The Inhuman Condition
A British writer praises-then pillories-the Montgomery County of 1830
In 1830, Frances Trollope—a petite Englishwoman whose acidic wit would later earn her the sobriquet “Old Madam Vinegar”—arrived in Montgomery County with three children in tow. She had come to summer at Stonington, a friend’s Potomac estate near Great Falls.
Immediately, Trollope was taken by the beauty of the Montgomery County countryside. It “perfectly astonished us by the profusion of her wild fruits and flowers,” she later wrote. Cedars, tulip poplars, junipers and tall, ancient oaks shaded the paths that wound throughout the estate. Strawberries in full bloom, violets, anemones and wild pinks covered the ground.
But it was Great Falls that made the biggest impression. She and a small party trekked 2 miles through the woods from the manor house to get there, where she beheld a spectacle unlike any seen in England.
“The falls of the Potomac are awfully sublime,” Trollope wrote. “The dark deep gulf which yawns before you, the foaming, roaring cataract, the eddying whirlpool, and the giddy precipice, all seem to threaten life, and to appall the senses. Yet it was a great delight to sit upon a high and jutting crag, and look and listen.”
If the natural landscape was captivating to Trollope, the human landscape was not. She saw fields worn out by years of tobacco, lying fallow and unproductive. Farmsteads were ramshackle affairs, hardly reflective of the fabled land of opportunity. Every home she visited seemed to subsist on four staples: pork fat, salted herrings, cornbread and whiskey. “And in almost every cottage, a slave,” Trollope observed.
She paid a visit to a young Potomac family with two children, “a female slave, and two young lads, slaves also.” The home stood in the middle of 300 acres of hardscrabble land. “The house was built of wood, and looked as if the three slaves might have overturned it, had they pushed hard against the gable end,” Trollope wrote. Inside was one 12-foot-square room with another adjoining it, hardly larger than a closet. The slaves lived in the separate kitchen out back, “a shanty, a black hole without any window.”
The sight of slavery profoundly affected Trollope. “And it is not the less painfully felt from hearing upon every breeze the mocking words, ‘All men are born free and equal.’ ”
Trollope recorded these impressions in her 1832 book, Domestic Manners of the Americans, a virulent attack on what she believed was the hypocrisy of an America “with one hand hoisting the cap of liberty, and with the other flogging their slaves.”
The book was a sensation in Great Britain. “I am convinced that there is no writer who has so well and so accurately (I need not add entertainingly) described America,” Charles Dickens raved.
Here in the States, the reaction was not so warm. “Mrs. Trollope was…handsomely cursed and reviled by the nation for telling the truth,” Mark Twain wrote.
Trollope went on to pen a number of melodramatic novels revolving around such hot-button social issues as the impact of industrialization and the plight of the factory worker. But none achieved the same level of success and notoriety as Domestic Manners.
Mark Walston is an author and historian raised in Bethesda and now living in Olney.