Front Page Titles (by Subject) LETTER XXIV.: SPECULATIONS. - Society, Manners and Politics in the United States
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LETTER XXIV.: SPECULATIONS. - 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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Johnstown, (Penn.) Aug. 4, 1835.
The present aspect of this country is, in a high degree, calculated to encourage the friends of peace in their hopes and wishes with respect to a rupture with France. The Americans of all parties conduct themselves in their private affairs like men who are convinced that business will experience no interruption from that quarter. A person who landed at New York, Boston, or Philadelphia, on the day that news was received of the effect produced in France by the President’s message, and had since played Epimenides, would not now recognise the United States; the most unlimited confidence has succeeded to the general anxiety. Every body is speculating, and every thing has become an object of speculation. The most daring enterprises find encouragement; all projects find subscribers. From Maine to the Red River, the whole country has become an immense rue Quincampoix. Thus far every one has made money, as is always the case when speculation is in the ascendant. And as soon-come soon goes, consumption is enormously increased, and Lyons feels the effect. I said that every thing has become an object of speculation; I was mistaken. The American, essentially practical in his views, will never speculate in tulips, even at New York, although the inhabitants of that city have Dutch blood in their veins. The principal objects of speculation are those subjects which chiefly occupy the calculating minds of the Americans, that is to say, cotton, land, city and town lots, banks, railroads.
The amateurs in land at the north, dispute with each other the acquisition of the valuable timber-lands of that region; at the southern extremity, the Mississippi swamps, and the Alabama and the Red River cotton lands, are the subject of competition, and in the West, the corn fields and pastures of Illinois and Michigan. The unparallelled growth of some new towns has turned the heads of the nation, and there is a general rush upon all points advantageously situated; as if, before ten years, three or four Londons, as many Parises, and a dozen Liverpools, were about to display their streets and edifices, their quays crowded with warehouses, and their harbours bristling with masts, in the American wilderness. In New York building lots* have been sold sufficient for a population of two million souls, and at New Orleans, for at least a million. Pestilential marshes and naked precipices of rock have been bought and sold for this purpose. In Louisiana, the quagmires, the bottomless haunts of alligators, the lakes and cypress-swamps, with ten feet of water or slime, and in the North, the bed of the Hudson with 20, 30, or 50 feet of water, have found numerous purchasers.
Take the map of the United States; place yourself on the shore of Lake Erie, which twenty years ago was a solitary wilderness; ascend it to its head; pass thence to Lake St. Clair, and from that lake push on towards the north, across Lake Huron: go forward still, thread your way through Lake Michigan, and advance southwards till the water fails you; here you will find a little town by the name of Chicago, one of the out-posts of our indefatigable countrymen when they had possession of America. Chicago seems destined, at some future period, to enjoy an extensive trade; it will occupy the head of a canal, which is to connect the Mississippi with the lakes and the St. Lawrence; but at present it hardly numbers two or three thousand inhabitants. Chicago has in its rear a country of amazing fertility; but this country is yet an uncultivated wild. Nevertheless the land for ten leagues round has been sold, resold, and sold again in small sections, not, however, at Chicago, but at New York, which, by the route actually travelled, is 2,000 miles distant. There you may find plans of Chicago lots numerous enough for 300,000 inhabitants; this is more than any city of the New World at present contains. More than one buyer will, probably, esteem himself fortunate, if, on examination, he shall find not more than six feet of water on his purchase.
Speculations in railroads have hardly been less wild than those in land. The American has a perfect passion for railroads; he loves them, to use Camille Desmoulins’ expression in reference to Mirabeau, as a lover loves his mistress. It is not merely because his supreme happiness consists in that speed which annihilates time and space; is also because he perceives, for the American always reasons, that this mode of communication is admirably adapted to the vast extent of his country, to its great maritime plain, and to the level surface of the Mississippi valley, and because he sees all around him in the native forest, abundance of materials for executing these works at a cheap rate. This is the reason, why railroads are multiplied in such profusion, competing not only with each other, but entering into a rivalry with the rivers and canals. If the works now in process of construction are completed (and I think that they will be,) there will be, within two years, three distinct routes between Philadelphia and Baltimore, exclusive of the old post-route; namely, two lines consisting wholly of railroads, and a third consisting in part of steamboats, and in part of railroad. The line that has the advantage of half an hour over its rivals, will be sure to crush them.
The manner of establishing banks here is this; an act authorising the opening of books in a public place, for subscription of stock, is obtained from the legislature, and all persons have the right to subscribe on payment of a certain sum, say five, ten, or twenty per cent. on the amount of stock taken by them respectively. The affair of opening the books becomes a matter of the greatest moment. In France, we form lanes (on fait queue) round the doors of the theatres; but in the United States, during the last year, the doors of the sanctuaries in which the books for registering the subscriptions for bank-stock have been deposited, have been thronged with the most intense solicitude. In Baltimore, the books were opened for a new bank, the Merchants’ Bank, with a capital of two millions; the amount subscribed was nearly fifty million. At Charleston, for a bank of the same capital, ninety millions were subscribed, and as the act in this instance required the advance of 25 per cent., the sum actually paid in, in paper money to be sure, but yet in current bills at par, amounted to twentytwo and a half millions, or more than eleven times the capital required. This rage for bank-stock is easily explained. Most of the banks here are, in fact, irresponsible establishments, which have the privilege of coining money from paper. The share-holders, by means of a series of ingenious contrivances, realise 8, 9, 10, and 12 per cent. interest on capital, which they do not actually hold; and this in a country where the five per cents. of Pennsylvania and New York, and the six per cents. of Ohio are at 110 to 115. The Ohio sixes! What would the heroes of Fort Duquesne think of that, If they should come back?
Most of these speculations are imprudent, many of them are foolish. The high prices of to-day may and needs must be followed by a crisis tomorrow. Great fortunes, and many of them too, have sprung out of the earth since the spring; others will, perhaps, return to it before the fall of the leaf. The American concerns himself little about that; violent sensations are necessary to stir his vigorous nerves. Public opinion and the pulpit forbid sensual gratifications, wine, women, and the display of a princely luxury; cards and dice are equally prohibited; the American, therefore, has recourse to business for the strong emotions which he requires to make him feel life. He launches with delight into the ever-moving sea of speculation. One day, the wave raises him to the clouds; he enjoys in haste the moment of triumph. The next day he disappears between the crests of the billows; he is little troubled by the reverse, he bides his time coolly, and consoles himself with the hope of better fortune. In the midst of all this speculation, whilst some enrich and some ruin themselves, banks spring up and diffuse credit, railraods and canals extend themselves over the country, steamboats are launched into the rivers, the lakes, and the sea; the career of the speculators is ever enlarging, the field for railroads, canals, steamers, and banks goes on expanding. Some individuals lose, but the country is a gainer; the country is peopled, cleared, cultivated; its resources are unfolded, its wealth increased. Go ahead!
If movement and the quick succession of sensations and ideas constitute life, here one lives a hundred fold more than elsewhere; all is here circulation, motion, and boiling agitation. Experiment follows experiment; enterprise succeeds to enterprise. Riches and poverty follow on each other’s traces, and each in turn occupies the place of the other. Whilst the great men of one day dethrone those of the past, they are already half overturned themselves by those of the morrow. Fortunes last for a season; reputations, during the twinkling of an eye. An irresistible current sweeps away everything, grinds everything to powder, and deposits it again under new forms. Men change their houses, their climate, their trade, their condition, their party, their sect;* the States change their laws, their officers, their constitutions. The soil itself, or at least the houses, partake in the universal instability.† The existence of social order, in the bosom of this whirlpool seems a miracle, an inexplicable anomaly. One is tempted to think, that such a society, formed of heterogeneous elements, brought together by chance, and following each its own orbit according to the impulse of its own caprice or interest,—one would think, that after rising for one moment to the heavens, like a water-spout, such a society would inevitably fall flat in ruins the next; such is not, however, its destiny. In the midst of this general change, there is one fixed point; it is the domestic fire-side, or, to speak more correctly, the conjugal bed. An austere watchman, sometimes harsh even to fanaticism, wards off from this sacred spot everything that can disturb its stability; that guardian is the religious sentiment. Whilst that fixed point shall continue invariable, whilst that sentinel shall persist in his vigilant watch over it, the social system may make new somersets, and undergo new changes without serious risk; it may be pelted by the storm, but while it is made fast to that hold, it will neither split nor sink. It may even be divided into separate and independent masses, but it will still grow in energy, in resources, in extent.
The influence of the democracy is so universal in this country, that it was quite natural for it to raise its head amidst the speculators. There have, therefore, been strikes on the part of the workmen, who wish to have a share in the profits of speculation, and who have demanded higher wages and less work. The former demand was just, for all provisions, all articles of consumption have risen in price. These coalitions are by no means timid in this country; for the English practice of haranguing in public and getting up processions prevails here, and the working class here feels its strength, is conscious of its power, and knows how to make use of it. The different traders have held their meetings in Philadelphia, New York, and other places, discussed their affairs publicly, and set forth their demands. The women have had their meeting as well as the men. That of the seamstresses of Philadelphia attracted notice; Matthew Carey, known as a political writer, presided, assisted by two clergymen. Among the demands of the trades, that of the journeymen bakers, who, by virtue of the rights of man and the sanctity of the seventh day, would not make bread Sundays, is worthy of attention. The principal trades have decided that all work shall be suspended until the masters,* if this name can be applied here except in derision, have acceded to their ultimatum. That every one may know this, they have caused their resolutions to be published in the newspapers, signed by the president and secretaries of the meeting. These resolutions declare that those workmen, who shall refuse to conform to their provisions, will have to abide the consequences of their refusal. The consequences have been, that those refractory workmen, who persisted in their labours, have been driven, with stones and clubs, from their workshops, without any interference on the part of the magistrates. The consequence is, that at this very moment, a handful of boatmen on the Schuylkill canal, prevent the coal boats from descending to the sea, lay an embargo upon them, and thus interrupt one of the most lucrative branches of the Pennsylvania trade, deprive the mariners and ship-owners, who transport the coal to all parts of the coast, of wages and freights, and expose the miners to the danger of being dismissed from the mines. Meanwhile the militia looks on; the sheriff stands with folded arms. If this minority of the boatmen, for these acts of disorder are the work of a small minority, persists in their plans, a fight between them and the miners is to be apprehended.* In Philadelphia, the consequence has been, that the carpenters, in order to reduce some contractors to terms, have set fire to several houses, which these latter were building. In this case, the authorities at length interfered, the mayor issued a proclamation, reciting that, whereas there is reason to believe these fires to be the work of some evil-minded persons, he offers 1000 dollars reward to whoever shall disclose the authors of the same. But it is too late. The municipal authorities, for the purpose, it is said of gaining a few votes on the side of the Opposition, instead of interposing their power between the workmen and the masters, hastened, from the first, to comply with all the demands of the former who were employed on the municipal works.
The philosopher, in whose eyes the present is but a point, may find reason to rejoice in considering these facts. Workmen and domestics in Europe live in a state of absolute dependence, which is favourable only to him who commands. Legitimists, republicans, the juste-milieu, all comport themselves toward the operative whom they employ, or the domestic who is in their service, as if he were a being of an inferior nature, who owes his master all his zeal and all his efforts, but who has no claim for any return beyond a miserable pittance of wages. One may be permitted to wish for the establishment of a juster scale of rights and duties. In the United States, the absolute principle of the popular sovereignty having been applied to the relations of master and servant, of employer and operative, the manufacturer and the contractor, to whom the workmen give the law, endeavour to dispense with their aid as much as possible, by substituting more and more machinery for human force; thus the most painful processes in the arts become less burdensome to the human race. The master, whose domestics obey him when they please, and who pays dear* for being badly and ungraciously served, favours, to the extent of his power, the introduction of mechanical contrivances for simplifying work, in order to spare himself the inconveniences of such a dependence.
It would be worth while to study not only the great manufacturing machinery, but the common hand tools and domestic utensils, in this country. These utensils, tools, and machines exert a powerful influence upon the practical liberty of the greatest number; it is by means of them, that the most numerous class of society gradually frees itself from the yoke which tends to crush and abase it. In this point of view, the present relations between the employer and the employed, between the master and the servant, in this country, tend to hasten the coming of a future, which every friend of humanity must hail with joy. But if the philosophical satisfaction is ample, present, physical comfort is almost absolutely wanting. But whoever is neither operative nor domestic, whoever, especially, has tasted and enjoyed the life of the cultivated classes in Europe, he will find the actual practical life in America, the mere bone and muscle, as it were, of life, to consist of a series of jars, disappointments, mortifications, I had almost said, of humiliations. The independence of the operatives is sometimes the ruin of the masters; the independence of servants involves the dependence of the women, condemns them to household labours little consonant with the finished education which many of them have received, and nails them to the kitchen and the nursery from the day of their marriage to the day of their death.
When the innovating force, acting without check or balance, operates with an excess of energy, all classes suffer equally from the derangement. Not only what in Europe are called the higher classes, (but which here must take another name,) are deprived of a thousand little enjoyments, which it is a matter of convention to despise in books and set speeches, although every one sets a high value on them in practice; but the whole social machine gets out of order, discomfort becomes general, and the extravagant claims of the lower classes, to speak as a European, recoil violently on themselves. At this very moment, for example, the Sybarites of Philadelphia, whose hearts are set upon having fresh bread on Sunday, are not the only persons who suffer or are threatened with suffering. If the exaggerated pretensions of the working classes are persisted in, they will lose their custom, there will be no demand for labour. Speculations, if not made solid by labour, will burst like soap-bubbles, and if a reaction comes, the operative, who is little used to economise, will feel it more sensibly than others.
[* ] A lot is generally from 22 to 25 feet front, and from 80 to 100 deep.
[* ] The causes of religious changes are various. It is not rare to see Americans, on becoming rich, abandon their former sect for Episcopalianism, for instance, which is the most fashionable. The change, however, from one sect to another is less considerable than is supposed in Catholic countries: for the different Protestant sects differ less from each other, than a Jansenist from a Molinist, or a Jesuit from a Gallican. But we must except from this remark the Anglican church, which has a peculiar character, discipline, and liturgy, and the two not very numerous sects of Unitarians, who deny the divinity of Christ, and Universalists, who reject the doctrine of reprobation.
[† ] The American houses are low and slight; the walls are generally only a brick and a half, sometimes only one in thickness; when, therefore, the course of the street is changed, as is often the case in New York, they are set forward or back with little difficulty, and they are often even raised bodily. In the country, the houses are mostly of wood, and are often transported a considerable distance on wheels. Between Albany and Troy, I was stopped on the road by a house of more than forty feet front, which was travelling in this manner.
[* ] This word is not used here; that of employers is substituted for it.
[* ] The citizens of Pottsville have put an end to these outrages, by repairing with a sheriff’s mandate to the spot where the boatmen were assembled, and seizing the ringleaders, whom they conducted to prison. This courage of simple citizens, who in time of need convert themselves into an armed force, is one of the surest guarantees of American liberty; but it is relaxing in the cities.
[* ] In most of the provinces in France servants’ wages are from 12 to 15 dollars a year; here they are from 10 to 12 dollars a month, and one servant in France does the work of two in this country.