried rapidly in a south-westerly direction. More than once the roads became nearly invisible in the brush-wood. In other places the path appeared so untravelled, that we could hardly believe that it led to more than an abandoned wigwam; our compass indeed showed that we were proceeding in the right direction, yet we were not completely reassured till we reached the spot where we had dined three days before.
We knew it again by a gigantic pine, whose trunk, shattered by the wind, we had before admired. Still we rode on with undiminished speed, for the sun was getting low. Soon we reached the clearing which usually betokens a settlement. As night was coming on, we came in sight of the river Flint; half-an-hour later we were at the door of our house. This time the bear received us as old friends, and rose upon his hind legs to greet our happy return.
During the whole day we had not met a single human face; the animals, too, had disappeared. No doubt they had retired from the heat. All that we saw, and that at rare intervals, was now and then, on the bare top of a withered tree, a solitary hawk standing motionless on one leg, and sleeping quietly in the sun, as if cut out of the wood on which he was resting.
In this absolute solitude, our thoughts suddenly recurred to the revolution of 1830, the first anniversary of which fell on this day. I cannot describe the violence with which the recollection of the 29th of July seized my mind. The cries and the smoke of the battle, the booming of the cannon, the rattle of musketry; the still more awful peal of the tocsin; that whole day enveloped in its flaming atmosphere, seemed suddenly to rise out of the past, and become a living picture before my eyes. It was as instantaneous as it was vivid, fleeting as a dream; for when I lifted my head, and looked round me, the vision had disappeared. But the silence of the forest had never struck me as so frigid, the shadows as so black, or the solitude as so absolute.
FRANCE BEFORE THE REVOLUTION.
The following pages contain the article contributed by M. de Tocqueville to the Westminster Review, of April, 1836, and translated by Mr. J. S. Mill. It is inserted in this place as a preface to the two chapters on the French Revolution, which unhappily are all that we at present possess.
On comparing this Essay with the celebrated work on the Ancien Régime, published by M. de Tocqueville twenty years afterwards, it will be found to contain fewer historical details and more general views. The writer had not then passed whole years among the provincial archives of France. He drew his inferences rather from consciousness than from observation, rather from his wonderful power of reflection, from the sagacity with which he conjectured what, under certain circumstances, would be the thoughts and feelings and actions of men, than from a laborious investigation of the evidences as to what they actually felt, and thought. That investigation he afterwards made, and we have its results in his Ancien Régime. They confirm most remarkably the theories of this Essay. But they are far from superseding it. I am inclined to think that to an English reader, who cares little for the details of the ancien régime, and much for its results, this Essay will be, if possible, more instructive than the book into which many years afterwards it was expanded. I cannot conclude without expressing my gratitude to Mr. Mill for the permission which he kindly gave me to make use of his admirable translation.—Tr.
The ideas and feelings of every age are connected with those of the age that preceded it, by invisible but almost omnipotent ties. One generation may anathematize the preceding generations, but it is far easier to combat than to avoid resembling them. It is impossible, therefore, to describe a nation at any given epoch, without stating what it was half a century before. This is especially necessary when the question relates to a people who, for the last fifty years, have been in an almost continual state of revolution. Foreigners who hear this people spoken of, and who have not followed with an attentive eye the successive transformations which it has experienced, only know that it has undergone great changes, but are ignorant what portions of its ancient state have been abandoned, and what have been preserved, in the midst of such prolonged vicissitudes.
It is proposed in this article to give some explanation of the state of France previously to the great Revolution of 1789, for want of which her present condition would be difficult to comprehend.
Towards the close of the ancient monarchy, the Church of France presented a spectacle analogous in some respects to that which the Established Church of England offers at the present day.
Louis XIV, who had destroyed all powerful individual existences, and annihilated or humbled all corporate bodies, had left to the clergy alone the outward marks of independence. The clergy had preserved their annual assemblies, in which they taxed themselves; they possessed a considerable portion of the landed property of the kingdom; and they thrust themselves, in a thousand different ways, into the public administration. Without abandoning their adherence to the principal dogmas of the Roman Catholic Church, the French clergy had nevertheless assumed a firm and almost a hostile attitude towards the papal throne.
In detaching the French priesthood from their spiritual chief, leaving them at the same time riches and power, Louis had merely followed the despotic tendency which is perceptible in every act of his reign. He knew that he should ever be the master of the clergy, whose chiefs he himself chose; and he believed it to be his interest that the clergy should be strong, in order that they might aid him in ruling over the minds of the people, and that they might resist with him the encroachments of the popes.
The Church of France, under Louis XIV, was both a political and a religious institution. In the interval between the death of this prince and the French Revolution, the religious faith of the people having been gradually weakened, the priest and the people gradually became strangers to one another. This change was produced by causes which it would take too much time to enumerate. At the end of the eighteenth century the French clergy still possessed their vast wealth—still mixed themselves up in all the affairs of state; but the spirit of the population was becoming everywhere estranged from them, and the Church had now become much more a political than a religious institution.
It will perhaps be not without some difficulty that we shall convey to the English reader of the present day a clear conception of the old noblesse of France. The English language has no word which expresses exactly the old French idea of a noblesse. The word “nobility” expresses more, the word “gentry” less. Neither is the word “aristocracy” one which can be applied to the case without explanation. By aristocracy, taking the word in its ordinary sense, is commonly understood the aggregate of the higher classes. The French noblesse was an aristocratic body, but we should be wrong in saying that it alone formed the aristocracy of the country, for by its side were to be found classes as enlightened, as wealthy, and almost as influential as itself. The French noblesse, therefore, was to aristocracy as it is understood in England, what the species is to the genus; it formed a caste, and not the entire aristocracy. In this respect it resembled the noblesse of all the nations on the continent. Not that a man could not be made noble in France by the purchase of certain offices, or by the prince’s will; but the fact of being ennobled, though it removed him from the ranks of the tiers-état, did not, properly speaking, introduce him into those of the noblesse. The noble of recent date halted, as it were, on the confines of the two orders; somewhat above the one, but below the other. He perceived afar the promised land which his posterity alone could enter. Birth, therefore, was in reality the only source whence the noblesse sprung. Men were born noble—they did not become so.
About 20,000 families* spread over the surface of the kingdom composed this great corporation. These families recognised among themselves a species of theoretic equality, founded on their common privilege of birth. “I am,” said Henry IV, “but the first nobleman in my kingdom.”† This expression is an indication of the spirit which still reigned among the French noblesse towards the close of the eighteenth century.‡ There existed, nevertheless, great differences of condition among the nobles. Some still possessed large landed estates, others had scarcely the means of subsistence in their paternal manor-house. Some passed the greater part of their time at court, others proudly cherished, at the extremity of their province, a hereditary obscurity. To some, custom opened the road to the highest dignities of the state, whilst others, after having attained the utmost limit of their hopes, a moderate rank in the army, returned peaceably to their homes, to quit them no more.
To depict faithfully, therefore, the order of the noblesse, it would have been necessary to resort to numerous classifications. The noblesse d’épée must have been distinguished from the noblesse de robe—the noble of the court from the noble of the provinces—the ancient from the modern noblesse. In this smaller society were almost as many shades and distinctions, as in the general society of which it was but a section. A certain community of spirit nevertheless existed among all the members of this great body. They agreed in obeying certain fixed rules, in governing themselves by certain invariable usages, and in holding some ideas which were common to them all.
The French noblesse, having originated, like all the other feudal aristocracies, in conquest, had, like them, and even in a still greater degree, enjoyed enormous privileges. It had monopolized almost all the intelligence and wealth of society. It had possessed all the land, and been master of the inhabitants.
But at the close of the eighteenth century, the French noblesse presented but a shadow of its former self. It had lost its influence over both the prince and the people. The king still chose from its ranks the principal officers of Government, but in this he rather followed instinctively an ancient custom, than recognised an acquired right. It was long since any nobles had existed who had power to excite the fears of the monarch, and extort from him a share in the Government. Upon the people the influence of the noblesse was still less. Between a king and a body of nobles there is a natural affinity, which draws them, even unconsciously, towards each other: but a union of the aristocracy and the people is not in the ordinary course of events; only by sustained efforts can it be brought about and maintained.
In truth, there are but two modes by which an aristocracy can maintain its influence over the people; by governing them, or by uniting with them for the purpose of checking the Government. The nobles must either remain the people’s masters, or must become their leaders.
The French noblesse was far from placing itself at the head of the other classes in resistance to the abuses of the royal power; on the contrary, it was the kings who formerly united themselves, first with the people to struggle against the tyranny of the nobles, and afterwards with the nobles to maintain the people in obedience.
On the other hand, the noblesse had long ceased to take an active part in the details of Government. The general government of the State was usually in the hands of nobles; they commanded the armies, and filled the chief offices in the ministry and about the courts; but they took no share in the detailed business of administration—in that part of the public business which comes into immediate contact with the people. Shut up in his château, unknown to the prince, a stranger to the surrounding population, the noble of France remained immoveable in the midst of the daily movement of society. Around him were the king’s officers, who administered justice, levied taxes, maintained order, and did whatever was done for the well-being or the guidance of the people. The irksomeness of their obscure leisure induced those nobles who still retained large estates to repair to Paris, and live at the court, the only place which could supply any aliment to their ambition. The lesser nobles, confined to the provinces by narrow circumstances, led an idle, useless, and restless existence. Those, therefore, of the nobles, who in default of political power might by their wealth have acquired some influence over the people, voluntarily withdrew themselves from them; whilst those who were compelled to live among them, only displayed before their eyes the uselessness and inconvenience of an institution of which they were the only visible representatives.
In thus abandoning to others the details of the public administration, and aspiring only to the more important offices of the State, the French noblesse had shown that they were more attached to the semblance of power than to power itself. The effect which the central government produces on the interests of individuals is remote and comparatively obscure. The foreign policy of the State, and its general system of laws, exercise chiefly an indirect, and often not very obvious, influence on the welfare of each citizen. The local administration, on the other hand, meets them daily and hourly; it incessantly touches them in their most sensitive points; it operates upon every one of those smaller interests of which the great interest we take in life is made up; it is the principal object both of the hopes and fears of the people at large; it connects itself with them by a thousand invisible ties, which bind them, and draw them on, without their being aware. It is in governing the village that an aristocracy lays the foundation of the power which afterwards serves it to control the State.
Fortunately for the aristocracies which still exist, the power which seeks to destroy them knows almost as little as themselves the secret of their influence. For our part, were we plotting the destruction of some great aristocratic power firmly established in any country, our struggle would not be to drive its representatives from around the throne; we should be in no haste to attack the aristocracy in its most dazzling privileges, nor should we begin by contesting even its great legislative functions; we would endeavour to remove it to a distance from the dwelling of the poor—to deprive it of influence over the daily interests of the citizens. We would rather permit it to participate in making the general laws of the state, than to regulate the police of a single city. We should, with less regret, abandon to its control the direction of the greater affairs of society, than that of the smaller. Leaving to it all the more conspicuous marks of its grandeur, we would deprive it of the people’s attachment, the true source of political power.
The French nobles had preserved a certain number of exclusive rights, which distinguished them from, and raised them above, the rest of the citizens; but it was easy to discover that among the privileges of their fathers, the French noblesse had only retained those which make aristocracies hated, and not those which cause them to be respected or beloved.
The nobles enjoyed the exclusive right of furnishing officers to the army. This would, doubtless, have been an important privilege, if the nobles had preserved a certain degree of individual importance, or a powerful esprit de corps. But as they had no longer either the one or the other, they were in the army but what they were everywhere else, passive instruments in the hands of the monarch. To him alone they looked for advancement and favour, and whether on the field of battle or at the court, to please him was their sole ambition. The privilege, therefore, which we have just mentioned, whilst it was advantageous to the pecuniary interests of noble families, was of no service to the noblesse as an order in the state. In an essentially warlike nation, where military glory has ever been considered as the most important of all possessions, the privilege in question excited against those who enjoyed it violent hatred and implacable jealousy: instead of placing the soldiery at their disposal, it made the soldier the natural enemy of the noble.
The nobles were exempt from some of the taxes, and they levied from the inhabitants of their domains, under divers names, a great number of annual contributions. These rights did not increase to any great extent the wealth of the nobles, but they erected the order of nobility into an object of general hatred and envy.
The most dangerous of all privileges, to those who enjoy them, are pecuniary privileges. Every one can appreciate them at a glance, and sees clearly how much he is injured by them. The sums which they produce furnish an exact standard by which the unprivileged are able to measure the hatred which the privilege ought to excite. There are but a limited number of men who crave after honours, or who aspire to govern the State, but there are few who do not desire to be as rich as they can. Many persons care but little to know who rules over them, but there are none who are indifferent to what affects their private fortunes. The privileges, therefore, which confer pecuniary profit, are at once less valuable and more dangerous to the possessor than those which confer power. The French nobles, by preserving the former in preference to the latter, had maintained that feature of inequality of condition which is offensive, and renounced that which is serviceable. They oppressed and impoverished the people, but did not rule over them. They stood in the midst of the people as strangers favoured by the prince, rather than as their leaders and chiefs. Having nothing to bestow, they did not act upon the people’s affections through their hopes; while, being limited in their exactions by certain rules, which in all cases were previously fixed, they excited hatred, but did not produce fear.
Independently of these lucrative privileges, the French noblesse had retained a vast number of purely honorary distinctions, such as titles, order of precedence in public, and the privilege of adopting a certain costume, and wearing certain arms. Some of these privileges they had formerly enjoyed as the natural adjuncts of their power—the others had arisen since the weakening of that power, and as a compensation for its loss; both were alike incapable of being of the slightest service, and might be productive of danger.
When once the reality of power has been abandoned, to wish to retain its semblance is to play a dangerous game. The outward aspect of vigour may sometimes sustain an enfeebled body, but more frequently serves to complete its downfal. Those who possess the appearance of power, without its substance, seem, to the general eye, of sufficient consequence to be hated, while they are no longer capable of protecting themselves against the hatred they excite. Those, therefore, whose power is in its infancy, and those with whom it is in its decline, should rather shun all honorary privileges than seek them. It is only a power firmly established, and which has attained to maturity, that can safely permit itself the use of them.
All that we have said of laws and customs may be extended to opinions.
The modern nobles had abandoned most of the ideas of their ancestors, but there were still several of a very hurtful character to which they were obstinately attached. At the head of these must be placed the prejudice which interdicted to persons of noble birth the pursuits of commercial industry.
This prejudice had been generated during the middle ages, when the possession of the land and the government of its inhabitants were one and the same thing. In those ages the idea of landed property was identified with that of power and greatness: the idea of mere moveable property, on the contrary, called up the idea of inferiority and weakness. Although the possession of land afterwards ceased to confer power in the State, and the other kinds of wealth had prodigiously increased, and acquired an entirely new importance, the feelings of the noble class had remained unchanged; the prejudice had survived the causes which gave birth to it.
The consequence of this was that the families of the noblesse, while they were liable in common with others to the chances of ruin, were precluded from the ordinary means of increasing their fortunes. The noblesse, therefore, taken as a body, was gradually becoming impoverished: and thus, after having abandoned the direct road to power, they remained equally strangers to the by-roads which might possibly conduct to it.
Not only were the nobles precluded from increasing or repairing their own fortunes by commerce and industry, but custom forbade them even to appropriate by marriage wealth so acquired. A nobleman would have deemed himself degraded by an alliance with the daugh-of a rich roturier. Nevertheless such unions were not uncommon among them; for their fortunes decreased more rapidly than their desires. These plebeian alliances, while they enriched certain members of the noblesse, put the finishing stroke to the ruin of that influence over opinion, which was the only power the body, as a body, retained.
We must consider what are men’s motives, before we applaud them for having elevated themselves above common prejudices. To judge of their conduct, we must place ourselves at their own point of view, and not at the point of view of abstract truth. To run counter to a common opinion because we believe it to be false, is noble and virtuous; but to despise a prejudice merely because it is inconvenient to ourselves, is nearly as dangerous to morality as to abandon a true principle for the same reason. The nobles were wrong in the first place, when they believed themselves degraded by marrying the daughters of roturiers. They were still more wrong in the second place, by marrying them under that persuasion.
In the eighteenth century the feudal laws relative to entails were still in vigour, but these laws had little effect in keeping together the fortunes of the nobles.
We suspect that the influence which such laws can exercise is frequently exaggerated. To produce important consequences, a concurrence of circumstances is required, which those laws do not produce, and which depends on quite other causes.
When the nobles are not tormented by the desire of enriching themselves, and when the other classes of the nation are tolerably content with the lot which Providence has assigned to them, the law of entail being then in complete accordance with the tendency of opinions and habits, the result of the whole is a universal slumber and immobility. Commoners having scarcely a greater chance of acquiring wealth than the nobles, and the nobles having no chance of losing theirs, all the advantage remains with the latter, and each generation of nobles maintains without difficulty the rank which the preceding generation occupied.
But in a nation where all except the nobles are seeking to enrich themselves, the territorial possessions of the noblesse become a sort of prize which all the other classes endeavour to catch at. The ignorance of the nobles, their passions, their foibles, all are put in requisition to draw into the general current of circulation the mass of landed property which they possess: and in a short time the noblesse themselves seldom fail to assist in the work.
The commons having only the privilege of wealth to oppose to the privileges of all kinds which their rivals enjoy, do not fail to display their opulence with every kind of ostentation. This excites the emulation of the nobles, who desire to imitate their splendour without having the same means to supply it. Embarrassment soon manifests itself in the fortunes of the nobles; their incomes become inadequate to their wants; and they themselves, ultimately feeling inconvenienced by the very laws which are made to keep them rich and powerful, seek by every means in their power to elude those laws. We will not positively assert, that even then, entails do not somewhat retard the ruin of the nobles; but we believe that they cannot prevent it. There is something more powerful than the constant operation of the laws in one direction; it is, the constant operation of human passions in the contrary direction.
At the breaking out of the French Revolution, the laws of France still assigned to the eldest son of a noble almost all the family estates. He was, in his turn, compelled to transmit them to his descendants unimpaired.
Nevertheless, many domains of feudal origin had already passed from the hands of the noblesse, and many others had been divided.*
Not only did the noblesse comprise in its ranks very rich and very poor men—a circumstance which by no means conflicts with the notion of an order of noblesse—but it included very many persons who were neither rich nor poor, but possessed moderate fortunes. This state of things already savoured more of democracy than of aristocracy; and if the composition of the French noblesse had been closely examined, it would have been found to be in reality a sort of democratic body, clothed in relation to all other classes with the privileges of an aristocracy.
But the danger which menaced the nobles arose much more from what was passing around them, than from what occurred within their own circle.
At the same time that the wealth of the French noblesse was dwindling, and their political and social influence fading away, another class of the nation was rapidly acquiring monied wealth, and even coming into contact with the government. The noblesse was thus losing ground in two ways. It was becoming both positively and relatively weaker. The new and encroaching class, which seemed to be elevating itself on the ruins of the other, had received the name of tiers état.
As it is difficult to make Englishmen comprehend the nature of the French noblesse, so it is by no means easy to explain to them what was understood by tiers-état.
At the first glance it might be thought that in France the tiers-état was composed of the middle class, and stood between the aristocracy and the people. But this was not the case. The tiers-état included, it is true, the middle classes, but it also comprised elements which were naturally foreign to these classes. The richest merchant, the most opulent banker, the most skilful manufacturer, the man of letters, the man of science, might form part of the tiers-état, as well as the small farmer, the shopkeeper, and the peasant who tilled the ground. Every man, in short, who was neither a priest nor a noble belonged to the tiers-état. It included rich and poor, the ignorant and the instructed. The tiers-état had thus within itself an aristocracy of its own. It contained within itself all the elements of a people; or rather it formed of itself a complete people, which co-existed with the privileged order, but which was perfectly capable of existing by itself, apart from them. It had opinions, prejudices, and a national spirit of its own. This is clearly discoverable in the cahiers drawn up in 1789, by the order of the tiers-état, to serve as instructions to its deputies. The tiers-état were almost as much beset with the fear of being mixed up with the noblesse, as the latter could have been of being confounded with them. They complained of the custom of ennobling by purchase, which permitted some of their body to penetrate into the ranks of the nobles. At the elections which preceded the assembling of the States-general, Lavoisier, the celebrated chemist, having wished to vote among the tiers-état, was rejected from the electoral college, on the ground that, having purchased an office which conferred nobility, he had forfeited the right of voting with roturiers.
Thus the tiers-état and the noblesse were intermixed on the same soil; but they formed, as it were, two distinct nations, which, though living under the same laws, remained strangers to each other. But of these two nations the one was incessantly recruiting its strength, the other was losing something every day, and never regaining anything.
The creation of this new people in the midst of the French nation threatened the very existence of the noblesse. The state of isolation in which the nobles lived was a still greater source of danger to them.
This complete division between the tiers-état and the nobles not only accelerated the fall of the noblesse, but threatened to leave in France no aristocracy whatever.
It is not by chance that aristocracies arise and maintain themselves. Like all other phenomena, they are subject to fixed laws, which it is not, perhaps, impossible to discover.
There exists among mankind, in whatsoever form of society they live, and independently of the laws which they have made for their own government, a certain amount of real or conventional advantages, which, from their nature, can only be possessed by a small number. At the head of these may be placed birth, wealth, and knowledge. It would be impossible to conceive any social state in which all the citizens, without exception, should be noble, highly intellectual, or rich. These three advantages differ considerably from one another, but they agree in this, that they are always the lot of a few, and give, consequently, to those who possess them, tastes and ideas of a more or less peculiar or exclusive kind. They therefore form so many aristocratic elements, which, whether separated or united in the same hands, are to be found amongst every people and at every period of history.
When the governing power is shared by all those who possess any of these exclusive advantages, the result is a stable and powerful aristocracy.
During the eighteenth century the French noblesse possessed within itself a portion only of the natural elements of an aristocracy. Some of those elements remained with the classes beyond their pale.
In isolating themselves from the aristocracy of wealth, and from that of intellect, the nobles believed they were remaining faithful to the example of their fathers. They did not remark, that in imitating the conduct they were missing the aim of their ancestors. In the middle age, it is true, birth was the principal source of all social advantages; but in the middle age the nobles were also the rich, and had called into alliance with them the priests, who were the instructed. Society yielded, and could not but yield, to these two classes of men a complete obedience.
But in the eighteenth century many of the wealthy class were not noble, and many of the nobles were no longer rich. The same might be said in respect to intelligence. The tiers-état formed one member of what may be called the natural aristocracy, separated from the main body; a member, which could not fail to weaken it, even by withholding its support, and was sure to destroy it by declaring war against it.
The exclusive spirit of the nobles tended not only to detach from the general cause of the aristocracy the chiefs of the tiers-état, but also all those who hoped one day to become such.
The greater number of aristocracies have perished, not because they established political and social inequality, but because they insisted upon maintaining it in favour of certain individuals, and to the detriment of certain others. What mankind detest is not so much inequality itself, as a particular kind of inequality. Neither must it be thought that an aristocracy commonly perishes by the excess of its privileges. On the contrary, it may happen that the greatness of those privileges sustains it. If every one may hope one day to enter into the exalted body, the extent of the privileges of that body is often the very thing which renders it dear to those who have not yet become members of it. In this manner the very vices of the institution sometimes constitute its strength. Let it not be said that each man’s chances are small. This is of little consequence, where the object to be attained is brilliant. What excites human desires is much less the certainty of moderate, than the possibility of splendid, success. Increase the greatness of the object to be attained, and you may without fear diminish the probabilities of obtaining it.
In a country where it is not impossible that a poor man may come to the highest offices of the State, it is much easier to continue excluding the poor from any share of control over the government, than in those countries where all hope of rising to a higher rank is denied them. The idea of the imaginary grandeur to which he may one day be called, places itself continually between the poor man and the contemplation of his real miseries. It is a game of chance, where the enormous possible gain lays hold of the mind in spite of the almost certainty of loss. He is charmed with aristocracy as with the lottery.
The division which existed in France between the different aristocratic elements, established in the aristocracy itself a sort of intestine war, by which democracy alone was destined to profit. Rejected by the noblesse, the principal members of the tiers-état were obliged, in combating those adversaries, to arm themselves with principles convenient for their immediate purpose, but ultimately dangerous to themselves, even by reason of their efficacy. The tiers-état was one portion of the aristocracy which had revolted against the rest; and was obliged to profess the general principle of equality, as a means of overthrowing the particular barrier which was opposed to themselves.
Even within the pale of the noblesse, inequality was daily attacked; if not in its principle, at least in some one or other of its numerous applications. The military nobles accused the noblesse de robe of arrogance, and the latter complained of the preponderance accorded to the former. The court noble affected to rally the rural nobles upon their petty seignorial rights, and the latter were annoyed at the favour bestowed upon the courtiers. The ancient noble contemned the recently ennobled, who in turn envied the honours of the other. All these recriminations and jealousies between the different sections of the privileged class were extremely injurious to the general cause of privileges.
The people, disinterested spectators of the quarrels of their chiefs, adopted only as much of their language and doctrines as suited them. The idea thus spread itself by degrees through the nation, that equality alone was conformable to the natural order of things, and was the foundation on which all well-regulated society should be built. These theories found their way into the minds of the nobles themselves, who, though still in the full enjoyment of their privileges, began to look upon the possession of them as a lucky accident, rather than as a right entitled to respect.
Custom, in general, follows much more closely than law, the changes of opinion. The aristocratic principle still triumphed in political institutions; but manners had already become democratic, and a thousand different ties had established themselves between men whom their social position would naturally have separated.
A circumstance which favoured singularly this mixture of classes in society, was the position gradually acquired by the literary class.
In a nation where wealth is the sole, or even the principal foundation of aristocracy, money, which in all society is the means of pleasure, confers power also. Endowed with these two advantages, it succeeds in attracting towards itself the whole imagination of man; and ends by becoming, we may almost say, the only distinction which is sought.
In such a country literature is little cultivated, and literary merit therefore scarcely attracts the attention of the public. But in the nations where the aristocracy of birth predominates, the same universal impulse towards the acquisition of wealth does not exist. The human mind, not being driven in one directon by a single passion, abandons itself to the natural variety of its inclinations. If such nations are highly civilized, a large number of citizens are to be met with who prize mental enjoyments, and honour those who are capable of bestowing them. Many ambitious men, who despise wealth, and whose plebeian origin shuts them out from participation in public affairs, take refuge in the study of letters, and seek literary glory, the only kind that is open to them. They thus occupy, beyond the limits of politics, a brilliant position, which is seldom disputed with them.
In those countries where money is the source of power, the importance of a man is in proportion to the wealth he possesses; and wealth being liable to be acquired or lost at any given moment, the members of the aristocracy are perpetually beset by the fear of falling from their rank, or of seeing other citizens rise to a participation in their privileges. The constant changeableness which thus prevails in the political world, throws their minds into a sort of permanent agitation. Even their enjoyment of their fortune is not untroubled; they seize with haste the advantages which riches can bring. They are incessantly contemplating their position with an unquiet eye, to discover if they have not lost ground. On all other persons they cast looks of jealousy and fear, to find out whether anything is changed around them; and all that is elevating itself ends by giving them umbrage.
Aristocracies founded solely on birth display much less inquietude at the sight of anything illustrious without their circle; because they are possessed of an advantage which from its nature can neither be divided nor lost. A person may become rich, but it is necessary to be born noble.
The French noblesse had at all times held out their hands to literary men, and liked to associate with them; but this was especially the case in the eighteenth century, a period of leisure, when men of rank found themselves almost as much relieved from the cares of government as the roturiers themselves, and when the spread of intelligence had communicated to all the refined taste of literary pleasures. Under Louis XIV. the nobles were accustomed to honour and protect writers, but did not in reality mingle with them. The two were distinct classes, which often approached each other, but without being in any one instance confounded. Towards the close of the eighteenth century this was no longer the case. It was not that writers had been admitted to a share in the privileges of the aristocracy, nor that they had acquired an acknowledged position in the political world. The noblesse had not called them into its ranks; but many of the nobles had placed themselves in theirs. Literature had thus become a species of neutral ground, on which equality took refuge. The man of letters and the grand seigneur met there, without having sought and without fearing each other; and there, beyond the limits of the real world, reigned a species of imaginary democracy, where every individual was reduced to his natural advantages.
This state of things, so favourable to the rapid development of science and letters, was far from satisfying the men who cultivated these pursuits. They occupied, it is true, a brilliant position, but one which was ill defined, and perpetually contested. They shared in the pleasures of the great, and remained strangers to their rights. The nobles were sufficiently near to them to exhibit to them in detail all the advantages reserved for superiority of birth, but at the same time kept themselves sufficiently distant to prevent them from participating in or even tasting those advantages. Equality was thus placed before their eyes as a phantom, which fled before them in proportion as they approached to seize it. Accordingly the class of literary men thus favoured by the noblesse formed the most discontented portion of the tiers-état, and might be heard railing at privileges even in the palaces of the privileged.
This democratic tendency made itself manifest not only among the men of letters who frequented the society of the nobles, but also among those nobles who had become men of letters. The greater number of the latter warmly professed the political doctrines generally received among literary men: and, far from introducing the aristocratic spirit into literature, they transported what might be called the literary spirit into a portion of the noblesse.
Whilst the upper classes were gradually lowering themselves, the middle classes were gradually raising themselves, and an insensible movement was bringing them daily nearer to each other. Changes were going on in the distribution of property which were of a nature to facilitate, in a most singular manner, the growth and ultimate rule of democracy.
Almost all foreigners imagine that, in France, the division of landed property first commenced from the epoch when the laws relating to descent experienced a change, and when the greater part of the domains belonging to the nobles were confiscated. This is an error. At the moment when the revolution broke out, the lands, in a great number of provinces, were already considerably divided. The revolution did but extend to the whole territory what had previously been peculiar to some of its parts.
There are many causes which may tend to make landed property accumulate in few hands. The first of these is physical force. A conqueror seizes the lands of the conquered, and divides them among a small number of his partisans. In this way the ancient proprietors are deprived of their rights; but there are other cases in which they themselves voluntarily cede them.
Let us imagine a people amongst whom industrial and commercial enterprises are numerous and productive, and intelligence sufficiently developed to enable every person to perceive the advantages of fortune which may be acquired by trade and industry. Let us suppose that by a combination of causes—laws, manners, and ancient ideas—landed property is still amongst this people the principal source of consideration and power. The shortest and most rapid way of becoming enriched, would be to sell any land which may happen to be possessed, and employ the purchase-money in trade. The best means, on the other hand, of enjoying a fortune when acquired, would be to withdraw it from trade and invest it in land. Land in that case becomes an object of luxury—of ambition, and not of pecuniary speculation. The ends sought to be obtained by its acquisition are not harvests, but honours and power. This being the case, small landed properties will be offered for sale, but purchasers can be found only to throw them into larger; for the object, as well as the position, of the seller differs considerably from that of the buyer. The first, compared with the second, is a poor man going in quest of a competence; the other is a rich man, who has a large superfluity, and desires to apply it to his pleasures.
If to these general causes we add the particular operation of legal arrangements, which, while they give great facilities to the alienation of movable property, render the conveyance of land so difficult and onerous, that the rich, who alone have the desire to possess landed property, have also exclusively the means of acquiring it, we shall comprehend without difficulty that among such a people small landed properties must have a perpetual tendency to disappear, by being merged into a small number of large estates.
In proportion as industrial processes are perfected and multiplied, and as the diffusion of intelligence renders the poor man more aware of what these new instruments can do for him, the movement which we have just described naturally becomes more rapid. The prosperity of trade and industry will, more forcibly than ever, induce the small proprietor to sell; and this same cause will be constantly creating large masses of wealth, which will permit those who possess them to acquire immense domains. It would thus seem that the aggregation of the land of a country in large masses may be found at the two extremes of civilization; first, when men are in a state of semi-barbarism, and do not prize, indeed do not know, any other kind of wealth; and lastly, when they have become highly civilized, and have discovered a thousand other means of enriching themselves.
The picture which we have drawn may serve for a representation of England. No part of what we have said has ever been applicable to France.
It is extremely doubtful whether, at the conquest of France by the barbarians, the land was divided among the conquerors in a general and systematic manner, as was the case in England after the invasion of the Normans. The Franks were much less civilized than the Normans, and much less skilful in the art of systematizing their violence. The Frankish conquest moreover goes back to a much remoter epoch, and its effects became earlier weakened. There is reason to believe that in France many domains have never been subject to the feudal law; and those which were subject to it appear to have been of more moderate extent than in several others of the European States. The land consequently had never been very much agglomerated, or at least had for a long time ceased to be so.
We have seen that long before the French revolution landed property had come to be no longer the principal source of consideration and of power. During the same period industry and commerce had not made a very rapid progress; and the people, already sufficiently enlightened to conceive and desire a better condition than their own, had not yet acquired intelligence to disclose to them the most ready means of attaining it. The land, whilst it ceased to be an object of luxury to the rich, became an object, or, to say truth, the only object of industry to the poor. The former disposed of it, to facilitate and increase his pleasures; the other purchased it, to improve his circumstances. In this manner landed property was silently passing out of the hands of the nobles, and becoming divided among the people.
While the ancient proprietors of the soil were thus losing their estates, a multitude of commoners came gradually to acquire considerable property. But they only did so by great efforts, and by the aid of most imperfect processes. Thus the large territorial fortunes daily diminished, without much contemporaneous amassing of large capitals; and in the place of a few vast domains were created many small ones, the slow and painful fruit of labour and economy.
These changes in the distribution of landed property facilitated in a singular manner the great political revolution which was on the eve of taking place.
Whoever thinks to succeed in permanently establishing perfect equality in the political world, without introducing at the same time an approach to equality in society itself, appears to us to fall into a dangerous error. You cannot with impunity place men in a position in which they have alternately the feelings of strength and those of weakness—you cannot make them approach to complete equality on one point, and leave them to suffer extreme inequality on others, without their shortly aspiring to be strong, or becoming weak, on all points. But the most dangerous species of social inequality is that which results from the accumulation of landed property in large masses.
The possession of land gives to men a certain number of peculiar ideas and habits, which it is very important to take into account, and which the possession of movable wealth either does not produce, or produces in a minor degree.
Great territorial properties localize, if we may so speak, the influence of wealth; and forcing it to exert itself always in the same place and over the same persons, give it by that means a more intense and a more permanent character. Inequality of movable property creates rich individuals; inequality of landed property makes opulent families. It connects the wealthy with one another; it even unites different generations; and creates at length in the State a little community apart from the nation, which invariably comes to obtain a certain degree of power over the larger community in the midst of which it is placed. This is precisely the thing which is most hurtful to a democratic government.
There is nothing, on the contrary, more favourable to the reign of democracy than the division of the land into small independent properties. The possessor of a small monied fortune almost always depends more or less on the passions of others. He is compelled to bend either to the rules of an association or to the desires of an individual; he is exposed to every vicissitude in the commercial or industrial condition of his country; his existence is incessantly troubled by alternations of prosperity and distress; and it is rare that the fluctuation which rules his destiny does not introduce disorder into his ideas and instability into his tastes. The small landed proprietor, on the contrary, receives no impulse but from himself. His sphere is confined, but he moves within it in perfect liberty. His fortune increases slowly, but it is not subject to sudden risks. His mind is tranquil as his destiny; his tastes regular and peaceful as his labours; and not being absolutely in want of anybody’s assistance, he maintains the spirit of independence even in the midst of poverty.
One cannot doubt that this mental tranquillity of a large number of the citizens—this calmness and simplicity in their desires—this habit and relish of independence—favours in a singular manner the establishment and the maintenance of democratic institutions. For our part, should we see democratic institutions established among a people where great inequality of fortune prevailed, we should consider such institutions as a passing accident. We should think that both the owners of property and the labouring classes were in peril: the former exposed to the risk of losing their property by violence, the last of losing their independence. It is, therefore, strongly the interest of those nations who desire to arrive at a democratic government, that great inequality of fortune should not exist amongst them; but above all, that such inequality should not prevail in landed property.
In France, at the close of the eighteenth century, the principle of the inequality of rights and conditions still ruled despotically in political society. The French not only had an aristocracy, but a noblesse: that is to say, of all the systems of government of which inequality is the basis, they had preserved the most exclusive, and, if we may use the expression, the most intractable. A man must be noble before he could serve the State. Without nobility a man could scarcely approach the prince, who was forbidden all contact with roturiers by the puerilities of etiquette.
The details of the French institutions were in accordance with this principle. Entails, the right of primogeniture, the seignorial rights, the corporations—all the remains of the ancient feudal society still existed.
France had a state religion, the ministers of which were not only privileged, as they still are in some other aristocratic countries, but were alone tolerated by law. The Church, being, as in the middle ages, proprietor of a large portion of the country, naturally took a considerable share in the government.
In France, nevertheless, everything had for a long time been in progress towards democracy. He who, without resting in first appearances, had pictured to himself the state of moral impotence into which the clergy had fallen—the impoverishment and degradation of the noblesse—the wealth and intelligence of the tiersétat—the remarkable division of landed property which already existed—the great number of middling and the small number of large fortunes; who had recollected the theories professed at this epoch, the principles tacitly but almost universally admitted—he, we repeat, who had embraced in one view all these different objects, could not have failed to conclude that the France of that day, with her noblesse, her state religion, her aristocratic laws and customs, was already, taken altogether, the most really democratic nation of Europe: and that the French at the close of the eighteenth century, by their social state, their civil constitution, their ideas and their manners, had already outstripped greatly even those among the nations of the present day who tend most conspicuously towards democracy.
It is not only in the progress she was making towards equality of conditions, that France in the eighteenth century approximated to the France of our day. Many other features of the national physiognomy, which are usually looked upon as new, had already made their appearance.
It may perhaps be laid down as a general truth, that there is nothing more favourable to the establishment and durability of a system of municipal and provincial institutions independent of the general government, than a territorial aristocracy.
There are at every point of the territory occupied by such an aristocracy, one or more individuals who, being already placed above the rest by their birth and their riches, naturally assume, or upon whom is naturally conferred, the management of the affairs of their neighbourhood. In a society, on the contrary, where there exists great equality of conditions, the citizens, being so nearly equal among themselves, are naturally led to place the details of administration in the hands of the only power which stands forth conspicuously in an elevated situation above them all; namely, the central government of the state. And even when they may not be disposed thus to delegate the management of all their affairs to the central government, they are often compelled, by their individual weakness, and the difficulties which oppose their acting in concert, to suffer that government to usurp it.
It is true that when once a nation has admitted the principle of the sovereignty of the people—when intelligence has diffused itself—when the art of government has been brought to considerable perfection, and the evils of an administration too much centralized have been felt—then, indeed, the inhabitants of the country, and of the country towns, are often seen endeavouring to create a collective power among themselves for the direction of their local affairs. Sometimes even the supreme power itself, bending under the weight of its own prerogatives, endeavours to localize the business of government, and seeks, by combinations more or less skilful, to found artificially in all the different points of the country a kind of elective aristocracy. A democratic people tends towards centralization, as it were by instinct. It arrives at provincial institutions only by reflection.
But provincial self-government thus founded is always exposed to great hazards. In an aristocratic country, local authorities often subsist in spite of the hostility of the central power, and always without depending upon the interference of the latter to preserve them; but in a democratic country, the local government is often a creation of the central power, which suffers itself to be deprived of some of its privileges, or strips itself of them of its own accord.
This natural tendency of a democratic people to centralize the business of government becomes chiefly manifest, and has the most rapid growth, in an epoch of struggle and transition, when the aristocratic and the democratic principles are disputing with each other for ascendency.
The people, at the moment when they begin to feel their power, finding that the nobles direct all local affairs, become discontented with the provincial government, less as provincial than as aristocratic. The provincial power once torn from the hands of the aristocracy, there remains the question, in whose hands it shall be placed.
In France it was not only the central government, but the king in particular, who was exclusively vested with this power. This arises from causes which it may be well to explain.
We have already expressed our opinion that the democratic portion of society have a natural tendency to centralize the management of all their joint concerns: but we are far from contending that their inclination leads them to centralize it in the person of the king alone; that depends upon circumstances. When unfettered in their choice, the people will always prefer to confide the powers of administration to an assembly or a magistrate of their own choosing, rather than to a prince placed beyond their control. But this liberty is often wanting to them.
The democratic portion of society, at the time when it begins to feel its strength, and wishes to exert it, is as yet composed only of a multitude of individuals, equally weak and equally incapable of struggling single-handed against the great individual existences of the nobles. It has an instinctive desire to make itself felt in the government, without having the command of any of the instruments by which the government can be influenced. These numerous individuals, being also widely scattered and little accustomed to concert, feel instinctively the necessity for finding, somewhere out of themselves, and yet distinct from the aristocracy, an authority already constituted, round which they can rally, and, by combining as a whole, obtain that influence which is denied to them individually.
The popular power having as yet no constitutional organization, the only power already constituted, independently of the aristocracy, of which the people can avail themselves, is the prince. Between the prince and the nobles there is, no doubt, a natural affinity of inclination, but not a perfect identity; if their tastes and habits are alike, their interests are often contrary. The nations, therefore, which are in progress towards democracy commence ordinarily by increasing the royal power. The prince inspires less jealousy and less fear than the nobles; and, besides, in periods of revolution, it is something gained to change the depositaries of power, even if it be only taken from one enemy to be vested in another.
The great triumph of the English aristocracy has been their long success in making the democratic classes believe that the common enemy was the prince; thus constituting themselves the virtual representatives of the people, instead of remaining conspicuously their principal adversaries.
In general, it is only after having, by the assistance of the king, completely destroyed the power of the aristocracy, that a democratic people begins to think of rendering the king himself accountable for the power which it has allowed him to assume, and attempts either to render him dependent upon itself, or to remove the authority with which it has invested him into other and more dependent hands.
But, even when the democratic classes, after having succeeded in placing the powers of government in the hands of their own representatives, become desirous to divide those powers among several distinct authorities, this is often not easily effected: whether from the difficulty always found in withdrawing power from those who are once in possession of it, or from the uncertainty of knowing where best to place it.
The democratic classes can always find among themselves a sufficient number of able and enlightened men to compose a political assembly or a central Government; but it may happen that they do not find a sufficient number to be organized into provincial bodies. It may happen that the people of the provinces are not willing to allow themselves to be governed by the aristocracy, and are not yet in condition to form a Government for themselves. In the mean time, the powers of local administration can only be exercised by the central authority.
A considerable time, moreover, elapses before a people, just escaped from the hands of an aristocracy, feel the advantage, and experience the desire, of uncentralizing the management of their common concerns.
In the nations subject to an aristocracy, every individual belonging to the inferior classes has contracted, almost from his birth, the habit of looking in his immediate neighbourhood for the man who is the principal object of his jealousies, hopes, or fears. He is accustomed to consider the central Government as the natural umpire between himself and his local oppressor; and he contracts the habit of attributing to the first a great superiority of intelligence and wisdom. These two impressions often subsist when the causes which have given birth to them have perished.
Long after the aristocracy has been destroyed, the citizens still look with a kind of instinctive fear upon all who are elevated above them in their own neighbourhood; they are with difficulty induced to believe that skill in affairs, impartiality in rendering justice, or respect for the laws, can be found in an authority at their own doors. They are jealous of neighbours who have become their equals, because they have been jealous of neighbours who were their superiors; they distrust even men of their own choice; and, though they no longer consider the central Government as their shelter against the tyranny of the nobles, they still look upon it as a safeguard against their own mistakes. Thus, then, nations whose social condition is becoming democratic, almost always begin by concentrating all power in the prince; and when, afterwards, they acquire the necessary energy and force, they destroy the instrument,’ but continue to centralize the power in the hands of an authority which has now become dependent upon themselves.
When they become stronger, better organized, and more enlightened, they make a new effort, and, taking away from their general representatives some portion of the business of administration, they confide it to a secondary class of elective functionaries. Such appears to be the natural, the instinctive, and, we may add, the inevitable progress which those societies follow who, by their social condition, their ideas, and their manners, are travelling towards democracy.
In France, the extension of the royal power to embrace every part of the public administration regularly kept pace with the rise and progressive development of the democratic classes. In proportion as conditions became more equalized, the king penetrated more deeply and more habitually into the management of the local affairs; the towns and the provinces lost their privileges, or by degrees neglected to make use of them.
The people and the tiers-état assisted these changes with all their force, and even gave up, voluntarily, all their rights, where it so happened that they possessed any, in order to draw into a common ruin those of the nobles. The independent local authorities, and the power of the nobles, were therefore both weakened in the same manner and at the same time.
The kings of France had been singularly assisted in this tendency by the support which, during so many ages, had been afforded to them by the lawyers. In a country like France, where there existed privileged orders, a noblesse and a clergy, who had within themselves a large portion of the intelligence and almost all the riches of the country, the natural chiefs of the democracy were the lawyers. Until the French lawyers themselves aspired to govern in the name of the people, they laboured assiduously to ruin the noblesse for the aggrandizement of the throne. They lent themselves to the despotic purposes of the kings with singular readiness and with infinite art.
This is not peculiar to France; and we may be permitted to believe that, in serving the regal power, the French lawyers obeyed the instincts of their own position, as much as they consulted the interests of the class of which they found themselves accidentally at the head.
There exist, says Cuvier, natural analogies between all the parts of an organized body, by which, from the examination of a detached portion of any one of them, we may in imagination correctly reconstruct the whole. By a similar process of investigation to that which detected these analogies, many of the general laws which govern the universe might be discovered.
If we study what has passed in the world since men began to preserve the remembrance of events, we soon discover that, in civilized countries, by the side of a despot who governs, there is almost always a lawyer who regularizes, and strives to render consistent with one another, the arbitrary and incoherent decrees of the monarch.
The general and indefinite love of power which animates kings is, by the lawyers, tempered with a love of method, and with the skill which they naturally possess in the management of business. Kings can constrain, for the time being, the obedience of men; lawyers can bend them almost voluntarily to a durable obedience. Kings furnish the power; lawyers invest that power with the form and semblance of a right. Kings seize upon absolute power by force; lawyers give it the sanction of legality. When the two are united, the result is a despotism which scarcely allows a breathing-place to human nature.
He who conceives the idea of the prince, without that of the lawyer, sees only one of the aspects of tyranny; to conceive it as a whole, it is necessary to contemplate them both at once.
Independently of the general causes of which we have spoken, there existed in France many of an accidental and secondary nature, which hastened the concentration of all power in the hands of the king. Paris had, from an early period, acquired a singular preponderance in the kingdom. There existed in France several considerable towns; but there was only one great city, which was Paris. From the middle ages Paris had already begun to be the centre of the intelligence, the riches, and the power of the kingdom. The centralization of political power in Paris continually augmented the importance of that city; and its increasing importance facilitated in turn the concentration of power. The king drew all the public business to Paris, and Paris drew all the public business to the king.
France had formerly been made up of provinces, acquired by treaties or conquered by arms, and which long remained in the position of foreigners towards one another. In proportion as the central power was enabled to subject these different portions of territory to a uniform system of administration, the differences which previously existed among them vanished; and, in proportion as these differences subsided, the central power found greater facilities in extending its sphere of action over all parts of the country. Thus the unity of the people facilitated the unity of the Government, and the unity of Government aided in blending the people into one nation.
At the end of the eighteenth century, France was still divided into thirty-two provinces, in which thirteen parlements, or supreme courts of justice, interpreted the laws according to various conflicting systems. The political constitution of these provinces varied considerably. Some had preserved a sort of national representation, others had never possessed any. In some, the feudal laws were still observed, in others the Roman. All these differences, however, were superficial, or, properly speaking, only external. The whole of France had already, in a manner, but one mind; the same ideas were prevalent from one end of the kingdom to the other; the same customs were in vigour—the same opinions were professed; the human mind was cast in the same mould—had the same general tendencies. The French, in short, with their provinces, their parlements, the diversity of their civil laws, the fantastic variety of their customs, composed, nevertheless, the nation of Europe the most firmly bound together in all its parts, and the most capable, in case of need, of moving as one man.
In the centre of this great nation, composed of elements so homogeneous, was a royal power, which, after having possessed itself of the direction of the greater affairs of the public, aspired also to the regulation of the smaller.
All strong governments strive to centralize the administration; but they succeed more or less in the attempt, according to their own nature.
When the predominant power resides in an assembly, the centralization is more apparent than real. The assembly can interfere only by the enactment of laws, and laws cannot foresee everything; or, even if they did, they cannot be carried into execution but by means of agents, and with the aid of a continual surveillance of which a legislative assembly is incapable. The legislative branch of the government, consequently, is centralized, but not the administrative.
In England, where Parliament is considered entitled to take cognizance of all the affairs of society, whether great or small, administrative centralization is little known; and the great representative body leaves to the will of individuals a great independence in detail. This does not originate in any natural moderation on the part of this great body; it does not pay deference to local liberty from any peculiar respect to it, but because its own constitution does not afford it any efficacious means of interfering with the exercise of that liberty.
When, on the other hand, the predominant power resides in the executive (the man who commands having the means of causing the minutest details of his will to be executed), the central power may gradually extend itself to everything; or, at least, there is nothing in its own constitution which limits it. If this preponderant executive power is placed in the midst of a people among whom everything has already a natural tendency toward the centre—where no citizen is in a condition to resist individually—where numbers cannot legally combine their resistance—and where all, having nearly the same habits and manners, bend without difficulty to a common rule—it is not easy to see what limits can be set to administrative tyranny, nor why (not content with directing the great interests of the State) the agents of Government may not at last assume to regulate the affairs of families.
The above picture represents correctly the state of France before 1789. The royal power had assumed, directly or indirectly, the management of everything, and had no longer, to speak correctly, any limits but in its own will. In most of the towns and provinces it had destroyed even the semblance of a local government, and to the others it had left nothing more than the semblance. The French, while they formed of all the nations of Europe that in which the greatest national unity existed, were also that in which administrative business had been brought into the most systematic form, and where what has since been called Centralization existed in its highest degree.
We have shown that, in France, the constitution tended to become more despotic every day. Nevertheless, by a singular contrast, habits and ideas became constantly more liberal. Liberty disappeared from institutions, and maintained itself more than ever in manners: it seemed to be more cherished by individuals in proportion as the securities for it were less; and one might have thought, that the independence which had been snatched from the great bodies of the State had been conferred upon its individual members.
After having overturned its principal adversaries, the royal power had stopped as it were of itself; it had been softened by victory, and appeared to have contended for the possession of power rather than for its exercise.
It is a great, though a common, error to believe that the spirit of liberty in France had its birth with the revolution of 1789. It had always been one of the distinctive characters of the nation; but this spirit had only shown itself at intervals, and, as it were, by fits. It had been an instinct rather than a principle; irregular, and at once violent and feeble.
Never was a nobility more proud, and more independent in its opinions and in its actions, than the French noblesse of the feudal times. Never did the spirit of democratic liberty show itself with more energy than in the French communes of the middle ages, and in the States-general which assembled at different periods up to the commencement of the seventeenth century (1614). Even when the royal power had substituted itself for all other powers, the national spirit submitted to it, but without servility.
It is necessary to distinguish the fact of obedience from the various causes of that fact. There are nations who bend to the arbitrary will of the prince, because they believe that he has an absolute right to command over them. Others, again, see in him the representative of the idea of country; or the image of God upon earth. There are others, who adore a royal power which succeeds to a tyrannical oligarchy of nobles, and experience, in giving obedience to it, a mixed feeling of gratitude and pleasant repose. In all these kinds of obedience, there is, no doubt, a mixture of prejudice; they denote insufficiency of intelligence, but not degradation of character.
The French of the seventeenth century submitted to royalty rather than to the king, and obeyed royalty not because they merely judged it to be powerful, but because they believed it to be a beneficent and a legitimate power. They had, if we may so speak, a free principle of obedience. They also mixed with their submission a kind of independence, of firmness, of delicacy, of caprice, of irritability, which demonstrated clearly that, in adopting a master, they had retained the spirit of liberty.
The king, who in certain cases could, without restraint, dispose of the fortunes of the State, would have been quite impotent in certain other cases, even to control, in the smallest trifles, the actions of his subjects, or to suppress the most insignificant of opinions; and, in case of resistance to such encroachment, the subject would have been better defended by the state of usages and manners, than the citizens of free countries are often protected by their laws.
But these are sentiments and ideas which nations that have always been free, or even that have become so, do not comprehend. The former have never known them, the latter have long since forgotten them. They both see, in obedience to an arbitrary power, nothing but degradation; and, amongst the people who have lost their liberty after having once enjoyed it, obedience has really that character. But there often enters into the submission of a people who have never been free, a principle of morality which must not be overlooked.
At the close of the eighteenth century this spirit of independence, which had always characterised the French, had not only singularly developed itself, but had entirely changed its character. During this century, a sort of transformation had taken place in the notion which the French had of liberty.
Liberty may be conceived, by those who enjoy it, under two different forms: as the exercise of a universal right, or as the enjoyment of a privilege. In the middle ages, those who possessed any liberty of action, viz. the feudal aristocracy, figured to themselves their liberty under the latter type. They desired it, not because it was what all were entitled to, but because each considered himself as possessing, in his own person, a peculiar right to it. And thus has liberty almost always been understood in aristocratic societies, where conditions are very unequal, and where the human mind, having once contracted the thirst for privileges, ends by ranking among privileges all the good things of this world.
This notion of liberty as a personal right of the individual who so conceives it, or at most of the class to which he belongs, may subsist in a nation where general liberty does not exist. It even sometimes happens that, in a certain small number of persons, the love of liberty is all the stronger in proportion to the deficiency of the securities necessary for the liberties of all. The exception is the more precious in proportion as it is more rare.
This aristocratic notion of liberty produces, among those who have imbibed it, an exalted idea of their own individual value, and a passionate love of independence; it gives extraordinary energy and ardour to their pursuit of their own interests and passions. Entertained by individuals, it has often led them to the most extraordinary actions;—adopted by an entire people, it has created the most energetic nations that have ever existed.
The Romans believed that they alone of the human race were fitted to enjoy independence; and it was much less from nature than from Rome that they thought they derived their right to be free.
According to the modern, the democratic, and, we venture to say the only just notion of liberty, every man, being presumed to have received from nature the intelligence necessary for his own general guidance, is inherently entitled to be uncontrolled by his fellows in all that only concerns himself, and to regulate at his own will his own destiny.
From the moment when this notion of liberty has penetrated deeply into the minds of a people, and has solidly established itself there, absolute and arbitrary power is thenceforth but a usurpation, or an accident; for, if no one is under any moral obligation to submit to another, it follows that the sovereign will can rightfully emanate only from the union of the wills of the whole. From that time passive obedience loses its character of morality, and there is no longer a medium between the bold and manly virtues of the citizen and the base compliances of the slave.
In proportion as ranks become equalized, this notion of liberty tends naturally to prevail.
France, nevertheless, had long emerged from the ignorance of the middle ages, and had modified her ideas and manners in a democratic direction, before the feudal and aristocratic notion of liberty ceased to be universally received. Every one, in protecting his individual independence against the claims of despotism, had still much less in view the assertion of a common right, than the defence of a particular privilege; and the question between him and his oppressor was much less one of principle than one of fact. In the fifteenth century some adventurous spirits had a glimpse of the democratic idea of liberty, but it was almost immediately lost sight of. It was during the eighteenth only that the transformation began to operate.
The idea that every individual, and by extension every people, is entitled to the direction of its own interests—this idea, still vague, incompletely defined, and not yet expressed in any correct language, introduced itself by slow degrees into all minds. It became fixed, as an opinion, among the enlightened classes—it penetrated, as a species of instinct, even among the body of the people.
From this resulted a new and more powerful impulse towards liberty. The taste which the French always had for independence became at length an opinion resting on reason and conviction, which, spreading from one person to another, ended in attracting towards it the royal power itself, which, still absolute in theory, began to acknowledge tacitly by its conduct that public feeling and opinion were the first of powers. “It is I who nominate my ministers,” said Louis XV.; “but it is the nation which dismisses them.” Louis XVI. in prison, retracing his last and most secret thoughts, made use of the term, “My fellow-citizens,” in speaking of his subjects.*
Speaking as the organ of one of the first tribunals of the kingdom, Malesherbes said to the king, in 1770, twenty years before the revolution:—
“You hold your crown, Sire, from God alone; but you will not refuse yourself the satisfaction of believing that, for your power, you are likewise indebted to the voluntary submission of your subjects. There exist in France some inviolable rights, which belong to the nation. Your ministers will not have the boldness to deny this; but, if it were necessary to prove it, we need only invoke the testimony of your Majesty. No, Sire, in spite of all their efforts, they have not yet been able to persuade your Majesty that there is no difference between the French nation and a nation of slaves.”
And further on he adds:—
“Since all the intermediate bodies are impotent or annihilated, interrogate the nation itself;—there only remains the nation to be consulted by you.”*
The spirit of liberty manifested itself, indeed, by writings rather than by actions—by individual efforts rather than by collective enterprises—by an opposition, often puerile and unreasonable, rather than by a grave and systematic resistance.
This force of opinion, acknowledged even by those who often trampled it under foot, was subject to great alternations of strength and weakness; all-powerful to-day, almost imperceptible on the morrow; always irregular, capricious, undefined; a body without an organ; a shadow of the sovereignty of the people rather than the thing itself.
It will be always thus with a people who have the taste and the desire for liberty without having yet known how to establish popular institutions.
It is not that we believe men may not enjoy a species of independence, even in countries where no such institutions exist. Customs and opinions may sometimes, to a certain extent, suffice; but, in these circumstances, men are never secure of the durability of their freedom because they are never assured that they shall at all instants be ready to assert it. There have been times when the nations most in love with their independence have suffered themselves to consider it only as a secondary object. The great utility of popular institutions is, to sustain liberty during those intervals wherein the human mind is otherwise occupied—to give it a kind of vegetative life, which may keep it in existence during those periods of inattention. The forms of a free government allow men to become temporarily weary of their liberty without losing it. When a people are determined to be slaves, it is impossible to hinder their becoming so; but, by free institutions, they may be sustained for some time in independence, even without their own assistance.
A nation which comprised fewer poor, fewer rich, fewer powerful individuals, and fewer absolutely impotent, than any other nation in the world;—a people with whom the theory of equality had taken root in their opinions, the taste for equality in their dispositions;—a country already more homogeneous and united in its parts than any other; subject to a government more centralized, more skilful, and more powerful than any other; and yet in which the spirit of liberty, always vivacious, had recently assumed a new character, more enlarged, more systematic, more democratic, and more restless than in any other country:—such was France—such were the principal features which marked her physiognomy at the end of the eighteenth century.
If we now close the page of history, and, after having allowed half a century to elapse, come to consider what the intervening time has produced—we observe immense changes; but, in the midst of new and unheard-of things, we easily recognise the same characteristic features which struck us half a century earlier. The effects, therefore, said to be produced by the French Revolution are usually exaggerated.
Without doubt, there never was a revolution more powerful, more rapid, more destructive, and more creative than the French Revolution. It would, however, be deceiving ourselves strangely to believe that there arose out of it a French people entirely new, and that an edifice had been erected whose foundation had not existed before. The French Revolution has created a multitude of accessary and secondary things; but, of all the things of principal importance, it has only developed the germs previously existing. It has regulated, arranged, and legalized the effects of a great cause, but has not been itself that cause.
In France conditions were already more equalized than elsewhere; the Revolution carried still further that equality, and introduced it into the laws. The French had, at an earlier period and more completely than any other country, abandoned the minute subdivisions of territory, the innumerable independent authorities, of the feudal system; the Revolution completed the union of the whole country into one body. Already the central power had, more than in any other country, extended its interference to the management of local affairs; the Revolution rendered that power the more skilful, stronger, and more enterprising. The French had conceived, before all others, and more clearly than all others, the democratic idea of liberty; the Revolution gave to the nation itself, if not all the reality, at least all the appearance of sovereign power. If these things are new, they are so only in form, and in their degree of development, not in their principle and in their essence.
All that the Revolution has done would have been done, sooner or later, without it. It was but a violent and rapid process, by the aid of which the changes already effected in society were extended to the government; laws were made to conform themselves to manners; and the direction already taken by opinions was communicated to the outward world.
[*]The French were then creating the kingdom of Belgium.
[*]These are English measures, differing a little from the French; but I have used them, as they are the measures which the Americans must have employed when talking to M. de Tocqueville.—Tr.
[*]The labours of Messrs. Moheau and De la Michodière, and those of the celebrated Lavoisier, have shown that in 1791 the number of nobles only reached 83,000 individuals, of whom only 18,323 were capable of bearing arms. The noblesse at that time would have formed only about the three-hundredth part of the population of the kingdom. Notwithstanding the authority which the name of Lavoisier imparts to these calculations, we have some difficulty in believing in their perfect accuracy. It seems to us that the number of the nobles must have been greater. See De la Richesse Territoriale du Royaume de France, par Lavoisier, p. 10.
[†]“Je ne suis que le premier gentilhomme de mon royaume.” A gentilhomme is a man whose family has been noble for at least two generations preceding himself.
[‡]Of this the reader may convince himself by perusing the cahiers of the order of the noblesse (their instructions to their representatives) in 1789: he will there perceive that the equality of the nobles among themselves is continually laid down as a principle.
[*]It is stated in the cahiers of the noblesse, in 1789, that “the country is covered with châteaux and mansions formerly inhabited by the noblesse of France, but now abandoned.”—Résumé des Cahiers, tom. ii. p. 206.
[*]See the testament of Louis XVI. written the day previous to his death.
[*]See “Remontrances de la Cour des Aides, 1770.”