Francis J. Grund, a German emigrant, was one of the most influential journalists in America in the three decades preceding the Civil War. He also wrote several books, including this fictional, satiric travel memoir in response to Alexis de Tocqueville’s famous Democracy in America. Armin Mattes provides a thorough account of Grund’s dynamic engagement in American political life, and brings to light many of Grund’s reflections on American social and political life previously published only in German. Mattes shows how Grund’s work can expand our understanding of the emerging democratic political culture and society in the antebellum United States.
About the Author
Armin Mattes is assistant research professor and assistant editor of the Papers of James Madison at the University of Virginia. He is the author of Citizens of a Common Intellectual Homeland: The Transatlantic Origins of American Democracy and Nationhood.
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Walk to the Battery. — The Breakfast. — Conversation of young travelled Americans. — Their notions of Politics, Negroes, and Women.
"He cannot be a perfect man,
Shakespeare. — Two Gentlemen of Verona, Act I. Scene 3.
SOME YEARS AGO, early of a fine morning in the month of July, I was sauntering with some Southern friends down Broadway towards the Battery, which forms the eastern extremity of the city of New York. The night had been most uncomfortably hot, the thermometer ranging above 90°, and the sun's lurid glare, produced by a thick heavy mist, — the usual companion of a sultry day in America, — gave to the sleeping city the appearance of a general conflagration.
As long as we were in Broadway, not a breath of air was stirring, and respiration really difficult; but, when we arrived at the Bowling Green, a delicious sea-breeze imparted new vigour to our exhausted frames, and increased gradually as we were approaching the Battery. Arrived at this beautiful spot, the air was quite refreshing, and the view one of the finest I ever beheld. The harbour was covered with sails, a rich verdure overspread the neighbouring hills and islands, and the mingled waters of the ocean and the Hudson, gently rippled by the breeze, tremblingly reflected the burning orb of day.
"What a delicious spot this is!" said I; "There is nothing equal to it in any part of the Union!"
"Certainly not," said one of my companions, who had stopped to survey the beauty of the landscape; "yet how many Americans do you think enjoy it?"
"It is certainly not a very fashionable place," said I.
"How could it be?" replied he: "all the fashionable people have moved to the West-end of the town."
"Where the atmosphere is not half so pure, the breeze not a quarter so refreshing as here; and where, instead of this glorious harbor, — this ocean, the emblem of eternity, — they see nothing but sand, — a barren desert, interspersed here and there by a block of brick buildings," added the other.
"This our people imagine to be a successful imitation of English taste," observed the first. "They forget that the West-end of London contains magnificent squares and public walks; and that it is in the immediate neighbourhood of the Parks."
"And yet," said the other, "if to-morrow the Southwark and all the boroughs east of the Thames were to go into fashion, our New York aristocracy would imitate the example, and inhabit once more this beautiful site."
"It is true," resumed I, "this imitation of the English is not a very happy one; and deserves the more to be ridiculed, as it refers merely to forms, and not to the substance of things. I am in a habit of taking a stroll here every evening; but have not, for the space of two months, met with a single individual known in the higher circles. Foreigners are the only persons who enjoy this spot."
"And do you know why?" interrupted one of my friends: "it is because our fashionable Americans do not wish to be seen with the people; they dread that more than the tempest; and it is for this reason all that is really beautiful in the United States is considered vulgar. The people follow their inclination, and occupy that which they like; while our exclusives are obliged to content themselves with what is abandoned by the crowd."
"I am not very sorry for that," said the second; "our exclusives deserve no better fate. As long as the aristocracy of a country is willing to associate with the educated classes of the bourgeoisie, they set a premium on talent and the example of good breeding. This aristocracy here is itself nothing but a wealthy overgrown bourgeoisie, composed of a few families who have been more successful in trade than the rest, and on that account are now cutting their friends and relations in order to be considered fashionable."
Here we heard the ringing of the bell for the departure of the hourly steam-boat for Staten Island. As we intended to join a small party to breakfast at "the Pavilion," we quickly hurried on board, and in less than a minute were floating on the water. A fine brass band was stationed on deck, and the company consisted of a great number of pretty women with their attendant swains, who thus early escaped from the heat of the city in order to return to it at shopping-time, — from twelve till two o'clock. A few lonely "females," only protected by huge baskets filled with provisions, had also come "to enjoy the concord of sweet sounds," and a trip down the harbour for a quarter of a dollar, previous to returning home from the market. The whole company were in excellent spirits, the basket-ladies being arranged on one side, — unfortunately, however, to windward, — and the ladies and gentlemen on the other, the band playing involuntary variations to the tune of "Auld lang syne."
In precisely an hour from the time we had left the wharf we landed on Staten Island, and proceeded at once to the place of rendezvous. This was a large public-house fitted up in a most magnificent style by Colonel M***, late keeper of the A*** Hotel, one of the few landlords possessed of the talent of making people comfortable. The building was very spacious; but its wings were a little too long, and the small garden in front almost entirely destitute of trees, — a fault from which no public, and hardly any private, mansion in the United States, can be said to be entirely exempted.
The Americans have, indeed, a singular aversion to trees and shrubs of every description: their highest idea of perfection in a landscape being an extended plain sown with grass. They consider trees as a mark of barbarism, and are, in their zeal for civilization, extirpating them wherever they find them. The hills and islands in the harbour of Boston, which were once studded with the majestic pine and the gnarled oak, are now completely shorn: the city of Albany, built on a gentle declivity once covered with variegated wood, is daily becoming more and more flat and less shady; the fashionable inhabitants paying more for levelling the ground, and felling the trees, than for the erection of their dwellings. The beautiful trees on the shores of the Monongahila and the Ohio are, at an enormous expense, destroyed root and branch, to give the inhabitants of Pittsburgh the benefit of light and air; and even the "old liberty tree" of Boston, with all its historical associations and recollections, stands no more. How singularly this taste of the Americans contrasts with that of the English, who, after burning and sacking the colony of New Jersey, placed a sentinel near the tree under which William Penn had concluded the treaty with the Indians!
The fault of the garden apart, the Pavilion of Staten Island, or "the Brighton Pavilion," as it is sometimes called, offers really a fine and healthy retreat from the noise and dirt of New York; and this the more so, as, from its elevation, it is accessible on all sides to the seabreeze. We ascended a few steps, and found ourselves at once in a capacious bar-room, fitted up in the best American style. Labels of all sorts, and in all languages, stuck on innumerable bottles placed at small distances from one another, and interlined with lemons and oranges, whose bright and pale gold was again relieved by the dark-green hock, and the silver-headed champaign bathed in ice. By the side of these stood the grave and manly Carolina madeira, the fiery sherry, and the sombre port. For the lovers of condensation there were also old French cognac, Irish and Scotch whisky, and an ominous-looking bottle, whose contents portended to be the original beverage of Van Tromp. The favourite drink, however, seemed to be mint-julep; for a huge mass of ice and a forest of mint, together with two large bottles of French and peach brandy, gave, alas! but too positive proofs of the incapability of the landlord to maintain the balance of power among spirits so different in action and principle.
The bar was thronged, even at this early hour, with young men from sixteen to twenty-four years of age, for whom the busy barkeeper was preparing ice-punch, mint-juleps, port and madeira sangarie, apple-toddy, gin- sling, &c. with a celerity of motion of which I had heretofore scarcely seen an example. This man evidently understood the value of time, and was fast rising into respectability; for he was making money more quickly than the "smartest" broker in Wall Street.
"Mr. S*** and Mr. P***?" said he, as he saw us enter; and, on being answered in the affirmative, touched a bell, which was instantly answered by a servant. "Show these gentlemen to No. 3."
We were led into a large room, in which from fifteen to twenty persons might have been assembled, exciting their appetite for breakfast by drinking juleps.
"I present you a new friend," said one of my companions. "I hope you will be gratified with making his acquaintance. Monsieur de *** from Germany."
Hereupon all the gentlemen rose, one by one, and shook hands with me; each of them saying, "How d'ye do? Very glad to see you." At last one of them, by way of entering into conversation, told me that he was exceedingly glad to meet with a gentleman from that country. "I have myself," said he, "passed a long time in Germany."
"What part of Germany?" demanded I.
"Oh, no particular part," replied he; "only principally up and down the Rhine. Capital country that! — excellent hock! — fine historical associations! — excellent people the Germans!"
"I am very glad you liked them," said I.
"Yes, indeed, I always did. What noble castles those! How do you call that beautiful ancient castle opposite Coblenz? Erin-bright-in-steen?"
"You mean Ehrenbreitenstein," said I; "that is a Prussian fortress."
"No matter what you call it," said he, "it is a splendid specimen of architecture. I wish we had something like it in this country."
"I really do not see the use of it," said I.
"But I do," said he; "we want a little chivalry of that sort, — our people are altogether too prosaic."
"They are too much occupied with politics," observed another gentleman.
"Altogether too much, sir," repeated the admirer of Germany.
"But they say it is all for their own good; it improves their condition."
"I don't want to know their condition. Heaven save me from politics!"
"It is certainly not a flourishing trade in this country," said I.
"Not only that, sir; but it is not a respectable one."
"And why not?"
"Because every blackguard meddles with it."
"But not every blackguard is successful in it."
"Quite the reverse; it is only the blackguard who is successful."
"That's an old one," cried an elderly-looking gentleman.
"But who will talk politics on a hot day without taking a julep? Hollo, John! a dozen fresh juleps, with plenty of ice, — and rather stiff, mind ye."
"It's no use to talk politics to us, sir," observed a Mr. *** of Baltimore, addressing me in a calm, tranquil voice, which had something of the tone of advice and condescension in it; "we are no longer green."
"What do you mean by that?"
"I mean precisely what I say," replied he. "We have all more or less passed the age in which respectable Americans take an interest in politics; and are, thank God! not yet sufficiently old and decrepit to recur to it once more because we are unfit for everything else."
"Yes, yes!" interrupted a highly respectable gentleman, whom I had known in Boston, and who had a high reputation for being fond of cards; "a man never takes to politics in this country unless he is ruined in business. I have seen a hundred instances of it in my own city. Let a man have a falling-out with work, and he is sure to turn patriot."
"Because patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel, as Johnson said," remarked a young barrister, visibly contented with having had an opportunity of exhibiting his erudition.
"Happy country this!" observed one of my companions, "in which every scoundrel turns patriot!"
"Say, rather, in which every patriot is a scoundrel," rejoined the lawyer.
"Why, Tom!" exclaimed the Bostonian, "you have broken out in a new place!"
"Why, a man will say a good thing now and then," replied the professional man. "But where the d — l is that nigger with the juleps? I'll be hanged if a person can get waited upon in New York without bribing the servants!"
Here the waiter entered.
"What have you been about, sirrah? It's more than a quarter of an hour since that gentleman" (pointing to the Baltimorian) "asked for some juleps. Can't you move quicker?"
"I goin' as fast as I kin," grinned the negro; "but dere are too many gem'men at de bar."
"I find," observed a grave-looking New-Yorker, who until now had not opened his mouth, except for the purpose of admitting the julep, "that our black servants are getting worse and worse every day ever since that bigoted scoundrel T*** has commenced preaching abolition. Those black devils have always been a nuisance; but now 'a respectable white man' can hardly walk up and down Broadway of a Sunday afternoon without being jostled off the side-walk by one of their desperate gangs."
"And it is still worse in Philadelphia," observed Major ***, "owing to the philanthropy of our quakers. One of these black beasts, not more than a week ago, actually eyed my sister through a quizzing- glass as she was walking in Chestnut-street, accompanied by her younger sister."
"Good God!" cried the New-Yorker, "has it come to this? Must our respectable females be insulted in the streets by a set of dastardly slaves!"
"I can hardly believe it," said a Virginian, who appeared to be displeased with the turn the conversation had taken. "The example must have been set him by some white person. Your Philadelphia dandies have, the whole livelong day, no other amusement but staring women out of countenance."
"Well explained!" ejaculated a young man who had just returned from Paris; "a negro is a mere ape, — he is but a link between man and monkey. C'est en effet un singe dégénéré."
"Witty dog!" said the Philadelphian; "just returned from France!"
"For Heaven's sake!" cried the Virginian, "let us not talk about negroes and abolition. I am resolved never to mention the subject again to friend or foe. If any of those emancipation preachers ever comes to my plantation, I have left the strictest order with my overseer to hang him on the spot. My neighbours are resolved to do the same, and I trust to God the custom will become general throughout the country."
"Bravo!" exclaimed the Philadelphian, — "Virginia for ever!"
"You may well drink to Virginia," exclaimed the gentleman from that state; "it is the pearl of the Union!"
"So it is, so it is!" shouted the company. "It has produced the greatest men in the United States!"
"George Washington!" cried the Virginian.
"George Washington!" echoed the company.
"Thomas Jefferson!" continued the Virginian.
"Don't mention him, for mercy's sake!" bellowed the Philadelphian; "that vile blasphemer! — that infidel scoundrel! — that god-less father of democracy, who has been the ruin of our country."
"In what manner has he ruined it?" demanded I.
"By introducing that vilest of curses, universal suffrage."
"But I see the country prosper more and more every year."
"You do not see far enough, sir," said he. "You do not understand the working of universal suffrage. An example, perhaps, may illustrate the case. You may have heard of Mr. B***, who is one of our first citizens, has always been at the head of the very first society, and is worth, at least, half a million of dollars in bank stock, independent of a very respectable real estate. Well, sir: this same Mr. B***, at our last election, went himself to the ballot-box, and, with his own hand, put in his vote as if he were one of our simplest citizens. Was not that republican? Was there ever a better republican than Mr. B***?"
"Certainly not. But what has that to do with the theory of universal suffrage, except that he was obliged to do so if he wished to vote at all?"
"Hear me out, sir; hear me out!" shouted the Philadelphian. "Scarcely had Mr. B*** deposited his vote, when one of our regular 'whole-hog, hurrah-for-Jackson men,' who, according to every appearance, was not worth five dollars in the world, stepped up, and, right within hearing of our Mr. B***, told the officer with the most impudent sneer that he intended to destroy Mr. B***'s vote. These, sir, are the consequences of universal suffrage."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Aristocracy in America"
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