The Englishwoman in America, by Isabella Bird

Chapter 7.

The Queen City continued — Its beauties — Its inhabitants human and equine — An American church — Where chairs and bedsteads come from — Pigs and pork — A peep into Kentucky — Popular opinions respecting slavery — The curse of America.

The important towns in the United States bear designations of a more poetical nature than might be expected from so commercial a people. New York is the Empire City — Philadelphia the City of Brotherly Love — Cleveland the Forest City — Chicago the Prairie City — and Cincinnati the Queen City of the West. These names are no less appropriate than poetical, and none more so than that applied to Cincinnati. The view from any of the terraced heights round the town is magnificent. I saw it first bathed in the mellow light of a declining sun. Hill beyond hill, clothed with the rich verdure of an almost tropical clime, slopes of vineyards just ready for the wine-press,* magnolias with their fragrant blossoms, and that queen of trees the beautiful ilanthus, the “tree of heaven” as it is called; and everywhere foliage so luxuriant that it looked as if autumn and decay could never come. And in a hollow near us lay the huge city, so full of life, its busy hum rising to the height where I stood; and 200 feet below, the beautiful cemetery, where its dead await the morning of the resurrection. Yet, while contrasting the trees and atmosphere here with the comparatively stunted, puny foliage of England, and the chilly skies of a northern clime, I thought with Cowper respecting my own dear, but far distant land —

“England, with all thy faults I love thee still — My country! —

I would not yet exchange thy sullen skies,

And fields without a flower, for warmer France

With all her vines, nor for Ausonia’s groves,

Her golden fruitage, or her myrtle bowers.”

* [Grapes are grown in such profusion in the Southern and Western States, that I have seen damaged bunches thrown to the pigs. Americans find it difficult to understand how highly this fruit is prized in England. An American lady, when dining at Apsley House, observed that the Duke of Wellington was cutting up a cluster of grapes into small bunches, and she wondered that this illustrious man should give himself such unnecessary trouble. When the servant handed round the plate containing these, she took them all, and could not account for the amused and even censuring looks of some of the other guests, till she heard that it was expected that she should have helped herself to one bunch only of the hothouse treasure.]

The change in the climate was great from that in which I had shivered a week before, with a thermometer at 33° in the sun; yet I did not find it oppressive here at 105° in the shade, owing to the excessive dryness of the air. The sallow complexions of the New Englanders were also exchanged for the fat ruddy faces of the people of Ohio, the “Buckeyes,” as their neighbours designate them. The town of Cincinnati, situated on the navigable stream of the Ohio, 1600 miles from the sea, is one of the most remarkable monuments of the progress of the West. A second Glasgow in appearance, the houses built substantially of red brick, six stories high — huge sign-boards outside each floor denoting the occupation of its owner or lessee — heavily-laden drays rumbling along the streets — quays at which steamboats of fairy architecture are ever lying — massive warehouses and rich stores — the side walks a perfect throng of foot-passengers — the roadways crowded with light carriages, horsemen with palmetto hats and high-peaked saddles, galloping about on the magnificent horses of Kentucky — an air of life, wealth, hustle, and progress — are some of the characteristics of a city which stands upon ground where sixty years ago an unarmed white man would have been tomahawked as he stood. The human aspect is also curious. Palmetto hats, light blouses, and white trowsers form the prevailing costume, even of the clergy, while Germans smoke chibouks and luxuriate in their shirt-sleeves — southerners, with the enervated look arising from residence in a hot climate, lounge about the streets — dark-browed Mexicans, in sombreras and high slashed boots, dash about on small active horses with Mamelouk bits — rovers and adventurers from California and the Far West, with massive rings in their ears, swagger about in a manner which shows their country and calling, and females richly dressed are seen driving and walking about, from the fair-complexioned European to the negress or mulatto. The windows of the stores are arranged with articles of gaudy attire and heavy jewellery, suited to the barbaric taste of many of their customers; but inside I was surprised to find the richest and most elegant manufactures of Paris and London. A bookseller’s store, an aggregate of two or three of our largest, indicated that the culture of the mind was not neglected.

The number of carriages, invariably drawn by two horses, astonished me. They were the “red horses” of Kentucky and the jet black of Ohio, splendid, proud looking animals, looking as if they could never tire or die. Except the “trotting baskets” and light waggons, principally driven by “swells” or “Young Americans,” all the vehicles were covered, to preserve their inmates from the intense heat of the sun. In the evening hundreds, if not thousands, of carriages are to be seen in the cemetery and along the roads, some of the German ladies driving in low dresses and short sleeves. As everybody who has one hundred yards to go drives or rides, rings are fastened to all the side walks in the town to tether the horses to. Many of the streets are planted with the ilanthus-tree, and frequently one comes upon churches of tasteful architecture, with fretted spires pointing to heaven.

I went upon the Ohio, lessened by long drought into a narrow stream, in a most commodious high-pressure steamboat, and deemed myself happy in returning uninjured; for beautiful and fairy-like as these vessels are, between their own explosive qualities and the “snags and sawyers” of the rivers, their average existence is only five years!

Cincinnati in 1800 was a wooden village of 750 inhabitants; it is now a substantially-built brick town, containing 200,000 people, and thousands of fresh settlers are added every year. There are nearly 50,000 Germans, and I believe 40,000 Irish, who distinctly keep up their national characteristics. The Germans almost monopolise the handicraft trades, where they find a fruitful field for their genius and industry; the Irish are here, as everywhere, hewers of wood and drawers of water; they can do nothing but dig, and seldom rise in the social scale; the Germans, as at home, are a thinking, sceptical, theorising people: in politics, Socialists — in religion, Atheists. The Irish are still the willing and ignorant tools of an ambitious and despotic priesthood. And in a land where no man is called to account for his principles, unless they proceed to physical development, these errors grow and luxuriate. The Germans, in that part of the town almost devoted to themselves, have succeeded in practically abolishing the Sabbath, as they utterly ignore that divine institution even as a day of rest, keeping their stores open the whole day. The creeds which they profess are “Socialism” and “Universalism,” and at stated periods they assemble to hear political harangues, and address invocations to universal deity. Skilled, educated, and intellectual, they are daily increasing in numbers, wealth, and political importance, and constitute an influence of which the Americans themselves are afraid.

The Irish are a turbulent class, for ever appealing to physical force, influencing the elections, and carrying out their “clan feuds” and “faction fights.” The Germans, finding it a land like their own, of corn and vineyards, have named the streets in their locality in Cincinnati after their towns in the Old World, to which in idea one is frequently carried back.

On Sunday, after passing through this continental portion of the town, I found all was order and decorum in the strictly American part, where the whole population seemed to attend worship of one form or another. The church which I attended was the most beautiful place of worship I ever saw; it had neither the hallowed but comfortless antiquity of our village churches, nor the glare and crush of our urban temples; it was of light Norman architecture, and lighted by windows of rich stained glass. The pews were wide, the backs low, and the doors and mouldings were of polished oak; the cushions and linings were of crimson damask, and light fans for real use were hung in each pew. The pulpit and reading-desk, both of carved oak and of a tulip shape, were placed in front of the communion-rails, on a spacious platform ascended by three steps — this, the steps, and the aisles of the church were carpeted with beautiful Kidderminster carpeting. The singing and chanting were of a very superior description, being managed, as also a very fine-toned organ, by the young ladies and gentlemen of the congregation. The ladies were more richly dressed and in brighter colours than the English, and many of them in their features and complexions bore evident traces of African and Spanish blood. The gentlemen universally wore the moustache and beard, and generally blue or green frock-coats, the collars turned over with velvet. The responses were repeated without the assistance of a clerk, and the whole service was conducted with decorum and effect.

The same favourable description may apply generally to the churches of different denominations in the United States; coldness and discomfort are not considered as incentives to devotion; and the houses of worship are ever crowded with regular and decorous worshippers.

Cincinnati is the outpost of manufacturing civilization, though large, important, but at present unfinished cities are rapidly springing up several hundred miles farther to the west. It has regular freight steamers to New Orleans, St. Louis, and other places on the Missouri and Mississippi; to Wheeling and Pittsburgh, and thence by railway to the great Atlantic cities, Philadelphia and Baltimore, while it is connected with the Canadian lakes by railway and canal to Cleveland. Till I thoroughly understood that Cincinnati is the centre of a circle embracing the populous towns of the south, and the increasing populations of the lake countries and the western territories, with their ever-growing demand for the fruits of manufacturing industry, I could not understand the utility of the vast establishments for the production of household goods which arrest the attention of the visitor to the Queen City. There is a furniture establishment in Baker Street, London, which employs perhaps eighty hands, and we are rather inclined to boast of it, but we must keep silence when we hear of a factory as large as a Manchester cotton-mill, five stones high, where 260 hands are constantly employed in making chairs, tables, and bedsteads.

At the factory of Mitchell and Rammelsberg common chairs are the principal manufacture, and are turned out at the rate of 2500 a week, worth from 1l. to 5l. a dozen. Rocking-chairs, which are only made in perfection in the States, are fabricated here, also chests of drawers, of which 2000 are made annually. Baby-rocking cribs, in which the brains of the youth of America are early habituated to perpetual restlessness, are manufactured here in surprising quantities. The workmen at this factory (most of whom are native Americans and Germans, the English and Scotch being rejected on account of their intemperance) earn from 12 to 14 dollars a week. At another factory 1000 bedsteads, worth from 1l. to 5l. each, are completed every week. There are vast boot and shoe factories, which would have shod our whole Crimean army in a week, at one of which the owner pays 60,000 dollars or 12,000l. in wages annually! It consumes 5000 pounds weight of boot-nails per annum! The manufactories of locks and guns, tools, and carriages, with countless other appliances of civilized life, are on a similarly large scale. Their products are to be found among the sugar plantations of the south, the diggers of California, the settlers in Oregon, in the infant cities of the far West, the tent of the hunter, and the shanty of the emigrant; in one word, wherever demand and supply can be placed in conjunction.

And while the demand is ever increasing as the tide of emigration rolls westward, so the inventive brains of the Americans are ever discovering some mechanical means of abridging manual labour, which seldom or ever meets the demand. The saws, axes, and indeed all cutting tools made at respectable establishments in the States, are said to be superior to ours. On going into a hardware store at Hamilton in Upper Canada, I saw some English spades and axes, and I suppose my face expressed some of the admiration which my British pride led me to feel; for the owner, taking up some spades and cutting-tools of Cincinnati manufacture, said, “We can only sell these; the others are bad workmanship, and won’t stand two days’ hard work.”

Articles of English manufacture are not seen in considerable quantities in the wholesale stores, and even the import of foreign wines has been considerably diminished by the increasingly successful culture of the grape in Ohio, 130,000 gallons of wine having been produced in the course of the year. Wines resembling hock, claret, and champagne are made, and good judges speak very highly of them.

Cincinnati is famous for its public libraries and reading-rooms. The Young Men’s Mercantile Library Association has a very handsome suite of rooms opened as libraries and reading-rooms, the number of books amounting to 16,000, these, with upwards of 100 newspapers, being well selected by a managing committee; none of our English works of good repute being a-wanting. The facility with which English books are reprinted in America, and the immense circulation which they attain in consequence of their cheapness, greatly increases the responsibility which rests upon our authors as to the direction which they give, whether for good or evil, to the intelligent and inquiring minds of the youth of America — minds ceaselessly occupied, both in religion and politics, in investigation and inquiry — in overturning old systems before they have devised new ones.

I believe that the most important religious denominations in Cincinnati are the Episcopalian, the Baptist, and the Wesleyan. The first is under the superintendence of the learned and pious Bishop M’Ilvaine, whose apostolic and untiring labours have greatly advanced the cause of religion in the State of Ohio. There is a remarkable absence of sectarian spirit, and the ministers of all orthodox denominations act in harmonious combination for the general good. But after describing the beauty of her streets, her astonishing progress, and the splendour of her shops, I must not close this chapter without stating that the Queen City bears the less elegant name of Porkopolis; that swine, lean, gaunt, and vicious-looking, riot through her streets; and that, on coming out of the most splendid stores, one stumbles over these disgusting intruders. Cincinnati is the city of pigs. As there is a railway system and a hotel system, so there is also a pig system, by which this place is marked out from any other. Huge quantities of these useful animals are reared after harvest in the corn-fields of Ohio, and on the beech-mast and acorns of its gigantic forests. At a particular time of year they arrive by thousands — brought in droves and steamers to the number of 500,000 — to meet their doom, when it is said that the Ohio runs red with blood! There are huge slaughterhouses behind the town, something on the plan of the abattoirs of Paris — large wooden buildings, with numerous pens, from whence the pigs march in single file along a narrow passage, to an apartment where each, on his entrance, receives a blow with a hammer, which deprives him of consciousness, and in a short time, by means of numerous hands, and a well-managed caldron system, he is cut up ready for pickling. The day on which a pig is killed in England constitutes an era in the family history of the year, and squeals of a terrific description announce the event to the neighbourhood. There is not time or opportunity for such a process at Porkopolis, and the first notification which the inhabitants receive of the massacre is the thousand barrels of pork on the quays, ready to be conveyed to the Atlantic cities, for exportation to the European markets. At one establishment 12,000 pigs are killed, pickled, and packed every fall; and in the whole neighbourhood, as I have heard in the cars, the “hog crop” is as much a subject of discussion and speculation as the cotton crop of Alabama, the hop-picking of Kent, or the harvest in England.

Kentucky, the land, by reputation, of “red horses, bowie-knives, and gouging,” is only separated from Ohio by the river Ohio; and on a day when the thermometer stood at 103° in the shade I went to the town of Covington. Marked, wide, and almost inestimable, is the difference between the free state of Ohio and the slave-state of Kentucky. They have the same soil, the same climate, and precisely the same natural advantages; yet the total absence of progress, if not the appearance of retrogression and decay, the loungers in the streets, and the peculiar appearance of the slaves, afford a contrast to the bustle on the opposite side of the river, which would strike the most unobservant. I was credibly informed that property of the same real value was worth 300 dollars in Kentucky and 3000 in Ohio! Free emigrants and workmen will not settle in Kentucky, where they would be brought into contact with compulsory slave-labour; thus the development of industry is retarded, and the difference will become more apparent every year, till possibly some great changes will be forced upon the legislature. Few English people will forget the impression made upon them by the first sight of a slave — a being created in the image of God, yet the boná fide property of his fellow-man. The first I saw was an African female, the slave of a lady from Florida, with a complexion black as the law which held her in captivity. The subject of slavery is one which has lately been brought so prominently before the British people by Mrs. Beecher Stowe, that I shall be pardoned for making a few remarks upon it. Powerfully written as the book is, and much as I admire the benevolent intentions of the writer, I am told that the effect of the volume has been prejudical, and this assertion is borne out by persons well acquainted with the subject in the free states. A gentleman very eminent in his country, as having devoted himself from his youth to the cause of abolition, as a steadfast pursuer of one grand principle, together with other persons, say that “‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ had thrown the cause back for many years!”* The excitement on the subject still continues in England, though it found a safety-valve in the Stafford House manifesto, and the received impression, which no force of fact can alter, is, that slave-owners are divided into but two classes — brutalised depraved “Legrees,” or enthusiastic, visionary “St. Clairs” — the former, of course, predominating.

* [It must be observed that I do not offer any opinion of my own upon ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin,’ or upon the estimation in which it is held in the United States; but in order to answer questions which have frequently been put to me upon the subject, I have just given the substance of the remarks which have been made upon it by abolitionists in the Northern States.]

Slavery, though under modifications which rendered it little more than the apprenticeship of our day, was permitted under the Mosaic dispensation; but it is contrary to the whole tenor of Christianity; and a system which lowers man as an intellectual and responsible being is no less morally than politically wrong. That it is a political mistake is plainly evidenced by the retarded development and apparent decay of the Southern States, as compared with the ceaseless material progress of the North and West. It cannot be doubted that in Alabama, Florida, and Louisiana, “Legrees” are to be found, for cruelty is inherent in base natures; we have “Legrees” in our factories and coal-pits; but in England their most terrible excesses are restrained by the strong arm of law, which, when appealed to, extends its protection to the feeblest and most helpless. What then must such men become in the isolated cotton or sugar plantations of the South, distant from the restraints which public opinion exercises, and where the evidence of a slave is inadmissible in a court of justice? The full extent of the cruelties practised will never be known, until revealed at the solemn tribunal of the last day. But we dare not hope that such men are rare, though circumstances of self-interest combine to form a class of slave-owners of a higher grade. These are men who look upon their slaves as we do upon our cows and horses — as mere animal property, of greater or less value according to the care which is taken of them. The slaves of these persons are well clothed, lodged, and fed; they are not overworked, and dancing, singing, and other amusements, which increase health and cheerfulness, are actively promoted. But the system is one which has for its object the transformation of reason into instinct the lowering of a rational being into a machine scarcely more intelligent in appearance than some of our own ingeniously-contrived steam-engines. Religious teaching is withheld, reading is forbidden, and the instruction of a slave in it punished as a crime, lest he should learn that freedom is his birthright.

A third and very large class of slave-owners is to be found, who, having inherited their property in slaves, want the means of judiciously emancipating them. The negroes are not in a condition to receive freedom in the reckless way in which some abolitionists propose to bestow it upon them. They must be prepared for it by instruction in the precepts of religion, by education, and by the reception of those principles of self-reliance, without which they have not the moral perception requisite to enable them to appreciate the blessings of freedom; and this very ignorance and obtuseness is one of the most telling arguments against the system which produces it. The want of this previous preparation has been frequently shown, particularly in Kentucky, where whole bodies of emancipated slaves, after a few days’ experience of their new condition, have entreated for a return to servitude. These slave-owners of whom I now speak deeply deplore the circumstances under which they are placed, and, while wanting the spirit of self-sacrifice, and the moral courage, which would lead them, by manumitting their slaves, to enter into a novel competition with slave-labour on other estates, do their best to ameliorate the condition in which the Africans are placed, encouraging them, by the sale of little articles of their own manufacture, to purchase their freedom, which is granted at a very reduced rate. I had opportunities of conversing with several of these freed negroes, and they all expressed attachment to their late owners, and spoke of the mildness with which they were treated, saying that the great threat made use of was to send them “down south.”

The slaves in the northern slave States are a thoughtless, happy set, spending their evenings in dancing or singing to the banjo; and ‘Oh, carry me back to Old Virginny,’ or ‘Susannah, don’t you cry for me,’ may be heard on summer evenings rising from the maize and tobacco grounds of Kentucky. Yet, whether naturally humane instincts may lead to merciful treatment of the slave, or the same result be accomplished by the rigorous censorship of public opinion in the border States, apart from the abstract question of slavery, that system is greatly to be reprobated which gives power without responsibility, and permits the temporal, yes, the eternal well-being of another to depend upon the will and caprice of a man, when the victim of his injustice is deprived of the power of appeal to an earthly tribunal. Instances of severe treatment on one side, and of kindness on the other, cannot fairly be brought as arguments for or against the system; it must be justified or condemned by the undeviating law of moral right as laid down in divine revelation. Slavery existed in 1850 in 15 out of 31 States, the number of slaves being 3,204,345, connected by sympathy and blood with 433,643 coloured persons, nominally free, but who occupy a social position of the lowest grade. It is probable that this number will increase, as it has hitherto done, in a geometrical ratio, which will give 6,000,000, in 1875, of a people dangerous from numbers merely, but doubly, trebly so in their consciousness of oppression, and in the passions which may incite them to a terrible revenge. America boasts of freedom, and of such a progress as the world has never seen before; but while the tide of the Anglo–Saxon race rolls across her continent, and while we contemplate with pleasure a vast nation governed by free institutions, and professing a pure faith, a hand, faintly seen at present, but destined ere long to force itself upon the attention of all, points to the empires of a by-gone civilisation, and shows that they had their periods in which to rise, flourish, and decay, and that slavery was the main cause of that decay. The exasperating reproaches addressed to the Americans, in ignorance of the real difficulties of dealing with the case, have done much harm in inciting that popular clamour which hurries on reckless legislation. The problem is one which occupies the attention of thinking and Christian men on both sides of the Atlantic, but still remains a gigantic evil for philanthropists to mourn over, and for politicians to correct.

An unexceptional censure ought not to be pronounced without a more complete knowledge of the subject than can be gained from novels and newspapers; still less ought this censure to extend to America as a whole, for the people of the Northern States are more ardent abolitionists than ourselves — more consistent, in fact, for they have no white slaves, no oppressed factory children, the cry of whose wrongs ascends daily into the ears of an avenging Judge. Still, blame must attach to them for the way in which they place the coloured people in an inferior social position, a rigid system of exclusiveness shutting them out from the usual places of amusement and education. It must not be forgotten that England bequeathed this system to her colonies, though she has nobly blotted it out from those which still own her sway; that it is encouraged by the cotton lords of Preston and Manchester; and that the great measure of negro emancipation was carried, not by the violent declamation and ignorant railings of men who sought popularity by exciting the passions of the multitude, but by the persevering exertions and practical Christian philanthropy of Mr. Wilberforce and his coadjutors. It is naturally to be expected that a person writing a book on America would offer some remarks upon this subject, and raise a voice, however feeble, against so gigantic an evil. The conclusions which I have stated in the foregoing pages are derived from a careful comparison and study of facts which I have learned from eminent speakers and writers both in favour of and against the slave-system.

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