Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 7/Social aspect of Washington before the disunion - Part 2

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A fancy ball at Washington was right good fun. The costumes were so queer, the notions about Italian peasants, marquises, knights and crusaders, being of the most indefinite nature.

Characters in satirical novels were taken up, and well supported, especially by the women, who have in large measure the “gift of the gab.” Their repartees were somewhat Elizabethan in freedom, but they had true wit none the less.

No one had greater command of withering sarcasm, or fired off more pungent jokes, than Mrs. Jefferson Davis. Tall and handsome, her flashing black eyes seemed destined to command, and the South, once free, will feel she owes at least half her triumph to the energy and character of the wife of the President.

Jefferson Davis did not mix much in general society; his health was delicate, his mind incessantly occupied on graver matters than the idle chit-chat of society, of which, doubtless, the cream was served up to him by his clever wife.

I am surprised to see the newspapers represent the Southern President as tall; he is merely of middle height, certainly shorter than his majestic partner, very sallow and fragile-looking, with the sight of one eye gone—but spirited, daring, and nervously energetic in his appearance.

Mason, Cass, and Crittenden were notable exceptions to the generality of politicians. Political life in the States involved so much that was utterly abhorrent to the mind of a refined and well-educated man, that the arena was too much abandoned to an inferior class, whose sensibility to honour was callous, and who cared not for upholding the dignity and integrity of the nation, so long as they could, in the general scramble which occurred every four years, secure some comfortable post for a friend or relation. The politicians are, therefore, no fair sample of the American gentleman. They are of all grades of society, have generally tried their hands in every profession, and been country lawyers, schoolmasters, and backwoodsmen, turn about. They are as self-sufficient as they are ignorant; violence in their speeches and vituperation against England make up in their own eyes, and those of their colleagues, for calm reasoning and enlightened views. England was invaluable political capital to them. Did any man dread his popularity waning in his own State, straight he poured forth in the Capitol a frantic harangue against the “Britishers,” and all hearts were his again; that is to say, the hearts of the “rowdies,” his supporters. Unaccustomed to the usages of polite society, these gentlemen came to a dinner party with unwashen hands, uncombed locks, and in morning attire.

I shall never forget the entrée of two of them in a house where they were personally unknown. No. 1, marching up to the mistress of the house, said:

“Madam, let me introduce Mr. Taylor, a distinguished citizen of Alabama.”

Then No. 2 took up the flattering tale, and taking his friend by the button-hole, presented him in turn.

“Madam, let me present my friend, Mr. Brown, the most distinguished citizen of New York.”

The first attempts at conversation met with no other response than, “Yes, madam,” “No, sir, sir-ree,” until Catawba, or something more potent, unloosed their tongues. Much intellectual acquirement is rarely met with in this class, unless the representative happens to have been a schoolmaster or lawyer, when his prolixity, and slow deliberation of speech, with its odd accentuations, so strange to the British ear, try the patience almost beyond endurance.

Money-making, which is the American business of life, attracts the youth of the nation very early from the colleges, where they have been waging war with their masters, and learning more insubordination than Greek or Latin. To coining the “almighty dollar,” they devote themselves with all the restless energy of their natures, not disdaining means we should designate as dishonest; but which even sensible men laugh at there as “right smart.” For example: One merchant in New York made an immense fortune by importing lead, at a time when a heavy import duty had to be paid on it. His “dodge” was this: the lead was run into coarse moulds of figures, and imported free of duty as “Works of Art.” To commemorate his “smartness,” he built a magnificent house, and adorned the porch with two of these splendid statues.

Manly exercises and sports are altogether despised, the keen sportsman is looked on with contempt as a “low fellow,” and an American youth guesses he has “locomoted” enough for the day, by driving his spanking mare at the rate of ten miles an hour, along the fashionable promenade. There is certainly a sad degeneration in mind as well as body, since the days of General Washington. You often find in one family a grandfather courteous after the fashion of Sir Charles Grandison, while the grandson is bitter, rough, and bearish, or a servile imitator of a Parisian “fât.”

They are, however, very kind husbands, and devoted fathers, though they by no means adhere to the precepts of King Solomon. So careful are they of the liberty of the young citizen, that frequently the rite of baptism is delayed, that the infant may not have his opinions, as it were, pledged to “Hard-shells,” or “Soft-shells,” without a right of judgment. Children really tyrannise over their parents, everything is in abeyance to their wills and wishes; the result is, that the American is never anything but a spoiled child. He never learns self-denial or self-control; he beats his black nurse as a baby, fights the young “rowdies” and “plug-uglies” in the street, as a schoolboy, and, as a man, kills his dearest friend with his bowie-knife, on some trivial difference of opinion, out of which a fierce war of words has arisen. Duels are every-day occurrences, a mere refusal to “liquor up at the bar,” will give rise to one; indeed, a common formula is, “You liquor, or—I shoot.” For life they have not the least concern, they are reckless as fatalists.

Among the military, those educated at West Point are the most accomplished and well-bred, though from recent events it may be questioned how far the college has produced a sufficiency of military talent. There never was in any war greater lack of good generals. How different might the annals of the struggle have been had General Scott been a younger man. In person he is the beau ideal of a great general, his stature is that of the sons of Anak, his fine handsome face, his calm, penetrating glance, and the dignity of his manner, made him the most distinguished person wherever he went. His prophetic letter to Mr. Seward, and his constant exertions to arrest the rage of factions, prove not only the vigour of his green old age, but the folly of the nation who could prefer as Presidents a Taylor and a Pierce.

As to church architecture the Americans are sadly wanting in taste and knowledge. The churches are frightful, either in the style of the fashionable chapels of Mayfair, or else exhibiting such wild ornamentation as would have maddened the soul of Pugin. The chancel of the church of the “Holy Trinity,” the largest church at Washington, has a fresco painting on the blank wall behind the altar representing, with doubtful perspective, a long vista of Gothic arches, the building being itself Grecian if anything; while to add still more to the beauty of the edifice, the bells are suspended in a campanile, so heavy and so badly constructed that shortly after its completion it fell down with a great crash. It was a very curious sight to see the Saturday baptisms there. Saturday was reserved for adults, and generally fifteen or twenty middle-aged heathens might be seen standing round the font, the ladies having their minds evidently considerably distracted between their attention to the ceremony and their concern lest the holy water of baptism should injure their gorgeous apparel.

The Americans have wisely curtailed many of the services, especially that of marriage, which now rivals in curtness a Scotch wedding ceremony. The social customs attendant on a wedding in America have been for more than a century abandoned in England; therefore, though originally British, they have the charm of novelty to the English visitor in the States. The happy pair, on their return from church, must prepare for an influx, not only of friends and relations, but of every casual acquaintance, come by way of congratulating them, but in reality to criticise their appearance, to gossip, and to discuss cake, ice, and wine. This ordeal lasts not only the whole of the wedding-day, but generally extends over the two subsequent days, and would I think exhaust the patience of any but an American, who naturally loves excitement, being made the object of comment, and being raised, though but temporarily, to some social eminence. To the visitor, if he be a man, the process is most trying; he is begged to sit down, one lovely bridesmaid offers him cake, another wine: all of these he must accept, and in the midst of his struggles to hold them, must balance his hat on his knees and make flattering speeches to the newly-married, a large piece of wedding-cake, tied up in white paper with satin ribbon, is brought to him, and he is begged to carry it off in memory of the happy occasion. Such a trying position is more than even British courage could face more than once in a lifetime. Excitement seems to be a necessary of life in the States. Every circumstance is made conducive to it, even a death is an occasion for a display of promiscuous sympathy, as annoying to the English as soothing to the American mind. From morning till evening a succession of visitors call to console, and on the day of the funeral the house is often so crowded that the near relations are unable to enter the “salons,” but are compelled to remain up-stairs. Everyone, however slightly acquainted with the family, may enter the house, and see the locked coffin laid in state on the dining-room table, and look at the once familiar features through the oval glass put for that purpose in the lid of the coffin. Sometimes in the case of children the funeral is long delayed, and a loving mother will ask you months after her child’s death, to look at her sweet Sally? and on your look of surprise and astonishment, will add quietly: “We take in an extra dime of ice and charcoal every day, and she is quite beautiful.”

The Americans are by no means a devout nation; during church-service there is a constant going to and fro, and, coming out of church, the ladies have to run the gauntlet of the remarks of the men drawn up in double file from the church-porch to some considerable distance down the street. A confirmation is a most unseemly display of national character. It often takes place in the evening. The entrance of the church is crowded like that of a theatre; young men lounging, chewing, smoking and spitting, discuss the appearance of the candidates for the holy rite, as if they were actresses and ballet-dancers.

Of course, the next morning’s papers contain full and particular accounts of the whole proceeding, with the most personal remarks about the confirmed.

The press is truly a nuisance in the States. The vulgarity of its tone, the coarse strictures in which it indulges on the most private affairs of life, the publicity it gives to every family detail of any exalted personage, are truly revolting. It is a matter of surprise to me that the sensible citizens who lamented over the pernicious effects of such a state of things, should have been too indolent to dispossess from the editorship of newspapers, the low Irish blackguards who brought such discredit on the nation, and fomented its worst traits—love of excitement and mean curiosity as to their neighbours’ affairs.

The advertisements in the “Washington Star,” and other daily papers, are often as amusing as original. The first thing that catches the eye, are the small, dusky-figures heading so many paragraphs, which duly describe the personal appearance of run-away slaves. Then, in immense type, you read:

“Who wants 20 undeniable dollars for 10? Apply to Messrs. Bully and Bluster, 3, Franklyn Street, Brooklyn.”

Some muff sends ten dollars, and gets back twenty genuine ones. Encouraged by success he tries a larger venture, and is rewarded with a double or treble amount in false specie; being in the wrong himself he cannot hope to obtain redress from justice, so the inventor of the dodge lines his pockets comfortably, thanks to the credulity of his neighbour.

You are also informed of the momentous fact that

“Mr. Hazard Wigg declines housekeeping, and will dispose of a likely table-boy.”

“A young lady wishes a situation as cook.”

You answer the latter advertisement, having, unlike Mr. Hazard Wigg, “gone in for housekeeping,” and a rough Irish girl answers your application in person; who, having readily adapted herself to the Yankee notions of liberty and equality, plumps herself down in the most comfortable-looking easy-chair, to interrogate you as to whether you will suit her as master or “boss,” as she calls it. This word has evidently been handed down from the old Dutch settlers, who introduced many of their own customs and manners, and certainly influenced not a little the style of house-architecture. The plan of having no sunk story, but giving up the “basement” to the servants, and either passing through the offices or else ascending a steep outside flight of steps to the first flat, is the same as that still practised in Holland. The drawing-rooms are most dreary places, no books, work, or any evidences of daily occupation are to be seen,—it is a mere talking-room. Crimson silk curtains, a gaudy carpet with an immense flowery medallion in the centre, rows of chairs placed with stiff primness down either side, and a few rocking-chairs—such is the stereotyped drawing-room all over the States. live in a snuggery up-stairs, or in their bed-rooms, surrounded by their children, who are fastened into baby-jumpers, while they tread everlastingly at sewing-machines. Another reason for the dreariness of the salon is the absence of crackling logs, or blazing coals, which are superseded by the stifling but invisible heat of a calorifère.

The great heat in summer, which renders it desirable to have deep houses, is another reason for their exceeding ugliness; the rooms are always badly proportioned, long and narrow, with windows at one end, and often the plan is so defective that there is a dark room on every floor, merely lighted from the passage. Four years ago there were but few houses which had water led into them in pipes—every drop of water had to be fetched from the neighbouring pump.

In spring the houses undergo a complete transformation; cool mattings are laid down, and mirrors, picture-frames, clocks and ornaments of all kinds are swathed in pink net, to protect them from the swarms of flies, who are anathematised under the name of “bugs.” Indeed, bug is the general term for all insects, and a devoted entomologist was shocked at hearing himself described as “a great bug-hunter.” Even the beautiful fire-fly must be spoken of as a “lightning-bug;” and English readers will remember Edgar Poe’s “Gold-bug,” or gold-beetle. Spring is a most enjoyable season in Washington; in March the heat begins, and soon the peach-trees are covered with white blossoms thick as new fallen snow, the magnolias lade the air with delicious fragrance, and countless rainbow-hued blossoms adorn the stately tulip-tree, and afford shelter in their deep calices for the fragile humming-birds. The woods are then a glorious sight, banks of kalmias are one sheet of white, pink, and crimson flowers, the undergrowth of azaleas is redolent of perfume, and strange orchidaceous plants surprise and delight the eye of the botanist. The tame blue-bird, whose plumage is truly cerulean, and the gorgeous Baltimore oriole, lend life and beauty to the scene. Then is the season of pic-nics to Mount Vernon and the Falls; one of the great amusements at the last-mentioned place is catching the “shad,” an excellent fish like a white salmon, and broiling it on a plank beside a fierce wood fire. The Potomac is very picturesque, the banks, well wooded, are in some places rocky and precipitous. The Falls are thought nothing of in the land of Niagara, but at all events are a more pleasing object than the cascades in the Bois de Boulogne.

The great market at Washington is worth a visit. It is ten times the size of Covent Garden. The stir, the excitement of vendors and buyers, the quaint old “niggers” selling their poultry and vegetables, and the numerous ladies, senators’ wives included, going from stall to stall inspecting fish, flesh, and fowl, and pausing at the pyramids of vegetables to fill the immense basket with which their sable attendant is laden, render it well worth the trouble of getting up at six in the morning. It is an almost universal custom among the thrifty housewives thus to attend to their household concerns. One senator’s wife went even further, and avowed with pride that being unable to get her ball-room floor waxed to her mind, she “reckoned she just sot down on her knees and did it herself.” Good kindly souls they are, and if they do pickle hams and wash up tea-cups with their own hands, why our great-grandmothers did the same.

Congress generally prorogued alternately in March or July, and woe betide the unhappy mortals who had to wait on till the close of the session in July. The heat then became almost tropical, 92° Fahrenheit in the shade. The flies rivalled those of Egyptian fame, the stinks of the ill-drained city became pestiferous, the fierce sunlight penetrated through the very walls of the badly-built houses. Washington was unendurable, and all who could beat a speedy retreat to Nahant, Saratoga, and the Sulphur Springs.