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Chapter 23

LETTER XXIII.

Democracy in America and in Switzerland.—European Prejudices.—Influence of Property.—Nationality of the Swiss.—Want of Local Attachments in Americans.—Swiss Republicanism.—Political Crusade against America.—Affinities between America and Russia.—Feeling of the European Powers towards Switzerland.

Dear ——,

It is a besetting error with those who write of America, whether as travellers, political economists, or commentators on the moral features of ordinary society, to refer nearly all that is peculiar in the country to the nature of its institutions. It is scarcely exaggerated to say that even its physical phenomena are ascribed to its democracy. Reflecting on this subject, I have been struck by the fact that no such flights of the imagination are ever indulged in by those who speak of Switzerland. That which is termed the rudeness of liberty and equality, with us, becomes softened down here into the frankness of mountaineers, or the sturdy independence of republicans; what is vulgarity on the other side of the Atlantic, is unsophistication on this, and truculence in the States dwindles to be earnest remonstrances in the cantons!

There undeniably exist marked points of difference between the Swiss and the Americans. The dominion of a really popular sway is admitted nowhere here, except in a few unimportant mountain cantons, that are but little known, and which, if known, would not exercise a very serious influence on any but their own immediate inhabitants. With us, the case is different. New York and Pennsylvania and Ohio, for instance, with a united population of near five millions of souls, are as pure democracies as can exist under a representative form of government, and their trade, productions, and example so far connect them with the rest of Christendom, as to render them objects of deep interest to all who look beyond the present moment, in studying the history of man.

We have States, however, in which the franchise does not materially differ from those of many of the cantons, and yet we do not find that strangers make any material exceptions even in their favour. Few think of viewing the States in which there are property qualifications, in a light different from those just named; nor is a disturbance in Virginia deemed to be less the consequence of democratic effervescence, than it is in Pennsylvania.

There must be reasons for all this. I make no doubt they are to be found in the greater weight of the example of a large and growing community, of active commercial and political habits, than in one like this, which is satisfied with simply maintaining a quiet and secure existence; in our total rejection of the usual aristocratical distinctions which still exist, more or less, all over Switzerland; in the jealousy of commercial and maritime power, and in the recollections which are inseparable from the fact that the parties once stood to each other, in the relation of principals and dependants. This latter feeling, an unavoidable consequence of metropolitan sway, is more general than you may imagine, for, as nearly all Europe once had colonies, the feelings of superiority they uniformly excite, have as naturally led to jealousy of the rising importance of our hemisphere. You may smile at the suggestion, but I do not remember a single European in whom, under proper opportunities, I have not been able to trace some lingering feeling of the old notion of the moral and physical superiority of the man of Europe over the man of America. I do not say that all I have met have betrayed this prejudice, for in not one case in ten have I had the means to probe them; but such, I think, has uniformly been the case, though in very different degrees, whenever the opportunity has existed.

Though the mountain, or the purely rural population, here, possess more independence and frankness of manner than those who inhabit the towns and advanced valleys, neither has them in so great a degree, as to leave plausible grounds for believing that the institutions are very essentially connected with the traits. Institutions may depress men below what may be termed the natural level of feeling in this respect, as in the case of slavery; but, in a civilized society, where property has its influence, I much question if any political regulations can raise them above it. After allowing for the independence of manner and feeling that are coincident to easy circumstances, and which is the result of obvious causes, I know no part of America in which this is not also the fact. The employed is, and will be everywhere, to a certain point, dependent on his employer, and the relations between the two cannot fail to bring forth a degree of authority and submission, that will vary according to the character of individuals and the circumstances of the moment.

I infer from this that the general aspects of society, after men cease to be serfs and slaves, can never be expected to vary essentially from each other, merely on account of the political institutions, except, perhaps, as those institutions themselves may happen to affect their temporal condition. In other words, I believe that we are to look more to property and to the absence or presence of facilities of living, for effects of this nature, than to the breadth or narrowness of constituencies.

The Swiss, as is natural from their greater antiquity, richer recollections, and perhaps from their geographical position, are more national than the Americans. With us, national pride and national character exist chiefly in the classes that lie between the yeomen and the very bottom of the social scale; whereas, here, I think the higher one ascends, the stronger the feeling becomes. The Swiss moreover is pressed upon by his wants, and is often obliged to tear himself from his native soil, in order to find the means of subsistence; and yet very few of them absolutely expatriate themselves.

The emigrants that are called Swiss in America, either come from Germany, or are French Germans, from Alsace and Lorrain. I have never met with a migration of a body of true Swiss, though some few cases probably have existed. It would be curious to inquire how far the noble nature of the country has an influence in producing their strong national attachments. The Neapolitans love their climate, and would rather be Lazzaroni beneath their sun, than gentlemen in Holland, or England. This is simple enough, as it depends on physical indulgence. The charm that binds the Swiss to his native mountains, must be of a higher character, and is moral in its essence.

The American character suffers from the converse of the very feeling which has an effect so beneficial on that of the Swiss. The migratory habits of the country prevent the formation of the intensity of interest, to which the long residence of a family in a particular spot gives birth, and which comes, at last, to love a tree, or a hill, or a rock, because they are the same tree, and hill, and rock, that have been loved by our fathers before us. These are attachments that depend on sentiment rather than on interest, and which are as much purer and holier, as virtuous sentiment is purer and holier than worldly interestedness. In this moral feature, therefore, we are inferior to all old nations, and to the Swiss in particular, I think, as their local attachments are both quickened and heightened by the exciting and grand objects that surround them. The Italians have the same local affections, in a still stronger degree; for with a nature equally, or even more winning, they have still prouder and more-remote recollections.

I do not believe the Swiss, at heart, are a bit more attached to their institutions than we are ourselves; for, while I complain of the tone of so many of our people, I consider it, after all, as the tone of people who, the means of comparison having been denied them, neither know that which they denounce, nor that which they extol. Apart from the weakness of wishing for personal distinctions, however, I never met with a Swiss gentleman, who appeared to undervalue his institutions. They frequently, perhaps generally, lament the want of greater power in the confederation; but, as between a monarchy and a republic, so far as my observation goes, they are uniformly Swiss. I do not believe there is such a thing, in all the cantons, as a man, for instance, who pines for the Prussian despotism! They will take service under kings, be their soldiers, body-guards—real Dugald Dalgettys—but when the question comes to Switzerland, one and all appear to think that the descendants of the companions of Winkelried and Stauffer must be republicans. Now, all this may be because there are few in the condition of gentlemen, in the democratic cantons, and the gentlemen of the other parts of the confederation prefer that things should be as they are (or rather, so lately were, for the recent changes have hardly had time to make an impression), to putting a prince in the place of the aristocrats. Self is so prominent in everything of this nature, that I feel no great faith in the generosity of men. Still I do believe that time and history, and national pride, and Swiss morgue, have brought about a state of feeling that would indispose them to bow down to a Swiss sovereign.

A policy is observed by the other states of Europe towards this confederation, very different from that which is, or perhaps it would be better to say, has been observed toward us. As respects ourselves, I have already observed it was my opinion, there would have been a political crusade got up against us, had not the recent changes taken place in Europe, and had the secret efforts to divide the Union failed. Their chief dependence, certainly, is on our national dissensions; but as this would probably fail them, I think we should have seen some pretence for an invasion. The motive would be the strong necessity which existed for destroying the example of a republic, or rather of a democracy, that was getting to be too powerful. Strange as you may think it, I believe our chief protection in such a struggle would have been Russia.

We hear and read a great deal about the "Russian bear," but it will be our own fault if this bear does us any harm. Let the Edinburgh Review, the advocate of mystified liberalism, prattle as much as it choose, on this topic, it becomes us to look at the subject like Americans. There are more practical and available affinities between America and Russia, at this very moment, than there is between America and any other nation in Europe. They have high common political objects to obtain, and Russia has so little to apprehend from the example of America, that no jealousy of the latter need interrupt their harmony. You see the counterpart of this in the present condition of France and Russia. So far as their general policy is concerned, they need not conflict, but rather ought to unite, and yet the mutual jealousy on the subject of the institutions keeps them alienated, and almost enemies. Napoleon, it is true, said that these two nations, sooner or later, must fight for the possession of the east, but it was the ambition of the man, rather than the interests of his country, that dictated the sentiment. The France of Napoleon, and the France of Louis-Philippe, are two very different things.

Now, as I have told you, Switzerland is regarded by the powers who would crush America, with other eyes. I do not believe that a congress of Europe would convert this republic into a monarchy, if it could, to-morrow. Nothing essential would be gained by such a measure, while a great deal might be hazarded. A king must have family alliances, and these alliances would impair the neutrality it is so desirable to maintain. The cantons are equally good, as outworks, for France, Austria, Bavaria, Wurtemburg, Lombardy, Sardinia, and the Tyrol. All cannot have them, and all are satisfied to keep them as a defence against their neighbours. No one hears, in the war of opinion, that is going on here, the example of the Swiss quoted on the side of liberty! For this purpose, they appear to be as totally out of view, as if they had no existence.




James Fenimore Cooper

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