A Foreign Spectator X
August 24, 1787
In America, the sudden influx of money and foreign luxury, could not have produced the extravagance so much complained of without the aid of an overdriven principle of equality. I have often heard fellows complain, how hard it is that a poor man cannot get his belly full of rum like other people. However, this hardship is not deemed a disgrace; nor is a luxurious table as yet reckoned honorable in America. Besides the inferiority in costly fare can generally be concealed. But disadvantage in external appearance so visible to the public eye revolts against this leveling principle—as poverty, it is a serious evil where wealth is in high estimation—as want of gentility, it is peculiarly obnoxious to those that associate the ideas of wealth and refinement.
Inequality of property dictates a difference in living; if people do not comply with this from principle; pride, luxury, vanity will urge them to a thousand tricks of knavery and violence, and perhaps to mutiny and open rebellion—extreme liberty, untempered by religious and moral principles, is the source of agrarian laws, and all the foul monsters of anarchy. I despise aristocracies, and abhor the idea of making religion an engine of slavery—but I wish to make people sensible, that Almighty God has established an order in human affairs, on which political happiness absolutely depends. Great disparity of property is bad; but some must arise from the inequality of genius and industry, inheritance, and that chance, which in fact is the disposition of providence. Whatever is the quantity of national wealth, the great body of a people can never be rich; an easy, decent competency, is the utmost they can obtain, and should be the height of their wishes. The people of America cannot complain of poverty—the land is generally fertile, and amply sufficient—all useful trades are profitable—nay, every pair of industrious hands is a competent estate—the present difficulties may easily be removed by a proper federal government. America equally removed from the distress of poverty, and the danger of wealth, has obtained from all-bountiful heaven that happy lot, which Solomon in all his glory thought the most desirable[;] why then that love of money! which has been the root of so much evil, and pierced her though with so many sorrows. As to distinction; integrity, goodness, manly sense, an independent spirit, invincible fortitude, patriotic virtue, are the genuine honors of a Republic; honors open to all; honors, without which all the gems of India, and all the gold of Peru, are shining toys. The wealthy are only more respectable, if they excel in these qualities: if grateful to God and their country, they enjoy their wealth with dignity, humanity, generosity and public spirit. Whoever acts honorably in a lower station, is infinitely superior to one that disgraces the highest: There is no comparison between sound feet and a dropsical head. A labourer, who by honest industry supports his family, whose heart can feel, and hand can act for his country, is a far greater man than a volumptous, idle, selfish beau, though he was covered with rubies—the one is a rough solid stone in the ground work of the federal system; the other a rotten piece in the gilded dome. That labourer’s wife, who continually studies the comfort of her husband, who toils for her numerous children, and often gives them the bread from her own mouth, is infinitely more of a lady, than those women of quality, who carry a dress twice the value of their husband’s income; who gad about from place to place to show their finery, and prattle nonsense; who find no pleasure in the nursery; nay, ruin husband and children by a cruel dissipation.
These are the sentiments of the noblest men and women in every nation, and in every station of life; and they cannot be too much impressed on America. If wealth and show is the great object, people will all run mad after gugaws, scuffle and trample on each other, and raise a bloody fray. Neither laws nor habits can here authorise any man to say keep your distance; and your right to a more glittering bauble will be disputed by many—what then can be done, but to teach all poorer or richer, not to overvalue these trifles, and at any rate to acquire them honestly. In Europe, an established order of civil society prevents a general infection by luxury—the middle gentry does not emulate the first nobility; and is not rivaled by the yeomanry: such vanity would be ridiculous. In America the maid too often vies with her mistress, and a common laborer can with propriety dress like a governor.
The question is not, whether other countries do not surpass America in avarice, luxury, and vanity; it is a poor consolation to a sick man, that his neighbour is worse. The symptoms of corruption so feelingly described by many good and wise Americans are not trifling, and they are founded on open well-known facts. The civil war in Massachusetts, and the treason of Rhode-Island are alarming proofs. Early marriages are marks of national prosperity, and have been very general in America; they are not so now, especially in the great towns—because women not worth a groat speak with scorn of 200 a year; and because pretty beaus and smart bucks prefer English buttons and Madeira wine to the best American girl. The patriots of America will then be sensible, that a putrid fever is not to be trifled with; principiis obstam fera medicina paratur.
A regular progress of national wealth under the direction of virtue and taste, will considerably promote national happiness. The unequal civilization of America has in a great measure occasioned that false taste so well criticized by judicious writers. That dress, says one, which unites the articles of convenience, simplicity, and neatness in the greatest perfection, must be considered as the most elegant. But true taste goes farther—it has reference to age, to shape, to complexion, and to the season of the year. The same dress which adorns a miss of 15, will be frightful on a venerable lady of feventy. But the passive disposition of Americans in receiving every mode that is offered them, sometimes reduces all ages, shapes, and complexions to a level. Our distance also from our models of dress, a thin garment which will scarcely form a visible shadow, and was designed for summer dress in Europe, may just be introduced into America when frost begins. Yet the garment must be worn; for before the arrival of a proper season there will perhaps be a new fashion.—He justly commends the simplicity and neatness of the Quaker ladies, who by neglect of superfluous finery, dress with two-thirds of the common expence; and after a handsome compliment to the native charms of his country women, entreats them not to be implicitly directed by the milliners and mantoa-makers on the other side of the Atlantic. “We behold,” says Dr. Rush, “our ladies panting in the heat of ninety degrees, under a hat and cushion, which were calculated for the temperature of a British summer.—It is high time to awake from this servility—to study our own character—to examine the age of our country—In particular, we must make ornamental accomplishments yield to principles and knowledge in the education of our women.”
A good taste is not the spontaneous product of sense and delicacy; it implies an accuracy of judgment, a refinement of sentiment, a perception of order and propriety, not to be acquired without long observation on men and things. Hence the greatest genius has an imperfect taste in youth—and the taste of a young nation cannot be perfect, for want of regularity in many things. The states of Northern Europe have suffered much from an indiscreet adoption of French manners—It is no wonder that [in] America a young easy country girl should prejudice herself by an unreserved imitation of Europe, and especially of her grandam Great-Britain.