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INTRODUCTION. It has been the ambition of my literary life to write a book about the United States, and I had made up my mind to visit the country with this object before the intestine troubles of the United States Government had commenced. I have not allowed the division among the States and the breaking out of civil war to interfere with my intention; but I should not purposely have chosen this period either for my book or for my visit." I say so much, in order that it may not be supposed that it is my special purpose to write an account of the struggle as far as it has yet been carried. My wish is to describe as well as I can the present social and political state of the country. This I should have attempted, with more personal satisfaction in the work, had there been no disruption between the North and South; but I have not allowed that disruption to deter me from an object which, if it were delayed, might probably never be carried out. I am therefore forced to take the subject in its present condition, and being so forced I must write of the war, of the causes which have led to it, and of its probable termination. But I wish it to be understood that it was not my selected task to do so, and is not now my primary object.
Thirty years ago my mother wrote a book about the Americans, to which I believe I may allude as a well known and successful work without being guilty of any undue family conceit. That was essentially a woman's book. She saw with a woman's keen eye, and described with a woman's light but graphic pen, the social defects and absurdities which our near relatives had adopted into their domestic life. All that she told was worth the telling, and the telling, if done successfully, was sure to produce a good result. I am satisfied that it did so. But she did not regard it as a part of her work to dilate on the nature and operation of those political arrangements which had produced the social absurdities which she saw, or to explain that though such absurdities were the natural result of those arrangements
in their newness, the defects would certainly pass away, while the political arrangements, if good, would remain. Such a work is fitter for a man than for a woman. I am very far from thinking that it is a task which I can perform with satisfaction either to myself or to others. It is a work which some man will do who has earned a right by education, study, and success to rank himself among the political sages of his age. But I may perhaps be able to add something to the familiarity of Englishmen with Americans. The writings which have been most popular in England on the subject of the United States have hitherto dealt chiefly with social details; and though in most cases true and useful, have created laughter on one side of the Atlantic, and soreness on the other. If I could do anything to mitigate the soreness, if I could in any small degree add to the good feeling which should exist between two nations which ought to love each other so well, and which do hang upon each other so constantly, I should think that I had cause to be proud of my work.
But it is very hard to write about any country a book that does not represent the country described in a more or less ridiculous point of view. It is hard at least to do so in such a book as I must write. A De Tocqueville may do it. It may be done by any philosophico-political or politico-statistical, or statistico-scientific writer; but it can hardly be done by a man who professes to use a light pen, and to manufacture his article for the use of general readers. Such a writer may tell all that he sees of the beautiful; but he must also tell, if not all that he sees of the ludicrous, at any rate the most piquant part of it. How to do this without being offensive is the problem which a man with such a task before him has to solve. His first duty is owed to his readers, and consists mainly in this: that he shall tell the truth, and shall so tell that truth that what he has written may be readable. But a second duty is due to those of whom he writes; and he does not perform that duty well if he gives offence to those, as to whom, on the summing up of the whole evidence for and against them in his own mind, he intends to give a favourable verdict. There are of course those against whom a writer does not intend to give a favourable verdict;--- people and places whom he desires to describe on the peril of his own judgment, as bad, ill-educated, ugly, and odious. In such cases his course is straightforward enough. His judgment may be in great peril, but his volume or chapter will be easily written. Ridicule and censure run glibly from the pen, and form themselves into sharp paragraphs which are pleasant to the reader. Whereas eulogy is commonly dull, and
too frequently sounds as though it were false. There is much difficulty in expressing a verdict which is intended to be favourable; but which, though favourable, shall not be falsely eulogistic; and though true, not offensive.
Who has ever travelled in foreign countries without meeting excellent stories against the citizens of such countries ? And how few can travel without hearing such stories against themselves? It is impossible for me to avoid telling of a very excellent gentleman whom I met before I had been in the
United States a week, and who asked me whether lords in England ever spoke to men who were not lords. Nor can I omit the opening address of another gentleman to my wife. “You like our institutions, ma'am ?” “ Yes, indeed,” said my wife,—not with all that eagerness of assent which the occasion perhaps required. “Ah,” said he, “I never yet met the down-trodden subject of a despot who did not hug his chains.” The first gentleman was certainly somewhat ignorant of our customs, and the second was rather abrupt in his condemnation of the political principles of a person whom he only first saw at that moment. It comes to me in the way of my trade to repeat such incidents; but I can tell stories which are quite as good against Englishmen. As for instance, when I was tapped on the back in one of the galleries of Florence by a countryman of mine, and asked to show him where stood the medical Venus. Nor is anything that one can say of the inconveniences attendant upon travel in the United States to be beaten by what foreigners might truly say of us. I shall never forget the look of a Frenchman whom I found on a wet afternoon in the best inn of a provincial town in the west of England. He was seated on a horsehair-covered chair in the middle of a small dingy illfurnished private sitting-room. No eloquence of mine could make intelligible to a Frenchman or an American the utter desolation of such an apartment. The world as then seen by that Frenchman offered him solace of no description. The air without was heavy, dull, and thick. The street beyond the window was dark and narrow. The room contained mahogany chairs covered with horsehair, a mahogany table ricketty in its legs, and a mahogany sideboard ornamented with inverted glasses and old cruet-stands. The Frenchman had come to the house for shelter and food, and had been asked whether he was commercial. Whereupon he shook his head. “ Did he want a sitting-room ?” Yes, he did. “He was a leetle tired and vanted to seet.” Whereupon he was presumed to have ordered a private room, and was shown up to the Eden I have
described. I found him there at death's door. Nothing that I can say with reference to the social habits of the Americans can tell more against them than the story of that Frenchman's fate tells against those of our country.
From which remarks I would wish to be understood as deprecating offence from my American friends, if in the course of my book should be found aught which may seem to argue against the excellence of their institutions, and the grace of their social life. Of this at any rate I can assure them
in sober earnestness that I admire what they have done in the world and for the world with a true and hearty admiration; and that whether or no all their institutions be at present excellent, and their social life all graceful, my wishes are that they should be so,
and my convictions are that that improvement will come for which there may perhaps even yet be some little room.
And now touching this war which had broken out between the North and South before I left England. I would wish to explain what my feelings were; or rather what I believe the general feelings of England to have been, before I found myself among the people by whom it was being waged. It is very difficult for the people of any one nation to realize the political relations of another, and to chew the cud and digest the bearings of those external politics. But it is unjust in the one to decide upon the political aspirations and doings of that other without such understanding. Constantly as the name of France is in our mouth, comparatively few Englishmen understand the way in which France is governed ;-that is, how far absolute despotism prevails, and how far the power of the one ruler is tempered, or, as it may be, hampered by the voices and influence of others. And as regards England, how seldom is it that in common society a foreigner is met who comprehends the nature of her political arrangements! To a Frenchman,-I do not of course include great men who have made the subject a study,--but to the ordinary intelligent Frenchman the thing is altogether incomprehensible. Language, it may be said, has much to do with that. But an American speaks English ; and how often is an American met, who has combined in his mind the idea of a monarch so called, with that of a republic, properly so named ;--a combination of ideas which I take to be necessary to the understanding of English politics? The gentleman who scorned my wife for hugging her chains had certainly not done so, and yet he conceived that he had studied the subject. The matter is one most difficult of comprehension. How many Englishmen have failed to understand accurately their own
constitution, or the true bearing of their own politics ! But when this knowledge has been attained, it has generally been filtered into the mind slowly, and has come from the unconscious study of many years. An Englishman handles a newspaper for a quarter of an hour daily, and daily exchanges some few words in politics with those around him, till drop by drop the pleasant springs of his liberty creep into his mind and water his heart; and thus, earlier or later in life according to the nature of his intelligence, he understands why it is that he is at all points a free man. But if this be so of our own politics ; if it be so rare a thing to find a foreigner who understands them in all their niceties, why is it that we are so confident in our remarks on all the niceties of those of other nations ?
I hope that I may not be misunderstood as saying that we should not discuss foreign politics in our press, our parliament, our public meetings, or our private houses. No man could be mad enough to preach such a doctrine. As regards our Parliament, that is probably the best British school of foreign pol itics, seeing that the subject is not there often taken up by men who are absolutely ignorant, and that mistakes when made are subject to a correction which is both rough and ready. The press, though very liable to error, labours hard at its vocation in teaching foreign politics, and spares no expense in letting in daylight. If the light let in be sometimes moonshine, excuse may easily be made.
Where so much is attempted, there must necessarily be some failure. But even the moonshine does good, if it be not offensive moonshine. What I would deprecate is, that aptness at reproach which we assume ;-the readiness with scorn, the quiet words of insult, the instant judgment and condemnation with which we are so inclined to visit, not the great outward acts, but the smaller inward politics of our neighbours.
And do others spare us, will be the instant reply of all who may read this. In my counter reply I make bold to place my. self and my country on very high ground, and to say that we, the older and therefore more experienced people as regards the United States, and the better governed as regards France, and the stronger as regards all the
world beyond, should not throw mud again even though mud be thrown at us. I yield the path to a small chimney-sweeper as readily as to a lady; and forbear from an interchange of courtesies with a Billingsgate heroine, even though at heart I may have a proud consciousness that I should not altogether go to the wall in such an encounter.