The hurrying about in pursuit of wealth ~ How this trait leads to immorality
The serious manner of Americans ~ Their underlying kindness
Informality in social situations ~ Physical appearance

It is impossible to draw a complete character sketch of "the typical American." The following is a collection of the overarching impressions of Americans from all regions that were repeatedly observed by the travelers. This rendition of how an American appeared to European travelers in the 1830's is not a completely synthesized picture, but a group of traits some that are related to one another and others that stand curiously alone.

Without exception, travelers to the United States found the most striking feature of the American character to be the obsession with business and wealth. The travelers cite this preoccupation with money as the reason for other "American" traits, such as their hurried manner, serious expression, and even their loose morals. Some writers attribute the quest for riches and commitment to hard work to their puritan roots while others found the business practices of Americans completely sacrilegious. Surprisingly, many travelers also see a dependable, honest kindness running through this severity and downright greed. Another curious observation is that despite their personal stiffness, in regards to decorum in social situations, Americans are very informal. This is a discrepancy none of the travelers recognize or account for. Lastly, in physical appearance, the Europeans find the women ugly and Americans in general of a gray and sallow complexion. They also suffer from bad posture.

The American preoccupation with money cuts across regional and class lines and inevitably leads to dishonesty. Thomas Hamilton goes so far as to contend that Americans chose the dollar sign over the cross. "Whenever his love of money comes in competition with his zeal for religion, the latter is sure to give way...The whole race of Yankee peddlers...are proverbial for dishonesty" (131)

The German teacher Frederick Gustorf denounces Americans as "repulsive" and explains his experience with boarding house keepers in Cincinnati. "They have no character, money is their only objective...They have no friendship, hospitality or respect for anyone" (29).

The travelers saw this greed not only as the cause for immorality, but also as the root of the coldness of Americans and their inability to indulge in recreation or relaxation. "To a New Englander, business is pleasure--the only pleasure he cares about" (Hamilton, 120). Hamilton found this austerity not only in the North, but also in the "furrowed and haggard countenances" of Southern workers (365). Margaret Hall is not quite so severe in her appraisal, but she does express her shock at finally finding a "Yankee who could joke" and then realizing it was indeed an Englishman (26). This somberness is noticed universally by the travelers, and goes hand in hand with the Americans' disdain for relaxation. Gustorf observes "The German type of mineral baths will never succeed in this country unless the Americans find a need for relaxation and recreation" (32).


Broadway, New York City, 1854.

Some of the journalists see in the stiffness of the Americans the ties to their religious roots and an unwavering commitment to honesty and civil service. Underlying these traits is also a genuine, heartfelt kindness that is frequently complimented by all the travelers. Combe observes: "We have found the servants and landlords in the inns of New England cold and reserved in their manners" (38). However, he goes on to attest to their intrinsic amicability and overall kindness and sees their serious manner as a remnant of their Puritan origins. In the same way, Alexander Farkas sees the removal of artificiality and the political responsibility that is part of being a citizen in a democratic nation as the main reasons for the Americans' stiffness.

"They are unschoooled in the nuances of etiquette, their bodies are stiff, unbending; they do not know how to express joy or sorrow in their facial expression. But in spite of coldness or awkwardness there is something in their eyes and demeanor which hints at a simple inner dignity. The kindness one senses is the kind of genuine sentiment that cannot be acquired by artifice" (89).

Juxtaposed to this personal austerity is a pervasive social informality. The travelers recognized the lack of decorum as the direct result of a pragmatic, democratic society. However, they never saw its conflict with the stern personalities of the Americans. Alexander Farkas is astonished and pleased with what he regards as a lack of "surface veneer." When he pays a visit to President Jackson he is overwhelmed with the absence of decorum. "His simple manners and friendly behavior made us forget we were talking to the chief executive of thirteen million people" (183).


The White House, 1830's

The other upper class travelers, even though they wish that the Americans were more loose and jovial, are disturbed by the lack of formality in American society.

"It is the invariable custom in this country for all the passengers of a stage-coach to eat at the same table, and the time allowed for meals is so short, that unless John dines with his master, the chances are that he goes without dinner altogether. I had already learned that, in the United States, no man can put forward pretensions to superiority of any kind, without exciting unpleasant observation" (Hamilton, 226).
"One of the greatest discomforts of a boarding house, to me at least, is the difficulty of finding fault when the lady sits at the head of the table as one of the company" (Hall, 255).

Physical appearance may not seem like a subject worthy of mention, but as stated above, there topics have been induced by the travelers journals and not an external force. Since almost all of the tourists feel it necessary to mention the appearance of the Americans, then it merits inclusion. Most of the travelers found American women to be coarse and ugly, but more consistently, they found the whole population to have a sallow look about them. These observations come from different classes, nationalities and sexes and yet, they are surprisingly similar. While Gustorf simply states that American women are ugly, the others try to pinpoint why.

"The greater sallowness of complexion here is attributed to the want of humidity in the air" (Lyell, 108).

"The women here, like those of most warm climates, ripen very early and decay proportionately soon" (Kemble, 30).

"But the climate is deadly and pestial; they are worn and sallow" (Hamilton, 331).

Another marked observation on physical appearance is the bad posture of American men that both Margaret Hall and Thomas Hamilton notice at West Point.

"I might also observe, that in the carriage of the cadets was less soldierlike than might be wished. In most of them I remarked a certain slouch of the shoulders...in truth the remark is applicable to the whole population" (Hamilton, 389).

"They hold themselves precisely inverse from the carriage of English Militiamen. Their chests one and all are concave instead of convex and this applies to every American of the male species that I have yet seen" (Hall, 37).

These comments were not just the result of the two travelers viewing the same set of sorry cadets, as their visits were separated by three years.



Introduction ~ The Travelers and Their Writings ~ On the Road ~ Habits
Education ~ The Press ~ Nature, Industry and the American West