In my walks through this City, the sight of spacious and expensive dwelling houses now in process of building, has called up the following reverie.
All benevolent persons, whether deeply thinking on, or only deeply feeling, the woes, difficulties and dangers of our present social system, are agreed either that great improvements are needed, or a thorough reform.
Those who desire the latter, include the majority of thinkers. And we ourselves, both from personal observation and the testimony of others, are convinced that a radical reform is needed. Not a reform that rejects the instruction of the past, or asserts that God and man have made mistakes till now. We believe that all past developments have taken place under natural and necessary laws, and that the Paternal Spirit has at no period forgot his children, but granted to all ages and generations their chances of good to balance inevitable ills.—We prize the Past; we recognize it as our parent, our nurse and our teacher, and we know that for a time the new wine required the old bottles to prevent its being spilled upon the ground.
Still we feel that the time is come which not only permits, but demands, a wider statement, and a nobler action. The aspect of society presents mighty problems, which must be solved by the soul of Man “divinely intending” itself to the task, or all will become worse instead of better, and ere long the social fabric totter to decay.
Yet while the new measures are ripening and the new men educating, there is yet room on the old platform for some worthy action. It is possible for a man of piety, resolution and good sense, to lead a life which, if not expansive, generous, graceful, and pure from suspicion and contempt, is yet not entirely unworthy of his position as the child of God and ruler of a planet.
Let us take then some men just where they find themselves, in a mixed state of society where, in quantity, we are free to say the bad preponderates, though the good, from its superior energy in quality, may finally redeem and efface its plague-spots.
Our society is ostensibly under the rule of the precepts of Jesus. We will then suppose a youth sufficiently imbued with these to understand what is conveyed under the parables of the unjust steward and the prodigal son, as well as the denunciations of the opulent Jews. He understands that is needful to preserve purity and teachableness, since of those most like little children is the kingdom of Heaven’s mercy for the sinner, since there is peculiar joy in Heaven at the salvation of such, perpetual care for the unfortunate, since only to the just steward shall his possessions be pardoned. Imbued with such lore the young man joins the active—we will say, in choosing an instance, joins the commercial world.
His views of his profession are not those which make of the many a herd, not superior, except in the far reach of their selfish instincts, to the animals, mere calculating, money-making machines.
He sees in commerce a representation of most important interests, a grand school that may teach the heart and soul of the civilized world to a willing, thinking mind. He plays his part in the game, but not for himself alone; he sees the interests of all mankind engaged with his, and remembers them while he furthers his own. His intellectual discernment, no less than his moral, thus teaching the undesirableness of lying and stealing, he does not practice or connive at the falsities and meannesses so frequent among his fellows; he suffers many turns of the wheel of Fortune to pass unused, since he cannot avail himself of them and keep clean his hands. What he gains is by superior assiduity, skill in combination and calculation, and quickness of sight. His gains are legitimate so far as the present state of things permits any gains to be.
Nor is this honorable man denied his due rank in the most corrupt state of society. Here, happily, we draw from life, and speak of what we know.—Honesty is, indeed, the best policy, only it is so in the long run, and therefore a policy which a selfish man has not faith and patience to pursue. The influence of the honest man is in the end predominant, and the rogues who sneer because he will not shuffle the cards in their way, are forced to bow to it at last.
But, while thus conscientious and mentally progressive, he does not forget to live. The sharp and care-worn faces, the joyless lives that throng his busy street, do not make him forget his need of tender affections, of the practices of bounty and love. His family, his acquaintance, especially those who are struggling with the difficulties of life, are not obliged to wait till he has accumulated a certain sum. He is sunlight and dew to them now, day by day. No less do all in his employment prize and bless the just, the brotherly man. He dares not, would not climb to power upon their necks. He requites their toil handsomely always: if his success be unusual, they share the benefit.—Their comfort is cared for in all the arrangements for their work. He takes care, too, to be personally acquainted with those he employs, regarding them, not as mere tools of his purpose, but as human beings also; he keeps them in his eye, and if it be in his power to supply their need of consolation, instruction, or even pleasure, they find they have a friend.
“Nonsense!” exclaims our sharp-eyed, thin-lipped antagonist. “Such a man would never get rich, or even get along.”
You are mistaken, Mr. Stock-jobber. Thus far many lines are drawn from real life, though for the second part which follows, we want, as yet, a worthy model.
We must imagine, then, our ideal merchant to have grown rich in some forty years of toil passed in the way we have indicated. His hair is touched with white, but his form is vigorous yet. Neither gormandise nor the fever of gain have destroyed his complexion, quenched the light of his eye, or substituted sneers for smiles. He is an upright, strong, sagacious, generous looking man, and if his movements be abrupt and his language concise somewhat beyond the standard of beauty, he is still the gentleman mercantile, but a mercantile nobleman.
Our nation is not silly in striving for an aristocracy. Humanity longs for its upper classes. But the silliness consists in making them out of clothes, equipage, and a servile imitation of foreign manners, instead of the genuine elegance and distinction that can only be produced by genuine culture. Shame upon the stupidity which, when all circumstances leave us free for the introduction of a real aristocracy, such as the world never saw, bases its pretensions on, or makes its bow to, the footman behind the coach, instead of the person within it.
But our merchant shall be a real nobleman, whose noble manners spring from a noble mind, whose fashions from a sincere and intelligent love of the Beautiful.
We will also indulge the fancy of giving him a wife and children congenial with himself. Having lived in sympathy with him, they have acquired no taste for luxury; they do not think that the best use of wealth and power is in self indulgence, but, on the contrary, that it is more blessed to give than to receive.
He is now having one of these fine houses built, and, as in other things, proceeds on a few simple principles. It is substantial, for he wishes to give no countenance to the paper buildings that correspond with other worthless paper currency of a credit system. It is thoroughly finished and furnished, for he has a conscience about his house, as about the neatness of his person. All must be of a piece—harmony and a wise utility are consulted without regard to show. Still, as he is a rich man, we allow him reception rooms, lofty, large, adorned with good copies of ancient works of art, and fine specimens of modern.
N.B.—I admit, in this instance, the propriety of my nobleman, often choosing by advice of friends who may have had more leisure and opportunity to acquire a sure appreciation of merit in these walks. His character being simple, he will, no doubt, appreciate a great part of what is truly grand and beautiful. But, also, from imperfect culture, he might often reject what in the end he would have found most valuable to himself and others. For he has not done learning, but only acquired the privilege of helping to open a domestic school in which he will find himself a pupil as well as master. So he may well make use, in furnishing himself with the school apparatus, of the best counsel. The same applies to making his library a good one. Only there must be no sham; no pluming himself on possessions that represent his wealth, but the taste of others. Our nobleman is incapable of pretension, or the airs of connoisseurship; his object is to furnish a home with those testimonies of a higher life in man that may best aid to cultivate the same in himself and those assembled round him.
He shall also have a fine garden and green-houses. But the flowers shall not be used only to decorate his apartments or the hair of his daughters, but shall often bless, by their soft and exquisite eloquence, the poor invalid, or others whose sorrowful hearts find in their society a consolation and a hope which nothing else bestows. For flowers, the highest expression of the bounty of Nature, declare that for all men not merely labor or luxury but gentle, buoyant, ever energetic joy was intended, and bid us hope that we shall not forever be kept back from our inheritance.
All the persons who have aided in building up this domestic temple, from the artist who painted the ceilings to the poorest hodman, shall be well paid and cared for during its erection, for it is a necessary part of the happiness of our nobleman to feel that all concerned in creating his home are the happier for it.
We have said nothing about the architecture of the house, and yet this is only for want of room. We do consider it one grand duty of every person able to build a good house, also to aim at building a beautiful one. We do not want imitations of what was used in other ages, nations and climates, but what is simple, noble and in conformity with the wants of our own. Room enough, simplicity of design, and judicious adjustment of the parts to their uses and to the whole, are the first requisites, the ornaments are merely the finish on these. We hope to see a good style of civic architecture long before any material improvement in the country edifices, for reasons that would be tedious to enumerate here. Suffice it to say that we are far more anxious to see an American architecture, than an American literatare, for we are here sure there is already something individual to express.
Well, suppose the house built and equipped with man and horse. You may be sure my nobleman gives his “hired help” good accommodations, both for their sleeping and waking hours,—baths, books, and some leisure to use them. Nay! I assure you, and this assurance also is drawn from life, that it is possible, even in our present social relations, for the man who does common justice in these respects to his fellows, and shows a friendly heart that thoroughly feels service no degradation, but an honor,
Honor in the king the wisdom of his service.
Honor in the serf the fidelity of his service.
can have around him those who do their work in serenity of mind, neither deceiving nor envying those whom circumstances have enabled to command their service. As to the carriage that is used for the purpose of going to and fro in bad weather, or ill health, or haste, or for drives to enjoy the country. But my nobleman and his family are too well born and bred not to prefer using their own feet when possible. And their carriage is much appropriated to the use of poor invalids, even among the abhorred class of poor relations, so that they often have not room in it for themselves, much less for flaunting dames and lazy dandies.
We need hardly add that their attendants wear no liveries. They are aware that, in a society where none of the causes exist that justify this habit abroad, the practice would have no other result than to call up a sneer to the lips of the most complaisant and needy foreign “mi lor” when Mrs. Higginbottom’s carriage stops the way with its tawdry, ill-fancied accompaniments. Will none of their “governors” tell our citizens the Æsopean fable of the donkey that tried to imitate the gambols of the little dog?
The wife of my nobleman is so well matched with him that she has no need to be the better half. She is his almoner, his counselor, and the priestess who keeps burning on the domestic hearth a fire from the fuel he collects in his out door work, whose genial heat and aspiring flame comfort and animate all who come within its range.
His children are his ministers, whose leisure and various qualifications enable them to carry out his good thoughts. They hold all that they possess—time, money, talents, acquirements—on the principle of stewardship. They wake up the seeds of virtue and genius in all the young persons of their acquaintance, but the poorer classes are especially their care. There they seek for those who are threatened with lying mute, inglorious Hampdens and Miltons, but for their scrutiny and care. Of these they become the teachers and patrons to the extent of their power. Such knowledge of the arts, sciences and just principles of action as they have been favored with, they communicate and thereby form novices worthy to fill up the ranks of the true American aristocracy.
And the house—it is a large one, a single family does not fill its chambers. Some of them are devoted to the use of men of genius, who need a serene home, free from care, while they pursue their labors for the good of the world. Thus, as in the palaces of the little princes of Italy in a better day, these chambers become hallowed by the nativities of great thoughts, and the horoscopes of the human births that may take place there are likely to read the better for it. Suffering virtue sometimes finds herself taken home here, instead of being sent to the almshouse or presented with a half dollar and a ticket for coal, and finds upon my nobleman’s mattresses (for the wealth of Croesus would not lure him or his to sleep on down) dreams of angelic protection which enable her to rise refreshed for the struggle of the morrow.
The uses of hospitality are very little understood among us, so that we fear generally there is small chance of entertaining Gods and Angels unawares, as the Greeks and Hebrews did in the generous time of hospitality when every man had a claim on the roof of fellow man. Now, none is received to a bed and breakfast unless he comes as “bearer of despatches” from his Excellency So and So.
But, let us not be supposed to advocate the system of all work and no play, or to delight exclusively in the pedagoguish and Goody Two Shoes vein. Reader, if any such accompany me to this scene of my vision, cheer up, I hear the sound of music in full band, and see the banquet prepared. Perhaps even they are dancing the Polka and Redowa in some of those airy, well lighted rooms. In another they find in the acting of extempore dramas, arrangement of tableaux, little concerts or recitations, intermingled with beautiful national or fancy dances, some portion of the enchanting, refining and ennobling influences of the arts. The finest engravings on all subjects attend such as like to employ themselves more quietly, while those who can find a companion or congenial group to converse with, find also plenty of recesses and still rooms with softer light provided for their pleasure.
There is not this side of the Atlantic, we dare our glove upon it, a more devout believer than ourselves in the worship of the Muses and Graces, both for itself and its importance no less to the moral than the intellectual life of a nation. Perhaps there is not one who has so deep a feeling or so many suggestions ready, in the fulness of time to be hazarded on the subject.
But in order to such worship what standard is there as to admission to the service? Talents of gold or Delphian talents? fashion or elegance? “standing” or the power to move gracefully from one “position” to any other?
Our nobleman did not hesitate; the handle to his door-bell was not of gold, but mother-of-pearl, pure and prismatic.
If he did not go into the alleys to pick up the poor, they were not excluded, if qualified by intrinsic qualities to adorn the scene. Neither were wealth or fashion a cause of exclusion more than of admission. All depended on the person; yet he did not seek his guests among the slaves of Fashion, for he knew that persons highly endowed rarely had patience with the frivolities of that class, but retired and left it to be peopled mostly by weak and plebeian natures. Yet all depended on the person. Was the person fair, noble, wise, brilliant, or even only youthfully innocent and gay, or venerable in a good old age, he or she was welcome. Still, as simplicity of character and some qualification positively good, healthy and natural was requisite for admission, we must say the company was select. Our nobleman and his family had weeded their ‘circle’ faithfully year by year.
Some valued acquaintances they had made in ball-rooms and boudoirs, and kept; but far more had been made through the daily wants of life, and shoemakers, sempstresses and graziers mingled happily with artists and statesmen, to the benefit of both. (N.B.—None used the poisonous weed in or out of our domestic temple.)
I cannot tell you what infinite good our nobleman and his family were doing by creation of this true social center where the legitimate aristocracy of the land assembled, not to be dazzled by expensive furniture (our nobleman bought what was good in texture and beautiful in form but not because it was expensive,) not to be feasted on rare wines and high seasoned dainties, though they found simple refreshments well prepared, (as indeed it was a matter of duty and conscience in that house that the least office should be well fulfilled,) but to enjoy the generous confluence of mind with mind and heart with heart, the pastimes that are not waste-times of taste and inventive fancy, the cordial union of beings from all points and places in noble human sympathy.—New-York was beginning to be truly American or rather Columbian, and money stood for something in the records of history. It had brought opportunity to genius and aid to virtue. But just this moment the jostling showed me that I had reached the corner of Wall-st. I looked earnestly at the omnibuses discharging their eager freight, as if I hoped to see my merchant. Perhaps he has gone to the Post Office to take out letters from his friends in Utopia, thought I. “Please ye give me a penny,” screamed a ragged, half-starved little street sweep, and the fancied cradle of the American Utopia receded or rather proceeded fifty years at least into the Future.*
“The Rich Man—An Ideal Sketch,” New-York Daily Tribune, 6 February 1846, p. 1.