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Chapter 40


The ceremonials of a man-of-war, some of which have been described
in the preceding chapter, may merit a reflection or two.

The general usages of the American Navy are founded upon the usages
that prevailed in the navy of monarchical England more than a century
ago; nor have they been materially altered since. And while both
England and America have become greatly liberalised in the interval;
while shore pomp in high places has come to be regarded by the more
intelligent masses of men as belonging to the absurd, ridiculous, and
mock-heroic; while that most truly august of all the majesties of
earth, the President of the United States, may be seen entering his
residence with his umbrella under his arm, and no brass band or
military guard at his heels, and unostentatiously taking his seat by
the side of the meanest citizen in a public conveyance; while this is
the case, there still lingers in American men-of-war all the stilted
etiquette and childish parade of the old-fashioned Spanish court of
Madrid. Indeed, so far as the things that meet the eye are concerned,
an American Commodore is by far a greater man than the President of
twenty millions of freemen.

But we plain people ashore might very willingly be content to leave
these commodores in the unmolested possession of their gilded penny
whistles, rattles, and gewgaws, since they seem to take so much
pleasure in them, were it not that all this is attended by consequences
to their subordinates in the last degree to be deplored.

While hardly any one will question that a naval officer should be
surrounded by circumstances calculated to impart a requisite
dignity to his position, it is not the less certain that, by the
excessive pomp he at present maintains, there is naturally and
unavoidably generated a feeling of servility and debasement in
the hearts of most of the seamen who continually behold a fellow-
mortal flourishing over their heads like the archangel Michael
with a thousand wings. And as, in degree, this same pomp is observed
toward their inferiors by all the grades of commissioned officers,
even down to a midshipman, the evil is proportionately multiplied.

It would not at all diminish a proper respect for the officers,
and subordination to their authority among the seamen, were all
this idle parade--only ministering to the arrogance of the
officers, without at all benefiting the state--completely done
away. But to do so, we voters and lawgivers ourselves must be no
respecters of persons.

That saying about _levelling upward, and not downward_, may seem
very fine to those who cannot see its self-involved absurdity.
But the truth is, that, to gain the true level, in some things,
we _must_ cut downward; for how can you make every sailor a
commodore? or how raise the valleys, without filling them up with
the superfluous tops of the hills?

Some discreet, but democratic, legislation in this matter is much
to be desired. And by bringing down naval officers, in these
things at least, without affecting their legitimate dignity and
authority, we shall correspondingly elevate the common sailor,
without relaxing the subordination, in which he should by all
means be retained.

Herman Melville