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Chapter 11

LETTER XI.

Laws of Intercourse.—Americans in Europe.—Americans and English.
—Visiting in America.—Etiquette of Visits.—Presentations at Foreign
Courts.—Royal Receptions.—American Pride.—Pay of the President.
—American Diplomatist.

To JAMES STEVENSON, ESQUIRE, ALBANY.

I intend this letter to be useful rather than entertaining. Living, as we Americans do, remote from the rest of the world, and possessing so many practices peculiar to ourselves, at the same time that we are altogether wanting in usages that are familiar to most other nations, it should not be matter of surprise that we commit some mistakes on this side of the water, in matters of taste and etiquette. A few words simply expressed, and a few explanations plainly made, may serve to remove some errors, and perhaps render your own contemplated visit to this part of the world more agreeable.

There is no essential difference in the leading rules of ordinary intercourse among the polished of all Christian nations. Though some of these rules may appear arbitrary, it will be found, on examination, that they are usually derived from very rational and sufficient motives. They may vary, in immaterial points, but even these variations arise from some valid circumstance.

The American towns are growing so rapidly, that they are getting to have the population of capitals without enjoying their commonest facilities. The exaggerated tone of our largest towns, for instance, forbids the exchange of visits by means of servants. It may suit the habits of provincial life to laugh at this as an absurdity, but it may be taken pretty safely as a rule, that men and women of as much common sense as the rest of their fellow-creatures, with the best opportunities of cultivating all those tastes that are dependant on society, and with no other possible motive than convenience, would not resort to such a practice without a suitable inducement. No one who has not lived in a large town that does possess these facilities, can justly appreciate their great advantages, or properly understand how much a place like New York, with its three hundred thousand inhabitants, loses by not adopting them. We have conventions for all sorts of things in America, some of which do good and others harm, but I cannot imagine anything that would contribute more to the comfort of society, than one which should settle the laws of intercourse on principles better suited to the real condition of the country than those which now exist. It is not unusual to read descriptions deriding the forms of Europe, written by travelling Americans; but I must think they have been the productions of very young travellers, or, at least, of such as have not had the proper means of appreciating the usages they ridicule Taking my own experience as a guide, I have no hesitation in saying, that I know no people among whom the ordinary social intercourse is as uncomfortable, and as little likely to stand the test of a rational examination, as our own.

The first rule, all-important for an American to know, is, that the latest arrival makes the first visit. England is, in some respects, an exception to this practice, but I believe it prevails in all the rest of Europe. I do not mean to say that departures are not made from this law, in particular instances; but they should always be taken as exceptions, and as pointed compliments. This rule has many conveniences, and I think it also shows a more delicate attention to sentiment and feeling. While the points of intrusion and of disagreeable acquaintances are left just where they would be under our own rule, the stranger is made the judge of his own wishes. It is, moreover, impossible, in a large town, to know of every arrival. Many Americans, who come to Europe with every claim to attention, pass through it nearly unnoticed, from a hesitation about obtruding themselves on others, under the influence of the opinions in which they have been educated. This for a long time was my own case, and it was only when a more familiar acquaintance with the practices of this part of the world made me acquainted with their advantages that I could consent freely to put myself forward.

You are not to understand that any stranger arriving in a place like Paris, or London, has a right to leave cards for whom he pleases. It is not the custom, except for those who, by birth, or official station, or a high reputation, may fairly deem themselves privileged, to assume this liberty, and even then, it is always better to take some preliminary step to assure one's self that the visit will be acceptable. The law of salutes is very much the law of visits, in this part of the world. The ship arriving sends an officer to know if his salute will be returned gun for gun, and the whole affair, it is true, is conducted in rather a categorical manner, but the governing principles are the same in both cases, though more management may be required between two gentlemen than between two men-of-war.

The Americans in Europe, on account of the country's having abjured all the old feudal distinctions that still so generally prevail here, labour under certain disadvantages, that require, on the one hand, much tact and discretion to overcome, and, on the other, occasionally much firmness and decision.

The rule I have adopted in my own case, is to defer to every usage, in matters of etiquette, so far as I have understood them, that belongs to the country in which I may happen to be. If, as has sometimes happened (but not in a solitary instance in France), the claims of a stranger have been overlooked, I have satisfied myself by remembering, that, in this respect at least, the Americans are the superiors, for that is a point in which we seldom fail; and if they are remembered, to accept of just as much attention as shall be offered. In cases, in which those arbitrary distinctions are set up, that, by the nature of our institutions cannot, either in similar or in any parallel cases, exist in America, and the party making the pretension is on neutral ground, if the claim be in any manner pressed, I would say that it became an American to resist it promptly; neither to go out of his way to meet it, nor to defer to it when it crosses his path. In really good society awkward cases of this nature are not very likely to occur; they are, however, more likely to occur as between our own people and the English, than between those of any other nation; for the latter, in mixed general associations, have scarcely yet learned to look upon and treat us as the possessors of an independent country. It requires perfect self-possession, great tact, and some nerve, for an American, who is brought much in contact with the English on the continent of Europe, to avoid a querulous and ungentlemanlike disposition to raise objections on these points, and at the same time to maintain the position, and command the respect, with which he should never consent to dispense. From my own little experience, I should say we are better treated, and have less to overlook, in our intercourse with the higher than with the intermediate classes of the English.

You will have very different accounts of these points, from some of our travellers. I only give you the results of my own observation, under the necessary limitations of my own opportunities. Still I must be permitted to say that too many of our people, in their habitual deference to England, mistake offensive condescension for civility. Of the two, I will confess I would rather encounter direct arrogance, than the assumption of a right to be affable. The first may at least be resisted. Of all sorts of superiority, that of a condescending quality is the least palatable.

I believe Washington is the only place in America where it is permitted to send cards. In every other town, unless accompanied by an invitation, and even then the card is supposed to be left, it would be viewed as airs. It is even equivocal to leave a card in person, unless denied. Nothing can be worse adapted to the wants of American society than this rigid conformity to facts. Without porters; with dwellings in which the kitchens and servants' halls are placed just as far from the street-doors as dimensions of the houses will allow; with large straggling towns that cover as much ground as the more populous capitals of Europe, and these towns not properly divided into quarters; with a society as ambitious of effect, in its way, as any I know; and with people more than usually occupied with business and the family cares,—one is expected to comply rigidly with the most formal rules of village propriety. It is easy to trace these usages to their source, provincial habits and rustic manners; but towns with three hundred thousand inhabitants ought to be free from both. Such rigid conditions cannot well be observed, and a consequence already to be traced is, that those forms of society which tend to refine it, and to render it more human and graceful, are neglected from sheer necessity. Carelessness in the points of association connected with sentiment (and all personal civilities and attention have this root) grows upon one like carelessness in dress, until an entire community may get to be as ungracious in deportment, as it is unattractive in attire.

The etiquette of visits, here, is reduced to a sort of science. A card is sent by a servant, and returned by a servant. It is polite to return it, next day, though three, I believe, is the lawful limits, and it is politer still to return it the day it is received. There is no affectation about sending the card, as it is not at all unusual to put E.P. (en personne) on it, by way of expressing a greater degree of attention, even when the card is sent. When the call is really made in person, though the visitor does not ask to be admitted, it is also common to request the porter to say that the party was at the gate. All these niceties may seem absurd and supererogatory, but depend on it they have a direct and powerful agency in refining and polishing intercourse, just as begging a man's pardon, when you tread on his toe, has an effect to humanize, though the parties know no offence was intended. Circumstances once rendered it proper that I should leave a card for a Russian diplomate, an act that I took care he should know, indirectly, I went out of my way to do, as an acknowledgment for the civilities his countrymen showed to us Americans. My name was left at the gate of his hotel (it was not in Paris), as I was taking a morning ride. On returning home, after an absence of an hour, I found his card lying on my table. Instead, however, of its containing the usual official titles, it was simply Prince —. I was profoundly emerged in the study of this new feature in the forms of etiquette, when the friend, who had prepared the way for the visit, entered. I asked an explanation, and he told me that I had received a higher compliment than could be conveyed by a merely official card, this being a proffer of personal attention. "You will get an invitation to dinner soon;" and, sure enough, one came before he had quitted the house. Now, here was a delicate and flattering attention paid, and one that I felt, without trouble to either party; one that the occupations of the diplomate would scarcely permit him to pay, except in extraordinary cases, under rules more rigid.

There is no obligation on a stranger to make the first visit, certainly; but if he do not, he is not to be surprised if no one notices him. It is a matter of delicacy to obtrude on the privacy of such a person, it being presumed that he wishes to be retired. We have passed some time in a village near Paris, which contains six or eight visitable families. With one of these I had some acquaintance, and we exchanged civilities; but wishing to be undisturbed, I extended my visit no farther, and I never saw anything of the rest of my neighbours. They waited for me to make the advances.

A person in society, here, who is desirous of relieving himself, for a time, from the labour and care of maintaining the necessary intercourse, can easily do it, by leaving cards of P.P.O. It might be awkward to remain long in a place very publicly after such a step, but I ventured on it once, to extricate myself from engagements that interfered with more important pursuits, with entire success. I met several acquaintances in the street, after the cards were sent, and we even talked together, but I got no more visits or invitations. When ready to return to town, all I had to do was to leave cards again, and things went on as if nothing had happened. I parried one or two allusions to my absence, and had no further difficulty. The only awkward part of it was, that I accepted an invitation to dine en famille with a literary friend, and one of the guests, of whom there were but three, happened to be a person whose invitation to dinner I had declined on account of quitting town! As he was a sensible man, I told him the simple fact, and we laughed at the contretems, and drank oar wine in peace.

The Americans who come abroad frequently complain of a want of hospitality in the public agents. There is a strong disposition in every man under institutions like our own, to mistake himself for a part of the government, in matters with which he has no proper connexion, while too many totally overlook those interests which it is their duty to watch. In the first place, the people of the United Slates do not give salaries to their ministers of sufficient amount to authorize them to expect that any part of the money should be returned in the way of personal civilities. Fifty thousand francs a year is the usual sum named by the French, as the money necessary to maintain a genteel town establishment, with moderate evening entertainments, and an occasional dinner. This is three thousand francs more than the salary of the minister, out of which he is moreover expected to maintain his regular diplomatic intercourse. It is impossible for any one to do much in the way of personal civilities, on such an allowance.

There is, moreover, on the part of too many of our people, an aptitude to betray a jealous sensitiveness on the subject of being presented at foreign courts. I have known some claim it as a right when it is yielded to the minister himself as an act of grace. The receptions of a sovereign are merely his particular mode of receiving visits. No one will pretend that the President of the United States is obliged to give levees and dinners, nor is a king any more compelled to receive strangers, or even his own subjects, unless it suit his policy and his taste. His palace is his house, and he is the master of it, the same as any other man is master of his own abode. It is true, the public expects something of him, and his allowance is probably regulated by this expectation, but the interference does not go so far as to point out his company. Some kings pass years without holding a court at all; others receive every week. The public obligation to open his door, is no more than an obligation of expediency, of which he, and he only, can be the judge. This being the rule, not only propriety, but fair dealing requires that all who frequent a court should comply with the conditions that are understood to be implied in the permission. While there exists an exaggerated opinion, on the part of some of our people, on the subject of the fastidiousness of princes, as respects their associates, there exists among others very confused notions on the other side of the question. A monarch usually cares very little about the quarterings and the nobility of the person he receives, but he always wishes his court to be frequented by people of education, accomplishments, and breeding. In Europe these qualities are confined to castes, and, beyond a question, as a general practice, every king would not only prefer, but, were there a necessity for it, he would command that his doors should be closed against all others, unless they came in a character different from that of courtiers. This object has, in effect, been obtained, by establishing a rule, that no one who has not been presented at his own court can claim to be presented at any foreign European court; thus leaving each sovereign to see that no one of his own subjects shall travel with this privilege who would be likely to prove an unpleasant guest to any other prince. But we have neither any prince nor any court, and the minister is left to decide for himself who is, and who is not, proper to be presented.

Let us suppose a case. A master and his servant make a simultaneous request to be presented to the King of France. Both are American citizens, and if either has any political claim, beyond mere courtesy, to have his request attended to, both have. The minister is left to decide for himself. He cannot so far abuse the courtesy that permits him to present his countrymen at all, as to present the domestic, and of course he declines doing it. In this case, perhaps, public opinion would sustain him, as, unluckily, the party of the domestics is small in America, the duties usually falling to the share of foreigners and blacks. But the principle may be carried upwards, until a point is attained where a minister might find it difficult to decide between that which his own sense of propriety should dictate, and that which others might be disposed to claim. All other ministers get rid of their responsibility by the acts of their own courts; but the minister of the republic is left exposed to the calumny, abuse, and misrepresentation of any disappointed individual, should he determine to do what is strictly right.

Under these circumstances, it appears to me that there are but two courses left for any agent of our government to pursue: either to take official rank as his only guide, or to decline presenting any one. It is not his duty to act as a master of ceremonies; every court has a regular officer for this purpose, and any one who has been presented himself, is permitted on proper representations to present others. The trifling disadvantage will be amply compensated for, by the great and peculiar benefits that arise from our peculiar form of government.

These things will quite likely strike you as of little moment. They are, however, of more concern than one living in the simple society of America may at first suppose. The etiquette of visiting has of course an influence on the entire associations of a traveller, and may not be overlooked, while the single fact that one people were practically excluded from the European courts, would have the same effect on their other enjoyments here, that it has to exclude an individual from the most select circles of any particular town. Ordinary life is altogether coloured by things that, in themselves, may appear trifling, but which can no more be neglected with impunity, than one can neglect the varying fashions in dress.

The Americans are not a shoving people, like their cousins the English. Their fault in this particular lies in a morbid pride, with a stubbornness that is the result of a limited experience, and which is too apt to induce them to set up their own provincial notions, as the standard, and to throw them backward into the intrenchments, of self-esteem. This feeling is peculiarly fostered by the institutions. It is easy to err in this manner; and it is precisely the failing of the countryman, everywhere, when he first visits town. It is, in fact, the fault of ignorance of the world. By referring to what I have just told you, it will be seen that these are the very propensities which will be the most likely to make one uncomfortable in Europe, where so much of the initiative of intercourse is thrown upon the shoulders of the stranger.

I cannot conclude this letter without touching on another point, that suggests itself at the moment. It is the fashion to decry the niggardliness of the American government on the subject of money, as compared with those of this hemisphere. Nothing can be more unjust. Our working men are paid better than even those of England, with the exception of a few who have high dignities to support. I do not see the least necessity for giving the President a dollar more than he gets to-day, since all he wants is enough to entertain handsomely, and to shield him from loss. Under our system, we never can have an exclusive court, nor is it desirable, for in this age a court is neither a school of manners, nor a school of anything else that is estimable. These facts are sufficiently proved by England, a country whose mental cultivation and manners never stood as high as they do to-day, and yet it has virtually been without a court for an entire generation. A court may certainly foster taste and elegance; but they may be quite as well fostered by other, and less exclusive, means. But while the President may receive enough, the heads of departments, at home, and the foreign ministers of the country, are not more than half paid, particularly the latter. The present minister is childless, his establishment and his manner of living are both handsome, but not a bit more so than those of a thousand others who inhabit this vast capital, and his intercourse with his colleagues is not greater than is necessary to the interests of his country. Now, I know from his own statement, that his expenses, without a family, exceed by one hundred per cent, his salary. With a personal income of eighty to a hundred thousand francs a years, he can bear this drain on his private fortune, but he is almost the only minister we ever had here who could.

The actual position of our diplomatic agents in Europe is little understood at home. There are but two or three modes of maintaining the rights of a nation, to say nothing of procuring those concessions from others which enter into the commercial relations of states, and in some degree affect their interests. The best method, certainly, as respects the two first, is to manifest a determination to defend them by an appeal to force; but so many conflicting interests stand in the way of such a policy, that it is exceedingly difficult, wisest and safest in the end though it be, to carry it out properly. At any rate, such a course has never yet been in the power of the American government, whatever it may be able to do hereafter, with its increasing numbers and growing wealth. But even strength is not always sufficient to obtain voluntary and friendly concessions, for principle must, in some degree, be respected by the most potent people, or they will be put to the ban of the world. Long diplomatic letters, although they may answer the purposes of ministerial exposés, and read well enough in the columns of a journal, do very little, in fact, as make-weights in negotiations. I have been told here, sub rosâ, and I believe it that some of our laboured efforts, in this way to obtain redress in the protracted negotiation for indemnity, have actually lain months in the bureaux, unread by those who alone have power to settle the question. Some commis perhaps may have cursorily related their contents to his superior, but the superior himself is usually too much occupied in procuring and maintaining ministerial majorities, or in looking after the monopolizing concerns of European politics, to wade through folios of elaborate argument in manuscript. The public ought to understand, that the point presents itself to him in the security of his master's capital, and with little or no apprehension of its coming to an appeal to arms, very differently from what it occasionally presents itself in the pages of a President's message, or in a debate in Congress. He has so many demands on his time, that it is even difficult to have a working interview with him at all; and when one is obtained, it is not usual to do more than to go over the preliminaries. The details are necessarily referred to subordinates.

Now, in such a state of things, any one accustomed to the world, can readily understand how much may be effected by the kind feelings that are engendered by daily, social intercourse. A few words can be whispered in the ears of a minister, in the corner of a drawing-room, that would never reach him in his bureau. Then all the ministers are met in society, while the diplomate, properly speaking, can claim officially to see but one. In short, in saving, out of an overflowing treasury, a few thousand dollars a year, we trifle with our own interests, frequently embarrass our agents, and in some degree discredit the country. I am not one of your sensitives on the subject of parade and appearance, nor a member of the embroidery school; still I would substitute for the irrational frippery of the European customs, a liberal hospitality, and a real elegance, that should speak well for the hearts and tastes of the nation. The salary of the minister at Paris, I know it, by the experience of a housekeeper, ought to be increased by at least one half, and it would tell better for the interests of the country were it doubled. Even in this case, however, I do not conceive that an American would be justified in mistaking the house of an envoy for a national inn; but that the proper light to view his allowances would be to consider them as made, first, as an act of justice to the functionary himself; next, as a measure of expediency, as connected with the important interests of the country. As it is, I am certain that no one but a man of fortune can accept a foreign appointment, without committing injustice to his heirs; and I believe few do accept them without sincerely regretting the step, in after years.

James Fenimore Cooper

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