Front Page Titles (by Subject) LETTER XIII.: THE BANK.—SLAVERY. - Society, Manners and Politics in the United States
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LETTER XIII.: THE BANK.—SLAVERY. - 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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Elmington, (Va.) Aug. 24, 1834.
The elections of members of the House of Representatives will take place in New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, the principal States in the Union, next October and November. Although the members then returned will not take their seats until the session which begins in December, 1835, yet great importance is attached to the results of these elections, even in respect to the approaching session of Congress. On both sides preparations are making with the greatest activity; both parties have chosen their text. As the harangues against an aristocracy of money have aroused the prejudices of the labouring classes, who form the majority of electors, against the Bank, the watchword of the Opposition is no longer ostensibly the Bank. But it says to the electors, referring to the late acts of the President directed against the Bank, and the doctrines which on this occasion he has put forth in his messages; “The executive power is guilty of gross usurpation; hasten to the rescue of the constitution from its monstrous encroachments. It is no longer a question about the bank; but our liberties, bought by the blood of our fathers, are at stake, and an audacious soldier, surrounded by a train of servile place-men, has dared to trifle with our dearest rights.” This is certainly the best ground for the Opposition to take; for General Jackson, in the affair of the Bank, as in most other circumstances of his life, has cared little for forms. He has gone straight forward to his object, without stopping to consider where he was placing his foot.
The Administration party, which well knows how unpopular the Bank is with the multitude, since this unpopularity is chiefly its own work, talks Bank and nothing but Bank. “The Opposition,” they say, “is mocking you, when it calls upon you to save the Constitution and the laws. What do they care for the Constitution and the laws? It is the Bank that they wish to save. Down with the Bank! General Jackson, the Hero of two Wars, who pushed back the English bayonets from the Union at the peril of his life, wishes to free the soil of the country from this prop of tyranny and corruption. The Bank is nothing but English influence which seeks to enslave you. It is now to be seen, whether you will be freemen or worshippers of the Golden Calf. In spite of the hypocritical protestations of the parasites of the Bank, remember, at the polls, that the question, the only question, the whole question, is Bank or no Bank.” At bottom, what the Administration party says, is true: the Opposision do not give up the cause of the Bank. The question, which is at issue, and which is to be settled by the elections, is, in fact, the question of the Bank.
But whose fault is it, if the Opposition has a rightful cause to call the citizens to the defence of the Constitution? Besides, the leaders of the Democratic party felt that their policy, which consisted in setting up the local banks in opposition to to the National Bank, would necessarily fail, and that the financial and commercial interests of the country, comprising the local banks themselves, must, in the long run, rally round the Bank of the United States. The abuse which they had heaped upon the latter, would, therefore, fall directly upon the local banks. It was impossible that the democratic multitude, which had much more just grounds of complaint against the local banks, than against the Bank of the United States, by which nobody had ever lost a dollar, should not perceive this. Accordingly, after having hesitated a long time, the heads of the party seem ready to take the bold stand of openly denouncing all banks. Bank-bills, they say, are nothing but wretched rag-money; the eulogies of the metals, gold and silver, are now become the order of the day. Gold is called Jackson money; the United States mint has been actively employed in striking gold coins, half-eagles and quarter-eages. The principal journals of the Jackson party pay the daily wages of their journeymen printers in gold; the warm friends of the Administration affect to carry gold pieces in their pockets, and as paper only is generally used here in business transactions, even of the most trifling amount, you may be certain that a man who is seen with gold in his hands, is a Jacksonman. The President lately made a visit to his seat in Tennessee, and paid his expenses all along the road in gold, and the Globe, his official organ, took care to inform the public of it. At a dinner, given in honour of him, by the citizens of Nashville, he proposed this toast: “Gold and silver, the only currency recognised by the constitution!”
This apotheosis of gold and silver, abstractly considered, is all very well; hitherto the metals have made too small a proportion of the currency of the United States; gold, particularly, was never met with. At its last session Congress removed one of the obstacles to gold remaining in the country and taking the place of small bank notes, by raising its legal value. How far this act will effect its object of keeping a certain quantity of gold in the country, I know not; but I am persuaded, that the only prompt and effectual means of sweeping away the small bills, will be a National Bank. The prudent and experienced men of the party will certainly resist a formal declaration of war against all banks; but it is hardly to be avoided, that in the democratic party, the most rash and the most violent should give the law to the men of moderation and experience. In this event, Mr Van Buren will have need of all his address to preserve discipline in the ranks. He is too well acquainted with the commercial situation of the United States, to allow himself to dwell one moment on such a project as the destruction of the banks. His creed is the overthrow of the Bank of the United States, not because it is a bank, but because, in his view, its existence is contrary to the constitution.
The tactics of the Opposition have already given it success in some partial and unimportant elections, but even if they should have the majority in the next Congress, it would be but an incomplete victory, for the Bank would not be preserved. Many persons who have joined the Opposition because its watchword was the Constitution and the laws, would have kept aloof, had they seen the name of the Bank joined with them, so rooted is the jealousy of this useful institution. Admitting, then, that the Opposition triumphs in the coming elections, it will be necessary to set some new springs in motion in order to save the Bank. It is easy to refer at present to one on which the friends of the Bank will not fail to rely.
The Union, homogeneous as it is in regard to language and general character, is subdivided, as I have already said, into three groups, daily becoming more and more strongly marked. North of the Potomac, the States are poor in soil, but enriched by commerce* and manufactures; there are the great commercial towns, Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore, and the secondary ports of Salem, Portland, New Bedford, Nantucket, and Providence; there, also, are almost all the manufactures of the Union. These States do not admit slavery, with the exception of Maryland, where the slaves are on the decrease, and the Lilliputian State of Delaware, where slavery has, in fact, almost disappeared. South of the Potomac, between the Atlantic and the Mississippi, are the slave-holding States, wholly agricultural, and the only part of the country in which cultivation is conducted on a great scale, producing cotton, rice, sugar, and tobacco, without mechanical industry, and having but little commerce, except the coasting trade, the foreign trade being in the hands of the North. In the West, reaching from the great lakes southwards, and lying on the Ohio and the Mississippi, is a tract of the highest fertility, in which, since the peace of 1783, have grown up the new States of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, besides Michigan, which is now on the point of becoming a State. These are also agricultural States, producing corn and cattle of all kinds, yielding whiskey and salted provisions, cultivated by free hands, and in which property is so far subdivided, that each family has its own farm.
Of these three groups, the North is most interested in the existence of a Central Bank; it is there, also, that the financial machinery of the Union is most thoroughly understood, and it is most fully perceived, that such a Bank is one of its most indispensable wheels. But the North alone, even with the support of some commercial towns in the South and West, such as New Orleans and Cincinnati, does not make up a majority, and in the North itself, in the rural districts back of New York and Philadelphia, a jealousy of the commerce of the cities prevails, which is worse than injustice, for it is ingratitude, and which displays itself by a blind hostility to the Bank. In a word, although the question of a National Bank is considered almost a question of existence by the great commercial capitals of the North, without whose enterprise that region would be still little better than a wilderness, yet the North is far from being unanimous in favour of such an institution, and were it so, would not alone be able to save it. The North, then, must seek allies in the South or the West; there are some symptoms of the increase of the Opposition in the West, but this is only because the question of the Bank has been temporarily left out of view. The West does not favour the Bank nor the banks. The hatred of these eminently democratic States to the banking system is formally proclaimed in the constitutions of Indiana and Illinois, by which banks are expressly prohibited, unless the State think proper to establish one itself, with its own funds; a measure which each has already made preparations to adopt. It is to the South, then, that the North must look for help.
The inhabitants of the South and the North are very different from each other in many points (See Letter X.), and in a certain degree there are the same analogies and the same contrasts between the North and the South, as between England and France.* The South, like, France, is most distinguished for the brilliant qualities; the North, like England, for the solid; great ideas have their origin rather in the South; good execution belongs rather to the North. The North is gifted with the English perseverance, at once the pledge and the condition of success; the South, like us, is easily moved, but easily discouraged; all ardour at the outset, but disconcerted by a check from any unforeseen obstacle. It was a matter of general surprise through the Union last year, that the South Carolineans had completed, and completed in a good style of execution, a railroad from Charleston to Augusta; the distance is equal to that from Havre to Paris. From the intermixture of northern with southern men in Congress, we find in that body a spirit of calculation and a practical good sense combined with a lively imagination and large views; the well balanced combination of these opposite qualities explains the union of boldness and wisdom which generally characterises the acts of that body. Until recently, when the West has suddenly loomed up, and taken its stand by the side of these two rivals, the domestic politics of the United States have consisted in maintaining the balance between the North and the South.*
There are important differences in the political views of the North and the South. The North has more respect for the Federal bond, and is disposed to tighten rather than to relax it. The South has the opposite tendency. The South is opposed to the tariff, to the system of internal improvements by the Federal government, to whatever tends to enlarge the influence of the Federal authority. “The lighter is the Federal yoke,” says the South, “the more easily it will be borne, the less cause there will be to fear, that any of the members of the confederation will be tempted to shake it off.” “By relaxing too much the Federal bond,” says the North, “you destroy it. If you go on thus, even for a short time, the Union will be dissolved indeed, and will exist only in name; the slightest accident will then be enough to abolish even the name.” In all these quarrels, however, even in that of Nullification, when a part of the South threatened to break the Federal compact, they have hitherto come to an understanding. Concessions have been made by both sides, but more often by the North than by the South, and as they have so long continued to preserve a Union, there is room to hope, that they will still be able to live together for a long time to come.
The general leaning of the South to an interpretation of the constitution most favourable to the sovereignty of the States, has led many of the southern politicians to maintain the doctrine of the unconstitutionality of the Bank; although in opposition to a formal decision of the Supreme Court of the United States, the chief-justice of which, Judge Marshall, is more revered throughout the Union, than any other southern man, and even more so in the South than elsewhere. The Constitution, say the States’ rights puritans, does not give Congress power to establish a Bank of the United States. On the other side, if they are ticklish as to what they call the encroachments of one branch of the national government, the Congress, they are not less so as to those of which the Opposition accuses another branch, that is, the President. Thus at the same moment that they combat the Bank, they combat the President also, on account of his measures against the Bank. This third party is numerous in Virginia. Now allowing the conclusions of the States’ right party relative to the Bank to be founded on a strict interpretation of the law, they are none the less inadmissible in practice. And as it is impossible in the United States to give currency to the maxim, push the colonies rather than principle, the North entertains the hope that the States’ rights party, after the example of some of its leaders, such as Mr Calhoun and Mr McDuffie, will relax a little of the rigour of their theories. The Administration, on the other hand, is doing its utmost to preserve the theoretical notions of Virginia on the Bank question in all their original purity on their native soil, and Mr Van Buren, who is farsighted, lately sent the following toast to a 4th of July dinner in that State: “Unqualified war on the Bank of the United States.”
The North, fortunately for itself, has a means of acting upon the South, by slavery. This requires some explanation. At the time of the declaration of Independence (1776), slavery existed in all the States. During the war of the Revolution, Pennsylvania, in 1780, adopted a plan which soon exterminated it within her limits; Massachusetts, in 1781, proclaimed slavery to be incompatible with the laws already existing; the other States of New England, and finally New York, and the other States north of the Potomac, with the exception of Delaware and Maryland, adopted measures similar to those of Pennsylvania.* This was an easy matter for these States, their slaves not forming more than one twentieth or one fifteenth of the whole population. But it was a very different affair in the South, where the proportion of slaves was six or seven times greater, and where all the rural labour and menial services were performed by slaves; the institution of slavery was, therefore, permitted to stand, in the South. The acquisition of Louisiana and Florida has enlarged the number of slave States, and by an oversight, which will one day be bitterly rued, slavery has been authorised in some of the new States, such as Missouri, where it would be easy to do without the blacks.* In 1790, there were 660,000 slaves† distributed in six States, one Territory, and the Federal District; in 1830 there were 2,000,000, in twelve States, two Territories, and the Federal District. The white population of the slave section, in 1790, was 1,250,000, or as 190 to 100; in 1830, it was 3,760,000, or as 186 to 100. The proportional increase of the slave population would appear still greater if we added the free blacks, and struck out the States of Delaware and Maryland. In 1830, the number of slaves in Louisiana and South Carolina was greater than that of the whites.
In our days, slavery is a scourge to all the countries in which it exists; of this the people of the United States, in the South as well as in the North, are convinced; but how to put an end to it? The bloody experiment of St. Domingo and its fatal consequences to the majority of the blacks themselves, offer no encouragement to immediate emancipation. The great experiment just making by the English government in its colonies,‡ is not yet advanced enough to afford any light. Besides, the English colonies contain only about one third of the number of slaves now in the United States. And supposing the slaves once emancipated, what shall be done with them? This question is the most embarrassing of all, to one who is acquainted with the wretched condition of the free blacks in the United States. (See Note 16 .) On the other hand, the difficulties increase with the progress of time, and the Southern States are, or think they are, obliged to adopt measures in regard to the black population, which may be defended by the plea of necessity, but which are nevertheless excessively harsh.*
In spite of all the precautions against an insurrection of the blacks, the solicitude of the Southern States continually increases; from the first of this month the blacks in the English West Indies, which are within three days’ sail of the United States, are partially free. Between those islands and the southern and northern ports, there is an active commerce, and the communication is frequent. Finally, religious proselytism, which has carried the measure of emancipation in England, has its organs in the United States. There are not wanting philanthropists in Boston, Philadelphia, and Ohio, who are always ready to facilitate the escape of runaway slaves. Last winter, while I was at Richmond, 40 or 50 slaves disappeared, and there is no doubt that the fanatics of Philadelphia or New England furnished them the means of flight. The question of slavery, then, is, of all others, the most deeply interesting and alarming to the Southern States. Whenever it has been raised, even indirectly and secondarily, they have vehemently remonstrated; the moment it is touched, their voice is heard; this is their weak side; here the North has a hold upon them.
In regard to slavery, the Northern States have never departed from the policy of concession. This conduct of the North may even appear like culpable connivance, to Europeans not aware that the most precious treasure of North America, that is to say, the Union, has been at stake. The Northern States have written in their laws all that the South has demanded; they have granted to the southern master the right to claim his runaway slave before their own courts, so that the republican soil of the North does not enjoy the privilege which belongs to some of the monarchical countries of Europe, that of giving liberty to whoever sets his foot upon it. The North has permitted slavery to be maintained in the Federal District, in Washington, at the foot of the Capitol steps. The North, seeing the South in a flame on the Missouri question, stifled its just repugnance to her admission. The North, which has an interest in the recognition of Hayti, has yielded that point, because the South declares that it would be an encouragement to the slaves to revolt. Thus to maintain harmony in the Union, the North has pushed its concessions even to silencing its religious feelings, its principles of liberty, its commercial interests. As the Union promotes the good of all, all ought to be ready to make sacrifices to preserve it, and it would be just, that the South should renounce its theories about the constitutionality of a National Bank, theories which are belied by long practice, and which have been formally condemned by judges, of whom the South itself is proud.
Some months ago the public clamour imposed silence on the Abolition Societies in the North, whose object is the abolition of slavery in the South. The newspapers contain details of the devastation and pillage committed by a handful of people on the poor, inoffensive blacks, during three consecutive nights of July, in New York, and during the same number in Philadelphia, about a week ago. Far be it from me to accuse the Opposition, which has the majority in these two cities, of having been an accomplice of these wretches! Yet I believe I state a fact when I say, that those terrible riots, in which houses, schools, and churches were plundered and pulled down every evening by the dozen, and in which peaceable persons of colour were robbed and personally abused, would have been more promptly repressed, had not the North, above all things else, been eager to punish the Abolitionists, and to show to the South that it had nothing in common with them. The North, in a word, has given and continues to give to the South every conceivable guarantee on the subject of slavery. The South, which may one day need, not merely the passive forbearance, but the active aid of the North against insurrection, should consider if the North exacts too much in return, in asking toleration for an institution indispensable to the North, and from which the South itself has received nothing but favours.
[* ] In 1833, out of 108 millions the ports of the north imported 96 million dollars. Deducting the imports of New Orleans, those of all the Southern States were only of the value of 2,700,000 dollars. The exports of the South are much greater than its imports.
[* ] I asked a fellow countryman, established at Richmond, whose patriotism had not been cooled by a long absence from France, why he preferred Richmond to the northern cities, which, in some respects, are more favourable to business; “Because,” he replied, “the Virginians are the French of America.”
[* ] It has always been endeavoured to balance the number of non-slave-holding States, as much as possible, by an equal number of slave States, by this means, the Senate would be exactly divided between the two interests. In 1789, six of the thirteen States admitted slavery; in 1792, there were 16 States, equally divided between the two systems; in 1802, out of 17 States, nine did not admit slavery, but in 1812, the admission of Louisiana restored the balance. From 1816 to 1819, four States were admitted, Alabama and Mississippi, slave-holding, Indiana and Illinois, non-slave-holding. In 1820, Maine, without slaves, and in 1821 Missouri with slaves, followed. In 1836 Michigan at the north, and Arkansas at the south, were received into the Union, and next will come the turn of the slave-holding Florida, and the non-slave-holding Wisconsin. It should be observed that Delaware, in which slavery is allowed by law, may be considered a non-slave-holding State, and is often reckoned so. The President has generally been from the South.
[* ] They consisted in declaring all persons born after a certain period free, the children of a slave to remain in the service of her owner during a certain number of years.
[* ] At the time of its admission into the Union, Missouri contained only ten or eleven thousand slaves, which might have been easily sold in the neighbouring slave-holding States.
[† ] Deducting those in the Northern States.
[‡ ] The indemnity allowed to the owners amounts to about 125 dollars a head, which for 2,500,000, the present number in the United States, would amount to about 312 millions.
[* ] Some are surprised, that the slave and the free black are more severely dealt with by the laws of the Southern States, than by those of a colony belonging to an absolute monarchy, Cuba for instance, and that, for example, it should be prohibited, under pain of fine and imprisonment, to teach them to read or write. The contrary would be much more surprising. In a country where there is perfect liberty for the free class, it would be impossible to sustain slavery unless by the severest legislation. If the slave should read in your constitutions and bills of right, “that all men are born free and equal,” how can it be that he would not be in a standing conspiracy against you? It is just to observe that, in the United States, the slaves, though intellectually and morally degraded, are humanely treated in a physical point of view. They are less severely tasked, better fed, and better taken care of, than most of the peasants of Europe. Their rapid increase attests their easy condition.
[Note 16—page 154]omitted.