Jacksonian Miscellanies, #98 
May Day (Moving Day) in NYC, and Other Notes

Copyright by the editor, Hal Morris, Hopatcong, NJ 2000.
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Isaac Fidler came to the U.S. from England in 1831, having been educated for the clergy, but with no patronage to get him a position.  He hoped to get a position in the Episcopal church, or in teaching; he had a good classical education and knowledge of some of the "eastern languages" -- one of his first acts in the U.S. was to try to get a book printed in Sanscrit.  Not surprisingly, the printer didn't have the typeface, and warned Fidler that such a venture wouldn't succeed anyway.

Many of Fidler's observations are very familiar ones, such as the silent bolting down of food at meals, and inability to be served privately in any boarding house.

He seems rather more bitter about American braggadocio than some other English visitors, but then he was pretty untactful himself, as when a physician (an exception to the rule of silence at the table) told him "You must admit, at the least, that American physicians are above those of England, in sound knowledge, and in physic?", and Fidler replied: "I could hardly conceive," I replied, "that, in a country so recently peopled, and so sparing in pecuniary and honorary, recompense to professional talent, any first-rate physicians could be found.   Were American institutions on so excellent a plan as to produce attainments of sufficient brilliancy to shine in England, their possessors would never be satisfied with the state of things in their own country, but would emigrate to climates more congenial to their acquired perceptions, where their talents might be appreciated and rewarded."

One very timely section of the chapter is a rather detailed description of the strange custom of the time (in New York at least) of all leases being up on the same day of the year, May 1, and the pandemonium of the great majority of apartment moves occurring on that one day.

The whole book is online at www.canadiana.org, or, specifically: http://www.canadiana.org/cgi-bin/ECO/mtq?doc=36495.

Disappointed in the U.S., Fidler considered settling in Canada, and the book describes his Canadian experiences as well.



DEMOCRACY may sound very well in theory; but its practical tendency, I am pursuaded, will never be beneficial, except in a country where population is thinly scattered. There is in America no stability to private or public character. In England, the conduct of some noblemen was severely censured, for ejecting such of their tenants as voted against them. The same thing will be found to prevail, as far as is practicable, even in America. General Jackson, on being elected President, displaced, I was informed, nearly one thousand public officers, on account of political feelings.

Many of the English have been heard to say that the people of England are oppressed and enslaved, and that there is no perfect liberty in England. This was once my opinion. But it is now manifest to me, that England is the only place where rational and perfect liberty is enjoyed. A person dares not, in America, express his sentiments with half the freedom that he does in England. I once ventured to remark to an American, in the hearing of a person from England, that I did not perceive the Americans, with all their boasted independence, to be really in a more enviable condition than Englishmen: that I began seriously to believe, although of a different opinion formerly, that an hereditary monarch and aristocracy are of vast advantage to a state, and contribute incalculably to its greatness. The Englishman drew me aside, and desired me not to let fall expressions of such import. "The Americans," said he, "have long memories. You are now, from not being employed, independent of them and consequently out their power. Yet should you hereafter have occasion to solicit a favour, and thereby place yourself in dependence on them, you will find that they never forget."

It is evident to any one, at all conversant with the politics of Europe, that France has humbled her hereditary nobility in compliment to American republicanism. France never did any thing so egregiously foolish. She has made herself a laughingstock to the world, and to well-informed Americans, among others. They heartily despise her politics, which they consider as childish. If England should adopt a similar procedure; she would instantly decline from her greatness. The aristocracy is her strongest bulwark. If any great change takes place in their privileges, or in the privileged classes of the country; or if the elective franchise be extended to the lowest orders; the stability and supremacy and glory of England are at an end. Americans are eager for some great change, or a revolution in England; and anticipate their own aggrandisement from European disasters. Their papers frequently contain fulminations against English principles, against the exaltation of her society, and against the wide extension of her commerce and her sway. This they do, in order to gain converts to their form of government, and citizens to their country. But should any well informed Englishman arrive there, capable of comparing the two forms of government, and of estimating the advantages of his own, they will not encourage his stay.

The best circles in New York disapproved and discountenanced the brutal conduct of their countrymen to Kean and other actors from England, who had spoken lightly of their government. Yet I heard some individuals, whom I had considered as belonging to the higher circles, justify the phrenzy of the mob. A person, to credit and understand the sensitiveness of their body politic, and the electriclike shock and rapidity with which any sensation felt in one part is conveyed by newspapers to every corner of their empire, and vibrates through every chord, must have resided among them, and have witnessed. Woe to the man whose conduct or expression has provoked their indignation! He will not be expelled from America. He may live there. But he will find himself a marked man whereever he goes; shunned, yet imposed on; and as completely debarred from undertaking any thing, or from succeeding if he should, as if he had his residence with their antipodes. An English captain, with whom I wanted to take a passage home, declared to me that he would rather fall into the hands of any enemy than those of Americans. My opinions on this point are in unison with his. May heaven shield me, from collision with the brutal outrage of a republican mob, and from democratic vengeance!

The first of May is noted among the people of New York for bustle and change. It is almost impossible to rent a house or lodgings longer than for one year; and in any part of a year longer than till May-day next ensuing. We had taken our apartments till that time, at the expiration of which Mrs. F. took other lodgings, during my tour through the States and Canada. She described May-day as affording scenes exceedingly laughable; in every direction were carts and waggons laden with furniture; the streets were literally filled with chairs, tables, drawers, desks, carpets, &c., passing from one house to another, to the great advantage of the carters, who find full employment, and are on that day paid double charges. It is also not a little gratifying to New York gossips, who are allowed a peep into the lodgings of such strangers generally as have not permanent dwellings. As May-day approaches, the landlord proposes to the tenant his terms. The tenant finds, for the most part, an advance of rent, and prefers a change. The landlord annexes to the door-post a written notice, and the tenant commences amusing himself with entering every one's dwelling similarly circumstanced, and exposing his own to the gaze of others. It is almost impossible for a stranger, who has occupied lodgings, and wishes to escape imposition, to avoid such intrusion into his private rooms. We suffered this ourselves, and therefore speak from experience. Many American women, we were told, occupy much of their leisure time about this period in prying into the abodes of foreigners, to see if they are respectable, and have their rooms well furnished. Americans could not have invented any domestic custom more inquisitorial, or which gives a readier access to the privacies of strangers.

Another thing, offensive to English people accustomed at home to the pleasures of a separate table, is, that they cannot find a boarding-house where they may take their meals by themselves. They are obliged to mingle with all promiscuously, whom the mistress of the house admits. It is true that much conversation need not be kept up, nor many words exchanged. The people, at these houses, sit down to table and rise up again, without thanksgiving and without ceremony. The business of eating is a task, for which a short time only can be spared, and it must be finished with dispatch. The different guests study their own accommodation --in sitting down and rising up --in the duration of their continuance at table --in their entrance into and departure from the eating-room. Sometimes a whole meal is begun and finished, without the utterance of a word. Eating is performed with the same unceasing activity as a walk in the streets, and no intermission can be spared for social converse. Indeed, it is impracticable for an Englishman to indulge himself in talking, as at home, and to acquit himself in eating, as an American. His utmost efforts are required, to keep pace with his neighbours; I never was so much at a loss how to conduct myself properly, as at an American table.

Sometimes a few observations are made, but they always end abruptly, unless rendered palatable by flattery. A physician of some eminence boarded at the same house, and ate at the same table with ourselves; he one day asserted, that literature and scholars in America were infinitely raised above those of Europe, and of England in particular. I mentioned to him my experience in America, and what I had noticed at Boston. He grew rather warm at my narrations and remarks, and said "You must admit, at the least, that American physicians are above those of England, in sound knowledge, and in physic?" "I could hardly conceive," I replied, "that, in a country so recently peopled, and so sparing in pecuniary and honorary, recompense to professional talent, any first-rate physicians could be found. Were American institutions on so excellent a plan as to produce attainments of sufficient brilliancy to shine in England, their possessors would never be satisfied with the state of things in their own country, but would emigrate to climates more congenial to their acquired perceptions, where their talents might be appreciated and rewarded." "You have slandered our country," he indignantly exclaimed, "and could never gain a comfortable living in it." "Some of your own clergy and professors were of a different opinion," said I, "and encouraged me to open a school, at respectable terms. I have contented myself with making inquiries respecting professions in general, and my own in particular, and have discovered that America has nothing to confer which could allure my stay." He shortly after left the table, and for three days seated himself at another place, where he could exchange neither words nor looks.

Such is the narrow and illiberal spirit which infuses itself into almost every untravelled republican; and which never can be exterminated under their present system of government, and during the unrequited energies of literary men. A state of things which fosters such a spirit must be prohibitive of American greatness; but it sufficiently accounts for the degrading flattery which prudent emigrants will furnish. The republican ear is never satisfied with praise and adulation; nothing is too fulsome or extravagant. There is nothing which tyrannic power, equal to the gods, when flattered and extolled, cannot credit of itself: This part of the American character is, I believe, the most offensive to an honourable man. He dares not speak openly his own sentiments; he feels himself in a strange country, where true freedom is unknown, and where unconditional surrender of conscience, and unbounded and unceasing approbation, are rigorously extorted from him. I have no hesitation in affirming, that no gentleman, who can sustain himself with credit in Europe, will reside permanently in the States.

Did this narrowness of spirit arise from mere vanity, it might be more excusable. Its origin is in vanity, blended with deadly hatred to England. America resembles a young girl, just liberated from a severe foster-mother, and introduced into the world: all nations praise and admire her, and she is filled with vanity: all nations persuade her that she has been cruelly treated, and she is filled with animosity and hatred: the refuse of all nations tell her that inveterate rancour is becoming her station, and that her most engaging forms are republican; and she becomes, as a gentleman of great eminence in Canada told me, more democratic every hour, and neither forgets nor forgives. That she has attained, in some things, almost the lowest depths of absurdity, it is my firm opinion; and many, even of Americans themselves, are disposed to believe it. She has not yet acquired sufficient insight into other governments and institutions, to perceive their merits, or her own deficiencies. She flatters herself that she has culled all the excellencies of others, without their imperfections; and has extirpated from herself every blemish, and cherished her perfections only; and that a judicious amalgamation of these perfections and excellencies has rendered her supremely lovely, and supremely great. Had she contented herself with such a vanity, as Dr. Franklin speaks of in his life, she might, with him, have enumerated it among legitimate sources of enjoyment, and have given thanks to providence for the blessing.

Dr. Jones, author of the Greek and English Lexicon, a gentleman with whom I had the honour of an intimate acquaintance, once told me, that he had a strong dislike to that portion of Franklin's works called "Poor Richard;" "Because," said he, "it has imparted a bias to American principles, and has rendered them too parsimonious and mercenary." I cannot view it in the same light with that gentleman. "Poor Richard," at its first production, was disseminated among a people with whom its maxims were congenial, and did not produce contracted views, but confirmed them. Its precepts are a treasure-house of domestic prudence and economy, to persons in the situation of Americans, but have been acted upon too closely. You can support this site at no cost if you make an Amazon purchase using this link to get to Amazon: Thanks