Front Page Titles (by Subject) LETTER XXIII.: MONEY. - Society, Manners and Politics in the United States
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LETTER XXIII.: MONEY. - 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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Sunbury, (Pennsylvania,) July 31, 1835.
In a society devoted to production and traffic, money must be regarded with other eyes, than among a people of military spirit, or nourished in classical studies and scientific speculations. Among the latter, it must be looked upon, theoretically at least, as vile metal. With them honour and glory are more powerful and more common motives of action than interest; they are the coin with which many persons are content, the only coin which many persons are ambitious to acquire. In an industrious society, on the other hand, money, the fruit and object of labour, is not to be despised; a man’s wealth is the measure of his capacity and of his consideration among his fellow-citizens. Whatever may be the cause, the fact is certain, that money is not the same thing here that it is with us; that it weighs here where with us it has no weight; that it appears openly here, where with us it would hide itself. When I was in England, I was surprised at the number of notices in the docks, threatening, for instance, a fine for certain offences, with a promise of half to the informer. If a prefect of the police should offer such a premium to informers among us, our blood would boil with indignation. In this country the same practice prevails, and seems to be still more frequent. When a crime is committed, the authorities offer a reward of 100 or 200 dollars to whoever will make known or deliver up the criminal. In Philadelphia, I saw the governor of the State and the mayor of the city endeavouring to outbid each other in promises; a murder had been committed during one of the preliminary elections, and those officers, who were of different parties, endeavoured to prove by the greatness of their offers, that the opposite party was guilty of the act. In some cases of incendiarism or poisoning, a reward of 1000 dollars has been offered. It should be observed, however, that in England, out of London, and in this country, there is no organised police like ours, and it, therefore, becomes necessary that the citizens themselves should act as a police.
The maxim here is that everything is to be paid for. Museums and institutions for higher instruction to which admission is gratuitous, are here unknown. Nor are those unpaid offices, which take a citizen from his business, and would make it impossible for him to provide for the support of his family, if he discharged them faithfully, known here. The municipal offices in the country have no pay attached to them, because they take up little time and require little attention, and because a man in the country has more leisure than the busy inhabitant of the city. But in the cities all officers are paid, as soon as their functions come to occupy much of their time. The custom of paying by the day, which prevails in England, is very general here. Members of Congress are paid at the rate of eight dollars a day, and if a legislative committee prolongs its sessions beyond those of the legislative body, the pay is continued on the same footing. All the State legislatures are paid by the day. Canal commissioners, who are generally men of some distinction, that is, rich men, are generally paid in the same way, an account being kept of the number of days they are employed in the public service; for them the pay amounts merely to the payment of their expenses. Those, however, who are permanently occupied, receive an annual salary. In some offices, the incumbents are paid by fees for each affair in which they become engaged; this is generally the case with the States’ Attorneys and the Justices of Peace, and with the Aldermen in some of the cities. The public officers who are regularly employed, such as the Governors of the States, and the Mayors of the principal cities have a fixed annual salary. It is a settled principle here that all work should stand on the same footing with industrial labour, and be paid in the same manner. Intellectual merchandise and material merchandise, capital and talent, dollars and science, are here placed on the same level; this practice puts every one at his ease, and facilitates, abridges, and simplifies all operations. No one feels the least embarrassment in asking for a service, which he knows will be paid for. Everything is settled plainly and easily, because in an industrious and prosperous society every one has the power to be liberal.
Money is also made an instrument of punishment, as well as of reward. It is well known that, in England, a conviction for adultery enriches the wronged husband at the expense of the guilty paramour, and the same practice would prevail here, if the crime were not extremely rare. The American law is very sparing of bodily punishments for simple misdemeanours, but it makes very free use of fines. On most bridges, there are notices forbidding the passing with horses at any other pace than a walk, under penalty of a fine of 2, 3, or 5 dollars. When a man is suspected or even accused of a crime, such as forgery, arson, or murder, it is not his person, but his purse that is secured; that is, instead of being arrested, he is obliged to give bail in a sum which is left to the discretion of the Judicial authority. Last year, while a convention for revising the constitution of Tennessee was in session in Nashville, one of the members, a militia general, of whom there are thousands in the country, a man of large property, and therefore very respectable, got into a quarrel with an editor of a newspaper, and uttered violent threats against him. Some days afterward, in company with another violent fellow, he actually discharged a pistol at his adversary in the bar-room of a hotel, and wounded him dangerously. The affair was brought before the proper authorities, and the assassin was admitted to bail, being thus left at full liberty on depositing some thousand dollars, continuing to sit in the Convention and to assist in the formation of the new constitution of the State.* So much tenderdess towards an assassin, and similar proceedings which I have witnessed relative to incendiaries and persons guilty of forgery, recall to mind those times of barbarism, in which criminals were redeemed at a price. It will be readily imagined, after what has been said, that imprisonment for debt is very abhorrent from American ideas; in fact, a general clamour has been raised against it; most of the States have already abolished it, and others will not long delay to follow the example.
Money, is therefore, the sanction of the laws and of the most simple police regulations. If a magistrate has good reason for believing that an individual has intentions to break the peace, instead of taking him into custody as a measure of prevention, he requires him to give bail for his good behaviour. It is by money-penalties, also, that chartered companies are obliged to conform to the provisions of their charters. It is by fines, that even the magistrates are punished for neglect of duty. To remedy the inconveniences arising from the minute subdivision and dispersion of administrative authority in the New England States, resort is also had to money. In that part of the Union, the repair of roads is left to the care of the towns, and it is plain that the travel through a whole State might be seriously incommoded by the neglect of one town. It is, therefore, provided by law, that every town shall be responsible for any accidents to travellers within its limits, which may be owing to the bad state of the roads; it is not uncommon to read accounts in the newspapers of a town being condemned to pay a traveller, who has been overturned on its roads or bridges, 500 or 1000 dollars damages. The city of Lowell was very lately condemned to pay 6,000 dollars to two travellers, who had broken their legs by such an accident. The judge charged that the plaintiffs should not only be reimbursed for the expenses of the cure, but also for the estimated probable earnings of their industry during their confinement.
Amongst us, it is not money, but honour, that occupies the most conspicuous place, and if it be admitted that the sentiment of honour lies at the foundation of monarchies, and if every thing turn upon this one principle, this is very well. The principle of honour is quite as good in every view, whether logically, morally or practically considered, as the principle of money. It is, indeed, more congenial to the generosity of the French character; but then it is necessary that the honour should be something real, that the consideration it gives, should be incontestable; it is necessary that the authority which is the source of honour, should be itself respected. If the supreme authority is insulted and despised, public functions become not a source of consideration, but of contempt. If jealousy and suspicion of power are admitted and consecrated by the modern spirit of legislation and administration, is it not true that your pretended recompense of public service by the consideration and dignity they confer, is a mockery, and and that your whole system is founded upon a contradiction? If royalty still sat all-powerful on the magnificent throne of Versailles, amidst its guards glittering with steel and gold, surrounded by the most brilliant court of which history preserves the record, and by the fascinations with which the homage of the arts invested it; or if the prince were a saviour of his country, raised on the buckler by his victories, and dating his decrees from the palace of vassal kings, or from the Schœnbrunn of the conquered Kaisars; if he crowned and uncrowned kings, as our ministers now make and unmake sub-prefects; if at a breath of his mouth, victorious veterans calmly met death; if the world did him homage; if he were the anointed of the Lord, the choice and idol of the people; if you had yet the monarchy of Louis XIV., or of Napoleon, you would be welcome to speak of consideration and honour! It was then distinction enough to be noticed by a royal look. The favour of the sovereign then secured the confidence, or at least the outward homage of the people. The point of precedence was worthy of being a subject of envy in the days of the splendour of Versailles, or when one might lose oneself in the crowd of kings in the Tuileries. But what does it signify now-a-days, when royalty has lost its poetical attributes, when public ceremonies are abolished, when there is no longer a court or court-dress? Titles have been profaned and degraded by the ignorance and stupidity of those who ought to have supported their dignity, or sullied by the jealousy of the commons. As for your ribbands you have been obliged to scatter them under the hoofs of horses. The system of honour is, therefore, gone by; to restore it, a revolution would be necessary; not a revolution like that of July, but a revolution like that which was going on during the three centuries between Luther and Mirabeau, and which, ripe at last, has been shaking both worlds during the last fifty years; a revolution in the name of authority, like that which our fathers accomplished in the name of liberty.
Among the sayings attributed to M. de Talleyrand, the following is often quoted; “I don’t know an American that hasn’t sold his horse or dog.” It is certain that the Americans are an exaggeration of the English, whom Napoleon used to call a nation of shop-keepers. The American is always bargaining; he always has one bargain afoot, another just finished, and several more in meditation. All that he has, all that he sees, is merchandise in his eyes. The poetical associations which invest particular spots or objects with a character of sanctity, have no place in his mind. The spire of his village church is no more than any other spire to him, and the finest in his view, is the newest, the most freshly painted. To him a cataract is a motive power for his machinery, a mill privilege; an old building is a quarry of bricks and stones, which he works without the least remorse. The Yankee will sell his father’s house, like old clothes or rags. In his character of pioneer, it is his destiny to attach himself to nothing, to no place, edifice, object, or person, except his wife, to whom he is indissolubly bound night and day, from the moment of marriage till death parts them.
At the bottom, then, of all that an American does, is money; beneath every word, money. But it would be a mistake to suppose that he is not capable of making pecuniary sacrifices; he is in the habit of subscribing to all useful objects, and he does so without reluctance or regret, oftener than we are accustomed to do, and more liberally also; but his munificence and his donations are systematic and calculated. It is neither enthusiasm nor passion that unties his purse strings, but motives of policy or considerations of propriety, views of utility and regard for the public good, in which he feels his own private interests to be involved. The American, therefore, admits some exceptions to his general commercial rule of conduct. He gives money, he attends committee-meetings, he draws up in haste a report or an opinion; he even goes in person, at high speed, to Washington, in order to present a set of resolutions to the President, or he hastens to a neighbouring city to attend a public dinner, and returns in equal haste; but he requires in this case that the exception to the general rule should be sharply defined and the cause strongly marked, that the public interest should be at stake. And he particularly insists that the sacrifice should be of money only, once for all, and that his time should be respected. To everything of a private nature, to everything that takes up his time and demands his attention, he applies the mercantile principle, nothing for nothing. He pays the services of others with dollars, and he expects others to do the same by him, because he looks upon compliments as too hollow and light to be put in the scale against labour, and because distinctions, such for instance as precedence, are unknown and incomprehensible to him. With him it is an indisputable maxim, that the labourer is worthy of his hire. The ideas of service and salary are so inseparably connected in his mind, that in American almanacs it is common to see the rate of pay annexed to the lists of public officers. He is of opinion that nobody can live on a dry crust and glory; he thinks of the welfare of his wife and children, of a provision for his old age, and if he were told that there is a country in which these considerations are disregarded, for the purpose of obliging a neighbour or paying a courtesy to a magistrate, such a thing would appear absurd to him.
High pay is not, however, consonant with the spirit of democracy, because it is incapable of discerning its propriety. The mechanic who makes 500 dollars a year, thinks himself generous towards a public officer to whom he gives 1,500 or 2,000; just as our citizens of the middling class in Paris, who have an income of 10,000 francs, cannot see why a public functionary should not be content with 12,000. The Americans thought that among them, as elsewhere, there would be two kinds of coin, money and public consideration, and they were persuaded, on the authority of Franklin, that it would be easy to find able public officers, whose salary should chiefly consist in the honour of public station. But they were mistaken; for office is here no title to respect, but quite the contrary; and as public services are neither paid by dollars nor consideration, only a Hobson’s choice is left to the people. With the exception of a very small number of places, which the delights of power still cause to be sought after, notwithstanding the cost of the pleasure of commanding and having dependents or subordinates, office is generally sought for only by the floating part of the population, which has been unsuccessful in business, and tried one occupation after another in vain. It is not even, strictly speaking, a profession, but rather the temporary resort of persons who have no settled pursuit, who, as soon as they find a more eligible employment in industry or speculation, take leave of the State. The West Point Academy sends out about forty lieutenants for the army annually; about, one third of these resign their commissions before two or three years of service, because the pay of the officers, although much higher than with us, is very inconsiderable compared with the profits of a merchant or the salary of an engineer.
The duties of a public officer are generally less difficult in the United States than in France. Among us every question that arises, embraces a great complication of interests, and requires more knowledge. The powers and duties of the government in France are much more extensive and more various, and more care is exacted of persons in the public employ among us, than in this country. Yet the average of salaries here is much greater than with us. When the Congress and the States shall stand in need of able men for functionaries, they will do as the American merchants do to their clerks, they will pay them. Congress, having lately become sensible of the importance of securing the services of good naval officers, has just raised the pay of that corps.* It may even be said that the number of office-holders who are treated with illiberality, is very small.† Out of 158 persons employed in the service of the Treasury department at Washington, there are only 5 who receive less than 1,000 dollars, and there are only two who receive more than 2,000; this is the application of the principle of equality to pay. As the price of common objects of consumption, that is, bread, meat, coffee, tea, sugar, and fuel, is generally lower in the United States than in France, and especially in Paris, a salary of 1,500 or 2,000 dollars is sufficient in most cases to support a family in comfort and abundance. An officer of the government, who receives from 400 to 600 dollars in Paris, lives only by practising the strictest econony if he is a bachelor, and suffers great privations if he is a married man. At Washington he would receive from 1,000 to 1,200 dollars, and would live in abundance and comfort, if not in style and luxury. Nor would he here, as with us, be condemned to the punishment of Tantalus, for the pomp and splendour of the privileged classes in the European capitals is unknown in the United States. In Paris, the employé is bespattered with mud by the equipage of a man who spends his 20,000 dollars a year; in the streets of Philadelphia, he would elbow a rich capitalist who kept no coach because he would not know what to do with it, and who, with a revenue of 30,000 or 60,000 dollars, cannot spend more than 8,000 or 10,000 at the most. The ratio of conditions, which in Paris is as one to forty, is here not more than one to eight.
Here the condition of the richest merchant, and that of a mechanic and a farmer, are not essentially different; the difference is merely in degree and not in kind. All have similar houses, built on a similar plan; only that one has a front five or six feet wider, and is one or two stories higher than another; the distribution of apartments, and the furniture are similar. All have carpets from the cellar to the garret, all sleep in large high-post bedsteads very much like each other, projecting out into a chamber without closets, alcoves, or double door, and with bare walls; only the carpets of the one are coarse, and those of the other are fine, the bedstead of the rich is of mahogany, and that of the mechanic of cherry or walnut. In general the table is served much alike; there is the same number of meals, and there is nearly the same number of dishes. This is so much the case, that, if my French palate had to decide between the dinner of a great city hotel (excepting those of Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore), and that of a country inn, at which I should sit by the side of the blacksmith of the place, with sooty visage and with sleeves rolled up, I think that I should really pronounce in favour of the latter. This is especially the case in the North, and particularly in New England, the land of the Yankees. In the South, the condition of the planter on his estate gains all that is taken from the mass of the population, or the slaves. And even at the North, of late years, commerce, which has collected men into large cities, has also accumulated capital in single hands, and created great fortunes. The inequality of condition is, therefore, beginning to manifest itself; the style of the new houses in Chesnut Street, Philadelphia, with their first story of white marble, is a blow at equality. The same innovation is creeping in in New York; the anti-democratical tendency of commerce is revealing itself.*
It might be expected that among a people so deeply absorbed in material pursuits, misers would abound; but it is not so. There is never any niggardliness in a Southerner; it is sometimes found in the Yankee, but nowhere do you see specimens of that sordid avarice, of which examples are so common among us. The American has too high a notion of the dignity of human nature, to be willing to deprive himself and his children of those comforts which soften the asperities of life; he respects his own person too much not to surround it with a certain degree of decency. Harpagon is never to be met with in the United States, and yet Harpagon is not by a great deal the most wretchedly degraded miser, that European society exhibits. The American is devoured with a passion for money, not because he finds a pleasure in hoarding it up, but because wealth is power, because it is the lever by which he governs nature. I ought also to do the Americans justice on another point. I have said that with them every thing was an affair of money, and yet there is one thing, which among us, a people of lively affections, prone to love, and generous by nature, takes the mercantile character very decidedly, and which among them has nothing of this character; I mean marriage. We buy a woman with our fortune, or we sell ourselves to her for her dower. The American chooses her, or rather offers himself to her, for her beauty, her intelligence, or her amiable qualities, and asks no other portion. Thus, whilst we make a traffic of what is most sacred, these shop-keepers exhibit a delicacy and loftiness of feeling, which would have done honor to the most perfect models of chivalry. It is to industry that they are indebted for this superiority. Our idle cits, not being able to increase their patrimony, are obliged in taking a wife to calculate her portion, in order to decide if their joint income will be enough to support a family. The American, having the taste and the habits of industry, is sure of being able to provide amply for his household, and is therefore, free from the necessity of making this melancholy calculation. Is it possible to doubt, that a race of men, which thus combines in a high degree the most contradictory qualities, is reserved for lofty destinies?
[* ] This man was finally condemned in light damages, and this was his only punishment. The object of assault survived the attempted assassination.
[* ] The gunners, boatswain, sail-makers, and carpenters receive,
In the French navy the pay of corresponding officers is from 400 to 200 dollars.
[† ] They are the governors of most of the States, and the heads of the executive departments at Washington. These last receive only 6,000 dollars, and they are obliged to keep up a certain style of living. It is singular that some subaltern officers are permitted to receive enormous fees. Thus the inspector of flour in New York received in 1835, 10,000 dollars, the inspector of potash 20,000, and the inspector of tobacco 34,500.
[* ] If the rich in the large towns of the North spend eight or ten times as much as the clerk, it is not that they keep up much style, or even that they have an equipage. When would the husband, always immersed in business, or the wife, occupied with her household cares, be able to use the coach? Suppose they had time to use it, and the public opinion would not be offended by it, what could one do with an equipage in the streets of Philadelphia? The principal difference in the expenditure of the two classes, is that the rich man now and then gives a ball, and piques himself on his parade, which the indulgent democracy pardons for one day; this sort of luxury is much more expensive here than with us, and it does not require a very brilliant rout, in small houses, in which the company is received in two rooms 20 feet by 25, to cost 700 or 800 dollars.