Domestic Manners of the Americans, by Fanny Trollope

Chapter 19

Baltimore — Catholic Cathedral — St. Mary’s — College Sermons — Infant School

As we advanced towards Baltimore the look of cultivation increased, the fences wore an air of greater neatness, the houses began to look like the abodes of competence and comfort, and we were consoled for the loss of the beautiful mountains by knowing that we were approaching the Atlantic.

From the time of quitting the Ohio river, though, unquestionably, it merits its title of “the beautiful,” especially when compared with the dreary Mississippi, I strongly felt the truth of an observation I remembered to have heard in England, that little rivers were more beautiful than great ones. As features in a landscape, this is assuredly the case. Where the stream is so wide that the objects on the opposite shore are indistinct, all the beauty must be derived from the water itself; whereas, when the stream is narrow, it becomes only a part of the composition. The Monongahela, which is in size between the Wye and the Thames, is infinitely more picturesque than the Ohio.

To enjoy the beauty of the vast rivers of this vast country you must be upon the water; and then the power of changing the scenery by now approaching one shore, and now the other, is very pleasing; but travelling as we now did, by land, the wild, rocky, narrow, rapid little rivers we encountered, were a thousand times more beautiful. The Potapsco, near which the road runs, as you approach Baltimore, is at many points very picturesque. The large blocks of grey rock, now close upon its edge, and now retiring to give room for a few acres of bright green herbage, give great interest and variety to its course.

Baltimore is, I think, one of the handsomest cities to approach in the Union. The noble column erected to the memory of Washington, and the Catholic Cathedral, with its beautiful dome, being built on a commanding eminence, are seen at a great distance. As you draw nearer, many other domes and towers become visible, and as you enter Baltimore-street, you feel that you are arrived in a handsome and populous city.

We took up our quarters at an excellent hotel, where the coach stopped, and the next day were fortunate enough to find accommodation in the house of a lady, well known to many of my European friends. With her and her amiable daughter, we spent a fortnight very agreeably, and felt quite aware that if we had not arrived in London or Paris, we had, at least, left far behind the “half-horse, half-alligator” tribes of the West, as the Kentuckians call themselves.

Baltimore is in many respects a beautiful city; it has several handsome buildings, and even the private dwelling-houses have a look of magnificence, from the abundance of white marble with which many of them are adorned. The ample flights of steps, and the lofty door frames, are in most of the best houses formed of this beautiful material.

This has been called the city of monuments, from its having the stately column erected to the memory of General Washington, and which bears a colossal statue of him at the top; and another pillar of less dimensions, recording some victory; I forget which. Both these are of brilliant white marble. There are also several pretty marble fountains in different parts of the city, which greatly add to its beauty. These are not, it is true, quite so splendid as that of the Innocents, or many others at Paris, but they are fountains of clear water, and they are built of white marble. There is one which is sheltered from the sun by a roof supported by light columns; it looks like a temple dedicated to the genius of the spring. The water flows into a marble cistern, to which you descend by a flight of steps of delicate whiteness, and return by another. These steps are never without groups of negro girls, some carrying the water on their heads, with that graceful steadiness of step, which requires no aid from the hand; some tripping gaily with their yet unfilled pitchers; many of them singing in the soft rich voice, peculiar to their race; and all dressed with that strict attention to taste and smartness, which seems the distinguishing characteristic of the Baltimore females of all ranks.

The Catholic Cathedral is considered by all Americans as a magnificent church, but it can hardly be so classed by any one who has seen the churches of Europe; its interior, however, has an air of neatness that amounts to elegance. The form is a Greek cross, having a dome in the centre; but the proportions are ill-preserved; the dome is too low, and the arches which support it are flattened, and too wide for their height. On each side of the high altar are chapels to the Saviour and the Virgin. The altars in these, as well as the high altar, are of native marble of different colours, and some of the specimens are very beautiful. The decorations of the altar are elegant and costly. The prelate is a cardinal, and bears, moreover, the title of “Archbishop of Baltimore.”

There are several paintings in different parts of the church, which we heard were considered as very fine. There are two presented by Louis XVIII; one of these is the Descent from the Cross, by Paulin Guirin; the other a copy from Rubens, (as they told us) of a legend of St. Louis in the Holy Land; but the composition of the picture is so abominably bad, that I conceive the legend of its being after Rubens, must be as fabulous as its subject. The admiration in which these pictures are held, is an incontestable indication of the state of art in the country.

We attended mass in this church the Sunday after our arrival, and I was perfectly astonished at the beauty and splendid appearance of the ladies who filled it. Excepting on a very brilliant Sunday at the Tuilleries, I never saw so shewy a display of morning costume, and I think I never saw any where so many beautiful women at one glance. They all appeared to be in full dress, and were really all beautiful.

The sermon (I am very attentive to sermons) was a most extraordinary one. The priest began by telling us, that he was about to preach upon a vice that he would not “mention or name” from the beginning of his sermon to the end.

Having thus excited the curiosity of his hearers, by proposing a riddle to them, he began.

Adam, he said, was most assuredly the first who had committed this sin, and Cain the next; then, following the advice given by the listener, in the Plaideurs, “Passons au deluge, je vous prie;” he went on to mention the particular propriety of Noah’s family on this point; and then continued, “Now observe, what did God shew the greatest dislike to? What was it that Jesus was never even accused of? What was it Joseph hated the most? Who was the disciple that Jesus chose for his friend?” and thus he went on for nearly an hour, in a strain that was often perfectly unintelligible to me, but which, as far as I could comprehend it, appeared to be a sort of expose and commentary upon private anecdotes which he had found, or fancied he had found in the Bible. I never saw the attention of a congregation more strongly excited, and I really wished, in Christian charity, that something better had rewarded it.

There are a vast number of churches and chapels in the city, in proportion to its extent, and several that are large and well-built; the Unitarian church is the handsomest I have ever seen dedicated to that mode of worship. But the prettiest among them is a little bijou of a thing belonging to the Catholic college. The institution is dedicated to St. Mary, but this little chapel looks, though in the midst of a city, as if it should have been sacred to St. John of the wilderness. There is a sequestered little garden behind it, hardly large enough to plant cabbages in, which yet contains a Mount Calvary, bearing a lofty cross. The tiny path which leads up to this sacred spot, is not much wider than a sheep-track, and its cedars are but shrubs, but all is in proportion; and notwithstanding its fairy dimensions, there is something of holiness, and quiet beauty about it, that excites the imagination strangely. The little chapel itself has the same touching and impressive character. A solitary lamp, whose glare is tempered by delicately painted glass, hangs before the altar. The light of day enters dimly, yet richly, through crimson curtains, and the silence with which the well-lined doors opened from time to time, admitting a youth of the establishment, who, with noiseless tread, approached the altar, and kneeling, offered a whispered prayer, and retired, had something in it more calculated, perhaps, to generate holy thoughts, than even the swelling anthem heard beneath the resounding dome of St. Peter’s.

Baltimore has a handsome museum, superintended by one of the Peale family, well known for their devotion to natural science, and to works of art. It is not their fault if the specimens which they are enabled to display in the latter department are very inferior to their splendid exhibitions in the former.

The theatre was closed when we were in Baltimore, but we were told that it was very far from being a popular or fashionable amusement. We were, indeed, told this every where throughout the country, and the information was generally accompanied by the observation, that the opposition of the clergy was the cause of it. But I suspect that this is not the principal cause, especially among the men, who, if they were so implicit in their obedience to the clergy, would certainly be more constant in their attendance at the churches; nor would they, moreover, deem the theatre more righteous because an English actor, or a French dancer, performed there; yet on such occasions the theatres overflow. The cause, I think, is in the character of the people. I never saw a population so totally divested of gaiety; there is no trace of this feeling from one end of the Union to the other. They have no fetes, no fairs, no merry makings, no music in the streets, no Punch, no puppet-shows. If they see a comedy or a farce, they may laugh at it; but they can do very well without it; and the consciousness of the number of cents that must be paid to enter a theatre, I am very sure turns more steps from its door than any religious feeling. A distinguished publisher of Philadelphia told me that no comic publication had ever yet been found to answer in America.

We arrived at Baltimore at the season of the “Conference.” I must be excused from giving any very distinct explanation of this term, as I did not receive any. From what I could learn, it much resembles a Revival. We entered many churches, and heard much preaching, and not one of the reverend orators could utter the reproach,

“Peut-on si bien precher qu’elle ne dorme au sermon?”

for I never even dosed at any. There was one preacher whose manner and matter were so peculiar, that I took the liberty of immediately writing down a part of his discourse as a specimen. I confess I began writing in the middle of a sentence, for I waited in vain for a beginning. It was as follows:-

“Nevertheless, we must not lose sight of the one important, great, and only object; for the Lord is mighty, his works are great, likewise wonderful, likewise wise, likewise merciful; and, moreover, we must ever keep in mind, and close to our hearts, all his precious blessings, and unspeakable mercies, and overflowings; and moreover we must never lose sight of, no, never lose sight of, nor ever cease to remember, nor ever let our souls forget, nor ever cease to dwell upon, and to reverence, and to welcome, and to bless, and to give thanks, and to sing hosanna, and give praise,” — and here my fragment of paper failed, but this strain continued, without a shadow of meaning that I could trace, and in a voice inconceivably loud, for more than an hour. After he had finished his sermon, a scene exactly resembling that at the Cincinnati Revival, took place. Two other priests assisted in calling forward the people, and in whispering comfort to them. One of these men roared out in the coarsest accents, “Do you want to go to hell tonight?” The church was almost entirely filled with women, who vied with each other in howlings and contortions of the body; many of them tore their clothes nearly off. I was much amused, spite of the indignation and disgust the scene inspired, by the vehemence of the negro part of the congregation; they seemed determined to bellow louder than all the rest, to shew at once their piety and their equality.

At this same chapel, a few nights before, a woman had fallen in a fit of ecstasy from the gallery, into the arms of the people below, a height of twelve feet. A young slave who waited upon us at table, when this was mentioned, said, that similar accidents had frequently happened, and that once she had seen it herself. Another slave in the house told us, that she “liked religion right well, but that she never took fits in it, ‘cause she was always fixed in her best, when she went to chapel, and she did not like to have all her best clothes broke up.”

We visited the infant school, instituted in this city by Mr. Ibbertson, an amiable and intelligent Englishman. It was the first infant school, properly so called, which I had ever seen, and I was greatly pleased with all the arrangements, and the apparent success of them. The children, of whom we saw about a hundred, boys and girls, were between eighteen months and six years. The apartment was filled with all sorts of instructive and amusing objects; a set of Dutch toys, arranged as a cabinet of natural history, was excellent; a numerous collection of large wooden bricks filled one corner of the room; the walls were hung with gay papers of different patterns, each representing some pretty group of figures; large and excellent coloured engravings of birds and beasts were exhibited in succession as the theme of a little lesson; and the sweet flute of Mr. Ibbertson gave tune and time to the prettiest little concert of chirping birds that I ever listened to.

A geographical model, large enough to give clear ideas of continent, island, cape, isthmus, et cetera, all set in water, is placed before the children, and the pretty creatures point their little rosy fingers with a look of intense interest, as they are called upon to shew where each of them is to be found. The dress, both of boys and girls, was elegantly neat, and their manner, when called upon to speak individually, was well-bred, intelligent, and totally free from the rude indifference, which is so remarkably prevalent in the manners of American children. Mr. Ibbertson will be benefactor to the Union, if he become the means of spreading the admirable method by which he had polished the manner, and awakened the intellect of these beautiful little Republicans. I have conversed with many American ladies on the total want of discipline and subjection which I observed universally among children of all ages, and I never found any who did not both acknowledge and deplore the truth of the remark. In the state of Ohio they have a law (I know not if it exist elsewhere), that if a father strike his son, he shall pay a fine of ten dollars for every such offence. I was told by a gentleman of Cincinnati, that he had seen this fine inflicted there, at the requisition of a boy of twelve years of age, whose father, he proved, had struck him for lying. Such a law, they say, generates a spirit of freedom. What else may it generate?

Mr. Ibbertson, who seems perfectly devoted, heart and head to the subject, told me that he was employed in organizing successive schools that should receive the pupils as they advanced in age. If he prove himself as capable of completing education, as he appears to be of beginning it, his institution will be a very valuable one. It would, indeed, be valuable any where; but in America, where discipline is not, where, from the shell, they are beings “that cannot rule, nor ever will be ruled,” it is invaluable.

About two miles from Baltimore is a fort, nobly situated on the Patapsco, and commanding the approach from the Chesapeak bay. As our visit was on a Sunday we were not permitted to enter it. The walk to this fort is along a fine terrace of beautiful verdure, which commands a magnificent view of the city, with its columns, towers, domes, and shipping; and also of the Patapsco river, which is here so wide as to present almost a sea view. This terrace is ornamented with abundance of evergreens, and wild roses innumerable, but, the whole region has the reputation of being unhealthy, and the fort itself most lamentably so. Before leaving the city of monuments, I must not omit naming one reared to the growing wealth of the country; Mr. Barham’s hotel is said to be the most splendid in the Union, and it is certainly splendid enough for a people more luxurious than the citizens of the republic appear yet to be. I heard different, and, indeed, perfectly contradictory accounts of the success of the experiment; but at least every one seemed to agree that the liberal projector was fully entitled to exclaim,

“’Tis not in mortals to command success;
I have done more, Jonathan, I’ve deserved it.”

After enjoying a very pleasant fortnight, the greater part of which was passed in rambling about this pretty city and its environs, we left it, not without regret, and all indulging the hope that we should be able to pay it another visit.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:50