Americans in Their Moral, Social and Political Relations (1837, by Francis J. Grund)

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The steady march of Americans toward the Pacific Ocean throughout much of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries helped to define what many would come to think of as the American character: qualities of individualism, self-determination, free enterprise, and boundless resourcefulness. In fact, Americans had been penetrating the frontier since the founding of Jamestown in 1607, an enterprise that lasted until 1890, when most of the available land had been claimed and settled by homesteaders. The Austrian-born teacher, journalist, and politician Francis J. Grund (1798–1863) offers a glimpse into this restless era of exploration and acquisition in Americans In Their Moral, Social, and Political Relations. As much a paean to economic freedom as to political liberty, Grund's book exemplifies much of the enthusiasm and optimism of an age in which pioneers colonized the American West at a rate of only ten miles a year and the U.S. Census often recorded population density along the frontier at two to six people per square mile. A loyal Democrat, Grund later served in the American consulates in France, Belgium, and Germany.

Laura M.Miller,
Vanderbilt University

See also Frontier ; Westward Migration .

The Settling of the West

Labour is as essential to their [Americans'] well-being as food and raiment to an European. This national characteristic of Americans, together with their love of independence, is a complete commentary on the history of all their settlements, and the progress of manufactures and commerce. Thousands of persons who, as servants, or in other inferior walks of life, might be able to provide for themselves in the large cities, emigrate to the western woods to procure for themselves a larger field of enterprise and useful occupation.

There is no hardship or privation incident to the lives of new settlers which their robust and athletic constitutions would not willingly suffer to gratify their insatiable desire after active and independent labour; there is no pleasure within the range of all a city can afford equal to the proud satisfaction of beholding the daily results of their indefatigable exertions. These phenomena it would be in vain to explain by the mere spirit of adventure.

There are no gold mines in the western states; no active commerce equal to that from which they emigrate; no accumulated wealth to allure their covetousness. The riches of the soil can only be explored by active labour and a series of harassing details, connected with the sacrifice of every convenience of life; the commerce of the explored region is to be created by new roads and lines of communication, which call for new and increased exertion on the part of the settlers; and it is only after a period of many years their sturdy industry can hope for an adequate reward of ease and prosperity. Such prospects are not apt to allure the weak either in body or mind, and require in determination and steadiness of purpose totally incompatible with the vague and loose spirit of adventure. Neither is there any thing in the character of the western people which could give the least foundation to such a suspicion. They are a hardy persevering race, inured to every toil to which human nature can be subjected, and always ready to encounter danger and hard-ships with a degree of cheerfulness which it is easily perceived is the effect of moral courage and consciousness of power. They are distinguished from the rest of the Americans, and, perhaps, the rest of mankind, by huge athletic frames of body, a peculiar naivete in their manners, and a certain grotesqueness of humour, which, as far as I am acquainted, is not to be found in any other part of the United States.

Their amphibious nature—being obliged to make themselves, at an early period of their lives, familiar with the navigation of the western waters—together with the boldness of their disposition, has won for them the characteristic appellation of "half horse and half alligator;" which, in the language of the western Americans, is full as honourable a term as the preux chevaliers, applied to the chivalry of the middle ages; though they prefer the rifle and the somewhat barbarous amusement of "gouging" to the more knightly combat with spears and lances.

It appears, then, that the universal disposition of Americans to emigrate to the western wilderness, in order to enlarge their dominion over inanimate nature, is the actual result of an expansive power, which is inherent in them, and which, by continually agitating all classes of society, is constantly throwing a large portion of the whole population on the extreme confines of the state, in order to gain space for its development. Hardly is a new state or territory formed before the same principle manifests itself again, and gives rise to a further emigration; and so is it destined to go on until a physical barrier must finally obstruct its progress. The Americans, who do not pretend to account for this principle at all, are nevertheless aware of its existence, and act and legislate on all occasions as if they were to enjoy the benefits of the next century.

Money and property is accumulated for no other visible purpose than being left to the next generation, which is brought up in the same industrious habits, in order to leave their children a still greater inheritance. The labouring classes of Europe, the merchants, and even the professional men, are striving to obtain a certain competency, with which they are always willing to retire: the Americans pursue business with unabated vigour till the very hour of death, with no other benefits for themselves than the satisfaction of having enriched their country and their children. Fortunes, which on the continent of Europe, and even in England, would be amply sufficient for an independent existence, are in America increased with an assiduity which is hardly equalled by the industrious zeal of a poor beginner, and the term of "rentier" is entirely unknown. The luxurious enjoyments which riches alone can procure are neither known nor coveted in the United States; and the possession of property, far from rendering them indolent, seems to be only an additional stimulus to unremitting exertion.…

Every new settlement requires labourers for the construction of roads, canals, &c., to facilitate its communication with the Atlantic states, and every new road and canal increases the commerce of the seaports. But it is not the general prosperity of the people—though of course this must be counted among its happiest results,—it is their useful occupation, and the creation of new and powerful interests, which are of the greatest advantage to the government. Every new colony of settlers contains within itself a nucleus of republican institutions, and revives in a measure the history of the first settlers. Its relation to the Atlantic states is similar to the situation of the early colonies with regard to the mother country, and contains the elements of freedom. Every society which is thus formed must weaken the fury of parties by diminishing the points of contact; while the growing power of the western states becomes a salutary check on the spreading of certain doctrines, which are continually importing from Europe, and to the evil influence of which the Atlantic states are more particularly exposed.

The western states, from their peculiar positions, are supposed to develop all the resources and peculiarities of democratic governments, without being driven to excesses by the opposition of contrary principles. Their number, too, augments the intensity of republican life by increasing the number of rallying points, without which the principle of liberty would be too much weakened by expansion. It is a peculiarly happy feature of the constitution of the United States, that every state has itself an independent government, and becomes thus the repository of its own liberties.

The inhabitant of Arkansas, Illinois, or Indiana, living on the confines of the state and the very skirts of civilization, would, in all probability, be less of a patriot if his attachment to the country were only to be measured by his adherence to the general government. He would be too remote from the centre of action to feel its immediate influence, and not sufficiently affected by the political proceedings of the state to consider them paramount to the local interests of his neighbourhood. Political life would grow fainter in proportion to its remoteness from the seat of legislation, and the energies of the people, instead of being roused by the necessity of action, would degenerate into a passive acknowledgment of the protection offered by the government. This is more or less the case in every country, except England and America, and perhaps the principal reason of their little progress in freedom. Hence the feverish excitement in their capitals and large towns, and the comparative inertness and palsy of the country. Every town and village in America has its peculiar republican government, based on the principle of election, and is, within its own sphere, as free and independent as a sovereign state. On this broad basis rests the whole edifice of American liberty. Freedom takes its root at home, in the native village or town of an American. The county, representing the aggregate of the towns and villages, is but an enlargement of the same principle; the state itself represents the different counties; and the Congress of the United States represents the different states.

In every place, in every walk of life, an American finds some rallying point or centre of political attachment. His sympathies are, first, enlisted by the government of his native village; then, by that of the county; then, by the state itself; and finally, by that of the Union. If he is ambitious, he is obliged to make an humble beginning at home, and figure in his native town or county; thence he is promoted to the dignity of representative or senator of his state; and it is only after he has held these preparatory stations that he can hope to enjoy the honour of representative or senator in the Congress of the nation. Thus the county is the preparatory school for the politician of the state, and the state furnishes him with a proper introduction to national politics.

The advantages of this system are manifold. It creates political action where otherwise all would be passiveness and stupor; it begets attachment to the institutions of the country by multiplying the objects of their political affection, and bringing them within the sphere of every individual; it cools the passions of political parties by offering them frequent opportunities of spending themselves on various subjects and in various directions; it establishes a stronghold of liberty in every village and town, and accustoms all classes of society to a republican government; it enforces submission to laws and institutions which are the type of those of the nation; and it furnishes numerous schools for young politicians, obliging them to remain sufficiently long in each not to enter the university of congress without age and proper experience.

This system, while it lasts—and there are no symptoms of its being speedily abolished—will prevent novices in politics from entering the Senate or House of Representatives of the United States, and reserve the dignity of president for the wisdom of sexagenarians. In France, where no similar freedom and independence exist in the provinces, where the system of centralization is constantly forcing the whole political power into the capital and a few of the large towns, leaving the country without life, motion, or means of defence, all attempts to establish a rational system of liberty were confined to its superstructure, without enlarging its foundation. The most awful lessons of history have been taught to her people in vain; and it seems as if they were the only nation who never profit by experience.

The western states of America are each a nursery of freedom; every new settlement is already a republic in embryo. They extend political life in every direction, and establish so many new fortified points, that the principle of liberty has nothing to dread from a partial invasion of its territory.

Every new state, therefore, is a fresh guarantee for the continuance of the American constitution, and directs the attention of the people to new sources of happiness and wealth. It increases the interest of all in upholding the general government, and makes individual success dependent on national prosperity. But every year which is added to its existence increases its strength and cohesion, by reducing obedience to a habit, and adding to the respect which is due to age.…

In the settlements of new districts it is seldom that Europeans are found to be actively engaged. This honour belongs almost exclusively to emigrants from New England, who may most emphatically be called the pioneers of the United States, and to whose enterprising spirit and recklessness of danger may be ascribed most of the valuable improvements of the country. They are, however, satisfied with tracing the road which the others are to follow, and occupying the most important stations: the intervals are afterwards filled up with settlers from other states and from Europe. The character of the New England emigrants has been too well described by Washington Irving for me to attempt to add to it more than is necessary to understand a certain political type, which may be observed in all states to which they have emigrated in large numbers.

The talent of a New Englander is universal. He is a good farmer, an excellent schoolmaster, a very respectable preacher, a capital lawyer, a sagacious physician, an able editor, a thriving merchant, a shrewd pedlar, and a most industrious tradesman. Being thus able to fill all the important posts of society, only a few emigrants from New England are required to imprint a lasting character on a new state, even if their number should be much inferior to that of the other settlers. The states of Ohio and Michigan, and even a large part of the state of New York, offer striking instances of this moral superiority acquired by the people of New England; but it would be wrong thence to conclude that their own habits do not undergo an important metamorphosis, or that, in their new relations in the western states, they merely act as reformers, without being, in turn, influenced by the character of their fellow settlers. The change, however, is altogether for the better. Their patriotism, instead of being confined to the narrow limits of New England,—a fault with which they have been reproached as early as the commencement of the revolutionary war,—partakes there more of a national character. The continued inter-course with strangers from all parts of the world, but more particularly from the different states of the union, serve in no small degree to eradicate from their minds certain prejudices and illiberalities with which they have but too commonly been reproached by their brethren of the south.

Tolerance, the last and most humane offspring of civilization, is, perhaps, the only virtue of which the New Englander is usually parsimonious; but even this seems to improve and to thrive in the western states; and I have no hesitation to say, that, in this respect, the inhabitants of those districts are by far more emancipated than those of the Atlantic states, whatever advantages the latter may possess with regard to refinement of manners. I know of no better specimen of human character than a New Englander transferred to the western states.

To form a correct idea of the rapid increase of cultivated territory in the western states it is only necessary to cast a glance at the unparalleled increase of population. The state of Pennsylvania, which in 1810 contained but 810,091 inhabitants, had in 1830, 1,347,672; increase, 537,581: the population of the state of New York, which in 1810 was but 413,763, had in 1830 already increased to 1,913,508; increase, 1,499,745: the population of Alabama was less than 10,000, but in 1830 already 308,997; increase 298,997, or nearly 2,990 per cent in twenty years: that of Mississippi, which in 1810 amounted to 40,352, was in 1830, 136,800; increase in twenty years 96,448, equivalent to 239 per cent: Tennessee contained in 1810 but 261,727 inhabitants, but in 1830, 684,822; increase 162 per cent nearly: in Kentucky the population increased, in the same time, from 406,511 to 688,844, or by about 70 per cent: that of Ohio advanced, in the same space of time, from 230,760 to 937,637; increase more than 300 per cent: the population of the same state was in 1790 but 3,000; increase in 40 years, 31,154 per cent: Indiana contained in 1810 but 24,520 inhabitants; but in 1830 already 341,582; increase more than 1,293 per cent: but the population of Indiana consisted in 1800 only of 5,641; consequently the total increase in 30 years, or less than a whole generation, is more than 5,955 per cent. Illinois contained in 1810 only 12,282 inhabitants, which number was in 1830 increased to 157,575; equal to about 1,183 per cent: Missouri had in the same space increased to seven times her original population; that of 1810 being 19,833, and that of 1830, 140,074. The population of the eastern and the southern states I have here omitted, because, though on the increase, they present nothing so striking as the rapid growth of the west.

SOURCE: Grund, Francis J. The Americans in Their Moral, Social, and Political Relations. Boston: Marsh, Capen and Lyon, 1837.

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Americans in Their Moral, Social and Political Relations (1837, by Francis J. Grund)

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