Domestic Manners of the Americans, by Fanny Trollope

Chapter 14

American Spring — Controversy between Messrs. Owen and Cambell — Public ball — Separation of the sexes — American freedom — Execution

The American spring is by no means so agreeable as the American autumn; both move with faultering step, and slow; but this lingering pace, which is delicious in autumn, is most tormenting in the spring. In the one case you are about to part with a friend, who is becoming more gentle and agreeable at every step, and such steps can hardly be made too slowly; but in the other you are making your escape from a dreary cavern, where you have been shut up with black frost and biting blasts, and where your best consolation was being smoke-dried.

But, upon second thoughts, I believe it would be more correct, instead of complaining of the slow pace of the American spring, to declare that they have no spring at all. The beautiful autumn often lingers on till Christmas, after which winter can be trifled with no longer, and generally keeps a stubborn hold through the months which we call spring, when he suddenly turns his back, and summer takes his place.

The inconceivable uncertainty of the climate is, however, such, that I will not venture to state about what time this change takes place, for it is certain, that let me name what time I would, it would be easy for any weather journaliser to prove me wrong, by quoting that the thermometer was at 100 at a period which my statement included in the winter; or 50 long after I made the summer commence.

The climate of England is called uncertain, but it can never, I think, be so described by any who have experienced that of the United States. A gentleman, on whose accuracy I could depend, told me he had repeatedly known the thermometer vary above 40 degrees in the space of twelve hours. This most unpleasant caprice of the temperature is, I conceive, one cause of the unhealthiness of the climate.

At length, however, after shivering and shaking till we were tired of it, and having been half ruined in fire-wood (which, by the way, is nearly as dear as at Paris, and dearer in many parts of the Union), the summer burst upon us full blown, and the ice-house, the piazza, and the jalousies were again in full requisition.

It was in the early summer of this year (1829) that Cincinnati offered a spectacle unprecedented, I believe, in any age or country. Mr. Owen, of Lanark, of New Harmony, of Texas, well known to the world by all or either of these additions, had challenged the whole religious public of the United States to discuss with him publicly the truth or falsehood of all the religions that had ever been propagated on the face of the earth; stating, further, that he undertook to prove that they were all equally false, and nearly equally mischievous. This most appalling challenge was conveyed to the world through the medium of New Orleans newspapers, and for some time it remained unanswered; at length the Reverend Alexander Campbell, from Bethany, (not of Judaea, but of Kentucky,) proclaimed, through the same medium, that he was ready to take up the gauntlet. The place fixed for this extraordinary discussion was Cincinnati; the time, the second Monday in May, 1829, being about a year from the time the challenge was accepted; thus giving the disputants time to prepare themselves.

Mr. Owen’s preparation, however, could only have been such as those who run may read, for, during the interval, he traversed great part of North America, crossed the Atlantic twice, visited England, Scotland, Mexico, Texas, and I know not how many places besides.

Mr. Campbell, I was told, passed this period very differently, being engaged in reading with great research and perseverance all the theological works within his reach. But whatever confidence the learning and piety of Mr. Campbell might have inspired in his friends, or in the Cincinnati Christians in general, it was not, as it appeared, sufficient to induce Mr. Wilson, the Presbyterian minister of the largest church in the town, to permit the display of them within its walls. This refusal was greatly reprobated, and much regretted, as the curiosity to hear the discussion was very general, and no other edifice offered so much accommodation.

A Methodist meeting-house, large enough to contain a thousand persons, was at last chosen; a small stage was arranged round the pulpit, large enough to accommodate the disputants and their stenographers; the pulpit itself was throughout the whole time occupied by the aged father of Mr. Campbell, whose flowing white hair, and venerable countenance, constantly expressive of the deepest attention, and the most profound interest, made him a very striking figure in the group. Another platform was raised in a conspicuous part of the building, on which were seated seven gentlemen of the city, selected as moderators.

The chapel was equally divided, one half being appropriated to ladies, the other to gentlemen; and the door of entrance reserved for the ladies was carefully guarded by persons appointed to prevent any crowding or difficulty from impeding their approach. I suspect that the ladies were indebted to Mr. Owen for this attention; the arrangements respecting them on this occasion were by no means American.

When Mr. Owen rose, the building was thronged in every part; the audience, or congregation, (I hardly know which to call them) were of the highest rank of citizens, and as large a proportion of best bonnets fluttered there, as the “two horned church” itself could boast.

It was in the profoundest silence, and apparently with the deepest attention, that Mr. Owen’s opening address was received; and surely it was the most singular one that ever Christian men and women sat to listen to.

When I recollect its object, and the uncompromising manner in which the orator stated his mature conviction that the whole history of the Christian mission was a fraud, and its sacred origin a fable, I cannot but wonder that it was so listened to; yet at the time I felt no such wonder. Never did any one practise the suaviter in modo with more powerful effect than Mr. Owen. The gentle tone of his voice; his mild, sometimes playful, but never ironical manner; the absence of every vehement or harsh expression; the affectionate interest expressed for “the whole human family,” the air of candour with which he expressed his wish to be convinced he was wrong, if he indeed were so — his kind smile — the mild expression of his eyes — in short, his whole manner, disarmed zeal, and produced a degree of tolerance that those who did not hear him would hardly believe possible.

Half an hour was the time allotted for each haranguer; when this was expired, the moderators were seen to look at their watches. Mr. Owen, too, looked at his (without pausing) smiled, shook his head, and said in a parenthesis “a moment’s patience,” and continued for nearly another half hour.

Mr. Campbell then arose; his person, voice, and manner all greatly in his favour. In his first attack he used the arms, which in general have been considered as belonging to the other side of the question. He quizzed Mr. Owen most unmercifully; pinched him here for his parallelograms; hit him there for his human perfectibility, and kept the whole audience in a roar of laughter. Mr. Owen joined in it most heartily himself, and listened to him throughout with the air of a man who is delighted at the good things he is hearing, and exactly in the cue to enjoy all the other good things that he is sure will follow. Mr. Campbell’s watch was the only one which reminded us that we had listened to him for half an hour; and having continued speaking for a few minutes after he had looked at it, he sat down with, I should think, the universal admiration of his auditory.

Mr. Owen again addressed us; and his first five minutes were occupied in complimenting Mr. Campbell with all the strength his exceeding hearty laughter had left him. But then he changed his tone, and said the business was too serious to permit the next half hour to pass so lightly and so pleasantly as the last; and then he read us what he called his twelve fundamental laws of human nature. These twelve laws he has taken so much trouble to circulate to all the nations of the earth, that it must be quite unnecessary to repeat them here. To me they appear twelve truisms, that no man in his senses would ever think of contradicting; but how any one can have conceived that the explanation and defence of these laws could furnish forth occupation for his pen and his voice, through whole years of unwearying declamation, or how he can have dreamed that they could be twisted into a refutation of the Christian religion, is a mystery which I never expect to understand.

From this time Mr. Owen entrenched himself behind his twelve laws, and Mr. Campbell, with equal gravity, confined himself to bringing forward the most elaborate theological authorities in evidence of the truth of revealed religion.

Neither appeared to me to answer the other; but to confine themselves to the utterance of what they had uppermost in their own minds when the discussion began. I lamented this on the side of Mr. Campbell, as I am persuaded he would have been much more powerful had he trusted more to himself and less to his books. Mr. Owen is an extraordinary man, and certainly possessed of talent, but he appears to me so utterly benighted in the mists of his own theories, that he has quite lost the power of looking through them, so as to get a peep at the world as it really exists around him.

At the conclusion of the debate (which lasted for fifteen sittings) Mr. Campbell desired the whole assembly to sit down. They obeyed. He then requested all who wished well to Christianity to rise, and a very large majority were in an instant on their legs. He again requested them to be seated, and then desired those who believed not in its doctrines to rise, and a few gentlemen and one lady obeyed. Mr. Owen protested against this manoeuvre, as he called it, and refused to believe that it afforded any proof of the state of men’s minds, or of women’s either; declaring, that not only was such a result to be expected, in the present state of things, but that it was the duty of every man who had children to feed, not to hazard the sale of his hogs, or his iron, by a declaration of opinions which might offend the majority of his customers. It was said, that at the end of the fifteen meetings the numerical amount of the Christians and the Infidels of Cincinnati remained exactly what it was when they began.

This was a result that might have been perhaps anticipated; but what was much less to have been expected, neither of the disputants ever appeared to lose their temper. I was told they were much in each other’s company, constantly dining together, and on all occasions expressed most cordially their mutual esteem.

All this I think could only have happened in America. I am not quite sure that it was very desirable it should have happened any where.

In noting the various brilliant events which diversified our residence in the western metropolis, I have omitted to mention the Birthday Ball, as it is called, a festivity which, I believe, has place on the 22nd of February, in every town and city throughout the Union. It is the anniversary of the birth of General Washington, and well deserves to be marked by the Americans as a day of jubilee.

I was really astonished at the coup d’oeil on entering, for I saw a large room filled with extremely well-dressed company, among whom were many very beautiful girls. The gentlemen also were exceedingly smart, but I had not yet been long enough in Western America not to feel startled at recognising in almost every full-dressed beau that passed me, the master or shopman that I had been used to see behind the counter, or lolling at the door of every shop in the city. The fairest and finest belles smiled and smirked on them with as much zeal and satisfaction as I ever saw bestowed on an eldest son, and I therefore could feel no doubt of their being considered as of the highest rank. Yet it must not be supposed that there is no distinction of classes: at this same ball I was looking among the many very beautiful girls I saw there for one more beautiful still, with whose lovely face I had been particularly struck at the school examination I have mentioned. I could not find her, and asked a gentleman why the beautiful Miss C. was not there.

“You do not yet understand our aristocracy,” he replied, “the family of Miss C. are mechanics.”

“But the young lady has been educated at the same school as these, whom I see here, and I know her brother has a shop in the town, quite as large, and apparently as prosperous, as those belonging to any of these young men. What is the difference?”

“He is a mechanic; he assists in making the articles he sells; the others call themselves merchants.”

The dancing was not quite like, yet not very unlike, what we see at an assize or race-ball in a country town. They call their dances cotillions instead of quadrilles, and the figures are called from the orchestra in English, which has very ludicrous effect on European ears.

The arrangements for the supper were very singular, but eminently characteristic of the country. The gentlemen had a splendid entertainment spread for them in another large room of the hotel, while the poor ladies had each a plate put into their hands, as they pensively promenaded the ballroom during their absence; and shortly afterwards servants appeared, bearing trays of sweetmeats, cakes, and creams. The fair creatures then sat down on a row of chairs placed round the walls, and each making a table of her knees, began eating her sweet, but sad and sulky repast. The effect was extremely comic; their gala dresses and the decorated room forming a contrast the most unaccountable with their uncomfortable and forlorn condition.

This arrangement was owing neither to economy nor want of a room large enough to accommodate the whole party, but purely because the gentlemen liked it better. This was the answer given me, when my curiosity tempted me to ask why the ladies and gentlemen did not sup together; and this was the answer repeated to me afterwards by a variety of people to whom I put the same question.

I am led to mention this feature of American manners very frequently, not only because it constantly recurs, but because I consider it as being in a great degree the cause of that universal deficiency in good manners and graceful demeanour, both in men and women, which is so remarkable.

Where there is no court, which every where else is the glass wherein the higher orders dress themselves, and which again reflected from them to the classes below, goes far towards polishing, in some degree, a great majority of the population, it is not to be expected that manner should be made so much a study, or should attain an equal degree of elegance; but the deficiency, and the total difference, is greater than this cause alone could account for. The hours of enjoyment are important to human beings every where, and we every where find them preparing to make the most of them. Those who enjoy themselves only in society, whether intellectual or convivial, prepare themselves for it, and such make but a poor figure when forced to be content with the sweets of solitude: while, on the other hand, those to whom retirement affords the greatest pleasure, seldom give or receive much in society. Wherever the highest enjoyment is found by both sexes in scenes where they meet each other, both will prepare themselves to appear with advantage there. The men will not indulge in the luxury of chewing tobacco, or even of spitting, and the women will contrive to be capable of holding a higher post than that of unwearied tea-makers.

In America, with the exception of dancing, which is almost wholly confined to the unmarried of both sexes, all the enjoyments of the men are found in the absence of the women. They dine, they play cards, they have musical meetings, they have suppers, all in large parties but all without women. Were it not that such is the custom, it is impossible but that they would have ingenuity enough to find some expedient for sparing the wives and daughters of the opulent the sordid offices of household drudgery which they almost all perform in their families. Even in the slave states, though they may not clear-starch and iron, mix puddings and cakes one half of the day, and watch them baking the other half, still the very highest occupy themselves in their household concerns, in a manner that precludes the possibility of their becoming elegant and enlightened companions. In Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York, I met with some exceptions to this; but speaking of the country generally, it is unquestionably true.

Had I not become heartily tired of my prolonged residence in a place I cordially disliked, and which moreover I began to fear would not be attended with the favourable results we had anticipated, I should have found an almost inexhaustible source of amusement in the notions and opinions of the people I conversed with; and as it was, I often did enjoy this in a considerable degree.

We received, as I have mentioned, much personal kindness; but this by no means interfered with the national feeling of, I believe, unconquerable dislike, which evidently lives at the bottom of every truly American heart against the English. This shows itself in a thousand little ways, even in the midst of the most kind and friendly intercourse, but often in a manner more comic than offensive.

Sometimes it was thus. — “Well, now, I think your government must just be fit to hang themselves for that last war they cooked up; it has been the ruin of you I expect, for it has just been the making of us.”

Then. — “Well, I do begin to understand your broken English better than I did; but no wonder I could not make it out very well at first, as you come from London; for every body knows that London slang is the most dreadful in the world. How queer it is now, that all the people that live in London should put the h where it is not, and never will put it where it is.”

I was egotistical enough to ask the lady who said this, if she found that I did so.

“No; you do not,” was the reply; but she added, with a complacent smile, “it is easy enough to see the pains you take about it: I expect you have heard how we Americans laugh at you all for it, and so you are trying to learn our way of pronouncing.”

One lady asked me very gravely, if we had left home in order to get rid of the vermin with which the English of all ranks were afflicted? “I have heard from unquestionable authority,” she added, “that it is quite impossible to walk through the streets of London without having the head filled.”

I laughed a little, but spoke not a word. She coloured highly, and said, “There is nothing so easy as to laugh, but truth is truth, laughed at or not.”

I must preface the following anecdote by observing that in America nearly the whole of the insect tribe are classed under the general name of bug; the unfortunate cosmopolite known by that name amongst us is almost the only one not included in this term. A lady abruptly addressed me with, “Don’t you hate chintzes, Mrs. Trollope?”

“No indeed,” I replied, “I think them very pretty.”

“There now! if that is not being English! I reckon you call that loving your country; well, thank God! we Americans have something better to love our country for than that comes to; we are not obliged to say that we like nasty filthy chintzes to shew that we are good patriots.”

“Chintzes? what are chintzes?”

“Possible! do you pretend you don’t know what chintzes are? Why the nasty little stinking blood-suckers that all the beds in London are full of.”

I have since been informed that chinche is Spanish for bug; but at the time the word suggested only the material of a curtain.

Among other instances of that species of modesty so often seen in America, and so unknown to us, I frequently witnessed one, which, while it evinced the delicacy of the ladies, gave opportunity for many lively sallies from the gentlemen. I saw the same sort of thing repeated on different occasions at least a dozen times; e.g. a young lady is employed in making a shirt, (which it would be a symptom of absolute depravity to name), a gentleman enters, and presently begins the sprightly dialogue with “What are you making Miss Clarissa?”

“Only a frock for my sister’s doll, sir.”

“A frock? not possible. Don’t I see that it is not a frock? Come, Miss Clarissa, what is it?”

“Tis just an apron for one of our Negroes, Mr. Smith.”

“How can you. Miss Clarissa! why is not the two side joined together? I expect you were better tell me what it is.”

“My! why then Mr. Smith, it is just a pillow-case.”

“Now that passes. Miss Clarissa! ’Tis a pillow-case for a giant then. Shall I guess, Miss?”

“Quit, Mr. Smith; behave yourself, or I’ll certainly be affronted.”

Before the conversation arrives at this point, both gentleman and lady are in convulsions of laughter. I once saw a young lady so hard driven by a wit, that to prove she was making a bag, and nothing but a bag, she sewed up the ends before his eyes, shewing it triumphantly, and exclaiming, “there now! what can you say to that?”

One of my friends startled me one day by saying in an affectionate, but rather compassionate tone, “How will you bear to go back to England to live, and to bring up your children in a country where you know you are considered as no better than the dirt in the streets?”

I begged she would explain.

“Why, you know I would not affront you for any thing; but the fact is, we Americans know rather more than you think for, and certainly if I was in England I should not think of associating with anything but lords. I have always been among the first here, and if I travelled I should like to do the same. I don’t mean, I’m sure, that I would not come to see you, but you know you are not lords, and therefore I know very well how you are treated in your own country.”

I very rarely contradicted statements of this kind, as I found it less trouble, and infinitely more amusing, to let them pass; indeed, had I done otherwise, it would have been of little avail, as among the many conversations I held in America respecting my own country, I do not recollect a single instance in which it was not clear that I knew much less about it than those I conversed with.

On the subject of national glory, I presume I got more than my share of buffeting; for being a woman, there was no objection to their speaking out. One lady, indeed, who was a great patriot, evinced much delicacy towards me, for upon some one speaking of New Orleans, she interrupted them, saying, “I wish you would not talk of New Orleans;” and, turning to me, added with great gentleness, “It must be so painful to your feelings to hear that place mentioned!”

The immense superiority of the American to the British navy was a constant theme, and to this I always listened, as nearly as possible, in silence. I repeatedly heard it stated, (so often, indeed, and from such various quarters, that I think there must be some truth in it), that the American sailors fire with a certainty of slaughter, whereas our shots are sent very nearly at random. “This, “ said a naval officer of high reputation, “is the blessed effect of your game laws; your sailors never fire at a mark; whilst our free tars, from their practice in pursuit of game, can any of them split a hair.” But the favourite, the constant, the universal sneer that met me every where, was on our old-fashioned attachments to things obsolete. Had they a little wit among them, I am certain they would have given us the cognomen of “My Grandmother, the British,” for that is the tone they take, and it is thus they reconcile themselves to the crude newness of every thing around them.

“I wonder you are not sick of kings, chancellors, and archbishops, and all your fustian of wigs and gowns,” said a very clever gentleman to me once, with an affected yawn, “I protest the very sound almost sets me to sleep.”

It is amusing to observe how soothing the idea seems, that they are more modern, more advanced than England. Our classic literature, our princely dignities, our noble institutions, are all gone-by relics of the dark ages.

This, and the vastness of their naked territory, make up the flattering unction which is laid upon the soul, as an antidote to the little misgiving which from time to time arises, lest their large country be not of quite so much importance among the nations, as a certain paltry old-fashioned little place that they wot of.

I was once sitting with a party of ladies, among whom were one or two young girls, whose curiosity was greater than their patriotism, and they asked me many questions respecting the splendour and extent of London. I was endeavouring to satisfy them by the best description I could give, when we were interrupted by another lady, who exclaimed, “Do hold your tongues, girls, about London; if you want to know what a beautiful city is, look at Philadelphia; when Mrs. Trollope has been there, I think she will allow that it is better worth talking about than that great overgrown collection of nasty, filthy, dirty streets, that they call London.”

Once in Ohio, and once in the district of Columbia, I had an atlas displayed before me, that I might be convinced by the evidence of my own eyes what a very contemptible little country I came from. I shall never forget the gravity with which, on the latter occasion, a gentleman drew out his graduated pencil-case, and shewed me past contradiction, that the whole of the British dominions did not equal in size one of their least important states; nor the air with which, after the demonstration, he placed his feet upon the chimney-piece, considerably higher than his head, and whistled Yankee Doodle.

Their glorious institutions, their unequalled freedom, were, of course, not left unsung.

I took some pains to ascertain what they meant by their glorious institutions, and it is with no affectation of ignorance that I profess I never could comprehend the meaning of the phrase, which is, however, on the lip of every American, when he talks of his country. I asked if by their institutions they meant their hospitals and penitentiaries. “Oh no! we mean the glorious institutions which are coeval with the revolution.” “Is it,” I asked, “your institution of marriage, which you have made purely a civil and not a religious rite, to be performed by a justice of peace, instead of a clergyman?”

“Oh no! we speak of our divine political institutions.” Yet still I was in the dark, nor can I guess what they mean, unless they call incessant electioneering, without pause or interval for a single day, for a single hour, of their whole existence, “a glorious institution.”

Their unequalled freedom, I think, I understand better. Their code of common law is built upon ours; and the difference between us is this, in England the laws are acted upon, in America they are not.

I do not speak of the police of the Atlantic cities; I believe it is well arranged: in New York it is celebrated for being so; but out of the range of their influence, the contempt of law is greater than I can venture to state, with any hope of being believed. Trespass, assault, robbery, nay, even murder, are often committed without the slightest attempt at legal interference.

During the summer that we passed most delightfully in Maryland, our rambles were often restrained in various directions by the advice of our kind friends, who knew the manners and morals of the country. When we asked the cause, we were told, “There is a public-house on that road, and it will not be safe to pass it,”

The line of the Chesapeak and Ohio canal passed within a few miles of Mrs. S—’s residence. It twice happened during our stay with her, that dead bodies were found partially concealed near it. The circumstance was related as a sort of half hour’s wonder; and when I asked particulars of those who, on one occasion, brought the tale, the reply was, “Oh, he was murdered I expect; or maybe he died of the canal fever; but they say he had marks of being throttled.” No inquest was summoned; and certainly no more sensation was produced by the occurrence than if a sheep had been found in the same predicament.

The abundance of food and the scarcity of hanging were also favourite topics, as proving their superiority to England. They are both excellent things, but I do not admit the inference. A wide and most fertile territory, as yet but thinly inhabited, may easily be made to yield abundant food for its population: and where a desperate villain knows, that when he has made his town or his village “too hot to hold him,” he has nothing to do but to travel a few miles west, and be sure of finding plenty of beef and whiskey, with no danger that the law shall follow him, it is not extraordinary that executions should be rare.

Once during our residence at Cincinnati, a murderer of uncommon atrocity was taken, tried, convicted, and condemned to death. It had been shewn on his trial, that some years before he had murdered a wife and child at New Orleans, but little notice had been taken of it at the time. The crime which had now thrown him into the hands of justice was the recent murder of a second wife, and the chief evidence against him was his own son.

The day of his execution was fixed, and the sensation produced was so great from the strangeness of the occurrence, (no white man having ever been executed at Cincinnati,) that persons from sixty miles’ distance came to be present at it.

Meanwhile some unco’ good people began to start doubts as to the righteousness of hanging a man, and made application to the Governor of the State4 of Ohio, to commute the sentence into imprisonment. The Governor for some time refused to interfere with the sentence of the tribunal before which he had been tried; but at length, frightened at the unusual situation in which he found himself, he yielded to the importunity of the Presbyterian party who had assailed him, and sent off an order to the sheriff accordingly. But this order was not to reprieve him, but to ask him if he pleased to be reprieved, and sent to the penitentiary instead of being hanged.

4 The Governors of states have the same power over life and death as is vested, with us, in the crown.

The sheriff waited upon the criminal, and made his proposal, and was answered. “If any thing could make me agree to it, it would be the hope of living long enough to kill you and my dog of a son: however, I won’t agree; you shall have the hanging of me.”

The worthy sheriff, to whom the ghastly office of executioner is assigned, said all in his power to persuade him to sign the offered document, but in vain; he obtained nothing but abuse for his efforts.

The day of execution arrived; the place appointed was the side of a hill, the only one cleared of trees near the town; and many hours before the time fixed, we saw it entirely covered by an immense multitude of men, women, and children. At length the hour arrived, the dismal cart was seen slowly mounting the hill, the noisy throng was hushed into solemn silence; the wretched criminal mounted the scaffold, when again the sheriff asked him to sign his acceptance of the commutation proposed; but he spurned the paper from him, and cried aloud, “Hang me!”

Midday was the moment appointed for cutting the rope; the sheriff stood, his watch in one hand, and a knife in the other; the hand was lifted to strike, when the criminal stoutly exclaimed, “I sign;” and he was conveyed back to prison, amidst the shouts, laughter, and ribaldry of the mob.

I am not fond of hanging, but there was something in all this that did not look like the decent dignity of wholesome justice.

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