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THOUGHTS ON THE CAUSES OF THE PRESENT DISCONTENTS - William Leggett, Democratick Editorials: Essays in Jacksonian Political Economy 
Democratic Editorials: Essays in Jacksonian Political Economy, Foreword by Lawrence H. White (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1984).
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THOUGHTS ON THE CAUSES OF THE PRESENT DISCONTENTS
December 10, 1837.
The title of this article is borrowed from Burke; and would that we could borrow, also, the power of cogent reasoning and affluence of eloquent expression which distinguished the writings of that strong and original thinker, for the theme we have to treat of is worthy of such qualities. That theme is the present financial difficulties, which press with intolerable weight upon the community, and force a murmur even from the sturdiest of those who have stood unmoved amidst all former revulsions. The pressure now, unlike that of 1834, is not purposely caused by the strategy of a gigantick monied institution, warring with the government of the country, and attempting to set itself up as a second estate, greater than the people. It is not caused by a withdrawal of mutual confidence between man and man, during the temporary influence of a panick, created and fomented by the demagogues of a desperate party, for a political end. It is not caused by any failure in the sources of real national wealth; by a sudden falling off in the great staple commodities of the land; nor by any extraordinary or unlooked for vicissitudes in the affairs of the countries with which we carry on reciprocal commerce. What then is the cause of the suffering so keenly felt, and so loudly complained of at the present time? To this we answer, throwing all minor and inadequate circumstances out of view, that the pernicious bank system of our country is the cause! That is the fountain from which the stream of mischief issues, swelled, it is true, by unimportant tributaries, but there taking its rise, and thence deriving the chief volume of its waters. That is the source of the modern Phlegethon, whose burning tide sets those who drink it mad, and wastes the land through which it flows, making it a second Tartarus.
Any person who has soberly observed the course of events for the last three years, must have foreseen the very state of things which now exists. Any person who, from the present unhealthy and dangerous elevation to which the business affairs of the community have been pushed, will turn back his eyes in calm retrospection, must perceive that we impute the evil to its true origin. He will see that the banks, ever since the temporary revulsion of 1834, have been striving, with all their might, each emulating the other, to force their issues into circulation, and flood the land with their wretched substitute for money. He will see that they have used every art of cajolery and allurement to entice men to accept their proffered aid; that, in this way, they gradually excited a thirst for speculation, which they sedulously stimulated, until it increased to a delirious fever, and men, in the epidemick frenzy of the hour, wildly rushed upon all sorts of desperate adventures. They dug canals, where no commerce asked for the means of transportation; they opened roads, where no travelers desired to penetrate; and they built cities where there were none to inhabit, which now stand in their newness, like Palmyra in its ruins, untenanted and solitary, amidst a surrounding desert.
. . .
What has been, what ever must be, the consequence of such a sudden and prodigious inflation of the currency? Business stimulated to the most unhealthy activity; a vast amount of over production in the mechanick arts; a vast amount of speculation in property of every kind and name, at fictitious values; and finally, a vast and terrifick crash, when the treacherous and unsubstantial basis crumbles beneath the stupendous fabrick of credit, and the structure falls to the ground, burying in its ruins thousands who exulted in the fancied security of their elevation. Men, now-a-days, go to bed deeming themselves rich, and wake in the morning to find themselves stripped of even the little they really had. They count, deluded creatures! on the continued liberality of the banks, whose persuasive entreaties seduced them into the slippery paths of speculation. But they have now to learn that the banks cannot help them if they would, and would not if they could. They were free enough to lend their aid when assistance was not needed; but now, when it is indispensable to carry out the projects which would not have been undertaken but for the temptations they held forth, no further resources can be supplied. The banks must take care of themselves. “Charity begins at home.” The course of trade is turning against the country. We have purchased more commodities abroad than our products will pay for, and the balance will soon be called for in specie. The banks, which lately vied with one another in effusing their notes, are now as eager competitors in withdrawing them from circulation, and preparing for the anticipated shock. They have no time to listen to the prayers of the deluded men whom their deceitful lures seduced so far upon the treacherous sea of credit. They cast them adrift without remorse and leave them to encounter, unaided and unprepared, the fury of the gathering tempest. Or should, perchance, some tender hearted moneychanger relent, and consent to tow a few victims into harbour, is it unreasonable that he should charge wrecker’s fees for the service—half the cargo and twenty per cent commissions on the remainder? The cashiers of some of our banks can tell you that these are but the usual rates.
It suited the purposes of party, a short time since, to lay all the difficulties of the money market to the account of certain orders of the Treasury Department, removing a portion of the government funds from one place of deposit to another. And it equally answered the purpose of another class of politicians to ascribe the evils to the necessary operation of the distribution law. But the election is now past, unduly to influence the result of which both these theories were maintained, and, by common consent, it is now tacitly admitted that neither fully accounts for the effect. Beyond all question, both had some share, and particularly the latter, in swelling the amount of embarrassment; but the great, abiding, all-sufficient causes lay deeper than these: the madness of speculation was the immediate one, the inflation of the currency the remote. A pernicious bank system had stimulated the nation into the wildest overtrading, and we now experience the necessary consequences of reaction. The vehement complaints against the banks, because they do not afford relief, which daily fill the columns of certain newspapers, are utterly absurd. The banks cannot help the community; they have enough to do to take care of themselves. They are fearfully potent in producing the mischief, but utterly impotent to remove it. They have a power of evil, but not of good. They administer the bane, but have no antidote. The same causes which occasion pecuniary distress among the merchants, equally affect the money changers, and in the same way. The banks are overtraders as well as the others, and both have to learn that there is but one relief for an overtrading nation, and it must wait for that to be applied by the slow hand of time. They who borrow from the future, and squander in extravagance what is thus acquired, must drudge slowly on in poverty until they acquit themselves of the debt. It is with a people, as with an individual: when the income of a year is lavished in a month, the costly robes and sumptuous table must be succeeded by such food and apparel as served the prodigal son in his reverse of fortune. An invariable law of mechanicks establishes that what is gained in speed is lost in power; and this is not less true in political economy. We have prematurely exhausted our vigour in too rapid a race, and must now pause to recruit our wasted strength.
It is curious, as well as melancholy, to look round, and note the evidences which everywhere meet the eye of that fever of speculation which, for two years past, has been the moral epidemick of the land. The fields, in many places, lie untilled, because the agricultural population has been drawn off to construct railroads and canals, or lay out sites for cities, and prepare the ground for superb edifices capable of accommodating millions yet unborn! Hence we find there are short crops of the main staples of home consumption. Hence we see flour at fifteen dollars a barrel, and hay at forty dollars a ton; and hence foreign agriculturists, the wheat growers of England, and of the very northernmost parts of Europe, are sending their grain to this country—the cultivators on the stormy coast of the Black Sea and the icy shores of the Dnieper send hither their produce, and undersell our farmers on the pleasant banks of the Hudson and the Potomack, at their very doors. During the long wars of Napoleon in Europe, we exported our breadstuffs, and supplied the opposing armies with food. Now we have a standing army at home to support, not of soldiers, but of canal diggers, city builders, and stock gamblers; while the plough stands idle in the unturned furrow, and crows fatten undisturbed in the deserted cornfields. The speculator flaunts by in his carriage, and casts a scrutinizing eye over the neglected farm, not to ascertain the capacities of its soil, but its eligibility as the site for some new scheme of a city, and the probable price it would yield, not by the acre, but by the foot. The children at the wayside scarcely look up at the shining equipage as it dashes along, for shining equipages have become too common to attract the attention even of rusticks. A coach with footboard and hammercloth is no longer a novelty, when half a nation turn builders of carriages for the other half to ride in. But there is an old saying which foretells the destiny of a beggar on horseback, and we fear that there are many in this community now on the eve of experiencing its truth.