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Chapter 19

LETTER XIX.

The Leman Lake.—Excursions on it.—The coast of Savoy.—Grandeur and beauty of the Rocks.—Sunset.—Evening Scene.—American Families residing on the banks of the Lake.—Conversation with a Vévaisan on the subject of America.—The Nullification Question.—America misrepresented in Europe.—Rowland Stephenson in the United States.—Unworthy arts to bring America into disrepute.—Blunders of Europe in respect of America.—The Kentuckians.—Foreign Associations in the States.—Illiberal Opinions of many Americans.—Prejudices.


Dear ——,

Our residence at Vévey, thus far, has been fruitful of pleasure. The lake, with its changeful aspects and movement, wears better even than the Oberland Alps, and we have now become thoroughly convinced of our mistake in establishing ourselves at Berne, beautiful as is that place, in 1828. The motive was a desire to be central, but Switzerland is so small that the distances are of no great moment, and I would advise all our friends who intend to pass a summer in the cantons, and who have need of a house, to choose their station somewhere on the shores of the Leman. Two steam-boats ply daily in different directions, and it is of little consequence at which end one may happen to be. Taking everything into consideration "mon lac est le premier" is true; though it may be questioned if M. de Voltaire ever saw, or had occasion to see, half of its advantages.

We never tire of the Leman, but spend two or three hours every day in the boat. Sometimes we row in front of the town, which literally stands in the water, in some places, musing on the quaint old walls, and listening to the lore of honest John, who moves two crooked oars as leisurely as a lady of the tropic utters, but who has seen great events in his time. Sometimes even this lazy action is too much for the humour of the moment, and we are satisfied with drifting along the shore, for there is generally current enough to carry us the whole length of Vévey in half an hour. Occasionally we are tossed about like an egg-shell, the winds at a distance soon throwing this part of the sheet into commotion. On the whole, however, we have, as yet, had little besides calms, and, what is unusual in Switzerland, not a drop of rain.

We have no reason to suspect the lake to be unhealthy, for we are often out until after sunset, without experiencing any ill effects. The shores are everywhere bold about Vévey, though the meadows and the waters meet near the entrance of the Rhone, some eight or ten miles from this place, in a way to raise the thoughts of rushes and lilies, and a suspicion of fevers. The pure air and excellent food of the mountains, however, have done us all good thus far, and we are looking eagerly forward to the season of grapes, which is drawing near, and which every body says make those who are perfectly well, infinitely better.

I have not yet spoken to you of the greatest charm in the scenery of Vévey, and the one which perhaps has given us the highest degree of satisfaction. The coast of Savoy, immediately opposite the town, is a range of magnificent rocks, that rises some four or five thousand feet above the surface of the water. In general these precipices are nearly perpendicular, though their surfaces are broken by huge ravines, that may well be termed valleys. This is the region that impends over Meillerie, St. Gingoulph, and Evian, towns or hamlets that cling to the bases of the mountains, and form, of themselves, beautiful objects, from this side of the lake. The distance from Vévey to the opposite shore, agreeably to the authority of old John, our boatman, is about five miles, though the great purity of the atmosphere and the height of the land make it appear less. The summit of the rocks of Savoy are broken into the most fantastical forms, so beautifully and evenly drawn, though they are quite irregular and without design, that I have termed them natural arabesques. No description can give you an accurate idea of their beauty, for I know nothing else in nature to compare them to. As they lie nearly south of us, I cannot account for the unusual glow of the atmosphere behind them, at every clear sunset, except from the reflection of the glaciers; Mont Blanc lying in that direction, at the distance of about fifty miles, though invisible. Now the effect of the outline of these rocks, at, or after sunset, relieved by a soft, golden sky, is not only one of the finest sights of Switzerland, but, in its way, is just the most perfect spectacle I have ever beheld. It is not so apt to extort sudden admiration, as the rosy tints and spectral hues of the high Alps, at the same hour; but it wins on you, in the way the lonely shadows of the Apennines grow on the affections, and, so far from tiring or becoming satisfied with their view, each successive evening brings greater delight than the last. You may get some idea of what I mean, by imagining vast arabesques, rounded and drawn in a way that no art can equal, standing out huge, and dark, and grand, in high relief, blending sublimity with a bewitching softness, against a sky. whose light is slowly passing from the glow of fiery gold, to the mildest tints of evening. I scarcely know when this scene is most to be admired; when the rocks appear distinct and brown, showing their material, and the sky is burnished; or when the first are nearly black masses, on whose surfaces nothing is visible, and the void beyond is just pregnant with sufficient light to expose their exquisite forms. Perhaps this is the perfection of the scene, for the gloom of the hour throws a noble mystery over all.

These are the sights that form the grandest features in Swiss scenery. That of the high peaks cut off from the earth by the clouds, is perhaps the most extraordinary of them all; but I think this of the rocks of Savoy the one that wins the most on the affections, although this opinion is formed from a knowledge of the general fact that objects which astonish so greatly at first, do not, as a rule, continue the longest to afford pleasure, for I never saw the former spectacle but twice and on one of those occasions, imperfectly. No dilettanti were ever more punctual at the opening of the orchestra, than we are at this evening exhibition, which, very much like a line and expressive harmony, grows upon us at each repetition. All this end of the lake, as we float lazily before the town, with the water like a mirror, the acclivity behind the town gradually darkening upward under the retiring light, the remote Alpine pastures just throwing out their chalets, the rocks of Savoy and the sublime glen of the Rhone, with the glacier of Mont Velan in its depths, raising its white peak into the broad day long after evening has shadowed everything below, forms the most perfect natural picture I have ever seen.

You can easily fancy how much we enjoy all this. John and his boat have been in requisition nearly every evening since our arrival; and the old fellow has dropped so readily into our humours, that his oars rise and fall in a way to produce a melancholy ripple, and little else. The sympathy between us is perfect, and I have almost fancied that his oars daily grow more crooked and picturesque.

We are not alone, however, in the possession of so much natural beauty. No less than seven American families, including ourselves, are either temporarily established on or quite near this lake, or are leisurely moving around its banks. The fame of the beauty of the women has already reached our ears, though, sooth to say, a reputation of that sort is not very difficult of attainment in this part of the world. With one of these families we were intimate in Italy, the tie of country being a little increased by the fact that some of their connexions were also ours. They hurried from Lausanne to meet us, the moment they were apprized of our arrival, and the old relations have been re-established between us. Since this meeting excursions have been planned, and it is probable that I may have something to communicate, in reference to them.

A day or two since I met a Vévaisan on the public promenade, with whom business had led to a slight acquaintance. We saluted, and pursued our walk together. The conversation soon turned on the news from America, where nullification is, just now, menacing disunion. The Swiss are the only people, in Europe, who appear to me to feel any concern in what has been generally considered to be a crisis in our affairs. I do not wish to be understood as saying that individuals of other nations do not feel the same friendly interest in our prosperity, for perhaps a million such might be enumerated in the different nations of Europe, the extreme liberals everywhere looking to our example as so much authority in favour of their doctrines; but, after excluding the mass, who have too much to do to live, to trouble themselves with concerns so remote, so far as my knowledge extends, the great majority on this side the Atlantic, without much distinction of country, Switzerland excepted, are waiting with confidence and impatience for the knell of the Union. I might repeat to you many mawkish and unmeaning declarations to the contrary of all this, but I deem them to be mere phrases of society to which no one, in the least acquainted with the world, can attach any importance; and which, as they have never deceived me, I cannot wish should be made the means of deceiving you. Men generally hesitate to avow in terms, the selfishness and illiberality that regulate all their acts and wishes, and he who is credulous enough to mistake words for deeds, or even thoughts, in this quarter of the world, will soon become the dupe of more than half of those he meets. I believe I never mentioned to you an anecdote of Sir James Mackintosh, which bears directly on this subject. It was at a dinner given by Sir ——, that some one inquired if he (Sir James Mackintosh) had ever discovered the author of a certain libellous attack on himself. "Not absolutely, though I have no doubt that —— was the person. I suspected him at once; but meeting him in Pall Mall, soon after the article appeared, he turned round and walked the whole length of the street with me, covering me with protestations of admiration and esteem, and then I felt quite sure of my man!"

My Vévaisan made many inquiries as to the probable result of the present struggle, and appeared greatly gratified when I told him that I apprehended no serious danger to the republic. I made him laugh by mentioning the opinion of the witty Abbé Correa, who said, "The Americans are great talkers on political subjects; you would think they were about to fly to their arms, and just as you expect a revolution, they go home and drink tea." My acquaintance was anxious to know if our government had sufficient strength to put down nullification by force, for he had learned there was but a single sloop of war, and less than a battalion of troops, in the disaffected part of the country. I told him we possessed all the means that are possessed in other countries to suppress rebellion, although we had not thought it necessary to resort to the same system of organization. Our government was mild in principle, and did not wish to oppress even minorities; but I made no doubt of the attachment of a vast majority to the Union, and, when matters really came to a crisis, if rational compromise could not effect the object, I thought nine men in ten would rally in its defence. I did not believe that even civil war was to produce results in America different from what it produced elsewhere. Men would fight in a republic as they fought in monarchies, until they were tired, and an arrangement would follow. It was not common for a people of the same origin, of similar habits, and contiguous territory, to dismember an empire by civil war, unless violence had been used in bringing them together, or conquest had first opened the way to disunion. I did not know that we were always to escape the evils of humanity any more than others, or why they were to fall heavier on us, when they proceeded from the same causes, than on our neighbours. As respects the small force in Carolina, I thought it argued our comparative strength, rather than our comparative weakness. Here were loud threats of resistance, organized and even legal means to effect it, and yet the laws were respected, when sustained by only a sloop of war and two companies of artillery. If France were to recall her battalions from La Vendée, Austria her divisions from Italy, Russia her armies from Poland, or England her troops from India or Ireland, we all know that those several countries would be lost, in six months, to their present possessors. As we had our force in reserve, it really appeared to me that either our disaffection was very different from the disaffection of Europe, or that our institutions contained some conservative principle that did not usually exist in this hemisphere. My Vévaisan was curious to know to which of these circumstances I ascribed the present quiet in Carolina. I told him to both. The opposition in that state, as a whole, were honest in their views; and, though some probably meant disunion, the greater part did not. It was a governing principle of our system to seek redress by appeals to the source of power, and the majority were probable looking still, to that quarter, of relief. Under other systems, rebellion, nine times in ten, having a different object, would not be checked by this expectation.

The Swiss listened to all this attentively, and remarked that America had been much misrepresented in Europe, and that the opinion was then getting to be general in his country, from improper motives. He told me that a great deal had been said about the proceedings in the case of Rowland Stephenson, and he frankly asked me to explain them; for, being a commercial man, he admitted that injurious impressions had been made even on himself in relation to that affair. This was the third Swiss who had alluded to this subject, the other two instances occurring at Rome. In the latter cases, I understood pretty distinctly that there were reports current that the Americans were so desirous of obtaining rich emigrants, that they had rescued a criminal in order to reap the benefit of his gold!

Of course I explained the matter, by simply stating the facts, adding, that the case was an admirable illustration of the treatment America had received from Europe, ever since 1776. An Englishman, a member of Parliament, by the way, had absconded from his own country, taking shelter in ours, by the mere accident of meeting at sea a Swedish brig bound thither. A reward was offered for his arrest, and certain individuals had taken on themselves, instigated by whom I know not, to arrest him on a retired road, in Georgia, and to bring him covertly within the jurisdiction of New York, with the intention to send him clandestinely on board a packet bound to Europe. Now a grosser abuse than an act like this could not well be committed. No form of law was observed, and the whole proceeding was a violation of justice, and of the sovereignty of the two states interested. It is true the man arrested was said to be guilty of gross fraud; but where such practices obtain, guilt will soon cease to be necessary in order to commit violence. The innocent may be arrested wrongfully, too. As soon as the circumstances became known, an application was made to the proper authorities for relief, which was granted on a principle that obtained in all civilized countries, where right is stronger than might. Had any one been transferred from Canada to England, under similar circumstances, he would have been entitled to the same relief, and there is not a jurist in England who does not know the fact; and yet this transaction, which, if it redound to the discredit of either nation at all, (an exaggerated opinion, I admit,) must redound to the discredit of that which produced the delinquent, and actually preferred him to one of its highest legislative stations, has been so tortured all over Europe, as to leave an impression unfavourable to America!

Now I tell you, dear ——, as I told my Vévaisan, that this case is a very fair example of the manner in which, for seven years, I have now been an attentive observer of the unworthy arts used to bring us into disrepute. The power to injure, in order to serve their own selfish views, which old-established and great nations possess over one like our own, is not fully appreciated in America, nor do we attach sufficient importance to the consequences. I am not conscious of a disposition to shut my eyes to our own peculiar national defects, more especially since the means of comparison have rendered me more sensible of their nature and existence; but nothing can be more apparent to any man of ordinary capacity, who has enjoyed the opportunities necessary to form a correct judgment, than the fact, that the defects usually imputed to us here, such as the want of morals, honesty, order, decency, liberality, and religion, are, in truth, as the world goes, the strong points of American character; while some of those on which we are a little too apt to pride ourselves,—intelligence, taste, manners, and education, for instance, as applied to all beyond the base of society,—are, in truth, those on which it would most become us to be silent. Others may tell you differently, especially those who are under the influence of the "trading humanities," a class that is singularly addicted to philanthropy or vituperation, as the balance-sheet happens to show variations of profit and loss.

I told my Swiss that one of the reasons why Europe made so many blunders in her predictions about America, was owing to the fact that she sought her information in sources ill qualified, and, perhaps, ill disposed to impart it. Most of the information of this nature that either entered or left America, came, like her goods, through two or three great channels, or sea-ports, and these were thronged with the natives of half the countries of Europe; commercial adventurers, of whom not one in five ever got to feel or think like Americans. These men, in some places, possess even a direct influence over a portion of the press, and by these means, as well as by their extended correspondence, they disseminate erroneous notions of the country abroad. The cities themselves, as a rule, or rather the prominent actors in the towns, do not represent the tone of the nation, as is proved on nearly every distinctive political question that arises, by the towns almost uniformly being found in the minority, simply because they are purely trading communities, follow the instinct of their varying interests, and are ready to shout in the rear of any leader who may espouse them. Now these foreign merchants, as a class, are always found on the side which is the most estranged from the regular action of the institutions of the country. In America, intelligence is not confined to the towns; but, as a rule, there is less of it there than among the rural population. As a proof of the errors which obtain on the subject of America in Europe, I instanced the opinion which betrayed itself in England, the nation which ought to know us best, during the war of 1812. Feeling a commercial jealousy itself, its government naturally supposed her enemies were among the merchants, and that her friends were to be found in the interior. The fact would have exactly reversed this opinion, an opinion whose existence is betrayed in a hundred ways, and especially in the publications of the day. It was under this notion that our invaders made an appeal to the Kentuckians for support! Now, there was not, probably, a portion of the earth where less sympathy was to be found for England than in Kentucky, or, in short, along the whole western frontier of America, where, right or wrong, the people attribute most of their Indian wars to the instigation of that power. Few foreigners took sufficient interest in the country to probe such a feeling; and England, being left to her crude conjectures, and to theories of her own, had probably been thus led into one of the most absurd of all the blunders of this nature that she could possibly have committed. I believe that a large proportion of the erroneous notions which exist in Europe, concerning American facts, proceed from the prejudices of this class of the inhabitants.[36]


In order to appreciate the influence of such a class of men, it is necessary to recollect their numbers, wealth, and union, it has often been a source of mortification to me to see the columns of the leading journals of the largest town of the republic, teeming with reports of the celebrations of English, Irish, German, French, and Scotch societies; and in which the sentiments promulgated, half of the time, are foreign rather than American. Charitable associations, as charities, may be well enough, but the institutions of the country, so generous and liberal in themselves, are outraged by every factitious attempt to overshadow them by these appeals to the prejudices and recollections of another state of society. At least, we might be spared the parade in the journals, and the offensive appearance of monopolizing the land, which these accounts assume. Intelligent travellers observe and comment on these things, and one of them quaintly asked me, not long since, "if really there were no Americans in America?" Can it be matter of surprise that when the stranger sees these men so prominent in print and in society, (in many instances quite deservedly), he should mistake their influence, and attach an importance to their opinions which they do not deserve? That Europe has been receiving false notions of America from some source, during the present century, is proved by the results so completely discrediting her open predictions; and, while I know that many Americans have innocently aided in the deception, I have little doubt that the foreign merchants established in the country have been one of the principal causes of the errors.

It is only necessary to look back within our own time, to note the progress of opinion, and to appreciate the value of those notions that some still cherish, as containing all that is sound and true in human policy. Thirty years ago, the opinion that it was unsafe to teach the inferior classes to read, "as it only enabled then to read bad books," was a common and favourite sentiment of the upper classes in England. To-day, it is a part of the established system of Austria to instruct her people! I confess that I now feel mortified and grieved when I meet with an American gentleman who professes anything but liberal opinions, as respects the rights of his fellow-creatures. Although never illiberal, I trust, I do not pretend that my own notions have not undergone changes, since, by being removed from the pressure of the society in which I was born, my position, perhaps, enables me to look around, less influenced by personal considerations than is usual; but one of the strongest feelings created by an absence of so many years from he me, is the conviction that no American can justly lay claim to be, what might be and ought to be the most exalted of human beings, the milder graces of the Christian character excepted, an American gentleman, without this liberality entering thoroughly into the whole composition of his mind. By liberal sentiments, however, I do not mean any of the fraudulent cant that is used, in order to delude the credulous; but the generous, manly determination to let all enjoy equal political rights, and to bring those to whom authority is necessarily confided, as far as practicable, under the control of the community they serve. Opinions like these have little in common with the miserable devices of demagogues, who teach the doctrine that the people are infallible; or that the aggregation of fallible parts, acting, too, with diminished responsibilities, form an infallible whole; which is a doctrine almost as absurd as that which teaches us to believe "the people are their own worst enemies;" a doctrine, which, if true, ought to induce those who profess it, to forbid any man from managing his own affairs, but compel him to confide them to the management of others; since the elementary principle is the same in communities and individuals, and, as regards interests, neither would go wrong unless deceived.

I shall not conceal from you the mortification and regret I have felt at discovering, from this distance, and it is more easily discovered from a distance than when near by, how far, how very far, the educated classes of America are, in opinion, (in my poor judgment, at least), behind the fortunes of the country. Notions are certainly still entertained at home, among this class, that are frankly abandoned here, by men of any capacity, let their political sect be what it may; and I have frequently seen assertions and arguments used, in Congress, that, I think, the dullest Tory would now hesitate about using in Parliament. I do not say that certain great prejudices are not yet prevalent in England, that are exploded with us; but my remark applies to some of the old and cherished theories of government, which have been kept alive as theories in England, long after they have ceased to be recognised in practice, and some of which, indeed, like that of the doctrine of a balance between different powers in the state, never had any other than a theoretical existence, at all. The absurd doctrine just mentioned has many devout believers, at this moment, in America, when a moment's examination must show its fallacy. The democracy of a country, in the nature of things, will possess its physical force. Now give to the physical force of a community an equal political power, and the moment it finds itself gravely interested in supporting or defeating any measure, it will fall back on its strength, set the other estates at defiance, and blow your boasted balance of power to the winds! There never has been an active democratical feature in the government of England; nor have the commons, since they have enjoyed anything like independence, been aught but an auxiliary to the aristocracy, in a modified form. While the king was strong, the two bodies united to put him down, and, as he got to be weak, they gradually became identified, to reap the advantages. What is to come remains to be seen.




James Fenimore Cooper

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