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STRICTURES ON THE LATE MESSAGE - 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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STRICTURES ON THE LATE MESSAGE
January 14, 1837.
Text abridged and extract deleted.
The limits into which we were crowded last week by the length of Governour Marcy’s message, allowed us to speak of that document only in a brief paragraph, and in the most general terms. But as we felt called upon to speak of it with censure, it is proper that the grounds of our unfavourable opinion should be candidly stated to our readers.
The fault that we find with the message is that it is a timid, indecisive, commonplace document, following, in a cautious and craven spirit, in the path of publick opinion, and afraid to recommend strenuously even those measures which the publick voice has clearly and energetically demanded. The only exception to this remark is the passage concerning the usury laws, which we fancy must have been written while the author’s mind was still glowing with indignation from the perusal of some able essay on the subject—Jeremy Bentham’s Defence of Usury, perhaps—and sent to the legislature before he had time to revise his opinion according to the suggestions of all those busy fears and scruples which commonly seem to exercise the authority of prime ministers in Governour Marcy’s cabinet councils.
. . .
The analogy which the message attempts to trace, between the power claimed and exercised by the General Government of coining money, and the power which it is asserted belongs to the state governments of interdicting the community (all but a favoured few) from issuing their own notes, has no existence, except in the brain of Governour Marcy.
. . .
The restriction imposed by our federal government on the power of coining money, is much less extensive than is generally supposed; but to whatever extent it exists, it is no infringement of the principle of the equal rights of the citizen, if it is an infringement of the principles of free trade. In the most important view which can be taken of the subject, that of its political character and effect, it is entirely free from the fatal objection which lies against the power claimed for the state governments by Governour Marcy. The provisions of the federal constitution on the subject of coining, and the laws in accordance with them, were instituted for the common protection and convenience of the whole people equally, and give no peculiar facilities and advantages to a few at the expense of the many. In this vital respect the difference is fatal to Governour Marcy’s supposed analogy.
But the power claimed by the General Government “to coin money, and regulate the value thereof,” does not interdict the citizen from coining money also, but only the state governments. Any person may stamp pieces of metal with their name, weight, and quality, and pass them for what they are worth. Any person may make medals, of any form or device he pleases, and sell them, or barter them away, to the best advantage he can; and this is coining money.1 He has no power of declaring that pieces of metal bearing a certain stamp shall be received as of a certain value; because this is an attribute of sovereignty which belongs to communities only in their political organization, and can only be exercised by the duly constituted political authorities. It cannot even be exercised by them, however careful in their adjustment of the size and quality of the coins to the general rate of metallick value, without continual arbitrariness and injustice; since silver and gold, to say nothing of copper, are commodities of continually fluctuating values, as much so in fact, though not in degree, as cotton or flour. The discovery of a new mine, or the invention of a labour saving machine, by suddenly increasing the quantity, diminishes the value; precisely in the same way that a favourable season operates on the wheat or cotton crop. A war in South America, or an epidemick disease or insurrection among the slaves employed in mining, by suddenly diminishing the quantity, increases the value; in the same way that a drought, or an exceedingly rainy season, influences the prices of cotton and grain. A government, therefore, which undertakes to say that a given number of grains of pure gold or silver shall always be received at a given value, is necessarily guilty of an arbitrary exercise of power; and we have our doubts, notwithstanding Governour Marcy affirms that this “has never been considered an invasion of a common right,” whether it is not so in fact, and whether it would not be better to leave actual money, as well its paper representative, to leave coining, as well as banking, entirely to the laws of trade. But to consider this subject now would take us too far from our present object.
The reader will see, from what we have already said, that there is not the slightest validity in the pretended analogy which Governour Marcy has brought forward, and that, as he rests the whole weight of his reasons for the restrictions he recommends on that analogy, they must necessarily fall to the ground. Any individual has a right to stamp his name, and his image too, if he pleases, on a piece of silver or gold, and exchange it for what it is intrinsically worth. In the same way we contend that he has a natural right to give his promise to pay a certain sum on a piece of paper, and, subscribing it with his name, to pass it for what those with whom he deals may be willing to receive it. If he stamps a figure on a piece of gold or silver counterfeiting that made use of on coins authorized or recognized by the government, he is guilty of forgery; and so he would be if he should write a promissory note, and sign it with the name of another person.
But if Governour Marcy’s analogy is good for any thing, it is good in a much larger application than he intended. If the issuing of paper promises is, in fact, issuing a substitute for a metallick currency, and therefore forbidden by the restrictions of the Constitution of the United States against coining, the state governments, in authorizing the chartered banks to do this, violate the conditions of the federal compact, and our whole paper currency is destitute of the warrant of constitutional law.
The passage in Governour Marcy’s message on the subject of banks betrays a degree of feebleness and indecision for which, we confess, after the almost unanimous expression of publick opinion, through the press and through the resolutions of popular assemblies, we were utterly unprepared. We did think that, thus backed and prompted, even Governour Marcy would have spoken out boldly. Yet all he has ventured to say is to refer the legislature to his equivocal and two-sided remarks in a former message, and to express a hope that they will charter no more banks this session. “If you should do so, however, gentlemen, perhaps it would be well to modify and improve the mode of distributing the stock.” How ineffably contemptible! We trust in heaven, if the legislature should pass any more bank charters, that the cupidity and rapaciousness which alone will lead to such legislation may prevent them from making any change in the manner of apportioning stock. A few more such scenes of eager scrambling for the “spoils,” and of venality and corruption in distributing them, as was represented when the stock of the State Bank was divided, will do more to promote true principles of legislation, than a thousand such Bob Acre[s]2 messages as that on which it has been our unpleasant duty to comment. We intended to touch some other points, but we sicken of the subject.
[1 ]Leggett may have been aware of the private Bechtler mint in North Carolina, which coined several million dollars worth of Southern Appalachian gold between 1831 and 1850. Congress did not outlaw private coinage until 1864.—Ed.
[2 ]Bob Acres is a shallow-headed comic character in Richard Sheridan’s play The Rivals (1775).—Ed.