Domestic Manners of the Americans, by Fanny Trollope

Chapter 34

Return to New York — Conclusion

The comfortable Adelphi Hotel again received us at Albany, on the 14th of June, and we decided upon passing the following day there, both to see the place, and to recruit our strength, which we began to feel we had taxed severely by a very fatiguing journey, in most oppressively hot weather. It would have been difficult to find a better station for repose; the rooms were large and airy, and ice was furnished in most profuse abundance.

But notwithstanding the manifold advantages of this excellent hotel, I was surprised at the unEnglish arrangement communicated to me by two ladies with whom we made a speaking acquaintance, by which it appeared that they made it their permanent home. These ladies were a mother and daughter; the daughter was an extremely pretty young married woman, with two little children. Where the husbands were, or whether they were dead or alive, I know not; but they told me they had been boarding there above a year. They breakfasted, dined, and supped at the table d’hote, with from twenty to a hundred people, as accident might decide; dressed very smart, played on the piano, in the public sitting-room, and assured me they were particularly comfortable and well accommodated. What a life!

Some parts of the town are very handsome; the Town Hall, the Chamber of Representatives, and some other public buildings, stand well on a hill that overlooks the Hudson, with ample enclosures of grass and trees around them.

Many of the shops are large, and showily set out. I was amused by a national trait which met me at one of them. I entered it to purchase some eau de Cologne, but finding what was offered to me extremely bad, and very cheap, I asked if they had none at a higher price, and better.

“You are a stranger, I guess,” was the answer. “The Yankees want low price, that’s all; they don’t stand so much for goodness as the English.”

Nothing could be more beautiful than our passage down the Hudson on the following day, as I thought of some of my friends in England, dear lovers of the picturesque, I could not but exclaim,

“Que je vous plains! que je vous plains!
Vous ne la verrez pas.”

Not even a moving panoramic view, gliding before their eyes for an hour together, in all the scenic splendour of Drury Lane, or Covent Garden, could give them an idea of it. They could only see one side at a time. The change, the contrast, the ceaseless variety of beauty, as you skim from side to side, the liquid smoothness of the broad mirror that reflects the scene, and most of all, the clear bright air through which you look at it; all this can only be seen and believed by crossing the Atlantic.

As we approached New York the burning heat of the day relaxed, and the long shadows of evening fell coolly on the beautiful villas we passed. I really can conceive nothing more exquisitely lovely than this approach to the city. The magnificent boldness of the Jersey shore on the one side, and the luxurious softness of the shady lawns on the other, with the vast silvery stream that flows between them, altogether form a picture which may well excuse a traveller for saying, once and again, that the Hudson river can be surpassed in beauty by none on the outside of Paradise.

It was nearly dark when we reached the city, and it was with great satisfaction that we found our comfortable apartments in Hudson Street unoccupied; and our pretty, kind (Irish) hostess willing to receive us again. We passed another fortnight there; and again we enjoyed the elegant hospitality of New York, though now it was offered from beneath the shade of their beautiful villas. In truth, were all America like this fair city, and all, no, only a small proportion of its population like the friends we left there, I should say, that the land was the fairest in the world.

But the time was come to bid it adieu! The important business of securing our homeward passage was to be performed. One must know what it is to cross the ocean before the immense importance of all the little details of accommodation can be understood. The anxious first look: into the face of the captain, to ascertain if he be gentle or rough; another, scarcely less important, in that of the steward, generally a sable one, but not the less expressive; the accurate, but rapid glance of measurement thrown round the little state-rooms; another at the good or bad arrangement of the stair-case, by which you are to stumble up and stumble down, from cabin to deck, and from deck to cabin; all this, they only can understand who have felt it. At length, however, this interesting affair was settled, and most happily. The appearance promised well, and the performance bettered it. We hastened to pack up our “trumpery,” as Captain Mirven unkindly calls the paraphernalia of the ladies, and among the rest, my six hundred pages of griffonage. There is enough of it, yet I must add a few more lines.

I suspect that what I have written will make it evident that I do not like America. Now, as it happens that I met with individuals there whom I love and admire, far beyond the love and admiration of ordinary acquaintance, and as I declare the country to be fair to the eye, and most richly teeming with the gifts of plenty, I am led to ask myself why it is that I do not like it. I would willingly know myself, and confess to others, why it is that neither its beauty nor its abundance can suffice to neutralize, or greatly soften, the distaste which the aggregate of my recollections has left upon my mind.

I remember hearing it said, many years ago, when the advantages and disadvantages of a particular residence were being discussed, that it was the “who?” and not the “where?” that made the difference between the pleasant or unpleasant residence. The truth of the observation struck me forcibly when I heard it; and it has been recalled to my mind since, by the constantly recurring evidence of its justness. In applying this to America, I speak not of my friends, nor of my friends’ friends. The small patrician band is a race apart; they live with each other, and for each other; mix wondrously little with the high matters of state, which they seem to leave rather supinely to their tailors and tinkers, and are no more to be taken as a sample of the American people, than the head of Lord Byron as a sample of the heads of the British peerage. I speak not of these, but of the population generally, as seen in town and country, among the rich and the poor, in the slave states, and the free states. I do not like them. I do not like their principles, I do not like their manners, I do not like their opinions.

Both as a woman, and as a stranger, it might be unseemly for me to say that I do not like their government, and therefore I will not say so. That it is one which pleases themselves is most certain, and this is considerably more important than pleasing all the travelling old ladies in the world. I entered the country at New Orleans, remained for more than two years west of the Alleghanies, and passed another year among the Atlantic cities, and the country around them. I conversed during this time with citizens of all orders and degrees, and I never heard from any one a single disparaging word against their government. It is not, therefore, surprising, that when the people of that country hear strangers questioning the wisdom of their institutions, and expressing disapprobation at some of their effects, they should set it down either to an incapacity of judging, or a malicious feeling of envy and ill-will.

“How can any one in their senses doubt the excellence of a a government which we have tried for half a century, and loved the better the longer we have known it.” Such is the natural enquiry of every American when the excellence of their government is doubted; and I am inclined to answer, that no one in their senses, who has visited the country, and known the people, can doubt its fitness for them, such as they now are, or its utter unfitness for any other people..

Whether the government has made the people what they are, or whether the people have made the government what it is, to suit themselves, I know not; but if the latter, they have shown a consummation of wisdom which the assembled world may look upon and admire.

It is a matter of historical notoriety that the original stock of the white population now inhabiting the United States, were persons who had banished themselves, or were banished from the mother country. The land they found was favourable to their increase and prosperity; the colony grew and flourished. Years rolled on, and the children, the grand-children, and the great grand-children of the first settlers, replenished the land, and found it flowing with milk and honey. That they should wish to keep this milk and honey to themselves, is not very surprising. What did the mother country do for them? She sent them out gay and gallant officers to guard their frontier; the which they thought they could guard as well themselves; and then she taxed their tea. Now, this was disagreeable; and to atone for it, the distant colony had no great share in her mother’s grace and glory. It was not from among them that her high and mighty were chosen; the rays which emanated from that bright sun of honour, the British throne, reached them but feebly. They knew not, they cared not, for her kings nor her heroes; their thriftiest trader was their noblest man; the holy seats of learning were but the cradles of superstition; the splendour of the aristocracy, but a leech that drew their “golden blood.” The wealth, the learning, the glory of Britain, was to them nothing; the having their own way every thing.

Can any blame their wish to obtain it? Can any lament that they succeeded?

And now the day was their own, what should they do next? Their elders drew together, and said, “Let us make a government that shall suit us all; let it be rude, and rough, and noisy; let it not affect either dignity, glory, or splendour; let it interfere with no man’s will, nor meddle with any man’s business; let us have neither tithes nor taxes, game laws, nor poor laws; let every man have a hand in making the laws, and no man be troubled about keeping them; let not our magistrates wear purple, nor our judges ermine; if a man grow rich, let us take care that his grandson be poor, and then we shall all keep equal; let every man take care of himself, and if England should come to bother us again, why then we will fight altogether.”

Could any thing be better imagined than such a government for a people so circumstanced? Or is it strange that they are contented with it? Still less is it strange that those who have lived in the repose of order, and felt secure that their country could go on very well, and its business proceed without their bawling and squalling, scratching and scrambling to help it, should bless the gods that they are not republicans.

So far all is well. That they should prefer a constitution which suits them so admirably, to one which would not suit them at all, is surely no cause of quarrel on our part; nor should it be such on theirs, if we feel no inclination to exchange the institutions which have made us what we are, for any other on the face of the earth.

But when a native of Europe visits America, a most extraordinary species of tyranny is set in action against him; and as far as my reading and experience have enabled me to judge, it is such as no other country has ever exercised against strangers.

The Frenchman visits England; he is abime d’ennui at our stately dinners; shrugs his shoulders at our corps de ballet, and laughs a gorge deployee at our passion for driving, and our partial affection for roast beef and plum pudding. The Englishman returns the visit, and the first thing he does on arriving at Paris, is to hasten to le Theatre des Varietes, that he may see “Les Anglaises pour rire,” and if among the crowd of laughters, you hear a note of more cordial mirth than the rest, seek out the person from whom it proceeds, and you will find the Englishman.

The Italian comes to our green island, and groans at our climate; he vows that the air which destroys a statue cannot be wholesome for man; he sighs for orange trees, and maccaroni, and smiles at the pretensions of a nation to poetry, while no epics are chaunted through her streets. Yet we welcome the sensitive southern with all kindness, listen to his complaints with interest, cultivate our little orange trees, and teach our children to lisp Tasso, in the hope of becoming more agreeable.

Yet we are not at all superior to the rest of Europe in our endurance of censure, nor is this wish to profit by it all peculiar to the English; we laugh at, and find fault with, our neighbours quite as freely as they do with us, and they join the laugh, and adopt our fashions and our customs. These mutual pleasantries produce no shadow of unkindly feeling; and as long as the governments are at peace with each other, the individuals of every nation in Europe make it a matter of pride, as well as of pleasure, to meet each other frequently, to discuss, compare, and reason upon their national varieties, and to vote it a mark of fashion and good taste to imitate each other in all the external embellishments of life.

The consequence of this is most pleasantly perceptible at the present time, in every capital of Europe. The long peace has given time for each to catch from each what was best in customs and manners, and the rapid advance of refinement and general information has been the result.

To those who have been accustomed to this state of things, the contrast upon crossing to the new world is inconceivably annoying; and it cannot be doubted that this is one great cause of the general feeling of irksomeness, and fatigue of spirits, which hangs upon the memory while recalling the hours passed in American society.

A single word indicative of doubt, that any thing, or every thing, in that country is not the very best in the world, produces an effect which must be seen and felt to be understood. If the citizens of the United States were indeed the devoted patriots they call themselves, they would surely not thus encrust themselves in the hard, dry, stubborn persuasion, that they are the first and best of the human race, that nothing is to be learnt, but what they are able to teach, and that nothing is worth having, which they do not possess.

The art of man could hardly discover a more effectual antidote to improvement, than this persuasion; and yet I never listened to any public oration, or read any work, professedly addressed to the country, in which they did not labour to impress it on the minds of the people.

To hint to the generality of Americans that the silent current of events may change their beloved government, is not the way to please them; but in truth they need be tormented with no such fear. As long as by common consent they can keep down the pre-eminence which nature has assigned to great powers, as long as they can prevent human respect and human honour from resting upon high talent, gracious manners, and exalted station, so long may they be sure of going on as they are.

I have been told, however, that there are some among them who would gladly see a change; some, who with the wisdom of philosophers, and the fair candour of gentlemen, shrink from a profession of equality which they feel to be untrue, and believe to be impossible.

I can well believe that such there are, though to me no such opinions were communicated, and most truly should I rejoice to see power pass into such hands.

If this ever happens, if refinement once creeps in among them, if they once learn to cling to the graces, the honours, the chivalry of life, then we shall say farewell to American equality, and welcome to European fellowship one of the finest countries on the earth.

This web edition published by:

eBooks@Adelaide
The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/t/trollope/fanny/domestic/chapter34.html

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