Image from entry with caption: Edith Wharton, 1018: Theodore Roosevelt's sons Quentin and Archibald, right
On February 8, 1918, in a series called “France and Its Allies at War: The Witnesses Speak”, Edith Wharton gave a lecture in French to an audience of about 400. Why had the United States entered the war with such enthusiasm? How could Americans, who were only interested in money-making, be ready to fight? The lecture, which appears here for the first time in English and in edited form, was an attempt to answer these questions. It reveals Wharton’s interest in the early American settlers’ lasting contribution to democracy, and displays her wide – and generally unsuspected – knowledge of American history.
There is a profound difference, a fundamental difference, between the French and the Americans: a difference of language, far greater than that which exists between races of Latin origin, whose languages draw on a common linguistic fund. When an Italian or a Spaniard needs to translate his ideas into your language, he finds an equivalent, or even a synonym, far more easily than we do. For the person of purely Anglo-Saxon origin, there is, apart from the difficulty of pronunciation, that of finding exact equivalents in French for her American thoughts. If I call your attention to this obstacle, it is not merely to beg your indulgence. Rather, it is because I was invited to speak to you of my country and one of the most delicate questions concerning the relations between our two peoples is precisely the problem caused by the difference between our languages. If the United State and France were near neighbours, this obstacle would be less troublesome, but we are obliged to converse through the intermediary of the press and government statements. Each time I see the translation of a speech or an official American Government statement in a French newspaper I fear a misunderstanding.
May I give you an example? When he arrived in Paris, Mr House made a speech before the Press, a simple, modest and dignified speech – provided it was read in English. Mr House began by saying, “America is already mobilizing her millions in the factories, the fields and the trenches”. Now, the genius of English is essentially elliptic. We leave a great deal out, we imply words, whole phrases even, which could never be omitted in the French. So Mr House did not say her millions of men, since the word men was implied by the meaning of the sentence. Anyone who knew English well could not possibly have misunderstood. But many French newspapers reported that Mr House had said, “L’Amérique a déjà mobilisé ses millions dans les usines”, etc., which of course can only mean one thing in French: her millions of dollars. Thus poor Mr House was recast as an oncle d’Amérique clinking the dollars in his pocket as he arrived at your doorstep. A small but very typical example, which I call to your attention to show you how difficult it is to translate us since in this particular case the translator rigorously followed the original.
You might object that, where there is a community of feeling, misunderstandings like these are always cleared up in the long run. I mention the problem nevertheless, because lexical discord is so often a sign of moral discord. Although they may have a common origin, words undergo mysterious changes as soon as they are absorbed by another language and these changes affect the soul, so that the emotions too are altered.
Our language is elliptic and sometimes our manners are too. We take shortcuts and byways, whereas you tread the paths traced by a long and glorious tradition. For more than a thousand years, you have had the use of wide roads, traced by the Roman Empire all over France, whereas our forefathers had to cut down trees and pull up shrubs in order to clear a path through the virgin forests. That analogy is a fairly exact symbol of the moral condition of our great-grandparents. Most of them, at least those who influenced the American character most deeply, were weary of well-trodden paths, of old institutions, and most of all, of old abuses. They left Europe to give their ideas a free rein – ideas that were not very interesting in themselves, since they remained within the narrow scope of theological quarrels. These people were, to put it bluntly, fanatics, the kind of boring, nasty, insufferable people that nature seems to produce from time to time in order to set in motion a widespread popular movement or to clear the land of a whole continent – because, of course, likeable, reasonable people never change anything in the order of the universe.
And this brings me precisely to the subject I wish to discuss: the origins of my country and its deeps roots in the past. I was asked to talk today about “America at war”, about the reasons why we entered the war. These reasons cannot be found in our need to defend a vulnerable border, nor even in the need for military or economic defence. They are to be found in the past. And since our entry into the war, I have come to realize that many French people have a very imperfect knowledge of that past.
I will not do you the injustice of supposing that you think all my compatriots are what you call oncles d’Amérique – fat planters who throw around gold by the fistful and, in the last act, solve disputes and misunderstandings with the help of their dollars – although, to be sure, at this particular moment, I can think of no better part for my country to play . . . . But are you really so far from believing that our grandparents went to America mainly to acquire dollars so that their grandsons could spend them merrily in the luxurious hotels of old Europe? Only a few of you have noticed that we also spend those dollars in antique shops and art galleries, and that we pack Fragonard panels, Boucher tapestries, and Rodin bronzes in our trunks. “The booty of barbarians”, you might say. But little by little you have formed our taste and we now know where to purchase objects suitable for the decoration of a millionaire’s house. Our impatience to enjoy European refinement is immense – and very childish, but that impatience, which you have observed a thousand times and recorded with exquisite irony, is also the result of our past, of our austere, arduous, and joyless past.
North America was colonized by people of different races, and at different times [JB emphasis]. Colonization, as you know, continues to this day, and over the past hundred and fifty years, we have become a testing ground for democracy. However, the deepest impression on the soul of our country was made by the English. Both the English Bible and English Common Law have nurtured the American soul. The Bible, in particular, has moulded us, and my first task here is to help you understand the feelings that animated the Mayflower Pilgrims – the Pilgrims who left old England in 1620 to found New England. These were, as I have already said, fanatics – hard, cruel, and jealous people, eager to escape the persecution of the English national Church, and perhaps in turn to persecute others. Those who have been persecuted are, alas, all too often the persecutors of tomorrow.
That said, we must not forget that the Puritans of the New World were sustained by perfectly disinterested motives. The colonization of the Atlantic states was not an economic undertaking. The Puritans did not go there seeking money or honours, nor even to conceal a depraved past. They were narrow-minded but honourable, respectable men, most of whom were fairly well-off, and who sacrificed everything – fortune, honour, friends, and well-being – to go and found a colony, beneath inclement skies, on inhospitable lands, peopled by artful and fierce natives, where each would be free to worship God according to the dogma of his sect, as well as to denounce neighbours suspected of worshipping differently. To achieve their purpose, they abandoned the pleasures of an organized society and all the dear beloved old ways that in England revolve around castle and church.
And while this theocracy was being founded on the rough stones of Massachusetts, Dutch merchants – all of them prosperous burghers and shrewd businessmen – established a warehouse for furs at the mouth of the Hudson and began to trade with the Red-Skins of the Great Lakes and the North. These intrepid Dutchmen were not at all interested in founding a theocracy. They had come to America in search of a new outlet for Dutch trade – in order to earn money in other words. After a few years of dreadful struggle and terrible discouragement these tenacious merchants managed to establish a stable administration and to increase their fortunes. Their colony was governed by distinguished men, and when England took it over in 1664 the heirs of the old governors remained in New Amsterdam, later renamed New York and destined to become the main marketplace of the New World.
So right from the beginning of the seventeenth century, you had, side by side, dark and fanatic Massachusetts, founded in 1620 to establish “the reign of the spirit”, and the State of New York founded seven years earlier to establish the dominion of the dollar. On the one hand, democratic equality, scorn for material wealth, and aversion for any reminders of the titles and privileges of old Europe; on the other hand, a society both mercantile and patrician, descended from an oligarchy founded by the Dutch West India Company. Thus, side by side, were two groups representing the two principal motives of human action: the will to sacrifice everything to intellectual and moral conviction, and the desire for wealth and the enjoyment of life. I, who am a descendant of the Dutch merchants and of their English successors, confess that I am glad not to have been brought up in the shadow of the gloomy theocracy of Massachusetts. Nevertheless, I must admit that those who sacrificed everything for their ideas are the ones who shaped the soul of my country most profoundly, more profoundly than those who faced similar dangers for material gain.
New York and the trends associated with New York – a fondness for profit, respect for rank and fortune, a taste for lavish meals and the comforts of rest beneath an eiderdown – provided a useful corrective to the sombre ideology of the Puritans by contributing the healthy enjoyment of earthly goods to our national outlook. But it is written that the ideas that survive are always those that are born in disinterested sacrifice and it was the handful of fanatics thrown onto Plymouth Rock by the Mayflower that has served to remind us of our national feeling at each crisis in our national history. Picture them, struggling alone, yet able not only to defend themselves and to resist, but also, even before they had even landed, to establish a plan for municipal administration, which was the first known written constitution in the history of the English speaking peoples.
And what sort of society did they create? The settlers, whose ideas about government mostly harked back to earlier times, were innovators where municipal organization was concerned and many a democratic idea that had been smothered by the laws of the mother country prospered rapidly in the soil of the New World. In the wilderness, where each band of settlers formed an isolated centre, cut off from their neighbours by forests inhabited by enemies, the only conceivable political unit was the “township” – a group of hamlets roughly corresponding to the French commune. According to their charter, every man admitted as a member of the colony had the right to take part in government. This plan resulted in the famous town-meetings – community assemblies that were the origin of municipal liberties in Massachusetts. In fact, all the ideas that found local government in the United States were contained in this charter – all except the idea of religious freedom, which New England achieved only after a terrible struggle against the power of an uncompromising church.
And what sort of life did people lead in those bleak hamlets, the so-called townships of the New World? Stranded in the midst of immense forests, built on the edge of a stormy sea, and surrounded by ever-menacing natives, their humble wooden dwellings were buried in snow for six months a year. The inhabitants never left home except to go through the snow to listen to the Minister who ruled over the parish. No one was allowed to miss the sermon, and in the flimsy wooden churches, where there was not even a stove to keep out the cold, everyone was chilled to the bone while the Minister talked for hours on end. He taught that, according to the dogma of the Westminster Confession, children who died unbaptized burnt forever in the depths of hell, that magistrates and ministers were bound to examine the doctrinal integrity of every Christian who attended the service, that any man who gathered firewood on a Sunday would be hung, and that anyone who dared attribute the slightest sin to the Lord’s elect would meet the same fate.
The Ministers would preach for two or three hours running. The abuse grew so serious that the magistrates attempted to find a remedy, and argued that the frequency of the religious services, which took place every day, constantly compelled the settlers to interrupt their work and the women to neglect their domestic duties. The length of the sermons and prayers was such that the poor parishioners more often than not had to go home through a perilous forest in the middle of the night. The Ministers responded that there were not enough hours in a day and night to name all the perils of heresy or to publicly condemn the sins of their flock. The magistrates were obliged to yield and the services went on as before.
As for the members of the flock, they seem to have responded to the uninterrupted flow of Christian eloquence in different ways. We read in Mr X’s diary that he attended a six-hour-long service in an unheated church in bone-numbing weather but did not feel the cold thanks to the force of the sermon – for which he praised God. On the other hand, a poor woman named Ursula Cole confessed to having told a neighbour that she would as soon hear a cat meow as hear Reverend Shepard preach, a blasphemy for which she was condemned either to pay a fine of 750 francs or be whipped. She was probably whipped. The Ministers could and did avail themselves of the rod, shackles, stocks, gallows and stake. You all know what tortures were inflicted on the so-called “witches”, some of whom were merely hysterics, others simply bone-setters such as can still be found in the French countryside. Others still were members of the Society of Friends who were disgusted with the tyranny of the clergy and certain they received their light directly from heaven. In such a climate, informers thrived and private grudges were settled mercilessly. If a regime of this sort had managed to ensure its continued existence, the United States would not have become the great country it is today.
I have paid so much attention to the bleakness of this picture because these men of iron, and the women who were their equals in stoic resilience, formed the kernel from which our civilization grew. Among them, right from the beginning, were a few individuals with wills equally strong, but with minds less narrow, who overthrew the all-powerful presbyteries and who founded schools and universities, and thus emancipated thought. A hundred years later, Americans were playing games, going to the theatre, thinking about dress, dancing the passepied or the saraband – and the ministers had begun to make shorter sermons. But long New England winters, fear of the Red-skins, and continual dread of violent death and eternal punishment, had left a shadow over the American soul. Americans danced, but on a volcano – the volcano of Presbyterian hell.
While New England was developing with difficulty, other settlers, who had arrived a few years earlier, took possession of the vast area that now extends from New Mexico to Pennsylvania. From 1620 onwards, this colony of Virginia, named after Queen Elizabeth, was directly attached to the English crown. It was divided up into large estates and conferred on certain aristocrats and gentlemen who wished to try their fortunes in the New World. The climate was mild, the land fertile, and the new colonies rapidly flourished economically. Under the benevolent dominion of the Anglican Church, a civilized society developed there, in comparison with which the New England settlers were like savages in the Stone Age. Alas, one day a Dutch merchant ship landed on the coast and unloaded amid its merchandise a few Negroes, who were sold with the rest.
That day, slavery came into being in the United States. That day too marks the beginning of the commercial and political ruin of the southern States. Those poor dazed Africans, like the furies, came bearing the germs of disintegration and death. As you know, we did not die, and we did not even disintegrate, but our immense federation endured many moments of danger, for slavery introduced one of the elements which contributed, long afterwards, to creating what I will call “Statism” – that is, an attachment to the particular rights of a State rather than to the nation. The conflict came to a head only a hundred and fifty years later with our Civil War, a war that had two causes, one remote and ideal, the other immediate and practical. The remote cause was the desire to end slavery. The immediate cause was the determination to thwart the separatist tendencies of certain States that had usurped the right to withdraw from the Union if their particular interests conflicted with those of the nation.
Right from the beginning, the American Colonies, founded for different reasons by people of diverse races and with different ideas, were naturally suspicious of each other. The Revolution, which united them for an instant against a common enemy, did not put an end to their inevitable rivalry. And so it happened that at each national crisis there were two parties: one defending local interests, the freedom of choice of each State; the other constantly defending the idea that a federation of states cannot last and develop unless it places the interests of the country as a whole above local interests. It was only natural that at first local interests should be represented by the southern States, immersed as they were in the well-being of a quasi-patriarchal existence and unwilling to be disturbed. The settlers of the northern States – Pennsylvania, New York and New England – who had bought their freedom and their very lives at such a high price, more readily understood the need for national cohesion.
Yes, but why were the patrician planters of the South called Democrats during the Civil War, and why did the North – more plebeian in its ideas if not in its origin – choose a name that rings as though it was meant to disqualify its opponents? For visionary eighteenth-century minds, the federal union harked back to the monarchy, to feudal privileges, and to the power of a national Church. The southern States declared with some justification, “You of the North say you represent the Republic. Yet we are the real democrats since we defend the rights of states, and even the rights of individuals, against the threat of centralized power!” To which the federalists naturally responded with a greater sense of the facts of the matter: “On the contrary, we represent the republic, since we defend the public interest against the selfishness of separatists whose only goal is to make sure their private interests are not harmed”. In spite of all the distortions that they have undergone with time, the terms “Democrat” and “Republican” still designate two conceptions, or rather two opposing influences: a centrifugal influence, inclined to break up the federation beneath the weight of conflicting state interests, and a centripetal influence, which continually subjects these interests to the powerful attraction of the federal idea, the idea of national unity.
The political ideas of the two parties are opposed on many other questions, but fortunately, in times of trouble, something else always prevails – the spirit of American patriotism. You can see evidence of this today. As the representative of the Democrats, President Wilson was wary of European alliances and military intervention abroad, and he was naturally influenced by his centrifugal environment. He hesitated to enter the war, and once he had made up his mind to do so, he expected as a matter of course to be thwarted in his efforts by a party that was hoping to see our vast country pursue its peaceful development without the risks involved in foreign intervention. You all know what happened in actual fact. General conscription, voted in a matter of two days and accepted without a murmur. Militarization of the railroads, rationing of food and raw materials, an agreement with the Labour unions which pledged not to strike during the war.
For a loose confederation made up of different races with sometimes conflicting interests, it is without question a surprising result. Less surprising for us than for our allies, however. For the critical moments in our history have taught us how intense the patriotic spirit is in our country. Two major events have left their mark on our short history. Having shaken off the yoke of a clumsy (but not tyrannical as was once taught) government, we were able to develop, and so became a nation. In order to defend the integrity of that nation we shed the best of our blood and fought against our own brothers. Memories like these cannot be erased. They come to mind each time it is necessary to defend our own independence or the independence of other countries when it is threatened. We know it is our duty to fight for the liberty of our Allies because we bought our own at so high a price.
It may seem unbelievable to you that a country as remote from the scene of the war as ours should have accepted to take part in it for so-called ideal reasons. I admit that the word “ideal” unsettles me somewhat, but when it comes to explaining the motives of human behaviour, I do not believe there is really such a difference between the ideal and the practical, or between interested and disinterested motives. We are certainly interested – immeasurably so; but not because we want to take over your industry, nor because, as the Germans say, we want, in payment of our aid, to take hold of a port on the Mediterranean. No, believe me, the real reason was given to me by an American officer, who was touched like so many others by the way you welcomed the American troops. “Tell the French,” he said, “be sure to tell them, that we do not want to be thanked for having entered the war. Explain that we all know that by fighting for France, we will be fighting for ourselves.” There you have, I think, the truth – clearly grasped by the more intelligent, and obscurely sensed by everyone.
Ladies and gentlemen, you can see why I wanted to describe our origins. I wanted above all to help you understand why our point of view, our ways, and our habits do not always resemble yours. How could it be otherwise? Think that while you were building Versailles, we were cutting down virgin forests, that while Descartes was writing his Discourse on Method, our scholars were drafting books on demonology, that while the King’s players were putting on Tartuffe and The School for Husbands, the parishioners of Reverend Shepard were beaten for having criticized his sermons, and husbands in Connecticut had to pay a large fine if they kissed their wives on a Sunday. Think that while your great-grandfathers were polishing their manners in Madame de Rambouillet’s bedroom and in Madame de Sévigné’s beautiful painted salons, ours, in trappers’ huts, surrounded by wild beasts, were doing their best to become labourers and merchants, blacksmiths and lawyers, fur traders or professors of rhetoric. Between these two pasts, one entirely improvised, the other founded on a long tradition of culture, there is no common measure. And yet, out of two such different histories patriotism and the love of liberty brought our two countries together once and has brought them together once again.
The continual stream of immigration has never, since our ghastly Civil War made a nation of us, diluted these feelings. You must not forget Lincoln’s wisdom at the beginning of our Civil War. “It is doubtful that a democracy can conduct a great war to a happy conclusion”, he said. But it can conduct a great war if the authors of its Constitution have the courage to declare that as soon as the nation is in peril, all power will be placed in the hands of the Head of State, and if the political education of the public is sufficiently advanced for it to accept temporary autocracy without being haunted by the spectre of permanent dictatorship. Such is our situation and it explains why we are by your side today.
“America at War”, translated by Virginia Ricard, will be included in Volume 15 (War Writings: Nonfiction) of the Complete Works of Edith Wharton,to be published by Oxford University Press.