- Historic Sites
Is it really true that the more things change, the more they stay the same? Once upon a time, before the bureaucratic society, before modern war and technology, there was a very different world, and not so long ago. Let us revisit, picking at random, the year
December 1969 | Volume 21, Issue 1
Suddenly the broad highways grow empty, crack apart, and return to winding trails and woodlands. The cities shrink, the pace grows slower, and, before our eyes, the spinning world, with its galaxies of nations and peoples and its infinity of events, swells large again. The great banished monarch Distance, the enemy and friend against whom man has striven since the first hunter bestrode a horse or sought to make a raft, stumbles back toward his shaky throne. Pressing our journey backward through the long corridors of the decades, leaving behind us the crash of war and the upheaval of social change, we arrive, over a century ago, in a strange, far country; but not as explorers. For if the scene is sometimes baffling, sometimes outrageous, it also tugs at our hearts and mists our eyes. We have been here before.
The first thing we notice, waking suddenly in the year 1857, is the tremendous quiet, a forgotten silence that stuns the ear. All the electric power of the earth has ceased to throb; the horns, the blaring radios, the power mower next door and the vacuum cleaner downstairs, the airplane overhead, the roar of the traffic, all that background hum which we of 1969 accept unconsciously as part of the cosmos, all is still. Then, after a moment’s readjustment, the sounds of the past assert themselves—the buzzing of bees in the honeysuckle, the rooster proclaiming his strength, the distant clip-clop of a horse, a boy whistling, the scream of the morning train rolling out of the depot for its run to the junction.
Looking out the window at the New England scene—for we have to begin somewhere—we find a kind of stage set erected, and in a minute we recollect its authors. They are Currier and Ives. It is their artless lithographs, a little neater, a little more idyllic than life, that paint the self-portrait of 1857 America. Here are the tidy little towns, the prosperous farms and castellated suburban villas, the shady streets swarming with gentlemen in long jackets and stovepipe hats and ladies in great belled-out skirts. Everybody in 1857 is wearing the hoop, be it reinforced with wire or whalebone, steel or simply wood, and it is a matter of remark already, especially to visitors from classconscious Europe, that many a serving maid and seamstress wears it too. When a breeze springs up, as it never does in Currier and Ives, the hoops are a little frisky. The breeze, too, carries with it strong, faintly familiar odors, for this is an age innocent of sanitation, of plumbing and street cleaning, an age, to be candid, that is not yet quite convinced of the merits or even the morality of frequent bathing.
Currier and Ives present us also a kind of bird’s-eye view of the whole town, in a quaint perspective that shows the ginger-bread “palace” steamers loading at the wharves; the high-stepping eight-wheelers just behind, pulling the bright yellow wooden cars of the Lightning Express; the buildings of the local merchants, the white wooden churches, the town cotton mill; and, up on the hill behind, the imposing residences of the nabobs, in wood, granite, and brownstone, with towers, columns, and an occasional porte-cochere. Off on one side, not clearly developed by the artist, is a more crowded district, inhabited by the mill operatives. Just beyond this is “Darktown,” whose residents—if we are to believe the lithographers—are happy-go-lucky comics forever adventuring in chicken houses, dancing with athletic gusto to a whacking mandolin, strutting behind the local militia as it drills on the town green, and aping the white folks in one hilarious episode after another.
Is this really a world full of prosperity, of happy children and married domesticity? Are the less fortunate really so carefree? Is America this pious and patriotic and virtuous, a land where every statesman is a village Pericles and every soldier a Horatius in his youth and a Cincinnatus when age has snowed his hair? Can we accept as pure reportage the millennial joy and dignity pictured in the lithographer’s Four Seasons of Life : the children playing at the stile by the sun-dappled brook, the young man in his strength plowing the rich soil, the happy young marrieds, the benign elders philosophizing—doubtless over Beecher’s sermons—on the piazza?
Of course we know better. But to Yankee merchants, northern farmers, western plainsmen, all this is not a dream but a prophecy, a vision vouchsafed and often nearly achieved beyond the river and just past the next range of hills. In their hearts, the perfection of the social system is, if not at hand, just around the corner. Never, they believe, has there been such progress, in government, in science, in invention, in the moral order of life. As all peoples do, they see what they want to; they have distilled the useful but faintly impious age of reason into an age of improvement and propriety. Across the seas they have plowed a new promised land; symbolically their powerful divines call it a new Israel, a new Jerusalem, and the words of the Gospel fall easily from their lips as they name their children, the Ezekiels, the Jeremiahs, the Isaiahs, for the prophets of Jehovah. Scratch a Massachusetts man and you will find a being wrapped in a sense of his mission. The same Hand that guided Moses, and brought the barons to Runnymede, and preserved William Bradford in the wilderness, lies on them still. They believe in good and evil, not behaviorism, or complexes; id and ego to them are merely Latin pronouns. And if often they seem self-seeking, if they depart from the Path, yet the image floats before them. They hold the future in trust: it shall be true and righteous altogether.
It is a belief they do not hesitate to express, these Americans, in words like destiny and empire, and the seeming presumption either angers or amuses visitors from other lands. One such, an Englishman, comes one evening to supper in an American inn. The innkeeper, who is, to the visitor’s intense amusement, also the local general of militia, appears and in strident tones calls the diners to order.
“Gentlemen!” he cries, “We are a great people!” Then he reads the menu.
Another Englishman, stopping at an America« hotel, seeks diplomatically to find a conversational topic pleasing to the natives who surround him. Providence, he ventures, seems to have called on the two Anglo-Saxon nations to civilize the globe. Quickly an American brushes him and his Pax Britanica aside:
“Two nations! Guess there’s only one, stranger; going to annex that little island of yourn one of them fine days; don’t know how little Vic will like that, but got to do it, and no mistake about that!”
It is in America, as the stream of foreign visitors and commentators all notice in different ways, that a new society is being created. Everything is building and speculation, clatter and “go-ahead,” and a new language to express these things is springing into life. One genial financier tells Captain Frederick Marryat, the English traveller, that if he had taken up a certain speculation he would not only have doubled and trebled his money, he would also have “fourbled and fivebled” it. The American outlook seems to some to alternate between scorn for European ways and a feeling of having surpassed them. Are European marriages “arranged”? Well, none of that nonsense over here. Boys and girls, often quite unchaperoned, go about together in ways so free as to shock Europeans. The servant problem for the diplomatic set in Washington is impossible, quite impossible. No American, reports Harriet Martineau, will wear livery. Yet if the Americans disdain aristocracy, they use its language constantly. The words “fashionable” and “aristocratic,” noted Dickens with malicious glee, are always on the tongues of this upstart nation, describing the meanest village yeomanry or the least prepossessing boardinghouse. A surprising number of Americans, too busy to settle down, live in these remarkable establishments, on a greasy, vitamin-free diet to which only distance lends enchantment.
The contrasts, indeed, flabbergast many commentators—the boast and the fact, the prim and the uncouth, the slave and the free, side by side. The handful of stately buildings set down in Washington amid empty lots and frame shanties, the whole lining muddy “avenues” and “circles” that seem to mock the grandiose scheme of the city planner. The glorious words of the great Declaration—and the South’s “peculiar institution”! The railroad with the resounding name, ending with “and Pacific,” which so far goes ten miles! (Can either dream be fulfilled?)
Dickens could scarcely stand us. Visiting in the previous decade, he spared neither our feelings nor our pretensions. Passing through Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, he reported receiving, with what must have been thinly veiled disgust, some members of the state senate. One inundated the carpet with tobacco juice, another blew his nose with his fingers, and a third carefully explained to the novelist that this assembly of law-givers “corresponds to your House of Lords.”
America swarms with strange cults and movements that express the ferment of ideas. There are spiritualists, communists, phrenologists, mesmerists, Mormons digging tablets from the soil, fundamentalists. Feminists like Lucy Stone, Susan B. Anthony, and pantalooned Amelia Bloomer declaim against the rule of man, who either forces woman onto her ridiculous pedestal (in the South every woman is a saint, as every gentleman is an authentic descendant of a lord), or works her to death at a third of man’s wages.
But there is no questioning the future. Some five million immigrants have come to America— Irishmen, Germans, Britons, Scandinavians, a sprinkling of others—since 1815, and our population has quadrupled. (England’s for the same period is up less than 50 per cent). When a commercial and financial panic sweeps the country, later in this year, Fanny Kemble, the English actress who has married and divorced the owner of a southern plantation, writes home to England from New York an interesting comment. “It is impossible,” she says, “to conceive anything so curious to one on the spot, to whom the real positive wealth and prosperity of the country is … obvious.” And in the same year, James Musell Phillippe makes a thoughtful prophecy: by the end of the century, the United States will contain 100,000,000 people. In another half century, he decides, “she will be almost indubitably the most powerful government on earth.”
But the present, 1857, belongs to another nation, to an England at the height of her power and glory. Victoria is Queen, Viscount Palmerston, that perennial officer of the Crown, is Prime Minister, and large areas of the world are colored a comforting, imperial red. In fact, Mercator’s projection, the map generally used, only adds a feeling of power, by widening things toward the poles. It considerably enlarges New Zealand and Australia (which no white man has yet crossed) and makes British North America positively enormous (Canada is not yet a single confederation, not entirely explored).
What is it like to be in England now?
Those who wish to be presented to Queen Victoria at her levee gather in the Long Gallery at St. James’s Palace, the gentlemen in court dress, including knee breeches, the ladies with the trains of their fine dresses draped over the left arm. Each of them has sent to the palace, two days before, two cards with his or her name clearly written on them, together with a letter from a sponsor in the court circle who faithfully promises to be there also. It is, to say the least, a select company. The nobility, of course, and the clergy and the military are welcome. Physicians are admitted, but not general practitioners; barristers, but not solicitors. Merchants and businessmen (saving bankers) are excluded; it will be a while yet before biscuit kings and brewers are knighted. No divorced persons need aspire, nor members of the lower classes. This court still remembers the unfortunate occasion, during the previous reign of William IV, when a ci-devant cook-maid, turned into a countess by marriage, was inadvertently presented. William bowed smartly enough, but Queen Adelaide discovered a spot on the ceiling and studied it intently.
(Incidentally, there has been trouble with the Americans about these presentations, the problem of court dress, knee breeches and all that, which seems to echo like an ancient joke down through the ages. The former United States minister here, the old bachelor James Buchanan, the one who carries his head tilted to one side and who has just been made President—well, he rebelled at court dress, because he had his orders to appear in court “in the simple dress of an American citizen,” like Ben Franklin. In fact, there was an argument between this gentleman and a court official, the latter saying with some heat that the English people would consider such simple dress “a presumption,” the American replying that he respected the Queen but that it “would not make the slightest difference to me, individually, whether I ever appeared at Court.” And the London papers took it up. “There is not the least reason why her Majesty should be troubled to receive the gentleman in the black coat from Yankeeland,” rumbled one. “He can say his say at the Foreign Office, dine at a chophouse in King Street, sleep at the Old Hummuns, and be off as he came.” Finally a kind of compromise was worked out—black coat, white waist-coat and cravat, black pants and dress boots, plus a very plain sword. This last turned the trick, although Buchanan stoutly maintained he wore it only to avoid being mistaken for a waiter, a rather unlikely excuse since there is no eating at such occasions anyway. Then the whole excitement collapsed when tactful Victoria greeted the American with warmth and kindness.)
When a lady’s turn comes, she is waved through a door into the presence chamber. Letting down her train, which is instantly spread out behind her by the lords in waiting with their wands, she moves forward while her name is read aloud to the Queen. Now there is a low curtsy (which must end just short of kneeling). If the presentee is a peeress or a peer’s daughter, her forehead is kissed by the Queen; otherwise a commoner kisses the Queen’s extended hand. Rising, she curtsies also to Prince Albert and to any other Royal Highnesses on hand, and backs out of the presence with what she hopes is a dignified but not bold demeanor, trusting her feet will not betray her. After all, the train is going backwards now.
Let us pull down that world map again for a moment before proceeding to the next scene. Here they are, the dominions—the cliché is hard to utter—on which the sun in actual fact never sets, spread over six continents and the isles of the sea by a profit-minded, rather pious, and generally decent English conqueror, the first (and the last) well-meaning Imperium since the days of the Antonines. Ask how this is possible, how a nation of under twenty-five millions, dwelling on a foggy little island, can hold so much of palm and pine? Ask more—ask how a private company, the East India Company (more properly, The Governor and Company of Merchants of London, trading into the East Indies) can rule, at a distance of 14,000 miles, the sub-continent of India, with its two hundred millions? Or is it three hundred? No one has counted them accurately. But how did a handful of men from a little place like Macedon, no better than a province, or the citizens of a little Latin city-state, also grasp the civilized world in thrall? The key is organization. But organization can go awry.
India has been restless for decades, as its local rulers have been conquered, dethroned, or moved about by the officers of the company. Then, too, the British have legislated against basic Indian beliefs, outlawing suttee (the burning of widows on the husband’s funeral pyre), suppressing the Thugs (a sect of “holy” assassins), spreading education and sanitation. And now the rumor is about that they may abolish caste in the future. Not content with such outrageous colonialism, the company’s last administrator, Lord Dalhousie, has removed from his throne and pensioned off Wajid Ali, the last king of Oudh, whose capital is at Lucknow in northern India. And merely because Wajid Ali, an indolent and self-indulgent Moslem, has bankrupted his country by building a harem with separate apartments for each of his 370 wives, and leaving his kingdom to be run by the dacoits, an organized society of bandits!
Oudh, Bengal, and the northwest provinces are thinly held by the British. Five sixths of the army is made up of sepoy or native troops, many British regiments having been drawn off for the late war in the Crimea and for another one in China, and only a spark is needed to ignite a revolt. The spark is provided by the cartridges for the new Enfield rifles distributed to the troops. We present now a possibly imaginary but basically true conversation:
One day in January a sepoy at Dumdum is preparing his food when a low-caste man asks for a drink from his lota, or water vessel. The sepoy, a Brahman, refuses: “I have scoured my lota, and you will defile it by your touch.”
“You think so much of your caste,” the other says. “But wait a little. The English sahib will make you bite cartridges greased in cow and pork fat, and then where will your caste be?”
Need it be explained that the Moslem will touch no product of the pig, the Hindu nothing from the sacred cow? The story spreads everywhere, and is followed by mutinies and uprisings in Bengal, at Meerut, and at Delhi, old capital of the Mogul empire. Western and southern India, most fortunately, do not stir. Sepoys lay siege to the little British garrisons and their womenfolk at Cawnpore and Lucknow in Oudh, and the two stories are very different.
At Cawnpore, the British general foolishly takes Nana Sahib, the sepoy commander, at his word when he offers to allow the besieged Europeans to go safely to Allahabad, if they will abandon the fortress and leave their stores. Once outside, the Englishmen are slaughtered to a man and the surviving women and children are, for a time, imprisoned. Nana Sahib takes up his pen, the English having taught him to write.
“As by the bounty of the glorious, Almighty God, and the enemy-destroying fortune of the Emperor, the yellow-faced and narrow-minded people have been sent to hell!” begins his proclamation of victory. But then a relieving force of yellow faces under General Henry Havelock draws near, and the sepoy commander sends his cavalry men into the prison to dispatch, with great cruelty, the surviving women and children, the latter suffering first, being dashed to pieces against the ground or tossed in the air on bayonets, before their mothers’ eyes. A few hours later Havelock’s Highland regiments reach the spot. One officer described the scene:
I have been to see the place where the poor women and children were imprisoned and afterward butchered. It is a small bungalow close to the road. There are all sorts of articles of women’s and children’s clothing, ladies’ hair, evidently cut off with a sword, back combs, etc. Where the massacre took place is covered with blood like a butcher’s slaughterhouse. One would fancy that nothing could be worse than this, but in the well at the back of the house are the bodies and limbs of the poor things. I looked down and saw such a sight as I hope never to see again. The whole of the bodies were naked, and the limbs had been separated. I have looked upon death in every form, but I could not look down that well again.
At the residency in Lucknow, entrenched and well-defended, things look sticky indeed. The British here are resolved to hold out, however, and sick as most of them are with fever and scurvy, starving as well and under steady sepoy bombardment, the men, women, and children wait it out for eighty-seven days. Knowing the Moslem ways, they have kept aside a few bullets for each other when the final rush comes.
But anyone who has ever had to recite in school—Tennyson, R. T. S. Lowell, Whittier—can take the tale from here, the gloom, the despairing women in the cellar, the Scottish maiden with her ear to the ground, her sudden cry: “The pibrochs! The piping of the clans!” At first there is disbelief—she is delirious!—but later, it comes: the real sound, unmistakable, sharp, and shrill, the skirling, bone-tingling wail, the pipe band of the relieving force. Let Whittier finish it:
Round the silver domes of Lucknow, Moslem mosque and Pagan shrine, Breathed the air to Britons dearest, The air of Auld Lang Syne. O’er the cruel roll of war-drums Rose that sweet and homelike strain; And the tartan clove the turban, As the Goomtee cleaves the plain. Dear to the corn-land reaper And plaided mountaineer,— To the cottage and the castle The piper’s song is dear. Sweet sounds the Gaelic pibroch O’er mountain, glen, and glade; But the sweetest of all music The Pipes at Lucknow played!
This is the stuff of empire.
By the end of 1857, the Sepoy Rebellion is mostly suppressed, but it has spelled the doom of the East India Company, which will be replaced by direct British rule the next year (and a less revolutionary policy that plays along with the sprawling coterie of rajas, nizams, nawabs, and other rulers).
Elsewhere the affairs of empire proceed more satisfactorily. A little war with Persia, now under strong Russian influence, puts down an attempted grab in Afghanistan. At Canton, Britain and France are again engaged in hostilities with the moribund Chinese empire, bombarding the city and sinking many junks in what is, to be frank, a drive for expanded trading opportunities. The excuse for all this is weak indeed: the Chinese authorities at Canton have seized some Chinese pirates on a Chinese ship which once was (but no longer is) of British registry. Even when the prisoners are returned under pressure, the British commander complains that the manner of the return is not as abject as stipulated, refuses to receive them, and opens fire on them.
At Jidda, seaport of the holy city of Mecca, twenty Christians, mostly Englishmen and Frenchmen, have been murdered by a mob, without interference from the police of the crumbling Turkish empire that “rules” Arabia. A British frigate appears, demanding punishment of the guilty, which is not refused, only delayed to await word from Constantinople. But the town is impatiently shelled and subdued, the flags of France and England are paraded through the streets, and eleven of the murderers (so the local pasha identifies them, at any rate) are beheaded in the presence of a smartly drawn up party of sailors and Royal Marines, plus Turkish and Egyptian troops.
“The demands of justice were thus satisfied,” roars Britain’s Annual Register of 1858, “and a lesson was given to the Mussulman population, in that quarter, which they are not likely soon to forget.”
Meanwhile, throughout Atlantic waters prowl other ships of this great navy, putting down the slave trade and working wonders for the British conscience. Off the west coast of Africa this year a British cruiser captures a slaver, setting free 380 trembling, starving Africans; 120 have already perished.
A British tar is a soaring soul, As free as a mountain bird, His energetic fist should be ready to resist A dictatorial word… His eyes should flash and his breast protrude, And this should be his customary attitude!
(Gilbert and Sullivan knew what they were ribbing.)
The recital of a long list of wars and rumors of war in the Queen’s speech from the throne elicits a scornful laugh from the brilliant leader of the Tory Opposition, Benjamin Disraeli, a wit, a dandy, and above all a realist who is convulsed by the conclusion to the speech, as read by the Lord Chancellor: “Her Majesty commands us to express the gratification which it affords her to witness the general well-being and contentment of her people.”
And yet it is true. England has never known such peace and prosperity. She is the manufacturing, trading, and financial capital of the world; the pound sterling is hard as a rock. Throughout the Midlands and the North the factories belch the smoke which, if it disfigures the landscape and showers the dreary slums with soot, nevertheless bespeaks primacy in steel and iron, in potteries and silverware, in woolen and cotton goods. Liverpool is crowded with American clippers and packets, disgorging cotton for the mills of Lancashire, returning afterward with every article of manufacture. The City of London finances, insures, and discounts for the world. Many of the new railways in America, for example, are the product of British capital.
The great, tall, jaunty figure of Lord Palmerston, the roastbeef, mastiff type of Englishman, is leading to supremacy a new class—the upper middle class of manufacturers and traders who have displaced the Tory landowners for the rule of England. The repeal of the corn laws a decade before has emphasized the change; henceforward Britain will live by trade, importing her food from abroad. Long afterward it will prove a fateful change.
Unlike the rest of Europe, England has had her revolution peacefully, but great social change she has nevertheless under-gone. Much of the savagery that lurked behind the pleasant surface of a still recent England has been tempered or removed. The whipping post and the pillory are gone, and one hundred offenses have been removed from the hanging category. Public free education is being advocated, and for good reason. “Progressive” Britain has a 40 per cent illiteracy rate; Robert Lowe, who is, in effect, minister of education in the Palmerston government, makes an ironic suggestion: “It is necessary to induce our future masters to learn their letters.” Catholics and dissenters have gained civil rights; local government has been taken from the few and turned over to the taxpayers—that is, to the landlord but not the lodger. The great Reform Bill of 1832 has broken the power of the rotten boroughs, if not totally destroyed them—for everything is gradual here—and England, if it does not have democracy in the modern sense, has elected, representative government. The Queen has yielded, with un-Hanoverian grace, the right to appoint ministers except pro forma ; the Lords have been humbled somewhat in their power, to become (rather surprisingly) a useful consultative assembly.
(Recall for a moment the House of Commons just before the Reform Bill, to grasp the extent of its meaning. Of 472 borough members only 137 were elected in any real sense. Others were controlled by the Crown, certain peers, and a few rich commoners. A rotten borough, as it was called, was an uninhabited, or barely inhabited place. Consider Cornwall, which with forty-two members had as many borough members, less one, as all Scotland; the village of Bosseney, with three cottages and nine electors, eight of them belonging to one family, sent two members to Parliament. Michell village had five voters, Gallon seven, Old Sarum no voters at all—yet each sent a member chosen by the landowner. Of Cornwall’s forty-two members, forty-one were controlled by seven peers and eleven landowners. The other was freely elected.)
Despite these reforms, this new Britain would be shocking to modern eyes. The abuses of the Industrial Revolution are plain to see. In the very year of the Reform Bill, one fifth of the cotton-textile workers were under fourteen, one third under eighteen. Miners died like flies in the collieries, and no attempt was made to fix the real responsibility. Laissez faire! What was once a fairly happy farming yeomanry has been driven to the hideous cities, Birmingham, Sheffield, Leeds, to soulless labor often, twelve, and fourteen hours a day. Life for many is on a bare survival level, for many women, nearly impossible. In the midst of all the Victorian propriety, in the eighteen fifties 80,000 women in London live by prostitution. All this has been noted by a German refugee named Karl Marx, who spends his days, this year of 1857, grubbing through the sections on economics, history, and politics in the drafty British Museum, living on a guinea a week paid him from afar in his capacity as London correspondent for the unsuspecting editor of the New York Tribune , Horace Greeley.
Think for a moment of the chimney sweep, who is generally less than ten years old and employed against his will. Up his employer sends him, through the grate and up the flue, wriggling his way through the Stygian blackness, toes clawing at the cracks between the bricks. Now he works his elbows, now his knees, stifling, showered by soot, very likely missing his way in chimneys that have been patched and altered over the centuries. Losing his footing, he crashes, like as not, to his death. Diseases and skin sores afflict him, and his life is generally short. For laggards who hang back, there is the device of the “tickler,” a little fire lighted in the grate by his master to speed the young worker on his way. If it smothers or roasts him alive, it will be an “unavoidable accident.”
This is the world that angers Marx, rouses Dickens to heights of irony, and brings out the passion of Thomas Carlyle. The reports of the Poor Law Commissioners, charged with the care of paupers, outrage Carlyle particularly.
“Let there be workhouses,” he cries, “and bread of affliction and water of affliction there. It was a simple invention, as all truly great inventions are … A still briefer method is that of arsenic. Rats and paupers can be abolished.”
Will there be a revolution? Conscience asks, but history shakes her head. Elsewhere, yes, but here they will have, ten years hence, another reform bill, and another, and another, till the lodger has his vote, and the workhouse is closed, and the poor little sweep is snatched from his nightmare and sent free to school. For England chooses the Dickens ending, not the one composed by Marx. And over it all, full sixty-three years, incredible span, presides the tiny, proper figure of the woman who lends the age her name.
Victoria at this moment is a plump, nice-looking matron of thirty-eight, less than five feet tall. Young by our standards, she is middle-aged by her own and those of her times. She is a strong-minded but emphatically antifeminist woman who loves her husband with a touching devotion quite untypical of royalty. In a gruff way, he returns it, and they have just had their ninth and last child, Princess Beatrice. Despairing of ever getting Parliament to do it, she has this year appointed her husband, Albert, to the official title of Prince Consort, raising his precedence enormously in the royal society of Europe, from an insignificant Prince of Coburg to the first prince of England. At last he outranks his own sons and no longer runs the risk of sitting so far down the table at royal dinners on the Continent as to be out of range of his wife’s remarks and admonitions.
There is joy, and just a twinge of wistful parental sorrow in the family. The eldest daughter, Albert’s favorite, pretty Princess Victoria Mary, seventeen, is soon to marry the Prince of Prussia. The families, of course, have arranged it, but there is charm to the tale. Two years before, after diplomatic consultation, the young Prince was invited to Balmoral in Scotland, exposed to his target, and given a week to propose on his own—although it was not put so bluntly to him. And so one afternoon he took her walking up the rugged slopes of Craig-na-Ben, ablaze with purple heather. There Frederick William (later to be briefly German Kaiser and father of the Kaiser of World War I) found a sprig of pure white heather, which he gallantly presented. It brought good luck, he reminded her, and would she make the prophecy come true by becoming his wife? Yes, said the shy little princess. She was almost fifteen.
This was how the age liked its romance, and its royalty. What models of propriety, what fine examples, this new English royalty! What a pleasant change from the long madness of George III, from that sodden if brilliant scoundrel, the late unlamented George IV! How unlike the Continent!
The continent of Europe, this year of 1857, still languishes in the long, reactionary shadows of the Congress of Vienna, which forty-two years before, after the fall of Napoleon, sought to revive and restore for all time the world he had destroyed. Absolutism rests heavily upon it, like a case of chronic indigestion, an absolutism made bearable, to be sure, by its hopeless inefficiency. And as a natural consequence, there is a ferment underneath—hotheads like Mazzini and Garibaldi plotting the unification of Italy; German students smarting under the collapse of the hopeful revolutions of 1848. Even in Russia, the most backward of all the states of Europe, land of pogroms and secret police, where more than twenty million serfs live in grinding poverty and may be bought and sold like cattle, there is a new young Czar, well-intentioned Alexander II, who actually plans to free them and begin reforming his country.
Over the heart of central Europe sprawls the rickety, formless Austro-Hungarian empire, a patchwork of nationalities and pretensions inherited from the Middle Ages. A false glitter illuminates the France of Napoleon III; Spain and Portugal, their great days past, are sunk in apathy. Far to the East, astride the Straits and exerting a shadowy authority around the crescent of the Middle East and Egypt, lies the domain of the Sultan of Turkey, the Sublime Porte, whose power remains only because no one can agree on who should be permitted to take it from him.
Descriptions of these continental courts seem today compounded of the sheerest fantasy. In Spain the Queen’s stillborn child, who from a practical point of view has never lived at all, lies in state on a high catafalque, surrounded by halberdiers and visited by all the grandees of the kingdom. On its pathetic breast is the broad blue ribbon of the Order of Carlos III, on its discolored face, alas, no sign of the undertaker’s art. The child’s mother is plump, stupid, and not much to look at; yet Isabella is a mental giant beside her consort, who has a falsetto voice and no chin; this royal nonentity has brought his idiot brother to live with them. It must be embarrassing at balls—she loves them, fat as she is, and gives them all the time—to have the King’s brother darting around the edges of the party on all fours, his dearest pleasure, removing the tacks from the carpets with his teeth.
In Constantinople this April, three daughters of the Sultan of Turkey become engaged, by parental order, and elaborate ceremonies and gift givings are performed. The dowries are £5,000, Turkish, each, brought in specie in red satin bags, but the gifts far overshadow the money; it is estimated that one lucky bridegroom has spent on jewels alone upwards of £120,000, Turkish—all this to a lady he never sees during the engagement ceremony. There is some contact, of a sort, however, between palace and seraglio, for each fiancé sends each sultana, none of them over fifteen, a hundred trays of sweetmeats to tide her through the festivities. And the man on the street catches a glimpse of the sultanas when, preceded by their eunuchs and followed by their mothers, slaves, and presents, they are driven pell-mell through the streets. Save in England, all nineteenth-century royalty drives fast; it is well to present a moving target.
The fact of the matter, though, is that Europe at this time boasts a fairly poor order of assassin, zealous at times, but woefully lacking in skill. They have killed a few grand dukes but have failed in several attempts to carry off the most remarkable royal adventurer of the era, Napoleon III, Emperor of the French. One of the unsuccessful assaults, which occurs in 1857, says something about all participants. In August three Italians, by name Tibaldi, Bartolotti, and Grilli, each of whom has received fifty gold napoleons in advance from a group of Italian conspirators in London, arrive in Paris to accomplish the end of the Emperor, who was once one of their fiery advocates, and whom they feel—rather unjustly—has deserted them. But Paris is an enchanting place in 1857, and the assassins dawdle in the cafés, using their time and money to enjoy themselves until, never having unsheathed a poniard, they are apprehended and sent to the galleys.
The object of these unsuccessful attentions is the wonder of the age, from a monarchical point of view, and in 1857 his star is in the ascendant. Drab Louis Napoleon, with his flat, pale, expressionless face and his short, plump body, remains to this day a poorly explained figure. He is both the nephew and the adopted grandson of Bonaparte; he has helped both establish and destroy the Second Republic. “His mind is as full of schemes as a warren is of rabbits,” notes Palmerston with distaste. Making himself Emperor by a coup d’état a scant five years before, this poor relation of past glories seeks to embody in his own rather inconsequential person every one of the contradictory dreams of the French. He sets himself up as the advocate of clerical and anticlerical, republican and monarchist, legitimist and Bonapartist, peasant and bourgeois, progress and reaction, democracy and “order.” Naturally this grand design has irreconcilable aspects, and he tries, like so many princes and dictators in his position, to unify his subjects by foreign successes, which leads him to give aid to many a remote cause—the Romanians, the Poles, and the disastrous adventure of Maximilian of Mexico. He has made himself the champion of Italian unity and is playing a large part in bringing it about, only to be reviled at the end as a tyrant and friend of reaction. His very last adventure, of course, will take place at Sedan, and he will end his life as he began it, a refugee.
But now, in 1857, the courts of the Tuileries and Fontainebleau are all power and glory. In the Crimean War, Napoleon helped bring on a war with Russia, and peace has been made at Paris. The late Russian emperor who, alone, would not call the new Emperor “ Mon Frère ” has been humbled; state visits have been exchanged with Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, and the British sovereign has been properly impressed with the brilliant glories of “the city of light,” newly laid out and glorified by the Baron Haussmann. As Victoria admitted, she was “enchanted and bewildered.”
The Emperor and former Prince-President engagingly admits himself a parvenu (with a faint German accent, since he was educated across the Rhine) ; he prides himself on the beauty of his consort, the Empress Eugénie, and the fact that she is not of royal blood. It was a love match, he is proud to announce, omitting to say that he was turned down first by the houses of Wasa and Hohenzollern.
This is accounted a “brilliant” court. Bear for a moment with a scene at Fontainebleau, where the royal couple have arrived amid booming cannon, flourishes of trumpets, and the beating of drums. There is to be a play tonight, written for the Théâtre Impériale by the Emperor’s half-brother, Charles, Due de Morny, minister for foreign affairs. The plot? A sedate French provincial comes to Paris, his purpose to speak with the Emperor on serious state affairs, with the Empress about her charities, with Monsieur le Duc de Morny about matters of diplomacy. And what happens? All three of them are bored, for the worthy provincial has failed to discuss the three subjects in which the personages named are really interested—Napoleon’s Life of Caesar , the Empress’s crinolines, the Due’s talent as a playwright! Amazing as it may seem, this triumph of wit brings down the royal house.
A modern world may find these characters hard to grasp. We may recognize the penny-pinching Prince of Prussia, young Frederick William’s father, who always changes his trousers to an old pair before going somewhere like the opera where there will be a lot of sitting, and sees to it that partly drunk bottles of champagne are frugally recorked. We try hard to seize the idea of the salon , such as the cousin and ex-lady-friend of Napoleon, Princesse Mathilde, holds in Paris, attended by the artists, the politicians, the writers of the times, Théophile Gautier, Edmond de Concourt, Dumas fils. These salons , it is certain, see nothing of Honoré Daumier, whose savage caricatures penetrate the poverty and the false front of the France of Napoleon the Little, nor of Charles Baudelaire, whose heated poems published this year, called Les Fleurs du Mal , spare no explicit detail of love and are officially suppressed as soon as they are printed.
The great beauty of the day, and a legend as well, is the Countess de Castiglione, a Piedmontese lady of rank, wealth, and superb conceit, who has borne one child, to her distaste, and refuses again to allow nature to disturb the silhouette of art. Her husband never appears, and the exquisite creature lives alone in Paris with her amour-propre . Reserved, calm to the point of abstraction, this cool goddess likes to robe herself, according to her fancy of the night, in costumes of other epochs, or in pure white or sable. The admirers impatiently crowd her anterooms, but arranged artistically or. her couch, every fold in place, she will receive them only one at a time, refusing any favor, frequently, indeed, refusing speech. It is recorded, though, that one suitor, more demanding than the rest, denouncing her for her coldness, for her failure to requite his passion, at last wrung words from her.
“You can look at me,” said the beauty softly. “Is that not enough?”
Soon, of course, the Emperor becomes a caller, has little soupers-à-deux with her, and at last, casting caution to the winds, brings the Countess to a costume ball at the Tuileries. She is dressed as the Queen of Hearts, her skirt caught revealingly above the knee by a jewelled heart, audacity of high degree in 1857. So attired and resting on Napoleon’s arm, she encounters the frowning Empress. “Do you not admire the costume of the Countess?” asks Napoleon.
“Exceedingly,” replies the Empress, biting each word. ” Vous mettez votre coeur bien bas, Madame .”
But it is beyond the Rhine that this monarchical system, this really ancien régime , reaches its height of the ridiculous. Germany stirs with writers, great musicians, thinkers, and inventors, but she lingers far behind the rest of Europe in political organization. While other nations grew centralized, Germany was the cockpit of religious wars, and indeed still bears the scars of the Thirty Years War two hundred years before, which reduced her population to one third of what it had been and left vast areas to be the habitation of wolves.
The map of Germany in 1857 looks like something created by a roomful of young children left to play with the contents of a paint shop. Over it are splattered thirty-nine different independent sovereignties. They represent an improvement over the situation in the days before Napoleon, when there were over three hundred, and this achievement can never be taken away from the Congress of Vienna; but it does make for confusion. There are, counting Austria in its alter ego as a German state, six kingdoms, plus four free cities and a swarm of gemütlich grand duchies, duchies, and principalities, of which only two, the grand duchy of Luxembourg and the tiny principality of Liechtenstein, survive at this writing.
It might be supposed that it would be no harder to memorize a map like this, perhaps a little easier, than it would be to acquire a working knowledge of the layout of the states of the American union. But this overlooks the fact that most duchies are amalgamations, by marriage, purchase, or inheritance, of a great many former sovereignties, so that the usual one consists of two or three main sections, generally not connected with each other geographically, plus an average of eight enclaves, or smaller sections, scattered around within neighboring states. Imagine Delaware, for example, cut into three sizable separate chunks by strips of Maryland and Virginia. Then take twenty-four smaller bits of the state and sprinkle them through Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, and Virginia. Now drop into the three big pieces of Delaware some chunks of nearby states. The result is a fairly exact parallel to the layout of the i ,397 square miles of the grand duchy of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach, where Goethe, Schiller, and Liszt flourished not long ago.
And this is only one of four Saxon duchies. There is also Saxe-Altenburg (two big parts, twelve enclaves), 511 square miles of brick, sausage, and music-box factories, the birthplace of the card game skat, and a land where a whimsical inheritance law passes property to the youngest son. Its present duke got Saxe-Altenburg quite recently, in a swap, having tired of his previous duchy.
There is Saxe-Meiningen-Hildburghausen (pencils, marbles, wooden toys), a one-piece duchy which is notable chiefly for being eighty miles long and only ten miles wide, shaped in a graceful crescent like a French breakfast roll. And there is Saxe-Coburg-Gotha (honey, poultry, more toys), whose two main sections are fourteen miles apart, the government operating first in one part, then in the other. As usual, there is a legislature called a diet, partly elected but mostly appointed by the duke. Duke Ernst is the older brother of Prince Albert of England, and since he is childless, one of Victoria’s sons will be able to add this duchy to his inheritance some day, just as her uncle has inherited the old Hanoverian properties of Hanover and Brunswick. Duke Ernst is rich, too, having sold still another duchy to ever-acquisitive Prussia.
Besides all these Saxon duchies, there is a Prussian province called Saxony and an independent kingdom of Saxony as well, whose king spends his time in the palace at Dresden making very fine translations of Dante. What makes things stranger is the fact that the Saxon states, which used to be in the west of Germany a few centuries ago, have now moved to the east, as though the United States had moved, say, to Chile, and the Chileans had come up to North America.
Pride and eccentricity, in various mixtures, seem to be the distinguishing characteristics of these comic-opera courts. The last ruler of Hesse-Cassel (one of half a dozen Hessian duchies) was so reactionary that he put all his soldiers in eighteenth-century uniforms. The present one refuses to have railroads or factories within his state and once grew so angry with his subjects, who were slow with their taxes, that he went on strike, refusing to transact any public business until they paid up. In tiny Reuss-Greiz and Reuss-Schleiz-Gera, where the burghers make cheese and musical instruments, there are related houses in which all the sons are named Henry. Their current rulers, who are, respectively, Prince Henry the Twentieth and Prince Henry the Sixty-Seventh, are given to referring to themselves, each without any conscious humor, as “My all-highest self.” Bavaria, the lightest-hearted part of Germany, has a strange young prince named Ludwig. Within a decade he will be its “Mad King,” floating in a shell-like gondola drawn by swans in the grotto of Linderhof, listening the while to the music of his protégé Richard Wagner. The protégé, as demanding in his eccentricities as the patron, will compose only in a room hung all about with blood-red draperies, pounding out the eerie harmonies that capture the German soul.
But while this preposterous ruling class idles and dreams away its last days of feckless absolutism and Germany nibbles late at the Industrial Revolution, a man with a clear and burning ambition is preparing a new Germany. At the weak federal diet in Frankfurt, which (together with a customs union) is the only central organization in this checkerboard of states, young Otto von Bismarck represents the King of Prussia. He is watching this assemblage, feebly dominated by Austria, make its mistakes. This year Bismarck’s elderly king has gone mad and has been replaced, as regent, by his brother, a prince unstained by liberalism, determined to build a Prussia, and later a Germany, that is militarily strong. Austria will be brushed aside, and so will the nonsense of liberal government. If anything amuses Bismarck, it is what he calls “the English catchwords, humanity and civilization.” The electors and margraves, the little dukes, the proud princelings, the high-numbered Henrys? If they surrender their substance, they may keep their shadows, but there will be only one real all-highest, and he in Berlin.
If they think about the Old World at all, the Americans are glad they have left Europe, its kings, its class system, its hierarchies, its sleepy ways, behind. A few southerners may dream of a fancied romantic past found in the novels of Sir Walter Scott, but the Yankee, the westerner, and, indeed, most southerners are bound up in the bustling present and tantalizing future.
Even though wild land speculation and a shaky system of money and banking bring on a financial crash near the end of August (some 1,400 state banks, not the federal government, issue paper money, and every business keeps a “Counterfeit Guide”), 1857 marks the peak of a period of prosperity. There has never been such investment in shipping, telegraph lines, factories, and railroads. A cable is being laid all the way to England.
Clouds of sail billowing over their pencil-slim hulls, the American clippers set the world’s speed records, trading with Europe and the Orient, carrying the miners, the settlers, and the adventurers to California, bringing home the gold dust. The Sea Witch has made it from Hong Kong to New York, around the Horn, in seventy-four days; the Sovereign of the Seas has sailed from New York to Liverpool, crossing from pier to anchorage in thirteen days, twenty-two hours. One day has witnessed an unprecedented seven clippers beat majestically in through the Golden Gate. Yet before the 1850’s are over, the brief glory of the clippers will be past; already the steamship is superseding them. Other men of sail, the whalers of New Bedford and Nantucket, bringing the sperm oil to light the lamps of America, may also count their days. Professor Benjamin Silliman, Jr., the scientist, has found a way of refining the black petroleum that seeps out of the rocks in Pennsylvania; perhaps by drilling deep into the ground, as for water, one may find more of it. A. C. Ferris has built a workable petroleum lamp, and the stuff, think enthusiasts, may have other uses.
Powered by water, but increasingly by steam, mill wheels turn throughout the North and the Middle West. The factory system has driven out most household manufacturing, for in the factory, with integration of all industrial processes, mass production becomes possible. American population is up fourfold since 1815—but her output of manufactured products is ten times as great. Men are prepared to invest heavily, as do the Lowells of Boston, in great cotton and woolen mills. Over the last twenty-seven years the Middlesex Mills have averaged 16 per cent return, and lately 40 to 60 per cent profit in a single year has not been unusual in many New England factories. The iron industry is moving slowly westward, and the recent completion of a canal into Lake Superior has opened up vast new resources of ore in the Marquette area; Henry Bessemer, an Englishman, has taken out a United States patent this year for his steelmaking process. There is a perennial shortage of labor, and the agents of the textile mills range farther among the country villages hunting for operatives. The native workman tends to be rather independent; unlike his European counterpart he has formed strong labor unions here and there, and has won strikes; if things go wrong, well, he can go West. In fact, he rarely does; it is the rural American who settles the West. Increasingly the employers are sending their agents to Europe to bring in a new kind of labor. Already half the workers around Boston are Irishmen and their womenfolk. Their poverty is appalling, but the age accepts it.
America suffers no shortage whatever of industrial ideas. An average of 2,500 patents are being granted annually in this decade; there has never been anything like it. New jigs, gauges, taps, and dies speed factory work; there is a still newer device called a turret lathe. Sewing machines are beginning to whir in American homes; Cyrus McCormick is having his best year to date—23,000 reapers and a profit of a million and a quarter, and you can buy a brand new model that carries the cut grain to one side, bundles it, and dumps it for collection later. The output of the individual farmer is shooting up. Indeed, all this industrial activity of 1857 is possible because American manpower is being released from its age-old concentration on producing food.
The inventor is a new hero in the American pantheon, and it is an even bet that he is a Connecticut man. In fact, the story goes, when the Patent Office first opened its doors in 1790, a dozen men from the Nutmeg State were waiting outside. There are famous ones, like Sam Colt, Eli Whitney, David Humphreys, and Charles Goodyear, but 1857 is also familiar, or ought to be, with Thomas Howe of Derby, who succeeds in making pins out of one piece of metal, cheaply, and selling them in papers (they used to be very expensive, and the heads came oft). J. B. Williams of Glastonbury gives the nation a shaving stick; Linus Yale of Stamford perfects a cylinder lock; Benjamin Gilbert of Georgetown devises horsehair furniture covering, and cushions an age; John Bostwick of Sharon fulfills the legend, the better mousetrap.
Everywhere this restless, handy, inventive race is on the move. Charles T. Harvey, a twenty-four-year-old salesman pushing through the wilds of northern Michigan hawking Fairbanks scales, discovers that only a nineteen-foot fall of rapids and a mile of shallows cuts off Lake Superior from the rest of the Great Lakes. He throws aside his scales, collects money and workmen, and here, at Sault Sainte Marie, 450 miles from even a telegraph, builds the great Soo Canal. Another idea, to be developed later, is knocking about in his head: an elevated railroad for New York City. Down in Louisiana, young Henry Miller Shreve has built himself the strangest boat rivermen have ever seen, a huge, double-hulled “snagboat,” equipped with a rammer that batters out of the way the logs and dead trees that obstruct western rivers. He brings whole new areas into the orbit of trade. Frederic Tudor of Boston singlehandedly invents the ice business, makes Americans into year-round ice-water drinkers, and bestows refrigeration of a sort on the tropics. His ice boats ply the Caribbean, and as far away as India, with ice cut from the ponds of Middlesex County.
The cities are swelling, and over 15 per cent of Americans now live in them, against 5 per cent in 1790. The biggest are New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Boston, and New Orleans, in that order. They swarm with horsecars and omnibuses, and most of them have some sort of water supply, but the disposal of garbage and sewage is only rudimentary. Hogs and mongrel dogs prey on the refuse, and in many places one walks ankle-deep in mud. Disease in epidemic form—cholera, yellow fever, typhus, smallpox— swoops down occasionally, with fearful results in this day of primitive medicine. Not a single microbe has been identified. In Boston, Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes remarks that “if the whole materia medica as now used could be sunk to the bottom of the sea, it would be all the better for mankind and all the worse for the fishes.”
But the people keep pouring in. New York is pressing northward; the Vanderbilts, fugitives from the expanding commercial district, are building uptown, near Thirty-fourth Street. (The Astor country estate is at Eighty-eighth Street, near the East River.) Park Row is the main shopping street, and Broadway between Broome and Spring streets is the grand carriage drive and promenade. Here is the opulent St. Nicholas Hotel, which has quite eclipsed the old Astor House farther downtown. Fifth Avenue is cut through now north of Twenty-third Street, but it still resembles a country road; on Sundays people drive out along it to visit the Croton Reservoir, at Forty-second Street. Farther east on Forty-second Street is a shantytown called Dutch Hill, where immigrant laborers live, and there are other such settlements among the farms and woods and country places north of Fiftieth Street. But there is a grand design afoot that will transform a large section of this nondescript wilderness into a great Central Park. Two and one-half miles long and a half mile wide, handsomely landscaped, it is to cost some nine million dollars. No other city can boast of anything like this!
Everything about New York seems to be superlative; its new millionaires, its mansions, its gala balls, its hotels, its wonderful Barnum museum, its theatres, its galaxy of races, its beautiful ladies, its killing pace. Nothing matches its venal politics either, or its crime, which reaches dizzy heights in the Five Points, the worst of all the city’s slum areas. Here are streets like Cow Bay and Murderer’s Alley, and policemen, for protection, walk in pairs between the grogshops, the tenements, and the headquarters of thieves and prostitutes (in this area, any girl over twelve). Here power rests in the hands of a gang of hoodlums called the Dead Rabbits, who spend their nights in battle with such rival gangs from other wards as the infamous Bowery Boys, or the Plug Uglies. The sketch artists of the times spread the likenesses of those colorful troublemakers about the country; songs celebrate their lootings, their arsons, their robberies, and their internecine wars. Hung about with brass knuckles, guns, razors, knives, bits of iron pipe, and other concealed weapons, they are neither rabbitlike nor boyish. But only a rube inquires how they can continue to flourish.
The leaders of all these gangs are members of Tammany Hall, whose chieftain at this time is dapper, handsome Fernando Wood, a fashion plate of a man with his snappy clothes and drooping black mustache. He has elected himself mayor and allows the profitable business of crime to proceed unchecked. Is New York a den of vice? When a bishop later proclaims that there are as many prostitutes in New York as there are Methodists, the city administration sniggers. Why, says the commissioner of police, here are the statistics; only 621 houses of prostitution, 99 houses of assignation, and a mere 75 “concert saloons of ill repute”! (At these houses lights burn in tinted bowls, usually red, illuminating the name of the establishment or its proprieter: Flora, Lizzie, The Gem, Sinbad the Sailor. One proprietor keeps a Bible in every room. The Seven Sisters is more elegant and has no sign, but visitors in the better hotels receive its engraved card in their mail.) The commissioner, of course, is not discussing Five Points girls, or streetwalkers. Who can count them?
This year, after a number of particularly blatant murders and lethal riots, the Republican legislature amends the city charter, takes the police power away from Wood, and sets up a new Metropolitan Police, to be run by the governor. But Wood will not give up so easily and, by maneuvering in the courts, stalls off disbanding his bluecoats. Thus there are two rival forces and soon a pitched battle between them, broken up only by the Army. This situation continues all summer, until the gangs take advantage of police inattention to stage a general riot, which engulfs half of lower Manhattan and leaves many casualties on the streets before the rival constables at last unite and, supported by the regiments of militia, beat the criminals back into their slums. But the evil has not been cured.
Boston and its surrounding towns, linked by rail, are enjoying their greatest literary age. Longfellow, Holmes, and James Russell Lowell, among others, have launched a new magazine, the Atlantic Monthly ; Louis Agassiz, Francis J. Child, and Lowell teach across the river at Harvard; you may find Emerson, Whittier, Theodore Parker, and the Alcotts at the bookstores near the Common. William Lloyd Garrison of Roxbury is crying to the world in his abolitionist newspaper, the Liberator . Around the State House and Beacon Hill the atmosphere of the old city lingers on, for Boston is not torn down and replaced every ten years like New York; the redcoats would have no trouble finding their way around the old streets.
Cities are burgeoning that never saw a redcoat—Cincinnati, Chicago, St. Louis, San Francisco. They fairly leap out of the earth. “We cannot all live in cities!” cries Horace Greeley, who is a kind of prophet of this expanding day. And so the settlers rush westward, by train, steamboat, and wagon—to build new cities. Cattle drive north from Texas; the plow breaks the central Plains; the buffalo are vanishing, and the Indians fall back again and again. They are either dangerous, moody outcasts now, or hopeless vagrants hanging about the white man’s settlements. Thirty settlers have been slain in Minnesota and Iowa this year, the women carried off to the fate that is worse than death. The government in the last two years has yielded title to an unprecedented 17,000,000 acres of their old hunting grounds in the West, and the East swarms with land agents and promoters displaying imaginative maps of cities not yet built: one may obtain choice lots near the future courthouse for a ridiculous price, by acting now. Caveat emptor .
Fanny Kemble, this April, is just back from a western tour to St. Louis, around Lake Michigan, and back.
The hurry of life in the Western part of this country [writes this indefatigable correspondent], the rapidity, energy and enterprise with which civilization is there being carried forward, baffles all description … Cities of magnificent streets and houses, with wharves, and quays, and warehouses, and storehouses, and shops full of Paris luxuries, and railroads from and to them in every direction, and land worth its weight in gold by the foot, and populations of fifty and hundreds of thousands, where, within the memory of men, no trace of civilization existed, but the forest grew and the savage wandered.
I was at a place called Milwaukee, on Lake Michigan, a flourishing town where they invited me to go and read Shakespeare to them, which I mention as an indication of advanced civilization, and one of the residents, a man not fifty years old, told me that he remembered the spot on which stood the hotel where I was lodging, a tangled wilderness through which ran an Indian trail. Does not all that sound wonderful?
It is the railroad that makes all this possible. It carries the settler with his trunks, the orator with his speech on Manifest Destiny, the feminist lady with her tracts, the reporter with his notebooks. But most important it carries the goods and makes of half a continent a single market; the shoe manufacturer of Lynn ships his product at low prices throughout the settled United States. When the railroad reaches Cincinnati, the price of coffee there comes down. It used to cost sixteen cents a pound more than in New York; now the advance is but a penny. There were 8,500 miles of railroad in 1850. In 1857 there are nearly 24,000.
This year the famous Baltimore & Ohio Railroad—the name is poetic, and exact—reaches St. Louis, Missouri, through various connections, and there is a great celebration, with bands, flags, and speeches all along the way. Everyone who matters in Cincinnati turns out as the special train chuffs through, and General Cass and Governor Chase still manage smiles even when wetted down by the enthusiastic but careless celebrants from the fire company. The trip takes altogether four days, fanned on by the winds of rhetoric. “The march of civilization, forced onward by the power of steam!” cries one orator, and another echoes: “The world has not seen a greater achievement!”
But there are some flaws. No railroad bridge crosses the Mississippi south of Rock Island, Illinois, and travellers must be ferried across the muddy waters. Speeds still rarely exceed twenty-five or thirty miles an hour. Safety devices are rudimentary and schedules are a joke. When going to Chicago bx rail, one changes cars at Albany, Buffalo, the state line, Erie, Cleveland, and Toledo. One reason for many of these changes ir the multiplicity of gauges now prevailing, ranging from six feet to two. Between Philadelphia and Charleston, South Carolina, there are eight changes, for eight shifts in width of track. The traveller takes the steam cars at his peril. The seats are wood, the springs are poor. Older sections of the line, not yet laid with T-rail, offer an additional hazard. Poorly spiked ends of the old strap iron rails are apt to come loose, snap upward as a train passes, and impale the floor of a car. You shiver in winter and broil under the cinders and wood sparks in summer. You bring your own candle for lighting purposes, and you eat when the train crews see fit to stop by a restaurant, for certain customs of the stagecoach era linger on. The lines, mostly single-track, have been slow to adopt telegraphic signalling, and there are frightful accidents. Boilers burst, bridges snap, and trains meet head-on around the bend. No one has dreamed of synchronizing times, although the railroads are urging a system of time zones in the country, in the teeth of objections from fundamentalist preachers who claim that God knows but one time, for Heaven and for earth.
But the trains get through, and they build America. The eagle screams, the people strut, every man has a future here. He has, anyway, if he’ll work. Survival of the fittest, that’s what Herbert Spencer says, and that’s what we have here. (Charles Darwin is still at his writing table, to burst into print with the major work of his life in 1859.) If you can’t succeed back East, do what Greeley is erroneously reported to have said, “Go West, young man!” No kings here, no classes, all men are created equal.
Chief Justice Roger B. Taney gathers the robes about his wasted frame and begins to speak in so weak a voice that the spectators can barely hear the great decision. Slaves, he whispers, are not persons but property. The Constitution protects property throughout the United States. If a slave has been taken into a free state, therefore, that fact does not set him free. Nor does residence in a territory, either; Congress lacks the power to regulate slavery in the territories. The Missouri Compromise of 1820, restricting slavery north of a certain line in the new territories, had been repealed in 1854; now out the window goes the whole jerry-built edifice of compromise between North and South on which the Congress, for years, has spent so much of its time, over which the great dead voices of Calhoun, Clay, and Webster have poured their oceans of rhetoric; out the window goes even the latest nostrum of Stephen A. Douglas, the formula of “popular sovereignty,” which, in bloody Kansas, means popular mayhem.
Finally comes the barely audible anticlimax: the plaintiff, Dred Scott, “a man of color,” is not a citizen and cannot sue in the courts anyway. Dismissed for lack of jurisdiction. The old voice dies away, to echo at Sumter, and Gettysburg, and Appomattox; we hear it still.
In this same year of 1857, newspaper readers learn, fifty thousand Kaffirs, members of an impressionable African tribe, have committed suicide at once; horrified missionaries discover that the unfortunate natives, spellbound by prophecies of resurrection and eternal joy in the hereafter for those who sacrificed everything, including life itself, were resolved to waste no time. Yet who will say, in the long view, that this dreadful blood-letting matches in historical importance the defeat in court of this solitary Negro, Dred Scott?
Over in Washington, they are inaugurating James Buchanan, who is only a minority victor. Together, the candidate of the new Republican party, the picaresque explorer John Frémont, and the Know-Nothing candidate, ex-President Millard Fillmore, have pulled more votes, and a combination of the opposition in 1860 will be fatal to the angry, split Democratic party. The cold March sun goes behind a portentous cloud as the old bachelor mouths the platitudes of his undistinguished inaugural. He takes no sides on slavery, save to “hope that the long agitation on this subject is approaching its end.” Tired old Buck is no man to meet an issue when he can mark time. Afterward there is a ball for several thousands, but the old gentleman does not enjoy it, for he writhes with the dysentery that he, like other guests at the National Hotel, picked up the day before. There are new gaslights in Washington, but the same old lack of sanitation. And there is the same old quarrel, mounting wrathfully as every day passes.
Congress, after spending thirty years of oratory on it, has failed to solve the problem of slavery, and now the hateful stereotypes have been created that must precede a war—the hypocritical abolitionist on the one side, the slave driver on the other, and the time for compromise is almost past. Yet, strangely enough, there are really only a handful of abolitionists and barely one in four southerners is concerned, even indirectly, with slavery, or lives on its fruits.
The Commonwealth of Massachusetts, bowing one day about this time to the majesty of the federal government, and more specifically to the Fugitive Slave Law, surrenders a Negro to his owner, one trip on the Underground Railroad that failed to reach Canada. And in Concord, a little village that keeps the conscience of a whole section of America, Henry David Thoreau burns with anger. He has just dined with a half-mad visitor named John Brown, and his patience runs out. Let us go down to the bronze likeness of the Minuteman, he suggests, and paint this statue black.
And so Civil War waits in the wings, girding his costume, surrounded by many notable spear carriers. Colonel Albert Sidney Johnston is preparing to march on the rebellious Mormons of Utah, who have been ambushing and massacring white settlers on their way to California and generally defying the authority of the United States (which testy Brigham Young describes as “a stench in our nostrils,” albeit both Brigham and the stench subside with little bloodshed). Thomas Jonathan Jackson is teaching school, and Captain Ulysses S. Grant, retired from the Army after an undistinguished career, is scratching at odd jobs in St. Louis—now a farmer, now peddling wood, now a real-estate man, now a customhouse clerk. There is not a hair on the chin of Captain Grant, or on that of boyish-looking Lieutenant Colonel Robert E. Lee of the 2nd Cavalry. Robert Gould Shaw, who will break the heart of Boston as he dies leading Negro troops in the assault on Fort Wagner, is a student at Harvard. And Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, who hasjust rerigned to return to the Senate, is being compared to his old mentor, John C. Calhoun. On April 9 he takes up a prophetic pen to vrite a friend:
In the next four years is, I think, locked up the fate of the Union. If the issues are boldly and properly met my hope is that the Constitution will prevail; if the attempt is made to postpone them, the next Presidential election will probably bring us to the alternative of resistance to oppressive usurpation or the tame surrender of our birthright.
To expect boldness from Buchanan is to fish for whale in a millpond.
In Illinois there is an ex-congressman named Lincoln whose political prospects seem dim at the moment but whose principles are strong. The Drdd Scott decision troubles him deeply, he tells a gathering in S`ringfield this June. The position of the slave, he says, is getting worse:
All the powers of the earth seem rapidly combining against him. Mammon is after him, ambition follows, philosophy follows and the theology of the day is fast joining the cry. They have him in his prison house … One after another they have closed the heavy iron doors upon him; and now they have him, as it were, bolted in with a lock of a hundred keys, which can never be unlocked without the concurrence of every key—the keys in the hands of a hundred different men, and they scattered to a hundred different and distant places; and they stand musing as to what invention, in all the dominions of mind and matter, can be produced to make the impossibility of his escape more difficult than it is.
What, he asks, has happened to the Declaration of Independence? And he thinks he had better explain that its authors certainly did not mean to limit its application to Americans and Britons alone. He will restate it:
They meant [the founders] to set up a standard maxim for free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all peoples of all colors everywhere.
Such, with all its admitted gaps, was the landscape of the civilized world of 1857, a rather quiet year before the start of the most revolutionary century in history. Such, however impressionistically we have presented them, were its people and personages. It was, if we struggle to find one general adjective for it, a hopeful world, just as our own is, perhaps, best labelled apprehensive. What we might learn from revisiting this forgotten landscape is enormous; what we will learn only history can say. Abraham Lincoln, for example, spoke for all that is best in us: a towering figure, yet we perceived it only later. A century and more after him, the moon is conquered and space beckons, yet the greatest challenge still unmet remains within us, to realize the society he dreamed of so many or (if your perspectives are different) so few years ago.