Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919). New York. 1906.XIII
The Growth of the Commercial and Democratic City. 18211860
Under the constitution of 1822 the mayor of New York was chosen by the municipal council; after 1834 he was elected by the citizens. The constitution of 1846, the high-water mark of democracy, which made some very good and a few very bad changes in the State government, affected the municipal system comparatively little, with the important exception that it provided for the election not only of local but of judicial officers. The election of judges by universal suffrage in this great city, even though it has worked much better than was expected, has nevertheless now and then worked badly. Still the long terms and high salaries, and above all the general popular appreciation of the high honor and dignity conferred by the office, have hitherto given us on the whole a very good bench.
The distinguishing features of the life of the city between 1820 and 1860 were its steady and rapid growth in population, the introduction of an absolutely democratic system of government, the immense immigration from abroad, completely changing the ethnic character of the population, the wonderful growth of the Roman Catholic Church and the great material prosperity, together with the vast fortunes made by many of the business men, usually of obscure and humble ancestry.
The opening of the Erie Canal gave an extraordinary impetus to the development of the city. The canal had been planned, and reports concerning it drawn up, at different times by various New York citizens, notably by Gouverneur Morris; but the work was actually done, in spite of violent opposition, by De Witt Clinton. Clinton was, more than any other man, responsible for the introduction of the degrading system of spoils politics into the State; most of his political work was mere faction fighting for his own advancement; and he was too jealous of all competitors, and at the same time not a great enough man, ever to become an important figure in the national arena. But he was sincerely proud of his city and State, and very much interested in all philanthropic, scientific, and industrial movements to promote their honor and material welfare. He foresaw the immense benefits that would be brought about by the canal, and the practicability of constructing it; and by indomitable resolution and effort he at last committed the State to the policy he wished. In 1817 the work was started, and in 1825 it was completed, and the canal opened.
During the same period regular lines of steamboats were established on both the Hudson and the Sound; and the steamboat service soon became of great commercial importance. It was a couple of decades later before the railroads became factors in the city’s development, but they soon completely distanced the steamboats, and finally even the canal itself; and as line after line multiplied, they became the great inland feeders of New York’s commerce. The electric telegraph likewise was introduced before the middle of the century; and, as with the steamboat, its father, the man who first put it into practical operation, was a New Yorker, Samuel Morse,—though there were scores of men who had perceived its possibilities, and vainly striven to translate them into actual usefulness. Steam transportation and electricity have been the two prime factors in the great commercial and industrial revolutions of this century; and New York has produced the two men who deserve the most credit for their introduction. Fulton and Morse stand as typical of the inventive, mechanical, and commercial genius of the city at the mouth of the Hudson.
Few commercial capitals have ever grown with more marvelous rapidity than New York. The great merchants and men of affairs who have built up her material prosperity, have not merely enriched themselves and their city; they have also played no inconsiderable part in that rapid opening up of the American continent during the present century, which has been rendered possible by the eagerness and far-reaching business ambition of commercial adventurers, wielding the wonderful tools forged by the science of our day. The merchant, the “railroad king,” the capitalist who works or gambles for colossal stakes, bending to his purpose an intellect in its way as shrewd and virile as that of any statesman or warrior,—all these, and their compeers, are and have been among the most striking and important, although far from the noblest, figures of nineteenth-century America.
Two New Yorkers of great note in this way may be instanced as representatives of their class,—John Jacob Astor and Cornelius Vanderbilt. Astor was originally a German pedler, who came to the city immediately after the close of the Revolution. He went into the retail fur-trade, and by energy, thrift, and far-sightedness, soon pushed his way up so as to be able to command a large amount of capital; and he forthwith embarked on ventures more extensive in scale. The fur-trade was then in the North almost what the trade in gold and silver had been in the South. Vast fortunes were made in it, and the career of the furtrader was checkered by romantic successes and hazardous vicissitudes. Astor made money with great rapidity, and entered on a course of rivalry with the huge fur companies of Canada. Finally, in 1809, he organized the American Fur Company, under the auspices of the State of New York, with no less a purpose than the establishment of a settlement of trappers and fur-traders at the mouth of the Columbia. He sent his parties out both by sea and overland, established his posts, and drove a thriving trade; and doubtless he would have anticipated by a generation the permanent settlement of Oregon, if the war had not broken out, and his colony been destroyed by the British. The most substantial portion of his fortune was made out of successful ventures in New York City real estate; and at his death he was one of the five richest men in the world. His greatest service to the city was founding the Astor Library.
Vanderbilt was a Staten Island boy, whose parents were very poor, and who therefore had to work for his living at an early age. Before the War of 1812, when a lad in his teens, he had been himself sailing a sloop as a ferry-boat, between Staten Island and New York, and soon had saved enough money to start a small line of them. After the war he saw the possibilities of the steamboat, and began to run one as captain, owning a share in it as well. He shortly saved enough to become his own capitalist, and removed to New York in 1829. He organized steam lines on the Hudson and Sound, making money hand over hand; and in 1849—the period of the California gold fever—he turned his attention to ocean steamships, and for several years carried on a famous contest with the Pacific Mail Steamship Company, for the traffic across the Isthmus to California. He was drawn into antagonism with the filibuster Walker, because of his connection with the Central American States, and became one of the forces which compassed that gray-eyed adventurer’s downfall. Then he took to building and managing railways, and speculating in them, and by the end of his days had amassed a colossal fortune. The history of the Wall Street speculations in which he took part, forms much the least attractive portion of the record of his life.
Astor and Vanderbilt were foremost and typical representatives of the commercial New York of their day, exactly as Hamilton and Jay were of the Revolutionary and post-Revolutionary city. Neither was of English blood; Astor was a German, and Vanderbilt a descendant of the old Dutch settlers. Both were of obscure parentage, and both hewed their way up from the ranks by sheer force of intellect and will-power. Of course neither deserves for a moment to be classed on the city’s roll of honor with men like Hamilton and Jay, or like Cooper and Irving.
Before the days of steamship, railroad, and telegraph, were the days of the fast “clippers,” whose white wings sped over the ocean up to the time of the Civil War. The New York clippers, like those of Baltimore, were famous for their speed, size, and beauty. Their builders exhausted every expedient to bring them to perfection; and for many years after steamers were built they maintained a nearly equal fight against these formidable rivals. Crack vessels among them repeatedly made the voyage to England in a fortnight. It is a curious fact that the United States, which only rose to power at the very end of the period of sailing-vessels, and which has not been able to hold her own among those nations whose sons go down to the sea in ships, should nevertheless, during the first half of the present century, have brought the art of building, handling—and when necessary, fighting—these same old-time sailing-ships, in all their varieties of man-of-war, privateer, merchantman, and whaler, to the highest point ever attained. The frigates and privateers were perfected during the War of 1812; the merchant clippers were immensely improved after that date. The older vessels were slow, tubby craft; and they were speedily superseded by the lines of swift packet-ships,—such as the Blackball, Red Star and Swallow Tail—established one after the other by enterprising and venturesome New York merchants. The packet-ships sailed for European ports. Before the middle of the century, lines of clippers were established to trade, and also to carry passengers to California and the China seas. In size they sometimes went up to two thousand tons; and compared to European merchant vessels, their speed and safety were such that they commanded from shippers half as much again in payment for the freightage on cargoes of teas and other Eastern goods.
The large importers, and their captains as well, made money rapidly by these ships; yet now, from divers causes, the carrying-trade has slipped through their fingers. But the city’s growth has not been checked by this loss. The commerce-bringing fleets of other nations throng its harbor, while its merchants retain their former energy, and command their former success in other lines; and the steady and rapid growth of factories of many kinds has changed the city into a great manufacturing center. There is no danger of any loss of commercial prosperity, nor of any falling off in the amount of wealth as a whole, nor of any diminution in the ranks of the men who range from well-to-do to very rich. The danger arises from the increase of grinding poverty among vast masses of the population in certain quarters, and from the real or seeming increase in the inequality of conditions between the very rich and the very poor; in other words, as colossal fortunes grow up on the one hand, there grows up on the other a large tenement-house population, partly composed of wage-earners who never save anything, and partly of those who never earn quite enough to give their families even the necessaries of life.
This ominous increase in the numbers of the class of the hopelessly poor is one among the injuries which have to a greater or less degree offset the benefits accruing to the country during the present century, because of the unrestricted European immigration. There was considerable immigration from abroad even before the War of 1812; but it did not become of great moment until after the close of the contest. The volume then swelled very rapidly. In 1818 and 1819 over twenty thousand immigrants arrived in New York, and were reported at the mayor’s office. Most of them were very poor and ignorant, and at first ill able to cope with their new surroundings. They housed in sheds, cellars, and rookeries of all kinds, and in winter time were reduced to desperate straits for food, thousands being supported for short periods by the charity of private citizens and of organized relief associations. They did not go out to the frontier, and like most of the immigrants of the present century preferred to huddle in the large cities rather than to go into the country. Year by year the mass of immigration increased, though with occasional and purely temporary fluctuations. By 1830 it had already become so great as to dwarf all movements of the kind which the world had hitherto seen; and after the potato famine in Ireland and the revolutions of 1848 in continental Europe, fugitives from hunger or political oppression came over by hundreds of thousands. A greater proportion of these immigrants, relatively to the population, made their homes in New York than in any other part of the country. The large majority of them were of course from the lower or lower-middle classes.
The immigration worked a complete ethnic overturn in the character of the population,—an overturn of which there had been several similar instances already in the city’s history. The immigrants and their children soon grew to outnumber the descendants of the old pre-Revolutionary inhabitants, and the process was hastened by the fact that very many of the latter, probably far more than half, themselves drifted westward, with the restless love of change so characteristic of their nation. There were many English, Scotch, and Welsh, and a few Scandinavians among the immigrants, and these speedily amalgamated with, and became indistinguishable from, the natives. But by far the largest number—probably more than five-sixths of those settled in New York City during the half-century before the close of the Civil War—were Irish and Germans, the former being at this time much in the lead.
The Germans had formed an important element of the city’s population ever since the days of Leisler, who was himself a German, and, with the exception of Stuyvesant, the most important figure in the history of the colonial town. They were probably, in point of numbers and importance, at no time lower than the fourth in rank among the nationalities which were being fused together to make New York citizens. By the beginning of the present century the descendants of the old German immigrants had become completely Americanized. The new swarms of Germans who came hither, revived the use of the German tongue; and as they settled in large bodies,—often forming the entire population of certain districts,—they clung pertinaciously to their own customs, kept to their own churches, and published their own newspapers. Nevertheless, the public-school system and the all-pervading energy of American life proved too severe solvents to be resisted even by the German tenacity. Some remained un-Americanized in a sodden, useless lump; but after a generation or two this ceased to be the case with the majority. The children of the first generation were half, and the grandchildren in most cases wholly, Americanized,—to their own inestimable advantage. As long as they remained mere foreigners, speaking an alien tongue, they of course occupied a lower grade in the body politic and social than that to which their good qualities entitled them. As they became Americanized in speech and customs, they moved up to the same level with the native born. Perhaps two-thirds were nominally Protestants, and these had no religious prejudices to overcome or be hampered by. They were thrifty, hardworking, and on the whole law-abiding, and they not only rose rapidly in the social scale, but as soon as they learned to speak our language by preference, as their native tongue, they became indistinguishable from the other Americans with whom they mixed. They furnished leading men to all trades and professions, and many founded families of high social and political distinction. They rendered great service to the city by their efforts to cultivate a popular taste for music and for harmless public pleasures. Only the fact that the Lutheran clergy clung to the German language, prevented their church from becoming the most important of the Protestant churches. The Catholic or Celtic Irish formed, in point of numbers, the most important class among the new immigrants. Those of their race who had come here in colonial days were for the most part only imported bond-servants and criminals. Unlike the Germans, they had never formed an element of appreciable weight in the community until after the Revolution. Soon after the opening of the present century they became the most numerous of the immigrants and began to form a class of New Yorkers whose importance steadily increased. They displayed little of the German frugality and aptitude for business, and hence remained to a far larger extent mere laborers,—comparatively few rising, at least for the first generation or two, to non-political positions of importance; and they furnished much more than their share to the city’s turbulent and lawless elements, for in their new surroundings they were easily misled by both native and foreign-born demagogues and agitators. On the other hand, they have invariably proved admirable soldiers when the city has sent out her quota of troops in time of war; they have taken little part in anarchical and socialistic movements, and—though this is a quality of a more doubtful kind—they have mastered the intricacies of local politics with astonishing ease. The improvement in their material condition became very marked after three or four decades. Moreover, their less fortunate qualities were such as inevitably attended the peculiar conditions of their life in the old country; and these gradually tended to disappear as the successive generations grew up on American soil. The fact that they already spoke English gave them an immense advantage, compared to the Germans, in that they were able from the outset to mingle freely in American life; but the difference of religion tended to keep at least the first two generations apart from the citizens of old American stock. The Irish, like the Germans, came over in such numbers that they were able to introduce their own separate social life; but in both cases the ambitious and energetic among the descendants of the immigrants soon grew to realize that they must become thorough-going Americans in order to win the great prizes of American life, while every family that acquired wealth and culture desired nothing so much as to get a foothold in the upper circles of the American portion of the community.
By the outbreak of the Civil War the flood of immigration had swamped the older “native American” stock, as far as numbers went. The mixed blood of New York had been mixed still further. It is curious to trace the successive additions of race elements to the population of the city. At its founding the Dutch were dominant, but with a considerable Walloon element, which was soon absorbed by the Hollanders, while there was a larger element of French Huguenots, who kept coming in, and were absorbed more slowly. There were also many English, and a few Germans. After the final English conquest there was a fair amount of immigration from England and Scotland; the Huguenots also continued to come in for a little while, and there was a large German and a considerable Scotch-Irish immigration. At the end of the Revolution all of these peoples had grown to use the English tongue, and were fast being welded together; but the great majority of the citizens were non-English by blood. There then began a great inrush of New Englanders; and for the first time the citizens of English blood grew to outnumber those of any other strain,—all however being soon fused together, and becoming purely American. The immense immigration between 1820 and 1860 changed this. By the latter date the men of Irish birth and blood had become more numerous than any others; the Germans, at some distance off, next; while the native Americans, who still led and controlled the others, were a close third. Of course, however, the older races of the city made the mold into which the newer were poured. The task is sometimes slow and difficult, but in the end the German or Irishman is always Americanized; and his influence upon the country of his adoption, although considerable, is as nothing compared to the influence of the country upon him.
The wonderful growth of the Catholic Church was of course due to the immigration, especially of the Irish. In colonial times Roman Catholicism had not been tolerated. When complete religious freedom was established, with the organization of the new government, the Catholics began to come in, and soon after the Revolution they built a church; but its congregation led a fitful life for the first thirty years. There were years of prosperity, when a convent, a school, etc., were established; and years of adversity, when they were abandoned. The congregation was, of course, composed mainly of immigrants, chiefly Irish, even thus early; but there were enough Germans and French to make it necessary to hold services also in those languages. But on the whole the Church at this time languished, and religious instruction and supervision were provided for but a small portion of the Catholic immigrants. Accordingly, they and their children became to a very large extent Protestant. After the close of the War of 1812, matters were radically changed. New York became the permanent seat of a bishopric, a multitude of priests came in, churches were built, and the whole organization sprang into vigorous life. The immense Irish immigration gave the Church the stamp it yet retains, and settled that its language should be English, thus turning it into a potent force for Americanizing the Catholic immigrants from continental Europe. As early as 1826 the New York Catholics murmured against having a French bishop put over them; though by that time it had been found necessary to establish separate German churches, as the German immigration had also begun. So enormous had been the inrush during the preceding dozen years, that at this date the Catholics already formed in the neighborhood of a fifth of the city’s population. The Protestant sects became seriously alarmed at this portentous growth of the Church of Rome, and for the thirty years preceding the Civil War there was fierce religious and political agitation against it, the feeling growing so bitter that there were furious riots, accompanied with much bloodshed, between Catholic and Protestant mobs in the great cities, including New York. Nevertheless, the Church went on steadily growing; and much, though by no means all, of the bitterness gradually wore away. Catholicism gained in numbers by converts from among the native Americans, often of high social standing; though this gain was probably much more than offset by the loss of Catholic immigrants who drifted into Protestantism. The Irish have formed the mainstay of the Church in America; and this, and the readiness with which on the whole it has adapted itself to American conditions, has determined its development. The Catholic Church in Ireland, unlike the Catholic Church in most portions of continental Europe, has been the Church of popular feeling; and American Catholicism also gradually grew to identify itself with all movements in the interests of the masses of the people, while it was likewise affected by the American theories of complete religious toleration, and separation of Church from State. In other words, it tended to become Americanized. It was at first, outside of Baltimore, and the French, Spanish, and Indian missions, a church of poor immigrants, chiefly laborers. Many of the descendants of these immigrants acquired wealth, or rose to distinction in the community, and the different nationalities began to fuse together, and to assimilate themselves in speech and customs to the old American stock. In consequence, the Church gradually tended to grow into one of the regular American churches, even though still all-powerful among the immigrants; and it began to possess its proper share of men of high social and intellectual position.
When, in the twenties, the immigration began to attain formidable dimensions, it excited much uneasiness in the minds of many of the native citizens, who disliked and looked down on the foreigners. Much of this feeling was wholly unjustifiable, while much of it was warranted by the fact that the new-comers contributed far more than their share to the vice, crime, misery, and pauperism of the community. They were popularly held responsible for various epidemics of disease,—notably a terrible visitation of cholera in 1832.
New York having been peopled by relays of immigrants of different nationality, each relay in turn, as it became Americanized, looked down upon the next, as has already been said. So it is at the present day. The grandchildren of the Germans and Irish, to whom such strenuous objection was made sixty years ago, now in turn protest against the shoals of latter-day Sclavonic and Italian incomers. Race and religious antipathy have caused not a few riots during the present century, in New York; and this was especially the case during the period covered by the forty years preceding the Civil War.
However, riots of various kinds were common all through this period; for the city mob was far more disorderly and less under control than at present. Nor were the foreigners by any means the only ones to be found in its ranks, for it contained a large and very dangerous element of native American roughs. One specially frequent form of riot was connected with the theaters. The mob was very patriotic and boisterously anti-British; and on the other hand many English actors who came to America to make money were unwise enough to openly express their contempt for the people from whom they were to make it. Rival theatrical managers would carefully circulate any such remarks, and the mob would then swarm down to the theater, fill it in a dense mass, and pelt the unfortunate offender off the boards as soon as he appeared. The misused actor was not always a foreigner; for a like treatment was occasionally awarded to any American against whom the populace bore a grudge. Certain of the newspapers—not a few of which were edited by genuine Jefferson Bricks—were always ready to take a hand in hounding down any actor whom they had cause to dislike. Some of these outbreaks were very serious; and they culminated in 1849 in the “Astor Place,” or “Opera-house” riot. On this occasion the mob tried to gut the theater where an obnoxious English actor was playing, but were held in check by the police. They then gathered by thousands in the streets, and were finally fired into by the troops, and dispersed with a loss of twenty killed,—a most salutary and excellent lesson.
Other riots were due to more tangible troubles. The enormous immigration had created a huge class of unfortunates who could with difficulty earn their daily bread, and any period of sudden and severe distress threw them into a starving condition. There were one or two great fires which were really appalling calamities to the city; and the terrible panic of 1836—37 produced the most widespread want and suffering. Flour went up to fifteen dollars a barrel. The poor were cast into abject misery, and were inflamed by demagogues, who raised the cry of “the poor against the rich,” and denounced in especial the flour and grain dealers. The “Bread Riots” of January, 1837, were the result. A large mob assembled in response to placards headed “Bread! Meat! Rent! Fuel! their prices must come down!” and assailed and sacked some of the stores and warehouses, strewing the streets with flour and wheat. It was toward nightfall before the police could restore order. There were also savage labor riots, generally caused when the trades-unions ordered a strike, and strove to prevent other workmen from taking the places of the strikers. In all of these cases the masses of the rioters were foreign born.
They were also riots against the Abolitionists; their meetings were broken up and their leaders sometimes maltreated. Moreover there were bloody encounters between native American and foreign—usually Irish—mobs. Finally there were frequent riots about election time, at the great open-air meetings and processions, between the adherents of the rival parties.
Politically, the steady movement toward making the government absolutely democratic was checked by curious side-fights. The Whig party was the regular, and at times the successful, opponent of the Democracy throughout the middle part of this period. The Democratic party contained, as always, the bulk of the foreign and Catholic voters; its strength lay in the poor wards. Hence it was always in danger when any new popular faction arose. In 1830 a short-lived labor party was started, but this came to nothing. In 1834 the first elective mayor was chosen by universal suffrage. The contest was very close; and the Democrat, Lawrence, was chosen over the Whig, Verplanck, by only a couple of hundred votes, out of thirty-five thousand. Among the heads of the Democratic party were still to be found some influential merchants and the like; as yet the mere demagogue politicians did not dare to make themselves the titular leaders. Lawrence was a wealthy gentleman. On New Year’s day he threw open his doors to all callers, as was then the general custom. But the mass of ward-leaders and political “heelers” of every kind who thronged his house, turned it into a bear garden, destroying everything until he had to summon the police to rid him of his guests. The Democracy was not yet quite used to power, and did not know how to behave.
A year or two later one of the labor parties led a brief career in the city, arising—as has usually been the case—from a split in the Democratic party. Its adherents styled themselves “equal-rights men” or “anti-monopolists.” By outsiders they were usually dubbed “Loco-focos,” because at the outset of their career, in the course of a stormy meeting of the city Democracy in a hall, their opponents put out the gas; whereupon they, having thoughtfully provided themselves with loco-foco matches, relit the gas, and brought the meeting to a triumphant close. The chief points in their political creed were hostility to banks and corporations generally, and a desire to have all judges elected for short terms, so as to have them amenable to the people,—that is, to have them administer the law, not in accordance with the principles of justice, but in accordance with the popular whim of the moment. They split up the Democratic party, and thus were of service to the Whigs during the two or three years of their existence.
The Native American party began to make a stir about the time the Loco-focos came to an end. The Native Americans represented simply hostility to foreigners in general, and Catholic foreigners in particular. They therefore had no permanent root, as they merely represented a prejudice,—for depriving foreigners already here of political rights is a piece of iniquitous folly, having no connection with the undoubted and evident wisdom of limiting immigration to our shores, and exercising a rigid supervision thereover. The Native Americans led an intermittent party life for a score of years, ending as the Know-nothings, who were swept out of sight by the rise of the Republican party. In 1841 the Catholics very foolishly and wrongfully tried to form a separate party of their own, on account of irritation over the disposal of the public-school fund. They insisted that a portion of it should be given to them for their sectarian schools, and organized a party to support only such candidates as would back their demands. But by this time the people had become wedded to the public-school system, and the effort proved wholly fruitless. The only result was to give a great start to the Native American party, which as a consequence, in 1844, actually carried the mayoralty election.
In spite of occasional interludes of this kind, however, the Democratic party, under the leadership of Tammany Hall, in the long run always recovered their hold on the reins. As the years went by, the party escaped more and more from the control of the well-to-do merchants and business men, and fell into the hands of professional politicians of unsavory character. The judiciary was made elective in 1846; and most local officers were thenceforth chosen in this manner. The mass of poor and ignorant voters, mainly foreign born, but drilled and led by unscrupulous Americans, held the command, and contemptuously disregarded their former leaders. Business men shrank from going into politics. There was not much buying of voters, but election frauds, and acts of brutal intimidation and violence at the polls, became more and more common. The Federal, State, and local offices were used with absolute shamelessness to reward active political work. By the fifties, politics had sunk as low as they well could sink. Fernando Wood, an unscrupulous and cunning demagogue, whose financial honesty was more than doubtful, skilled in manipulating the baser sort of ward politicians, became the “boss” of the city, and was finally elected mayor. His lieutenants were brutal rowdies of the type of Isaiah Rynders, his right hand man; they ruled by force and fraud, and were hand in glove with the disorderly and semi-criminal classes. Both Wood and Rynders were native Americans, the former of English, the latter of Dutch ancestry. It would be difficult to pick out any two foreign-born men of similar stamp who were as mischievous. In 1850 street railways were started, and the franchises for them were in many cases procured by the bribery of the Common Council. This proved the final touch; and it is from this year that the hopeless corruption of the local municipal legislature dates. In 1857 the State Legislature at Albany began a long and active course of dabbling in our municipal matters—sometimes wisely and sometimes foolishly—by passing a charter which divided responsibility and power among the different local officers, and needlessly multiplied the latter by keeping up the fiction of separate governments for the county and city, which had really become identical. They also created local boards and commissions which were appointed by the State, not the city, authorities. This last act aroused intense hostility among the city politicians; especially was this the case in regard to the new Police Board. The city authorities wished at all costs to retain the power of appointing and ruling the police in their own hands; and they resisted by force of arms the introduction of the new system. Fernando Wood’s old “municipal” police and the new State, or so-called “metropolitan” police fought for a couple of days in the streets, with considerable bloodshed. But the courts declared in favor of the constitutionality of the acts of the legislature, and the municipal authorities were forced to abandon their opposition.
Throughout this period New York’s public and private buildings were increasing in size and costliness as rapidly as in numbers. It is difficult to say as much for their beauty, as a whole. Nevertheless, some of them are decidedly handsome,—notably some of the churches, such as Trinity, and above all St. Patrick’s, the cornerstone of which was laid in 1858. A really great piece of architectural engineering was the Croton aqueduct which was opened for use in 1842.
The city had also done something for that higher national development, the lack of which makes material prosperity simply a source of national vulgarization. She did her share in helping forward the struggling schools of American painters and sculptors; and she did more than her share in founding American literature. Sydney Smith’s famous query, propounded in 1820, was quite justified by the facts. Nobody of the present day does read any American book which was then written, with two exceptions; and the witty Dean could scarcely be expected to have any knowledge of Irving’s first purely local work, while probably hardly a soul in England had so much as heard of that really wonderful volume, “The Federalist.” Both of these were New York books; and New York may fairly claim to have been the birthplace of American literature. Immediately after 1820 Washington Irving and Fenimore Cooper won world-wide fame; while Bryant was chief of a group of poets which included men like Rodman Drake. For the first time we had a literature worthy of being so called, which was not saturated with the spirit of servile colonialism, the spirit of humble imitation of things European. Our political life became full and healthy only after we had achieved political independence; and it is quite as true that we never have done, and never shall do, anything really worth doing, whether in literature or art, except when working distinctively as Americans.
We are not yet free from the spirit of colonialism in art and letters; but the case was, and is, much worse with our purely social life,—or at least with that portion of it which ought to be, and asserts itself to be, but emphatically is not, our best social life. In the “Potiphar Papers,” Mr. Curtis, a New Yorker of whom all New Yorkers can be proud, has left a description which can hardly be called a caricature of fashionable New York society as it was in the decade before the war. It is not an attractive picture. The city then contained nearly three-quarters of a million inhabitants, and the conditions of life were much as they are to-day. The era of railroads and steamships was well under way; all the political and social problems and evils which now exist, existed then, often in aggravated form. The mere commercial classes were absorbed in making money,—a pursuit which of course becomes essentially ignoble when followed as an end and not as a means. It had become very easy to travel in Europe, and immense shoals of American tourists went thither every season, deriving but doubtful benefit from their tour. New York possessed a large wealthy class which did not quite know how to get most pleasure from its money, and which had not been trained, as all good citizens of the republic should be trained, to realize that in America every man of means and leisure must do some kind of work, whether in politics, in literature, in science, or in what, for lack of a better word, may be called philanthropy, if he wishes really to enjoy life, and to avoid being despised as a drone in the community. Moreover, they failed to grasp the infinite possibilities of enjoyment, of interest, and of usefulness, which American life offers to every man, rich or poor, if he have only heart and head. With singular poverty of imagination they proceeded on the assumption that to enjoy their wealth they must slavishly imitate the superficial features, and the defects rather than the merits, of the life of the wealthy classes of Europe, instead of borrowing only its best traits, and adapting even these to their own surroundings. They put wealth above everything else, and therefore hopelessly vulgarized their lives. The shoddy splendors of the second French Empire naturally appealed to them, and so far as might be they imitated its ways. Dress, manners, amusements,—all were copied from Paris; and when they went to Europe, it was in Paris that they spent most of their time. To persons of intelligence and force their lives seemed equally dull at home and abroad. They took little interest in literature or politics; they did not care to explore and hunt and travel in their own country; they did not have the taste for athletic sport which is so often the one redeeming feature of the gilded youth of to-day, and which, if not very much when taken purely by itself, is at least something. Fashionable society was composed of two classes. There were, first, the people of good family,—those whose forefathers at some time had played their parts manfully in the world, and who claimed some shadowy superiority on the strength of this memory of the past, unbacked by any proof of merit in the present. Secondly, there were those who had just made money,—the father having usually merely the money-getting faculty, the presence of which does not necessarily imply the existence of any other worthy quality whatever, the rest of the family possessing only the absorbing desire to spend what the father had earned. In the summer they all went to Saratoga or to Europe; in winter they came back to New York. Fifth Avenue was becoming the fashionable street, and on it they built their brownstone-front houses, all alike outside, and all furnished in the same style within,—heavy furniture, gilding, mirrors, glittering chandeliers. If a man was very rich he had a few feet more frontage, and more gilding, more mirrors, and more chandeliers. There was one incessant round of gaiety, but it possessed no variety whatever, and little interest.
Of course there were plenty of exceptions to all these rules. There were many charming houses, there was much pleasant social life, just as there were plenty of honest politicians; and there were multitudes of men and women well fitted to perform the grave duties and enjoy the great rewards of American life. But taken as a whole, the fashionable and political life of New York in the decade before the Civil War offers an instructive rather than an attractive spectacle.