Every Man a Ruler, And Yet Nothing Pleases

By Emanuel Howitt

Have we changed in 200 years in our rumbling, inchoate discontent as a nation? Not that much. In the fall of 1819, a 28-year-old Englishman named Emanuel Howitt came to the young United States to see if he might settle there. He didn’t much like what he found.

He and his brother traveled largely by foot with a horse to carry their belongings—through upstate New York, Pennsylvania and parts further west. He wrote accounts of their travels as letters to his sister, which were then collected in an obscure book, now available in the Library of Congress. https://www.loc.gov/resource/lhbtn.26839/?st=gallery This fragment, written about his travels southwest of Rochester, NY, captures an America still reeling from both the Revolutionary War and the brawls with England in 1812 and after. It is startling for its grimness and for its echoes of our current partisan bitterness and resentment.

I have persevered in my journey against every discouragement,—and the most trying of all is, the dejection of my companions,—in order to form a full and personal observation. I have seen many gradations in the condition of society; but this week has shewn me more perfect wretchedness than I ever before witnessed. We have travelled upwards of one hundred miles on foot,—lain out exposed to the heavy mists that fall here by night,—and by day walked over the most harassing road, under a consuming sun, with two meals a- day; but still this would be tolerable, could we discover anything like what we heard of America when in England, and of this part at New York. Hitherto, however, all is one scene of savage wilderness, sterility, and abject poverty. At the sight of an emigrant, all flock to proffer their farms; to an American, it is useless. If they are offered goods, they reply they want them, but they have no money.

Talk of the times,—they murmur; there is something amiss they cannot account for: one attributes it to the pride of the cities, whose inhabitants can wear nothing but silks, for which they drain the country of specie; another charges it to the banking system,—and a third, to the war. Some are democrats, some are federalist; but all are kings and nobles,—every man a ruler, and yet nothing pleases. Such is the happiness of this country. Here, at least, it is a dream and a phantom; and the further we seek it the further we are behind.