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Chapter 3

LETTER III.

Insecurity of the Government.—Louis-Philippe and the Pear.—Caricatures.—Ugliness of the Public Men of France.—The Duke de Valmy.—Care-worn aspect of Society under the New Regime.—Controversy in France respecting the Cost of Government in America.—Conduct of American Agents in Europe.


Dear ——,

The government is becoming every day less secure, and while it holds language directly to the contrary, it very well knows it cannot depend on the attachment of the nation. It has kept faith with no one, and the mass looks coldly on, at the political agitation that is excited, in all quarters, by the Carlists and the republicans. The bold movement of the Duchess of Berri, although it has been unwise and unreflecting, has occasioned a good deal of alarm, and causes great uneasiness in this cabinet.[5]

In a country where the cholera could not escape being caricatured, you will readily imagine that the King has fared no better. The lower part of the face of Louis-Philippe is massive, while his forehead, without being mean, narrows in a way to give the outline a shape not unlike that of a pear. An editor of one of the publications of caricatures being on trial for a libel, in his defence, produced a large pear, in order to illustrate his argument, which ran as follows:—People fancied they saw a resemblance in some one feature of a caricature to a particular thing; this thing, again, might resemble another thing; that thing a third; and thus from one to another, until the face of some distinguished individual might be reached. He put it to the jury whether such forced constructions were safe. "This, gentlemen," he continued, "is a common pear, a fruit well known to all of you. By culling here, and here," using his knife as he spoke, "something like a resemblance to a human face is obtained: by clipping here, again, and shaping there, one gets a face that some may fancy they know; and should I, hereafter, publish an engraving of a pear, why everybody will call it a caricature of a man!" You will understand that, by a dexterous use of the knife, such a general resemblance to the countenance of the King was obtained, that it was instantly recognised. The man was rewarded for his cleverness by an acquittal, and, since that time, by an implied convention, a rude sketch of a pear is understood to allude to the King. The fruit abounds in a manner altogether unusual for the season, and, at this moment, I make little doubt, that some thousands of pears are drawn in chalk, coal, or other substances, on the walls of the capital. During the carnival, masquers appeared as pears, with pears for caps, and carrying pears, and all this with a boldness and point that must go far to convince the King that the extreme license he has affected hitherto to allow, cannot very well accord with his secret intentions to bring France back to a government of coercion. The discrepancies that necessarily exist in the present system will, sooner or later, destroy it.

Little can be said in favour of caricatures. They address themselves to a faculty of the mind that is the farthest removed from reason, and, by consequence, from the right; and it is a prostitution of the term to suppose that they are either cause or effect, as connected with liberty. Such things may certainly have their effect, as means, but every good cause is so much the purer for abstaining from the use of questionable agencies. Au reste, there is really a fatality of feature and expression common to the public men of this country that is a strong provocative to caricature. The revolution and empire appear to have given rise to a state of feeling that has broken out with marked sympathy, in the countenance. The French, as a nation, are far from handsome, though brilliant exceptions exist; and it strikes me that they who appear in public life are just among the ugliest of the whole people.

Not long since I dined at the table of Mr. de ——, in company with Mr. B. of New York. The company consisted of some twenty men, all of whom had played conspicuous parts in the course of the last thirty years. I pointed out the peculiarity just mentioned to my companion, and asked him if there was a single face at table which had the placid, dignified, and contented look which denotes the consciousness of right motives, a frank independence, and a mind at peace with itself. We could not discover one! I have little doubt that national physiognomy is affected by national character.

You may form some idea, on the other hand, of the perfect simplicity and good taste that prevails in French society, by a little occurrence on the day just mentioned. A gentleman, of singularly forbidding countenance, sat next us; and, in the course of the conversation, he mentioned the fact that he had once passed a year in New York, of which place he conversed with interest and vivacity. B—— was anxious to know who this gentleman might be. I could only say that he was a man of great acuteness and knowledge, whom I had often met in society, but, as to his name, I did not remember ever to have heard it. He had always conducted himself in the simple manner that he witnessed, and it was my impression that he was the private secretary of the master of the house, who was a dignitary of the state, for I had often met him at the same table. Here the matter rested for a few days.

The following week we removed into the Rue St. Dominique. Directly opposite to the porte-cochère of our hotel was the porte-cochère of an hotel that had once belonged to the Princes of Conti. A day or two after the removal, I saw the unknown gentleman coming out of the gateway opposite, as I was about to enter our own. He bowed, saluted me by name, and passed on. Believing this a good occasion to ascertain who he was, I crossed the street, and asked the porter for the name of the gentleman who had just gone out. "Mais, c'est Monsieur le Duc!" "Duke!—what Duke?" "Why, Monsieur le Duc de Valmy, the proprietor of this hotel!" It was the younger Kellerman, the hero of Marengo! [6]

But I could fill volumes with anecdotes of a similar nature; for, in these countries, in which men of illustrious deeds abound, one is never disturbed in society by the fussy pretension and swagger that is apt to mark the presence of a lucky speculator in the stocks. Battles, unlike bargains, are rarely discussed in society. I have already told you how little sensation is produced in Paris by the presence of a celebrity, though in no part of the world is more delicate respect paid to those who have earned renown, whether in letters, arts, or arms. Like causes, however, notoriously produce like effects; and, I think, under the new regime, which is purely a money-power system, directed by a mind whose ambition is wealth, that one really meets here more of that swagger of stocks and lucky speculations, in the world, than was formerly the case. Society is decidedly less graceful, more care-worn, and of a worse tone to-day, than it was previously to the revolution of 1830. I presume the elements are unchanged, but the ebullition of the times is throwing the scum to the surface; a natural but temporary consequence of the present state of things.

While writing to you in this desultory manner, I shall seize the occasion to give the outline of a little occurrence of quite recent date, and which is, in some measure, of personal interest to myself. A controversy concerning the cost of government, was commenced some time in November last, under the following circumstances, and has but just been concluded. As early as the July preceding, a writer in the employment of the French government produced a laboured article, in which he attempted to show that, head for head, the Americans paid more for the benefits of government than the French. Having the field all to himself, both as to premises and conclusions, this gentleman did not fail to make out a strong case against us; and, as a corollary to this proposition, which was held to be proved, he, and others of his party, even went so far as to affirm that a republic, in the nature of things, must be a more expensive polity than a monarchy.

This extravagant assertion had been considered as established, by a great many perfectly well-meaning people, for some months, before I even knew that it had ever been made. A very intelligent and a perfectly candid Frenchman mentioned it one day, in my presence, admitting that he had been staggered by the boldness of the proposition, as well as by the plausibility of the arguments by which it had been maintained. It was so contrary to all previous accounts of the matter, and was, especially, so much opposed to all I had told him, in our frequent disquisitions on America, that he wished me to read the statements, and to refute them, should it seem desirable. About the same time, General Lafayette made a similar request, sending me the number of the periodical that contained the communication, and suggesting the expediency of answering it. I never, for an instant, doubted the perfect right of an American, or any one else, to expose the errors that abounded in this pretended statistical account, but I had little disposition for the task. Having, however, good reason to think it was aimed covertly at General Lafayette, with the intention to prove his ignorance of the America he so much applauded, I yielded to his repeated requests, and wrote a hasty letter to him, dissecting, as well as my knowledge and limited access to authorities permitted, the mistakes of the other side. This letter produced replies, and the controversy was conducted through different channels, and by divers agents, up to a time when the varying and conflicting facts of our opponents appeared to be pretty well exhausted. It was then announced that instructions had been sent to America to obtain more authentic information; and we were promised a farther exposure of the weakness of the American system, when the other side should receive this re-enforcement to their logic.[7]

I have no intention of going over this profitless controversy with you, and have adverted to it here, solely with a view to make you acquainted with a state of feeling in a portion of our people, that it may be useful not only to expose, but correct. [8]




James Fenimore Cooper

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