Chateaubriand's memoirs, VIII, 6

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VIII, 5 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> VIII, 7


Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book VIII - Chapter 5
Potential risks for the United States



But will America maintain its form of government? Will the States dissolve? Has not a deputy from Virginia already supported the concept of ancient liberty, co-existent with slavery the product of paganism, against a deputy from Massachusetts, defending the cause of modern freedom without slavery, such as Christianity has engendered?

Are not the northern and southern States opposed in spirit and interest? Would not the western States, so far from the Atlantic, prefer a separate regime? Besides, if the power of the Presidency is increased, will despotism not appear with the protections and privileges of dictatorship?

The isolation of the United States has permitted their birth and growth: it is doubtful whether they could have survived and flourished in Europe. The Swiss Federation exists in our midst: why? Because it is small, poor, a cluster of cantons in the heart of the mountains: a nursery of soldiers for kings, the object of walks for travellers.

Separated from the ancient world, the population of the United States still inhabits a wilderness; its wilds have guaranteed its freedom: but already its conditions of existence are altering.

The presence of democracies in Mexico, Colombia, Peru, Chile, Buenos Aires, unstable as they are, is a danger. While the United States had nothing closer to them than the colonies of a transatlantic kingdom, any kind of serious conflict was unlikely; is rivalry not now the greatest fear? When there is a rush to arms on all sides, when the military spirit grips those children of Washington, a great leader might rise to the throne: glory loves crowns.

I have said the northern, southern and western States have divided interests; each knows it: shattering the union, will they dissolve it by force of arms? Then, what can quell the enmities that spread through the body politic! Will the dissident States assert their independence? Then, what discord will not erupt among those emancipated States! Those republics beyond the seas, decoupled, will form mere debilitated atoms of no weight in the social balance, or will be successively subjugated by one amongst them. (I set aside the difficult question of alliances and foreign intervention). Kentucky, inhabited by a more rural, tougher, more military people, seems destined to be the conquering State. In that State which shall devour the others, the power of one will soon rise above the ruins of the power of all.

I have spoken of the danger of war: I must mention the dangers of a lengthy peace. The United States, since their emancipation, have enjoyed, except for only a few months, the most profound tranquillity: while a hundred battles embroiled Europe, they cultivated their fields in harmony. From that came an increase in population and wealth, with all the disadvantages of a surplus of wealth and population.

If hostilities occur in a peaceable nation, how will they be countered? Will riches and custom be ready to make sacrifices? How to forego life’s tender usages, comforts, and indolent well-being? China and India, cushioned in silk, have constantly been subject to foreign domination. What suits the constitution of a free society is a state of peace tempered by war, and a state of war moderated by peace. The Americans have already borne the olive wreath for too long: the tree which provides it is not native to their shores.

The mercantile spirit is beginning to possess them; self-interest with them is becoming a national vice. Already, the interplay among the banks of various States is hindering them, and bankruptcies threaten the communal wealth. As long as freedom makes money, an industrialised republic performs prodigies; but when the money is spent or exhausted, it loses its love of that liberty not founded on moral feeling, but rising from the thirst for profit and a passion for industry.

Moreover, it is difficult to create a country from States which have no community of religion or interests, which, arising from diverse sources at diverse times, exist on different soils and under different suns. What connection is there between a Frenchman from Louisiana, a Spaniard from the Floridas, a German from New York, or an Englishman from New England, Virginia, the Carolinas, or Georgia, all supposed Americans? This one is a nimble duellist; that one is Catholic, idle and proud; this one is a Lutheran, a ploughman owning no slaves; that one a Puritan merchant; how many centuries would it take to render these elements homogenous!

An aristocratic capitalist is ready to emerge, in love with distinctions and with a passion for titles. One might imagine that there is only one common class in the United States: that is a complete error. There are social groupings which scorn each other and never appear together; there are salons where the haughtiness of the host surpasses that of a German prince with sixteen quarters in his coat of arms. These noble plebeians aspire to caste, despite the progress made by the enlightened men who made them free and equal. Some of them speak of nothing but their ancestry, proud barons, bastards apparently and companions of William the Bastard. They display blazons of chivalry from the old world, decorated with snakes, lizards and parakeets from the new. A younger son from Gascony, landing with cloak and umbrella on the Republican shore, if he takes care to call himself marquis, is well thought of on the steamboats.

The enormous inequalities of wealth are an even more serious threat to the spirit of equality. Some Americans possess one or two millions in income; also, the Yankees of high society no longer live as Franklin did: the true gentleman, disgusted with the newness of his country, travels to Europe to seek the old; you meet him in the inns, engaged like the English, with extravagance or spleen, on his Italian tour. These prowlers from the Carolinas or Virginia purchase ruined abbeys in France, and plant, at Melun, English gardens full of American trees. Naples sends its singers and perfumers to New York; Paris its fashions and its strolling players; London its bellboys and boxers: exotic delights which make the Union no happier. They amuse themselves there by leaping into Niagara Falls, to the applause of fifty thousand planters, semi-savages that death itself can scarcely make smile.

And what is extraordinary, is that at the same time that inequality of wealth increases and an aristocracy is forming, the great egalitarian impulse beyond them obliges the owners of industry or land to hide their luxury, conceal their wealth, for fear of being set upon by their neighbours. They do not recognise the executive power; they drive out, at will, the local authorities they have chosen, and substitute new authorities for them. It does not disturb the social order; democracy is observed in practice, while they laugh at the laws decreed, in theory, by that same democracy. Family spirit barely exists; as soon as the child is fit for work, he must, like a bird with its feathers, fly with his own two wings. From the emancipated generations swiftly orphaned, and the immigrants arriving from Europe, bands of nomads are created who clear the ground, dig the canals, and exercise their industry everywhere without becoming attached to the soil; they construct houses in the wilderness in which the passing traveller stays for scarcely a few days.

A cold hard egoism rules the towns; dollars and piastres, banknotes and cash, the rise and fall of stocks, is the whole of their conversation; you would imagine yourself in the Bourse, or the counting-house of some great store. The newspapers, of huge dimensions, are full of business discussions or coarse prattle. Do Americans suffer, without knowing it, the laws of a climate where vegetable nature seems to have profited at the expense of animal nature, a law opposed by distinguished men, but whose refutation has not been put absolutely beyond question? One might enquire if the American has not become used too early to philosophic freedom, as the Russian to civilised despotism.

In summary the United States give the impression of a colony and not a mother-country: they have no past, their customs have been created by laws. These citizens of a New World took their place among the nations at the moment when political ideas were in the ascendancy: that explains why they transformed themselves at an extraordinary speed. A permanent society seems to have become impractical for them, on the one hand through the extreme ennui of individuals, on the other by the impossibility of remaining in one place, and by the necessity of movement that possesses them: for one is never rooted where the household gods stray. Placed in the path of the oceans, owning progressive opinions as new as his country, the American seems to have received from Colombus a mission aimed more at discovering other universes than creating them.