Travels in North-America, in the Years 1780, 1781, and 1782

Author: François Jean de Chastellux  | Date: 1787

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Spirit of American Democracy (1783)



. . . IF . . . we wish to form an idea of the American Republic we must be careful not to confound the Virginians, whom warlike as well as mercantile, an ambitious as well as speculative genius brought upon the continent, with the New Englanders who owe their origin to enthusiasm; we must not expect to find precisely the same men in Pensylvania, where the first colonists thought only of keeping and cultivating the deserts, and in South Carolina where the production of some exclusive articles fixes the general attention on external commerce, and establishes unavoidable connexions with the old world. Let it be observed, too, that agriculture which was the occupation of the first settlers, was not an adequate means of assimilating the one with the other, since there are certain species of culture which tend to maintain the equality of fortune, and others to destroy it.

These are sufficient reasons to prove that the same principles, the same opinions, the same habits do not occur in all the thirteen United States, although they are subject nearly to the same force [sort?] of government. For, notwithstanding that all their constitutions are not similar, there is through the whole a democracy, and a government of representation, in which the people give their suffrage by their delegates. But if we chuse to overlook those shades which distinguish this confederated people from each other; if we regard the thirteen States only as one nation, we shall even then observe that she must long retain the impression of those circumstances, which have conducted her to liberty. Every philosopher acquainted with mankind, and who has studied the springs of human action, must be convinced that, in the present revolution, the Americans have been guided by two principles, whilst they imagined they were following the impulse of only one. He will distinguish, a positive and a negative principle, in their legislation, and in their opinions. I call that principle, positive, which in so enlightened a moment as the present, Reason alone could dictate to a people making choice of that government which suited them the best; I call that a negative principle which they oppose to the laws and usages of a powerful enemy for whom they had contracted a well founded aversion. Struck with the example of the inconveniences offered by the English government, they had recourse to the opposite extreme, convinced that it was impossible to deviate from it too much. . . . In England, a septennial parliament invites the King to purchase a majority on which he may reckon for a long period; the American assemblies therefore must be annual; on the other side of the water, the executive power, too uncontrolled in its action, frequently escapes the vigilance of the legislative authority; on this continent, each officer, each minister of the people must be under the immediate dependence of the assemblies, so that his first care on attaining office, will be to court the popular favour for a new election. Among the English, employments confer; and procure rank and riches, and frequently elevate their possessors to too great a height: among the Americans, offices neither conferring wealth, nor consideration, will not, it is true, become objects of intrigue or purchase, but they will be held in so little estimation as to make them avoided, rather than sought after, by the most enlightened citizens, by which means every employment will fall into the hands of new and untried men, the only persons who can expect to hold them to advantage.

In continuing to consider the thirteen United States under one general point of view, we shall observe still other circumstances which have influenced as well the principles of the government, as the national spirit. These thirteen States were at first colonies; now the first necessity felt in all rising colonies is population; I say in rising colonies, for I doubt much whether that necessity exists at present, so much as is generally imagined. Of this however I am very sure, that there will still be a complaint of want of population, long after the necessity has ceased; America will long continue to reason as follows: we must endeavour to draw foreigners amongst us, for which purpose it is indispensibly necessary to afford them every possible advantage; every person once within the State, shall be considered therefore as a member of that State, as a real citizen. Thus one year’s residence in the same place shall suffice to establish him an inhabitant, and every inhabitant shall have the right of voting, and shall constitute a part of the sovereign power; from whence it will result that this sovereignty will communicate and divide itself without requiring any pledge, any security from the person who is invested with it. This has arisen from not considering the possibility of other emigrants than those from Europe, who are supposed to fix themselves in the first spot where they may form a settlement; we shall one day however, see frequent emigrations from State to State; workmen will frequently transplant themselves, many of them will be obliged even to change situations from the nature of their employments, in which case it will not be singular to see the elections for a district of Connecticut, decided by inhabitants of Rhode island or New York.

Some political writers, especially the more modern, have advanced, that property alone should constitute the citizen. They are of opinion that he alone whose fortune is necessarily connected with its welfare has a right to become a memher of the State. In America, a specious answer is given to this reasoning; amongst us, say they, landed property is so easily acquired, that every workman who can use his hands, may be looked upon as likely soon to become a man of property. But can America remain long in her present situation? And can the regimen of her infant state agree with her, now she has assumed the virile robe?

The following, Sir, is a delicate question which I can only propose to a philosopher like you. In establishing amongst themselves a purely democratic government, had the Americans a real affection for a democracy? And if they have wished all men to be equal, is it not solely, because, from the very nature of things, they were themselves nearly in that situation? For to preserve a popular government in all its integrity, it is not sufficient, not to admit either rank or nobility, riches alone never fail to produce marked differences, by so much the greater, as there exist no others. Now such is the present happiness of America that she has no poor, that every man in it enjoys a certain ease and independence, and that if some have been able to obtain a smaller portion of them than others, they are so surrounded by resources, that the future is more looked to, than their present situation. Such is the general tendency to a state of equality; that the same enjoyments which would be deemed superfluous in every other part of the world, are here considered as necessaries. . . . Now, Sir, let us suppose that the increase of population may one day reduce your artizans to the situation in which they are found in France and England. Do you in that case really believe that your principles are so truly democratical, as that the landholders and the opulent, will still continue to regard them as their equals? . . . I shall ask you then, whether under the belief of possessing the most perfect democracy, you may not find that you have insensibly attained a point more remote from it, than every other Republic. . . . Now observe, Sir, that in your present form of government, you have not attached either sufficient grandeur, or dignity to any place, to render its possessor illustrious, still less the whole class from which he may be chosen. You have thrown far from you all hereditary honours, but have you bestowed sufficient personal distinctions? Have you reflected that these distinctions, far from being less considerable than those which took place among the Greeks and Romans, ought rather to surpass them? The reason of this is very obvious: the effect of honours and distinctions is by so much the more marked, as it operates on the greater number of men assembled together. . . . Men must be moved by some fixed principle; is it not better that this should be by vanity than interest? I have no doubt that love of country will always prove a powerful motive, but do not flatter yourself that this will long exist with the same spirit. The greatest efforts of the mind, like those of the body, are in resistance; and the same may happen with respect to the State, as in matters of opinion, to which we cease to be attached, when they cease to be contested.

Marquis [François Jean] de Chastellux, (London, 1787), II, 339–3510 passim.

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Chicago: François Jean de Chastellux, Travels in North-America, in the Years 1780, 1781, and 1782, trans. George Grieve in American History Told by Contemporaries, ed. Albert Bushnell Hart (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1902), 87–89. Original Sources, accessed July 16, 2024,

MLA: Chastellux, François Jean de. Travels in North-America, in the Years 1780, 1781, and 1782, translted by George Grieve, Vol. II, in American History Told by Contemporaries, edited by Albert Bushnell Hart, Vol. 3, New York, The Macmillan Company, 1902, pp. 87–89. Original Sources. 16 Jul. 2024.

Harvard: Chastellux, FJ, Travels in North-America, in the Years 1780, 1781, and 1782, trans. . cited in 1902, American History Told by Contemporaries, ed. , The Macmillan Company, New York, pp.87–89. Original Sources, retrieved 16 July 2024, from