Monday, February 2, 2015

Duvergier de Hauranne: A Frenchman in Lincoln's Washington -- "The Political Milieu Will Always Be a Grab-bag of People From All Classes and Backgrounds"

What makes Duvergier de Hauranne’s travel narrative Huit Mois en Amerique a classic?   His epistles home to Paris have many qualities:  the author’s malleable prose, his sense of the historical moment, his gift for quick and true portraits of the people he meets -- from high society and low -- and his pointed descriptions of American mores and foibles.  On occasion, his observations – some one hundred and fifty years later – can even pierce the wall of time and circumstance and feel as fresh and relevant today as when they were first written. 

U.S. Capitol Under Construction, 1860
Viewed from his perch at Willards Hotel,  rubbing shoulders with senators, generals and other notables, Duvergier de Hauranne describes under the heading "The Men in Power" the distinctly American political class emerging at the end of the Civil War:

Unlike France, America will never have a true capital, a sort of sovereign queen imposing down to the smallest detail the rule of her whims on the inert body she drags behind her.  It is more appropriate to compare London with the future capital of the United States because in London there is only one society, gathered together for one purpose – politics.  Apart from this select circle, London is really nothing but a particularly large provincial city, a gigantic Manchester piled on top of a colossal Liverpool…

In England, inherited social position, the continuity of political alignments and the centuries-old institution of an aristocratic ruling class combine to give cohesion and unity to the temporary gathering that is called London Society.  In America, on the contrary, even allowing for the passage of several hundred years and even supposing that by that time customs and manners will have become uniform, I cannot imagine anything but a nomadic high society, full of shocking contrasts, with great diversity of dress and behavior, the faithful image of the democratic society in whose womb it was formed.  The political milieu will always be a grab-bag of people from all classes and backgrounds, united today only to be dispersed tomorrow, too fluid for habits to be fixed or for traditions to be passed on.  It will always be a patchwork affair, its members drawn from the four corners of the nation by the accidents of popular election.

Dividing the National Map, 1860
The differences between “Easterners” and “Westerners” in Washington’s political circles are more than evident to Duvergier de Hauranne, who is willing to see the good qualities in both camps, without turning a blind eye to the less salutary.  While we may worry today whether the American "Everyman" can truly aspire to political office in an era of fat cat contributors and K Street lobbyists, there are echoes in the Frenchman's account even now of what makes “Blue” and “Red” state politicans distinguishable from one another:

There are, moreover, two distinct types among the residents of Washington:  the Easterners who are much like us Europeans – the most distinguished among them unconsciously copy British ways – and the Westerners who, almost to a man, are six-foot giants, coarse-featured, robust in build, and have mops of hair as thick as horses’ manes…Almost all these vigorous Westerners have something very attractive and likeable about them.  You musn’t expect them to exhibit refinement of language nor politeness carried to the point of foolish exaggeration; but for frankness, openness and good fellowship mixed with shrewdness they have no equals.  

Rep. James M. Ashley (R-Ohio)

I am not talking about Mr. Chase, who is not so much typical of the West as he is of New England, where he was born.  As an excellent example of the Westerner at his best I propose a certain Mr. Ashley, of Ohio, one of the most influential members of the House, a tireless foe of slavery, a man of generous, jovial aspect who cuts a lively, even a heroic figure; he is cordial, obliging, informal without being rude, courtly in his relations with women, and pleasing in his speech.  He also shows more genuine zest for living than any man I’ve ever met.  Powerful, elemental natures such as his continually fill me with amazement and make me feel like the small, stunted fruit of a kitchen-garden civilization.  When I stand near the entrance to the Senate at the end of a session and watch all these lusty, raw-boned fellows come striding out, I feel the same twinge of awe as if a troop of Horse Guards were parading in front of me…


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