The Englishwoman in America, by Isabella Bird

Chapter 18.

Origin of the Constitution — The Executive — Congress — Local Legislatures — The army and navy — Justice — Slavery — Political corruption — The foreign element — Absence of principle — Associations — The Know-nothings — The Press and its power — Religion — The Church — The Clergy.

Before concluding this volume it will be proper to offer a few remarks upon American institutions, and such of their effects as are obvious to a temporary resident in the States. In apology for my own incompetence, I must again remind the reader that these are merely surface observations, offered in accordance with the preface to this work.

The Constitution demands the first notice. When our American colonies succeeded in throwing off the yoke of England, it became necessary for them to choose a form of government. No country ever started under such happy auspices. It had just concluded a successful struggle with one of the greatest empires in the world; its attitude of independence was sympathised with by the enthusiastic spirits of Europe, and had even gained the respect of that upright monarch, who, on receiving the first ambassador from his revolted colonies, addressed him with these memorable words:— “I was the last man in England to acknowledge the independence of America; but, being secured, I shall be the last man in England to violate it.” Thus circumstanced, each of the thirteen States, with the exception of Rhode Island, sent delegates to Philadelphia to deliberate on the form of government which should be adopted. This deliberative assembly of a free people presented a sublime spectacle in the eyes of nations. After two years of consideration, and considerable differences of opinion, it was decided that the monarchical traditions of the Old World were effete and obsolete; and accordingly a purely Republican Constitution was promulgated, under which the United States have become a rich and powerful nation. It is gratifying to an English person to know that the Constitution of the States was derived in great measure from that of England, enlarged, and divested of those which were deemed its objectionable features. The different States had previously possessed local assemblies, and governors, and the institutions connected with slavery; the last remain to this day in pretty much the same state as when they were bequeathed by England to America. Washington entered upon the office of President in 1789, and discharged its duties, as he did those of every other station, with that high-souled and disinterested patriotism which render him as worthy to be imitated as admired.

There are three authorities, the President, the Senate, and the House of Representatives, all elected by the people; thus their acts are to a certain extent expressive of the popular will.

The President is elected by universal suffrage, once in four years. He receives a salary of 5000l. per annum, and is assisted by five secretaries, who, with two other executive officers, are paid at the rate of 1600l. a-year.

This officer has considerable power and enormous patronage. He makes treaties, which merely require the ratification of the Senate; he grants pardons, and may place his veto on the acts of the two other estates, provided that they have not been returned by two-thirds of the members of the respective houses.

There are sixty-two Senators, or two from each State. These are elected by the local legislatures for a term of six years, and one-third of the number retire every two years. Each Senator must be thirty years of age; he must be a resident of the State which he represents, and he must have been naturalised for nine years.

The Lower House, or House of Representatives, is perhaps the most purely popular body in the world. The members are elected for two years by universal suffrage, that is, by the votes of all the free male citizens of America who have attained the age of 21. Each member of the Lower House must have been naturalised for seven years, and he must have passed the age of 25. Population has been taken as the basis of representation, in the following very simple manner. The number of Representatives was fixed by Act of Congress at 233, although a new one has recently been added for California. The aggregate representative population (by the last decennial enumeration, 21,767,673) is taken, and divided by 233; and the quotient, rejecting fractions, is the ratio of apportionment among the several States. The representative population of each State is then ascertained, and is divided by the above named ratio, and the quotient gives the number of representatives to each State. The State of New York, being the most populous, possesses 33 representatives; two of the States, namely, Delaware and Florida, require no more than one each. On a rough calculation, each member represents about 90,000 persons. The two houses together are named Congress, and the members of both receive 32s. per diem for their attendance, without deduction in case of sickness, in addition to travelling expenses. All measures of legislation and taxation must receive the approval of the President and the Congress, the majority in Congress representing the popular will. Every State has its assembly and governor, and to a certain extent has power to make its own laws. The members of these assemblies, the governors of the States, and the mayors and municipal officers of the cities, are all elected by universal suffrage.

No system of direct taxation is adopted in the States, except for local purposes. The national revenue is derived from customs duties, on many articles so high as to amount to protective duties; from the sale of wild lands; and from one or two other sources. The annual revenue of the country is about 12,000,000l., and the expenditure is under the income. The state officials are rather poorly paid. The chief ambassadors do not receive more than 1800l. per annum, and the chief justice, whose duties are certainly both arduous and responsible, only receives a salary of 1000l. a year. The principal items of expenditure are connected with the army and navy, and the officers in both these services are amply remunerated. The United States navy is not so powerful as might be expected from such a maritime people. There are only twelve ships of the line and twelve first class frigates, including receiving-ships and those on the stocks.

The standing army consists of 10,000 men, and is regarded with some jealousy by the mass of the people. The pay in this branch of the service varies from that of a major-general, which is 1000l. a year, to that of a private, which is about 1s. 6d. a day. This last is larger than it appears, as it is not subject to the great deductions which are made from that of an English soldier. The real military strength of America consists of an admirably trained militia force of about 2,200,000 men, supported at an enormous expense. This large body is likely to prove invincible for defensive purposes, as it is composed of citizens trained to great skill as marksmen, and animated by the strongest patriotism; but it is to be hoped that it also furnishes a security against an offensive war on a large scale, as it is scarcely likely that any great number of men would abandon their business and homes for any length of time for aggressive purposes.

The highest court of law in the United States is the Supreme Court, which holds one annual session at Washington. It is composed of a chief justice and eight associate justices, and is the only power not subjected directly or indirectly to the will of the people. The United States are divided into nine judicial circuits, in each of which a Circuit Court is held twice a year by a justice of the Supreme Court, assisted by the district judge of the State in which the court sits. There is, however, a great weakness both about the Executive and the administration of justice, the consequence of which is, that, when a measure is placed upon the statute-book which is supposed to be obnoxious to any powerful class, a league is formed by private individuals for the purpose of enforcing it, or in some cases it would become a dead letter. The powerful societies which are formed to secure the working of the “Maine Law” will occur at once to English readers.

Each State possesses a distinct governmental machinery of its own, consisting of a Governor, a Senate, and a House of Representatives. The Governor is elected by a majority of the votes of the male citizens for a term of years, varying in different States from one to four. The Senators are elected for like periods, and the Representatives are chosen for one or two years. The largest number of Representatives for any one State is 356.

Nearly all power in the United States is held to a great extent on popular sufferance; it emanates from the will of the majority, no matter how vicious or how ignorant that majority may be. In some cases this leads to a slight alteration of the Latin axiom, Salus populi est suprema lex, which may be read, “the will of the people is the supreme law.” The American constitution is admirable in theory; it enunciates the incontrovertible principle, “All men are free and equal.” But unfortunately, a serious disturbing element, and one which by its indirect effects threatens to bring the machinery of the Republic to a “dead lock,” appears not to have entered into the calculations of these political theorists.

This element is slavery, which exists in fifteen out of thirty-one states, and it is to be feared that by a recent act of the legislature the power to extend it is placed in the hands of the majority, should that majority declare for it, in the new States. The struggle between the advocates of freedom and slavery is now convulsing America; it has already led to outrage and bloodshed in the State of Kansas, and appearances seem to indicate a prolonged and disastrous conflict between the North and South. The question is one which cannot be passed over by any political party in the States. Perhaps it may not be universally known in England that slavery is a part of the ratified Constitution of the States, and that the Government is bound to maintain it in its integrity. Its abolition must be procured by an important change in the constitution, which would shake, and might dislocate, the vast and unwieldy Republic. Each State, I believe, has it in its power to abolish slavery within its own limits, but the Federal Government has no power to introduce a modification of the system in any. The federal compact binds the Government “not to meddle with slavery in the States where it exists, to protect the owners in the case of runaway slaves, and to defend them in the event of invasion or domestic violence on account of it.” Thus the rights and property in slaves of the slaveholders are legally guaranteed to them by the Constitution of the United States. At the last census the slaves amounted to more than 3,000,000, or about an eighth of the population, and constitute an alien body, neither exercising the privileges nor animated by the sentiments of the rest of the commonwealth. Slavery at this moment, as it is the curse and the shame, is also the canker of the Union. By it, by the very constitution of a country which proudly boasts of freedom, three millions of intelligent and responsible beings are reduced to the level of mere property — property legally reclaimable, too, in the Free States by an act called the Fugitive Slave Act. That there are slaveholders amiable, just, and humane, there is not a doubt; but slavery in its practice as a system deprives these millions of knowledge, takes away from them the Bible, keeps a race in heathen ignorance in a Christian land, denies to the slaves compensation for their labour, the rights of marriage and of the parental relation, which are respected even among the most savage nations; it sustains an iniquitous internal slave-trade — it corrupts the owners, and casts a slur upon the dignity of labour. It acts as an incubus on public improvement, and vitiates public morals; and it proves a very formidable obstacle to religion, advancement, and national unity; and so long as it shall remain a part of the American constitution, it gives a living lie to the imposing declaration, “All men are free and equal.”

Where the whole machinery of government is capable of being changed or modified by the will of the people while the written constitution remains, and where hereditary and territorial differences of opinion exist on very important subjects, it is not surprising that party spirit should run very high. Where the highest offices in the State are neither lucrative enough nor permanent enough to tempt ambition — where, in addition, their occupants are appointed by the President merely for a short term — and where the highest dignity frequently precedes a lifelong obscurity, the notoriety of party leadership offers a great inducement to the aspiring. Party spirit pervades the middle and lower ranks; every man, almost every woman, belongs to some party or other, and aspires to some political influence.

Any person who takes a prominent part either in local or general politics is attacked on the platform and by the press, with a fierceness, a scurrility, and a vulgarity which spare not even the sanctity of private life. The men of wealth, education, and talent, who have little either to gain or lose, and who would not yield up any carefully adopted principle to the insensate clamour of an unbridled populace, stand aloof from public affairs, with very few exceptions. The men of letters, the wealthy merchants, the successful in any profession, are not to be met with in the political arena, and frequently abstain even from voting at the elections. This indisposition to mix in politics probably arises both from the coarse abuse which assails public men, and from the admitted inability, under present circumstances, to stem the tide of corrupt practices, mob-law, and intimidation, which are placing the United States under a tyranny as severe as that of any privileged class — the despotism of a turbulent and unenlightened majority. Numbers are represented exclusively, and partly in consequence, property, character, and stake in the country are the last things which would be deemed desirable in a candidate for popular favour.

Owing to the extraordinary influx of foreigners, an element has been introduced which could scarcely have entered into the views of the framers of the Constitution, and is at this time the great hindrance to its beneficial working. The large numbers of Irish Romanists who have emigrated to the States, and whose feelings are too often disaffected and anti-American, evade the naturalisation laws, and, by surreptitiously obtaining votes, exercise a most mischievous influence upon the elections. Education has not yet so permeated the heterogeneous mass of the people as to tell effectually upon their choice of representatives. The electors are caught by claptrap, noisy declamation, and specious promises, coupled with laudatory comments upon the sovereign people. As the times for the elections approach, the candidates of the weaker party endeavour to obtain favour and notoriety by leading a popular cry. The declamatory vehemence with which certain members of the democratic party endeavoured to fasten a quarrel upon England at the close of 1855 is a specimen of the political capital which is too often relied upon in the States.

The enormous numbers of immigrants who annually acquire the rights of citizenship, without any other qualification for the franchise than their inability to use it aright, by their ignorance, turbulence, and often by their viciousness, tend still further to degrade the popular assemblies. It is useless to speculate upon the position in which America would be without the introduction of this terrible foreign element; it may be admitted that the republican form of government has not had a fair trial; its present state gives rise to serious doubts in the minds of many thinking men in the States, whether it can long continue in its present form.

The want of the elements of permanency in the Government keeps many persons from entering into public life; and it would appear that merit and distinguished talent, when accompanied by such a competence as renders a man independent of the emoluments of office, are by no means a passport to success. The stranger visiting the United States is surprised with the entire absence of gentlemanly feeling in political affairs. They are pervaded by a coarse and repulsive vulgarity; they are seldom alluded to in the conversation of the upper classes; and the ruling power in this vast community is in danger of being abandoned to corrupt agitators and noisy charlatans. The President, the Members of Congress, and to a still greater extent the members of the State Legislatures, are the delegates of a tyrannical majority rather than the representatives of the people. The million succeeds in exacting an amount of cringing political subserviency, in attempting to obtain which, in a like degree, few despots have been successful.

The absence of a property qualification, the short term for which the representatives are chosen, and the want, in many instances, of a pecuniary independence among them, combined with a variety of other circumstances, place the members of the Legislatures under the direct control of the populace; they are its servile tools, and are subject to its wayward impulses and its proverbial fickleness; hence the remarkable absence of any fixed line of policy. The public acts of America are isolated; they appear to be framed for the necessities of the moment, under the influence of popular clamour or pressure; and sometimes seem neither to recognise engagements entered into in the past, or the probable course of events in the future. America does not possess a traditional policy, and she does not recognise any broad and well-defined principle as the rule for her conduct. The national acts of spoliation or meanness which have been sanctioned by the Legislature may be distinctly traced to the manner in which the primary elections are conducted. It is difficult, if not impossible, for the European governments to do more than guess at the part which America will take on any great question — whether, in the event of a collision between nations, she will observe an impartial neutrality, or throw the weight of her influence into the scale of liberty or despotism.

It is to be feared that political morality is in a very low state. The ballot secures the electors from even the breath of censure by making them irresponsible; few men dare to be independent. The plea of expediency is often used in extenuation of the grossest political dishonesty. To obtain political favour or position a man must stoop very low; he must cultivate the good will of the ignorant and the vicious; he must excite and minister to the passions of the people; he must flatter the bad, and assail the honourable with unmerited opprobrium. While he makes the assertion that his country has a monopoly of liberty, the very plan which he is pursuing shows that it is fettered by mob rule. No honourable man can use these arts, which are, however, a high-road to political eminence. It is scarcely necessary to remark upon the effect which is produced in society generally by this political corruption.

The want of a general and high standard of morality is very apparent. That dishonesty which is so notoriously and often successfully practised in political life is not excluded from the dealings of man with man.

It is jested about under the name of “smartness,” and commended under that of “cuteness,” till the rule becomes of frequent and practical application, that the disgrace attending a dishonourable transaction lies only in its detection, — that a line of conduct which custom has sanctioned in public life cannot be very blameable in individual action.

While the avenues to distinction in public life are in great measure closed against men of honour, wealth offers a sure road to eminence, and the acquisition of it is the great object followed. It is often sought and obtained by means from which considerations of honesty and morality are omitted; but there is not, as with us, that righteous censorship of public opinion which brands dishonesty with infamy, and places the offender apart, in a splendid leprosy, from the society to which he hoped wealth would be a passport. If you listen to the conversation in cars, steamboats, and hotels, you become painfully impressed with the absence of moral truth which pervades the country. The success of Barnum, the immense popularity of his infamous autobiography, and the pride which large numbers feel in his success, instance the perverted moral sense which is very much the result of the absence of principle in public life; for the example of men in the highest positions in a state must influence the masses powerfully either for good or evil. A species of moral obliquity pervades a large class of the community, by which the individuals composing it are prevented from discerning between truth and falsehood, except as either tends to their own personal aggrandisement. Thus truth is at a fearful discount, and men exult in successful roguery, as though a new revelation had authorised them to rank it among the cardinal virtues.

These remarks apply to a class, unfortunately a very numerous one, of the existence of which none are more painfully conscious than the good among the Americans themselves. Of the upper class of merchants, manufacturers, shipbuilders, &c., it would be difficult to speak too highly. They have acquired a world-wide reputation for their uprightness, punctuality, and honourable dealings in all mercantile transactions.

The oppression which is exercised by a tyrant majority is one leading cause of the numerous political associations which exist in the States. They are the weapons with which the weaker side combats the numerically superior party. When a number of persons hit upon a grievance, real or supposed, they unite themselves into a society, and invite delegates from other districts. With a celerity which can scarcely be imagined, declarations are issued and papers established advocating party views; public meetings are held, and a complete organization is secured, with ramifications extending all over the country. A formidable and compact body thus arises, and it occasionally happens that such a society, originating in the weakness of a minority, becomes strong enough to dictate a course of action to the Executive.

Of all the associations ever formed, none promised to exercise so important an influence as that of the Know-nothings, or the American party. It arose out of the terrific spread of a recognised evil — namely, the power exercised upon the Legislature by foreigners, more especially by the Irish Romanists. The great influx of aliens, chiefly Irish and Germans, who speedily or unscrupulously obtain the franchise, had caused much alarm throughout the country. It was seen that the former, being under the temporal and spiritual domination of their priests, and through them under an Italian prince, were exerting a most baneful influence upon the republican institutions of the States. Already in two or more States the Romanists had organised themselves to interfere with the management of the public schools. This alarm paved the way for the rapid extension of the new party, which first made its appearance before men’s eyes with a secret organization and enormous political machinery. Its success was unprecedented. Favoured by the secresy of the ballot, it succeeded in placing its nominees in all the responsible offices in several of the States. Other parties appeared paralysed, and men yielded before a mysterious power of whose real strength they were in complete ignorance. The avowed objects of the Know-nothings were to establish new naturalization laws, prohibiting any from acquiring the franchise without a residence of twenty-one years in the States — to procure the exclusion of Romanists from all public offices — to restore the working of the constitution to its original purity — and to guarantee to the nation religious freedom, a free Bible, and free schools; in fact, to secure to Americans the right which they are in danger of ceasing to possess — namely, that of governing themselves.

The objects avowed in the preliminary address were high and holy; they stirred the patriotism of those who writhed under the tyranny of an heterogeneous majority, while the mystery of nocturnal meetings, and a secret organization, conciliated the support of the young and ardent. For a time a hope was afforded of the revival of a pure form of republican government, but unfortunately the Know-nothing party contained the elements of dissolution within itself. Some of its principles savoured of intolerance, and of persecution for religious opinions, and it ignored the subject of slavery. This can never be long excluded from any party consideration, and, though politicians strive to evade it, the question still recurs, and will force itself into notice. Little more than a year after the Know-nothings were first heard of, they came into collision with the subject, in the summer of 1855, and, after stormy dissensions at their great convention, broke up into several branches, some of which totally altered or abandoned the original objects of their association.

Their triumph was brief: some of the States in which they were the most successful have witnessed their signal overthrow,* and it is to be feared that no practical good will result from their future operations. But the good cause of constitutional government in America is not lost with their failure — public opinion, whenever it shall be fairly appealed to, will declare itself in favour of truth and order; the conservative principle, though dormant, is yet powerful; and, though we may smile at republican inconsistencies, and regret the state into which republican government has fallen, it is likely that America contains the elements of renovation within herself, and will yet present to the world the sublime spectacle of a free people governing itself by just laws, and rejoicing in the purity of its original republican institutions.

* [At several of the state elections at the close of 1855 the Know-nothings succeeded in placing their nominees in public offices, partly by an abandonment of some of their original aims.]

The newspaper press is one of the most extraordinary features in the United States. Its influence is omnipresent. Every party in religion, politics, or morals, speaks, not by one, but by fifty organs; and every nicely defined shade of opinion has its voices also. Every town of large size has from ten to twenty daily papers; every village has its three or four; and even a collection of huts produces its one “daily,” or two or three “weeklies.” These prints start into existence without any fiscal restrictions: there is neither stamp nor paper duty. Newspapers are not a luxury, as with us, but a necessary of life. They vary in price from one halfpenny to threepence, and no workman who could afford his daily bread would think of being without his paper. Hundreds of them are sold in the hotels at breakfast-time; and in every steamer and railway car, from the Atlantic ocean to the western prairies, the traveller is assailed by newsboys with dozens of them for sale. They are bought in hundreds everywhere, and are greedily devoured by men, women, and children. Almost as soon as the locality of a town is chosen, a paper starts into life, which always has the effect of creating an antagonist.

The newspapers in the large cities spare no expense in obtaining, either by telegraph or otherwise, the earliest intelligence of all that goes on in the world. Every item of English news appears in the journals, from the movements of the court to those of the literati; and a weekly summary of parliamentary intelligence is always given. Any remarkable law proceedings are also succinctly detailed. It follows, that a dweller at Cincinnati or New Orleans is nearly as well versed in English affairs as a resident of Birmingham, and English politics and movements in general are very frequent subjects of conversation. Since the commencement of the Russian war the anxiety for English intelligence has increased, and every item of Crimean or Baltic news, as recorded in the letters of the “special correspondents,” is reprinted in the American papers without abridgment, and is devoured by all classes of readers. The great fault of most of these journals is their gross personality; even the privacy of domestic life is invaded by their Argus-eyed scrutiny. The papers discern everything, and, as everybody reads, no current events, whether in politics, religion, or the world at large, are unknown to the masses. The contents of an American paper are very miscellaneous. Besides the news of the day, it contains congressional and legal reports, exciting fiction, and reports of sermons, religious discussions, and religious anniversaries. It prys into every department of society, and informs its readers as to the doings and condition of all.

Thus every party and sect has a daily register of the most minute sayings and doings, and proceedings and progress of every other sect; and as truth and error are continually brought before the masses, they have the opportunity to know and compare. There are political parties under the names of Whigs, Democrats, Know-nothings, Freesoilers, Fusionists, Hunkers, Woolly-heads, Dough-faces, Hard-shells, Soft-shells, Silver-greys, and I know not what besides; all of them extremely puzzling to the stranger, but of great local significance. There are about a hundred so-called religious denominations, from the orthodox bodies and their subdivisions to those professing the lawless fanaticism of Mormonism, or the chilling dogmas of Atheism. All these parties have their papers, and each “movement” has its organ. The “Woman’s Right Movement” and the “Spiritual Manifestation Movement” have several.

There is a continual multiplication of papers, corresponding, not only to the increase of population, but to that of parties and vagaries. The increasing call for editors and writers brings persons into their ranks who have neither the education nor the intelligence to fit them for so important an office as the irresponsible guidance of the people. They make up for their deficiencies in knowledge and talent by fiery and unprincipled partisanship, and augment the passions and prejudices of their readers instead of placing the truth before them. The war carried on between papers of opposite principles is something perfectly terrific. The existence of many of these prints depends on the violent passions which they may excite in their supporters, and frequently the editors are men of the most unprincipled character. The papers advocating the opinions of the different religious denominations are not exempt from the charge of personalities and abusive writing. No discord is so dread as that carried on under the cloak of religion, and religious journalism in the States is on a superlatively bitter footing.

But evil as is, to a great extent, the influence exercised by the press, terrible as is its scrutiny, and unlimited as is its power, destitute of principle as it is in great measure, it has its bright as well as its dark side. Theories, opinions, men, and things, are examined into and sifted until all can understand their truth and error. The argument of antiquity or authority is exploded and ridiculed, and the men who seek to sustain antiquated error on the foundation of effete tradition are compelled to prove it by scripture or reason. Yet such are the multitudinous and tortuous ways in which everything is discussed, that multitudes of persons who have neither the leisure nor ability to reflect for themselves know not what to believe, and there is a very obvious absence of attachment to clear and strongly defined principles. The great circulation which the newspapers enjoy may be gathered, without giving copious statistics, from the fact that one out of the many New York journals has a circulation of 187,000 copies.* The New York Tribune may be considered the “leading journal” of America, but it adheres to one set of principles, and Mr. Horace Greely, the editor, has the credit of being a powerful advocate of the claims of morality and humanity.

* [There are now about 400 daily newspapers in the States: their aggregate circulation is over 800,000 copies. There are 2217 weekly papers, with an aggregate circulation of 3,100,057 copies; and the total aggregate circulation of all the prints is about 5,400,000 copies. In one year about 423,000,000 copies of newspapers were printed and circulated.]

It is impossible for a stranger to form any estimate of the influence really possessed by religion in America. I saw nothing which led me to doubt the assertion made by persons who have opportunities of forming an opinion, that “America and Scotland are the two most religious countries in the world.”

The Sabbath is well observed, not only, as might be expected, in the New England States, but in the large cities of the Union; and even on the coasts of the Pacific the Legislature of California has passed an act for its better observance in that State. It is probable that, in a country where business pursuits and keen competition are carried to such an unheard-of extent, all classes feel the need of rest on the seventh day, and regard the Sabbath as a physical necessity. The churches of all denominations are filled to overflowing; the proportion of communicants to attendants is very large; and the foreign missions, and other religious societies, are supported on a scale of remarkable liberality.

There is no established church or dominant religious persuasion in the States. There are no national endowments; all are on the same footing, and live or die as they obtain the suffrages of the people. While the State does not recognise any one form of religion, it might be expected that she would assist the ministers of all. Such is not the case; and, though Government has wisely thought it necessary to provide for the education of the people, it has not thought it advisable to make any provision for the maintenance of religion. Every one worships after his own fashion; the sects are numerous and subdivided; and all enjoy the blessings of a complete religious toleration.

Strange sects have arisen, the very names of which are scarcely known in England, and each has numerous adherents. It may be expected that fanaticism would run to a great height in the States. Among the 100 different denominations which are returned in the census tables, the following designations occur: Mormonites, Antiburgers, Believers in God, Children of Peace, Disunionists; Danian, Democratic Gospel, and Ebenezer Socialists; Free Inquirers, Inspired Church, Millerites, Menonites, New Lights, Perfectionists, Pathonites, Pantheists, Tunkards, Restorationists, Superalists, Cosmopolites, and hosts of others.

The clergy depend for their salaries upon the congregations for whom they officiate, and upon private endowments. The total value of church property in the United States is estimated at 86,416,639 dollars, of which one-half is owned in the States of Massachusetts, New York, and Pennsylvania. The number of churches, exclusive of those in the newly-organised territories, is about 38,000. There is one church for every 646 of the population. The voluntary system is acted upon by each denomination, though it is slightly modified in the Episcopalian church. In it, however, the bishops are elected, the clergy are chosen by the people, and its affairs are regulated by a convention. It is the oldest of the denominations, and is therefore entitled to the first notice.

It has 38 bishops, 1714 ministers, and 105,350 communicants. It has 1422 churches, and its church property is estimated at 11,261,970 dollars. A large number of the educated and wealthy are members of this body. Its formularies, with the exception of some omissions and alterations, are the same as those of the Church of England. Some of its bishops are men of very high attainments. Dr. McIlvaine, the Bishop of Ohio, is a man of great learning and piety, and is well known in England by his theological writings.

The Methodists are the largest religious body in America. As at home, they have their strong sectional differences, but they are very useful, and are particularly acceptable to the lower orders of society, and among the coloured population. They possess 12,467 churches, 8389 ministers, and 1,672,519 communicants, and the value of their church property exceeds 14,000,000 dollars.

The Presbyterians are perhaps the most important of the religious bodies, as regards influence, education, and wealth. Their stronghold is in New England. They have 7752 congregations, 5807 ministers, and 680,021 communicants. Their church property is of the value of 14,000,000 dollars.

The Baptists are very numerous. They have 8181 churches, 8525 ministers, 1,058,754 communicants, and church property to the amount of 10,931,382 dollars.

The Congregationalists possess 1674 churches, 1848 ministers, and 207,609 communicants. Their property is of the value of 7,973,962 dollars.

The Roman Catholics possessed at the date of the last census 1112 churches, and church property to the amount of 9,000,000 dollars.

There is church accommodation for about 14,000,000 persons, or considerably more than half the population. There are 35,000 Sabbath schools, with 250,000 teachers, and 2,500,000 scholars. Besides the large number of churches, religious services are held in many schools and courthouses, and even in forests and fields. The dissemination of the Bible is on the increase. In last year the Bible Society distributed upwards of 11,000,000 copies. The Society for Religious Publications employed 1300 colporteurs, and effected sales during the year to the amount of 526,000 dollars. The principal of the religious societies are for the observance of the sabbath, for temperance, anti-slavery objects, home missions, foreign missions, &c. The last general receipts of all these societies were 3,053,535 dollars.

In the State of Massachusetts the Unitarians are a very influential body, numbering many of the most intellectual and highly educated of the population. These, however, are divided upon the amount of divinity with which they shall invest our Lord.

The hostile spirit which animates some of the religious journals has been already noticed. There is frequently a good deal of rivalry between the members of the different sects; but the way in which the ministers of the orthodox denominations act harmoniously together for the general good is one of the most pleasing features in America. The charitable religious associations are on a gigantic scale, and are conducted with a liberality to which we in England are strangers. The foreign missions are on a peculiarly excellent system, and the self-denying labours and zeal of their missionaries are fully recognised by all who have come in contact with them. No difficulty is experienced in obtaining money for these objects; it is only necessary to state that a certain sum is required, and, without setting any begging machinery to work, donations exceeding the amount flow in from all quarters.

Altogether it would appear from the data which are given that the religious state of America is far more satisfactory than could be expected from so heterogeneous a population. The New England States possess to a great extent the externals of religion, and inherit in a modified degree the principles of their Puritan ancestors; and the New Englanders have emigrated westward in large numbers, carrying with them to the newly settled States the leaven of religion and morality. The churches of every denomination are crowded, and within my observation by as many gentlemen as ladies; but that class of aspiring spirits, known under the name of “Young America,” boasts a perfect freedom from religious observances of every kind.

There is a creed known by the name of Universalism, which is a compound of Antinomianism with several other forms of error, and embraces tens of thousands within its pale. It often verges upon the most complete Pantheism, and is very popular with large numbers of the youth of America.

There is a considerable amount of excitement kept up by the religious bodies in the shape of public re-unions, congregational soirées, and the like, producing a species of religious dissipation, very unfavourable, I should suppose, to the growth of true piety. This system, besides aiding the natural restlessness of the American character, gives rise to a good deal of spurious religion, and shortens the lives and impairs the usefulness of the ministers by straining and exhausting their physical energies.

To the honour of the clergy of the United States it must be observed that they keep remarkably clear from party-politics, contrasting in this respect very favourably with the priests of the Church of Rome, who throw the weight of their influence into the scale of extreme democracy and fanatical excesses. The unity of action which their ecclesiastical system ensures to them makes their progressive increase much to be deprecated.

It is owing in great measure to the efforts of the ministers of religion that the unbending principles of truth and right have any hold upon the masses; they are ever to be found on the side of rational and constitutional liberty in its extreme form, as opposed to licence and anarchy; and they give the form of practical action to the better feelings of the human mind. Amid the great difficulties with which they are surrounded, owing to the want of any fixed principles of right among the masses, they are ever seeking to impress upon the public mind that the undeviating laws of morality and truth cannot be violated with impunity any more by millions than by individuals, and that to nations, as to individuals, the day of reckoning must sooner or later arrive.

The voluntary system in religion, as it exists in its unmodified form in America, has one serious attendant evil. Where a minister depends for his income, not upon the contributions to a common fund, as is the case in the Free Church of Scotland, but upon the congregation unto which he ministers, his conscience is to a dangerous extent under the power of his hearers. In many instances his uncertain pecuniary relations with them must lead him to slur over popular sins, and keep the unpalatable doctrines of the Bible in the background, practically neglecting to convey to fallen and wicked man his Creator’s message, “Repent, and believe the Gospel.” It has been found impossible in the States to find a just medium between state-support, and the apathy which in the opinion of many it has a tendency to engender, and an unmodified voluntary system, with the subservience and “high-pressure” which are incidental to it.

Be this as it may, the clergy of the United States deserve the highest honour for their high standard of morality, the fervour of their ministrations, the zeal of their practice, and their abstinence from politics.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/bird/isabella/english/chapter18.html

Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31