Reception of Captain Basil Hall’s Book in the United States
Having now arrived nearly at the end of our travels, I am induced, ere I conclude, again to mention what I consider as one of the most remarkable traits in the national character of the Americans; namely, their exquisite sensitiveness and soreness respecting everything said or written concerning them. Of this, perhaps, the most remarkable example I can give, is the effect produced on nearly every class of readers by the appearance of Captain Basil Hall’s “Travels in North America.” In fact, it was a sort of moral earthquake, and the vibration it occasioned through the nerves of the Republic, from one corner of the Union to the other, was by no means over when I left the country in July, 1831, a couple of years after the shock.
I was in Cincinnati when these volumes came out, but it was not till July, 1830, that I procured a copy of them. One bookseller to whom I applied, told me that he had had a few copies before he understood the nature of the work, but that after becoming acquainted with it, nothing should induce him to sell another. Other persons of his profession must, however, have been less scrupulous, for the book was read in city, town, village, and hamlet, steam-boat, and stage-coach, and a sort of war-whoop was sent forth perfectly unprecedented in my recollection upon any occasion whatever.
It was fortunate for me that I did not procure these volumes till I had heard them very generally spoken of, for the curiosity I felt to know the contents of a work so violently anathematised, led me to make enquiries which elicited a great deal of curious feeling.
An ardent desire for approbation, and delicate sensitiveness under censure, have always, I believe, been considered as amiable traits of character; but the condition into which the appearance of Capt. Hall’s work threw the Republic, shows plainly that these feelings, if carried to excess, produce a weakness which amounts to imbecility.
It was perfectly astonishing to hear men, who, on other subjects, were sane of judgment, utter their opinions upon this. I never heard of any instance in which the common sense generally found in national criticism was so overthrown by passion. I do not speak of the want of justice, and of fair and liberal interpretation: these, perhaps, were hardly to be expected. Other nations have been called thin-skinned, but the citizens of the Union have, apparently, no skins at all; they wince if a breeze blows over them, unless it be tempered with adulation. It was not, therefore, very surprising that the acute and forcible observations of a traveller they knew would be listened to, should be received testily. The extraordinary features of the business were, first, the excess of the rage into which they lashed themselves; and secondly, the puerility of the inventions by which they attempted to account for the severity with which they fancied they had been treated.
Not content with declaring that the volumes contained no word of truth from beginning to end (which is an assertion I heard made very nearly as often as they were mentioned), the whole country set to work to discover the causes why Capt. Hall had visited the United States, and why he had published his book.
I have heard it said with as much precision and gravity as if the statement had been conveyed by an official report, that Capt. Hall had been sent out by the British government expressly for the purpose of checking the growing admiration of England for the government of the United States, that it was by a commission from the Treasury he had come, and that it was only in obedience to orders that he had found anything to object to.
I do not give this as the gossip of a coterie; I am persuaded that it is the belief of a very considerable portion of the country. So deep is the conviction of this singular people that they cannot be seen without being admired, that they will not admit the possibility that anyone should honestly and sincerely find aught to disapprove in them, or their country.
At Philadelphia I met with a little anonymous book, written to show that Capt. Basil Hall was in no way to be depended on, for that he not only slandered the Americans, but was himself, in other respects, a person of very equivocal morals. One proof of this is given by a quotation of the following playful account of the distress occasioned by the want of a bell. The commentator calls it an instance of “shocking coarseness.”
“One day I was rather late for breakfast, and as there was no water in my jug, I set off, post haste, half shaved, half dressed, and more than half vexed, in quest of water, like a seaman on short allowance, hunting for rivulets on some unknown coast. I went up stairs, and down stairs, and in the course of my researches into half a dozen different apartments, might have stumbled on some lady’s chamber, as the song says, which considering the plight I was in, would have been awkward enough.”
Another indication of this moral coarseness is pointed out in the passage where Capt. Hall says, he never saw a flirtation all the time he was in the Union.
The charge of ingratitude also was echoed from mouth to mouth. That he should himself bear testimony to the unvarying kindness of the reception he met with, and yet find fault with the country, was declared on all hands to be a proof of the most abominable ingratitude that it ever entered into the heart of man to conceive. I once ventured before about a dozen people to ask whether more blame would not attach to an author, if he suffered himself to be bribed by individual kindness to falsify facts, than if, despite all personal considerations, he stated them truly?
“Facts!” cried the whole circle at once, “facts! I tell you there is not a word of fact in it from beginning to end.”
The American Reviews are, many of them, I believe, well known in England; I need not, therefore, quote them here, but I sometimes wondered that they, none of them, ever thought of translating Obadiah’s curse into classic American; if they had done so, only placing (he, Basil Hall,) between brackets instead of (he, Obadiah,) it would have saved them a world of trouble.
I can hardly describe the curiosity with which I sat down at length to pursue these tremendous volumes; still less can I do justice to my surprise at their contents. To say that I found not one exaggerated statement throughout the work, is by no means saying enough. It is impossible for any one who knows the country not to see that Captain Hall earnestly sought out things to admire and commend. When he praises, it is with evident pleasure, and when he finds fault, it is with evident reluctance and restraint, excepting where motives purely patriotic urge him to state roundly what it is for the benefit of his country should be known.
In fact, Captain Hall saw the country to the greatest possible advantage. Furnished, of course, with letters of introduction to the most distinguished individuals, and with the still more influential recommendation of his own reputation, he was received in full drawing-room style and state from one end of the Union to the other. He saw the country in full dress, and had little or no opportunity of judging of it unhouselled, disappointed, unannealed, with all its imperfections on its head, as I and my family too often had.
Captain Hall had certainly excellent opportunities of making himself acquainted with the form of the government and the laws; and of receiving, moreover, the best oral commentary upon them, in conversation with the most distinguished citizens. Of these opportunities he made excellent use; nothing important met his eye which did not receive that sort of analytical attention which an experienced and philosophical traveller alone can give. This has made his volumes highly interesting and valuable; but I am deeply persuaded, that were a man of equal penetration to visit the United States with no other means of becoming acquainted with the national character than the ordinary working-day intercourse of life, he would conceive an infinitely lower idea of the moral atmosphere of the country than Captain Hall appears to have done; and the internal conviction on my mind is strong, that if Captain Hall had not placed a firm restraint on himself, he must have given expression to far deeper indignation than any he has uttered against many points in the American character, with which he shows, from other circumstances, that he was well acquainted. His rule appears to have been to state just so much of the truth as would leave on the minds of his readers a correct impression, at the least cost of pain to the sensitive folks he was writing about. He states his own opinions and feelings, and leaves it to be inferred that he has good grounds for adopting them; but he spares the Americans the bitterness which a detail of the circumstances would have produced.
If any one chooses to say that some wicked antipathy to twelve millions of strangers is the origin of my opinion, I must bear it; and were the question one of mere idle speculation, I certainly would not court the abuse I must meet for stating it. But it is not so. I know that among the best, the most pious, the most benevolent of my countrymen, there are hundreds, nay, I fear thousands, who conscientiously believe that a greater degree of political and religious liberty (such as is possessed in America) would be beneficial for us. How often have I wished, during my abode in the United States, that one of these conscientious, but mistaken reasoners, fully possessed of his country’s confidence, could pass a few years in the United States, sufficiently among the mass of the citizens to know them, and sufficiently at leisure to trace effects to their causes. Then might we look for a statement which would teach these mistaken philanthropists to tremble at every symptom of democratic power among us; a statement which would make even our sectarians shudder at the thought of hewing down the Established Church, for they would be taught, by fearful example, to know that it was the bulwark which protects us from the gloomy horrors of fanatic superstition on one side, and the still more dreadful inroads of infidelity on the other. And more than all, such a man would see as clear as light, that where every class is occupied in getting money, and no class in spending it, there will neither be leisure for worshipping the theory of honesty, nor motive strong enough to put its restrictive doctrine in practice. Where every man is engaged in driving hard bargains with his fellows, where is the honoured class to be found into which gentleman-like feelings, principles, and practice, are necessary as an introduction?
That there are men of powerful intellect, benevolent hearts, and high moral feeling in America, I know: and I could, if challenged to do so, name individuals surpassed by none of any country in these qualities; but they are excellent, despite their institutions, not in consequence of them. It is not by such that Captain Hall’s statements are called slanders, nor is it from such that I shall meet the abuse which I well know these pages will inevitably draw upon me; and I only trust I may be able to muster as much self-denial as my predecessor, who asserts in his recently published “Fragments,” that he has read none of the American criticisms on his book. He did wisely, if he wished to retain an atom of his kindly feeling toward America, and he has, assuredly, lost but little on the score of information, for these criticisms, generally speaking, consist of mere downright personal abuse, or querulous complaints of his ingratitude and ill usage of them; complaints which it is quite astonishing that any persons of spirit could indulge in.
The following good-humoured paragraphs from the Fragments, must, I think, rather puzzle the Americans. Possibly they may think that Captain Hall is quizzing them, when he says he has read none of their criticisms; but I think there is in these passages internal evidence that he has not seen them. For if he had read one-fiftieth part of the vituperation of his Travels, which it has been my misfortune to peruse, he could hardly have brought himself to write what follows.
If the Americans still refuse to shake the hand proffered to them in the true old John Bull spirit, they are worse folks than even I take them for.
Captain Hall, after describing the hospitable reception he formerly met with, at a boarding-house in New York, goes on thus:— “If our hostess be still alive, I hope she will not repent of having bestowed her obliging attentions on one, who so many years afterwards made himself, he fears, less popular in her land, than he could wish to be amongst a people to whom he owes so much, and for whom he really feels so much kindness. He still anxiously hopes, however, they will believe him, when he declares, that, having said in his recent publication no more than what he conceived was due to strict truth, and to the integrity of history, as far as his observations and opinions went, he still feels, as he always has, and ever must continue to feel towards America, the heartiest good-will.
“The Americans are perpetually repeating that the foundation-stone of their liberty is fixed on the doctrine, that every man is free to form his own opinions, and to promulgate them in candour and in moderation. Is it meant that a foreigner is excluded from these privileges? If not, may I ask, in what respect have I passed these limitations? The Americans have surely no fair right to be offended because my views differ from their’s; and yet I am told I have been rudely handled by the press of that country. If my motives are distrusted, I can only say, I am sorely belied. If I am mistaken, regret at my political blindness were surely more dignified than anger on the part of those with whom I differ; and if it shall chance that I am in the right, the best confirmation of the correctness of my views, in the opinion of indifferent persons, will perhaps be found in the soreness of those, who wince when the truth is spoken.
“Yet, after all, few things would give me more real pleasure, than to know that my friends across the water would consent to take me at my word; and, considering what I have said about them as so much public matter, which it truly is, agree to reckon me, in my absence, and they always did, when I was amongst them, and, I am sure, they would count me, if I went back again, as a private friend. I differed with them in politics, and I differ with them now as much as ever; but I sincerely wish them happiness individually; and, as a nation, I shall rejoice if they prosper. As the Persians write, “What can I say more?” And I only hope these few words may help to make my peace with people who justly pride themselves on bearing no malice. As for myself, I have no peace to make; for I have studiously avoided reading any of the American criticisms on my book, in order that the kindly feelings I have ever entertained towards that country should not be ruffled. By this abstinence I may have lost some information, and perhaps missed many opportunities of correcting erroneous impressions. But I set so much store by the pleasing recollection of the journey itself, and of the hospitality with which my family were every where received, that whether it be right, or whether it be wrong, I cannot bring myself to read anything which might disturb these agreeable associations. So let us part in peace; or, rather, let us meet again in cordial communication; and if this little work shall find its way across the Atlantic, I hope it will be read there without reference to anything that has passed between us; or, at all events, with reference only to those parts of our former intercourse, which are satisfactory to all parties.” — Hall’s Fragments, Vol.1.p.200.
I really think it is impossible to read, not only this passage, but many others in these delightful little volumes, without feeling that their author is as little likely to deserve the imputation of harshness and ill-will, as any man that ever lived.
In reading Capt. Hall’s volumes on America, the observation which, I think, struck me the most forcibly, and which certainly came the most completely home to my own feelings, was the following.
“In all my travels both amongst Heathens, and amongst Christians, I have never encountered any people by whom I found it nearly so difficult to make myself understood as by the Americans.”
I have conversed in London and in Paris with foreigners of many nations, and often through the misty medium of an idiom imperfectly understood, but I remember no instance in which I found the same difficulty in conveying my sentiments, my impressions, and my opinions to those around me, as I did in America. Whatever faith may be given to my assertion, no one who has not visited the country can possibly conceive to what extent it is true. It is less necessary, I imagine, for the mutual understanding of persons conversing together, that the language should be the same, than that their ordinary mode of thinking, and habits of life should, in some degree, assimilate; whereas, in point of fact, there is hardly a single point of sympathy between the Americans and us; but whatever the cause, the fact is certainly as I have stated it, and herein, I think, rests the only apology for the preposterous and undignified anger felt and expressed against Capt. Hall’s work. They really cannot, even if they wished it, enter into any of his views, or comprehend his most ordinary feelings; and, therefore, they cannot believe in the sincerity of the impressions he describes. The candour which he expresses, and evidently feels, they mistake for irony, or totally distrust; his unwillingness to give pain to persons from whom he has received kindness, they scornfully reject as affectation; and, although they must know right well, in their own secret hearts, how infinitely more they lay at his mercy than he has chosen to betray, they pretend, even to themselves, that he has exaggerated the bad points of their character and institutions; whereas, the truth is, that he has let them off with a degree of tenderness which may be quite suitable for him to exercise, however little merited; while, at the same time, he has most industriously magnified their merits, whenever he could possibly find anything favourable. One can perfectly well understand why Capt. Hall’s avowed Tory principles should be disapproved of in the United States, especially as (with a questionable policy in a bookselling point of view, in these reforming times,) he volunteers a profession of political faith, in which, to use the Kentucky phrase, “he goes the whole hog,” and bluntly avows, in his concluding chapter, that he not only holds stoutly to Church and State, but that he conceives the English House of Commons to be, if not quite perfect, at least as much so for all the required purposes of representation as it can by possibility be made in practice. Such a downright thorough-going Tory and Anti-reformer, pretending to judge of the workings of the American democratical system, was naturally held to be a monstrous abomination, and it has been visited accordingly, both in America, and as I understand, with us also. The experience which Capt. Hall has acquired in visits to every part of the world, during twenty or thirty years, goes for nothing with the Radicals on either side the Atlantic: on the contrary, precisely in proportion to the value of that authority which is the result of actual observation, are they irritated to find its weight cast into the opposite scale. Had not Capt. Hall been converted by what he saw in North America, from the Whig faith he exhibited in his description of South America, his book would have been far more popular in England during the last two years of public excitement; it may, perhaps, be long before any justice is done to Capt. Hall’s book in the United States, but a less time will probably suffice to establish its claim to attention at home.
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