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Chapter 26

LETTER XXVI.

Approach of Winter.—The Livret.—Regulations respecting Servants.—Servants in America.—Governments of the different Cantons of Switzerland.—Engagement of Mercenaries.—Population of Switzerland.—Physical Peculiarities of the Swiss.—Women of Switzerland.—Mrs. Trollope and the American Ladies.—Affected manner of Speaking in American Women.—Patois in America.—Peculiar manner of Speaking at Vévey.—Swiss Cupidity.

Dear ——,

The season is giving warning for all intruders to begin to think of quitting the cantons. We have not been driven to fires, as in 1828, for Vévey is not Berne; but the evenings are beginning to be cool, and a dash of rain, with a foaming lake, are taken to be symptoms, here, as strong as a frost would be there. Speaking of Berne, a little occurrence has just recalled the Burgerschaft, which, shorn of its glory as it is, had some most praiseworthy regulations. During our residence near that place, I hired a Bernois, as a footman, discharging the man, as a matter of course, on our departure for Italy. Yesterday I got a doleful letter from this poor fellow, informing me, among a series of other calamities, that he had had the misfortune to lose his livret, and begging I would send him such testimonials of character, as it might suit my sense of justice to bestow. It will be necessary to explain a little, in order that you may know what this livret is.

The commune, or district, issues to the domestics, a small certified blank book (livret), in which all the evidences of character are to be entered. The guides have the same, and in many instances, I believe, they are rendered necessary by law. The free-trade system, I very well know, would play the deuce with these regulations; but capital regulations they are, and I make no doubt, that the established fidelity of the Swiss, as domestics, is in some measure owing to this excellent arrangement. If men and women were born servants, it might a little infringe on their natural rights, to be sure; but as even a von Erlach or a de Bonestetten would have to respect the regulation, were they to don a livery, I see no harm in a livret. Now, by means of this little book, every moment of a domestic's time might be accounted for, he being obliged to explain what he was about in the interregnums. All this, to be sure, might be done by detached certificates, but neither so neatly nor so accurately; for a man would pretend a need, that he had lost a single certificate, oftener than he would pretend that he had lost those he really had, or in other words, his book. Besides, the commune gives some relief, I believe, when such a calamity can be proved, as proved it probably might be. In addition, the authorities will not issue a livret to any but those who are believed to be trust-worthy. Of course I sent the man a character, so far as I was concerned, for he had conducted himself perfectly well during the short time he was in my service.

A regulation like this could not exist in a very large town, without a good deal of trouble, certainly; and yet what is there of more moment to the comfort of a population, than severe police regulations on the subject of servants? America is almost—perhaps the only civilized country in which the free-trade system is fully carried out in this particular, and carried out it is with a vengeance. We have the let-alone policy, in puris naturalibus, and everything is truly let alone, but the property of the master. I do not wish, however, to ascribe effects to wrong causes. The dislike to being a servant in America, has arisen from the prejudice created by our having slaves. The negroes being of a degraded caste, by insensible means their idea is associated with service; and the whites shrink from the condition. This fact is sufficiently proved by the circumstance that he who will respectfully and honestly do your bidding in the field—be a farm-servant, in fact—will not be your domestic servant. There is no particular dislike in our people to obey, and to be respectful and attentive to their duties, as journeymen, farm-labourers, day-labourers, seamen, soldiers, or anything else, domestic servants excepted, which is just the duties they have been accustomed to see discharged by blacks and slaves. This prejudice is fast weakening, whites taking service more readily than formerly, and it is found that, with proper training, they make capital domestics, and are very faithful. In time the prejudice will disappear, and men will come to see it is more creditable to be trusted about the person and house, than to be turned into the fields.

It is just as difficult to give a minute account of the governments of the different cantons of Switzerland, as it is to give an account of the different state governments of America. Each differs, in some respect, from all the others; and there are so many of them in both cases, as to make it a subject proper only for regular treatises. I shall therefore confine the remarks I have to make on this subject to a few general facts.

Previously to the recent changes, there were twenty-two cantons; a number that the recent secession of Neufchâtel has reduced to twenty-one.[43] Until the French revolution, the number was not so great, many of the present cantons being then associated less intimately with the confederation, as allies, and some of them being held as political dependents, by those that were cantons. Thus Vaud and Argovie were both provinces, owned and ruled by Berne.

The system is that of a confederation, which leaves each of its members to do pretty much as it pleases, in regard to its internal affairs. The central government is conducted by a Diet, very much as our affairs were formerly managed by the old Congress. In this Diet, each canton has one vote. The executive power, such as it is, is wielded by a committee or council. Its duties do not extend much beyond being the organ of communication between the Diet and the Cantons, the care of the treasury (no great matter), and the reception of, and the treating with, foreign ministers. The latter duty, however, and indeed all other acts, are subject to a revision by the Diet.

Although the cantons themselves are only known to the confederation as they are enrolled on its list, many of them are subdivided into local governments that are perfectly independent of each other. Thus there are two Unterwaldens in fact, though only one in the Diet; two Appenzells, also; and I may add, half a dozen Grisons and Valais. In other words, the two Unterwaldens are absolutely independent of each other, except as they are connected through the confederation, though they unite to choose common delegates to the Diet, in which they are known as only one canton, and possess but one vote. The same is true of Appenzell, and will soon, most probably, be true of Schweitz and Basle; in both of which there are, at this moment, serious dissensions that are likely to lead to internal separations.[44] The Grisons is more of a consolidated canton than these examples, but it is subdivided into leagues, which have a good many strong features of independence. The same is true of Valais, where the subdivisions are termed dizains. The Diet does little beyond controlling the foreign relations of the republic. It makes peace and war, receives ambassadors, forms treaties, and enters into alliances. It can only raise armies, however, by calling on the cantons for their prescribed contingents. The same is true as respects taxes. This, you will perceive, is very much like our own rejected confederation, and has most of its evils; though external pressure, and a trifling commerce, render them less here than they were in America. I believe the confederation has some control over the public mails, though I think this is done, also, through the cantons. The Diet neither coins money, nor establishes any courts, beyond its own power to decide certain matters that may arise between the cantons themselves. In short, the government is a very loose one, and it could not hold together in a crisis, were it not for the jealousy of its neighbours.

I have already told you that there exists a strong desire among the intelligent to modify this system. Consolidation, as you know from my letters, is wished by no one, for the great difference between the town and the rural populations causes both to wish to remain independent. Three languages are spoken in Switzerland, without including the Rhetian, or any of the numerous patois. All the north is German. Geneva, Vaud, and Valais are French, as are parts of Berne; while Tessino, lying altogether south of the Alps, is Italian. I have been told, that the states which treat with Switzerland for mercenaries, condition that none of them shall be raised in Tessino. But the practice of treating for mercenaries is likely to be discontinued altogether, though the republic has lately done something in this way for the Pope. The objection is to the Italian character, which is thought to be less constant than that of the real Swiss.

Men, and especially men of narrow habits and secluded lives, part reluctantly with authority. Nothing can to be more evident than the fact, that a common currency, common post-offices, common custom-houses, if there are to be any at all, and various other similar changes, would be a great improvement on the present system of Switzerland. But a few who control opinion in the small cantons, and who would lose authority by the measure, oppose the change. The entire territory of the republic is not as great as that of Pennsylvania, nor is the entire population much greater than that of the same state. It is materially less than the population of New York. On the subject of their numbers, there exists a singular, and to me an inapplicable, sensitiveness. It is not possible to come at the precise population of Switzerland. That given in the tables of the contingents is thought to be exaggerated, though one does not very well understand the motive. I presume the entire population of the country is somewhere between 1,500,000, and 1,900,000. Some pretend, however, there are 2,000,000. Admitting the latter number, you will perceive that the single state of New York considerably surpasses it.[45] More than one-third of the entire population of Switzerland is probably in the single canton of Berne, as one-seventh of that of the United States is in New York. The proportion between surface and inhabitants is not very different between New England and Switzerland, if Maine be excluded. Parts of the cantons are crowded with people, as Zurich for instance, while a large part is uninhabitable rocks and ice.

The Swiss have most of the physical peculiarities of the different nations that surround them. The German part of the population, however, are, on the whole, both larger and better-looking than the true Germans. All the mountaineers are fresher and have clearer complexions than those in the lower portions of the country, but the difference in size is not very apparent. Nowhere is there such a population as in our south-western states; indeed, I question if large men are as common in any other country. Scotland, however, may possibly form an exception.

The women of Switzerland are better-looking than those of France or Germany, but beauty, or even extreme prettiness, is rare. Light, flexible, graceful forms are quite uncommon. Large hands and feet are met with everywhere, those of our women being miraculous in comparison. But the same thing is true nearly all over the north of Europe. Even our men—meaning the gentlemen—I think, might be remarked for the same peculiarities in this part of the world. The English have absurd notions on this subject, and I have often enjoyed a malicious pleasure in bringing my own democratic paws and hoofs (no prodigies at home) in contrast with their aristocratic members. Of course, the climate has great influence on all these things.

I scarcely think the Swiss women of the mountains entitled to their reputation for beauty. If strength, proportions on a scale that is scarcely feminine, symmetry that is more anatomically than poetically perfect, enter into the estimate, one certainly sees in some of the cantons, female peasants who may be called fine women. I remember, in 1828, to have met one of these in the Grisons, near the upper end of the valley of the Rhine. This woman had a form, carriage, and proportions that would have made a magnificent duchess in a coronation procession; but the face, though fresh and fair, did not correspond with the figure. The women of our own mountains excel them altogether, being a more true medium between strength and coarseness. Even Mrs. Trollope admits that the American women (perhaps she ought to have said the girls) are the most beautiful in the world, while they are the least interesting. Mrs. Trollope has written a vast deal of nonsense, putting cockneyisms into the mouths of Americans, and calling them Americanisms, but she has also written a good many truths. I will not go as far as to say she was right in the latter part of this charge; but if our girls would cultivate neater and more elegant forms of expression; equally avoiding vulgar oh's and ah's! and set phrases; be more careful not to drawl; and not to open the mouth, so as to call "hot," "haut;" giggle less; speak lower; have more calmness and more dignity of manner, and think instead of pulsating,—I would put them, for all in all, against any women in the world. They lose half of these defects when they marry, as it is; but the wisdom of Solomon would come to our ears with a diminished effect, were it communicated through the medium of any other than a neat enunciation. The great desideratum in female education, at home, is to impart a graceful, quiet, lady-like manner of speaking.

Were it not for precisely this place, Vévey, I should add, that the women of America speak their language worse than the women of any other country I ever was in. We all know, that a calm, even, unemphatic mode of speaking, is almost a test of high-breeding; that a clear enunciation is, in short, an indispensable requisite, for either a gentleman or a lady. One may be a fool, and utter nonsense gracefully; but aphorisms lose their force when conveyed in a vulgar intonation. As a nation, I repeat, there is more of this fault in America, perhaps, than among an equal portion of educated people anywhere else. Contrary to the general rule too, the men of America speak better than the women; though the men, as a class, speak badly. The peculiar dialect of New England, which prevails so much all over the country, is derived from a provincial mode of speaking in England which is just the meanest in the whole island; and though it is far more intelligible, and infinitely better grammar is used with us, than in the place whence the patois came, I think we have gained little on the score of elegance. I once met in England a distinguished man, who was one of the wealthiest commoners of his county, and he had hardly opened his mouth before I was struck with this peculiarity. On inquiry, I learned that he came from the West of England. It is by no means uncommon to meet with bad grammar, and an improper use of words as relates to their significations, among the highest classes in England, though I think not as often as in America, but it is rare, indeed, that a gentleman or a lady does not express himself or herself, so far as utterance, delivery, and intonation go, as a gentleman and lady should. The fault in America arises from the habits of drawling, and of opening the mouth too wide. Any one knows that, if he open the stop of an organ, and keep blowing the bellows, he will make anything but music. We have some extraordinary words, too: who, but a Philadelphian, for instance, would think of calling his mother a mare?

But I am digressing; the peculiar manner of speaking which prevails at Vévey having led me from the main subject. These people absolutely sing in their ordinary conversation, more especially the women. In the simple expression of "Bon jour, madame" each alternate syllable is uttered on an octave higher than the preceding. This is not a patois at all, but merely a vicious and ungraceful mode of utterance. It prevails more among the women than among the men; and, as a matter of course, more among the women of the inferior, than among those of the superior classes. Still it is more or less general. To ears that are accustomed to the even, unemphatic, graceful enunciation of Paris, it is impossible to describe to you, in words, the ludicrous effect it produces. We have frequently been compelled to turn away, in the shops, to avoid downright laughter.

There exists the same sensitiveness, on the subject of the modes of speech, between the French Swiss and their French neighbours, as is to be found between us and the English. Many intelligent men here have laboured to convince me that the Genevese, in particular, speak purer French than even the Parisians. I dare say a part of this pretension may be true, for a great people take great liberties with everything; but if America, with her fifteen millions, finds it difficult to maintain herself in such matters, even when in the right, against the influence of England, what can little Geneva look for, in such a dispute with France, but to be put down by sheer volubility. She will be out-talked as a matter of course, clever as her citizens are.

On the subject of the prevalent opinion of Swiss cupidity, I have very little to say: the practice of taking service as mercenaries in other countries, has probably given rise to the charge. As is usually the case in countries where the means of obtaining a livelihood are not easy, the Swiss strike me as being more influenced by money than most of their neighbours, though scarcely more so than the common classes of France. To a man who gains but twenty in a day, a sou is of more account than to him who gains forty. I presume this is the whole amount of the matter. I shall not deny, however, that the honorarium was usually more in view, in a transaction with a Swiss, than in a transaction with a Frenchman, though I think the first the most to be depended on. Notwithstanding one or two instances of roguery that I have encountered, I would as soon depend on a Swiss, a clear bargain having been made, as on any other man I know.




James Fenimore Cooper

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