Some Recent Criticism of America

Eclectic Magazine/November, 1888

International criticism, though sometimes a very useful, is rarely a very pleasant task; and a reply thereto often seems even less gracious, because in dissecting the critics one is very apt to make incidental slashes at their countrymen.

Now this I am particularly anxious to avoid; in the first place, because it is not my present business, and the et tu quoque style of argument is never attractive; in the second place, because I have far too pleasant memories of England and Englishmen. I always enjoy greatly my short stays in England; and I would make them longer, were it not that I am constitutionally incapable of spending six months anywhere in Europe without becoming exceedingly homesick for America. Indeed, I would be more than ungrateful to speak ill without reason of a place where I have been treated with such uniform and cordial hospitality by almost everyone with whom I have been brought in contact. Though an American with hardly a drop of English blood in my veins, I always feel more at home in England than on the Continent I have, and I trust I shall always retain, the good old country cousin feeling about London; I like its size, the swing and rush of the life, and the importance of the interests of which it is the centre. The mere social pat does not impress me so very much The balls and parties are about like those in New York; so are the dinners, except that the married women talk better and the girls not so well They are very pleasant, but they are too much like what we already know, unless there has been a Speaker’s Reception or something of the sort, and then it is a real relief to see the men in costumes that on this side of the Atlantic are only worn at fancy-dress balls. The purely social clubs are also very similar to ours; the attendance is better, and it is only a Western barbarian, I presume, who would wish to add to the already excellent menu prairie-chickens, canvasbacks, terrapin, soft-shell crabs, and oysters that do not taste like corroded halfpence. But we have no club quite like the Athenaeum, for instance; nor does on in America, as in England, habitually meet, in dining out, men who are prominent as statesmen or as soldiers, in literature or in art. Finally, from the standpoint of a guest, life in an English country house is most attractive, and foxhunting is very good sport if one is well mounted. I am, therefore, under no temptation to confound the critic and his country; for it has been my good fortune to see nothing but the bright side of life in the latter.

International criticism may be of value in three ways. First it may help the country criticized (and that it may do, even though in large part inaccurate); second, it may help outsiders, by holding up to their view an example, either to follow or avoid; third it may throw a flood of light on the mental condition of the critic himself.

It is for this last reason that many of us read with a good deal of interest Lord Wolseley’s article on General Lee, in “Macmillan’s Magazine” for March, 1886. An even more cursory examination of Lord Wolseley’s article than his lordship has apparently made off the war about which it is written is quite enough to show that while there is nothing therein contained worth preservation on account of its intrinsic critical merits, the whole piece deserves to be studied in its entirety by any outsider desirous of getting an idea of “the military learning and mental strategy” of the most conspicuous living English general. If Lord Wolseley did not think the American Civil War worth studying, there was no need of his doing so; but if he did so think, then he should not have written about it until he had at least some rudimentary knowledge of the subject. He considers Lee, so he tells us, “the greatest soldier of his age,” the equal of Marlborough (and there are plenty of Northerners as well as Southerners who agree with him here), and the war itself “as fully equal in magnitude to the successful invasion of France by Germany in 1870;” if so, it was all the more incumbent on him not to write nonsense about either.

There is not space to do more than take a few choice plums from the curious pot-pourri of miscellaneous misinformation which his lordship presumably considers a “study” of General Lee. He begins with an obiter dictum, delivered with glib flippancy and magnificent ignorance of the subject: writing of “the sovereign right, both historical and legal, which each state possessed under the constitution to leave the Union when its people thought fit to do so,” and again stating that Lee “firmly believed that each of the old states had a legal and indisputable right, by its individual constitution and by its Act of Union, to leave at will the Great Union into which each had separately entered as a sovereign state. This was with him an article of faith, of which he was as sure as of any Divine truths he found in the Bible.” Just before this last sentence Lord Wolseley quotes a line from one of Lee’s letters, which, if he had read through, he would have found contained the following paragraph, “Secession is nothing but revolution The framers of our constitution never exhausted so much labor and wisdom and forbearance in its formation, and surrounded it with so many guards and securities, if it was intended to be broken by ever member of the confederacy at will. It is intended for ‘perpetual union,’ so expressed in the preamble, and for the establishment of a government, not a compact, which can only be dissolved by revolution. . . It is idle to talk of secession.”

His lordship sapiently mentions among the claims of General Lee to military perspicacity, his pleading against the measure for “the enlistment of soldiers for only ninety days;” as this was a measure of the Washington, not the Richmond, government, it is difficult to see why Lee should have pleaded against it. He says that “the usual proportion throughout the war between the contending sides in each action ranged from about twice to three times more Federals than there were Confederates engaged.” There were instances, as at Antietam and in the closing days of the war, where this proportion obtained; exactly as there were other instances—as at Franklin, Chickamauga, Gaines’ Mill, Knoxville, Pea Ridge—where the Confederates much outnumbered their foes; undoubtedly the Federals were generally the most numerous, but the figures given by Lord Wolseley do not apply to one battle in ten, and were “usual” only in the reports of contemporary Confederate newspapers. What should we say of his lordship if, in describing General Chanzy, he attributed an important act of the German Reichstag to the Provisional government at Paris, blandly praising Chanzy for his (purely imaginary) “pleading” against it, and took his figures for the German numbers and losses from the French newspapers?

Lord Welseley believes that McClellan was “hopelessly at the mercy” of Lee when he “began his retreat to Harrison’s Landing after the seven day’s fighting round Richmond. If he can believe that, he can believe anything, and can safely vie with the White Queen of Wonderland, who was able to believe three impossible things before breakfast. McClellan had just repulsed Lee at Malvern Hill, and his army was in a impregnable position; there may be some doubt as to whether he himself should not have assumed the offensive, but there is none whatever that it would have been suicidal folly for Lee to have assaulted him.

Again, he thinks that the failure of the Confederates to follow up their victory at Bull Run was due to “political considerations.” This theory at least has the merit of being original; but his lordship need not copyright it, for no other sane historian will ever display the least desire to claim it.

He mentions that he is especially struck by “the inefficient manner” in which Lee was served by his “subordinate commanders.” The three chief of these same inefficient subordinates were Stonewall Jackson, Jeb Stuart, and Longstreet; and really it hardly seems necessary to answer such a criticism of such men.

Lord Wolseley speaks a good deal of General Washington, evincing a desire to place General Lee “on the same pedestal” with him. But he says nothing that warrants us in thinking that he knows more than the simple facts that there was a man named Washington, and that he was a general. He begins, with gratuitous inaccuracy, by crediting Lee with the ownership of Washington’s home, having evidently confused Mount Vernon and Arlington; much as if he spoke of Wellington owning Blenheim. He says that Washington could not have succeeded in the Revolutionary War if he had been obliged to submit to “the will and authority of a politician as Lee did to Mr. Davis.” Had he studied so much as a good school history of the Revolutionary War he would know that Washington’s main difficulties were, not with the foe in front, but with the politicians and people behind. If Washington had been backed up as Lee was, the Revolutionary War would have been over in three years, instead of lasting nearly eight He strongly insinuates that the careers of Lee and Washington were exactly parallel; and states that “Lee fought for the right of self-government which Washington won.” What he means by this is not very plain; and, indeed, a dense fog of uncertainty overclouds all his historic utterances; but it may at least interest his lordship to learn that Washington was not only a general, but a great constructive statesman. The salient difference between Washington and Lee ought to be apparent to even the dimmest vision; the one succeeded in building up the mighty structure which the other failed in trying to tear down. Lord Wolseley, in the midst of a series of mavellously wild shots, hits the mark once when he says that “had secession been victorious, it is tolerably certain that the United States would have been broken up still farther, and instead of the present magnificent and English-speaking empire, we should now see in its plpace a number of small powers with separate interests,” or, in other words, a second Spanish America, with some of the states tending toward the fate of Haiti. We Northerners yield to no one in our admiration of Lee’s magnificent generalship, of his high-mindedness, and of his purity of purpose; but to class him with Lincoln is like classing Montcalm with Chatham, or Patrick Sarsfield with William III. To compare him with Washington—who was as pure a patriot as Hampden, a greater statesman than Pitt, and almost as great a general as Wellington—is even more absurd. When in 1798 Virginia was preparing to take part in the abortive secession agitation of that year, Patrick Henry warned her truthfully that if there was a rising, she would find her levies opposed to troops led by her own great war-chief The Virginians who in 1861 trod in Washington’s footsteps were the men like Scott, Thomas, Farragut—but not Lee

Lord Wolseley remarks, anent the contending armies, that “from first to last the cooperation of even one army corps of regular troops would have given complete victory to whichever side it fought on.” We have no desire to make such comparisons; but we do not feel we have any cause to shrink from them when made. Undoubtedly both the armies which fought at Bull Run could have been beaten by a regular force half the size of either of them; but four years of a struggle more bloody than Wellington’s in the Peninsula, fought under or against a chieftain whom Lord Wolseley ranks with Marlborough, naturally worked a great change. After the Civil War in England Cromwell’s veterans showed themselves the equals of the splendid French and Spanish infantry; certainly in 1865 the soldiers of Grant or Lee, Sherman, Johnson, Thomas or Sheridan, would have marched with light hearts against any European foe. Let his lordship look back at the history of some small fights that took place in 1814; let him compare the rout of the Americans at Bladensburg with their victory at Chippewa, and the drawn battle of Niagara or Lundy’s Lane, and he will gain a clear idea of the difference between utterly untrained citizen soldiers and the same men when they have had even two years’ training by competent commanders—and he will also learn whether in the latter case they can or cannot hold their own against the best regulars in the world.

Such a comparison as Lord Wolseley has seen fit to make is difficult to answer, because it is hard to find a standard that both sides will accept. Yet perhaps something can be learned, at least of the way in which the troops stood punishment—which certainly counts for something in a battle—by comparing the death-rolls of the different regiments and armies. In the Franc-Prussian war the heaviest regimental loss in any one battle occurred at Mars-la-Tour, where the 3rd Westphalian lost 49 percent of its numbers killed or wounded. At Inkerman, according to Kinglake, the Guards had 1331 men, of whom they lost 594, at Gettysburg the 26th North Carolina lost 588 out of some 820, and one company, 84 strong, had every man killed or wounded, the orderly sergeant making out the return with a bullet through both legs. The Light Brigade at Balaclava lost 247 out of 673; in a charge at Gettysburg a battalion of the 1st Minnesota lost 205 out of 252, and in this case be it remembered that nobody had blundered, and that though the regiment had suffered proportionately considerably more than double the loss of the Light Brigade, nevertheless the 47 survivors held the ground and the flag they had captured.

With these facts, and a hundred others, before him, had he chosen to look for them, our critic continues: “A trial heat between two jockeys mounted on untrained horses may be interesting, but no one would ever quote the performance as an instance of great racing speed.” to us there is something deliciously ludicrous in the picture of Lord Wolseley standing bravely by on tiptoe to speak thus of Grant and Lee, and the veteran armies wherewith they fought to a finish the great Civil War. It is as if old “Tippecanoe” Harrison had said the same thing about Napoleon, Wellington, and Blucher at Waterloo; in which case he would have excited the indignation of none, but the contemptuous amusement of all.

His lordship modestly alludes to himself as a “critical military student of this war.” While granting that he is both military and critical, I must protest against any such lofty flight of fancy as is implied in his calling himself a “student” of the war. Let him examine Col. Chesney’s works of the Comte de Paris’s “History,” if he wishes to know something of a student’s methods; or let him look at an excellent little book on “the Campaign of Fredericksburg,” written by a British “Line Officer,” and published in London, by Kegan Paul, Trench & Co, in 1886.

Before proceeding to a genuine critic, I must examine one more bouffe individual. This is Sir Lepel Henry Griffin, K.C.S.I., who recently wrote a very bright, amusing little squib called “The Great Republic.” In itself it is about as serious a production as the famous “Portuguese Phrase Book;” and I should no more dream of answering it than of answering the “Pirates of Penzance” on behalf of the old-time buccaneers. But Mr. Matthew Arnold has recently made our failure to please Sir Lepel the head and front of our offending, ad has thereby given him an undeserved importance which entitles him to a very brief answer.

Mr. Arnold quoted Sir Lepel’s remark that he can think of no country save Russia in which he would not rather live than in America, “in which life would not be more worth living, less sordid and mean and unlovely;” and Mr. Arnold added on his own account that “the civilization of the United States must somehow, if an able man can think thus,” be defective.

Let us look at the “able man’s” own picture of what he thinks a civilization should be. He gives it on p. 47 of his little book, where he says that “a woman of spirit” would doubtless prefer “a society like that of London, where even the men, to say nothing of the women, from the time they rise at eleven till they go to bed at three in the morning, think of nothing but how they may amuse themselves,” and adds that when Americans have learned this “science of amusement” their country “will become a far more agreeable place than it is at present.” Really this “able man’s” ideal does not seem much higher than that of the “sordid, mean, unlovely” country to which he so strenuously objects. Indeed, some of us believe—from experience—that any many worth his sale would find life, for any length of time, in a perfectly frivolous fashionable society bent on nothing but amusement, only a shade less dreary than existence in the dullest little Philistine country town. He might like to see it for a short while, exactly as he would like to go to the circus; but he would as soon think of living in one as in the other. Moreover, such a society is not specially characteristic of London; “vacuity trimmed with lace” is to be found in most of our own large cities, by those whose curious ambition it is to associate therewith. To us, the charm of London lies in the fact that there we meet men who know how to have a good time and yet play their parts in the world. It is pleasant to stay at the country house of a mighty Nimrod who is also a prominent factor in politics; and to discuss art and literature at a dinner where there are leaders of Parliament in addition to leaders of fashion. The purely fashionable world I can meet in New York, whenever I wish; and there the women dress quite as well and dance much better.

Sir Lepel, in his preface, states that his book is written for Englishmen, and especially “English Liberals,” “to point out for their avoidance those of the political methods of America which strike me” (Sir Lepel) “as thoroughly bad and corrupt.” He goes on to state that he is sorry to hurt anyone’s feelings (a needless anxiety—we have preserved our equanimity), but that he must tell the truth. Of course in this position he is perfectly sound; a writer is bound to state the exact facts, even if they are as black as Sir Spencer St. John found Haiti.

Let us see how well our “able man” has succeeded in his quest for truth, by taking as samples of the rest a few passages chosen almost at random from his book. He bitterly condemns us for not making a state park at Niagara, which, by the way, we have just done, and writes that, for their crime in failing to protect the scenery, he would “hand down to eternal infamy” the names of the authorities of the state of New York, “were he not convinced that being New York officials, they are already as infamous as it is possible for officials to be;” he further writes “it is well known” that the right to mar the scenery by advertisements, etc., “has been acquired by bribing the state officials.”

When Sir Lepel wrote, the chief of these same officials, the governor, was Mr. Cleveland, now president of the United States; the next in importance and influence was Mr. Davenport, whom the Republicans ran for governor at the succeeding election, who had served several terms in Congress, who belonged to an old New York family, and was a man of the highest character and capacity. I was then in the legislature, and knew him well, officially as well as privately. When Sir Lepel states that Messrs. Cleveland and Davenport are “as infamous as it is possible for officials to be,” and that it is “well known” that rights are acquired from them “by bribery,” it is just as if some latter-day Jefferson Brick should say the same thing about Lords Salisbury and Rosebery.

It would be easy to multiply quotations such as the above from the work of this “able man;” but instead I will quote a few of the figures he gives, partly because of their startling nature, and partly as a measure of the writer’s trustworthiness. How he ever got them would be really worthwhile knowing; whoever gave them to him gulled him unmercifully On p. 180 he says that “if all the Indian tribes—men, women, and children—throughout the states and territories be enumerated, they amount to some 66,000 souls,” instead of which there are over four times that number. On p. 135 he says that the Germans “now number some ten millions;” whereas, including those whose parents were born in Germany, as well as those born there themselves, they number about four millions. However, in this case, Sir Lepel’s statement contains 40 percent of truth—a very unusual proportion for him His statements that the Germans do not intermarry with the Americans, and, like the Scandinavians, have in no way changed their nationality, are rather more absurd than his account of their numbers

But he fairly outdoes himself in the chapter dealing with our illiteracy. He says that “only one voter in five can write his name in the Southern States.” He says that “in the presidential election of 1876, New York, New Jersey, Indiana, Wisconsin, Illinois, Rhode Island [and eight other states] were ranged on the side of illiteracy;” as at that election half of the states named voted one way, and half the other, it would seem as if “illiteracy” was bound to be ranged on both sides. He says that “in 1876, 60 out of the 96 senators, or four-fifths of the whole, and 259 out of 292 representatives in Congress, were in the grasp of illiteracy,” and “in the last presidential contest the voters in thirty states, commanding 298 electoral votes, were unable to read.” At first I was puzzled to know what these two sentences meant. Then I found out—they meant nothing.

Almost every one of Sir Lepel’s pages yields similarly rich ore to even the most superficial mining If he is a fair sample of Anglo-Indian officials, the “English Liberals” for whom he writes, may, if they study hi figures, be pardoned for concluding that Anglo-Indian statistics have a bizarre value quite unique.

Sir Lepel states, in his usual guarded way, that “America is the country of disillusion and disappointment, in politics, literature, culture, and art, in its scenery, its cities, and its people.” Where did he get his “illusion,” that was thus rudely dispelled? It could not have been from that small suburban Anacreon, Master Thomas Moore, who about 1805 described America as “rotten before she was ripe,” a “Medly mass of pride and misery,” and the people as “the motley dregs of every distant clime,” whose “youthful decay” and “crude anticipation of the natural people of corruption,” “must repress every sanguine hope of the future energy and greatness of America;” nor could it have been from Dickens, who, some forty years later, remarked, with hearty geniality, great good taste, and careful abstention from exaggerated statement, that the Republic was “so maimed and lame, so full of sores and ulcers, foul to the eye and almost hopeless to the sense, that her best friends turned from the loathsome creature in disgust.” Nor could it have been from the fascinating, albeit somewhat melancholy, pages of the late “Cassandra” Gregg, who in 1860 portrayed very powerfully our utter degeneracy in “mind, morals, manners, and physical condition,” and fifteen years later mentioned that we had grown worse. Really, our capacity for progressive degeneracy is marvelous. However, we are quite accustomed to these amenities of foreign criticism—all of our critics, b the way, being careful to assert a “friendliness of disposition that is certainly most successfully dissembled—and we take a pensive interest in comparing the severe self-restraint characteristic of such sentences as those quoted above with the horror which the authors always profess to feel of the unbridled violence and loose denunciation so common in the American press.

Nevertheless, let me assure Sir Lepel that his feelings toward Americans are not reciprocated; on the contrary, such of them as know of his existence are inclined to greet him with favor as an unconscious humorist, and he has certainly proved a real heaven-sent boon to the overworked unfortunates who edit the comic press.

But enough of breaking such merely comic butterflies.

Mr. Matthew Arnold’s sudden death was felt almost as much in the American as in the English world of letters. We on this side of the water feel that we owe him as much as you do. We are far from agreeing with all his views; there are many of them which we do not believe could be held y a healthy and rudely vigorous nation; but we know that we get from his writings much of which our own civilization stands in especial need. Moreover, he is entitled to a most respectful hearing when he points out what he deems the shortcomings of our civilization; and were his remarks malicious, which they are not, and unjust, which they are ony in part, it would not diminish in the least the debt due from us to him.

Mr. Arnold undoubtedly tried to write about us in the only way that can possibly produce good, either to the people criticized or to the other people who are to profit by the example portrayed. He wrote his last two articles only after some observation, and he evidently honestly endeavored to discriminate between the good and the bad. Where he failed to be fair, the failure was probably entirely unintentional; it was wholly out of his power to do full justice to a rough, pushing, vigorous people. the roseate-hued after-dinner account of an already prejudiced friend, produced after three months’ travel, practically from one entertainment to another, however pleasant reading, is but a shade less useless than the bitter diatribe written by someone resolutely determined to see all things through a gloomy fog of dislike. Every people, as well as every system, has its faults and virtues; if the former overbalance the latter, the observer should say so, but he should be sure of his scales first. We honestly believe that our system has on the whole worked better than any other; but plenty of defects can be pointed out even by its friends; and if any foreigner who has studied it believes it to be bad, and fears that its influence both on our own people and on European races will be detrimental, then it is not only his right, but his duty, to say so and give his reasons.

But of course the critic should beware of too rapid generalization. Take “Martin Chuzzlewit,” for instance; Jefferson Brick, Hannibal Chollop, and Eijah Pogram, are all good pictures of distinctively American types. They are types not to be found elsewhere, but common enough here, at the time that Dickens wrote, and unfortunately not yet extinct, though much less prominent and influential than formerly. But to treat them as the only American types was absurd; they stood toward the United States as Pecksniff, Bumble and Bill Sykes stood toward England. When Dickens generalized from them, and summed up about America, as already quoted, he wrote a sentence that stood about on a par with the New York newspaper “screamers” he was at the time engaged in ridiculing. Again, with due deference be it said, I think Englishmen sometimes write about American matters without thinking it necessary to study them all. Lord Wolseley and Sir Lepel Griffin both stand well, I presume in England; yet they do not hesitate to write arrant nonsense about subjects of which they are simply densely ignorant, in a way they would hardly venture to do were they dealing with European affairs. It makes no difference whatever to us. For all we care, Lord Wolseley is quite welcome to credit Lee with “pleading” against Lincoln’s call for ninety-day troops, or, for the matter of that, to insist that Daniel Webster was a general in the Civil War, and we are perfectly willing that Sir Lepel should describe his sixty United States senators as being not only “in the grasp of illiteracy,” but in that of homicidal cannibalism to boot. Frankly, if it pleases these gentlemen to cut such queer literary antics, unrestrained by the fear of being laughed at, we think it concerns only themselves and the services they represent.

Another thing that is hard for anyone to keep in mind is the difference in the point of view. To illustrate what I mean I shall take an example from that most delightful book, General Butler’s “Great Lone Land.” Therein the author relates, very humorously, his bewilderment when an American showed him a monument to Stephen Douglas; the point of the joke being the foolishness of the American in presuming that General Butler had heard of Stephen Douglas. Now of course it is a mark of rank provincialism for any man to believe that any foreigner knows anything about the history of the land he is visiting; but would General Butler had heard of Stephen Douglas. Now of course it is a mark of rank provincialism for any man to believe that any foreigner knows anything about the history of the land he is visiting; but would General Butler appreciate quite as keenly the foolishness of an Englishman who should think that an American military officer, travelling on a semi-diplomatic mission, might safely be supposed to have heard of Lord John Russell? I greatly doubt it.

Yet again, a man must be sufficiently catholic to allow for mere differences of taste. Personally, I like Winchester repeaters, rocking chairs, shad, ice water, and spider-wheeled buggies; many of my English friends prefer dogcarts, beer, and double-barreled Express rifles; but there is not the least reason why we should quarrel or look down upon one another because of our varying preferences. In the same way, without altogether defending “I guess” and “I reckon,” it is certainly allowable to deem them at least as good as “I fancy.” Nevertheless, many a writer seems to think that just such utterly trivial points determine the superiority or inferiority of a civilization.

Mr. Arnold falls into no such errors; he gives us full credit for many of our good points; and, on the other hand, much that he says in blaming us is warranted by the facts.

He deserves special praise for having so clearly seen and understood our political condition, and for having so soon grasped the fact that there was here very much less administrative and judicial corruption than was commonly believed; that, in spite of striking and partial exceptions, our politics were not only already fairly pure and decent, but were steadily improving. Had he not been determined to see things as they really were, he might easily have been led astray on this point, not only by outside observers, but even more by Americans. One of our main faults, although I think it is a fault of which we are gradually curing ourselves, is a tendency to speak in the superlative, especially about ourselves is a tendency to speak in the superlative, especially about ourselves, and to exaggerate both our failings and our virtues. If a cavalry officer kills six or eight Indians he is forthwith called a Hannibal; and if a congressman honestly differs from the bulk of his countrymen on some question of public policy, his character is promptly, and very unfavorably, compared with that of Judas Iscariot At one time we bragged incessantly of all our legislators and legislative bodies, good and bad alkie; but for the last twenty years we have gone to the opposite extreme, and our newspaper editors, essayists, and platform orators, from Mr. Lowell down, have indulged in incessant abuse of our politics and all connected therewith, in terms so violent and sweeping that they do quite as much harm as, and are even more untrue than, the former equally unmeasured praise. Newspapers, for instance, exhaust their vocabulary in denouncing what is in point of fact a fairly good state legislature; people know that much of their abuse must be taken in a pure Pickwickian sense; and so when they turn to denouncing a really outrageous board of aldermen, they have nothing stronger to say than they have already said, and are not more than half believed anyhow. Similarly, it was the proper and inevitable consequence of our former extravagance of statement that when we did perform heroic deeds the recital of them not only failed to impress outsiders, but what was of much more important, even failed adequately to impress ourselves.

Again, we who sincerely believe in the democratic idea, cannot but be pleased by Mr. Arnold’s praise of our democracy; by his appreciation of our comparative equality and our approximate freedom from the spirit of class division, at least in those portions of our land where the old American habit of thought is most prevalent. His words especially appeal to those among our number whose good fortune it has been to pass a considerable part of our lives either in the west or in the back country of the old states; who have lived in communities wholly American, where ranchman and cowboy, or “boss” and “hired help,” as the case might be, slept in the same house and ate at the same table, each respecting the other; who have seen with our own eyes that plain living, while by no means necessarily productive of high thinking, is at any rate not incompatible therewith. We believe, not only that we have provided for the greatest happiness of the greatest number, but also that we have built up a community wherein any really manly and virile individual has free scope to play his life part well and nobly. Moreover, Arnold has justice on his side when he ridicules the extravagant praise sometimes showered on what he calls the average man. We are too apt to spend our time in praising the average man for what he is, instead of trying to spur him on to be something more; it is a good thing to be reminded from time to time that we must try to level up to the highest, and not down to the average. He is also right in insisting that one of our especial dangers is the mistaking of mere material progress for genuine civilization, and the tendency to measure all success by the degrading standard of the almighty dollar; although here let me say that I sometimes think the eternal guinea plays an equally prominent part in England.

He is right to laugh at much that our people say about our superiority in fineness of fibre and nervous organization. So far from being creditable to us, this nervousness and fineness of physique bid fair in places to develop into a real danger; they are absolutely among the causes that have produced the alarming diminution of the birth rate among native-born Northerners, especially in New England. Our cultivated, and still more our enormous partially and imperfectly cultivated, classes have  erred tremendously in altogether looking down upon the development of the body; and though there are numerous signs that there has been in this respect a great change for the better, yet there is still much need of insistence upon the fact that though a man must before all else think straight and be moral, yet that in addition he must be vigorous of body, must have a capital digestion, must, in short, be a good, healthy animal before he can be reckoned a really first-class member of the body politic, fir to be the father of other good citizens.

On these matters Mr. Arnold is entirely right; yet it seems to me that he has not seen some of our chief dangers—such as the growth of a turbulent and partially Americanized foreign-born proletariat in our large cities and manufacturing and mining centers—and that some of the accusations that he does bring against us are either not borne out by the facts at all, or else are borne out only in part.

Thus, his wholesale denunciation of American newspapers is altogether too sweeping, although there is solid understratum of truth in what he says. The only exception he makes is in the case of the Nation, and this apparently simply because it has a “foreign”—more definitely, pseudo-Milesian—editor; but the exception is not altogether worth making, for though the Nation has done good work in certain lines politically (using the word in the larger, not the mere party, sense), its influence has been thoroughly unwholesome, and its sour, spiteful dishonesty entitles it to be called the Sir Benjamin Backbite of the American press Undoubtedly a man taking up an American newspaper is apt to find therein much that grates on his sense of good taste, and in many cases not a little that offends his sense of decency and propriety; but he is also sure to find much sound common sense, much shrewd humor, and—in spite of our critics—a good deal of excellent morality. In non-political public movements the newspapers are generally potent forces for right; as any one may see for himself if he examines the zeal with which they work for a good international copyright law, or inquires into the history of the preservation of the Adirondack forests or the laying out the country round Niagara as a public park.

It seems to me that Mr. Arnold is mistaken in thinking us to be so very sensitive to criticism of our actions. At one time we were undoubtedly marvelously think-skinned, but nowadays we have grown confident: we hold ourselves accountable only to ourselves, and bear the praise and blame of foreigners with much philosophy. For instance, the only lengthy allusions to Mr Arnold’s views of our civilization that I have happened to come across were made by a clergyman, who took them as the text for a sermon, and by an essayist, who wrote about them in a magazine; and both clergyman and essayist, who wrote about them in a magazine; and both clergyman and essayist, being in pessimistic mood, vigorously asserted that all that the critic had said was true. A man must be cautious in believing a nation to be unduly sensitive to foreign opinion merely because he comes across some individuals who are thin-skinned. A friend of mine once wrote what he still believes to be a complimentary article on England; yet it produced a shoal of uncomplimentary letters in return, one gentleman actually taking the trouble to write him from Patagonia in terms of involved scorn; but he did not in consequence hastily announce that the British public was abnormally nervous as to what was said about it in American magazines.

What Arnold says about the American accent is also largely true, but is, I think, exaggerated. That is, there is a tendency in America to talk with a twang, as there is a tendency in England to use the aspirate improperly Jean Ingelow somewhere says that Americans say “sass” for sauce; so they do—as much as Englishmen say “heggs” for eggs. In making these comparisons, we must remember to compare corresponding classes. But undoubtedly even the cultivated people of a nation are apt now and then to betray the failings common among the uncultivated; and, moreover, are least sensitive about the failings to which they have become accustomed. I have often been struck by meeting Englishmen of high social position who, to my ears, slightly softened or roughened the “h” in the wrong places. As showing the other side, I am tempted to tell a little story, although it is rather against myself. It was at a dinner in London, and I was sitting next a very pretty woman, who was evidently bent on saying pleasant things about America; indeed, to some of her speeches I was obliged faintly to demur—as when she credited us with the national ownership of the river Amazon. Finally, she electrified me by observing that she liked to hear me speak, “because she was so fond of the American accent; it reminded her of a banjo”! The remark was evidently made in perfectly good faith. I murmured my acknowledgments, and she continued the conversation with the vivacity naturally attendant upon the pleased consciousness of having paid a neat compliment.

But all of these points are, in Mr. Arnold’s estimation, of minor importance, serving only to illustrate the truth of his main charge against us. This charge is, that our civilization is not interesting, because it fails to supply the two absolutely necessary elements of beauty and distinction; and he may not unfairly be said to offer as a partial explanation of our failure the alleged fact that our whole people answers to the English middle class. This is only very roughly true; for, though our population doubtless stands in close relation to the English middle class, after all it is not English, and it is not a middle class. A “middle-class” American is as different from a middle-class European as a mountaineer of Appenzell is from a Bavarian peasant. In the first place, we differ by blood and race as well as by nationality from England; even when the Revolution broke out, the term American was more than a mere geographical expression; the descendants of the Roundhead and the Cavalier were the leaders in the struggle, but beside them stood the children of the Hollander and the Huguenot, of the Presbyterians of Scotland and Ireland and the Lutherans of Germany and Sweden. More important still than the ethnic difference is the difference in the surroundings; a middle class which has never had an upper class over it or a lower class under it is inevitably bound to develop in such a way that it can only be called a middle class at all by a stretch of words.

So, disregarding the explanation, I will confine myself to the statement itself; and yet after all, where the accentuation is, by its very nature, so vague, the answer can be but little more than a statement of the opposite belief. Mr. Arnold quotes Carlyle is saying that he would not live in America because it was not interesting. If he found us so, well and good; it was his affair, not ours I knew of a Scotchman who once announced that he on the whole he found the pleasant town of Peebles more interesting than London or Paris. To us the statement seems less a reflection upon America than an illustration of the fact that a man can write well about deeds which, when he sees them done, he is utterly unable to appreciate; that he can sing the praises of greatness achieved, and yet be blind to the heroism of those who before his own eyes are achieving it. Carlyle could deify Cromwell, the hero of a civil war big with fate to the English race; yet he could not so much as see Lincoln and Grant as they brought to a close another contest surely no less important. He could bow down before the memory of the military process of Frederick the Great; yet he could not perceive the superb soldiership of Lee He could shout with exultation over the French Revolution, and be dumb in the presence of a struggle of which the outcome decided the unity of a nation, the destiny of a continent, and the freedom of a race. Let me make myself clear: no one can possibly complain because Carlyle found the United States uninteresting; but if Mr. Arnold makes his doing so the ground for saying that there is a great lack somewhere, it is permissible to answer that the fault may lie in the observer as much as in what he observed.

Of the two causes that make us uninteresting. Arnold lays perhaps the most stress upon our lack of the beautiful. Here, likewise, he is certainly right in part. More than any other of the founders of our nation, the Puritan has left his mark stamped deep in the character of our people; and the Puritan had only the beauty that belongs to the grim, homely, rugged strength of a race with many forbidding traits, but yet essentially moral and essentially manly. Does any man think it would have been to the ultimate advantage of America to have exchanged the qualities of the Puritan for those of the beauty-loving, beauty-producing Greek? The Greek could never, like the Puritan, have conquered a continent, and then governed both it and himself. I wish we had a keener, higher sense of beauty; I hope we may develop it; but I should be sorry to see it cultivated at the cost of more virile and useful qualifications. Moreover, Arnold goes much too far in some of his statements. His strictures on American natural scenery must be due simply to his having seen very little of America; to attempt to compare even the eastern states with England is like trying to include in the same comparison Portugal, Sweden, and the Tyrol. Maine and Florida, New York and Virginia differ among themselves as Italy differs from Norway. Americans often brag with absurd lack of judgment even about their scenery; it seems impossible, for instance, to instil into the minds of some of our countrymen the fact that New York harbor has not the least resemblance to the Bay of Naples, and to persuade them that it is in the worst possible taste to copy the ludicrous example of Saxony, and christen a pretty but of hilly country the American Switzerland, or degrade a beautiful mountain road by calling it the American Cornice. But if a man looks only at the country, and does not bother himself with what a very small portion of the inhabitants say about it, he ought to be able to satisfy himself somewhere between the Atlantic, the Alleghenies, Canada, and the Gulf. Moreover, we must remember that each man naturally loves best the woods and mountains, the lakes and rivers of his own land. I am much too fond of the Catskills and the Adirondacks, the Hudson, the Sound, and our midland lakes to be able to compare them fairly with those of England or Scotland. But of course it is true, as our critic says, that we have not “that charm of beauty which comes from ancientness and permanence of rural life.”

Mr. Arnold denies us also all claim to beauty in architecture, and mentions that we have produced nothing of importance in literature. If he means that we have nothing like the “Iliad” or the Parthenon, he is well within the mark. But of all his criticism upon us, I am inclined to think that what he says of our architecture has least warrant in fact; certainly he has wholly failed to appreciate the difference between our architecture of today and of twenty years back, and he is curiously ignorant of Richardson’s work, as well as being utterly mistaken in his idea of the conditions under which it was done. Curiously enough, when Mr. Arnold wishes to illustrate by example, the architectural beauty to which we have failed to attain, he instances Somerset House and Whitehall; yet he has been singularly unhappy in his choice, for these two buildings at least are fully equaled by half a dozen of our own public structures. But when he speaks of literature, he is on ground that he thoroughly knows, and whereof America would be first to acknowledge him a master; and yet not even because of his great authority would I be willing to miss from my bookshelves Irving and Hawthorne and Emerson and cooper, Lowell, Longfellow, Whittier and Poe, and Parkman and Motley; and I shall still continue to look forward to a new novel by Charles Egbert Craddock, and to a new story by Thomas Nelson Page or Joel Chandler Harris But unquestionably—and very naturally—we have not produced writers that stand relatively as high as our statesmen and soldiers; we have done a good deal more than we have written. And it seems to me that a critic should keep in mind that we are a young land, and as yet must be judged, whether for good or evil, almost as much by our promise as by our performance. After all, taming a continent is nobler work than studying belles lettres.

Mr. Arnold instances, as a proof of how unsatisfactory educated people find existence in America, the numbers that go abroad. If he had gone on and taken into account the number of English tourists who visit Italy, he would have gained a clear idea of the exact value of his proof. Nor is he right in his belief that our best artists and literary men like to live abroad; those who do so are a very feeble folk indeed, as any man can find by searching through the list of Americans who have done good work in any given department. The Americans who make their home abroad are men too weak to make their way at home; they belong to some such class as that of our so-called “realistic” novelists—not theirs the realism that gives us so excellent and true a type as, for instance, Silas Lapham—but men who apparently seek to supplement French realism, which consists in depicting the unspeakably nasty, by a realism of their own, the portrayal of the unutterably trivial. It is distinctly to our discredit as a nation that we have produced these men; but then it is much to our credit that, when produced, they are driven to live somewhere else. The Americans who do good work are invariably those whose Americanism is most pronounced, and who are themselves American in heart and spirit, in marrow and fibre. The acquisition of a species of flaccid cosmopolitanism is one of the surest signs of a feeble nature.

Mr. Arnold is part right and three parts wrong in speaking of the :hideous nomenclature” of the United States. The names of most of our states, rivers, lakes and mountains are by no means hideous; on the contrary, many of them are very beautiful. But the names of many of our cities, towns, and villages are not only hideous but ludicrous also. Such names as Memphis in Tennessee, Paris and Versailles in Kentucky, Syracuse, Elmira, and Utica in New York, stand as high-water marks of hedge-school pedantry, utter poverty of imagination, and absurd, uneasy pretentiousness. They, and the men who tolerate them, cannot be sufficiently ridiculed. But Mr. Arnold is on more uncertain footing when condemning in even stronger terms all names ending in “ville.” I am far too good a disciple of Mr. Freeman not to greatly prefer some form of “boro,” “ton,” or “ham” as a termination; but the fact remains that, in addition to these Teutonic endings, we have now also adopted the Romance termination “ville,” as we long ago adopted the Romance termination “chester”—that is, castra. I prefer the ending “ton” to the ending “ville,” exactly as I prefer the words fall and outlook to the words autumn and prospect; but no individual dislike can drive out words and terms that have been accepted into the language. Mr. Arnold is peculiarly unhappy in his condemnation of Jacksonville in Florida. Except for the fact that we see one and do not see the other, through the mist of centuries, this is a name precisely parallel to that of Edinburgh (King Edwin’s borough). Jackson was once the ruler of our country, and a valiant general; by his successful, albeit piratical, wars with the Spaniards and Seminoles he won Florida for us; and it was most fitting that the chief of the new towns we there founded should have been named after him. Still, I do not wish to enter into a defense of the termination “ville;” and much that Mr. Arnold says about our lack, as a nation, of a sense of beauty and grace, is correct, and we would do well to ponder it, and profit by it.

But when he speaks of the lack of distinction in our history and our civilization, he seems to use the word in a sense that in our eyes renders it meaningless. It almost seems as if he unconsciously connected distinction with pageantry and fine clothes, with what he himself calls the “frippery” of the middle ages Certainly, as he uses it, he would have to deny its existnce in Clive, Hastings, or Wolfe when compared with the highly polished, salon-frequenting French who were their contemporaries—and in our homely eyes their inferiors He says we are deprived of the effect made upon men by the contemplation of what is elevated, that we are lacking in the sense of awe. If he means that Americans do not regard any man as a moujik has such a feeling as that of the moujik has much in it that is fine and good, yet we believe that it can only be acquired or retained at the expense of even more valuable qualities. But it seems to me that the feeling shown by Americans for men like Lincoln and Grant, the attitude they now hold toward old Tecumseh Sherman, shows an appreciation of true elevation of character; it certainly implies loyalty, and gratitude, and respect toward men who have shown in high degree courage, warcraft, statecraft, and devotion to their country.

Mr. Arnold grants us that Washington is distinguished, but says that Lincoln is not, though he admits the latter deserves the most sincere esteem and praise. He adds that Washington has not the high mental distinction of Caesar. This may be true; but woe to the nation where Caesar rather than Washington stands as the arch-type and ideal! He also states that Washington belongs really to the pre-American age, and was an Englishman, not an American. He might as well say that Cromwell, as compared to Pitt, was a German, and not an Englishman. Washington lived a generation or two nearer the time our people crossed the water than Lincoln did; and similarly Cromwell lived several generations nearer than Pitt to the English settlement and conquest of Britain. Washington was the typical American of his age; there has never lived a man who was more thoroughly bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh.

I cannot help thinking that the difference Mr Arnold makes between Washington and Lincoln is due to the fact that one lived a century ago, and the other in our own time. A hundred years ago Englishmen would have laughed at the praise he gives to Washington; fifty years ago they would have still considered it extravagant; today they think it just. So it will be with Lincoln. Compare what was said of him in his lifetime with what is said of him even now, and we can form some idea of the verdict of the future. Writing in 1864, Mr. Freeman, who is always friendly to America, and puts the best interpretation he conscientiously can on our deeds, touched incidentally on Lincoln. He felt called upon to make a stand against the general feeling of his countrymen toward Lincoln, and he boldly took advanced ground This is what the defender of Lincoln said: “It is ridiculous to speak of him as the mere driveling idiot which it suits party prejudice to call him;” and he admitted his inferiority to McClellan and Jefferson Davis, but said he was better than any President since Jackson!

Mr. Arnold’s estimate, twenty-four years later, shows a gigantic advance when compared to Mr. Freeman’s; and perhaps, had he, for the good fortune of the world of letters, been spared to live longer, he would by degrees have seen still more clearly the character of Lincoln. If so, he would surely have given all honor to the uncouth backwoods giant; the shrewd, far-seeing statesman; the high-minded patriot, with his clear eyes, his iron will, his sad, patient, kindly heart; who for four years bore a burden that would have broken any back but his, and who then met death for the sake of the people whom he had loved and served in his life.

(Source: Archive,


 Works of Theodore Roosevelt and other American journalists is freely available at The Archive of American Journalism.