Both the persona of the tourist and the purpose of the visit virtually defines the resulting impression of America. These very individual experiences were then transferred into their writings. A well-to-do Scottish aristocratic lady is going to see things differently from an English phrenologist here to lecture, or a newly immigrated German teacher heading west to find his fortune. Through close examination of the individual's writing we will ascertain as much as possible about the writer to determine how his or her personality, disposition and status affected their observations. To be true to the writers themselves, there will be no use of secondary texts and biographical information will be limited. We will try to allow the words and their contexts speak for themselves.
The writers included in this site reflect an attempt to cover the range of people that were in the United States in the 1830's. The travelers fall into a variety of categories. They include two scientists, an actress, a political reformer, a German teacher, an aristocratic lady, and two authors. Some are here simply to tour, others came to make money, and a few came to examine the workings of democracy. Several wrote their impressions for immediate publication, while some published years later, and one never saw his work go to press in his lifetime. The majority of the group is from the upper classes of Britain. Although this is not as comprehensive a group as could be drawn, it is somewhat reflective of tourism at the time. The English were fascinated with the fledgling States and only the upper class could afford to travel and had the leisure to write and the resources to publish their works. It is for this reason that the list is weighted in favor of the wealthy.
A wide range of variables occur among these eight writers. When this range is coupled with the vast and diverse country of the United States it is not easy to discern a clear picture of what America meant to these people. Many of the writers themselves acknowledged the problem of representing an entire country within a single text and armed with only the images of a single mind. In his introduction, George Combe expounds on the problem of creating an opinion of an entire country from one incident, as he finds other authors have done. He even furnishes examples of erroneous assumptions he has made during his own travels in the past. He concludes that although he sees his work as true, it is most likely a combination of right and wrong impressions and he can only hope the number of correct observations is in the majority.
Harriet Martineau also recognizes the impossibility of her task. She begins by quoting the Edinburgh Review:
"To seize a character, even that of one man, in its life and secret mechanism, requires a philosopher; to delineate it with truth and impressiveness is work for a poet...He courageously depicts his own optical delusions; notes this to be incomprehensible, that other to be insignificant; much to be good, much to be bad, and most of all indifferent; and so, with a few flowing strokes, completes a picture, which, though it may not resemble any possible object, his countrymen are to take it for a national portrait" (47).
Understandably then, the accounts of America are quite divergent. However, among the discrepancies, many telling similarities emerge. These make up the categories of this site--Character, Habits, Education, The Press, Nature and Industry. I have concentrated on these similarities as they are what strike very different travelers as distinctive about America. Though their opinions on each topic differ, the Europeans still broach the same subjects.
Within and between these chosen topics run many thematic and ideological impressions of America. The most recurrent are: the importance of equality, the fast pace and general bustle of America, the newness of everything, the attention paid to business and wealth, the practical nature of Americans, and the kindness of Americans. To varying degrees, these ideas filter into the traveler's accounts from examination of eating habits to electing officials to riding in a stagecoach and underlie each writer's overall feeling of what America is.
By comparing each writer's take on a certain subject, a collage-like picture of the United States in the 1830's will emerge. This will be a many faceted image, and one that will change as travelers move through the decade. Some impressions will stand out clearly and others will remain inconclusive.
The categories into which traveler's perceptions are placed are by no means complete. For a look at race, women, or the sites of America in the 1830's consult one of the other sites that are a part of the AS@UVA project on Tocqueville's America:
This site is designed so that any point can be examined individually; however, for a more comprehensive understanding it is best to begin at the top and work down through the sections.