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Impearls: AFitW: Metropolitan Detroit

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Earthdate 2006-07-26

Metropolitan Detroit   by Alexis de Tocqueville

At ten o’clock in the morning of the 19th July we boarded the steamboat Ohio going towards Detroit.  A strong breeze was blowing from the northwest and gave the waters of Lake Erie the very look of the waves of a stormy ocean.  To the right stretched a limitless horizon.  To the left we hugged the southern shores of the lake so close that we often came within earshot of it.  These shores were perfectly level and different from those of all the lakes I have ever chanced to visit in Europe.  Neither were they any more like the shores of the sea.  Immense forests shaded them and formed round the lake as it were a thick belt that was seldom broken.  From time to time, however, the country suddenly changes its look.  Just round a wood one sees the elegant spire of a clock tower, houses striking in their whiteness and cleanness, and shops.  Two paces further on, the primeval and apparently impenetrable forest reclaims its dominion and again reflects its foliage in the waters of the lake.

Those who have passed through the United States will find in this picture a striking emblem of American society.  Everything there is abrupt and unexpected; everywhere, extreme civilisation borders and in some sense confronts nature left to run riot.  That is something that one cannot conceive in France.  As for me, in my traveller’s illusions — and what class of man has not its own — I was imagining something quite different.  I had noticed in Europe that the more or less withdrawn position in which a province or town is placed, its wealth or its poverty, its smallness or its extent, exercised an immense influence on the ideas, the morals, and whole civilisation of its inhabitants, and often caused a difference of several centuries between the various parts of the same area.

I supposed that it was like that, but to a[n] even greater extent, in the New World, and that a country peopled as is America in an incomplete and partial fashion ought to show all conditions of existence and provide a picture of society in all its ages.  America, according to me, was then the only country where one could follow step by step all the transformations which social conditions have brought about for man and where it was possible to discover something like a vast chain descending ring by ring from the opulent patrician of the town right down to the savage in the wilds.  It was there, in a word, that I counted on finding the history of the whole of humanity framed within a few degrees of longitude.

Nothing is true in this picture.  Of all the countries of the world America is the least adapted to provide the sight that I went to seek.  In America, even more than in Europe, there is one society only.  It may be rich or poor, humble or brilliant, trading or agricultural, but it is made up everywhere of the same elements; it has been levelled out by an egalitarian civilisation.  The man you left behind in the streets of New York, you will find him again in the midst of almost impenetrable solitude: same dress, same spirit, same language, same habits and the same pleasures.  Nothing rustic, nothing naive, nothing that smells of the wilds, nothing even that resembles our villages.  The reason for this peculiar state of affairs is easy to understand.  The parts of the territories which have been longest and most completely peopled have reached a high degree of civilisation.  Education has been lavishly and profusely bestowed.  The spirit of equality has stamped a peculiarly uniform pattern on the habits of private life.  Now, note this well, it is precisely these same men who yearly go to people the wilds.  In Europe each man lives and dies on the ground where he was born.  In America nowhere does one meet the representatives of a race that has multiplied in isolation having long lived there unknown to the world and left to its own devices.  Those who dwell in isolated places arrived there yesterday.  They came bringing with them the morals, the ideas and the needs of civilisation.  They only compound with savage life to the extent that the nature of things makes absolutely necessary.  Hence the oddest contrasts.  One goes without transition from the wilds into the street of a city, from the most savage scenes to the most smiling aspects of civilisation.  If night overtaking you does not force you to take shelter under a tree, you have a good chance of reaching a village where you will find everything down to French fashions and poor copies of boulevards.  The merchant of Buffalo or of Detroit is as well stocked as the one of New York; the factories of Lyon work for the one as for the other.  When you leave the main roads you force your way down barely trodden paths.  Finally, you see a field cleared, a cabin made from half-shaped tree trunks admitting the light through one narrow window only.  You think that you have at last reached the home of the American peasant.  Mistake.  You make your way into this cabin that seems the asylum of all wretchedness but the owner of this place is dressed in the same clothes as yours and he speaks the language of towns.  On his rough table are books and newspapers; he himself is anxious to take you on one side to know exactly what is happening in old Europe and asks you to tell him what has most struck you in his country.  He will scribble on the paper a plan of campaign for the Belgians, and will solemnly tell you what still needs to be done to make France prosperous.  One might think one was meeting a rich landowner who had come to spend just a few nights in a hunting lodge.  And in fact the log cabin is only a temporary shelter for the American, a concession circumstances have forced on him for the moment.  When the fields that surround him are in full production, and the new owner has time to concern himself with the amenities of life, a more spacious dwelling and one better adapted to his needs will replace the log-house and make a home for those numerous children who will also go out one day to make themselves a dwelling in the wilds.

But to come back to our journey.  We sailed slowly along the whole day in sight of the shores of Pennsylvania, and later of Ohio.  We stopped for a moment at Presqu’Ile, now called Erie.  It is there that the Pittsburgh canal will end.  By means of this undertaking the whole execution of which is, they say, easy and now assured, the Mississippi will be connected to the river of the north, and the wealth of Europe will flow freely along the five hundred leagues of land that lie between the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean.

In the evening, the weather having turned favourable, we moved quickly towards Detroit across the middle of the lake.  On the following morning we were in sight of the little island called Middle Sister, near to which Commodore Perry won a celebrated naval victory over the English.  [Footnote:  Battle of Lake Erie (10th September 1814) in the war between the United States and Great Britain.]

Soon afterwards the level coast of Canada seemed to be moving quickly towards us, and we saw the Detroit River opening in front of us and the houses of Fort Malden in the distance.  This place, founded by the French, still bears many traces of its origin.  The houses are placed and shaped like those of our peasants.  The Catholic bell-tower with a cock on top rises in the middle of the hamlet.  One might think it a village near Caen or Evreux.  A strange sight turned our attention away from these sentimental reminders of France: on the bank to our right was a Scotch soldier mounting guard in full uniform.  It was the uniform made so famous by the field of Waterloo.  Feather in cap, jacket, all complete; his clothes and arms glinted in the sunlight.  To our left, as if on purpose to point the contrast, two stark naked Indians, their bodies streaked with dyes, rings in their noses, came up at the same moment from the opposite bank.  They were in a little bark canoe with a coverlet for sail.  Letting their frail boat run with wind and current, they shot like an arrow towards our ship and in an instant had turned round it.  Then they went off quietly to fish near the English soldier who, still glinting and unmoving, seemed put there as the symbol of the high civilisation of Europe in arms.

We reached Detroit at three o’clock.  Detroit is a little town of two or three thousand souls, founded by the Jesuits in the middle of the forest in 1710, and still having a great number of French families.

By this time we had crossed the whole State of New York, and gone a hundred leagues over Lake Erie; by now we were touching the limits of civilisation, but we had no idea whatsoever whither to wend our way next.  To get information was not as easy as one might have thought.  To break through almost impenetrable forests, to cross deep rivers, to brave pestilential marshes, to sleep out in the damp woods, those are exertions that the American readily contemplates, if it is a question of earning a guinea; for that is the point.  But that one should do such things from curiosity is more than his mind can take in.  Besides, living in the wilds, he only prizes the works of man.  He will gladly send you off to see a road, a bridge or a fine village.  But that one should appreciate great trees and the beauties of solitude, that possibility completely passes him by.

So nothing is harder than to find anyone able to understand what you want.  You want to see forests, our hosts said smiling, go straight ahead and you will find what you want.  They are there all right around the new roads and well-trod paths.  As for Indians, you will see only too many in our public places and in the streets; there is no need to go very far for that.  Those here are at least beginning to get civilised and have a less savage look.  We were not slow to realize that we should not get the truth out of them by a frontal attack and that it was necessary to manoeuvre.

So we went to call on the official appointed by the United States to see to the sale of the still uninhabited land that covers the district of Michigan; we represented ourselves to him as people who, without any very decided intention of settling in the country, might yet have distant interest in knowing what land cost and how it was situated.  Major Middle, that was his name, this time understood wonderfully well what we wanted to do, and entered at once into a mass of details to which we paid avid attention.  “This part here,” he said to us, pointing out on the map the St. Joseph River which, after many a bend, flows into Lake Michigan, “seems to me the best suited for your scheme; the soil is good there; there are already some fine villages established there, and the road leading thither is so well maintained that public conveyances traverse it daily.”  “Good”! we said to ourselves.  “Now we know where not to go, at least unless we want to visit the wilds in a mail van.”  We thanked Mr. Biddle for his advice, and asked him with an air of casualness and a pretended scorn, what part of the district had so far least attracted the attention of emigrants.  “In this direction,” he told us without attaching more importance to his answer than we to our question, “towards the northwest.  As far as Pontiac and in the neighbourhood of that village some fairly good settlements have been established.  But you must not think of settling further on; the ground is covered by almost impenetrable forest which stretches endlessly to the northwest, where one only finds wild beasts and Indians.  The United States are always considering opening up a road; but so far it has been barely begun and stops at Pontiac.  I say again, that is a part you should not think about.”  We thanked Mr. Biddle again for his good advice, and left determined to take it in just the contrary sense.  We could not contain ourselves for joy at having at last discovered a place to which the torrent of European civilisation had not yet come.

On the next day, the 23rd July, we hastened to hire two horses.  As we contemplated keeping them for ten days or so, we wanted to leave a sum of money with their owner; but he refused to take it, saying that we could pay on our return.  He showed no alarm.  Michigan is surrounded on all sides by lakes and wilds; he let us in to a sort of riding-school of which he held the door.  When we had bought a compass as well as provisions, we set out on our way, rifle on shoulder, as thoughtless of the future and happy as a pair of schoolboys leaving college to spend their holidays at their father’s house.



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