Direction of American Genius…
Frances Wright Darusmont
Citation Information:Frances Wright Darusmont, “Direction of American Genius–Founders of the American Republics–Establishment of the Federal Government,” Views of Society and Manners in America; in a Series of Letters from that Country to a Friend in England, during the Years 1818, 1819, and 1820. London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, 1821. 310-315. December, 1819.
Whitehouse, New-Jersey, Dec. 1819.
- MY DEAR FRIEND,
- I regret that the circumstances which constrained us to ‘cut short our’ journey through the eastern states, have also prevented me, for some time past, from writing with my usual punctuality. * * * *
- With this short summary, you must allow me to pass over the remainder of our tour, and come at once to the subject of your letter, now before me. I will do my best to reply to * * *’s enquiries, not pretending, however, to give a better solution of them than I apprehend others may have given before.
- It has been common of late years to summon the literature of America to the European bar, and to pass a verdict against American wit and American science. More liberal foreigners, in alluding to the paucity of standing American works in prose or rhyme, are wont to ascribe it to the infant state of society in this country; others read this explanation, I incline to think at least, without affixing a just meaning to the words. Is it not commonly received in England, that the American nation is in a sort of middle state between barbarism and refinement? I remember, that, on coming to this country, I had myself but a very confused notion of the people that I was to find it it; sometimes they had been depicted, to me as a tribe of wild colts, chewing the bit just put into their mouths; and fretting under the curb of law, carelessly administered, and yet too strict withal for their untamed spirits; at other times I understood them to be a race of shrewd artificers, speculating merchants, and plodding farmers, with just enough of manners to growl an answer when questioned, and enough of learning to read ‘a newspaper, drive a hard bargain, keep accounts, and reason phlegmatically upon the advantages of free trade and popular government. These portraits appeared to me to have few features of resemblance; the one seemed nearly to image out a Dutchman, and the other a wild Arab. To conceive the two characters combined were not very possible; I looked at both, and could make not g of either.
- The history of this people seemed to declare that they were brave, high-minded, and animated with the soul of liberty; their institutions, that they were enlightened; their laws, that they were humane; and their policy, that they were peaceful, and kept good faith; but I was told that they were none of these. Judge a man by his works, it is said; but to judge a nation by its works was no adage, and, I was taught, was quite ridiculous. To judge a nation by the reports of its enemies, however, seemed equally ridiculous; so I determined .not to judge at all, but to land in the country without knowing any thing about it, and wait until it should speak for itself. The impressions that I have received, I have occasionally attempted to impart to you; they were such at first as greatly to surprise me, for it is scarcely possible to keep the mind unbiassed by current reports, however contradictory their nature, and however intent we may be to let them pass unheeded.
- There is little here that bespeaks the infancy of society in the sense that foreigners usually suppose it applicable; the simple morals, more equalized fortunes, and more domestic habits and attachments, generally found in this country, as compared with Europe, doubtless bespeak a nation young in luxury, but do they bespeak a nation young in knowledge? It would say little for knowledge were this the case.
- It is true that authorship is not yet a trade in this country; perhaps for the poor it is a poor trade every where; and could men do better, they might seldom take to it as a profession; but, however this may be, many causes have operated hitherto, and some perhaps may always continue to operate, to prevent American genius from showing itself in works of imagination, or of arduous literary labor. As yet, we must remember, that the country itself is not half a century old. The generation is barely passed away whose energies were engrossed by a struggle for existence. ‘To the harassing war of the revolution, succeeded the labors of establishing the national government, and of re-organizing that of the several states; and it must be remembered that, in America, neither war nor legislation is the occupation of a body of men, but of the whole community; it occupies every head and every heart, rouses the whole energy, and absorbs the whole genius of the nation.
- The establishment of the Federal Government was not the work of a day; even after its conception and adoption, a thousand clashing opinions were to be combated. The war of the pen succeeded to that of the sword, and the shock of political parties to that of hostile armies; the struggle continued through the whole of that administration denominated Federal. After the election of Mr. Jefferson, it revived for a moment with redoubled violence; and though this was but the flickering, of the flame in the’ socket, it engaged the attention of. the whole people, and continued to do so until the breaking out of the second war ; which, in its progress, cemented all parties, and, in its issue, established the national independence, and perfected the civil union. It is but four years, therefore, that the public mind has been at rest; nay, it is only so long that the United States can be said to have enjoyed an acknowledged national existence.
- It was the last war, so little regarded in Europe, but so all-important to America, that fixed the character of this country, and raised it to the place which it now holds among the nations of the world. Am I mistaken in the belief that Europeans (and I speak here of the best informed) have hitherto paid but little attention to the internal history of the United States? When engaged, in the revolutionary struggle, they were regarded with a momentary sympathy; the fate of mankind hung upon the contest; it was tyranny’s armed legions opposed to liberty’s untrained, but consecrated band; and the enlightened patriot of every clime felt, that the issue was to decide the future destinies of the world. The battle being fought, this young and distant nation again seemed to shrink into insignificance; the whirlwind had now turned upon Europe, and all her thinking heads were employed in’ poising state against state, empire against empire, or one tyrant against another tyrant ; while America, removed from the uproar, was binding up her wounds, and arranging her disturbed household. The people of Europe had soon well nigh forgotten her existence; and their governors only occasionally remembered her, to tell her that she was not worth regarding. Her ships were robbed upon the seas, and insulted in the ports, and from these at length shut out. She remonstrated to be laughed at; she resented the insults, and at last challenged the aggressors, and was stared at. The ministry which had dared her to the quarrel, drew carelessly a million from their treasury, dispatched some detachments from their fleets and armies, and sat down in quiet expectation, that the American republics were once again to be transformed into British colonies. A few more generous politicians occasionally threw a glance across the ocean, curious to ‘see’ how the Herculean infant would once again cope’ with the matured strength of a full-grown empire, and were perhaps scarcely less surprised than the cabinet of St. James’s by the issue of the rencontre.