Page images

exile and the disappointments of a baffled patriot, as on account of his inquiring turn of mind. He occupied himself chiefly with economical investigations, especially those connected with agriculture; the process whereby vast swamps and forests were gradually reduced to tilled and habitable domains, interested him in all its stages and results. He describes each town, port, and region with care and candor; and it is a peculiarity of his Travels that they contain many elaborate accounts of certain farms and estates in different sections, whence we derive a very accurate notion of the methods and the resources of rural life in America soon after the Revolution. The Duke was a philosophical traveller, content to journey on horseback, making himself as much at home with the laborer at the wayside as with the gentleman of the manor; and seeking information with frankness and patience wherever and however it could be properly acquired. The lakes, bays, roads, the markets, manufactures, and seats he examines, in a business-like way; complains of all crude arrangements, and bears the hardships then inseparable from travel here, like a soldier. Indians and rattlesnakes, corn and tobacco, the Hessian fly, pines, maples, negroes, rice plantations, orchards, all the traits of rural economy and indigenous life, are duly registered and speculated upon.

He visited, with evident satisfaction, the battle grounds of the Revolution, and complacently dwells on Yorktown, the grave of Ternay at Newport, and the grateful estimation in which Lafayette was held. He seems to have well appreciated our leading men in public life and society; Jefferson, Marshall, Jay, Hamilton, Adams, and Burr figure in his political tableaux, and he was the guest of General Knox, in Maine. He sums up the character of the Virginians as a people noted for dissipation, hospitality, and attachment to the Union ; of the special characteristics of the different states he was singularly cognizant ; and notes the slow adoption of vaccination, the adaptation of soils, and the existence of wild hemp on the shores of Ontario.

Apart from the specific information contained in his “ Voyage dans les Etats Unis d'Amérique,” the Paris edition of which, printed in 1800, consists of eight volumes, 8v0., there is little to attract the reader of warm sympathies or decided tastes. An English translation was published in quarto.* Although the work is the chief source of the Duke de La Rochefoucault's literary reputation, it is justly characterized, by an intelligent French critic, as a froide compilation, sans imagination et sans l'esprit d'artiste. Both this writer, Chastellux, and other of their countrymen, gave satisfactory facts in regard to American military and political leaders, who can be most fairly estimated by competent foreign critics: the former describes Stirling, and the latter Simcoe, Knox, and others.

The Duke sums up, in the last chapter of his voluminous work, his impressions and convictions: like Brissot, he praises the Quakers for their civic virtues; he notes what he calls the “ prejudice” among the men against “ domestic servitude," a feeling in which the women then did not share; of the freedom of action accorded the latter, he speaks with a Frenchman's national surprise, and adds that, when married, “they love their husband because he is their husband ;” he expatiates on the need of a more thorough educational system; physically, however, he thinks the Americans had the advantage of Europeans in their habits of sporting and use of the rifle, and deems the liberty enjoyed by children the best method of teaching them self-reliance; he describes the prevalent manners as essentially the same as those which exist in the provincial towns of England; he praises the hospitality and benevolence of the people ; and says that drunkenness is " their most common vice,” and “the desire of riches their ruling passion ;” “ the traits of character common to all,” he adds,“ are ardor for enterprise, courage, greediness, and an advantageous opinion of themselves.” Such are some of the opinions formed by this noble but somewhat prosaic traveller immediately after the Revolutionary war, when, as he observes, the Americans “ having for the most part made their fortunes by their own industry, labor had not become repugnant to them.” He ends his work with the most benign wishes for the prosperity and integrity of the nation.

* “Liancourt's (Duke de La Rochefoucault) Travels through the United States, the Country of the Iroquois, &c., in the years 1795, '96 and '97," 2 vols. 4to., large folding maps, London, 1799.

That gifted and solitary pioneer of American fiction, Charles Brockden Brown, among his numerous and illrewarded but most creditable literary labors, made a translation of Volney's once noted book on America.*

The career and the character of this writer must be understood in order to estimate aright his writings, and especially those that belong to the sphere of political and social speculation. Born in one of the provinces of France, just before the commencement of that memorable chaos of thought and action which ushered in the Revolution, of a studious and independent habit, he early manifested that boldness of aim and originality of conviction which marked the adventurous and the philosophic men of his day. Changing his name, and accustoming himself to hardships, he aspired to an individuality of life and a freedom from conventionalities, somewhat akin to the motive that made Byron a wanderer and Lady Stanhope a contented sojourner in the desert. The passion for travel early possessed him, and he equipped himself therefor by adopting a stoical régime, and acquiring the historical and philological knowledge so essential to satisfactory observation in foreign countries. An invalid from birth, his sequestered habits and sensitive temper gave a misanthropic tinge to his disposition, while his lirnited means induced a remarkable frugality; the result of which circumstances and traits was to make Volney a morbid man, but a speculative thinker and a social nonconformist. Like Bentham and Godwin, but with less geniality, he professed to disdain the tyranny of custom, and to seek the good of humanity and the truth of life, in the neglected and superseded elements of society, so hopelessly overlaid by blind habit and unreasoning acquiescence. Like all Frenchmen, in carrying out this programme as a written theory, he is rhetorical, and, in practice, more or less grotesque; yet with enough of ability and original method to excite the curious, and suggest new ideas to less adventurous minds, however more sound judgment and holier faith might repudiate his principles. Professedly a social reformer, and at war with the life and law around him, he, like so many other civilized malcontents, turned ardently to the East.

* “ View of the Soil and Climate of the United States of America," translated by Charles Brockden Brown, with maps and plates, 8vo., Philadelphia, 1804.

A Breton and a peer of France, there is much in Volney to remind us of Chateaubriand—the same passion for knowledge, love of travel, political enthusiasm, romantic egotism, vague and vaunted sentiment; but there the parallel ends : for Chateaubriand's conservatism, social relations, and opinions, literary, political, and religious, separate him widely from Volney, although their experience of vicissitude was similar. The genius of the author of Atala was pervasive, and is still influential and endeared; while the writings of Volney are comparatively neglected. He was born in 1755, and known, in youth, as Constantine Francois Count de Chassebæuf-a name he not unwisely discarded when seeking the honors of authorship. After his early education was completed, he converted his little patrimony into money, and travelled through Egypt and Syria, lived for months in the Maronite convent on Mount Lebanon, to acquire the Oriental languages, studied Arabic with the Druses, and sojourned in an Arab tent. Not the least remarkable fact of his three years of Eastern life, was that the sum of a thousand dollars defrayed the entire expense thereof—a result he attributes to his simple habits and hardihood, and his facile self-adaptation to the modes of life prevalent among those with whom he became domesticated.

Volney's Travels in the East, based, as they were, on such unusual opportunities for observation, and written con amore, as indicative of his opinions not less than his adventures, proved eminently successful, and drew attention to his claims as a scholar and thinker, and indirectly led to his appointment to an official station in Corsica, where he knew Bonaparte. Volney's ambition, however, seems to have originally tended to philosophical eminence rather than political distinction. He was a profound hater of tyranny, and too independent and fastidious, as well as physically sensitive, to engage heartily in the struggles of party: he loved rather to speculate freely, and to wander, observe, theorize, protest, and portray. Having established himself at Auteuil, near Paris, he became intimate with the literary men of the day, embraced the Liberal cause, and, as deputy from Anjou, in 1789, proved an effective speaker. In 1791 he published “Les Ruines; or, Meditations on the Revolutions of Empires”--the work that embodies at once his scepticism, sentiment, historical speculations, and humanitarian ideas; a work whose rhetoric and vaguely sad but eloquent tone won the imaginative as it repelled the religious. It was regarded as among the most dangerous of the many sceptical works of the day. The remarks on sects and religion excited Joseph Priestley to a vigorous protest. Volney declined the proposed controversy; and there is something absurd to the English reader (who, if candid and intelligent, must know that a more honest and humane philosopher than Priestley never lived) in the assertion of the author's biographer, that the malevolence of a rival writer's jealousy, and not a love of truth, led to the original challenge. Volney was a radical, and a victim of the Revolution. He accompanied Pozzo di Borgo to Corsica, and endeavored to establish sugar cultivation there. Failing therein, he returned to Paris, to suffer persecution in the reign of terror; and, on the fall of Robespierre, regained his liberty, after ten months' imprisonment. In 1794 he was appointed professor of history in the Normal School, on the philosophy of which subject he ably lectured ; and, in 1795, embarked at Havre, “ with that disgust and indifference which the sight and experience of injustice and persecution impart," intending to settle in the United States. He tells us that the prospect that allured him thither was certain facts in regard to that country wherein he con

« PreviousContinue »