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Chapter 21

LETTER XXI.

Insecurity of the Bourbons.—Distrust of Americans.—Literary Visitor.
—The Templars.—Presents and Invitations.—A Spy—American Virtue.
—Inconsistency.—Social Freedom in America,—French Mannerists
—National Distinctions.—A lively Reaction.

To R. COOPER, ESQ. COOPERSTOWN.

We all went to bed, a night or two since, as usual, and awoke to learn that there had been a fight in the capital. One of the countless underplots had got so near the surface, that it threw up smoke. It is said, that about fifty were killed and wounded, chiefly on the part of the populace.

The insecurity of the Bourbons is little understood in America. It is little understood even by those Americans who pass a few months in the country, and in virtue of frequenting the cafés, and visiting the theatres, fancy they know the people. Louis XVIII. was more than once on the point of flying, again, between the year 1815 and his death; for since the removal of the allied troops, there is really no force for a monarch to depend on, more especially in and around the capital, the army being quite as likely to take sides against them as for them.

The government has determined on exhibiting vigour, and there was a great show of troops the night succeeding the combat. Curious to see the effect of all this, two or three of us got into a carriage and drove through the streets, about nine o'clock. We found some two or three thousand men on the Boulevards, and the Rue St. Denis, in particular, which had been the scene of the late disorder, was watched with jealous caution. In all, there might have been four or five thousand men under arms. They were merely in readiness, leaving a free passage for carriages, though in some of the narrow streets we found the bayonets pretty near our faces.

An American being supposed ex officio, as it were, to be a well-wisher to the popular cause, there is, perhaps, a slight disposition to look at us with distrust. The opinion of our travellers' generally favouring liberty is, in my judgment, singularly erroneous, the feelings of a majority being, on the whole, just the other way, for, at least, the first year or two of their European experience; though, I think, it is to be noticed, by the end of that time, that they begin to lose sight of the personal interests which, at home, have made them anything but philosophers on such subjects, and to see and appreciate the immense advantages of freedom over exclusion, although the predominance of the former may not always favour their own particular views. Such, at least, has been the result of my own observations, and so far from considering a fresh arrival from home, as being likely to be an accession to our little circle of liberal principles, I have generally deemed all such individuals as being more likely to join the side of the aristocrats or the exclusionists in politics. This is not the moment to enter into an examination of the causes that have led to so singular a contradiction between opinions and facts, though I think the circumstance is not to be denied, for it is now my intention to give you an account of the manner in which matters are managed here, rather than enter into long investigations of the state of society at home.

Not long after my arrival in France, a visit was announced, from a person who was entirely unknown to me, but who called himself a littérateur. The first interview passed off as such interviews usually do, and circumstances not requiring any return on my part, it was soon forgotten. Within a fortnight, however, I received visit the second, when the conversation took a political turn, my guest freely abusing the Bourbons, the aristocrats, and the present state of things in France. I did little more than listen. When the way was thus opened, I was asked if I admired Sir Walter Scott, and particularly what I thought of Ivanhoe, or, rather, if I did not think it an indifferent book. A little surprised at such a question, I told my littérateur, that Ivanhoe appeared to me to be very unequal, the first half being incomparably the best, but that, as a whole, I thought it stood quite at the head of the particular sort of romances to which it belonged. The Antiquary, and Guy Mannering, for instance, were both much nearer perfection, and, on the whole, I thought both better books; but Ivanhoe, especially its commencement, was a noble poem. But did I not condemn the want of historical truth in its pictures? I did not consider Ivanhoe as intended to be history; it was a work of the imagination, in which all the fidelity that was requisite, was enough to be probable and natural, and that requisite I thought it possessed in an eminent degree. It is true, antiquarians accused the author of having committed some anachronisms, by confounding the usages of different centuries, which was perhaps a greater fault, in such a work, than to confound mere individual characters; but of this I did not pretend to judge, not being the least of an antiquary myself. Did I not think he had done gross injustice to the noble and useful order of the Templars? On this point I could say no more than on the preceding, having but a very superficial knowledge of the Templars, though I thought the probabilities seemed to be perfectly well respected. Nothing could seem to be more true, than Scott's pictures. My guest then went into a long vindication of the Templars, stating Scott had done them gross injustice, and concluding with an exaggerated compliment, in which it was attempted to persuade me that I was the man to vindicate the truth, and to do justice to at subject that was so peculiarly connected with liberal principles. I disclaimed the ability to undertake such a task, at all; confessed that I did not wish to disturb the images which Sir Walter Scott had left, had I the ability; and declared I did not see the connexion between his accusation, admitting it to be true, and liberal principles.

My visitor soon after went away, and I saw no more of him for a week, when he came again. On this occasion, he commenced by relating several piquant anecdotes of the Bourbons and their friends, gradually and ingeniously leading the conversation, again, round to his favourite Templars. After pushing me, for half an hour, on this point, always insisting on my being the man to vindicate the order, and harping on its connexion with liberty, he took advantage of one of my often-repeated protestations of ignorance of the whole matter, suddenly to say, "Well, then, Monsieur, go and see for yourself, and you will soon be satisfied that my account of the order is true." "Go and see what?" "The Templars." "There are no longer any." "They exist still." "Where?" "Here, in Paris." "This is new to me: I do not understand it." "The Templars exist; they possess documents to prove how much Scott has misrepresented them, and—but, you will remember that the actual government has so much jealousy of everything it does not control, that secrecy is necessary—and, to be frank with you, M. ——, I am commissioned by the Grand Master, to invite you to be present at a secret meeting, this very week."

Of course, I immediately conjectured that some of the political agitators of the day had assumed this taking guise, in order to combine their means, and carry out their plans.[31] The proposition was gotten rid of, by my stating, in terms that could not be misunderstood, that I was a traveller, and did not wish to meddle with anything that required secrecy, in a foreign government; that I certainly had my own political notions, and if pushed, should not hesitate to avow them anywhere; that the proper place for a writer to declare his sentiments, was in his books, unless under circumstances which authorized him to act; that I did not conceive foreigners were justifiable in going beyond this; that I never had meddled with the affairs of foreign countries, and that I never would; and that the fact of this society's being secret, was sufficient to deter me from visiting it. With this answer, my guest departed, and he never came again.

[Footnote 31: Since the revolution of 1830, these Templars have made public, but abortive efforts, to bring themselves into notice, by instituting some ceremonies, in which they appeared openly in their robes.]

Now, the first impression was, as I have told you, and I supposed my visitor, although a man of fifty, was one of those who innocently lent himself to these silly exaggerations; either as a dupe, or to dupe others. I saw reason, however, to change this opinion.

At the time these visits occurred, I scarcely knew any one in Paris, and was living in absolute retirement—being, as you know already, quite without letters. About ten days after I saw the last of my littérateur, I got a letter from a high functionary of the government, sending me a set of valuable medals. The following day these were succeeded by his card, and an invitation to dinner. Soon after, another person, notoriously connected with court intrigues, sought me out, and overwhelmed me with civilities. In a conversation that shortly after occurred between us, this person gave a pretty direct intimation, that by pushing a little, a certain decoration that is usually conferred on literary men was to be had, if it were desired. I got rid of all these things, in the straight-forward manner, that is the best for upsetting intrigues; and having really nothing to conceal, I was shortly permitted to take my own course.

I have now little doubt that the littérateur was a spy, sent either to sound me on some points connected with Lafayette and the republicans, or possibly to lead me into some difficulty, though I admit that this is no more than conjecture. I give you the facts, which, at the time, struck me as, at least, odd, and you may draw your own conclusions. This, however, is but one of a dozen adventures, more or less similar, that have occurred, and I think it well to mention it, by way of giving you an insight into what sometimes happens here.[32]

[Footnote 32: A conversation, which took place after the revolution of 1830, with one of the parties named, leaves little doubt as to the truth of the original conjecture.]

My rule has been, whenever I am pushed on the subject of politics, to deal honestly and sincerely with all with whom I am brought in contact, and in no manner to leave the impression, that I think the popular form of government an unavoidable evil, to which America is obliged to submit. I do not shut my eyes to the defects of our own system, or to the bad consequences that flow from it, and from it alone; but, the more I see of other countries, the more I am persuaded, that, under circumstances which admit but of a choice of evils, we are greatly the gainers by having adopted it. Although I do not believe every other nation is precisely fitted to imitate us, I think it is their misfortune they are not so. If the inhabitants of other countries do not like to hear such opinions, they should avoid the subject with Americans.

It is very much the custom here, whenever the example of America is quoted in favour of the practicability of republican institutions, to attribute our success to the fact of society's being so simple, and the people so virtuous. I presume I speak within bounds, when I say that I have heard the latter argument urged a hundred times, during the last eighteen months. One lady, in particular, who is exceedingly clever, but who has a dread of all republics, on account of having lost a near friend during the reign of terror, was especially in the practice of resorting to this argument, whenever, in our frequent playful discussions of the subject, I have succeeded in disturbing her inferences, by citing American facts. "Mais, Monsieur, l'Amérique est si jeune, et vous avez les vertus que nous manquons," etc. etc. has always been thought a sufficient answer. Now I happen to be one of those who do not entertain such extravagant notions of the exclusive and peculiar virtues of our own country. Nor have I been so much struck with the profound respect of the Europeans, in general, for those very qualities that, nevertheless, are always quoted as the reason of the success of what is called the "American experiment." Quite the contrary: I have found myself called on, more than once, to repel accusations against our morality of a very serious nature; accusations that we do not deserve; and my impression certainly is, that the American people, so far as they are at all the subjects of observation, enjoy anything but a good name, in Europe. Struck by this flagrant contradiction, I determined to practise on my female friend, a little; a plan that was successfully carried out, as follows.

Avoiding all allusion to politics, so as to throw her completely off her guard, I took care to introduce such subjects as should provoke comparisons on other points, between France and America; or rather, between the latter and Europe generally. As our discussions had a tinge of philosophy, neither being very bigoted, and both preserving perfect good humour, the plot succeeded admirably. After a little time, I took occasion to fortify one of my arguments by a slight allusion to the peculiar virtues of the American people. She was too well-bred to controvert this sort of reasoning at first, until, pushing the point, little by little, she was so far provoked as to exclaim, "You lay great stress on the exclusive virtues of your countrymen, Monsieur, but I have yet to learn that they are so much better than the rest of the world!" "I beg a thousand pardons, Madame, if I have been led into an indiscretion on this delicate subject; but you must ascribe my error to your own eloquence, which, contrary to my previous convictions, had persuaded me into the belief that we have some peculiar unction of this nature, that is unknown in Europe. I now begin to see the mistake, and to understand "que nous autres Américains" are to be considered virtuous only where there is question of the practicability of maintaining republican form of government, and as great rogues on all other occasions." Madame de —— was wise enough, and good-tempered enough, to laugh at the artifice, and the allusion to "nous autres vertueux" has got to be a mot d'ordre with us. The truth is, that the question of politics is exclusively one of personal advantages, with a vast majority of the people of Europe; one set selfishly struggling to maintain their present superiority, while the other is as selfishly, and in some respects as blindly, striving to overturn all that is established, in order to be benefited by the scramble that will follow; and religion, justice, philosophy, and practical good are almost equally remote from the motives of both parties.

From reflecting on such subjects, I have been led into a consideration of the influence of political institutions on the more ordinary relations of society. If the conclusions are generally in favour of popular rights, and what is called freedom, there can be little question that there are one or two weak spots, on our side of the question, that it were better did they not exist. Let us, for the humour of the thing, look a little into these points.

It is a common remark of all foreigners, that there is less social freedom in America than in most other countries of Christendom. By social freedom, I do not mean as relates to the mere forms of society, for in these we are loose rather than rigid; but that one is less a master of his own acts, his own mode of living, his own time, being more rigidly amenable to public opinion, on all these points, than elsewhere. The fact, I believe, out of all question, is true; at least it appears to be true, so far as my knowledge of our own and of other countries extends. Admitting then the fact to be so, it is worth while to throw away a moment in inquiring into the consequent good and evil of such a state of things, as well as in looking for the causes. It is always a great assistant in our study of others, to have some tolerable notions of ourselves.

The control of public opinion has, beyond question, a salutary influence on the moral exterior of a country. The great indifference which the French, and indeed the higher classes of most European countries, manifest to the manner of living of the members of their different circles, so long as certain appearances are respected, may do no affirmative good to society, though at the same time it does less positive harm than you may be disposed to imagine. But this is not the point to which I now allude. Europeans maintain that, in things innocent in themselves, but which are closely connected with the independence of action and tastes of men, the American is less his own master than the inhabitant of this part of the world; and this is the fact I, for one, feel it necessary to concede to them. There can be no doubt that society meddles much more with the private affairs of individuals, and affairs, too, over which it properly has no control, in America than in Europe. I will illustrate what I mean, by an example.

About twenty years since there lived in one of our shiretowns a family, which, in its different branches, had numerous female descendants, then all children. A member of this family, one day, went to a respectable clergyman, his friend, and told him that he and his connexions had so many female children, whom it was time to think of educating, that they had hit upon the plan of engaging some suitable instructress, with the intention of educating their girls all together, both for economy's sake and for convenience, as well as that such near connexions might be brought up in a way to strengthen the family tie. The clergyman warmly remonstrated against the scheme, assuring his friend, that the community would not bear it, and that it would infallibly make enemies! This was the feeling of a very sensible man, and of an experienced divine, and I was myself the person making the application. This is religiously true, and I have often thought of the circumstance since, equally with astonishment and horror.

There are doubtless many parts of America, even, where such an interference with the private arrangement of a family would not be dreamt of; but there is a large portion of the country in which the feeling described by my clerical friend does prevail. Most observers would refer all this to democracy, but I do not. The interference would not proceed from the humblest classes of society at all, but from those nearer one's own level. It would proceed from a determination to bring all within the jurisdiction of a common opinion, or to be revenged on delinquents, by envy, hatred, and all uncharitableness. There is no disposition in America, to let one live as he or she may happen to please to live; the public choosing, though always in its proper circle, to interfere and say how you must live. It is folly to call this by terms as sounding as republicanism or democracy, which inculcate the doctrine of as much personal freedom as at all comports with the public good. He is, indeed, a most sneaking democrat, who finds it necessary to consult a neighbourhood before he can indulge his innocent habits and tastes. It is sheer meddling, and no casuistry can fitly give it any other name.

A portion of this troublesome quality is owing, beyond question, to our provincial habits, which are always the most exacting; but I think a large portion, perhaps I ought to say the largest, is inherited from those pious but exaggerated religionists who first peopled the country. These sectaries extended the discipline of the church to all the concerns of life. Nothing was too minute to escape their cognizance, and a parish sat in judgment on the affairs of all who belonged to it. One may easily live so long in the condition of society that such an origin has entailed on us, as to be quite unconscious of its peculiarities, but I think they can hardly escape one who has lived much beyond its influence.

Here, perhaps, the fault is to be found in the opposite extreme; though there are so many virtues consequent on independence of thought and independence of habits, that I am not sure the good does not equal the evil. There is no canting, and very little hypocrisy, in mere matters of habits, in France; and this, at once, is abridging two of our own most besetting vices. Still the French can hardly be called a very original people. Convention ties them down mercilessly in a great many things. They are less under the influence of mere fashion, in their intercourse, it is true, than some of their neighbours, reason and taste exercising more influence over such matters, in France, than almost anywhere else; but they are mannerists in the fine arts, in their literature, and in all their feelings, if one can use such an expression. The gross exaggerations of the romantic school that is, just now, attracting so much attention, are merely an effort to liberate themselves. But, after allowing for the extreme ignorance of the substratum of society, which, in France, although it forms so large a portion of the whole, should no more be taken into the account in speaking of the national qualities, than the slaves of Carolina should be included in an estimate of the character of the Carolinians, there is, notwithstanding this mannerism, a personal independence here, that certainly does not exist with us. The American goes and comes when he pleases, and no one asks for a passport; he has his political rights, talks of his liberty, swaggers of his advantages, and yet does less as he pleases, even in innocent things, than the Frenchman. His neighbours form a police, and a most troublesome and impertinent one it sometimes proves to be. It is also unjust, for having no legal means of arriving at facts, it half the time condemns on conjecture.

The truth is, our institutions are the result of facts and accidents, and, being necessarily an imitative people, there are often gross inconsistencies between our professions and our practice; whereas the French have had to struggle through their apprenticeship in political rights, by the force of discussions and appeals to reason, and theory is still too important to be entirely overlooked. Perhaps no people understand the true private characters of their public men so little as the Americans, or any people so well as the French. I have never known a distinguished American, in whom it did not appear to me that his popular character was a false one; or a distinguished Frenchman, whom the public did not appear to estimate very nearly as he deserved to be. Even Napoleon, necessary as he is to the national pride, and dazzling as is all military renown, seems to me to be much more justly appreciated at Paris than anywhere else. The practice of meddling can lead to no other result. They who wish to stand particularly fair before the public, resort to deception, and I have heard a man of considerable notoriety in America confess, that he was so much afraid of popular comments, that he always acted as if an enemy were looking over his shoulder. With us, no one scruples to believe that he knows all about a public man, even to the nicest traits of his character; all talk of him, as none should talk but those who are in his intimacy, and, what between hypocrisy on his part—an hypocrisy to which he is in some measure driven by the officious interference with his most private interests—and exaggerations and inventions, that ingenious tyrant, public opinion, comes as near the truth as a fortune-teller who is venturing his prediction in behalf of a stranger.[33]

[Footnote 33: I can give no better illustration of the state of dependence to which men are reduced in America, by this spirit of meddling, than by the following anecdote: A friend was about to build a new town-house, and letting me know the situation, he asked my advice as to the mode of construction. The inconveniences of an ordinary American town-house were pointed out to him,—its unfitness for the general state of society, the climate, the other domestic arrangements, and its ugliness. All were admitted, and the plan proposed in place of the old style of building was liked, but still my friend hesitated about adopting it. "It will be a genteeler and a better-looking house than the other." "Agreed." "It will be really more convenient." "I think so, too." "It will be cheaper." "Of that there is no question." "Then why not adopt it?" "To own the truth, I dare not build differently from my neighbour!"]

In France the right of the citizen to discuss all public matters is not only allowed, but felt. In America it is not felt, though it is allowed. A homage must be paid to the public, by assuming the disguise of acting as a public agent, in America; whereas, in France, individuals address their countrymen, daily, under their own signatures. The impersonality of we, and the character of public journalists, is almost indispensable, with us, to impunity, although the mask can deceive no one, the journalists notoriously making their prints subservient to their private passions and private interests, and being impersonal only in the use of the imperial pronoun. The representative, too, in America, is privileged to teach, in virtue of his collective character, by the very men who hold the extreme and untenable doctrine of instruction! It is the fashion to say in America, that the people will rule! it would be nearer the truth, however, to say, the people will seem to rule.

I think that these distinctions are facts, and they certainly lead to odd reflections. We are so peculiarly situated as a nation, that one is not to venture on conclusions too hastily. A great deal is to be imputed to our provincial habits; much to the circumstance of the disproportion between surface and population, which, by scattering the well-bred and intelligent, a class at all times relatively small, serves greatly to lessen their influence in imparting tone to society; something to the inquisitorial habits of our pious forefathers, who appear to have thought that the charities were nought, and, in the very teeth of revelation, that Heaven was to be stormed by impertinences; while a good deal is to be conceded to the nature of a popular government whose essential spirit is to create a predominant opinion, before which, right or wrong, all must bow until its cycle shall be completed. Thus it is, that we are always, more or less, under one of two false influences, the blow or its rebound; action that is seldom quite right, or reaction that is always wrong; sinning heedlessly, or repeating to fanaticism. The surest process in the world, of "riding on to fortune" in America, is to get seated astride a lively "reaction," which is rather more likely to carry with it a unanimous sentiment, than even the error to which it owes its birth.

As much of this weakness as is inseparable from humanity exists here, but it exists under so many modifying circumstances, as, in this particular, to render France as unlike America as well may be. Liberty is not always pure philosophy nor strict justice, and yet, as a whole, it is favourable to both. These are the spots on the political sun. To the eye which seeks only the radiance and warmth of the orb, they are lost; but he who studies it, with calmness and impartiality, sees them too plainly to be in any doubt of their existence.

James Fenimore Cooper

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