John Henry Hobart on Exoticism and Patriotism, 1825

In the Fall of 1825, John Henry Hobart, Episcopal bishop of New York, preached a sermon addressing the relationship of the United States to other countries, particularly England. The 1820s saw the publication of travelogues from American literary luminaries, such as Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, and others which stoked a mania for European travel and forms of socio-political exoticism. Hobart saw celebration of Europe as problematic, and he went so far as to address the necessity of patriotic affection for the American republic from the pulpit.

The bishop understood parishioners had “perhaps sighed for those distant climes, whose skies are represented as glowing with serene and almost perpetual radiance , and whose breezes bear health and cheeriness to the decaying and languid frame.” He admitted that “in these respects, it would be little less than absurd to urge a superiority over some other lands, or altogether an equality with them.” Natural beauty in the Old World routinely drew American travelers and American exultation. The Alps, the villas of old, and the great romantic landscapes of Europe certainly impressed even the most patriotic Americans, but Hobart refused to concede that the United States was not as beautiful as Europe, and whatever beauty existed in Europe carried with it the weight of eons of ecclesiastical and political oppression. “We boast not indeed of Alps rising on Alps with wild and snow-crowned summits, sheltering within their precipitous and lofty ridges, vallies that beam with the liveliest verdure, and bear the richest productions of the earth.” But even “the warmest admirer of nature, after having feasted on these tremendously sublime or exquisitely beautiful scenes,” still turned “with refreshing pleasure to the contemplation of the varied and bold outlines that mark the extensive mountains which range through our own country.” Travelers in the US observed “highly cultivated fields that occupy their vallies and variegate the massy forests which mount up their sides.” Great rovers proudly traversed the plains, “or burst through the lofty hills which oppose them.” Skies, “if not always as genial,” were “often as serene and glowing as that of the most favoured of the southern regions of Europe, and which illumines the fertile soil that it nourishes and enriches.”

For all of Europe’s natural beauty “one charm of American scenery” for Hobart more than repaid “the absence of these monuments of the power, the grandeur, the wealth, and the taste of the rich and the mighty of other lands and which no other land affords.” In the American republic, “the sloping sides and summits of our hills, and the extensive plains that stretch before our view, are studded with the substantial, neat, and commodious dwellings of freemen—independent freemen, owners of the soil.” American freemen walked proudly “over their land” and exultingly said “It is mine; I hold it tributary to no one; it is mine.” There were no landscapes in the American Union, argued Hobart, “alloyed by the painful consideration, that the castle which towers in grandeur was erected by the hard labour of degraded vassals”or that the “magnificent” structures of “the spreading and embellished domain, presents a painful contrast to the meaner habitations, and the miserable hovels, that mark a dependent , and sometimes a wretched peasantry.”

Hobart’s cautions about glorifying the moral legacy of the Old World gave way to a patriotic exclamation of American superiority from the pulpit. It was, declared the bishop, the United States’ “civil and religious institutions that we may, without the imputation of vainglory, boast the preeminence.” Actual observation, he asserted, compelled “every traveler through those nations of the continent that now submissively yield to the yoke of despotic power mild and benevolent as in some instances is its administration, to understand, “however reluctant, the full force of the remark, which he may have thought evil discontent alone had raised, that the labour and independence and freedom and happiness of the many are sacrificed to the ambition and power and luxury of the few.”[1]

[1] John Henry Hobart, The United States of America Compared with Some European Countries, Particularly England: In a Discourse Delivered in Trinity Church, and in St. Paul’s and St. John’s Chapels, in the City of New York, October, 1825 (New York: T. and J. Swords, 1826), 8-11.


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