A Frenchman in the United States in 1840

WE expected to find M. de Bacourt’s Souvenirs 1 a poor book, and we have not been disappointed. It is a very poor book indeed. It is not even amusing, except on rare occasions ; and in this respect M. de Bacourt is inferior to most of his countrymen, who even when they are very ignorant contrive to be entertaining. French ignorance, in fact, is often more amusing than the wisdom of other people. But the worthy De Bacourt is distinctly dull. This much may be said for him, however : the work of his editress is far worse than his own.

The book, nevertheless, is interesting in three ways : first, because it has been published ; secondly, as typical of a very marked quality of the French mind ; and thirdly, because some of the incidents which the author saw and noted have a historical value to Americans.

The publication of such a book illustrates a fashion, just now much in vogue in Europe, and especially in England, of paying a great deal of attention to this country. Our civil war and its triumphant result; our rapid payment of the national debt; our marvelous growth in wealth, prosperity, and population ; in one word, our success, have within a few years brought home to the perceptions of the Old World a fact which only their own carelessness or stupidity prevented their seeing before. They have lately discovered that a great factor in the affairs of mankind, and a nation of vast, and in the future of overshadowing, power, has arisen on this side of the Atlantic. Our cousins of England, from a variety of causes, but chiefly from their unrivaled instinct and keen respect for material success, were the first to make the discovery. It is astonishing to see how much of current English literature in reviews and newspapers is devoted to this country, and to our sayings and doings in every department of human activity. Crowds of Englishmen come here to-day where a handful came twenty years ago, and almost every man of any distinction among them goes home and writes his impressions. In the years before the war there was hardly an Englishman who did not abuse us, more or less ignorantly, whenever he thought about us at all, which was not often. We were then very anxious about foreign opinion, very greedy for it and very sensitive to it. Now, when we get a great deal of it, and an abundance of praise and wonder to boot, we are, as we ought to be, quite indifferent to the whole business. We sometimes read the various lucubrations from a feeling of curiosity, accept what is just, smile at the blunders, and forget the whole thing very quickly. But most of this foreign criticism, besides paying us the greatest compliment possible of giving a close study to our institutions and prospects, is often in a tone of admiration, almost invariably of respect.

Such is the general drift of foreign opinion ; but there is a class, on the other side of the Atlantic, who regard us with very different feelings from those commonly entertained. This is the Tory class. We mean by this those persons, in many cases perhaps belonging to noble families, whose interests and affections are bound up with the past, and who hate modern tendencies with a purblind hatred. Such people have always detested, and until lately have despised, the United States. They detest us as much as ever, but their contempt has changed to alarm. They perceive plainly that our success and greatness mean the success and greatness of democracy, and they regard democracy, rightly enough, as their direst foe. We notice in these quarters, therefore, that interest in the United States takes the form of an eager effort to discredit us, and through us democracy and republican institutions. Contemptuous abuse, it is obvious even to them, is no longer of any value. The case has become too serious for that. Take, for example, the Saturday Review. That journal, now in its decline, was wont, in its palmy days, to refer to us occasionally, in order to hold up our worthlessness to the hissing and scorn of all well-regulated nations. Nobody ever cared much for what the Saturday Review said, except to have a little fun with its articles; and now no one here cares a straw about it, one way or the other. But as we have become indifferent, the tone of the Saturday Review has changed. It is now very sensitive to our criticism and much annoyed by what we say, and rushes about in a defensive way, seeking war-like material. In this pursuit it tries to discredit us, and, besides taking great comfort in Mr. Henry James’s statement that we no longer speak English, it has lately been digging up the dried mud of Dickens’s American Notes and Martin Chuzzlewit, and has been throwing that about, in default of anything better. There is something rather pleasing in the annoyance which American opinion on various matters is giving to the worthy and aged people (aged in mind) who conduct that periodical. But we are apt to forget that the same class exists in Paris, in the Faubourg St. Germain, as well as in London. The French Tories seem to have a vague notion that successful democracy in America is helping to bury still deeper the dead Bourbonism which they love. They dimly feel that it is a good thing to put that democracy in an odious light. Hence the publication of M. de Bacourt’s private letters. The preface discloses very frankly the purpose of the book, which is designed to injure us in public opinion. There can be, in fact, no other motive, since, except for a slight historical value to a limited circle of American readers, the book is completely without interest or importance. But as an emanation of the Tory mind, as a specimen of the Tory anxiety in regard to the United States, the publication of these letters is a curious and suggestive incident.

This book is, however, still more interesting as the expression and example of a highly typical French mind. M. de Bacourt was a gentleman of good family. He was a literary man, the editor of the Mirabeau and Talleyrand papers, a scholar and man of the world. More than all this, he had passed a large part of his life in diplomacy. As a diplomatist, and as the friend and literary executor of Talleyrand, he had an extensive acquaintance with the interests, the affairs, and the character of nations other than his own, as well as a thorough familiarity with modern history. A man of such antecedents and of such habits and training would seem to have been almost ideally fitted for a traveler, observer, and critic. Yet, as these letters show, he was utterly unable to understand a foreign nation even in the dimmest way. He had not even the capacity of setting down intelligently what he saw; for such was his mental blindness that he saw scarcely anything. All this was due to the simple fact that M. de Bacourt was a Frenchman ; and he rises, in this way, to the dignity of one of those extreme and well-defined types which, under the modern comparative system of investigation and study, are at once so satisfactory and so attractive.

There are no people on the earth, except the Chinese, which have any claim to be called civilized who are such absolute slaves to local limitations as the French. They know nothing and wish to know nothing of other nations. There is, of course, in every country a large body of ignorance in regard to foreign nations and foreign countries, but in France there is an arrogant and complacent ignorance in this respect, to which the exceptions are so few that it may be called universal. It includes all classes and degrees, from the aristocrat who follows the white flag and the men of the highest education down to the idlers of the Boulevard and the blue-shirted workmen of the Faubourgs. To Frenchmen Paris is at this moment not only the great centre of light and life, but they hardly recognize the existence of any other. They are still living in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when French was the language of the polite world, and when the princelings of Germany and their courts mangled the language, and complimented by a brutal imitation the vices and follies of the " great people.” They have not yet awakened to the fact that the great world outside of their boundaries is sweeping by them, and that civilized mankind, as has been cleverly said, “ might now be divided into two nations: those who speak English and those who do not.” Hardly ten years have elapsed since France was deservedly crushed, in the short space of six months, under the iron heel of military conquest. A principal cause of all this disgrace and disaster was her persistent, complacent, crass ignorance of her next-door neighbors. If the French were narrowed and degraded like the Spaniards, if they were slow of mind like the Germans, this intellectual malformation would not be so surprising. But they are among the quickest witted of the sons of men. They have attained the highest distinction compatible with a lack of the highest imagination in literature, science, and art, and in every department of intellectual life. They are thrifty, industrious, and frugal. Their resources have but recently astonished the world. Yet they are steadily, although very slowly, dropping behind ; and examination reveals that the decline of France, which is destined to increase more rapidly in the future than it has in the past, is mainly due to the colossal conceit of her people, and to their inability to know, or understand, or like anything outside of their own boundaries, or to live in any country but their own.

Every one who has read knows how few French travelers there have been. Every one who has journeyed in Europe or elsewhere knows that, while all the rest of the world travels, Frenchmen are rarely to be met with. This apparently trivial phenomenon has a profound significance. The great nations of the earth, the few which have ruled the world and made its history, have been those possessing the genius of colonization. Other nations have risen and decayed, while these endured, and their influence has survived every chance and change. There have been but three: the Greek, the Roman, and the English. If we look at modern time, we see the importance of colonization at a glance. Holland, Portugal, Spain, all rose to great although temporary power by acquisitions in the New World. Germany did not rise during the same period. She was rent internally, and had no colonies. Venice alone in Italy rose high in the political scale, and Venice colonized. France saw the value of the policy. She sent out expeditions. She forcibly transported settlers to Canada ; but her colonies did not flourish. There was a great struggle for supremacy in colonization, and in 1760 England prevailed and dominated the world, while France lost the colonies she had, and never regained them or established new ones. The English empire of that day has been torn asunder ; but the English race, because it possessed the genius for colonization, because it saw the opportunities beyond its own borders, was adventurous and enterprising, and could adapt itself to new conditions, is still supreme. Tim English people, outside of Great Britain, possess the northern and control the southern continent of the Western hemisphere. Australia, the new continent, is theirs, and South Africa. They are the rulers of India and of a multitude of smaller states. One hundred millions of people speak to-day the English tongue. Their combined wealth and power more than equals that of all the rest of the world. How small and contracted France appears, in comparison with this mighty English race, whose intellectual and material progress have gone hand in hand ! France owes it to her own narrowness. All the adventurous, colonizing spirit she ever had left her, together with much else of saving grace, when she drove out the Huguenots, the flower of the people, and let them carry to England and America a fresh element of strength and power. It seems a little thing to say that a nation is narrow, ignorant, and incapable of understanding other races and other lands, and yet it is this which deprived France of colonies, and which now impedes her progress, and is drawing her down to an inferior place in the scale of nations.

This is the broad historical view of the question. In M. de Bacourt’s letters we can see this spirit of French provincialism manifested in its very essence. We do not mean by this his abuse and dislike of the United States. That he should abuse and dislike us was natural enough, and has nothing to do with the mental deficiency of his race, of which we have been speaking. The difficulty with M. de Bacourt, as with most of his fellow-countrymen, is not that his opinion is favorable or unfavorable in regard to another race or country, but that he has no reasons for any view, one way or the other, except that a given thing is or is not after his own fashion. Frenchmen can understand nothing that is not French. They either admire stupidly, or as stupidly condemn, usually the latter. They regard foreigners as barbarian ex vi termini, and their faculties never seem to get beyond the Chinese wall of complacent, self-sufficient ignorance, by which they are inclosed. M. de Bacourt indulged in many sapient reflections, instead of setting down what he observed, and he never went below the surface of things, — another quite common failing of his race. He appreciated the natural scenery of America, and admired it, and thus he was led to comprehend that this was a land of magnificent opportunities. He also perceived that there was a dangerous diversity of opinion between the South and the North on the question of slavery, and he thought, rather vaguely, that a war might grow out of these differences. It would have been abnormal even in a Frenchman to have failed to see this, but M. de Bacourt’s admiring niece points it out as an instance of almost superhuman perspicacity. With this exception, every conclusion drawn by M. de Bacourt — and he drew a great many, on very slight premises — is hopelessly and invariably wrong. For instance, he saw placards in the railway stations warning the public to beware of pickpockets, and he concluded that we were a nation of thieves. There were a number of suicides at one time while he was here, and he immediately made up his mind that we were all preparing to cut our throats, and that these suicides were a proof of the failure of our institutions and of our civilization. He says, to take an example of a more serious kind, that the South was democratic, and the North aristocratic. It is obvious, one would think, to the meanest understanding, that the direct reverse was the case. A system founded on slavery is necessarily aristocratic, while the industrial and agricultural communities of the North were conspicuously and plainly democratic, in the very nature of things. If any one had stated to M. de Bacourt in Paris, as an abstract proposition, that slave-holders formed a democratic society, he would have set his informant down as a shallow fool. Yet in the United States he exhibited precisely this shallow and unthinking folly himself. Any number of similar examples could be cited, but these suffice to show the profound inability of the genuine Frenchman to understand or reason upon anything outside of France.

This brings us to the third point of interest in M. de Bacourt’s book, what he actually saw and heard in the United States in 1840. There is no such word as “ home ” in the French language, and no such thing as “ home,” as we understand it, in French cities. Yet there is no one who suffers so acutely from home-sickness as a Frenchman out of France. The “ mal du pays ” afflicts the “great people” to an unequaled extent. M. de Bacourt suffered from a well-defined attack of nostalgia, and he was, moreover, in wretched health ; two circumstances which increased the natural gloom of the situation. After he had been in America nearly a month, the only gleam of light was in the fact that a few people remembered Talleyrand ; a touching example of French open-mindedness and intelligence. The whole case may be summed up very briefly. M. de Bacourt was utterly and profoundly disgusted with every thing and everybody. This was perfectly natural, and in a certain degree not unreasonable. He came from the high civilization of Paris to a civilization crude in the extreme. We had cast off the habits and customs borrowed from Europe in colonial days ; we had not yet established and defined our own habits and customs. Everything was in a formative condition. It was a state of solution, and a period of transition. Manners were free and easy. Education had spread, but had not advanced proportionately. The art of living was entirely undeveloped.

The condition of the large cities, even, was rough and unattractive. Washington was inexpressibly dreary. A few great public buildings, some straggling, ill-built houses, and clusters of negro shanties made up the capital city of the Union. The highways were unpaved, dusty in summer, and so muddy during the rest of the year as to be almost impassable. Cattle and swine ran loose in the streets, making night hideous with their noise, and women milked their cows at the edge of the sidewalks. To a native of Paris this was not agreeable. The other cities were scarcely betterBaltimore resembled Washington. New York, given up to trade and commerce, M. de Bacourt thought thoroughly repulsive. He refers to it as a confused, hot, dirty, unfinished place, the resort of all the adventurers on the continent. The appearance of Boston pleased him. He describes it as a handsome English city, well built and well ordered, clean, and free from cattle and pigs. But he found it very dull, and the cold climate and the dislike of the French which pervaded society led him to give his final preference to Philadelphia, which had most of the material advantages of Boston without its drawbacks. At best, however, it was a mere choice of evils.

American politics touched their lowest point during the administration of Mr. Polk. It is the fashion to speak of politics and political life as of a lower order at the present day than ever before ; but this is a complete mistake. The decline in our politics set in with Andrew Jackson, and they began to improve after Mr. Polk’s administration. They advanced but slightly for many years, but still progress has been steady. It is very true that at this moment we have no men of such ability as Webster, Clay, and Calhoun in public life; but the general tone of politics to-day, at Washington especially, is infinitely better than when those distinguished leaders were at the height of their reputation. The brutality, the coarseness, the financial dishonesty and disaster resulting from Jackson’s overthrow of the bank, the low tone of the politics of that period, and the savagery engendered by slavery have almost wholly disappeared. When M. de Bacourt came here, in 1840, we were very nearly at our lowest point. He was disgusted beyond reason with what he saw, but not wholly without good cause. The trouble with M. de Bacourt was not that he disliked his surroundings and the manners of the people whom he met, but that he at once concluded, in the most empty-headed way, that these outside appearances and these superficial defects, many of them inevitable, told the whole story, and that the entire republic was a failure. He believed that the men of English race, who had mastered the continent, and incidentally driven the French out of it, could not make the most of their opportunities, and were going helplessly and hopelessly to pieces. A moment’s historical reflection would have shown him the absurdity of this reasoning; but he was a Frenchman, his dinners were bad, the manners of the people were rough, there were evil things in politics, and hence everything was necessarily doomed to ruin. It was not French, in short, and therefore no good could come of it. To a man accustomed to the kaleidoscopic changes of system in France, the stability of American government and the sound common sense of the American people were sealed books, because there was nothing in his experience to tell him of the existence or the value of such qualities. M. de Bacourt summed up his ideas by saying that the American people were second and third rate Englishmen, and that, as M. Talleyrand said, their society lacked solid foundation, because the people had no moral sense. There is something perfectly grotesque in this last assertion. Talleyrand was a great man, but he was no more fit to judge of “ moral sense ” than a Hottentot is to criticise the Dresden Madonna. There may have been men in public life more free from the burden of a moral sense than Talleyrand, but we do not recall them at this moment. His only connection with the United States was when he tried to force bribes from the American envoys. These immoral men left France, and their country prepared for war, and soon brought the “ great republic ” to terms. That M. Talleyrand regarded such conduct as proof positive of a lack of sense we have no doubt; and in matters of bribery and intrigue he was a good judge, but on morality his criticisms are not equally valuable.

M. de Bacourt’s judgment of our public men was largely determined by their attitude towards the duties on French wines and silks. Van Buren, who was friendly to him on this point, he kindly refers to as an excellent “ imitation of a gentleman,” and regrets his defeat. He rather liked Clay, who was a true type,as he puts it, of the English “gentleman farmer.” Calhoun he also liked, and Poinsett and Ewing. Webster, who was “ anti-French,” he depicts as pompous, pretentious, and tiresome. He further describes Mr. Webster’s getting drunk at dinner, and then making a maudlin speech to him. This charming incident his niece calls special attention to in the preface. Generally M. de Bacourt spoke the truth. In this case he went beyond the truth, very obviously, and committed the great blunder of not telling a reasonable lie. The effect of wine on Mr. Webster was to make him dull and heavy, moody and sleepy, not talkative and foolish. That he took too much madeira at the President’s dinner is, unfortunately, quite probable ; that he afterwards made a maudlin speech to M. de Bacourt, like a tipsy sophomore, strikes us as a rather clumsy invention of a personal enemy. M. de Bacourt is however, unlucky in all he says about Webster. He speaks of him as a secondrate Englishman. A sillier description could hardly have been devised. Webster was a thorough, pure-blooded American, of a strongly American type, and as unlike an Englishman in looks as it is possible for an American to be. It was reserved for M. de Bacourt to be the only man of any race or creed who was so innately petty as not to be impressed by Webster’s superb physical presence and leonine look.

The bitterest hatred of the French minister, however, was kept for John Quincy Adams, who opposed his wishes as to the tariff and exposed his lobbying with the committees. De Bacourt exults over the attacks made upon the gallant old man, when he presented the Haverhill petition, with the delight of a mean spirit. Two other congressmen, Mr. Winthrop, of Massachusetts, and Mr. Kennedy, of Maryland, M. de Bacourt found more “ comme il faut ” than anybody he met.

The Frenco are proverbially witty, and all the world enjoys their wit; but they are absolutely devoid of any sense of humor, or of the appreciation of any wit but their own. M. de Bacourt was frequently advised to marry, and goodnaturedly joked with on this subject, all of which he considered very indelicate. At one time it was a bit of fun to put on a visiting-card G. T. T., “ Gone to Texas ; ” and this M. de Bacourt considered a mark of national depravity, as well as irreverent to the sacred P. P. C. of France. But the hardest blow was when the newspapers spoke of Dickens, La Fayette, Fanny Ellsler, and the Prince de Joinville “ in that order,” as the unhappy De Bacourt indignantly exclaims.

We will make one extract before leaving the book. It is an amusing account of an interview which M. de Bacourt had with some members of the cabinet. He was calling on Mr. Ewing, the Secretary of the Treasury. “ We had only exchanged a few words, when Mr. Crittenden, the Attorney-General, Mr. Bell, Secretary of War, and Mr. Badger, Secretary of the Navy, came in. Mr. Badger was smoking a cigar, which he did not extinguish ; Mr. Bell threw himself upon a sofa, putting his feet upon one of the arms, thus showing us the soles of his boots ; as to Mr. Crittenden, as he was very warm, he threw off his coat, and took from his pocket a bit of tobacco, which he placed in his month to chew. They all took a joking tone with me, which I was obliged to assume with them, in order not to offend men who are very influential in our commercial affairs.” The description of President Harrison’s reception of the diplomatic corps is too long for quotation, but is equally amusing.

A word in conclusion as to the editing. M. de Bacourt evidently understood English sufficiently to write it correctly, but almost every other English word in the book is grotesquely misspelled. The blunders were made, evidently, in copying. They are so obvious that one would think the average Parisian cabman would have known enough to correct them ; but they are clearly beyond the scholarship of the Comtesse de Mirabeau. There is another and more serious fault. We should be the last to favor suppression in any historical documents, but the personal appearance of ladies and gentlemen in the families where M. de Bacourt was received has neither historical nor public interest. The only names suppressed are those of some obscure French people in New York. All others are given in full, although often disguised by very strange spelling. M. de Bacourt, as was perfectly proper in confidential letters to an intimate friend, wrote frankly of all he saw in private houses. To print all this criticism upon ladies and gentlemen who were entirely in private life, and some of whom are still living, is a gross breach of hospitality and a piece of dishonorable ingratitude. The sin lies at the door of the lady who edited the letters, and it argues a lack of that good feeling which is the foundation of good manners, extraordinary even in a French woman.

We have said that the book is poor and of little value, and our readers may be inclined to apply to us the Italian proverb, that “ no one throws stones at a tree which has no fruit.” We can only reply, in excuse, that a poor book may be very suggestive ; and this we can truly say of M. de Bacourt’s letters, although we should hardly advise any one to take the trouble to read them.

  1. De Bacourt Souvenirs d'un Diplomate. Lettres Intimes sur l’Amérique. Paris: Calmann Lévy. 1882.