“American Notes for General Circulation” [1842] – CHAPTER VIII _ WASHINGTON. THE LEGISLATURE. AND THE PRESIDENT’S HOUSE” by Charles Dickens

Library of Congress

Library of Congress

CHAPTER VIII

WASHINGTON.  THE LEGISLATURE.  AND THE PRESIDENT’S HOUSE

 

WE left Philadelphia by steamboat, at six o’clock one very cold morning,

and turned our faces towards Washington.

 

In the course of this day’s journey, as on subsequent occasions, we

encountered some Englishmen (small farmers, perhaps, or country publicans

at home) who were settled in America, and were travelling on their own

affairs.  Of all grades and kinds of men that jostle one in the public

conveyances of the States, these are often the most intolerable and the

most insufferable companions.  United to every disagreeable

characteristic that the worst kind of American travellers possess, these

countrymen of ours display an amount of insolent conceit and cool

assumption of superiority, quite monstrous to behold.  In the coarse

familiarity of their approach, and the effrontery of their

inquisitiveness (which they are in great haste to assert, as if they

panted to revenge themselves upon the decent old restraints of home),

they surpass any native specimens that came within my range of

observation: and I often grew so patriotic when I saw and heard them,

that I would cheerfully have submitted to a reasonable fine, if I could

have given any other country in the whole world, the honour of claiming

them for its children.

 

As Washington may be called the head-quarters of tobacco-tinctured

saliva, the time is come when I must confess, without any disguise, that

the prevalence of those two odious practices of chewing and expectorating

began about this time to be anything but agreeable, and soon became most

offensive and sickening.  In all the public places of America, this

filthy custom is recognised.  In the courts of law, the judge has his

spittoon, the crier his, the witness his, and the prisoner his; while the

jurymen and spectators are provided for, as so many men who in the course

of nature must desire to spit incessantly.  In the hospitals, the

students of medicine are requested, by notices upon the wall, to eject

their tobacco juice into the boxes provided for that purpose, and not to

discolour the stairs.  In public buildings, visitors are implored,

through the same agency, to squirt the essence of their quids, or

‘plugs,’ as I have heard them called by gentlemen learned in this kind of

sweetmeat, into the national spittoons, and not about the bases of the

marble columns.  But in some parts, this custom is inseparably mixed up

with every meal and morning call, and with all the transactions of social

life.  The stranger, who follows in the track I took myself, will find it

in its full bloom and glory, luxuriant in all its alarming recklessness,

at Washington.  And let him not persuade himself (as I once did, to my

shame) that previous tourists have exaggerated its extent.  The thing

itself is an exaggeration of nastiness, which cannot be outdone.

 

On board this steamboat, there were two young gentlemen, with

shirt-collars reversed as usual, and armed with very big walking-sticks;

who planted two seats in the middle of the deck, at a distance of some

four paces apart; took out their tobacco-boxes; and sat down opposite

each other, to chew.  In less than a quarter of an hour’s time, these

hopeful youths had shed about them on the clean boards, a copious shower

of yellow rain; clearing, by that means, a kind of magic circle, within

whose limits no intruders dared to come, and which they never failed to

refresh and re-refresh before a spot was dry.  This being before

breakfast, rather disposed me, I confess, to nausea; but looking

attentively at one of the expectorators, I plainly saw that he was young

in chewing, and felt inwardly uneasy, himself.  A glow of delight came

over me at this discovery; and as I marked his face turn paler and paler,

and saw the ball of tobacco in his left cheek, quiver with his suppressed

agony, while yet he spat, and chewed, and spat again, in emulation of his

older friend, I could have fallen on his neck and implored him to go on

for hours.

 

We all sat down to a comfortable breakfast in the cabin below, where

there was no more hurry or confusion than at such a meal in England, and

where there was certainly greater politeness exhibited than at most of

our stage-coach banquets.  At about nine o’clock we arrived at the

railroad station, and went on by the cars.  At noon we turned out again,

to cross a wide river in another steamboat; landed at a continuation of

the railroad on the opposite shore; and went on by other cars; in which,

in the course of the next hour or so, we crossed by wooden bridges, each

a mile in length, two creeks, called respectively Great and Little

Gunpowder.  The water in both was blackened with flights of canvas-backed

ducks, which are most delicious eating, and abound hereabouts at that

season of the year.

 

These bridges are of wood, have no parapet, and are only just wide enough

for the passage of the trains; which, in the event of the smallest

accident, wound inevitably be plunged into the river.  They are startling

contrivances, and are most agreeable when passed.

 

We stopped to dine at Baltimore, and being now in Maryland, were waited

on, for the first time, by slaves.  The sensation of exacting any service

from human creatures who are bought and sold, and being, for the time, a

party as it were to their condition, is not an enviable one.  The

institution exists, perhaps, in its least repulsive and most mitigated

form in such a town as this; but it _is_ slavery; and though I was, with

respect to it, an innocent man, its presence filled me with a sense of

shame and self-reproach.

 

After dinner, we went down to the railroad again, and took our seats in

the cars for Washington.  Being rather early, those men and boys who

happened to have nothing particular to do, and were curious in

foreigners, came (according to custom) round the carriage in which I sat;

let down all the windows; thrust in their heads and shoulders; hooked

themselves on conveniently, by their elbows; and fell to comparing notes

on the subject of my personal appearance, with as much indifference as if

I were a stuffed figure.  I never gained so much uncompromising

information with reference to my own nose and eyes, and various

impressions wrought by my mouth and chin on different minds, and how my

head looks when it is viewed from behind, as on these occasions.  Some

gentlemen were only satisfied by exercising their sense of touch; and the

boys (who are surprisingly precocious in America) were seldom satisfied,

even by that, but would return to the charge over and over again.  Many a

budding president has walked into my room with his cap on his head and

his hands in his pockets, and stared at me for two whole hours:

occasionally refreshing himself with a tweak of his nose, or a draught

from the water-jug; or by walking to the windows and inviting other boys

in the street below, to come up and do likewise: crying, ‘Here he is!’

‘Come on!’  ‘Bring all your brothers!’ with other hospitable entreaties

of that nature.

 

We reached Washington at about half-past six that evening, and had upon

the way a beautiful view of the Capitol, which is a fine building of the

Corinthian order, placed upon a noble and commanding eminence.  Arrived

at the hotel; I saw no more of the place that night; being very tired,

and glad to get to bed.

 

Breakfast over next morning, I walk about the streets for an hour or two,

and, coming home, throw up the window in the front and back, and look

out.  Here is Washington, fresh in my mind and under my eye.

 

Take the worst parts of the City Road and Pentonville, or the straggling

outskirts of Paris, where the houses are smallest, preserving all their

oddities, but especially the small shops and dwellings, occupied in

Pentonville (but not in Washington) by furniture-brokers, keepers of poor

eating-houses, and fanciers of birds.  Burn the whole down; build it up

again in wood and plaster; widen it a little; throw in part of St. John’s

Wood; put green blinds outside all the private houses, with a red curtain

and a white one in every window; plough up all the roads; plant a great

deal of coarse turf in every place where it ought _not_ to be; erect

three handsome buildings in stone and marble, anywhere, but the more

entirely out of everybody’s way the better; call one the Post Office; one

the Patent Office, and one the Treasury; make it scorching hot in the

morning, and freezing cold in the afternoon, with an occasional tornado

of wind and dust; leave a brick-field without the bricks, in all central

places where a street may naturally be expected: and that’s Washington.

 

The hotel in which we live, is a long row of small houses fronting on the

street, and opening at the back upon a common yard, in which hangs a

great triangle.  Whenever a servant is wanted, somebody beats on this

triangle from one stroke up to seven, according to the number of the

house in which his presence is required; and as all the servants are

always being wanted, and none of them ever come, this enlivening engine

is in full performance the whole day through.  Clothes are drying in the

same yard; female slaves, with cotton handkerchiefs twisted round their

heads are running to and fro on the hotel business; black waiters cross

and recross with dishes in their hands; two great dogs are playing upon a

mound of loose bricks in the centre of the little square; a pig is

turning up his stomach to the sun, and grunting ‘that’s comfortable!’;

and neither the men, nor the women, nor the dogs, nor the pig, nor any

created creature, takes the smallest notice of the triangle, which is

tingling madly all the time.

 

I walk to the front window, and look across the road upon a long,

straggling row of houses, one story high, terminating, nearly opposite,

but a little to the left, in a melancholy piece of waste ground with

frowzy grass, which looks like a small piece of country that has taken to

drinking, and has quite lost itself.  Standing anyhow and all wrong, upon

this open space, like something meteoric that has fallen down from the

moon, is an odd, lop-sided, one-eyed kind of wooden building, that looks

like a church, with a flag-staff as long as itself sticking out of a

steeple something larger than a tea-chest.  Under the window is a small

stand of coaches, whose slave-drivers are sunning themselves on the steps

of our door, and talking idly together.  The three most obtrusive houses

near at hand are the three meanest.  On one—a shop, which never has

anything in the window, and never has the door open—is painted in large

characters, ‘THE CITY LUNCH.’  At another, which looks like a backway to

somewhere else, but is an independent building in itself, oysters are

procurable in every style.  At the third, which is a very, very little

tailor’s shop, pants are fixed to order; or in other words, pantaloons

are made to measure.  And that is our street in Washington.

 

It is sometimes called the City of Magnificent Distances, but it might

with greater propriety be termed the City of Magnificent Intentions; for

it is only on taking a bird’s-eye view of it from the top of the Capitol,

that one can at all comprehend the vast designs of its projector, an

aspiring Frenchman.  Spacious avenues, that begin in nothing, and lead

nowhere; streets, mile-long, that only want houses, roads and

inhabitants; public buildings that need but a public to be complete; and

ornaments of great thoroughfares, which only lack great thoroughfares to

ornament—are its leading features.  One might fancy the season over, and

most of the houses gone out of town for ever with their masters.  To the

admirers of cities it is a Barmecide Feast: a pleasant field for the

imagination to rove in; a monument raised to a deceased project, with not

even a legible inscription to record its departed greatness.

 

Such as it is, it is likely to remain.  It was originally chosen for the

seat of Government, as a means of averting the conflicting jealousies and

interests of the different States; and very probably, too, as being

remote from mobs: a consideration not to be slighted, even in America.

It has no trade or commerce of its own: having little or no population

beyond the President and his establishment; the members of the

legislature who reside there during the session; the Government clerks

and officers employed in the various departments; the keepers of the

hotels and boarding-houses; and the tradesmen who supply their tables.

It is very unhealthy.  Few people would live in Washington, I take it,

who were not obliged to reside there; and the tides of emigration and

speculation, those rapid and regardless currents, are little likely to

flow at any time towards such dull and sluggish water.

 

The principal features of the Capitol, are, of course, the two houses of

Assembly.  But there is, besides, in the centre of the building, a fine

rotunda, ninety-six feet in diameter, and ninety-six high, whose circular

wall is divided into compartments, ornamented by historical pictures.

Four of these have for their subjects prominent events in the

revolutionary struggle.  They were painted by Colonel Trumbull, himself a

member of Washington’s staff at the time of their occurrence; from which

circumstance they derive a peculiar interest of their own.  In this same

hall Mr. Greenough’s large statue of Washington has been lately placed.

It has great merits of course, but it struck me as being rather strained

and violent for its subject.  I could wish, however, to have seen it in a

better light than it can ever be viewed in, where it stands.

 

There is a very pleasant and commodious library in the Capitol; and from

a balcony in front, the bird’s-eye view, of which I have just spoken, may

be had, together with a beautiful prospect of the adjacent country.  In

one of the ornamented portions of the building, there is a figure of

Justice; whereunto the Guide Book says, ‘the artist at first contemplated

giving more of nudity, but he was warned that the public sentiment in

this country would not admit of it, and in his caution he has gone,

perhaps, into the opposite extreme.’  Poor Justice! she has been made to

wear much stranger garments in America than those she pines in, in the

Capitol.  Let us hope that she has changed her dress-maker since they

were fashioned, and that the public sentiment of the country did not cut

out the clothes she hides her lovely figure in, just now.

 

The House of Representatives is a beautiful and spacious hall, of

semicircular shape, supported by handsome pillars.  One part of the

gallery is appropriated to the ladies, and there they sit in front rows,

and come in, and go out, as at a play or concert.  The chair is canopied,

and raised considerably above the floor of the House; and every member

has an easy chair and a writing desk to himself: which is denounced by

some people out of doors as a most unfortunate and injudicious

arrangement, tending to long sittings and prosaic speeches.  It is an

elegant chamber to look at, but a singularly bad one for all purposes of

hearing.  The Senate, which is smaller, is free from this objection, and

is exceedingly well adapted to the uses for which it is designed.  The

sittings, I need hardly add, take place in the day; and the parliamentary

forms are modelled on those of the old country.

 

I was sometimes asked, in my progress through other places, whether I had

not been very much impressed by the _heads_ of the lawmakers at

Washington; meaning not their chiefs and leaders, but literally their

individual and personal heads, whereon their hair grew, and whereby the

phrenological character of each legislator was expressed: and I almost as

often struck my questioner dumb with indignant consternation by answering

‘No, that I didn’t remember being at all overcome.’  As I must, at

whatever hazard, repeat the avowal here, I will follow it up by relating

my impressions on this subject in as few words as possible.

 

In the first place—it may be from some imperfect development of my organ

of veneration—I do not remember having ever fainted away, or having even

been moved to tears of joyful pride, at sight of any legislative body.  I

have borne the House of Commons like a man, and have yielded to no

weakness, but slumber, in the House of Lords.  I have seen elections for

borough and county, and have never been impelled (no matter which party

won) to damage my hat by throwing it up into the air in triumph, or to

crack my voice by shouting forth any reference to our Glorious

Constitution, to the noble purity of our independent voters, or, the

unimpeachable integrity of our independent members.  Having withstood

such strong attacks upon my fortitude, it is possible that I may be of a

cold and insensible temperament, amounting to iciness, in such matters;

and therefore my impressions of the live pillars of the Capitol at

Washington must be received with such grains of allowance as this free

confession may seem to demand.

 

Did I see in this public body an assemblage of men, bound together in the

sacred names of Liberty and Freedom, and so asserting the chaste dignity

of those twin goddesses, in all their discussions, as to exalt at once

the Eternal Principles to which their names are given, and their own

character and the character of their countrymen, in the admiring eyes of

the whole world?

 

It was but a week, since an aged, grey-haired man, a lasting honour to

the land that gave him birth, who has done good service to his country,

as his forefathers did, and who will be remembered scores upon scores of

years after the worms bred in its corruption, are but so many grains of

dust—it was but a week, since this old man had stood for days upon his

trial before this very body, charged with having dared to assert the

infamy of that traffic, which has for its accursed merchandise men and

women, and their unborn children.  Yes.  And publicly exhibited in the

same city all the while; gilded, framed and glazed hung up for general

admiration; shown to strangers not with shame, but pride; its face not

turned towards the wall, itself not taken down and burned; is the

Unanimous Declaration of the Thirteen United States of America, which

solemnly declares that All Men are created Equal; and are endowed by

their Creator with the Inalienable Rights of Life, Liberty, and the

Pursuit of Happiness!

 

It was not a month, since this same body had sat calmly by, and heard a

man, one of themselves, with oaths which beggars in their drink reject,

threaten to cut another’s throat from ear to ear.  There he sat, among

them; not crushed by the general feeling of the assembly, but as good a

man as any.

 

There was but a week to come, and another of that body, for doing his

duty to those who sent him there; for claiming in a Republic the Liberty

and Freedom of expressing their sentiments, and making known their

prayer; would be tried, found guilty, and have strong censure passed upon

him by the rest.  His was a grave offence indeed; for years before, he

had risen up and said, ‘A gang of male and female slaves for sale,

warranted to breed like cattle, linked to each other by iron fetters, are

passing now along the open street beneath the windows of your Temple of

Equality!  Look!’  But there are many kinds of hunters engaged in the

Pursuit of Happiness, and they go variously armed.  It is the Inalienable

Right of some among them, to take the field after _their_ Happiness

equipped with cat and cartwhip, stocks, and iron collar, and to shout

their view halloa! (always in praise of Liberty) to the music of clanking

chains and bloody stripes.

 

Where sat the many legislators of coarse threats; of words and blows such

as coalheavers deal upon each other, when they forget their breeding?  On

every side.  Every session had its anecdotes of that kind, and the actors

were all there.

 

Did I recognise in this assembly, a body of men, who, applying themselves

in a new world to correct some of the falsehoods and vices of the old,

purified the avenues to Public Life, paved the dirty ways to Place and

Power, debated and made laws for the Common Good, and had no party but

their Country?

 

I saw in them, the wheels that move the meanest perversion of virtuous

Political Machinery that the worst tools ever wrought.  Despicable

trickery at elections; under-handed tamperings with public officers;

cowardly attacks upon opponents, with scurrilous newspapers for shields,

and hired pens for daggers; shameful trucklings to mercenary knaves,

whose claim to be considered, is, that every day and week they sow new

crops of ruin with their venal types, which are the dragon’s teeth of

yore, in everything but sharpness; aidings and abettings of every bad

inclination in the popular mind, and artful suppressions of all its good

influences: such things as these, and in a word, Dishonest Faction in its

most depraved and most unblushing form, stared out from every corner of

the crowded hall.

 

Did I see among them, the intelligence and refinement: the true, honest,

patriotic heart of America?  Here and there, were drops of its blood and

life, but they scarcely coloured the stream of desperate adventurers

which sets that way for profit and for pay.  It is the game of these men,

and of their profligate organs, to make the strife of politics so fierce

and brutal, and so destructive of all self-respect in worthy men, that

sensitive and delicate-minded persons shall be kept aloof, and they, and

such as they, be left to battle out their selfish views unchecked.  And

thus this lowest of all scrambling fights goes on, and they who in other

countries would, from their intelligence and station, most aspire to make

the laws, do here recoil the farthest from that degradation.

 

That there are, among the representatives of the people in both Houses,

and among all parties, some men of high character and great abilities, I

need not say.  The foremost among those politicians who are known in

Europe, have been already described, and I see no reason to depart from

the rule I have laid down for my guidance, of abstaining from all mention

of individuals.  It will be sufficient to add, that to the most

favourable accounts that have been written of them, I more than fully and

most heartily subscribe; and that personal intercourse and free

communication have bred within me, not the result predicted in the very

doubtful proverb, but increased admiration and respect.  They are

striking men to look at, hard to deceive, prompt to act, lions in energy,

Crichtons in varied accomplishments, Indians in fire of eye and gesture,

Americans in strong and generous impulse; and they as well represent the

honour and wisdom of their country at home, as the distinguished

gentleman who is now its Minister at the British Court sustains its

highest character abroad.

 

I visited both houses nearly every day, during my stay in Washington.  On

my initiatory visit to the House of Representatives, they divided against

a decision of the chair; but the chair won.  The second time I went, the

member who was speaking, being interrupted by a laugh, mimicked it, as

one child would in quarrelling with another, and added, ‘that he would

make honourable gentlemen opposite, sing out a little more on the other

side of their mouths presently.’  But interruptions are rare; the speaker

being usually heard in silence.  There are more quarrels than with us,

and more threatenings than gentlemen are accustomed to exchange in any

civilised society of which we have record: but farm-yard imitations have

not as yet been imported from the Parliament of the United Kingdom.  The

feature in oratory which appears to be the most practised, and most

relished, is the constant repetition of the same idea or shadow of an

idea in fresh words; and the inquiry out of doors is not, ‘What did he

say?’ but, ‘How long did he speak?’  These, however, are but enlargements

of a principle which prevails elsewhere.

 

The Senate is a dignified and decorous body, and its proceedings are

conducted with much gravity and order.  Both houses are handsomely

carpeted; but the state to which these carpets are reduced by the

universal disregard of the spittoon with which every honourable member is

accommodated, and the extraordinary improvements on the pattern which are

squirted and dabbled upon it in every direction, do not admit of being

described.  I will merely observe, that I strongly recommend all

strangers not to look at the floor; and if they happen to drop anything,

though it be their purse, not to pick it up with an ungloved hand on any

account.

 

It is somewhat remarkable too, at first, to say the least, to see so many

honourable members with swelled faces; and it is scarcely less remarkable

to discover that this appearance is caused by the quantity of tobacco

they contrive to stow within the hollow of the cheek.  It is strange

enough too, to see an honourable gentleman leaning back in his tilted

chair with his legs on the desk before him, shaping a convenient ‘plug’

with his penknife, and when it is quite ready for use, shooting the old

one from his mouth, as from a pop-gun, and clapping the new one in its

place.

 

I was surprised to observe that even steady old chewers of great

experience, are not always good marksmen, which has rather inclined me to

doubt that general proficiency with the rifle, of which we have heard so

much in England.  Several gentlemen called upon me who, in the course of

conversation, frequently missed the spittoon at five paces; and one (but

he was certainly short-sighted) mistook the closed sash for the open

window, at three.  On another occasion, when I dined out, and was sitting

with two ladies and some gentlemen round a fire before dinner, one of the

company fell short of the fireplace, six distinct times.  I am disposed

to think, however, that this was occasioned by his not aiming at that

object; as there was a white marble hearth before the fender, which was

more convenient, and may have suited his purpose better.

 

The Patent Office at Washington, furnishes an extraordinary example of

American enterprise and ingenuity; for the immense number of models it

contains are the accumulated inventions of only five years; the whole of

the previous collection having been destroyed by fire.  The elegant

structure in which they are arranged is one of design rather than

execution, for there is but one side erected out of four, though the

works are stopped.  The Post Office is a very compact and very beautiful

building.  In one of the departments, among a collection of rare and

curious articles, are deposited the presents which have been made from

time to time to the American ambassadors at foreign courts by the various

potentates to whom they were the accredited agents of the Republic; gifts

which by the law they are not permitted to retain.  I confess that I

looked upon this as a very painful exhibition, and one by no means

flattering to the national standard of honesty and honour.  That can

scarcely be a high state of moral feeling which imagines a gentleman of

repute and station, likely to be corrupted, in the discharge of his duty,

by the present of a snuff-box, or a richly-mounted sword, or an Eastern

shawl; and surely the Nation who reposes confidence in her appointed

servants, is likely to be better served, than she who makes them the

subject of such very mean and paltry suspicions.

 

At George Town, in the suburbs, there is a Jesuit College; delightfully

situated, and, so far as I had an opportunity of seeing, well managed.

Many persons who are not members of the Romish Church, avail themselves,

I believe, of these institutions, and of the advantageous opportunities

they afford for the education of their children.  The heights of this

neighbourhood, above the Potomac River, are very picturesque: and are

free, I should conceive, from some of the insalubrities of Washington.

The air, at that elevation, was quite cool and refreshing, when in the

city it was burning hot.

 

The President’s mansion is more like an English club-house, both within

and without, than any other kind of establishment with which I can

compare it.  The ornamental ground about it has been laid out in garden

walks; they are pretty, and agreeable to the eye; though they have that

uncomfortable air of having been made yesterday, which is far from

favourable to the display of such beauties.

 

My first visit to this house was on the morning after my arrival, when I

was carried thither by an official gentleman, who was so kind as to

charge himself with my presentation to the President.

 

We entered a large hall, and having twice or thrice rung a bell which

nobody answered, walked without further ceremony through the rooms on the

ground floor, as divers other gentlemen (mostly with their hats on, and

their hands in their pockets) were doing very leisurely.  Some of these

had ladies with them, to whom they were showing the premises; others were

lounging on the chairs and sofas; others, in a perfect state of

exhaustion from listlessness, were yawning drearily.  The greater portion

of this assemblage were rather asserting their supremacy than doing

anything else, as they had no particular business there, that anybody

knew of.  A few were closely eyeing the movables, as if to make quite

sure that the President (who was far from popular) had not made away with

any of the furniture, or sold the fixtures for his private benefit.

 

After glancing at these loungers; who were scattered over a pretty

drawing-room, opening upon a terrace which commanded a beautiful prospect

of the river and the adjacent country; and who were sauntering, too,

about a larger state-room called the Eastern Drawing-room; we went

up-stairs into another chamber, where were certain visitors, waiting for

audiences.  At sight of my conductor, a black in plain clothes and yellow

slippers who was gliding noiselessly about, and whispering messages in

the ears of the more impatient, made a sign of recognition, and glided

off to announce him.

 

We had previously looked into another chamber fitted all round with a

great, bare, wooden desk or counter, whereon lay files of newspapers, to

which sundry gentlemen were referring.  But there were no such means of

beguiling the time in this apartment, which was as unpromising and

tiresome as any waiting-room in one of our public establishments, or any

physician’s dining-room during his hours of consultation at home.

 

There were some fifteen or twenty persons in the room.  One, a tall,

wiry, muscular old man, from the west; sunburnt and swarthy; with a brown

white hat on his knees, and a giant umbrella resting between his legs;

who sat bolt upright in his chair, frowning steadily at the carpet, and

twitching the hard lines about his mouth, as if he had made up his mind

‘to fix’ the President on what he had to say, and wouldn’t bate him a

grain.  Another, a Kentucky farmer, six-feet-six in height, with his hat

on, and his hands under his coat-tails, who leaned against the wall and

kicked the floor with his heel, as though he had Time’s head under his

shoe, and were literally ‘killing’ him.  A third, an oval-faced,

bilious-looking man, with sleek black hair cropped close, and whiskers

and beard shaved down to blue dots, who sucked the head of a thick stick,

and from time to time took it out of his mouth, to see how it was getting

on.  A fourth did nothing but whistle.  A fifth did nothing but spit.

And indeed all these gentlemen were so very persevering and energetic in

this latter particular, and bestowed their favours so abundantly upon the

carpet, that I take it for granted the Presidential housemaids have high

wages, or, to speak more genteelly, an ample amount of ‘compensation:’

which is the American word for salary, in the case of all public

servants.

 

We had not waited in this room many minutes, before the black messenger

returned, and conducted us into another of smaller dimensions, where, at

a business-like table covered with papers, sat the President himself.  He

looked somewhat worn and anxious, and well he might; being at war with

everybody—but the expression of his face was mild and pleasant, and his

manner was remarkably unaffected, gentlemanly, and agreeable.  I thought

that in his whole carriage and demeanour, he became his station

singularly well.

 

Being advised that the sensible etiquette of the republican court

admitted of a traveller, like myself, declining, without any impropriety,

an invitation to dinner, which did not reach me until I had concluded my

arrangements for leaving Washington some days before that to which it

referred, I only returned to this house once.  It was on the occasion of

one of those general assemblies which are held on certain nights, between

the hours of nine and twelve o’clock, and are called, rather oddly,

Levees.

 

I went, with my wife, at about ten.  There was a pretty dense crowd of

carriages and people in the court-yard, and so far as I could make out,

there were no very clear regulations for the taking up or setting down of

company.  There were certainly no policemen to soothe startled horses,

either by sawing at their bridles or flourishing truncheons in their

eyes; and I am ready to make oath that no inoffensive persons were

knocked violently on the head, or poked acutely in their backs or

stomachs; or brought to a standstill by any such gentle means, and then

taken into custody for not moving on.  But there was no confusion or

disorder.  Our carriage reached the porch in its turn, without any

blustering, swearing, shouting, backing, or other disturbance: and we

dismounted with as much ease and comfort as though we had been escorted

by the whole Metropolitan Force from A to Z inclusive.

 

The suite of rooms on the ground-floor were lighted up, and a military

band was playing in the hall.  In the smaller drawing-room, the centre of

a circle of company, were the President and his daughter-in-law, who

acted as the lady of the mansion; and a very interesting, graceful, and

accomplished lady too.  One gentleman who stood among this group,

appeared to take upon himself the functions of a master of the

ceremonies.  I saw no other officers or attendants, and none were needed.

 

The great drawing-room, which I have already mentioned, and the other

chambers on the ground-floor, were crowded to excess.  The company was

not, in our sense of the term, select, for it comprehended persons of

very many grades and classes; nor was there any great display of costly

attire: indeed, some of the costumes may have been, for aught I know,

grotesque enough.  But the decorum and propriety of behaviour which

prevailed, were unbroken by any rude or disagreeable incident; and every

man, even among the miscellaneous crowd in the hall who were admitted

without any orders or tickets to look on, appeared to feel that he was a

part of the Institution, and was responsible for its preserving a

becoming character, and appearing to the best advantage.

 

That these visitors, too, whatever their station, were not without some

refinement of taste and appreciation of intellectual gifts, and gratitude

to those men who, by the peaceful exercise of great abilities, shed new

charms and associations upon the homes of their countrymen, and elevate

their character in other lands, was most earnestly testified by their

reception of Washington Irving, my dear friend, who had recently been

appointed Minister at the court of Spain, and who was among them that

night, in his new character, for the first and last time before going

abroad.  I sincerely believe that in all the madness of American

politics, few public men would have been so earnestly, devotedly, and

affectionately caressed, as this most charming writer: and I have seldom

respected a public assembly more, than I did this eager throng, when I

saw them turning with one mind from noisy orators and officers of state,

and flocking with a generous and honest impulse round the man of quiet

pursuits: proud in his promotion as reflecting back upon their country:

and grateful to him with their whole hearts for the store of graceful

fancies he had poured out among them.  Long may he dispense such

treasures with unsparing hand; and long may they remember him as

worthily!

 

* * * * *

 

The term we had assigned for the duration of our stay in Washington was

now at an end, and we were to begin to travel; for the railroad distances

we had traversed yet, in journeying among these older towns, are on that

great continent looked upon as nothing.

 

I had at first intended going South—to Charleston.  But when I came to

consider the length of time which this journey would occupy, and the

premature heat of the season, which even at Washington had been often

very trying; and weighed moreover, in my own mind, the pain of living in

the constant contemplation of slavery, against the more than doubtful

chances of my ever seeing it, in the time I had to spare, stripped of the

disguises in which it would certainly be dressed, and so adding any item

to the host of facts already heaped together on the subject; I began to

listen to old whisperings which had often been present to me at home in

England, when I little thought of ever being here; and to dream again of

cities growing up, like palaces in fairy tales, among the wilds and

forests of the west.

 

The advice I received in most quarters when I began to yield to my desire

of travelling towards that point of the compass was, according to custom,

sufficiently cheerless: my companion being threatened with more perils,

dangers, and discomforts, than I can remember or would catalogue if I

could; but of which it will be sufficient to remark that blowings-up in

steamboats and breakings-down in coaches were among the least.  But,

having a western route sketched out for me by the best and kindest

authority to which I could have resorted, and putting no great faith in

these discouragements, I soon determined on my plan of action.

 

This was to travel south, only to Richmond in Virginia; and then to turn,

and shape our course for the Far West; whither I beseech the reader’s

company, in a new chapter.

 

 

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