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Salomon de Rothschild Tours America (1861)

America at the End of an Era

New York, October 17, 1859

People are rather preoccupied with the internal politics of the country. The abortive attempt of [the abolitionist John] Brown and his accomplices, and their execution, have again aroused the hatreds of the two great parties which divide America, and there are some who go so far as to fear a complete schism between the states of the South and those of the North. The prudent men of the North, in order to avoid any such extreme, declare themselves in favor of maintaining the status quo, but the population is enraged against slavery, and it is aroused in this feeling by skilful ringleaders.

At their head is [the Reverend Henry Ward] Beecher, the brother of  Mrs. [Harriet] Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom's Cabin. Every day he delivers the most fiery speeches, and since he is a clergyman, he generally chooses Sunday and the churches to give vent to his eloquence.

In Washington, the Congress is so divided that it has not as yet been able to name a president [Speaker of the House]. In Philadelphia there have been disturbances, and in South Carolina $200,000 have been put aside in case of war with the Northern states. A pathetic union! But I think that all this excitement will go up in smoke!

I am beginning to become popular in this new life; everyone is very polite to me and I have been getting invitations by the dozen. In my travels I'm frequently amused by the sight of fires. They are so frequent here that people pay no attention to them, and even the people next door are not even disturbed. Fire-fighting services are admirable organized; the fire engines are magnificent and manned by volunteers who vie with one another to arrive at the scene of the misfortune first. So it happens that if two companies of firemen arrive at the same time, the one that arrives first has the right to command the other, but they begin to battle about precedence. Anyway, the fires generally don't last long; the fire engines are well-suited to the task. Some of the engines are run by steam and they travel by themselves in the streets. But they have the disadvantage that each time they move, they crush several people and overturn carriages. Outside of that, they are very useful.

But there is an event here more serious than most important political happenings: it is the construction and the establishment of a garden or park which will be nine miles in circumference. Thus all Americans tell me we are going to have a park more beautiful than the Bois de Boulogne [in Paris]. It will cost $10,000,000. [Central Park]

New York, October 19, 1859

I must confess that New York has made upon me an altogether different impression from what I expected. In it I found the most aristocratic sentiments side by side with the most thoroughly democratic institutions. I have seen few countries where society was more exclusive, and yet this exclusiveness is founded on nothing. Wealth, political position, education are not the criteria that get you admitted. You are fashionable or you are not, and the reason is completely unknown to those who are the object of this preference and to those who bestow it. It is, in my opinion, the most peculiar and often the most unjust structure of society possible.

I found the men infinitely better informed and more worldly than I expected, and I would find them perfectly all right, if they didn't have a constant tendency to exaggerate the faults of their motherland. The financial and industrial activity has rather disappointed me, and with the exception of the unbelievable expansion of the dry goods trade (importing of manufactured goods), and the immense scale on which these houses are established, business seems to me quite limited at this time.

It is true that the difficulties arising in European politics, and the fears conceived in this country of a dissolution of the American union, were dominant in the slowdown of commerce and long-term enterprises. Now I suppose that everything will resume again here, for the Italian question has been considered entirely resolved since the Congress announcement [of Villafrance di Verona, July 1859, whereby the emperors of Austria and France settled, as they thought, the Italian Question], and the differences between France and England completely ended by the union of the forces of the two countries in the Chinese expedition [in 1859 to bring that country into the sphere of European influence]. As for the internal politics of the country, judicious people have been so frightened by the consequences of a rupture between the North and South that a strong reaction will suddenly arise from all sides. Meetings have been held in favor of the Union, at the same time as people are expecting to see the anti-slavery (Republican) candidate named president of Congress [Speaker of the House]. Nevertheless, the understanding between the North and South will be re-established, and the great problem of the slaves will be left dormant until next year.

Another thing that astonishes me very much is that, with rare exceptions, statesmen in public office or in Congress are so lightly esteemed, and people pay so little attention to them. Yet there are some that possess great eloquence, and if there are some interesting matters under discussion, I shall go to Washington next month to attend some of the debates.

New York, January 3, 1860

It is bitter cold. A snowstorm has made sledding possible, but I don't find that pleasant--you risk coming back with your nose or your ears frozen, but what is really nice is ice skating, and Central Park offers a strange spectacle with its 4,000 skaters, going to and fro, jostling one another and falling. this park will certainly be one of the most beautiful in the world, and Americans are as proud of it as of Washington.

Speaking of Washington, I think I'll go next week to see the city that bears this name, for then Congress will be organized and the assembly [the House of Representatives] will be interesting to see. right now political passions have reached their peak, and the problem of slavery will be forever buried, or there will be a rupture between the Southern and Northern states, and perhaps a civil war will follow as a result of the breach. To know what political passions are, you must see them here, and it is a strange sight for a foreigner.

After studying the problem on its own terrain, I must tell you something that will make you jump and make me fall considerable in your estimation. If I were an American and had to give my opinion, I would be as much a "staunch slavery man" as the oldest plantation owner in the South...

New York, January 12, 1860.

The negligence of the government in preventing all sorts of accidents is shameful, and I am surprised that even greater disasters don't happen. An engineer who, through his fault, negligence, and inability, caused the death of a number of people, went unpunished. But I hope that the latest frightful accident that has just occurred will bring about increased supervision.

A manufacturer had built cotton mills at Lawrence [Massachusetts]. In order to save a couple of thousand dollars, however, he did not have the buildings constructed as sturdily as they should have been. Public opinion was aroused over it, but the government claimed it had nothing to do with it as long as no misfortune occurred. The day before yesterday the building suddenly collapsed on 800 workers [mostly women and children] who were working at their looms and almost buried them under the debris. The work of salvage was immediately begun, when, on top of everything, fire broke out among the ruins and burned to death the unfortunate people who had not been crushed. More than 300 perished in this catastrophe and 150 were injured, some seriously.

It would really be a good deed for humanity if European newspapers took this unfortunate accident as an opportunity to attack the American government, which is infinitely more concerned with its political influence than with the welfare and the security of those whom it was supposed to govern paternally. The word liberty means here, as in all democracies, being able to do anything but hurt one's neighbor or to inconvenience him.