Item of the Day: Wansey’s Excursion to the United States (1798)

Full Title: An Excursion to the United States of North America, in the Summer of 1794. Embellished with the Profile of General Washington, and an Aqua-tinta View of the State-House, at Philadelphia. By Henry Wansey. Second edition, with additions. Salisbury: Printed and sold by J. Easton; sold also be G. Wilkie, No. 57, Paternoster-Row, London, 1798.

 

INTRODUCTION

A DESIRE of knowing something of the United States, of which we hear so much, and know so little, together with some occurrences in business, induced me to make a trip thither during the last Summer. I have been highly gratified: and as my account is chiefly founded on my own actual experience and observation, and different in many respects from any other account, I am induced by these motives, as well as by the request of many friends, to send my Journal forth into the world. It is published in the same order in which it was written in the spot, which I hope will be an excuse for the want of method, and the errors and occasional repetition to be found in some places.

 In Narratives of this kind, the world is generally better pleased with plain matter of fact, than abstract disquisitions, or the Author’s own sentiments obtruded too much on the Reader.

Most of the modern accounts of the United States have been published under the influence of prejudice. While some have rated them too highly in the class of nations, others have depreciated them too much, even to contempt. Imlay’s is the puff direct, and Cooper’s the puff oblique. On the other hand, the Author of Letters on Emigration, lately published by Kearsley, has viewed every thing with a jaundiced eye. I took Brissot’s Travels in my hand, and passed over the same ground as he did, from Boston through Connecticut to New York, and afterwards to Philadelphia, and frequently stopt at the same inns. His account is tolerably accurate: however, in a period of five years, some considerable alterations and improvements have taken place. His book gives much real information. His account of Mr. Hamilton, Mr. Wadsworth, and of the President, agrees with my own observations, as I was in company with, and at the table of each of them.

Brissot justly observes of the Northern States, (particularly Connecticut) that the ease and abundance universally reign there: for industry is sure to receive the reward of independency.

But he has exceeded the truth respecting the success of a vineyard, at Spring Mill, twenty miles from Philadelphia, which, he says, (page 252) succeeds well, and produces much good wine. The fact is, it does not succeed at all. The Frenchman who began it, does not make it answer, nor can any vineyards succeed, while there remain such immense flights of birds and insects.

His meteorological account for Pennsylvania, is far less in the extreme than the fact, (page 256).

The present appears to me, a good point of time to take a sketch of America, and to mark its progress since it began to rank among the nations of the earth. This government is raising itself in a new system, — without Kings — without Nobles — without a Hierarchy. Religion is left to its own intrinsic worth and evidence, and we now shall see whether it can support its due influence among men, without acts of parliament to inforce it; and whether it is essential to Religion, that its eminent men “should rear their mitred fronts in Courts and Parliaments.” It will be grateful to posterity to mark the beginnings of an Empire, not founded on conquest, but on the sober progress and dictates of reason, and totally disencumbered of the feudal system, which has cramped the genius of mankind for more than seven hundred years past.

In these States, you behold a certain plainness and simplicity of manners, which bespeak temperance, equality of condition, and a sober use of the faculties of the mind — the mens sana in carpore sano. It is seldom you hear of a mad man, or a blind man, in any of the States; seldom of a felo de se, or a man afflcited with the gout or palsy. There is, indeed, at Philadelphia, an hospital for lunatics. I went over it, but found there very few, if any, who were natives; they were chiefly Irish, and mostly women. The disorders in the United States, arise chiefly from external causes. A bilious remittent fever is common on the south and middle States, about the close of every hot summer, owing to the increased exhalations, at that season, of the stagnant waters, which abound. But this evil is lessening in proportion to the cultivation of their soil, which tend to render the climate itself more temperate.

The Author of Letters on Emigration, amongst other objections, observes, “That there does not exist a more sordid, penurious race, than the Captains of passage and merchant vessels.” I returned from America with one of them, and found it quite otherwise — plenty of all kinds of provisions, fresh as well as salted; a cow on board, which afforded us milk every day for our coffee and tea; we had good Port, sherry, porter, and beer, daily with our dinner; as well as oranges, nuts, almonds, and raisins, very frequently, by way of desert. Many of the native American Captains being used to live with extreme frugality themselves, do not think much about the provisions necessary for the passengers; in such cases, they must look into it themselves, and see that every thing proper is provided, before they go on board. The Author also remarks on the uncomplying temper of the landlords of the country inns, in America; they will not, indeed, bear the treatment we, too often, give ours at home. They feel themselves, in some degree, independent of travellers, as all of them have other occupations to follow; nor will they put themselves into a bustle on your account, but, with good language, they are very civil, and will accommodate you as well as they can. The general custom of having two or three beds in a room, to be sure, is very disagreeable: it arises from the great increase of travelling within the last six years, and the smallness of their houses, which were not built for houses of entertainment. The last mentioned book appears to be written purposely to check emigration, as much as Cooper’s and Imlay’s are to encourage it; and perhaps both in the extreme.

With regard to emigration thither, and how far it is eligible to Englishmen; I answer, that it is a question every person must resolve for himself, as it depends on how he can bear changes of any kind in society, modes of life, customs, and manners. I have stated matters of fact, as far as I could collect, so that every prson, by reading these occurrences, may form a judgment for himself. The sacrifice of pleasant and well-established connections, is undoubtedly great; such a sacrifce must be peculiarly distressing to a mind whose habits of attachment have been long formed, and feels not that uneasiness which results from stritened circumstances. If, however, troubles should arise in this country on political accounts, or persecutions for mere matters of opinion, I know of no country that would afford the sufferer a more happy asylum than America, if he is not a man of luxury.

The arts and imrovements proceed very slow in America, from the want of that patronage so prevalent in England. The Americans being, many of them descendants of the English, are partial to their manners and customs; yet, it must be acknowledged, that in the interior of the country, things appear, at least, half a century behind them in point of comfort.

Salisbury, 1795.

 

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Filed under 1790's, Early Republic, Posted by Caroline Fuchs, Travel, Travel Literature, United States

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