Front Page Titles (by Subject) LETTER VI.: PROGRESS OF THE STRUGGLE.—NEW POWERS. - Society, Manners and Politics in the United States
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LETTER VI.: PROGRESS OF THE STRUGGLE.—NEW POWERS. - Michel Chevalier, Society, Manners and Politics in the United States 
Society, Manners and Politics in the United States: Being a Series of Letters on North America, translated from the third Paris edition (Boston: Weeks, Jordan & Co., 1839).
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PROGRESS OF THE STRUGGLE.—NEW POWERS.
Baltimore, March 1, 1834.
Failures begin to be frequent in the United States, particularly in New York and Pennsylvania; the great commercial and manufacturing houses are shaking. Meanwhile the Senators and Representatives in Congress are making speeches on the crisis, its causes, and consequences. Three months have already been taken up in discussing the question, whether the Secretary of the Treasury had or had not the right to withdraw the public deposits from the vaults of the Bank, without that institution having given any just cause of complaint, and merely because it was strongly suspected of aristocratical tendencies. The resolutions which have given rise to these debates, have been referred by the Senate to the Committee on Finance, and by the House to the Committee of Ways and Means. Debates will rise on the reports of these committees, on petitions and memorials, and incidental matters, and, I am told, will last two or three months longer. This slowness is at first glance difficult to be understood, among a people, which, above all things, strives to save time, and which is so much given to haste and despatch, that its most suitable emblem would be a locomotive engine or a steamboat, just as the Centaurs were anciently confounded with their horses. From all the large towns of the North, committees appointed by great public meetings, bring to Washington memorials signed by thousands, calling for prompt and efficient measures to put an end to the crisis. On the other hand, the partisans of the Administration find fault with the prolixity of the legislators. The calmness, or rather phlegm, which the Americans have inherited from their English ancestors, is kept undisturbed in both houses of Congress, and the solemn debate goes on. One speaker for example, Mr Benton, occupied four sessions, four whole days, with his speech, which led Mr Calhoun to observe, that the Senator from Missouri took up more time in expressing his opinion on a single fact, than the French people had done in achieving a revolution. But these interminable delays ought not to be too lightly condemned, and for myself I only shrug my shoulders, when I hear some impatient individuals asserting that Congress would be more expeditious, were it not for the eight dollars a day which they receive during the session. This delay may seem irreconcileable with one of the distinctive traits of the American character, but in reality is imperiously demanded by the form and spirit of the government, by the institutions and political habits of the country.
The general discussion in Congress has no other object than to open a full and free public inquest, which enables each and all to make up an opinion. It gives rise to a discussion of the question by the innumerable journals in the United States (where there are 1200 political newspapers), by the twentyfour legislatures, each composed of two houses, and by the public meetings in the cities and towns. It is an animated exchange of arguments of every calibre and every degree, of contradictory resolutions, mixed up with applauses and hisses, of exaggerated eulogies and brutal invectives. A stranger, who finds himself suddenly thrown into the midst of this hubbub, is confounded and stupefied; he seems to himself to be present in the primeval or the final chaos, or at least at the general breaking up of the Union. But after a certain time some gleams of light break forth from these thick clouds, from the bosom of this confusion,—gleams, which the good sense of the people hails with joy, and which light up the Congress. We see here the realization of the Forum on an immense scale, the Forum with its tumult, its cries, its pasquinades, but also with its sure instincts, and its flashes of native and untaught genius. It is a spectacle, in its details, occasionally prosaic and repulsive, but, as a whole, imposing as the troubled ocean. In a country like this, it is impossible to avoid these delays; first, because it takes a long time to interchange words between the frontiers of Canada and the Gulf of Mexico, and secondly, because nothing is so dangerous as precipitation in a Forum, whether it only covers the narrow space between the Rostra and the Tarpeian Rock, or extends from Lake Champlain to the mouth of the Mississippi, and from the Illinois to the Cape of Florida. Unfortunately the session in the Forum lasts longer than usual this time. The demagogues have set the popular passions in violent agitation: the sovereign people has allowed itself to be magnetised by its flatterers, and it will require some time to be able to shake off the trance. The healing beam, which will fix the gaze of the multitude and dissipate the charm that envelopes them, has not yet broke forth from the East, or from the West; meanwhile the merchants and manufacturers, who are stretched upon the coals, writhe in vain; there is no answer to their cries.
The Bank, meantime, disappears from sight and keeps silence; it continues to attend to its own business, and prudently confines itself to that alone. Its best policy is to avoid as much as possible making itself the subject of common talk. The demagogues have raised such a cry of monopoly and aristocracy, that the people have come to believe the Bank a colossus of aristocracy, a prop of monopoly. These words monopoly and aristocracy are here, what the word Jesuits was in France a few years ago; if the enemies of any institution can write on its back this kind of abracadabra, it is pointed at, hooted at, and hissed at by the multitude. Such is the magic power of these words, that speculators employ them on all occasions as charms to draw customers. For example, at the head of the advertisements of steamboats you read in staring characters: No Monopoly!!! It is pitiful to say that the Bank of the United States has a monopoly, when there are no less than five hundred other banks in the country; by this course of reasoning one might convict the sun of enjoying a monopoly of light. And yet the multitude has believed it, and believes it still. Now the best policy for those against whom such a storm of unpopularity is raised, is to run for port, as the sailors do in a gale of wind. The Bank has twice attempted to strike a blow, by taking advantage of the mistakes of its enemies, and both times the stroke has recoiled on itself.
The first time, the subject of dispute was a draft on the French government, which was sold to the Bank last year by the Federal government, and which France refused to pay: the draft was, therefore, protested, and then paid by the correspondent of the Bank in Paris in honour of the endorser. In this affair the Executive of the United States committed two faults: 1. It was an act of indiscretion to draw on the French government, before the Chambers had made the necessary appropriation for paying the stipulated indemnity; 2. Instead of drawing on the French government by a bill of exchange, and selling the bill to the Bank, without knowing whether it would be accepted, the Executive would have conducted itself with more propriety towards France, towards the Bank, and towards itself, if it had authorized the Bank to receive the moneys paid by the French government, in the capacity of its agent or attorney. By the commercial practice of all countries, and of this in particular, the Bank had a right to damages, and it put in its claim. Its object in taking this step, was much more to expose the errors of the Executive, than to pocket the sum of 50,000 or 80,000 dollars. But its adversaries immediately raised the cry, that the Bank was not contented with exacting enormous sums from the sweat of the people to the profit of the stockholders, (observe that the dividends of the Bank are moderate, compared with those of other banking companies in the country, and that the Federal government is itself the largest shareholder); but that it was now attempting, by petty chicanery, to extort a portion of the public revenue, and to bury the people’s money in Biddle’s pockets. To this reasoning, and it passes for demonstration, the multitude answered by imprecations against monopoly and the moneyed aristocracy, and by renewed shouts of Hurrah for Jackson!
A few days since we witnessed another episode of this kind. The Bank is charged, by act of Congress, with the duty of paying the pensions of the old soldiers of the revolution. It performs the service gratuitously, and it is notoriously a troublesome one. It has received several sums of money for this object, and at this moment has about 500,000 dollars in its vaults, intended for the next payments. The Administration, desirous of transferring this agency from the Bank, has demanded the funds, books, and papers connected with it. The Bank replied, that it has been made the depository of this trust by act of Congress, and that it cannot, ought not, and will not surrender it, unless in obedience to an act of Congress. The Bank was right; the refusal was founded in justice; but mark the consequences. Its adversaries express the greatest sympathy for these illustrious relics of the revolution, whom the arrogance of the Bank, as they say, is about to plunge, at the close of their career, into the most dreadful misery; they pour forth the most pathetic lamentations over these glorious defenders of the country, whom a money-corporation is about to strip of the provision made for their declining years by the nation’s gratitude. You may imagine all the noisy arguments and patriotic harangues, that can be delivered on this text. On the 4th of February, the President sent a message to Congress in the same strain. All this is mere declamation, of the most common-place and the most hypocritical kind; for who will prevent the deliverers of America from duly receiving their pensions, except those who shall refuse them drafts on the Bank, which the Bank would pay at once? But a people under fascination is not influenced by reason, and it is at this moment believed by the multitude that the Bank has determined to kill the noble veterans of Independence by hunger. Once more, then, anathemas against monopoly, hatred to the moneyed aristocracy! Hurrah for Jackson! Jackson forever!
Whenever, therefore, the Bank has allowed itself to be drawn into a conflict, which is the enemy’s country, it is pronounced to be in the wrong, though it were ten times right. On the contrary, when it has kept to its discounts and credits, it has always been able, without opening its mouth, to belie the charges of its enemies, who not only impute to it the atrocious crime of being suspected of aristocracy and monopoly, but attribute to it now the public distress, of which they denied the existence a few months ago, and of which they are themselves the authors. Very lately the Bank came to the relief of several local banks, which were in danger of failing, and a few days since it opened its coffers liberally to Allen & Co., one of the principal houses in the country, who, although having a capital much beyond the amount of their debts, were obliged, by the pressure of the times, to suspend payments; the failure of that house, which has no less than 24 branches, would have involved hundreds of others. This is the only way in which the Bank should assume the offensive; such acts, without a word of comment, would secure it the favour and the support of all impartial and enlightened men, and the gratitude of the commercial interest, much more completely than the most eloquent protests against the measures of this or that secretary, or the most ingenious and able defence of itself.
I am more and more convinced that the United States will reap advantage from this crisis; sooner or later the reform of the banking system must result from it. Very probably, the National Bank, if it is maintained, and the local banks, will hereafter be less absolutely separated from the Federal and State governments; that is to say, that the Federal and local governments will assume the control of the Banks, and consequently the banks will become a part of the governments. In this way many of the abuses of the banking system will be reformed, and the legitimate and just influence of the banks will be strengthened. It would be easy to cite numerous facts, which go to prove the tendency towards this result; thus in some of the States, the Legislatures have established, or are occupied in establishing banks, in which the State is a shareholder to the amount of one half or two fifths of the capital, appoints a certain number of the directors, and reserves to itself an important control over the operations. There are some States, as for example, Illinois, in which every other kind of bank is expressly forbidden by the constitution.
Republican publicists acknowledge only three classes of powers, the executive, legislative, and judicial; but it will soon be seen in the United States, that there is also a financial power, or at least the banks will form a branch of government quite as efficient as either of the others. The Bank of the United States is more essential to the prosperity of the country than the Executive, as now organized. The latter conducts a little diplomatic intercourse, well or ill, with the European powers, nominates and removes some unimportant functionaries, manœuvres an army of 6,000 men in the western wilderness, adds now and then some sticks of timber to the dozen ships of war that are on the stocks at Portsmouth, Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Washington, Norfolk, and Pensacola. All this might actually cease to be done without endangering the safety of the country, and without seriously wounding its prosperity, that is, its industry. But take from the country its institutions for the maintenance of credit, or only that which controls and regulates all the others, the Bank of the United States, and you plunge it into a commercial anarchy which would finally result in political anarchy.
The word politics cannot have the same meaning in the United States as in Europe. The United States, are not engaged, like the nations of Europe, in territorial combinations and the preservation of the balance of a continent, nor are they entangled in treaties of Westphalia or Vienna. They are free from all those difficulties, which in Europe arise from a difference of origin or religion, or from the conflict between rival pretensions, between old interests and new interests. They have no neighbour, which excites their suspicions. The policy of the United States consists in the extension of their commerce, and the occupation by agriculture of the vast domain, which nature has given them; in these points is involved the great mass of their general and individual interests; these are the objects which inflame their political and individual passions. As the Banks are the soul of their commerce, their rising manufactures, and even their agriculture, it is evident that the success of their politics is intimately and directly connected with the right organization of their banking system. The real government of the country, that is to say, the control of its essential interests, is as much in the banks as in any body or power established by the constitution. The time is come when this fact should be recognised and sanctioned. As among a military people the office of marshal or lord-high-constable is the first in the kingdom, so among a people which has nothing to do with war, and has only to employ itself with its industry, that of President of the central bank, for example, ought to be a public charge, political, in the sense adapted to the condition and wants of that people,—and one of the first rank in the country.
From this point of view, it may be said, that what is now passing in the United States, is a struggle in which the combatants are, on the one side, the military interest and the law, which have hitherto divided between them the control of public affairs, and on the other, the financial interest, which now claims its share in them; the two first have coalesced against the last, and have succeeded for a time in raising the multitude against it, but they will fail in the long run, since the multitude has more to gain from it than from them. It is said, that, when the committee of the New York merchants went to Washington to present a petition with 10,000 names in favour of the Bank, the President observed to them, that they declared the grievances of the brokers, capitalists, and merchants of Wall Street and Pearl Street, but that Wall Street and Pearl Street were not the people. I do not know whether the story is true or not, but I know that such an answer would express the opinion of the dominant party. There is a school here, which attempts to eliminate the wealthy classes from the people, and which is just the reverse of the old school of European Tories, which reduces the people to the higher classes, and excludes from that rank the greater number of the nation. And nothing can be more unjust, for in order to measure the real importance of the men of Pearl Street and Wall Street, it is only necessary to consider what New York would be without them.
In fifty years the population of New York has increased tenfold, its wealth probably an hundred fold; its animating influences have been felt for hundreds of miles around. This unparalleled growth is not the work of lawyers and military men; the merit belongs chiefly to the industry, the capital, the intelligence, and the enterprise of that, numerically speaking, insignificant minority of Wall Street and Pearl Street. It is very easy to cant about the aristocracy of dollars. and those filthy metals which men call gold and silver. And yet have not those vile metals ceased to be vile, when they are the fruit of the industry and enterprise of those who possess them? If there is a country in the world where it is preposterous to prate about the aristocracy of dollars, and about the filthy metals, it is this. For here, more than any where else, every body has some employment; whoever has capital is engaged in turning it to profit, and can neither increase nor even keep it without great activity and vigilance. A man’s wealth is, therefore, very generally in the ratio of his importance, and even of his agricultural, manufacturing, or commercial capacity. The merchants are not without their faults; they are disposed to weigh everything in their doubloon-scales, and a people governed entirely by merchants would certainly be to be pitied. But a people governed by lawyers or by soldiers would be no happier and no freer. The policy of the Hamburg Senate in basely giving up unhappy political fugitives to the English executioner, deserves the contempt of every man of honour; but would the rule of Russian or even of Napoleon’s bayonets, or the babbling anarchy of the Directory, be less loathsome to those whose heart beats with the love of liberty or with feelings of individual and national honour?
The revolutions of ages, which change religion, manners, and customs, modify also the nature of the powers that regulate society. Providence humbles the mighty, when they obstinately shut their eyes to the new spirit of the age, and raises up the lowly, whom this new spirit fires. Four thousand years ago, it was one of the most important dignities in Egypt to have the charge of embalming the sacred birds or of spreading the litter of the bull Apis. In the Eastern empire the post of protovestiary was one of the first in the state, and not to go so far back, it was the ambition of many in France, hardly four years ago, to become gentilhomme de la chambre, as the groom of the stole, or, in other words, the servant in charge of the wardrobe, is now one of the grand dignitaries of England. Nobody now-a-days embalms sacred birds, nobody spreads the litter of Apis. No one intrigues for the post of protovestiary or gentleman of the chamber, and from present appearances, I do not think that even the dignity of Groom of the Stole, will long be an object of ambition in England. There are no longer lord-high-constables, or great vassals, or knights-errant, or peers of France in the old sense of the word. The French aristocracy, so brilliant fifty years ago, has fallen like corn before the reaper. The mansions of the old heroes have become factories; the convents have been changed into spinning-works; I have seen Gothic naves in the best style of art transformed into workshops or granaries, and our brave troops have become peaceable labourers on the military roads.
Boards of petty clerks, whom the Castellans had employed to record their sovereign decrees, became in France parlements, which braved the kings and assumed to be guardians of the laws of the realm. At present the forge masters of Burgundy and the Nivernais, the distillers of Montpelier, the clothiers of Sedan and Elbeuf, have taken the place of the parlements. German princes, who can boast of their fifty quarters, dance attendance in the imperial, royal, or ministerial antechambers, while their Majesties or their Excellencies are conversing familiarly with some banker who has no patent of nobility, and who even disdains to oblige his royal friends by accepting one. The East India Company, a company of merchants if ever there was one, has more subjects than the emperors of Russia and Austria together. If in the Old World, where the old interests had marked every corner of the land with their stamp, the old interests, the military and the law, are thus obliged to come to terms with the new interest of industry, with the power of money, how can it be possible, that, in the New World, where the past has never taken deep root, where all thoughts are turned toward business and wealth, this same power will not force its way into the political scene, in spite of the opposition of its adversaries and its envious rivals?