Jacksonian Miscellanies, #62

June 23, 1998

Abdy: More on Sing Sing, A Youth (Correctional) House, Racism, Manners, Spoiled Children, American Women

Copyright by the editor, Hal Morris, Secaucus, NJ 1997. Permission is granted to copy, but not for sale, nor in multiple copies, except by permission.

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The following is the 5th extract from Abdy, Edward S., Journal of a Residence and Tour in the United States (3 vols, London, 1835).


Second Visit to Singsing-Prison Discipline.-Strike for Wages. - Second Visit to House of Refuge.-Servants,-Domestic Manners - National Character, [[in a later issue: Machinery-Fourth of July. -Corporation Dinner. - Episcopal Minister of Africo-American Church-Liberia. -Protest of Colored People against Expatriation. -New Jersey.-Canal. ]]

ON the 19th of June, I went with the King's Commissioner, who had just returned from a fatiguing journey to the west, to Singsing penitentiary. Dr. Leiber, a naturalized German, who was there at the same time, seemed much surprised that the black, convicts should make good mechanics. In any other part of the world, I should have been equally surprised at the Doctor's remark-but be bad been some years in America, and probably knew no more of these people than what the whites bad told him; assertions that foreigners are too apt to believe without further inquiry. The agent, however, who is a better judge, told me that they evinced as much industry and intelligence as the other convicts, and more docility. This officer appeared to possess despotic power over his subjects; the strength of the prerogative and the severity of the punishment connected with its exercise being in a direct ratio with the facility of escape and the necessity of enforcing silence. The "cat," by its immediate and irresponsible application may succeed in securing the strict observance of discipline ; but it is of very equivocal policy, and opens the door to all sorts of abuses. It is not unfair to judge of a system, the details of which are somewhat studiously concealed, from the principles it involves and the tendencies it creates. Messrs. Tocqueville and Beaumont, whose report to the French government has not been long published, were not permitted to converse unrestrictedly with the convicts at Singsing, as they were at the Philadelphia penitentiary. Nor was Mr. Crawford more fortunate. It is extremely difficult therefore to form a correct estimate of the dispositions with which the prisoners quit their place of confinement; whether the dread of corporal castigation has greater effect in deterring from crime, than the angry feelings it has left on the mind to prompt its commission, or weaken the resistance to temptation. One strong objection attaches to the system. Physical pain appeals to the baser passions and admits of few modifications; moral discipline has a higher aim, and adapts itself to the character of the individual. The heart that is untouched by the one may be hardened by the other.

The dispute between the journeymen and master carpenters terminated in an advance of wages to the better class of workmen. If the law, which regulates the price of labor, was not clearly understood by those engaged in this quarrel, it should be observed, that "the best instructors of the public" have done little to enlighten them on this important question. "The theory of the wages of labor, upon which the modern school of British political economists have thrown so much obscurity by their extravagant and wholly baseless imaginations is," says a writer in the North American Review for June, 1831, "extremely simple. The wages of labor are its products. Whatever the laborer is able to produce in a given period, excepting so far as the government may interfere, and take away part of it, is the amount of his wages for that period, &c. Hence the rate of wages varies in different countries according to the intelligence, activity, and moral habits of their respective inhabitants." Simple enough! By "products of labor" is probably meant what the laborer earns. The proposition is either false or identical -- what follows is still more absurd. The rate of wages is said to be twice as high in America as in Europe, because the laborer can do twice as much work. It is singular while a man can draw upon the imagination for his facts, he should forget that the judgment will dishonor the inference ;--that there should be as little logic in the conclusion as there is truth in the premises.

This writer is an enemy to free trade; and thinks that the division of labor, which is found to be so profitable to individuals, will be ruinous to nations. Strange that the loss of physical power should be an evil in detail and a good in the aggregate; that societies should stand aloof from one another while the component parts of each co-operate; and men be called upon to act in accordance with those laws of nature, which communities are to violate! Diversities of soil and climate, it seems, are not entitled to the same regard as difference of talent and industry: and the human family is to be separated by the sympathies which unite its respective branches. It is some consolation, however, to find that political economy is destined to find the source of its pure streams in the new world. For this better prospect, we are indebted to the Southern Review, by which we are comforted with the assurance that "the science has by no means attained to perfection. In Adam Smith's own words, 'this is reserved for the nineteenth century'-and, did it not" says the modest writer, "seem like gasconade, we would gladly add, for our country." Mr. Grimke has less hesitation in doing justice to that country. "In every department of knowledge, whether theoretical, or practical, where thinking and reasoning are the means and the criterion of excellence, our country must, if there be truth and power in the principles of the reformation, surpass every people that ever existed." --Address on the Anniversary of the Philosophical Society of South Carolina.

On a second visit to the House of Refuge, the management of which is well worthy of more frequent study, I had a closer view of the establishment, which contained 183 boys and 38 girls, completely separated from each other. When assembled in the chapel, the gallery, in which the latter sit, prevents them from seeing each other. The chaplain, who is resident, has the charge of the schools and the library. Though eight hours each day are allotted to labor, it is found that the children make nearly, if not quite, as much progress in education as those who are instructed in common schools. The boys are employed in making brushes, brass nails, cabinet-work, in the manufacture of seats for chairs and settees, and whatever is most suitable to their condition. The girls attend to the cooking, the washing, and other departments of domestic industry. They were all in a good state of health, not one of either sex being in the infirmary. This may be attributed to the great attention paid throughout to cleanliness, exercise, and constant occupation. At the Orphan Asylum I was informed by a lady, who had been for many years well acquainted with the details of that establishment, that there had been for forty-four years, on an average number of 100 inmates, but forty-four deaths. Among juvenile offenders at the Refuge were twelve colored boys; another building was about to be erected, or that occupied by the girls, on the completion of new arrangements, was to be appropriated for their use. At present both classes were compelled to work together, to the great horror of the white young gentlemen, who were not contented that the strictest barrier should be placed between them and the objects of their scorn on every practicable occasion, whether marching in military order to or from morning and evening service, partaking of meals, or engaged in any way that admitted of separation. No small share of the disgrace and degradation connected with a forced residence within the walls, seemed to result from the necessity of this hated association. Comment upon such folly and wickedness is needless-one instance of the baneful influence thus exercised over the tender minds of youth, will suffice. In the annual report for 1827, it is stated, that a boy, who had been put out as an apprentice by the Society, had absconded, being "unwilling to eat with the blacks, while the laborers sat at the table with his master." The good effects of this institution have been seen in the diminution of juvenile crime. "I find no difficulty now," said the district attorney some years back to the managers, "in checking the young offenders. Before the establishment of the House of Refuge, a lad of fourteen or fifteen years of age might have been arrested and tried four or five times for petty thefts; and it was hardly ever that a petty jury would convict. They would rather that the culprit, acknowledged to be guilty, should be discharged altogether, than be confined in the prisons of the State or county." This. reluctance, which was shared by parents and prosecutors and magistrates, to expose young criminals to demoralization, has now ceased to give encouragement, by giving impunity, to minor offences; and this asylum, which affords the best answer to conscientious scruples by promising reformation, has secured that co-operation of the public in enforcing punishment without which the best contrived enactments are of no avail.

Previously to the act by which, about ten years ago, this benevolent association was incorporated, more than 500 juvenile offenders were committed in the city for crime or vagrancy. A committee of the Senate reported, that "since the House of Refuge was opened, (in January, 1825,) the number of children who had been brought to the bar of the criminal courts in New York, had lessened in the proportion of four to one." Some idea may be formed of the excellent discipline observed, by the simple circumstance of the fruit and flowers having, with few exceptions been secure from depredation, although the garden, which abounds with peaches and cherries, apples and grapes, in proper season, is easily accessible. It is by mild, and not by severe measures, that this spirit of forbearance has been obtained; --the superintendant, whom the children look up to as a father appeared to feel a parental interest in their welfare. They are all classified according to merit, and distinguished by badges. There are four classes, the first of which entitles the possessor to certain indulgences and privileges; the second is neither good nor bad; the third carries with it some abridgment in the hours of play ; and the fourth subjects the offender to additional deprivation; and, if he does not work his way out of it before the expiration of the second week, he is confined after evening service on Sunday. It would perhaps be better if he were excluded from the service itself, to attend which ought always to be considered as a favor and not as a matter of discipline or of punishment. The day begins and concludes with prayer; and divine service is performed twice on the Sunday.

The following Sunday I went to the chapel, --great attention and decorum were observed during the service. There were two young men present, who had been confined in the establishment. One of them, who was in the marine, had not long before sent home 180 dollars to his mother out of his savings. While the boys were at dinner, he went round to speak to those with whom be was acquainted. These little incidents--and such are not uncommon--must have a good effect on the minds of all who witness them. The working day is supposed to commence at one o'clock, P.M., and all that remains between this hour and twelve at noon the next day, after the allotted task is finished, belongs to the child, as the reward of industry, to be employed in reading or recreation.

Among the general regulations is one which every parent ought to see most strictly observed in his own house, if he would guard the minds of his children from the distressing habit of connecting danger or deprivation with darkness. "No delinquent of any description shall, on any account whatever, be confined in any apartment underground, or where there is not sufficient light or ventilation."

The experience of this institution goes far to confirm the opinion that ignorance is one of the chief causes of crime. Few who are admitted are able to read; and with those, the acquirement is almost entirely mechanical. Of the girls, there was scarcely one who, on her first arrival, "could sew even well enough to make an apron." Great care, in putting out apprentices, is taken that the persons with whom they are placed are respectable ; --that the treatment is in every respect proper, and their own conduct satisfactory. These offices, involving no small share of caution and discernment in the discovery of real character, are devolved on an indenturing committee, consisting of three persons. There are always more applications than the institution can supply. It is found that the sea service, which might appear the least eligible for lads, affords the best chance for their good behavior. Many of them who had been shipped as sailors on sea-whaling voyages, had turned out well. More than half of those committed in 1831 were foreigners--, of 125, sixty-one only were of American parentage; of the others, thirty-two were Irish, fifteen English, two German, and eight French. In a preceding year, ninety-three out of 159 were of European parents. There were 144 inmates in 1830; of these eighty-four were of foreign extraction-- forty-one being Irish and twenty-three English. An acting committee, consisting of seven, and chosen by and from the Board of Managers, meet at least once every month at the House. They appoint a subcommittee of two to visit it weekly. From each, one member retires at the end of the month, and another, is appointed. Similar arrangements are made for the management of the female department, and the whole is thus under the immediate care and control of those whose personal vigilance is most likely to protect their pecuniary contributions from abuse or misapplication.

Bullock, when travelling in Mexico, observed that the English nation was little esteemed there. The people of that country, accustomed to see convicts and persons of bad character employed in their factories, imagined that our "operatives" were of the same class; and, as we are a manufacturing nation, they looked upon us as an inferior race.. A similar association of ideas seems to have brought domestic service into disrepute with the North Americans. Most of the servants are free blacks in the Eastern and middle states; and as they labor from no fault of their own, under the most unfavorable imputations, it is natural enough that great unwillingness should be felt to engage in an occupation which carries a certain degree, of stigma with it. Hence it will be found, that the servants in New York are generally Irish or Germans, if not colored persons. This, added to the high rate of wages in other employments, and the facility of settling in life, will account for the general complaint of the difficulty which is felt in getting servants who will stay--a complaint by no means reasonable, since part of the evil is created by the very persons who complain, and the remainder is counterbalanced by the prosperous condition' in which such a state of things places the great body of the community. That the blacks are as good servants as the whites, is evident from the advertisements that appear continually in the papers for colored cooks, colored coachman, colored footmen, &c.

Slaves are called servants by the same sort of euphemism that softens a lie into a fib. This is the reason,--and not from any notions of republican equality, that a man, who works for another calls, himself a "help," and his employer his "boss."*

In a little dramatic piece, performed in 1789 at New York, under the title of The Contrast," is a dialogue between two of the "aletaille", Jessamy and Jonathan.

Jess. "Votre tres humble serviteur, Monsieur! I understand Colonel Manly, the Yankee officer, has the honor of your services."
Jon. " Sir ?"

Jess. "I say, Sir, I understand that Colonel Manly has the honor of having you for a servant."
Jon. Servant! Sir. Do you take me for a neger?--I am Colonel Manly's waiter."

It is a mistake to suppose that the colored people are servants because they are degraded. It is true that many of them are servants, and too true that all of them are degraded in public opinion: but the former is no more a punishment than the latter a crime. The fact is, they are generally to be found in menial employments, because there are few, and hardly any, other open to them. No doubt such occupations are distasteful to the narrow-minded whites; but they are of great benefit to the others, who are really elevated by what is intended to lower them. As they come into closer contact with the more refined classes of society, and are obliged to pay more attention to external appearance, they acquire a better manner, and are more neatly dressed than the whites of the same rank. Hence it is, that to an unprejudiced eye a manifest superiority, in favor of this despised race, is found among what are called the lower classes. It is rarely that an Englishman, converses much with these people. Let him make the experiment, and he will acknowledge the truth of these observations.

Black servants are very convenient scapegoats for scape-graces. At a house where I lodged in New York, one of the master's numerous sons, (he had a family of eleven children,) had amused himself with tying a piece of wood by a string to a cat's tail. I saw the culprit making the best of his way up stairs, on hearing the parental objurgation increasing in loudness as the speaker approached. It was agreed, however, by all present, that the black boy had done it. I see clearly that the collusion was not confined to the youngsters. The accused, when I cross-questioned him afterwards, assured me that it was not he who had committed the offence; and that he was frequently blamed or punished, though equally innocent. His word would never be taken against of a white boy. The helot's denial of the truth must leave a salutary impression in its favor among these young Spartans!

In many respects the manners and customs in New York are rather French than English; and one is reminded by the dress and furniture, more of Paris than of London. It is usual to dine early, and visit in the evening, when there is less ceremony and display than in the morning, as we term it, at which time calls are not always welcome or willingly paid. The ladies do the honors of the house well; and every one is "at home". There are few places, indeed, where a stranger is less likely to be embarrassed; and, if any thing displeases him, it must be his own fault. A Londoner-and still more a Parisian--on his first arrival at this Queen of Trans-atlantic cities, is not a little surprised at the number of well-dressed young women he meets along the Broadway, without a chaperon or a servant. In no European city of equal population would the fair sex be permitted or inclined to enjoy such liberty as the state of public morals, and their own virtues, have secured to the ladies of New York. The lapse of a few years, however, to judge from what is already visible, will limit the promenade within the hours of day-light.

Two features struck me forcibly in the domestic character: --and, I presume, the remark has a wider application. The one is, that the different members of the family are firmly united together; the other, that they are at peace with the rest of society--I mean, that there is much attachment at home, and very little scandal abroad. Unlike the feudal system, which teaches us to rally round our chief, and attack our neighbors, private life resembles state government ; --compact in itself, inoffensive to others, and tributary to the general union. Its members "stick together," without "pulling other people to pieces." That respect for the feelings of others, which, in mixed society, induces mutual forbearance and forbids familiarity, is not, as in too many places, laid aside where it is most wanted. It is not a currency which falls in the house as it rises without. There seems to be a sort of correspondence between the political institutions of the country and its family arrangements. No privilege is annexed to birth, and no inequalities exist, but what may be traced to causes which must be admitted to be just and natural.

There are two features in the national character that few strangers fail to observe; and, as I often heard the justice of the imputation acknowledged -- particularly by those who are "most exempt from both failings (it would be indelicate to bring my friends into public court as witnesses,) I have reason to think the. remark is correct. The Americans are too anxious to make money, and too apt to spoil the children. Parental affection may, perhaps, be the cause of the one, as it is of the other, though it is hardly consistent with any rational object it my view, to "heap up riches," and make those who are to "gather then in" unfit to employ them properly--to increase both the quantity of temptation and the chances of yielding. It was truly painful to see how fretful and restless the children were made by this inconsiderate indulgence. I have known them to lose all the pleasures of a little excursion, because they could not get what was in fact unattainable, and what they never would have asked for, if their unreasonable wishes had not been habitually complied with. I shall not readily forget an interesting child I saw at an hotel, crying on the staircase, as if her little heart would break - on inquiring of her elder sister, who was below, what was the matter, she said-" It is only because she will not go up stairs alone." I told her, she ought not to indulge her, as she was old enough to find her way by herself:-- "So I think," was her reply, "but if papa was here, he would make me go with her." The boys are much more spoiled than the girls, and that is the case pretty much all the world over. As if a "male child" were really and truly of more value than a female, more notice is taken of it. When one of these spoiled children cries, it is usually quieted with a sugar-plum. The consumption of confectionery is thus in a state of progressive increase. Sweetmeats, like tobacco, are first used as a remedy, and then as a luxury; the one is just as good as a styptic for tears, as the other is in curing the tooth-ache. Both, at last, become necessaries, and are continued when there are neither tears to be shed, nor teeth to ache. Whenever these pitiable little beings make their appearance at the dinner-table in the hotels, there is sure to be pouting or squalling, because they have got something to eat they do not want, or want something they cannot get. I had, unfortunately, an opportunity of watching for three weeks the way in which a little girl of two years old was managed by her parents. When with her father, who was kind and assiduous in supplying all her wants and whims, she was constantly whining out, "Ma! ma!" when with her mother, her cry was " Pa! pa!" with equal pertinacity, her preference for the absent parent being meted out with the nicest impartiality. Both pursued the same method to quiet her;-- not by taking her at once to the other, or telling her she must not be indulged; but by striving to coax her attention to some other object, and keeping up in her mind a continued alternation of excitement and disappointment. The poor thing was thus systematically taught evasion and deception, and her request was met by the same want of rational consideration, whether it were proper or capricious. The answer to any observation upon the effects of indulgence is-- "poor creatures! they will soon have hardships enough; a little indulgence now can to them no harm:" a singular sort of preparation for a world that is thus acknowledged to require self-control or resignation in all who are to pass through it. They manage their horses differently:-- they accustom them, at the earliest age, to the saddle and the bit; and teach them when young, to bear and obey. The result in both cases is what might be expected. Their children are plagues, and their horses admirable. It might really be thought that common sense had nothing to do with the treatment of youth and that there were no years of discretion but what have been fixed by legislative enactment. Men are governed by names; and because, by a perversion of language, "childish" and "foolish" mean the same thing, "child" and "fool" are taken to be convertible terms: and language, which is fitted for nothing but to amuse the one, is too often employed to instruct the other.

The women are good-looking and amiable but their beauty is not like their temper, the better for keeping. Though few are "fair" as well as "fat " at "forty," there has been a good deal of exaggeration on this point. A young English officer, who was making a forced march through the country, observed to me one day that they appeared to him neither impassioned nor susceptible; because they exhibited little emotion at dramatic representations, and upon other occasions where the fine arts address themselves to the senses. A Frenchman, who had enjoyed more leisure and more opportunities for judging, expressed an opinion as opposite to the former as the vivacity observable in the native country of the one to the phlegm in that of the other. Human nature is much the same here as she is on either side of the British Channel. Many women, who seem cold as flint in general, give out fire enough when they find a, "blade," that suits them.

Much more regard is paid in the United States to dress and external appearance than with us. This proceeds from the same source as the love of money. Where no distinction is attached to rank or birth, it is natural that other "outward and visible signs" should supply their places, and be proportionately valued. Fashion has, unhappily, despotic sway in these matters; and the imitative principle, as it descends, is not likely to elevate the character, or increase the happiness of those below. There must be a commensurate sacrifice somewhere, when milliners charge high prices and give low wages. I have known a whole family living in a garret, and the mother borrowing a few shillings to buy a pound of tea, while the daughters were vying in the Broadway with the wives of wealthy merchants, and "fishing" for admiration with silks, and ribbons, and all the arts of the toilette. It is curious to observe the difference of meaning affixed to the same word by the different classes of society. To one all above, to its opposite, all below, a certain point, were gentlemen and ladies: to both, the rest of the world was made up of men and women. "Are you the man," said a driver to Duke Bernard of Saxe-Weimar, "that is to go in that carriage?" "Yes." "Then I am the gentleman to drive you." A young female of New York, while looking over an English prayer book, was much shocked with that expression in the marriage service-" Wilt thou have this woman to thy wedded wife?" She insisted upon it, with all the dignity of offended rank, that the phrase ought to be, "Wilt thou have this lady," &c. With us, and from what I have observed it is the same with our Gallic neighbor, it is considered vulgar to confound the genus with the species, by using these words on every occasion, and to shew so much solicitude about titles, which defeat their own object by repetition and misapplication. In the same way we look upon it as a proof of rusticity, to make frequent use of the term Sir! or Madam! In America the custom is so general, that it takes some time to be reconciled.to it. It is probable that the different practices have some reference

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