America and the American People . . .

AMERICA AND THE AMERICAN PEOPLE; By FREDERICK VON RAUMER, Professor of History in the University of Berlin, &c. Translated from the German by William W. Turner. New-York: J. & H.G. Langley, S. Astor House. 1845.

  The list of titles, in whose place we read the &c. should be given to enable the reader to appreciate the degree of independence and candor shown by Von Raumer in speaking of the institutions of his native land and the influence of that government which has delighted to honor him. This is esteemed, abroad, to be very considerable, though it may not make much show beside the standard which easily rises so high in a country happy in the freedom of the press.

  If we appreciate this justly, we shall be more likely to be just to the motives and character of our critic, when he comes upon our own ground, for he who knows how to speak truth when it is hard and dangerous, will scarcely fail to do so where it is desirable and easy.

  We have read this book with some care, though not with what it claims to make a suitable notice of it. The ground it covers is so large that it would require weeks of studious examination and a detailed review of its several points, even from a person qualified by fairness of disposition, a strong desire to be impartial, and extensive and accurate information throughout the vast range of topics embraced. There are few or no persons fitted to survey Von Raumer’s book as ably and fairly, as he has surveyed this country, and from such, if such there are, it would require much time and care. It will get examined piecemeal by those who are competent or interested in its different topics; for ourselves we must be content with comments upon its sense and spirit as a whole.

  We must, in the first place, render unhesitating tribute to the excellent spirit and motives of Von Raumer. His desire has been to ascertain and tell the truth, not to sustain theories or satisfy prejudices. He has kept his mind open to new impressions, and has been desirous to ascertain a new standard, for a new form of life. He shows true modesty in his sense of how superficial and defective his scrutiny must be, under the circumstances, and does not overrate the importance of his inferences, either for himself or others. In short, he shows the spirit of the Biederman. That spirit which has made the German mind more catholic, and enriched it with treasures of knowledge more uncontaminate than belong to all the other nations of Europe put together. The following passage is full evidence of this:

  “All the conclusions formed respecting America from other Democracies and Confederated Republics mentioned in history, are insufficient and inapplicable. The United States are something essentially new and peculiar; and which, on a comparison with former phenomena of the kind, exhibits more differences than similarities.”

  This is indeed the way to look at the subject, as something essentially new and peculiar, patiently to observe the operation of new laws and causes, patiently to await the results, without childish sanguineness, rash despair or premature and sweeping inferences. And Von Raumer keeps to this ground as none but a German would. The Frenchman hastens with his showy generalities. The Englishman cannot rise above comparisons of all other experiences with his own. The German alone is liberal enough to observe each growth by its own law and with reference to its peculiar purposes.

  The chief value of the book is for Europe, to give of us a better general account than is common. Notwithstanding Von Raumer’s industry and candor, and his uncommon preparation for collecting materials, yet the shortness of his stay obliged him to draw them mostly from books and hearsay; the amount of his personal observation is comparatively small, and it is only that which could have any great interest for us. But as a catalogue raisonnée of the American exhibition for European use, just to show where things are to be looked for and in what lights and ways to be looked at, it is and will be valuable. The author is so careful to point out the boundaries and sources of his information, that he will create few prejudices and no fierce ones, aud where he has made mistakes, they may easily be detected.

  Had Von Raumer been here longer and possessed more ample opportunity of personal observation, his book would have been improved, but still its merit would not have risen above mediocrity, for his natural abilities do not rise above it. He is a man of respectable powers, honorably and industriously cultivated to the extent of which they are capable, of great information as to external facts, but without depth of thought, piercing or searching sagacity.—His fairness of disposition and the wide horizon to which his thoughts are accustomed, are the only high requisites possessed by him for a task so difficult. There is no great lead in his mind, and he gives us no important clues to aid in our investigations. Where he has a lead, as, for instance, the effect that may be expected from so large a mixture of the Germanic race upon the growth of our nation, or the principles of Free Trade, he says nothing which has not been as well said elsewhere. He is very careful in weighing evidence and giving both sides of the argument; still, he cannot bring the state of things fully before us, for he is destitute of the fine instinctive tact which is the prerogative of genius, which teaches how to select, and how much, very much, to reject. He takes information wholesale; you can trace the marks upon the bales and tell exactly what his associations have been in this country. He shows his want of greatness of soul in the way he examines the Slavery question; we know his only aim was not to be unjust, but his want of sensibility to great principles is repulsive. It is just as if we had made up our mind thoroughly to like and esteem a person for civic and domestic virtues, and then, on seeing him placed opposite the Apollo Belvidere, could not resist being disgusted at finding that form of glory was to his mind only a man of good features, and so many feet and inches in hight. Before great persons or great subjects we know not how to pardon one who has not even a spark of the sacred fire. We are disappointed to receive no valuable suggestions from Von Raumer on the subject of Education especially, but indeed on all the subjects. All that his great culture does for him is to enable him to appreciate results and draw extensive comparisons. He does not pierce beneath the crust deep enough to sow any new seed. His sketches of persons are in the same style as all the rest—they are tolerable likenesses, rather flattered than otherwise, not only in the cases of Jefferson and Calhoun, where he indulges a degree of enthusiasm, but of various other great men with whom he sympathizes less. However, there are only the features, never the soul of the matter in any of these portraits.

  Time will bring an artist worthy to depict our leading men. Whenever I see a collection of their busts I feel more than ever the greatness of the past, the present and the future of this land. Such grave, strong heads, such a reserve of force in comparison with what is developed, how far more than Roman the greatness they prophesy!

  In the few letters subjoined, Von Raumer shows some vivacity, and had his survey been given in the form of journal, it would have made a more agreeable reading book, though it would not have answered his purpose of making a well arranged compend of all he could learn about America.

  His notice of Niagara is quite pleasing:

NIAGARA, July 20th

  When the excellent Jefferson, before visiting Europe, said it was worth going to America merely to see Harper’s Ferry, he might have been told that there are many places as beautiful or more so in our Germany alone. Is it perhaps the same with Niagara? Do all the representations of it show any thing else but a monotonous mass of water tumbling between tiresome cliffs? Was I not told by many Americans—who are apt not to underrate what belongs to their country—that I should be much disappointed, and that I must stay at least a week (which was impossible) in order to discover and comprehend its varied beauties. “You will feel,” said another, “quite depressed and annihilated.” “The oppressed heart,” sighed a lady, “must be relieved by tears.” Of this, as the saying is, I could make neither head nor tail. I therefore established beforehand, in true German fashion, the following fundamental propositions: Among all categories, that of quantity prevails universally in America (witness the size of the country, its lakes and its rivers, the universal right of suffrage, the majorities of the whole, &c.) So it is with the cataract of Niagara. Its fame rests on quantity, while its quality is very imperfect. By virtue of this last category, a much less quantity may produce a greater impression; and if this want of quality be obscurely felt, or clearly perceived, one feels disappointed; and prefers much smaller waterfalls—such as those of Tivoli, Terni, Reichenbach, or Handek—to the great, broad, tasteless, and characterless Niagara.

  So much for American remarks, and German philosophic speculations. Both amount to nothing; they are all fudge! On casting the first look at only one of the falls, all this wisdom fell like a thick fog to the ground. When after a hot day I walked out into the open air of a cold night in Chamouni, and saw before me the glaciers of Mount Blanc and its neighbors stiffened in eternal snow, the thought seized me, What would become of this benumbed nature, if God should but for a moment withdraw His hand from it and from feeble man! When, standing on Etna, I beheld around me nothing but destruction and death, I collected myself, and compared this lawless, savage strength with the Heaven-imparted gift of the human soul, whose noble thoughts, in spite of all apparent weakness, have more of life and a longer duration, than grey lava and shapeless ashes! It was quite otherwise with Niagara. I could have shouted with exultation; and my excited spirit soared aloft, like the tones of an Eolian harp harmoniously blending with the thunders of this miracle of Nature. Immersion in this sea of beauty seemed to renew the vigor and vivacity of early years; it was a fountain of rejuvenescence—such as the presence of dry categories could never set flowing. There was nothing frightful, horrible, oppressive, annihilating, or repulsive—but the beauty of Nature in her noblest manifestation and the most amazing variety. No painter could represent this world of moving wonders in full truth and beauty; nor can any description be successful. For if I dwell on the wondrous unity and harmony of all these phenomena, their multiplicity is lost sight of; if this last is made prominent, the former disappears in the fragile mosaic of a dry enumeration.

  From the top of Niagara one sees in the distance the broad, smooth, mirror-like expanse of Lake Erie. By degrees its surface begins to be ruffled; projecting fragments of rock and trunks of trees lodged against them increase the agitation; until the entire mass of water is transformed into rapids of great extent and singular beauty. Through several islands the impetuous torrent forces an easy path; it then dashes against a rocky islet (Iris island) adorned with the most magnificent trees, and separates into two great arms;—but not forever; for the same fate awaits them both, and below the falls they are again united into one stream, which flows majestically onward, decked in every shade of green fantastically intermingled with streaks of silver. The rapids and this river—without any cataract—would form a scene justly entitled to the praise of rarest beauty. And then what accessories!—stupendous walls of perpendicular or projecting rocks, or receding cliffs covered and garlanded with trees, shrubs, and flowers! From this region of verdure and rocks the floods rush onwards, now of the brightest emerald hue, now crimson as the sunset sky, and again dissolved in snowy foam, and whirling upwards from the abyss in volumes of mist borne far-over stream and land. It is not one, nor two water-falls; it is a whole series of wonders, renewing and changing at every step, and presenting a world of incomparable beauties. To him who is not caught up and enraptured in the first moment, time will prove of little avail. Nevertheless, three hours (how many, governed by the railroad, try it!) are not enough to satisfy one, and one day—in spite of our very limited time—is being lengthened into three; for I know of no place in the wide world, so fitted for the soul’s initiation into all the mysteries and revelations of Nature.

NIAGARA, July 21st.

  We have seen the Falls from every side—from above and below, from the level of the ground, and from hills and towers; and today, the third of our stay, we are going to enjoy the sight once more.—From my window, in the Cataract Hotel on the American side, I see the rapids, and many mills and other establishments, scattered up and down, which make use of the water-power. Near the hotel two bridges lead over several small islands, and cross the rapids to Iris island. Turning to the right, you come upon the American falls, the very smallest of which has more than twice as much water as Tivoli. To the left, the path leads to the still greater falls, that divide the Canadian from the American shore. A flight of steps and a rough path bring you down to the bed of a river, and affords a near view of the raging abyss and the descending floods. Again, from a tower standing on a projecting rock, the whole extent of the upper falls can be seen; and from a second tower, lately erected in the so-called Pleasure Garden, you have a panoramic view of the lake, the rapids, the cataracts, the river, and the country round, such as the world besides cannot afford. We were taken in a light skiff over the foaming river to the Canadian shore, whence all the falls are seen—not sideways or foreshortened, but in their full breadth—and that too in an incredible variety of views, both near and remote, from below and from a first and a second range of hills. A museum of objects of natural history merits all praise, but could not long engage our attention beside these miracles of Nature; and I found still less satisfaction in peeping into a camera obscura. I had more pleasure in a drive to the Whirlpool, where the river makes a rapid turn, and then flows on to Lake Ontario. The falls, however, and their environs, are of such exuberant richness and splendor, that additional attractions like these, though of themselves deserving of all admiration, are not required. Though the scenery which I beheld throughout a large extent of the United States was very much inferior to that of Europe, it must be admitted that the old world can offer nothing to equal Niagara—Such an accumulation of splendors would certainly well repay a voyage across the ocean. Although, as I remarked, the painter’s art cannot fully depict the motion of the waters, there are yet a multitude of points and views, which might be represented with success, and would be well worthy of his labor.

  . . . . In the hotel six long tables were set, full of guests, and served by thirty-six black waiters, among whom the division of labor was carried so far, that each had his department—of bread, knives, and forks, spoons. & c.—assigned to him. These solo performers marched with regular steps to the villainous table-music, and did all their work in measured time. Thus they came, thus they went; and thus each brought in his hand two dishes, which he deposited on the table as directed by two grand musical fermate.

MONTREAL, on the St. Lawrence.
Canada, July 28th.

  We prolonged our stay at Niagara one day more, and again viewed the wonders of the earth, water and sky, on all sides and from all points. Although a visit to the United States can have attractions but for few, and least of all for women, who with reason prefer Paris, Italy, Switzerland, and our own Germany, so rich in natural beauty; yet I wish I could charm hither the true votaries of Nature, in order, after their many blanks, to show them this magnificent prize. I do not find fault with those whose love of nature enables them to be delighted with a simple meadow, a bed of flowers, a running brook, or a cloud; on the contrary, the true wisdom of life and its purest enjoyments are found in the use of this daily proffered food; and poor indeed is he who knows or values it not. But there are festal days for this kind of enjoyment, too; and those spent at Niagara belong to the brightest and most memorable among them.

  These letters are touched by German vulgarity. We do not mean by this that the Germans are more vulgar than other nations, but each nation has a kind of vulgarity, as well as a kind of beauty, peculiar to itself, and that of the Germans consists in a willingness to bring forward ‘unpleasant’ physical circumstances, and the details which other people pass over as lightly as possible.

  In conclusion, we confess that we cordially hate this book, as we do all judicious, dull, gentlemanly, unidead, well-informed, kind, cool persons, and all that emanates from them. But, because they are not what we like, for ourselves, we do not forget that they are wanted in the universe, and in the civilized world especially are indispensable for its progress and enjoyment; thus, not doubting the great circulation of the book in Europe, we hope no less that “no gentleman’s library will be without” it here. We recommend it to Lyceums and College Exhibitions as a subject for discussion. We recommend it to all who read some one “solid work” every season to improve and form their minds. We recommend it to the North American Review for praise; that will be but fair requital for Von Raumer’s civility. Indeed, he has made polite bows to many standard men and works, and has earned golden opinions, and the expression of them from many points of the circle. We commend it to those who want a good thread to go round that circle by, and see what they think of what it comprises. We recommend it to well-informed and judicious persons generally, as a book that will command their sympathy, and we recommend it to the writers of crack articles, as affording them unlimited scope, whether to corroborate or deny. We also recommend it especially to the Editor of The Tribune, for it urbane challenge calls to his favorite field, and he will find there a respectable, a well disposed and courteous antagonist. And so, seeing already a more than Banquo’s length of line advance to receive the bequest, we gladly will them the thick volume.

  One word as to American sensitiveness. America cares for shallow blame, just or unjust, because she wants not only self-respect but faith. She has, as the foreigner thinks, the unmannerly tricks and disagreeable obtrusions of an overgrown child. Like children of a rich and energetic nature, prematurely brought forward, she is peculiarly likely to offend the decorum and even the good feelings of uncles and aunts. She makes dirt-pies, kills flies, and oversets the tea-pot. Still she is learning all the while, and, if she had simplicity enough to be willing the observer should see her faults, he would not deny that she showed great promise, too. But she is vain. Her pot-hooks and trammels are of giant size, Cyclopean promise, but she insists that they are also of as refined beauty as Raphael’s drawings. The more she does so the more she is laughed at, of course. Beside, she is often servile. She copies Europe and tries to hide it. She is afraid of Europe, and puts on airs of “independence.” Then she is sneered at of course.

  Did there come a great Poet, a great Philosopher, such would not be blinded by these trifles or even stop to think of them, enraptured by the vast prospect, for such an one sees not the child; but the horoscope that foreshows its destiny, and discerns in the clownish boy, the future prince. However, we want none such to cast too broad a light. Better grope and push on for ourselves; in that way the limbs will best be developed. This is the time for all men, rather than great men, and Von Raumer is a good enough cousin for the present to help us learn to spell. Where he is at fault, however, let the smart ones in the class correct him: there are many of them who know some parts of the lesson better than he. Waiting for such, we lay the book on the shelf for this day.*

“America and the American People . . .” New-York Daily Tribune, 4 December 1845, p. 1.