A song of the hour, now in course of being sung and whistled in
every street, the other day reminded the writer of these words--as
he chanced to pass a fag-end of the song for the twentieth time in a
short London walk--that twenty years ago, a little book on the
United States, entitled American Notes, was published by "a Young
Man from the Country", who had just seen and left it.
This Young Man from the Country fell into a deal of trouble, by
reason of having taken the liberty to believe that he perceived in
America downward popular tendencies for which his young enthusiasm
had been anything but prepared. It was in vain for the Young Man to
offer in extenuation of his belief that no stranger could have set
foot on those shores with a feeling of livelier interest in the
country, and stronger faith in it, than he. Those were the days
when the Tories had made their Ashburton Treaty, and when Whigs and
Radicals must have no theory disturbed. All three parties waylaid
and mauled the Young Man from the Country, and showed that he knew
nothing about the country.
As the Young Man from the Country had observed in the Preface to his
little book, that he "could bide his time", he took all this in
silent part for eight years. Publishing then, a cheap edition of
his book, he made no stronger protest than the following:
"My readers have opportunities of judging for themselves whether the
influences and tendencies which I distrusted in America, have any
existence but in my imagination. They can examine for themselves
whether there has been anything in the public career of that country
during these past eight years, or whether there is anything in its
present position, at home or abroad, which suggests that those
influences and tendencies really do exist. As they find the fact,
they will judge me. If they discern any evidences of wrong-going,
in any direction that I have indicated, they will acknowledge that I
had reason in what I wrote. If they discern no such thing, they
will consider me altogether mistaken. I have nothing to defend, or
to explain away. The truth is the truth; and neither childish
absurdities, nor unscrupulous contradictions, can make it otherwise.
The earth would still move round the sun, though the whole Catholic
Church said No."
Twelve more years having since passed away, it may now, at last, be
simply just towards the Young Man from the Country, to compare what
he originally wrote, with recent events and their plain motive
powers. Treating of the House of Representatives at Washington, he
"Did I recognise in this assembly, a body of men, who, applying
themselves in a new world to correct some of the falsehoods and
vices of the old, purified the avenues to Public Life, paved the
dirty ways to Place and Power, debated and made laws for the Common
Good, and had no party but their Country?
"I saw in them, the wheels that move the meanest perversion of
virtuous Political Machinery that the worst tools ever wrought.
Despicable trickery at elections; under-handed tamperings with
public officers; cowardly attacks upon opponents, with scurrilous
newspapers for shields, and hired pens for daggers; shameful
trucklings to mercenary knaves, whose claim to be considered, is,
that every day and week they sow new crops of ruin with their venal
types, which are the dragon's teeth of yore, in everything but
sharpness; aidings and abettings of every bad inclination in the
popular mind, and artful suppressions of all its good influences:
such things as these, and in a word, Dishonest Faction in its most
depraved and most unblushing form, stared out from every corner of
the crowded hall.
"Did I see among them, the intelligence and refinement: the true,
honest, patriotic heart of America? Here and there, were drops of
its blood and life, but they scarcely coloured the stream of
desperate adventurers which sets that way for profit and for pay.
It is the game of these men, and of their profligate organs, to make
the strife of politics so fierce and brutal, and so destructive of
all self-respect in worthy men, that sensitive and delicate-minded
persons shall be kept aloof, and they, and such as they, be left to
battle out their selfish views unchecked. And thus this lowest of
all scrambling fights goes on, and they who in other countries
would, from their intelligence and station, most aspire to make the
laws, do here recoil the farthest from that degradation.
"That there are, among the representatives of the people in both
Houses, and among all parties, some men of high character and great
abilities, I need not say. The foremost among those politicians who
are known in Europe, have been already described, and I see no
reason to depart from the rule I have laid down for my guidance, of
abstaining from all mention of individuals. It will be sufficient
to add, that to the most favourable accounts that have been written
of them, I fully and most heartily subscribe; and that personal
intercourse and free communication have bred within me, not the
result predicted in the very doubtful proverb, but increased
admiration and respect."
Towards the end of his book, the Young Man from the Country thus
expressed himself concerning its people:
"They are, by nature, frank, brave, cordial, hospitable, and
affectionate. Cultivation and refinement seem but to enhance their
warmth of heart and ardent enthusiasm; and it is the possession of
these latter qualities in a most remarkable degree, which renders an
educated American one of the most endearing and most generous of
friends. I never was so won upon, as by this class; never yielded
up my full confidence and esteem so readily and pleasurably, as to
them; never can make again, in half a year, so many friends for whom
I seem to entertain the regard of half a life.
"These qualities are natural, I implicitly believe, to the whole
people. That they are, however, sadly sapped and blighted in their
growth among the mass; and that there are influences at work which
endanger them still more, and give but little present promise of
their healthy restoration; is a truth that ought to be told.
"It is an essential part of every national character to pique itself
mightily upon its faults, and to deduce tokens of its virtue or its
wisdom from their very exaggeration. One great blemish in the
popular mind of America, and the prolific parent of an innumerable
brood of evils, is Universal Distrust. Yet the American citizen
plumes himself upon this spirit, even when he is sufficiently
dispassionate to perceive the ruin it works; and will often adduce
it, in spite of his own reason, as an instance of the great sagacity
and acuteness of the people, and their superior shrewdness and
"'You carry,' says the stranger, 'this jealousy and distrust into
every transaction of public life. By repelling worthy men from your
legislative assemblies, it has bred up a class of candidates for the
suffrage, who, in their every act, disgrace your Institutions and
your people's choice. It has rendered you so fickle, and so given
to change, that your inconstancy has passed into a proverb; for you
no sooner set up an idol firmly, than you are sure to pull it down
and dash it into fragments: and this, because directly you reward a
benefactor, or a public-servant, you distrust him, merely because he
IS rewarded; and immediately apply yourselves to find out, either
that you have been too bountiful in your acknowledgments, or he
remiss in his deserts. Any man who attains a high place among you,
from the President downwards, may date his downfall from that
moment; for any printed lie that any notorious villain pens,
although it militate directly against the character and conduct of a
life, appeals at once to your distrust, and is believed. You will
strain at a gnat in the way of trustfulness and confidence, however
fairly won and well deserved; but you will swallow a whole caravan
of camels, if they be laden with unworthy doubts and mean
suspicions. Is this well, think you, or likely to elevate the
character of the governors or the governed, among you?'
"The answer is invariably the same: 'There's freedom of opinion
here, you know. Every man thinks for himself, and we are not to be
easily overreached. That's how our people come to be suspicious.'
"Another prominent feature is the love of 'smart' dealing: which
gilds over many a swindle and gross breach of trust; many a
defalcation, public and private; and enables many a knave to hold
his head up with the best, who well deserves a halter: though it
has not been without its retributive operation, for this smartness
has done more in a few years to impair the public credit, and to
cripple the public resources, than dull honesty, however rash, could
have effected in a century. The merits of a broken speculation, or
a bankruptcy, or of a successful scoundrel, are not gauged by its or
his observance of the golden rule, 'Do as you would be done by', but
are considered with reference to their smartness. I recollect, on
both occasions of our passing that ill-fated Cairo on the
Mississippi, remarking on the bad effects such gross deceits must
have when they exploded, in generating a want of confidence abroad,
and discouraging foreign investment: but I was given to understand
that this was a very smart scheme by which a deal of money had been
made: and that its smartest feature was, that they forgot these
things abroad, in a very short time, and speculated again, as freely
as ever. The following dialogue I have held a hundred times: 'Is
it not a very disgraceful circumstance that such a man as So-and-so
should be acquiring a large property by the most infamous and odious
means, and notwithstanding all the crimes of which he has been
guilty, should be tolerated and abetted by your citizens? He is a
public nuisance, is he not?' 'Yes, sir.' 'A convicted liar?'
'Yes, sir.' 'He has been kicked, and cuffed, and caned?' 'Yes,
sir.' 'And he is utterly dishonourable, debased, and profligate?'
'Yes, sir.' 'In the name of wonder, then, what is his merit?'
'Well, sir, he is a smart man.'
"But the foul growth of America has a more tangled root than this;
and it strikes its fibres, deep in its licentious Press.
"Schools may he erected, East, West, North, and South; pupils be
taught, and masters reared, by scores upon scores of thousands;
colleges may thrive, churches may be crammed, temperance may be
diffused, and advancing knowledge in all other forms walk through
the land with giant strides; but while the newspaper press of
America is in, or near, its present abject state, high moral
improvement in that country is hopeless. Year by year, it must and
will go back; year by year, the tone of public opinion must sink
lower down; year by year, the Congress and the Senate must become of
less account before all decent men; and year by year, the memory of
the Great Fathers of the Revolution must be outraged more and more,
in the bad life of their degenerate child.
"Among the herd of journals which are published in the States, there
are some, the reader scarcely need be told, of character and credit.
From personal intercourse with accomplished gentlemen connected with
publications of this class, I have derived both pleasure and profit.
But the name of these is Few, and of the others Legion; and the
influence of the good, is powerless to counteract the moral poison
of the bad.
"Among the gentry of America; among the well-informed and moderate;
in the learned professions; at the bar and on the bench; there is,
as there can be, but one opinion, in reference to the vicious
character of these infamous journals. It is sometimes contended--I
will not say strangely, for it is natural to seek excuses for such a
disgrace--that their influence is not so great as a visitor would
suppose. I must be pardoned for saying that there is no warrant for
this plea, and that every fact and circumstance tends directly to
the opposite conclusion.
"When any man, of any grade of desert in intellect or character, can
climb to any public distinction, no matter what, in America, without
first grovelling down upon the earth, and bending the knee before
this monster of depravity; when any private excellence is safe from
its attacks; when any social confidence is left unbroken by it; or
any tie of social decency and honour is held in the least regard;
when any man in that Free Country has freedom of opinion, and
presumes to think for himself, and speak for himself, without humble
reference to a censorship which, for its rampant ignorance and base
dishonesty, he utterly loaths and despises in his heart; when those
who most acutely feel its infamy and the reproach it casts upon the
nation, and who most denounce it to each other, dare to set their
heels upon, and crush it openly, in the sight of all men: then, I
will believe that its influence is lessening, and men are returning
to their manly senses. But while that Press has its evil eye in
every house, and its black hand in every appointment in the state,
from a president to a postman; while, with ribald slander for its
only stock in trade, it is the standard literature of an enormous
class, who must find their reading in a newspaper, or they will not
read at all; so long must its odium be upon the country's head, and
so long must the evil it works, be plainly visible in the Republic."
The foregoing was written in the year eighteen hundred and forty-
two. It rests with the reader to decide whether it has received any
confirmation, or assumed any colour of truth, in or about the year
eighteen hundred and sixty-two.