Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Social and Moral Condition of Washington

A Washington correspondent of the New York World answers the questions, “Have the Northern army and Northern supremacy benefited or injured Washington?  Have they brought to the Southern border the best or the worst of humanites?” as follows:

Something of the best certainly.  I have before written of the intellectual and social innovations storming Washington under convoy of a Republican dynasty and patriot army of occupation.  Of the misty departure, the gradual lessening and withdrawal from a thousand rented houses, of dresses gorgeous with gold and scarlet emblazonings, diamonds glistening on full imperious bosoms, wreaths, rioting, rampageous bluster, and other efflorescence of the Southern “Master-race.”  Of the substitution, in their stead, of modest and graceful fashions, neutral tints, figures, whose close bodiced whiteness must be guessed at from the stainless faces and golden hair above them the quiet tone of a higher breeding, the courtesies and charities and ease of the most civilized modern life.

Now are the metal revolutions less noteworthy.  “The old order changeth, yielding place to new,” and by favor of the latter our poets, scholars, and thinkers are having their time of political rule and remuneration.  It seems odd to find within the Ionic porches of the Government money factory such a gathering of bookmen, old and young, as I can name; to see the veteran Pierpont, and “Peter Schlemil,” and O’Connor – the talented Boston essayist and tale writer – and Piatt, who with Howells (now consul at Venice,) published the most promising volume of poems yet given us from the West – and Chilton, and Dr. Elder, et alii sim – all hopefully engaged in signing, cutting, or recording government notes and bonds, preparing tax schedules or in some other way laboring from 9 till 4 daily, Sundays excepted, in the joint behalf of Mercury and the republic.  Stepping across the yard, and entering the library of the State Department, one is assisted in his examination of parchment treaties and Puffendorff by J. C. Derby, so long in the front rank of New York publishers, now Mr. Seward’s librarian, and as ever, though not a soldier, bearded like the pard.  Already, on Pennsylvania Avenue, Fred. Cozzens’ store, to which Sparrow-grass has transported his catawbas and cabanas and genial self, is the lounging place of many of the afore-named gentry.  At the White house, of a morning, you will perhaps meet N. P. Willis in the reception room; but in Mr. Nicolay’s up-stair sanctum are sure to find John Hay, whose Atlantic papers are written with such purity of style and feeling, at his desk as under secretary to the President.  Then, among women writers, there is Mr. Prentice’s favorite contributor, nee Sallie M. Bryan, now wife of the aforesaid Piatt; and Mrs. Donn Piatt, otherwise “Bell Smith Abroad;” Mrs. Devereux Umstead and Mrs. Kirkland; and as of their male compeers, plenty of others whom I do not just now remember.  And of artists, there are Leutze, hard at work upon his twenty thousand dollar picture; Miss Lander, the sculptor, sister to Gen. Fred., who captured so many Colonels last Friday; and the Vermont sculptor, Larkin Meade, whose “Green Mountain boy” is now exhibiting at Philip & Solomon’s.  And the hall of the Smithsonian has yielded surprised echoes this winter to ringing utterances of the representative Northerns – Emerson, Taylor, Curtis, Holland, and Greeley.  Everywhere, intermingled with the varying phases of success, misfortune, valor and contrivance evolved by the present life struggle, the Northern mind and heart have exercised pervading influence at the Capital.

But this has nothing to do with the demoralization of Washington, and sounds curiously, I suppose, as a prelude to statements under such a caption.  The caption itself is paradoxical. – Washington life has so long been a synonym for dissipation, extravagance, finesse and fraud, that to talk of demoralizing it is presenting a converse to the proverb about gilding refined gold and painting the lily – it is to speak of corrupting an aged egg or making thick the water of the Ohio river.  Yet the truth is as I write it.  Even Washington has been lowered from its average standard of morals by a year of military occupation.  And it is high time that some attempt at reform should be made by those in power – from the Provost Marshal to the Municipal Police.

Bear in mind that the present condition of the city is in no wise chargeable to the influences mentioned above.  It has come in spite of them; as not so bad as it would be without them.  It is perhaps to a certain extent inseperable from an Army in Waiting.  Perhaps there is not so much vice here as has rioted in Vienna, Paris, Lisbon, Berlin or Brussels during the historic periods of their military occupation.  But these are larger cities.  Here, where 6,000 buildings and eight times as many resident people constitute the town, the amount of vice and crime brought with and bred among an army of one hundred and fifty thousand men is frightfully concentrated and apparent.  Licentiousness, debauchery, and gambling have raged like the typhoid and contagious fevers of the camps. – Worse, the latter flourish inversely with good weather, and the former seem to increase continuously, maintain a rising average through rain, hail, sleet, and sunshine.  I think the atmosphere is less tainted with the odor of fraudulent contracting, peculation and bribery than it was in A. D. 1861; but the pestilent fogs of vice are gathering in such noisome thickness as to indicate it well for the spiritual safety of our officers that active operations are close at hand.  With the motion of actual warfare comes a cleansing moral process, none but stagnant waters are spread with scum and slime.

– Published in The Burlington Weekly Hawk-Eye, Burlington, Iowa, Saturday, March 1, 1862, p. 3

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