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PART FIVE: The Principles of Free Trade - 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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The Principles of Free Trade
November 20, 1834.
Title added by Sedgwick; Roman numeral added.
The Times has favoured us with a confession of faith on the subject of monopolies, and if its preaching were in accordance with its creed, there would be little ground of dispute, for it would seem by this that there is no great difference between us on general principles. The Times says:
“The Post is against all monopolies—so are we. The Post is for Equal Rights—so are we. The Post is for the suppression of small notes, and a reform of our banking system—so are we, for the last because it is needed, and for the first because the notes are an evil, and their extinction is essential to the success of one of our most important measures of public policy, the substitution of a specie currency. The Post is against legislating for the benefit of individuals, to the disadvantage or exclusion of others—so are we, and in this and on all these points, the party agrees with us.”
So far, so good. We shall pass by the twaddle about “the party agreeing with us,” which is mere harmless impertinence and coxcombry not worth reply. We shall pass by, too, the satisfactory and lucid reason stated by the Times for being in favour of “a reform of our banking system.” We gather, then, from this confession of faith that the Times is opposed to all monopolies, is in favour of equal rights, believes that small bank-notes should be suppressed, the banking system reformed, and legislation for individuals, to the disadvantage or exclusion of others, should cease. One might naturally infer from all this that there is no real ground of controversy between us, and that, like many other disputants, we have been arguing about nothing. But when the Times comes to explain itself, we find, notwithstanding the apparent agreement in our premises, that we differ very widely in our conclusions. It is against all monopolies in the abstract, but for them in the concrete. It is opposed to charters of incorporation in general, but advocates them in particular. It is in short against exclusive privileges as monopolies, but in favour of them as means of effecting “great objects of public utility,” “developing vast resources,” “stimulating industry,” and so forth, which is only a repetition of the stale cant which has been used, time out of mind, by those who desired to cheat the people out of their rights for their own selfish ends.
The Times is pleased to say that we ride the doctrine of monopolies as a hobby. We might retort by saying that the Times rides it only for convenience, and just as it suits its purposes. It is “ride and tie” with it. One moment it is on horseback, pricking its ambling steed along; the next it dismounts and turns him loose to graze on the common. For ourselves, we have only to say, that if opposition to monopolies, in every form and under every disguise, is our hobby, it is because we honestly believe them to be the most sly and dangerous enemies to the general prosperity that ever were devised by ingenious cupidity. It is on this ground we have opposed them earnestly—it is on this ground we mean to oppose them, with all our ability, until the evil is arrested, or we become convinced that opposition is vain.
Though the Times professes to agree with us in the opinion that all monopolies are infringements upon the equal rights of the people, and therefore at war with the spirit of our government and institutions, it differs widely with us in its definition. It separates monopolies from corporations, and its idea seems to be that monopolies must be entirely exclusive, or they are not monopolies. There are degrees of virtue and of vice; there are degrees in every thing; but according to the Times there are none in the nature and extent of monopolies. These consist in extremes, and have no medium.
Among its exceptions are railroad incorporations, which it does not consider as belonging to the great family of monopolies. It acknowledges that a railroad may be a monopoly—“a speculation for the profit of individuals, not required by, nor likely to promote the public interest;” but, on the other hand, to meet this case, it supposes another, in order to show that a railroad company may be incorporated without creating a monopoly. Extreme cases are but poor arguments; since by carrying any right or principle to an extreme, it may be made to appear vicious and unjust. But let us examine the supposititious case which the Times has manufactured to justify its insidious advocacy of monopolies. We copy the whole passage:
“Suppose Grand Island to be inhabited by twenty people, and that their only ferry is at one end of the island. Suppose that they have no good road, and that they want a railway to transport their produce from their farms down to the ferry. No one of them is rich enough to make it, but the whole together can, provided they have an act of incorporation for the management of the joint funds, and the direction of the work. Suppose the Post to be the legislature, and that these twenty isolated proprietors apply for a charter: how would the Post reply? It would say, “there is certainly nobody concerned in this matter but yourselves, and the work would benefit you vastly, but if no one of you is wealthy enough to construct it, you must do without—you cannot have a charter, for I oppose monopolies, and every act of incorporation is a monopoly!”
This is all very smart and very convincing, and we only wonder that the Times did not discover that it had trumped up a case which has no application whatever to the matter in dispute. The twenty inhabitants of Grand Island, according to the case here put, constituted a complete community, having one common interest in the contemplated railroad, and all sharing equally in its advantages. They are, so far as respects this question, a whole people, and being thus united in one common bond of interest, the rights of no one of them would be impaired by the whole body being incorporated for any common object. This supposititious act of incorporation bears a strong analogy to the very measure of legislation which we yesterday spoke of as the proper means of effecting those objects which are now attained by partial and unequal laws. Instead of Grand Island, let us read the State of New York; and instead of an act of incorporation for a specific purpose including the whole population, let us suppose a law applicable to all purposes for which charters could be asked, under which any set of individuals might associate, and we have at once, a remedy for the evils of exclusive charters—we establish a system under which monopolies cannot exist.
But let us look a little closer at the railroad incorporation which the Times wishes to bestow on the twenty inhabitants on Grand Island. It is within the compass of possibilities that the population of Grand Island, particularly after “their resources should be developed,” and “their industry stimulated,” by an act of incorporation, might be increased by emigration [sic], or in some other way. As the charter was conferred exclusively on the twenty original inhabitants, we suppose the new comers would be denied the benefits of the railroad, unless they paid a toll, or contributed an equal proportion with the original proprietors. Would not this railroad at once become a monopoly, and as such be open to all the objections to corporations of this kind?
But we are fighting shadows. Communities cannot be incorporated except under laws equally applicable to all their members; and the idea of giving society at large exclusive privileges is an absurdity. A law which is general in its operation cannot confer exclusive privileges. The fiction of a whole community requiring an act of incorporation to accomplish an object of public utility is equally fanciful and original.
The Times further maintains that the Evening Post is an enemy to every species of internal improvement, and that the position it has taken would exclude them altogether. The Post, it says, will allow no rich man to make a road because the Post upholds equal rights, and will not permit corporate bodies to do it; of course the people must go without roads. Now all this is gratuitous assumption both of facts and consequences.
There is no necessity for either the rich man or the corporate company to make roads. The people will do it themselves; their own wants and convenience will impel them; and as their requirements and means increase, their modes of conveyance will advance accordingly. A rich man may hold all the property through which a road is to pass—but what of that? He cannot impose upon the people by making them pay to pass through it. The general law of the land points out the uniform mode of proceeding. He is remunerated by being paid the fair amount of his injury, and taxed his full share of the advantages derived from the improvement. There is here no monopoly, and there is no oppression, because every man’s property is liable to similar contingencies.
But in order to justify this great system of monopoly in disguise, it is the fashion to proclaim from the housetops that communities can do nothing in their combined capacity, and that general laws are insufficient for nearly every purpose whatever. We have special laws and contrivances interfering with and infringing the common rights of individuals. We must have societies of all kinds, for every special purpose, and corporate bodies of every name and device, to do what ought not to be done, or what the community can well dispense with, or what they could as well do for themselves. Nations, states, and cities can do nothing now-a-days, without the agency of monopolies and exclusive privileges. Nor can individuals “beneficially employ capital,” unless they are inspired by an act of the legislature, and a prospect of exorbitant profits, such is “the progress of the age and the march of intellect.”
We need not say again that we are not an enemy of public improvements—such as are equally beneficial to the whole of that community which bears an equal proportion of the expense which they cost. But we are for putting such improvements on the footing of county roads and other municipal undertakings. The people who are to be exclusively benefitted may make them if they please, and if they do not please they may let it alone. In our opinion it is paying at too dear a rate for quick travelling through New-Jersey to purchase it at the price of depriving the citizens of that state, not members of a certain railroad company, of the right to make another railroad from New-York to Philadelphia. By such a system of legislation, the sovereign people of a whole state are deprived of their equal rights.
But it is our custom to treat all great political subjects on broad and general principles, from which alone general conclusions can be derived. A superficial or partial comparison of the advantages and disadvantages of a certain course of legislation furnishes a poor criterion from which to strike the balance; because it is wholly impossible for the ripest experience, aided by the most sagacious intellect to see and weigh everything connected with the subject of discussion. We must resort to general principles.
The question between the Times and the Evening Post, then, is not whether an act of incorporation may not be passed by a legislative body from the purest motives of public good, nor whether the public good may not in some instances be promoted by such an act. The true question is whether all history, all experience, nay, the very nature of man, does not support the position that this power of granting privileges, either wholly or partially exclusive, is not one that has always led, and, as we have thence a right to infer, will always lead, not only to corruption and abuse, but to either open or secret infringements of the sanctity of Equal Rights? This is the only question worthy of a high-minded and patriotic politician. It is not whether the practice may not occasionally lead to public, or social, or individual benefit; but whether it has not in the past been made, and whether it will not in the future be made again, the fruitful source of those inequalities in human condition—those extremes of wealth and poverty, so uniformly fatal to the liberties of mankind.
Our pen has been often employed, and we trust not wholly without effect, in pointing out and illustrating the evil consequences of this system of bartering away the reserved rights of the great mass of the community, in exchange for public bonusses and private douceurs, either direct or indirect, or in furtherance of political views. This system has deranged the whole organization of society, destroyed its equilibrium, and metamorphosed a government the fundamental principle of which is equal rights to every free citizen, to one of equal wrongs to every class that does not directly share in its monopolies.
We neither wish to pull down the rich, nor to bolster them up by partial laws, beneficial to them alone, and injurious to all besides. We have repeated, again and again, that all we desire is, that the property of the rich may be placed on the same footing with the labours of the poor. We do not incorporate the different classes of tradesmen, to enable them to dictate to their employers the rate of their wages; we do not incorporate the farmers to enable them to establish a price for their products; and why then should we incorporate moneyed men (or men having only their wits for a capital) with privileges and powers that enable them to control the value of the poor man’s labour, and not only the products of the land, but even the land itself?
If the Times will answer these questions, we are willing to discuss the subject, step by step, in all its important relations. But if it shall continue to lay down positions but to explain them away, like the boy who blows a bubble only for the pleasure of dissipating it by a breath, we shall not feel bound to pursue the subject in a controversial form. The weathercock must remain stationary for at least a moment, before we can tell which way the wind blows. The ship which, without rudder or compass, yaws and heaves about, the sport of every impulse of the elements, can scarcely be followed in her devious course by the most skilful navigator.
“A LITTLE FREE-TRADE CRAZY”
December 13, 1834.
It gives us pleasure to perceive that the doctrines advanced by this paper, on the subject of corporate powers, have alarmed the monopolists, and that the number of our opponents is increasing. Secure in the correctness of the principle we maintain, and relying, with unlimited confidence, on the intelligence and honesty of the great body of the people, we desire only that the important question now before them should be freely and fully discussed; and shall abide the issue in the perfect assurance that it will add another and glorious triumph to the cause of Equal Rights. If the people could be deluded by the sophistry, or won by the exhortations, or swayed by the preponderance of numbers of editorial opponents of the political and politico-economical doctrines which we assert, their recent verdict through the ballot-boxes would have been a very different one from that which they happily pronounced; for it cannot be denied that, so far as the press is concerned, the odds are greatly on the side of the aristocracy. But the people judged for themselves; they could not be driven like cattle to the shambles. They cannot be driven now, but will judge for themselves again, with equal firmness and sagacity, and it is therefore we are gratified that new advocates of exclusive privileges are starting up, since their efforts in behalf of corporations will but furnish an occasion of displaying the subject in all its bearings, and showing the dangerous character of monopoly in all the disguises with which the subtle spirit of cupidity and aristocracy has arrayed it.
The Journal of Commerce thinks we are getting “a little free-trade crazy.” If this is so, we shall at least have the company, in our lunacy, of some of the soundest thinkers and purest and most prudent men in our country. The malady, moreover, is spreading and we should not be surprised if the Journal of Commerce itself should be touched before long. The extension of the views entertained by the editor of that paper, on the subject of political economy, from their present limits to those which bound our own theory, would not, at any rate, be a greater change, than their reformation from the heresies of the protective system to those free-trade principles in what relates to foreign commerce which they have since ably advocated. In alluding to their former opinions we do not know but we touch on personal matters, but we do so in all courtesy, and with no thought to charge, or imply, that the conversion was not sincere and the result of careful and enlightened investigation. But in view of the fact that their sentiments on important questions have changed and are changing, and that doctrines are considered sound by them to-day which a little while ago they deemed heterodox, we should think they might have chosen a softer word to express their opinion of our fallacy than that they have thought proper to use. Assertion, however, is not argument, and the uncourteous dictum, unsupported by argument, can have no greater effect than to provoke “the fool’s loud laugh.”
The Journal of Commerce says, “The Post insists that all acts of incorporation, whether for Banks, Roads, Insurance Companies, or any thing else, are opposed to sound principles of political economy. We have not so learned free trade, and we do not think the Post has found its doctrines in any of the books.” It is not only, nor even mainly, on the ground of political economy, that we oppose the principle of corporations, but, in a larger measure, on the broad and important political ground that it is hostile to the great democratic principle of Equal Rights. It is a happy thing for the destinies of this young and vigorous republic, that the fundamental principle of our Government is likewise the fundamental principle of political economy; and that, therefore, they who are fighting the great battle in defence of the political rights of man, are at the same time endeavouring to establish that noble science, the ignorance of whose truths and the violation of whose doctrines have been a prolific source of the burdens and oppressions under which the people of Europe groan.
They who read the pages of history with thinking eyes, will perceive that to the interference of Government with the private pursuits of individuals; to the granting of exclusive privileges to one body of citizens, and placing burdensome restrictions on others; to the giving a stimulating bounty here, and imposing a prohibitory duty there; to the withholding from whole communities the right to employ their capital or labour in a particular channel of industry, and conferring a monopoly of that privilege on some single one as a token of favour, or selling it to hide as an article of traffic—that to these, and a thousand similar violations of the principles of political economy, is to be ascribed much, very much of the misery with which the groaning nation of king-governed Europe is filled. It is there monopolies and exclusive privileges which have produced that deplorable inequality, which is the most striking characteristic of the population of Europe. It is these monopolies which have poured a mine of wealth into the coffers of the few, and stolen the last farthing from the pockets of the many. It is these which have built up lordly factories, and filled them with squalled operatives; that have extended magnificent enclosures around vast estates, and cultivated them with the toil of hired hands, who once were free-holders; that have torn down multitudes of cottages, to build one gorgeous palace in their stead; that have made a vast army and navy necessary to force the fabrics of overgrown monopolies on rival nations; that have created an enormous national debt; that have inundated the land with paper promises instead of money; and that have filled the brothels, workhouses, and prisons with prostitution, wretchedness and crime.
This is not a too highly coloured picture of the evils which Europe has brought upon herself by monopolies. The truth is rather underrated than exaggerated. Of the monopolies which have produced these disastrous effects, that of incorporations has not been the least instrumental. The Journal of Commerce thinks we do not find this doctrine “in any of the books.” But if it will look into the English statute books it will find abundant proof of what we assert. It will find that they are full of laws erecting the members of every trade and calling into corporations, and granting them “privileges” by the most arbitrary restrictions. It will find that they limit the number of apprentices, fix the term of service, impose fines upon all persons exercising their calling without becoming members of the corporation, and exacting a heavy price for that privilege. If it is too tedious a task for the Journal of Commerce to pursue the investigation in that channel, let it go no further than the pages of Adam Smith. It will there find the evils of corporations set forth by a master-hand—a hand which dealt not in flourishes, but confined his sober pen to such facts, and such arguments, that his immortal work has already, in many important respects, revolutionized the policy of the world. It will find that illustrious writer sets himself sternly against the species of monopoly which the Journal of Commerce defends. Speaking of the inequalities of human condition occasioned by the policy of Europe, he says, “the exclusive privileges of corporations are the principle means it makes use of for this purpose;” and, in another place, he remarks, that “the pretence that corporations are necessary for the better government of trade is without any foundation.” There are certain cases, it is true, in which he admits that charters of incorporation may be useful, but these are exceptions to his rule, and violations of his theory.
But suppose we had not found our doctrine “in the books.” Does it thence follow that it is unsound! There is another thing we have not “found in the books,” which the Journal of Commerce must allow has an important bearing on the question. We have not found a precedent of a government erected on the principle of Equal Rights—a government where the people rule—where the beggar and the millionary have an equal voice in public affairs, and where the aristocrat, descending from his carriage at the polls, may meet his coachman at the ballot-boxes, and see him, in the exercise of equal freedom of opinion, deposite a suffrage that may neutralise his own.
Had Adam Smith lived in our day and our country, he, too, we apprehend, would have become “a little free-trade crazy,” or at least his sanity would probably have been called in question by certain journalists. He would have looked upon our country, as a kindred spirit, Jean Baptist[e] Say, has looked upon it, and would have asked, as that great political economist has asked, “Where should we expect sound doctrines to be better received, than amongst a nation that supports and illustrates the value of free principles by the most striking examples. The old states of Europe are cankered with prejudices; it is America will teach them the height of prosperity which may be reached, when governments follow the counsels of reason and do not cost too much.”*
But it was the fortune of Adam Smith to draw his breath in a land where the very light of heaven is taxed to swell the resources of its unwieldy government; where deep-rooted monopolies waved their upas branches on every side of him; where the principle of exclusive privileges is interwoven with every fibre of the political fabric, where a king governs by “divine right,” and where the people have no rights at all, except such as have been graciously conceded to them by their heaven-favoured rulers. His spirit, though cabined, cribbed, confined by such aristocratic bounds, yet burst from them, and taught a lesson of freedom which mankind will never forget. They listened not to him then. He spoke in a strange language and men understood him not; his voice was drowned in the interested clamour of monopolists, and they heard him not. But his teachings sunk deeply into some hearts. His words did not pass away. His precepts are now performing their mighty work. The example of America is performing a still mightier work. He called from the vasty deep, which from time immemorial had rolled its sluggish and oblivious waves over Europe, a spirit which is teaching to mankind the true way to national wealth. The fathers of our country broke the spell that bound a sister but more powerful spirit, which, first redeeming our own land from thraldom, is now teaching to all the world the way to national freedom. These spirits are the twin-assertors of the great principle of Equal Rights—equal rights in all that relates to capital and industry; equal rights in all that relates to government. It is for this country to join their lessons, and enjoy, to the fullest extent, the two-fold blessing.
ASYLUM FOR INSANE PAUPERS
November 28, 1834.
Title added by Sedgwick.
We have received a copy of a circular letter on the subject of a recommendation made by Governor Marcy to the Legislature, at its last session, that an Asylum for Insane Paupers should be erected, at the expense of the State. A select committee was charged with the subject, which reported favourably on the project; but the legislature adjourned without acting upon it. We trust they will adjourn again without acting affirmatively on any such scheme.
The taking care of the insane is no part of the business of the state government. The erecting of such an Asylum as is proposed, and the appointment of the various officers to superintend it, would be placing a good deal more power— where there is already too much—into the hands of the state executive, to be used honestly or corruptly, for good or evil, as these qualities should happen to predominate in his character, or as the temptations to use his official patronage for his own aggrandizement or profit might be strong or weak. We are continually suffering, under one pretence or other, these pilferings of power from the people.
The circular to which we have alluded appeals strongly to the sympathies of its readers. It presents a deplorable and harrowing picture of the miseries endured by insane paupers in the poor-houses of Massachusetts and New Hampshire, and intimates that their condition is no better in many counties of this state. If this is so, the evil ought to be investigated and remedied; but not in the method proposed, by the erection of a splendid state Asylum. The people ought not to suffer their judgment to be led away by their sympathies. They cannot be too jealous of the exercise of unnecessary powers by the state government. The nearer they keep all power to their own hands, and the more entirely under their own eyes, the more secure are they in their freedom and equal rights.
We would have destitute lunatics taken care of, but not under the charge or at the expense of the state government. It ought to be one of the leading objects of the democracy of this country for many years to come to diminish the power of the general and several state governments, not to increase it. On the subject of legislation for paupers they ought to be particularly vigilant. In nine cases out of ten, and we believe we might say ninety-nine out of a hundred, poor-laws make more poverty than they alleviate. If the reader has ever employed himself in tracing the history of the poor-laws in England, he will not require any proof of this assertion; if he has not, he could scarcely turn his thoughts to a subject more rife with matters of serious interest.
Lunatic paupers ought certainly to be taken care of. Both charity and self-protection require this. But we would remove this guardianship as far from government as possible. Each county should certainly provide for its own; each township would be better, and if it were practicable to narrow it down to the kindred of the insane persons, it would be better still. As a general rule, all public charities, except for the single purpose of promoting education, are founded on erroneous principles, and do infinitely more harm than good. See that the people are educated, and then leave every man to take care of himself and of those who have a natural claim on his protection. We have many large charities in this community, founded in the most amiable and benevolent motives, that annually add very largely to the sum of human misery, by ill-judged exertions to relieve it.
The picture of the wretched condition of lunatic paupers, as presented in the circular before us, is certainly very touching, but legislators must not be blinded by tears to the true and permanent interests of man. They must let their feelings of commiseration take counsel of the pauser judgment. They must look at the subject in all its bearings and aspects, before they saddle the people in their collective capacity with another tax, and place the revenue so instituted at the disposal of an executive officer, who may expend it with a view to advance his private ends.
We have said that the account given of the sufferings of these pauper lunatics is touching; yet it would be easy to draw as touching a picture, and as true too, of the sufferings of sane paupers. Indeed, with many, what a horrible aggravation to their sufferings their very sanity must be,
“Which but supplies a feeling to decay!”
The lunatics are by no means the most unhappy class of paupers, as a class. Insanity comes to many as a friend in their deepest affliction, to mitigate the tortures of a wounded spirit—to
Those who are sick and desolate; who have fallen from a high estate—fallen by their own folly, perhaps, and therefore experience the gnawings of remorse, or fallen in consequence of the ingratitude or treachery of others, may easily be supposed to experience keener anguish than the demented inmates of the same abode; since the worst pain man suffers has its seat in the mind, not in the body; and from that species of affliction the crazy are exempt. If this scheme of a grand state lunatic asylum should be carried into effect, we see no reason why next we should not have a grand state poor-house, for the reception of all paupers who had not lost their wits. Other large state charities would probably follow, and one abuse of government would step upon the heels of another. The system is all wrong from beginning to end. We are governed too much. Let the people take care of themselves and of their own sick and insane, each community for itself. Let them, above all things, be extremely cautious in surrendering power into the hands of the government, of any kind, or for any purpose whatever, for governments never surrender power to the people. What they get is theirs “to have and to hold,” ay, and to exercise too, to the fullest extent, nor is it often got back from them, till their grasp is opened with the sword.
Our remarks are cursory and loose, perhaps, as this article has been written in the midst of more than usual interruptions. Let the reader not thence infer, however, that we have taken ground on this subject hastily; for such is not the fact. The plan recommended by Governor Marcy last winter, has frequently occupied our thoughts, and in every light in which we have viewed it has appeared to us to deserve the opposition of the democratic members of the legislature. We are for giving as few powers to government as possible, and as small an amount of patronage to dispense. Let the aristocracy advocate a strong government; we are for a strong people.
November 29, 1834.
Title added by Sedgwick; Roman numeral added. Text abridged.
. . . [We] are surprised that the Journal of Commerce does not perceive that it makes no difference in the principle of the thing whether the stock of an incorporated Company is divided into fifty dollar shares, or five thousand dollar shares. Of whatever amount the subdivisions may be, but a small portion of the community can receive any at the original allotment, and but a small portion of them could receive any, if the Journal of Commerce’s favourite plan of selling the shares by auction were adopted. When the pitcher is full it will hold no more; and when the shares were all apportioned or sold, disappointed applicants could not expect to get any. The corporation would then be a monopoly enjoyed by the successful applicants; and whether their number was five or five thousand, they would possess “exclusive privileges” nevertheless, and would be the beneficiaries of unequal legislation.
It is an error of the Journal of Commerce to say, that the practical operation of corporations is to “take privileges, which would otherwise be monopolized by the rich, and divide them into such small parts, that every one who has fifty dollars may be interested, upon equal terms of advantage with the most wealthy.” In practice, the operation of the thing is quite the reverse. “Kissing goes by favour,” in those operations. Large capitalists get all the stock they ask for, and poor men get but a part, if any, that they solicit. There are published lists of apportionments to which we can refer the Journal of Commerce. But the fact is notorious. And moreover, it is notorious, that this pretended division of stock has even much less of fairness and honesty about it than would seem by the face of things. Many of the applicants who get large apportionments are men of straw, mere catspaws, thrust forward to answer the purpose of some great capitalist, for whom the stock is really procured. We could name instances, if it were necessary. We have not come to this subject without being furnished with ample means of establishing our arguments. There is the very last bank that went into operation—was the stock of that incorporation divided to fifty dollar applicants? Is it not, on the contrary, a fact, that a controlling interest is in the hands of a single individual, who is represented by his puppets—we beg their pardon, his proxies—in the directory? Nor is that bank a solitary instance, as the Journal of Commerce well knows.
But if the argument were true, to the fullest extent, that “fifty dollar men” can become bankers, and life-insurers, and packet-owners, and so on, it would still not be a good argument in favour of special acts of incorporation for these several purposes; because these special acts would each embrace but a small portion of the community, and all special or partial legislation is, in its very nature, anti-republican and invasive of equal rights. Let capital and industry alone to find their own channels. This is the true principle to act upon. If any additional legislation is necessary, let it be legislation that shall embrace the whole body politic, and every variety of laudable enterprise. The “fifty dollar” argument of the Journal of Commerce might with much more propriety be put forward in support of a general law of joint stock partnerships, than in support of the everlasting iteration of special acts of incorporation, where every succeeding set of applicants are striving to get some privileges or advantages not conferred by previous charters, and, to effect their selfish and unjust ends, resorting to all the arts of collusion and corruption. Under a general law, not merely “fifty dollar men,” but twenty dollar men, and one dollar men, might if they pleased place their means in the joint funds of an association to effect some great enterprise. Such a law would be the very measure to enable poor men to compete with rich. As it is, let the Journal of Commerce say what it may, acts of incorporation are chiefly procured by the rich and for the rich. What claims have your William Bards1 or your Nathaniel Primes on the country, that our legislature should spend their time in making laws for their exclusive or particular advantage? Did we cast our suffrages into the ballot-boxes to select legislative factors for those men, or such men? Let them have their equal rights, but let them have no more.
The Journal of Commerce seems to think our reasoning involves a contradiction, because we oppose special acts of incorporations or monopolies, and yet would extend incorporations indefinitely. We have not said we would extend corporations indefinitely; yet if corporations were extended indefinitely, there would be no monopoly; since when every member of the community has precisely the same opportunities of employing capital and industry given to him by the laws which every other member has, there is no exclusive privilege, and no invasion of equal rights. But it is an error in terms to say that we advocate the indefinite extension of corporations, since the very nature of a corporation, is to be endowed with special privileges. We shall not dispute about words, however, if we can bring the Journal of Commerce to agree with us about principles. The act of incorporation, then, which we should desire to see passed, would be an act incorporating the whole population of the State of New York, for every possible lawful purpose to which money or human labour, or ingenuity, is ever applied, with a clause admitting to a full communion of the benefits of the body corporate, every individual who should at any future time become a member of the body politic.
December 4, 1834.
Misdated by Sedgwick. Title added by Sedgwick. Extract and text abridged.
In the proceedings of the Board of Assistant Aldermen, on Monday evening last, as reported in the morning papers, and copied into this journal, there occurred the following passage:
“Assistant Alderman Tallmadge moved that the Board now take up the report of the special committee, relative to the relief of the surviving Revolutionary soldiers residing in the city and county of New-York. . . . He moved that one hundred dollars be paid out of the city treasury on the 1st January next, to every surviving officer and soldier of the revolution in the city and county of New-York, now receiving a pension, provided the number does not exceed one hundred. He accompanied it by an eloquent appeal, in which he showed, that while we are rejoicing at the victories of the revolution, we should not forget those in their old age who achieved them.”
. . .
Let us reflect a moment what this proposition is which the Board of Assistant Aldermen have, with this single exception, unanimously adopted. Why to give away ten thousand dollars of the people’s money to such of the revolutionary pensioners as reside in the city of New-York. Does not the plain good sense of every reader perceive that this is a monstrous abuse of the trust confided to our city legislators? Did we send them to represent us in the Common Council that they may squander away the city’s treasures at such a lavish rate? Is it any part of their duty to make New-Year’s presents? Have they any right under heaven to express their sympathy for the revolutionary pensioners at the city’s cost? If they have, where is the warrant for it? Let them point their fingers to the clause in the city charter which authorizes them to lay taxes, that they may be expended again in bounties, rewards and largesses, to any class of men whatever.
Let no reader suppose that in making these remarks, we lack a proper appreciation of the eminent services rendered to this country, and to the cause of human liberty throughout the world, by those brave and heroic men who achieved our national independence. Doubtless many, very many of them, entered into that contest with no higher motives than animate the soldier in every contest, for whatsoever object undertaken—whether in defence of liberty or to destroy it. But the glorious result has spread a halo around all who had any share in achieving it, and they will go down together in history, to the latest hour of time, as a band of disinterested, exalted, incorruptible and invincible patriots. This is the light in which their sons, at least, the inheritors of their precious legacy of freedom, ought to view them; and they never, while a single hero of that band remains, can be exonerated from the obligations of gratitude which they owe. But we would not, on that account, authorize any usurpation of power by our public servants, under the pretence of showing the gratitude of the community to the time-worn veterans of the revolutionary war. Every man ought to be his own almoner, and not suffer those whom he has elected for far different purposes, to squander the funds of the public chest, at any rate, and on any object which may seem to them deserving of sympathy. The precedent is a wrong one, and is doubly wrong, inasmuch as the general regard for those for whose benefit this stretch of power is exerted, may lead men to overlook the true character of the unwarrantable assumption.
Let ten thousand—let fifty thousand dollars be given by our city to the revolutionary veterans who are closing their useful lives in the bosom of this community; but let it be given to them without an infringement of those sacred rights which they battled to establish. If the public feeling would authorize such a donation as Mr. Tallmadge exerted his “eloquence” in support of, that same feeling would prompt our citizens, each man for himself, to make a personal contribution towards a fund which should properly and nobly speak the gratitude of New-York towards the venerable patriots among them. But the tax-payer, who would liberally contribute to such an object, in a proper way, may very naturally object to Mr. Tallmadge thrusting his hand into his pocket, and forcing him to give for what and to whom that eloquent gentleman pleases. If the city owes an unliquidated amount, not of gratitude, but of money, to the revolutionary pensioners, let it be paid by the Common Council, and let Mr. Tallmadge be as eloquent as he pleases, or as he can be, in support of the appropriation. But beyond taking care of our persons and our property, the functions neither of our city government, nor of our state government, nor of our national government, extend. We hope to see the day when the people will jealously watch and indignantly punish every violation of this principle.
That what we have here written does not proceed from any motive other than that we have stated, we trust we need not assure our readers. That, above all, it does not proceed from any unkindness towards the remaining heroes of the revolution, must be very evident to all such as have any knowledge of the personal relations of the writer. Among those who would receive the benefit of Mr. Tallmadge’s scheme is the venerable parent of him whose opinions are here expressed.1 That parent, after a youth devoted to the service of his country, after a long life of unblemished honour, now, in the twilight of his age, and bending under the burden of fourscore years, is indebted to the tardy justice of his Government for much of the little light that cheers the evening of his eventful day. Wanting indeed should we be, therefore, in every sentiment of filial duty and love, if we could oppose this plan of a public donation, for any other than public and sufficient reasons. But viewing it as an attempt to exercise a power which the people never meant to confer upon their servants, we should be wanting in those qualities of which this donation is intended to express the sense of the community, if we did not oppose it. We trust the resolution will not pass the upper Board.
JOINT-STOCK PARTNERSHIP LAW
December 30, 1834.
Title added by Sedgwick.
The charters of several incorporated companies in this city are about to expire, and we have several times been asked if this paper, in pursuance of the doctrines we profess, would feel called upon to oppose the renewal of those charters. To this our answer is most unequivocally in the affirmative. We shall oppose, with all our might and zeal, the granting or renewing of any special charter of incorporation whatever, no matter who may be the applicants, or what the objects of the association.
But at the same time, we wish it to be distinctly understood, that we do not desire to break up those incorporated associations the charters of which are about to expire. How so? You would refuse to re-charter them, and thus they would inevitably be broken up. Not at all; as we shall explain.
It is not against the objects effected by incorporated companies that we contend; but simply against the false principle, politically and politico-economically, of special grants and privileges. Instead of renewing the charters of Insurance Companies, or any other companies, about to expire, or granting charters to new applicants, we would recommend the passing of one general law of joint stock partnerships, allowing any number of persons to associate for any object, (with one single temporary exception, which we shall state in the proper place) permitting them to sue and be sued under their partnership name, to be secure from liability beyond the amount of capital invested, to conduct their business according to their own good pleasure, and, in short, to possess all the powers defined by the revised statutes as belonging to corporations. There is nothing not perfectly equitable in the principle which exempts men from liability to any greater amount than the capital actually invested in any business, provided proper notoriety be given of the extent and circumstances of that investment. If such a law were passed, the stockholders in an insurance company, or the stockholders in any other chartered company, when their corporate privileges were about to expire, would have merely to give the proper public notification of their intention to continue their business in the mode specified in the general joint-stock partnership law, and they might go on precisely the same as if their special privileges had been renewed. The only difference would be that those privileges would no longer be special, but would belong to the whole community, any number of which might associate together, form a new company for the same objects, give due notification to the public, and enter into free competition with preexisting companies or partnerships; precisely as one man, or set of associated men, may now enter into mercantile business by the side of other merchants, import the same kinds of goods, dispose of them on the same terms, and compete with them in all the branches of their business.
There has been a great deal said about our ultraism and Utopianism; and this is the extent of it. By a general law of joint-stock partnerships all the good effects of private incorporations would be secured, and all the evil ones avoided. The humblest citizens might associate together, and wield, through the agency of skilful and intelligent directors, chosen by themselves, a vast aggregate capital, composed of the little separate sums which they could afford to invest in such an enterprise, in competition with the capitals of the purse-proud men who now almost monopolize certain branches of business.
The exception to which we have alluded above, is the business of banking. Our views on this subject were fully stated yesterday. We would not have banking thrown open to the whole community, until the legislature had first taken measures to withdraw our paper money from circulation. As soon as society should be entirely freed, by these measures, from the habit of taking bank-notes as money, we would urge the repeal of the restraining law, and place banking on as broad a basis as any other business whatever.
THE FERRY MONOPOLY
February 18, 1835.
Title added by Sedgwick. Text abridged and subjoined extract deleted.
We have received from Albany a copy of the Report of the Select Committee of the Assembly on the several petitions addressed to that body, relative to the establishment of additional ferries between this city and Brooklyn. The petitioners ask that an intelligent and impartial board of commissioners may be appointed, with full powers to establish ferries between New-York and Long Island, and that the present rates of ferriage be reduced. The fact that additional means of communication between the cities of New-York and Brooklyn are very much needed, that the present rates of ferriage are exorbitantly high, and the accommodations none of the best, is too notorious for any one to deny. It is also a well known fact, that numerous responsible persons have frequently and vainly petitioned the corporate authorities of this city for permission to establish another ferry, offering to bind themselves to furnish suitable accommodations, and to pay too a large sum for the desired “privilege.” In consequence of the rejection of all these applications, resort has at last been had to the State Legislature.
The power of establishing ferries over the East River is claimed by the corporate authorities of this city as a franchise conferred upon them by the ancient charters, and confirmed by various subsequent acts of state legislation.
. . .
In the difficulties which citizens now experience to obtain reasonable facilities of communication between New-York and Brooklyn, a forcible illustration is afforded of the absurd and oppressive nature of monopolies. The question how far the power to regulate this matter has been granted to the Common Council of New-York, and how far it yet resides in the legislature of the State is one which we have not qualified ourselves to answer. It seems to us, however, from an attentive perusal of the Report, and a reference to some of the authorities there mentioned, that the positions assumed in that document are sound, and that the Legislature have a primary, unalienated and supreme control over the whole matter in dispute.
Be this as it may, the common sense view of the subject plainly teaches that there ought to be no further legislative or municipal interference with the business of ferriage, than is demanded by a simple regard for public safety and convenience. We have not time to go into any argument to-day; but on this subject, as on all others, we are the advocates of the princples of free trade. We would put no hinderance in the way of any man, or set of men, who should choose to undertake the business of ferrying people across the river. The public interests would be best served by leaving the matter to regulate itself—or rather leaving it to be regulated by the laws of demand and supply. Free competition would do more to insure good accommodations, low prices, swift and safe boats, and civil attendants, than all the laws and charters which could ever be framed. The sheet of water which separates New-York from Brooklyn ought to be considered as a great highway, free to whomsoever should choose to travel on it, under no other restriction than complying with certain regulations for the mutual safety and convenience of all: such regulations as are now enforced with regard to private vehicles in the streets and public roads. Yet since the corporate authorities choose to turn every business that they possibly can into a source of revenue to the city, they might make a license necessary for ferryboats, as is now done with regard to the Broadway and Bowery omnibusses. Even this tax is an infringement of those sound principles of political economy which ought to govern in the matter; but it could not be objected to in the case of ferries, while it is recognized in that of stage coaches.
In making these remarks, we are by no means forgetful of the “chartered rights” of those who now have the “exclusive privilege” of carrying people to and fro between New-York and Brooklyn. Much as we detest the principle of such monopolies, we would by no means justify any invasion of the rights duly granted to them. The public faith is pledged, and, at the expense of any temporary inconvenience, let it be preserved inviolate. But though the Corporation ought not to invade the rights which have been foolishly granted, yet as far as they still retain any control over the subject, they might restore to the community their natural rights, and leave those who wish to establish other ferries to make the best terms they can with the existing monopolies. Such a course is in reality dictated as well by selfish and local interests as by an enlarged and liberal view of the whole question. Every additional facility of access to this metropolis increases its general prosperity. We are aware that pains have been taken to create a belief that the establishment of more ferries would injuriously affect the prices of property in the upper part of the city, and that narrow and selfish opposition has been thus engendered. But we think it could be demonstrated that every additional means of communicating with Long Island will add to the prosperity of New-York. Be this as it may as respects owners of real estate, there can be no question that it is true with regard to the great body of the people.
FREE TRADE POST OFFICE
March 23, 1835. Title added by Sedgwick.
The party newspapers, both for and against the administration, contain, every now and then, statements exposing individual instances of gross abuse of the franking privilege. There can be no doubt that the franking privilege is a prolific source of many of those evils in the Post-office department which are complained of on all hands, and that a reformation of the laws on this subject is very much needed.
. . .
But at the hazard of giving a new occasion for the charge of ultraism against this journal, we shall take the liberty to express an opinion, which we have long entertained, that the source of the evils in our Post-office system lies far too deep to be reached by any regulation or abridgement of the franking privilege, or even by its total abolition. It lies too deep, in our opinion, also, to be reached by any possible organization of the Post-office Department which it is in the power of the General Government to establish. There are five words in the Constitution of the United States which we look upon as the grand primary source of all the evils of which the people have so much just cause to complain in relation to that particular department of the Government. We allude to the clause which gives to Congress the power “to establish post-offices and post-roads.”
These words, in our view of the subject, ought never to have formed a part of the Constitution. They confer a power on the General Government which is liable, and almost inevitably subject, to the grossest political abuse. The abuse is one which will necessarily increase, too, from year to year, as population increases in numbers and spreads over a wider surface. The Post-office, controlled and directed by the General Government, will always be conducted with a vast deal of unnecessary expense, and, what is a consideration of far more serious importance, will always be used, to a greater or less extent, as a political machine.
It is not probable that the history of this Union, should it stretch out for ages, will ever exhibit to the admiration of mankind an administration under the guidance of a more faithful, energetic, intrepid and patriotic spirit, than that which happily now rules the executive councils of the nation. Yet even under the administration of a man whose integrity no arts can corrupt, whose firmness no difficulties can appal, and whose vigilance no toils can exhaust—even under the administration of such a man, what a sickening scene does the mismanagement of the Post-office not present! Remove Mr. Barry and appoint another in his place, and you will not correct, and most likely you will not even mitigate the evil. Abolish the franking privilege, and the essential defects of the system would still remain. Re-organize the whole department, and introduce all the guards and checks which legislative ingenuity can devise, and still you will not wholly remove the imperfection. The Post-office will still be a government machine, cumbrous, unwieldy, and liable to the worst sorts of abuses.
The Post-office is established by the Government for the purpose of facilitating intercourse by letter between distant places. But personal intercourse between distant places is as necessary as epistolary, though not, perhaps, to the same degree. Why then should not the Government take upon itself the support and regulation of facilities for carrying passengers as well as letters from place to place? The transmission of packages of merchandise from one part of the country to another is no less necessary, than intercourse by letter or person. Why should not Government go a step further, and institute transportation lines for the conveyance of our goods? But we shall be answered, that these objects may safely be left to the laws of trade, and that supply will keep pace with demand in these matters as in other commercial and social wants of man. Might not the laws of trade, and the power of demand to produce supply through the activity of private enterprise, be safely trusted to, also, for the carriage of letters from place to place?
If the mail establishment, as a branch of the United States Government, should be abolished this hour, how long would it be before private enterprise would institute means to carry our letters and newspapers from city to city, with as much regularity as they are now carried, and far greater speed and economy? But the objection may be raised that inland places and thinly settled portions of the country would suffer by such an arrangement. There is no place on the map of the United States which would not soon be supplied with mail facilities by paying what they were worth, and if it gets them for less now, it is only because the deficiency is levied from the inhabitants of some other place, which is contrary to the plainest principles of justice.
There are very many considerations which might be urged in favour of a free trade view of this subject. The curse of office hunting, which is an incident of our form of Government, and is exerting every year, more and more, a demoralizing influence on the people, would undergo a check and rebatement by the suggested change. But would you withdraw—some one may ask—the stimulus which the present post-office system furnishes to emigration, by extending mail routes through the wilderness, and thus presenting inducements for population to gather together at points which would otherwise remain unimproved and uninhabited for years? To this we answer, unequivocally, yes. We would withdraw all Government stimulants; and let no man suppose that the progress of improvement would be retarded by such a withdrawal. The country would grow from year to year, notwithstanding, as rapidly and more healthily than now. It would only be changing the hot-bed system to the system of nature and reason. It would be discontinuing the force-pump method, by which we now seek to make water flow up hill, and leaving it to flow in its own natural channels. It would be removing the high-pressure application of Government facilities from enterprise and capital, and permitting them to expand themselves in their own proper field. The boundaries of population would still continually enlarge, circle beyond circle, like spreading rings upon the water; but they would not be forced to enlarge this way and that way, shooting out into strange and unnatural irregularities, as it might please land speculators, through the agency of members of Congress, to extend mail facilities into regions which perhaps God and nature meant should remain uninhabited for ages to come.
There are various other points of view in which the subject deserves to be considered. But we must reserve these for another occasion.
March 25, 1835.
Title added by Sedgwick.
In the bill now before the legislature of this state to regulate the sales of stocks and exchange, we behold another beautiful illustration of the benefits which the community derive from our wretched system of special and partial legislation. The professed object of this bill is to prevent stock-gambling; and stock-gambling, according to our humble opinion, is a species of speculation which our law-givers, by the whole course of their legislation for years past, have done all in their power to foster and promote. If they desire now, really and sincerely, to do away with the evils of this desperate and immoral kind of enterprise, which daily displays itself to a frightful extent in Wall-street, let them adopt a more effectual method than that proposed by the bill under their consideration. Let them address their efforts to correct the cause of the evil, and the effect will be sure to be removed. Let them apply the axe to the root of the tree, and the branches will needs wither, when the source from which they derive their nourishment is destroyed.
The whole course of our legislation, in regard to financial matters, has had a direct tendency to excite a feverish and baneful thirst of gain—gain not by the regular and legitimate operations of trade, but by sudden and hazardous means. Every body has been converted into a stock speculator by our laws. Every body is seeking to obtain a charter of incorporation for some purpose or other, in order that he may take his place among the bulls and bears of the stock-market, and play his hand in the desperate game of Wall-street brag. What is the true nature of the spectacle which is presented to the contemplation of sober-minded men, every time any new company of scrip gamblers is created? Do we not see persons not worth a hundred dollars in the world, running with all speed to put in their claims for a division of the stock—persons who are not able to raise even the instalment on the amount of stock which they ask, and who, in point of fact, are the mere agents of brokers and other speculators, selling the use of their names for a certain rate of premium per share on the division of stock which may be awarded to them?
A gaming spirit has infected the whole community. This spirit is the offspring—the deformed and bloated offspring—of our wretched undemocratic system of exclusive and partial legislation. To destroy the effect, and leave the cause untouched, would be as easy a task for our legislature, as to restrain an impetuous torrent while you yet leave wide the flood-gates which presented the only barrier to its course. The legislature might pass a law commanding the stream to keep within certain limits; but we doubt if its waves would recede, notwithstanding the terrors of the law—
“They rolled not back when Canute gave command.”
It is time the legislature made the discovery that there are some things which cannot be done by law. They cannot prevent the thunder from following the lightning’s flash, however carefully they may word their statute, or whatever penalty they may affix to its violation. They cannot change the whole nature of man by any enactment. We doubt very much whether even the famous Blue Laws wholly deterred men from kissing their wives on occasions, particularly in the first part of their matrimonial connexion; nor do we believe they prevented beer from working on Sundays during the season of fermentation. As easy would it be, however, to effect such objects by law, as to repress the yearnings of cupidity and avarice, or stay the adventurous spirit of wild speculation which has been excited, by the penalties of a bill to regulate the sales of stock and exchange. The whole scope and tendency of all the rest of our legislation is to inflame the feverish thirst of gain, which afflicts the community; and how vain, how worse than vain, while our law-makers hold up the lure in every possible form of attraction before the public, to bid them, shut their eyes, and not attempt to grasp it!
As to the particular project before the legislature, if we understand its provisions, it is not only inadequate to the end proposed, but unjust in its bearing, and impolitic on various grounds. It proposes to destroy the use of credit in the transactions of the stock-exchange, which is much such a cure for the evil it aims to abolish as amputation of the leg would be for a gouty toe. The gout might attack the other foot, or the stomach, notwithstanding; nor would its victim be more able to resist its influences with a frame weakened by the barbarous and uncalled for mutilation he had suffered. There is no earthly reason why credit should not be used in the purchase and sale of stocks, as well as in any other species of traffic. There is no kind of business intercourse which may not be made the means of gambling, and were it even within the competency of the legislature to check the public propensity to traffic on speculative contingencies, so far as one particular species of business is concerned, the ever active disposition would immediately indulge itself in some other form of hazardous and unreal enterprise. For the real bona fide transactions in stock and exchange, the employment of credit is as intrinsically proper, as the employment of credit in foreign commerce, in the purchase of real estate, or in any of the various modes and objects of human dealing. The legislature might as well pass a law forbidding the citizen to deal or credit with his tailor, hatter, or shoemaker, to run up a score with his milkmen or baker, or postpone the payment for his newspaper, as to forbid a man to employ his legitimate credit in the purchase and sale of stocks.
The mere business of dealing in stocks is as respectable and useful as most others: the crime of gambling in stocks is the inevitable result of the wild and speculative spirit which springs from unsalutary legislation. When we look into the statute books, and see that more than two-thirds of all the laws passed in our state are for the creation of specially incorporated joint-stock companies; when we learn that two-thirds of these joint-stock companies were created originally, not with strict reference to their professed ultimate object, but for purposes of intermediary speculation: we must perceive that the evil to be remedied is in the legislature, not in the community; that the fountain is turbid at its head, and that it will be vain and foolish to attempt to purify it by straining the waters of a distant branch through a clumsy, filtering contrivance of the laws.
There is another view of this subject which it is important to take. By abolishing the use of credit in stock operations, you would not abolish stock-gambling, but only confine it to the more wealthy operators, and put additional facilities of fortune into the hands already favoured overmuch. You make a concession to the spirit of aristocracy. You lay another tribute at the feet of riches. You join your voice in its exaltation. You exclude from the magic circle the poor man whose capital consisted in his skill, industry, and character for sagacity and integrity, and you give it to the millionary to lord it there alone, as if his gold were better than the poor man’s blood.
That we are opposed to stock-gambling and gambling, in all its forms, we need not say. But we are equally opposed to those false notions of Government which so extensively prevail in this country, and which seem to consider that every thing is to be done by law, and nothing by common sense and the inevitable operation of the laws of trade. For gambling, public opinion is the great and only salutary corrective. If it cannot be suppressed by the force of the moral sense of the community, it cannot be suppressed by statutes and edicts, no matter how comprehensive their terms, or how heavy their penalties. We have our laws against gambling now, yet establishments fitly denominated hells are notoriously conducted in different parts of the city, and there are various neighbourhoods where the dice-box and the roulette wheel rattle and clatter all night long. We have our laws against lotteries, too, yet what do they avail? The history of a recent instance of a man convicted of trafficking in the forbidden pursuit must convince any mind that those laws are a little more than a dead letter. And such would be the law to suppress stock operations on time. It would not do away with either the proper or improper part of the business; but it would diminish the respectability of the honest and prudent dealer, and give a more desperate character to the reckless adventurer.
April 10 and 16, 1835.
Title added by Sedgwick; Roman numerals added. Text abridged.
The report of the proceedings of the Legislature on Wednesday, which is copied into our paper of to-day, shows to our readers that there was a decided majority in the Assembly in favour of the bill providing for the appointment of a Weighmaster General for this city, with power to name his own deputies. This measure was passed by a strict party vote; and for the sake of creating another office to be supported out of the means of this overburdened community, those members of the legislature who were elected by the democracy, and call themselves democrats, have concurred in fastening another shackle on the limbs of trade.
There is probably not one man in our legislature so totally destitute of all knowledge of that magnificent science which is revolutionizing the world, as not to be aware that the bill now before that body to regulate the weighing of merchandise, is an indirect tax on the people, is a violation of the principle of equal rights, is another link in that chain which folly and cunning have combined to fasten on the body politic, and by which the popular action is already so much restrained, that, notwithstanding we enjoy universal suffrage, our elections, for the most part, are rather a reflection of the wishes of the banks and of the office-holders, than of the free, unbiassed will of the people. The effect of the present bill, besides imposing an additional tax on the community, and placing harmful checks and limitations around trade, will be to institute a band of placemen in the city, who will doubtless endeavour to show themselves worthy of their hire by exerting their lungs in shouts and paeans in praise of those to whom they owe their situations. To a certain extent exertions of this kind guide the course of public sentiment, and increase its force. Independent, then, of the politico-economical objections to legislative interference of the sort now under consideration, a more momentous objection exists in the fact that such measures are directly calculated to place government on a basis other than that of the spontaneous sentiments of the people, and draw a cordon of placemen around it, more powerful than the lictors and praetorian cohorts which hedged in the abuses and corruptions of the licentious rulers of Rome.
Earnestly did we hope that our present legislature, instead of rivetting new fetters on the people, would have broken and cast away a portion, at least, of those disgraceful bonds with which the craft and ignorance of their predecessors had loaded us. But the fact is not to be disguised that our legislature, though called democratic, and elected by democrats, are in reality anything but true friends to the equal rights of the people. They represent banks, insurance companies, railroads, manufacturing establishments, high-salaried officers, inspectors of rawhides, sole-leather, beef, pork, tobacco, flour, rum, wood, coal, and, in short, almost every necessary and comfort of life. To state this more briefly, they represent monopolies and office-holders; and no wonder, therefore, that the whole course of their legislation is at the expense and to the detriment of the people at large, as they on all hands seem to be considered lawful prey.
The weighing of merchandise is a matter with which legislation has nothing to do: the laws of trade would arrange that business much more to the satisfaction of all parties concerned than the laws of the state can ever do. When the Government has supplied its citizens with a measure of value, of weight, of length, and of quantity, it has done all in the way of measuring which properly belongs to Government. All your inspectors, your gaugers, and your weighers, after that, with their whole host of deputies and subalterns, are but adscititious contrivances of political cunning, to provide means for rewarding those who assisted in its elevation, or to establish a phalanx to guard it in the height it has attained.
It was our hope that our present legislature—chosen under so distinct an expression of the public sentiment against all monopolies and all infringements of the principle of Equal Rights—would exert themselves to do away the restrictions on trade and the thousand subtle contrivances for indirectly extorting taxes from the people to support useless officers; or at all events that they would not add to the number of those impositions. If we go on for many years to come, strengthening, and extending the artificial and unequal system we have for years past been building up, we shall at length find, perhaps too late, that we have erected around us an enormous, unseemly, and overshadowing structure, from which the privileged orders will have the encircled community wholly at their control, and which we cannot hope to demolish without bringing the whole fabric down with ruin on our heads.
STATE PRISON MONOPOLY
April 28, 1835.
Title added by Sedgwick.
The legislature, it will be seen, have at last taken up, in good earnest, the state prison question. As this is a subject which both parties have tried their utmost to turn into a mere political gull-trap, it is not probable that any measure will be finally acted upon, before members have baited the trap with a deal of mawkish oratory, and, in so doing, expose, most thoroughly, their ignorance of the first principles of political economy.
This journal has never said much in relation to the state prison monopoly, as it is called, because a degree of importance had been given to the subject entirely disproportioned to its real merits, and demagogues had made it the theme of their vehement harangues, until an excitement was produced among the mechanic classes so strong and general, that it swallowed up almost every other question, and pervaded almost every vocation. We are as decidedly opposed to the principle of state prison labour as any person can be; yet we believe that the practical evil of the present system, on any branch of productive industry, is exceedingly trifling, and indeed almost below computation, while the result to society at large is decidedly beneficial. Nevertheless, as the fundamental principle of the system is, in our view, totally erroneous, we have never hesitated to oppose it when we deemed that the occasion called on us to speak.
One of these occasions was furnished by the publication of the report of the State Prison Commissioners, which was a weak, inaccurate, shuffling document, and was the more calculated to provoke indignation, as one of its authors is well known to have ridden himself into office on the hobby of the state prison monopoly question. It seemed to us a barefaced piece of treachery for this person, after having won the suffrages of the mechanics by the incessant and superior loudness of his vociferation against the employment of convict labour in competition with honest industry, to turn round and immediately present to the legislature such a deceptive hocus-pocus report as that to which his name was subscribed.
The suggestions of the report made by the Commissioners have been embodied in the bill now before the Assembly. By this plan the prisoners are to be employed in branches of industry not yet introduced among our citizens, and among these the culture and manufacture of silk occupy a conspicuous place. We are surprised that sensible men in the legislature should not perceive that in principle, it is the same thing whether the convicts are employed in callings in which free citizens are already engaged, or are turned to others to which free citizens would naturally direct their attention in the course of a short time.
The question of the state prison monopoly, in our view, reduces itself to this: it is the exclusive employment, by Government, of a labour-saving machine, in competition with a certain portion of citizens who have no such advantage. Has Government a right to set up a labour-saving machine, and to enter into competition with any class of its citizens in any pursuit of industry? Government, it will be admitted, is instituted for the equal protection of all, in person, life, and property. These are its only legitimate objects. The confinement of criminals, so as to restrain them from perpetrating their outrages against society, is an object in which all are equally interested. The support of them in confinement is a contingent evil, and ought to be borne in the ratio of benefit conferred—that is, equally. But when the criminals are made to earn their own support by manufacturing a class of articles which a certain portion of citizens also manufacture for their livelihood, it is obvious that a fundamental principle of government is violated, since equal protection is no longer extended to all.
But the political economist may contend that the evil in this case is but temporary; that the supply will soon adjust itself to the demand; that a certain number of citizens, driven from their occupation by the introduction of convict competition, will only be obliged to turn themselves to other branches of industry; and that in a short time, the matter equalizing itself through all the callings of active life, a permanent benefit will accrue to society, in the aggregate, by reason of the increased production and diminished price of all the articles created by human labour.
If we admit this statement to be true, is it not at best an argument in favour of the state prison system on the ground that all is well that ends well? or that it is right to do evil in the first instance, that good may follow? These are principles which ought never to be countenanced in our system of political ethics. The cardinal object of Government is the equal protection of all citizens. The moment the prisoner is set to work, and the products of his labour sold, some free citizen is unequally and oppressively burdened. If this citizen is induced to forsake his now overstocked calling, and engage in some other, the competition in this new branch will operate injuriously to those already engaged in it; and this will continue to be the case, though in a gradually diminishing ratio, through all the various pursuits of active industry, until the displaced particles of society, so to speak, diffuse themselves evenly over the entire surface.
The aggregate of products manufactured by convict labour in the United States bear so small a proportion to the sum of the products of free labour, that the practical evil of state prison competition on any mechanic class is, as we have already stated, exceedingly and almost incalculably light. The final result of all labour-saving machinery (and the operation of our penitentiary system is precisely analogous with that of such a machine) is beneficial to society. An individual citizen has a perfect right to introduce labour-saving machinery, and however hard may be the effect temporarily on any number of citizens, the good of the greatest number is immediately promoted, and eventually the good of all. But when a state government sets up such a labour-saving machine, it oppresses temporarily a class of citizens, for the immediate benefit of the rest, and though the whole community will be eventually benefitted, the state has obviously, to produce this result, violated the fundamental principle of equal rights.
June 3, 1835.
Title added by Sedgwick.
The property belonging to the corporation of this city is estimated, in the Message of the Mayor which we had the pleasure of presenting to our readers a few days since, at ten millions of dollars. Of the property which is valued at this sum, a very small portion is actually required for the purposes of government. A large part of it consists of town lots, wholly unproductive. Another part consists of lots and tenements leased or rented for a trifling consideration. That part which is in the actual occupancy of the corporate authorities for public uses, is comparatively small, and smaller still that part which is actually needed in the exercise of the legitimate functions of the government.
That our municipal government should possess no property, except what is really required for the performance of its duties, seems to us so plain a proposition as scarcely to require an argument to support it. We elect our city authorities from year to year to supervise the affairs of the body politic, pass needful municipal regulations, enforce existing laws, and attend, generally, to the preservation of public order. Adequately to fulfil these trusts, a building set apart for the meetings of the city authorities is necessary. A place of detention for the city criminals is necessary, and, under the present system, a place for the city paupers. These, and a few other buildings, occupying grounds of a suitable location and extent, constitute all the real estate required for the due administration of the functions of our municipal government. If our authorities, then, purchase more property than this, they either waste the money of their constituents, or buying it on credit, or paying for it with borrowed funds, they waste the money of posterity.
The government of our city is nothing more nor less than a certain number of persons chosen from year to year, by the suffrages of a majority of the citizens, to attend to those affairs which belong to all in common, or, in other words, the affairs of the community. They represent the aggregate will of the existing community in relation to those affairs; and their functions, by the very tenure of their offices, are confined within the circle of the year. It is plain, then, viewing the subject on principles of abstract right, that a government so constituted, ought do nothing which would not be approved by those from whom it derives its powers. The accumulation of unnecessary property, to the amount of millions of dollars, can never have been intended by any considerable number of voters of this city, as a duty which the city government ought to perform; and having accumulated it, to retain it seems equally averse to the plainest principles of sound policy and right.
To whom does this property belong? Not to the authorities of the city, surely, but to the citizens themselves—to those who chose those authorities to manage their affairs. If it belongs to them, and government is not a permanent existence separate from the will of the people, but the mere breath of their nostrils, their mere representative, renewed at their pleasure from year to year, it must be obvious that there can be no good reason for having that property retained in the possession of the government. It would be much better in the possession of the people themselves, since every body knows that as a general and almost invariable rule, men attend to their private affairs much better than agents attend to their delegated trusts.
Let no reader be startled at the idea we have here put forth, and suppose he sees in it the ghost of agrarianism,—that bugbear which has been conjured with for ages to frighten grown-up children from asserting the dictates of common sense in relation to the affairs of government. We have no agrarian scheme in contemplation. We are not about to propose a division of public property, either according to the ratio of taxation, or equally by the poll list, or in any other objectionable mode. But our citizens are every year called upon to pay taxes. The last legislature passed a law authorizing our corporate authorities to levy a tax greatly increased since last year. We have also our public debt, for which the property of our posterity is pledged, and this debt was lately swelled one million of dollars by money borrowed to be paid in 1860. Now it strikes us as somewhat unreasonable to call upon the citizens to pay taxes to defray the current expenses of the government, and to saddle posterity with an enormous debt, when the unnecessary and disposable public property now in the hands of our municipal government would wipe off the whole amount of the debt which was contracted on the credit of posterity, and defray the current expenses of the city besides for several years to come.
We would by no means dispose of our City Hall, or our Park, or our Battery, any more than we would dispose of Broadway or the Bowery. These are for the public use, for their present, daily, and hourly use, in various respects. But in the public property which the Mayor estimates at an aggregate of ten millions of dollars there will be found much which is not necessary for the purposes of Government or the health and convenience of the people. All such we would sell, and apply the proceeds to the liquidation of the public debt, and to the payment of those expenses for which taxes are now assessed. Let not the argument be used that this property will be far more valuable in a few years, and may then be disposed of to much greater advantage. If we admit the validity of this argument, it is one which may be urged to postpone the sale for half a century, and of what benefit would be the augmented amount, fifty years hence, to the present people, to whom the property in truth belongs? Society is daily, hourly, momently, changing its constituent individuals. The particles which compose the stream of life are continually passing away, to be succeeded by other particles, and the transition of these human atoms is nowhere so rapid as in the whirlpool of a great city. Many of those whose votes elevated the present municipal officers to their places, will never cast a suffrage again—some have gone to other states, some to distant lands, some to that bourne from whence no traveller returns. But others will push into their places. The social tide will still rush on. The young man will pass his probationary period and acquire the rights of citizenship; foreigners will be adopted; brethren from other portions of the confederacy will take up their abode among us. No matter, therefore, how rapidly increasing in value any portion of this superfluous public property may be, we who own it now and who next year may own it no longer, have a right to demand that it should be disposed of for our benefit, and to liquidate those debts which we have no right to leave for posterity to pay.
But we deny that there is any validity in this argument founded on the conjectural or probable rise of price. If the property improves in price, we ask whether is it better that the increase should be in the hands of the government or of individual citizens? Should the government continue to hold this property for years, through its annual successions, it is at last to be appropriated to some public purpose. If the property had been disposed of, its increased value would necessarily have been in the hands of citizens, whose capacity would in the same measure have been increased to contribute to the public expenses. The property of the citizens is at all times abundantly able to sustain any legitimate expenses of government, and all property, not required for such purposes, should remain in the people’s own hands.
There is one species of public property to which we have not adverted in this article, because it does not probably enter into the Mayor’s estimate, but which we could well wish were also disposed of by the public authorities, and suffered to go into the hands of private citizens. We allude to the wharves, piers and public docks, with the exception of the slips at the end of streets. Those in our view ought to be as free as the streets themselves, and the rest ought to be left in private hands. We cannot undertake to argue this subject to-day; but let those who are disposed to differ from us, reflect that we only propose to put the wharves on the same footing with houses and stores, and that the same competition, the same laws of supply and demand, which regulate the rent of the one description of property, would equally regulate the wharfage of the other.
REGULATION OF COAL
September 10, 1835.
Title added by Sedgwick.
A copy of the petition of the Corporation of this city, on the subject of the law regulating the sale of anthracite coal, has been laid before us, and is worthy of a remark. The petition desires that such an alteration of the existing law may be made as shall permit the purchaser to choose for himself whether he will have his coal weighed by an appointed weigher or not. Nothing can be more indisputably reasonable than this. Those who claim that municipal authorities ought to exercise their powers for the regulation of trade, and establish inspectors, gaugers, weighers and supervisors, of various kinds, to see that tradespeople do not cheat their customers in quality, strength, weight, or quantity, yet cannot, we should suppose, be so utterly blind to the natural rights of the citizen, as to require that he should not be permitted to cheat himself, if he prefers to do so.
For our own part, as our readers well know, we are opposed to the whole system of legislative interference with trade, which we wish to see left to its own laws, unfettered by any of the clogs and hinderances invented by political fraud and cunning, to extract indirect taxes from the community, and contrive offices with which to reward the selfish exertions of small-beer politicians. We should be glad to see the whole tree, root and branch, destroyed. We should be glad if the whole oppressive and aristocratic scheme of inspection and gauging, whether existing under the General Government, or that of the state, or of the city, were utterly abrogated. We should be glad to see the custom-house swept off into the sea, and the whole army of collectors, surveyors, tide-waiters, and lick-spittles, of various denominations, swept off with it—or at least compelled to resort to some other method of obtaining a livelihood. We should be glad if the inspectors of beef, flour, pork, cotton, tobacco, wood, charcoal and anthracite, and all their brother inspectors, too numerous to mention, were made to take up the line of march, and follow their file leaders into some more democratic species of avocation. The land, freed from this army of incubuses, and from the bad laws which give them being, would then blossom as the rose under the genial influence of free trade; and then it would be found, we do not doubt, from the alacrity with which the people would bear direct taxation for all the necessary purposes of government, that there was never any reason for the anomaly we have presented in resorting to indirect means for obtaining the public resources, as if the popular virtue and intelligence, on which our institutions are professedly founded, existed but in name, and the necessary expenses of government could only be obtained from the people by some method which prevented them from seeing what they paid.
But putting these ultra views, as some may consider them, entirely out of sight, there cannot be two opinions, one would think, as to the entire propriety of the request now made to the city legislature by the petition to which we have alluded. There are many persons who have greater confidence in the coal dealers than in the public weighers, and we know of no just reason why they should be prohibited by law from indulging their preference.
FREE FERRIES AND AN AGRARIAN LAW
October 10, 1835.
Title added by Sedgwick.
The American, some few days since, in an editorial article, expressed itself in favour of the establishment of free ferries at the public expense. A correspondent of that paper, a day or two afterwards, proposed the establishment, at the public expense, of free carriages to carry people about the city. Both propositions were serious, not ironical. We have not the papers at hand in which they were contained, but believe we do not mistake the purport of the two articles. Now it seems to us that, the epithet agrarian, which the American has sometimes applied to this journal, was never so much deserved by any political theory we have advanced, as it is by that paper for the projects referred to. Let us confine ourselves, however, to that which was editorially asserted, namely, the one relative to free ferries, for which we may justly hold the American responsible. This, we certainly think can be demonstrated to be agrarian, according to the sense in which that term is employed by politicians of the present day.
The agrarian law of Rome was a law to provide for the equitable division of conquered lands among those who conquered them. It was not altogether unlike our laws for the distribution of prize money; though far more just than they, according to our recollections of its provisions. But the charge of agrarianism, as applied reproachfully at the present day to the radical democracy, imputes to them a desire to throw down the boundaries of private right, and make a new and arbitrary division of property. This charge so far as relates to this journal, and so far, as we sincerely believe, as it relates to any considerable number of individuals, of any name or sect, in our country, has no foundation in truth. Of our own political doctrines we can truly say that they are in every feature the very opposite of agrarianism. They rest, indeed, on the basis of inviolable respect for private right. We would not have even the legislature take private property, except for the public good, directly, not incidentally; and then only in the clearest cases, and by rendering the most equitable compensation. We would never have it delegate that power to any private corporation, on the ground that the public good would be incidentally promoted by the doings of such a body.
But the American, in becoming the advocate of free ferries, leans to agrarianism, in the popular and justly odious sense of the word. It takes the property of A. and gives it to B. It proposes to bestow a valuable gratuity on such persons as have occasion to use the ferry, and pay for this gratuity, for the most part, with money filched from the pockets of those who never step foot in a ferry-boat. Is this not clearly unjust? Is it not to some extent, an agrarian scheme?
The American may answer us that it is but an extension of the same power, the rightfulness of which nobody ever calls in question, which is exercised by all municipal corporations in constructing streets at the public expense, for the gratuitous accommodation of all who choose to use them. Even this power in its nature is agrarian, and is submitted to by universal assent, not because it is right in principle, but because its conveniences overbalance the theoretic objections. But there is a point where the objections equal the conveniences, and to insist on any scheme which lies beyond that point, is to run the risk of being called, with justice, agrarian. Every body has more or less occasion to use the streets; and therefore every body ought to contribute towards the expense of making and preserving them. This expense is taken out of the general fund derived from taxes. The burden of taxes falls, directly or indirectly, on every body, and if not in the precise proportion of relative advantage from the use of the streets, still the difference is too slight to awaken complaint. But the case is widely different with regard to ferries. Thousands of citizens never use them at all; yet according to the agrarian scheme of the American, they would be required to pay as much for supporting them as those who cross the river a dozen times every day. They would find their advantage, the American might argue, in the greater cheapness of market commodities, the increased number of customers to the city traders, and the general improvement of the city. But this advantage would not be diffused equally, and whatever is done by legislation should tend to the equal benefit of all.
But where would the American stop? If free ferries are of advantage, why would not free markets be also? And free warehouses? And free dwelling houses? And free packet ships? And in short free from every thing? The arguments by which alone the American can support its theory of free ferries, are equally pertinent and cogent in defence of a literal commonwealth. Who would have thought to see the American turn so ultra an agrarian?
Now, our theory with respect to ferries is liable to no such objections. It is precisely the same as our theory with respect to banks, with respect to railroads, and with respect to every other branch of trade and enterprise. Our theory is the free trade theory. It is simply to leave trade alone to govern itself by its own laws. Ferries are as much a matter of trade, as Broadway stages,1 or Broadway shopkeeping. Leave the subject open to unrestricted competition. Leave men to run boats where they please, when they please, and how they please, with no other restraint upon them than such municipal regulations as may be requisite for the preservation of public order—some simple rules, such as “turn to the right, as the law directs.” When this course is pursued, we shall have ferry boats where they are wanted, and as many as are wanted, and no more. People will not run more boats than yield a fair profit on investment, and where competition is free there will certainly be as many. The ferries, then, between New-York and Long Island, and between New-York and New-Jersey, will be as well conducted, and as well supplied with boats, as are the ferries now between New-York and Albany.
This is our scheme: how does the American like it? The difference between us is that we are for leaving ferries to the regulation of the laws of trade; the American is for controlling them by Agrarian law.
December 3, 1836.
Thursday, the fifteenth of the present month, has been designated by Governor Marcy, in his annual proclamation, as a day of general thanksgiving throughout this state. This is done in conformity with a long established usage, which has been so generally and so scrupulously observed, that we doubt whether it has ever been pretermitted, for a single year, by the Chief Magistrate of any state in the Confederacy. The people, too, on these occasions, have always responded with such cordiality and unanimity to the recommendation of the Governors, that not even the Sabbath, a day which the scriptures command to be kept holy, is more religiously observed, in most places, than the day set apart as one of thanksgiving and prayer by gubernatorial appointment. There is something exceedingly impressive in the spectacle which a whole people presents, in thus voluntarily withdrawing themselves on some particular day, from all secular employment, and uniting in a tribute of praise for the blessings they enjoy. Against a custom so venerable for its age, and so reverently observed, it may seem presumptuous to suggest an objection; yet there is one which we confess seems to us of weight, and we trust we shall not be thought governed by an irreligious spirit, if we take the liberty to urge it.
In framing our political institutions, the great men to whom that important trust was confided, taught, by the example of other countries, the evils which result from mingling civil and ecclesiastical affairs, were particularly careful to keep them entirely distinct. Thus the Constitution of the United States mentions the subject of religion at all, only to declare that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust in the United States.” The Constitution of our own state specifies that “the free exercise and enjoyment of religious professions and worship, without discrimination or preference, shall forever be allowed in this state to all mankind;” and so fearful were the framers of that instrument of the dangers to be apprehended from a union of political and religious concerns, that they inserted a clause of positive interdiction against ministers of the gospel, declaring them forever ineligible to any civil or military office or place within the state. In this last step we think the jealousy of religious interference proceeded too far. We see no good reason why preachers of the gospel should be partially disfranchised, any more than preachers against it, or any more than men devoted to any other profession or pursuit. This curious proscriptive article of our Constitution presents the startling anomaly, that while an infidel, who delivers stated Sunday lectures in a tavern, against all religion, may be elected to the highest executive or legislative trust, the most liberal and enlightened divine is excluded. In our view of the subject neither of them should be proscribed. They should both be left to stand on the broad basis of equal political rights, and the intelligence and virtue of the people should be trusted to make a selection from an unbounded field. This is the true democratic theory; but this is a subject apart from that which it is our present purpose to consider.
No one can pay the most cursory attention to the state of religion in the United States, without being satisfied that its true interests have been greatly promoted by divorcing it from all connexion with political affairs. In no other country of the world are the institutions of religion so generally respected, and in no other is so large a proportion of the population included among the communicants of the different christian churches. The number of christian churches or congregations in the United States is estimated, in a carefully prepared article of religious statistics in the American Almanac of the present year, at upwards of sixteen thousand, and the number of communicants at nearly two millions, or one-tenth of the entire population. In this city alone the number of churches is one hundred and fifty, and their aggregate capacity is nearly equal to the accommodation of the whole number of inhabitants. It is impossible to conjecture, from any data within our reach, the amount of the sum annually paid by the American people, of their own free will, for the support of the ministry, and the various expenses of their religious institutions: but it will readily be admitted that it must be enormous. These, then, are the auspicious results of perfect free trade in religion—of leaving it to manage its own concerns, in its own way, without government protection, regulation, or interference, of any kind or degree whatever.
The only instance of intermeddling, on the part of the civil authorities, with matters which, being of a religious character, properly belong to the religious guides of the people, is the proclamation which it is the custom for the Governor of each state annually to issue, appointing a day of general thanksgiving, or a day of general fasting and prayer. We regret that even this single exception should exist to that rule of entire separation of the affairs of state from those of the church, the observance of which in all other respects has been followed by the happiest results. It is to the source of the proclamation, not to its purpose, that we chiefly object. The recommending a day of thanksgiving is not properly any part of the duty of a political Chief Magistrate: it belongs, in its nature, to the heads of the church, not to the head of the state.
It may very well happen, and, indeed, it has happened, in more instances than one, that the chief executive officer of a state has been a person, who, if not absolutely an infidel or sceptic in religious matters, has at least, in his private sentiments and conduct, been notoriously disregardful of religion. What mockery for such a person to call upon the people to set apart a day for returning acknowledgments to Almighty God for the bounties and blessings bestowed upon them! But even when the contrary is the case, and it is well known that the Governor is a strictly religious man, he departs very widely from the duties of his office, in proclaiming, in his gubernatorial capacity, and under the seal of the state, that he has appointed a particular day as a day of general thanksgiving. This is no part of his official business, as prescribed in the Constitution. It is not one of the purposes for which he was elected. If it were a new question, and a Governor should take upon himself to issue such a proclamation for the first time, the proceeding could scarcely fail to arouse the most sturdy opposition from the people. Religious and irreligious would unite in condemning it: the latter as a gross departure from the specified duties for the discharge of which alone the Governor was chosen; and the former as an unwarrantable interference of the civil authority with ecclesiastical affairs, and a usurpation of the functions of their own duly appointed ministers and church officers. We recollect very distinctly what an excitement arose in this community a few years ago, when our Common Council, following the example of the Governor, undertook to interfere in a matter which belonged wholly to the clerical functionaries, and passed a resolution recommending to the various ministers of the gospel the subject of their next Sunday discourse. The Governor’s proclamation would itself provoke equal opposition, if men’s eyes had not been sealed by custom to its inherent impropriety.
If such a proceeding would be wrong, instituted now for the first time, can it be right, because it has existed for a long period? Does age change the nature of principles, and give sanctity to error? Are truth and falsehood of such mutable and shifting qualities, that though, in their original characters, as opposite as the poles, the lapse of a little time may reduce them to a perfect similitude, and render them entirely convertible? If age has in it such power as to render venerable what is not so in its intrinsic nature, then is paganism more venerable than christianity, since it has existed from a much more remote antiquity. But what is wrong in principle must continue to be wrong to the end of time, however sanctioned by custom. It is in this light we consider the gubernatorial recommendation of a day of thanksgiving; and because it is wrong in principle, and not because of any particular harm which the custom has yet been the means of introducing, we should be pleased to see it abrogated. We think it can hardly be doubted that, if the duty of setting apart a day for a general expression of thankfulness for the blessings enjoyed by the community were submitted wholly to the proper representatives of the different religious sects they would find no difficulty in uniting on the subject, and acting in concert in such a manner as should give greater solemnity and weight to their proceeding, than can ever attach to the proclamation of a political governor, stepping out of the sphere of his constitutional duties, and taking upon himself to direct the religious exercises of the people. We cannot too jealously confine our political functionaries within the limits of their prescribed duties. We cannot be too careful to keep entirely separate the things which belong to government from those which belong to religion. The political and the religious interests of the people will both flourish the more prosperously for being wholly distinct. The condition of religious affairs in this country fully proves the truth of the position; and we are satisfied it would receive still further corroboration, if the practice to which we object were reformed.
December 3, 1836.
Among the reports adopted by the Board of Aldermen at a recent sitting was one “in favour of appropriating so much space about Pike Slip as may be necessary for the accommodation of the East river steamboats, and leasing berths for the boats there for not longer than two years, such place to be called East River Steamboat Place.” Another of the reports adopted was in favour of the appointment of a new set of publick officers, under the name of dockmasters, with a salary of five hundred dollars. The principle upon which these measures are founded is one entirely contrary to the genius of democratick government, and to a true theory of political economy. There is no greater reason why the docks and slips should be the property of the city government, and should be disposed of at the discretion of the Common Council, than why the store houses and dwelling houses should, in the same way, be under the municipal control. The political objection to this is that it strengthens the government at the expense of popular rights, creates a necessity for numerous subordinate officers, and makes it more difficult for the honest unbiassed voice of the people to have its due influence over publick affairs. The economick objection is, that no code of municipal laws can ever answer the purposes of trade as well as its own laws. When the docks are owned by the people in their corporate capacity, and hired out by their municipal agents, it results, as an inevitable consequence, that there will be favouritism and partiality in the arrangement; one place will be charged at too high a rate of wharfage, and another at too low; and business will be forced from its natural direction to suit the views of speculators, or to gratify the demands of sectional rapacity. It would, in our opinion, be a wise measure of publick policy, for the corporation to dispossess itself of all property in the docks and slips, selling them to the highest bidder, with perhaps a preemption right to the owners of the contiguous lots. By such a measure a vast fund might be realized, which would go far to pay off the city debt, and would greatly diminish the burden of taxation. According to our theory of government, the more simple the principles on which it is conducted the better. When we hear of the Common Council having made a fortunate speculation in the purchase of some island or unneeded tract of land, which has risen in money price on their hands, the thought strikes us that, what the government gains, certain individual citizens must have lost; that the aggregate wealth of the community is not increased; and that it is no part of the proper duty of government to enter into competition with citizens in the business of purchase and sale. Besides, whatever increases the wealth of a government, whatever sources of revenue it obtains independent of taxation, increases its power, and diminishes the power of the people in the same ratio. This is not a result which a democrat should desire. The aristocratick theory, the main feature of which is distrust of popular intelligence and virtue, approves a strong government; but give us a strong people as the only certain basis of the rights of property and of social order and prosperity.
December 10, 1836.
Some days ago, we observed in one of the newspapers, a paragraph stating that a meeting of mechanics and labourers was about to be held in this city for the purpose of adopting measures of concerted or combined action against the practice, which we have reason to believe exists to a very great extent, of paying them in the uncurrent notes of distant or suspected banks. No such meeting, however, as far as we can learn, has yet been held. We hope it soon will be; for the object is a good one, and there is no other way of resisting the rapacious and extortionate custom of employers paying their journeymen and laborers in depreciated paper, half so effectual as combination.
There are some journalists who affect to entertain great horror of combinations, considering them as utterly adverse to the principles of free trade; and it is frequently recommended to make them penal by law. Our notions of free trade were acquired in a different school, and dispose us to leave men entirely at liberty to effect a proper object either by concerted or individual action. The character of combinations, in our view, depends entirely upon the intrinsic character of the end which is aimed at. In the subject under consideration, the end proposed is good beyond all possibility of question. There is high warrant for saying that the labourer is worthy of his hire; but the employer, who takes advantage of his necessities and defencelessness to pay him in a depreciated substitute for money, does not give him his hire; he does not perform his engagement with him; he filches from the poor man a part of his hard-earned wages, and is guilty of a miserable fraud. Who shall say that this sneaking species of extortion ought not to be prevented? Who will say that separate individual action is adequate to that end? There is no one who will make so rash an assertion.
The only effectual mode of doing away the evil is by attacking it with the great instrument of the rights of the poor— associated effort. There is but one bulwark behind which mechanics and labourers may safely rally to oppose a common enemy, who, if they ventured singly into the field against him, would cut them to pieces: that bulwark is the Principle of Combination. We would advise them to take refuge behind it only in extreme cases, because in their collisions with their employers, as in those between nations, the manifold evils of a siege are experienced, more or less, by both parties, and are therefore to be incurred only in extreme emergencies. But the evil of being habitually paid in a depreciated substitute for money; of being daily cheated out of a portion of the just fruits of honest toil; of having a slice continually clipped from the hard-earned crust; is one of great moment, and is worthy of such an effort as we propose.
THE COAL QUESTION
December 10, 1836.
Title added by Sedgwick. Text abridged.
There seems to be no doubt entertained, among those who have investigated the subject, that there is a combination among the dealers in coal, in this city, not to sell under certain stipulated prices. We do not know whether this is so or not; but let us take it for granted that it is, and the question then arises, What are we to do to remedy the evil? The Albany Argus would suggest that “it might be well to inquire whether combinations to raise the price of coal, pork, flour, and other necessaries of life, are not offences against society,” which require to be made punishable by law. The Journal of Commerce (a free-trade paper!) would respond affirmatively to the question, and say, “if dealers in the above articles have combined to raise prices, let the law walk into them!”
For our own part, we would neither make a new law to punish the combiners, nor . . . inflict upon them the penalty of any existing statute, or of any breach of the common law of England. . . .
. . .
The Journal of Commerce and the Albany Argus may both rest assured that the laws of trade are a much better defence against improper combinations, than any laws which the legislature at Albany can make, judging by the specimens to be found in the statute books. When a set of dealers combine to raise the price of a commodity above its natural value, they will be sure to provoke competition that will very soon let them down from their fancied elevation. . . . Truth is truth, and though the price of fuel is enormously high, we ought not to impute all the blame to those of our citizens who deal in the commodity, when our own figures prove that they do not make very extravagant profits after all.
But if the blame does not lie with the coal dealers, where does it lie? We think there is no great difficulty in correctly answering this question. According to our view it lies, then, in the first place, with the legislatures of two or three states, which have given the privileges of a monopoly to certain coal companies, enabling them to fix prices by combination at the fountain head. It lies, in the second place, with those same legislatures, in giving the privileges of a monopoly to certain railroad and canal companies, enabling them to fix the rates of toll and freightage. It lies, in the third place, with Congress, which has placed so heavy a duty on foreign coal as almost to shut it out from competition with the domestic. And it lies, in the fourth place, with our municipal authorities, who increase the burden by appointing measurers of foreign coal, weighers of domestic coal, and inspectors of wood, all of whom are allowed, by law, enormous fees for a duty which they do not half perform, and which, if they performed it ever so thoroughly, would be altogether superfluous.
There is still one other cause which ought not to be omitted from the calculation; and that is, the diminished quantity of coal mined, in consequence of speculation having withdrawn labour from that employment, during the past summer, to work on railroads, to dig canals, to level hills, and fill up valleys, and, perform the various other services which were necessary to carry out the schemes projected by the gambling spirit of the times. Hence the supply is not more than adequate, at the most, to the demand; and hence those who have a monopoly of the article at fountain head ask the present enormous prices, secure that the citizens must either give them or freeze.
There is one branch of this subject in which we most cordially concur with the Journal of Commerce. That paper suggests the propriety of the institution of benevolent associations, for the purpose of procuring a large supply of coal when it is cheapest, and disposing of it, by retail, at the prime cost and charges, to the poorer classes of citizens, whose means do not enable them to buy much in advance. Such an association might do a vast amount of good, without ever expending a single dollar. Suppose, for example, a hundred citizens, of well known respectability, and sufficient pecuniary responsibility, should enter into an association for the purpose named, and should purchase a given amount of coal at six months credit, each member of the association being jointly and severally responsible for the indebtedness of the whole. The coal might then be put at such a price as, when all was sold, would yield the net cost and charges; and before the obligations of the company should fall due, the money would be in hand to discharge them. This would be a cheap charity on the part of those who engaged in it, and a most valuable one to those classes of citizens for whose benefit it would be intended.
THE CORPORATION QUESTION
December 24, 1836.
One of the newspapers which has done us the honour to notice this journal, animadverts, with considerable asperity, upon our declaration of interminable hostility to the principle of special incorporation, and points our attention to certain incorporated institutions, which, according to the universal sense of mankind, are established with the purest motives, and effect the most excellent objects. The ready and obvious answer to the strictures we have provoked is, that it is the means, not the end, which furnishes the subject of our condemnation. An act of special incorporation may frequently afford the persons associated under it facilities of accomplishing much public good; but if those facilities can only be given at the expense of rights of paramount importance, they ought to be denied by all whose political morality rejects the odious maxim that the end justifies the means. It would be a very strained and unwarrantable inference from any remarks we have made, to say that we are an enemy to churches, public libraries, or charitable associations, because we express hostility to special legislation. It would be an unwarranted inference to say that we are even opposed to the principle of incorporation; since it is only to the principle of special incorporation that we have expressed hostility. We are opposed, not to the object, but to the mode by which the object is effected. We are opposed, not to corporation partnerships, but to the right of forming such partnerships being specially granted to the few, and wholly denied to the many. We are opposed, in short, to unequal legislation, whatever form it may assume, or whatever object it may ostensibly seek to accomplish.
It has been beautifully and truly said, by the illustrious man who presides over the affairs of our Confederacy, that “there are no necessary evils in government. Its evils exist only in its abuses. If it would confine itself to equal protection, and, as heaven does its rains, shower its favours alike on the high and the low, the rich and the poor, it would be an unqualified blessing.” But it departs from its legitimate office, it widely departs from the cardinal principle of government in this country, the equal political rights of all, when it confers privileges on one set of men, no matter for what purpose, which are withheld from the rest. It is in this light we look upon all special acts of incorporation. They convey privileges not previously enjoyed, and limit the use of them to those on whom they are bestowed. That special charters are, in many instances, given for objects of intrinsic excellence and importance, is freely admitted; nor do we desire to withhold our unqualified acknowledgment that they have been the means of effecting many improvements of great value to the community at large. Let it be clearly understood, then, that we do not war against the good achieved; but seek only to illustrate the inherent evil of the means. A special charter is a powerful weapon; but it is one which should have no place in the armory of the democracy. It is an instrument which may hew down forests, and open fountains of wealth in barren places; but these advantages are purchased at too dear a rate, if we give for them one jot or tittle of our equal freedom. As a general rule, too, corporations act for themselves, not for the community. If they cultivate the wilderness, it is to monopolize its fruits. If they delve the mine, it is to enrich themselves with its treasures. If they dig new channels for the streams of industry, it is that they may gather the golden sands for themselves, as those of Pactolus were gathered to swell the hoards of Croesus.
Even if the benefits, which we are willing to admit have been effected by companies acting under special corporate privileges and immunities, could not have been achieved without the assistance of such powers, better would it have been, in our opinion, far better, that the community should have foregone the good, than purchase it by the surrender, in any instance or particular, of a principle which lies at the foundation of human liberty. No one can foretell the evil consequences which may flow from one such error of legislation. “Next day the fatal precedent will plead.” The way once open, ambition, selfishness, cupidity, rush in, each widening the breach, and rendering access easier to its successor. The monuments of enterprise erected through the aid of special privileges and immunities are numerous and stupendous; but we may yet be sadly admonished
But, fortunately, we are not driven to the alternative of either foregoing for the future such magnificent projects as have heretofore been effected by special legislation, or for the sake of accomplishing them, continuing to grant unequal privileges. It is a propitious omen of success in the great struggle in which the real democracy of this country are engaged, that monopolies, (and we include in the term all special corporate rights) are as hostile to the principles of sound economy, as they are to the fundamental maxims of our political creed. The good which they effect might more simply and more certainly be achieved without their aid. They are fetters which restrain the action of the body politic, not motories which increase its speed. They are jesses which hold it to earth, not wings that help it to soar. Our country has prospered, not because of them, but in spite of them. This young and vigorous republic has bounded rapidly forward, in despite of the burdens which partial legislation hangs upon its neck, and the clogs it fastens to its heel. But swifter would have been its progress, sounder its health, more prosperous its general condition, had our law-makers kept constantly in view that their imperative duty requires them to exercise their functions for the good of the whole community, not for a handful of obtrusive and grasping individuals, who, under the pretext of promoting the public welfare, are only eager to advance their private interests, at the expense of the equal rights of their fellow-men.
Every special act of incorporation is, in a certain sense, a grant of a monopoly. Every special act of incorporation is a charter of privileges to a few, not enjoyed by the community at large. There is no single object can be named, for which, consistently with a sincere respect for the equal rights of men, a special charter of incorporation can be bestowed. It should not be given to establish a bank, nor to erect a manufactory; to open a road, nor to build a bridge. Neither trust companies nor insurance companies should be invested with exclusive rights. Nay, acting in strict accordance with the true principles both of democracy and political economy, no legislature would, by special act, incorporate even a college or a church. Let it not be supposed, however, that we would withhold from such institutions the intrinsic advantages of a charter. We would only substitute general, for partial legislation, and extend to all, the privileges proper to be bestowed upon any. The spirit of true wisdom, in human affairs, as in divine,
“Acts not by partial, but by general laws.”
Nothing can be more utterly absurd than to suppose that the advocacy of these sentiments implies opposition to any of the great undertakings for which special legislative authority and immunities are usually sought. We are opposed only to a violation of the great democratic principle of our government; that principle which stands at the head of the Declaration of Independence; and that which most of the states have repeated, with equal explicitness, in their separate constitutions. A general partnership law, making the peculiar advantages of a corporation available to any set of men who might choose to associate, for any lawful purpose whatever, would wholly obviate the objections which we urge. Such a law would confer no exclusive or special privileges; such a law would be in strict accordance with the great maxim of man’s political equality; such a law would embrace the whole community in its bound, leaving capital to flow in its natural channels, and enterprise to regulate its own pursuits. Stock bubbles, as fragile as the unsubstantial globules which children amuse themselves with blowing, might not float so numerous in the air; but all schemes of real utility, which presented a reasonable prospect of profit, would be as readily undertaken as now. That active spirit of enterprise, which, in a few months, has erected a new city on the field lately desolated by the direst conflagration our history records; that spirit of enterprise, which every year adds whole squadrons to the innumerous fleet of stately vessels that transport our commerce to the remotest harbours of the world; that spirit of enterprise which seeks its object alike through the freezing atmosphere of the polar regions, and beneath the fervour of the torrid zone, displaying the stars and stripes of our country to every nation of the earth; that active spirit would not flinch from undertaking whatever works of internal improvement might be needed by the community, without the aid of exclusive rights and privileges.
The merchant, who equips his noble vessel, freights her with the richest products of nature and art, and sends her on her distant voyage across the tempestuous sea, asks no act of incorporation. The trader, who adventures his whole resources in the commodities of his traffic, solicits no exclusive privilege. The humble mechanic, who exhausts the fruit of many a day and night of toil in supplying his workshop with the implements of his craft, desires no charter. These are all willing to encounter unlimited competition. They are content to stand on the broad basis of equal rights. They trust with honourable confidence, to their own talents, exercised with industry, not to special immunities, for success. Why should the speculators, who throng the lobbies of our legislature, be more favoured than they? Why should the banker, the insurer, the bridge builder, the canal digger, be distinguished by peculiar privileges? Why should they be made a chartered order, and raised above the general level of their fellow-men?
It is curious to trace the history of corporations, and observe how, in the lapse of time, they have come to be instruments that threaten the overthrow of that liberty, which they were, at first, effectual aids in establishing. When the feudal system prevailed over Europe, and the great mass of the people were held in vilest and most abject bondage by the lords, to whom they owed strict obedience, knowing no law but their commands, the power of the nobles, by reason of the number of their retainers and the extent of their possessions, was greater than that of the monarch, who frequently was a mere puppet in their hands. The barons, nominally vassals of the crown, holding their fief on condition of faithful service, were, in reality, and at all times, on any question which combined a few of the more powerful, absolute masters. They made kings and deposed them at pleasure. The history of all the states of Europe is full of their exploits in this way; but the narrative of the red and white rose of England, of the contending houses of York and Lancaster, is all that need be referred to for our present purpose. Corporations were the means at last happily hit upon of establishing a power to counterbalance that so tyrannously and rapaciously exercised by the barons. For certain services rendered, or a certain price paid, men were released from the conditions which bound them to their feudal lords, and all so enfranchised were combined in a corporate body, under a royal charter of privileges and immunities, and were termed “freemen of the corporation.” In process of time, these bodies, by gradual and almost imperceptible additions, grew to sufficient size to afford a countercheck to the power of the nobles, and were at last the instruments, not in England only, but throughout Europe, of overthrowing the feudal system, emancipating their fellow-men from degrading bondage, and establishing a government somewhat more in accordance with the rights of humanity.
But in this country, founded, in theory and practice, on an acknowledgment, in the broadest sense, of the universal right of equal freedom, the grant of special corporate privileges is an act against liberty, not in favour of it. It is not enfranchising the few, but enslaving the many. The same process which, when the people were debased, elevated them to their proper level, now, when the people are elevated, and occupy the lofty place of equal political rights, debases them to comparative servitude. The condition of things in free America is widely different from that which existed in Europe during the feudal ages. How absurd then, to continue a system of grants, for which all actual occasion long since ceased, and which are now at utter and palpable variance with the great political maxim that all alike profess! It is our desire, however, in treating this subject, to use no language which may embitter the feelings of those who entertain contrary views. We wish to win our way by the gentle process of reason; not by the boisterous means which angry disputants adopt. It has, in all times, been one of the characteristic errors of political reformers, and we might say, indeed, of religious reformers, too, that they have threatened, rather than persuaded; that they have sought to drive men, rather than allure. Happy is he “whose blood and judgment is so well commingled,” that he can blend determined hostility to public errors and abuses, with sufficient tolerance of the differences of private opinion and prejudice, never to relinquish courtesy, that sweetener of social life and efficient friend of truth. In a small way, we seek to be a reformer of certain false principles which have crept into our legislation; but as we can lay no claim to the transcendent powers of the Miltons, Harringtons and Fletchers of political history, so we have no excuse for indulging in their fierceness of invective, or bitterness of reproach.
FREE TRADE WEIGHTS AND MEASURES
December 24, 1836.
The American is a newspaper in which articles often appear indicating that it entertains a strong attachment to the principles of free trade, and a desire that the law of free competition should be the only law to regulate the pursuits of industry, so far as they do not interfere with the morals or order of society. It was with surprise and regret, therefore, that we read in that journal, a few evenings since, a paragraph commendatory of the tyrannical act, now under the consideration of our municipal authorities, relative to bread, and expressing a wish that it may become a law. The paragraph referred to is in the following words:
We are adverse, on principle, to all laws regulating the quality, or price, of any article, and of course, therefore, adverse to an assize, as to the price or quality, of bread, as we are to all inspection laws. But policy and justice alike require that false weights shall not be permitted to pass current, and, therefore, we see no objection, but all fitness, in an ordinance that the loaf should be of a given weight, leaving it to the seller and the purchaser to arrange the price for themselves.
Would the American see “all fitness” in a law requiring the butchers to cut beef into one, two, and four pound pieces, or into pieces of any other stipulated weight? Would it see fitness in requiring that a quarter of lamb should be of a given weight, or that a bunch of onions should contain a certain number, and of a certain size? There is no law hindering people to buy their bread by the pound, if they choose; and there is no reason why other persons than the members of the special bread committee of the Board of Assistant Aldermen may not discover, if they think the search worth their while, the shops where the largest loaves are sold. The law does quite as much as is necessary for the protection of the community, (this is always the pretext for these arbitrary restraints on the freedom of trade) when it fixes a standard of weights and measures, and requires all persons selling by them to have them stamped and certified by a duly appointed officer. We have our doubts, indeed, whether even in going so far, it has not exceeded the proper business of legislation. We have our doubts whether it should not stop when it has simply fixed the standard, leaving buyers and sellers free to conform to it or not, as they choose. There is no inspector of yardsticks; and yet we doubt very much if people who buy by the yard do not generally contrive to get good measure. If they do not it is their own look out. We would have it the same with regard to bread. We would let the purchaser take care of himself. The law has furnished him with all the necessary appliances and means to see that he gets good weight and measure, and the rest of the affair ought to be trusted to his own shrewdness and sagacity. The familiar saying, that a man’s eyes are his best chapman, contains more wisdom than our corporation ordinances; and we were in hopes to have the American’s cooperation in enforcing it as a rule of publick conduct, in regard to the matter now under consideration.
January 14, 1837.
The views which have been expressed in this journal, on the subject of associated effort, have provoked some animadversion. Among other papers that have expressed disapprobation of our sentiments is the Montreal Transcript, which has recorded its dissent in the following courteous and complimentary terms:
. . .
The Montreal Transcript may rest assured that it is by no means our desire, on the subject of combinations, or on any other subject, to throw dust into the eyes of our readers. If we even possessed such power of argument and such felicitous command of language as it ascribes to us, and could easily make the worse appear the better reason, we trust we should be governed by too just a sense of the duties and responsibilities of our vocation, ever to lend ourselves to the support of errour, for the sake of displaying our ingenuity, or the copiousness of our logical resources. What we have said on the subject of combination we fully believe is the true doctrine; but we are inclined to think, from some of the phrases in the foregoing paragraph, that the Montreal paper understands our remarks in a wider sense than they we[re] intended. On one point it is plain that we are misapprehended.
The maxim that the end justifies the means is one which we utterly repudiate. Not only did the Plaindealer never avow nor act upon that sentiment; but it cannot be found in anything written by its conductor, in any other medium of communicating with the publick. We hold that the saying is in direct opposition to the soundest and most obvious principles of morals, and ought never to be countenanced, in any possible circumstances, nor for the attainment of any possible object. The means must justify themselves; or no end, however desirable, and no exigency, however pressing, can wholly excuse their being employed. In the case adverted to, we considered that a combination on the part of those who suffer from the fraudulent practice of paying operatives their wages in depreciated paper would be justified, not as an exception to a general rule, but as in entire conformity with the universal, invariable, and immutable rule of right. It is on this ground, and on this alone, that we wish the propriety of our counsel to be judged.
The broad and comprehensive position we maintain on the subject of combinations is this: that the means are proper in themselves; and that it is the end alone which, in any case, is obnoxious to censure. We hold that both the principles of free trade, and the plainest principles of natural equity require, that men should be left at liberty to pursue by concert, if they choose, any object they have a right to achieve by individual action. The safety of the community against extortionate and intolerant combinations is sufficiently insured by the effect of competition and the influence of publick opinion.
It seems to us that the Montreal Transcript, in making an exception in favour of a combination of operative mechanicks against the extortionate and fraudulent practices of employers, surrenders the whole ground of argument. The admission is fatal to the position it assumes. It is equivalent to an acknowledgement that the propriety or impropriety of a combination depends on the character of the object which it is sought to accomplish. This is precisely the ground we maintain. We assert the right to combine, but do not defend the abuse of that right; as, in the same way, we assert the right of free discussion, but shall never be found among the apologists of an intemperate and pernicious exercise of that right.
But if we admit that the line may be distinctly drawn (which it cannot be) between combinations for a good purpose, and combinations for a bad purpose, the question then comes up whether we would make those in the latter category punishable by law. We answer no. We would punish by law those persons who undertook to achieve by combination, what it would be punishable by law to undertake to achieve by separate unconcerted action, and no others.
The Montreal journalist might suppose a variety of cases in which the community would be great sufferers from a combination of persons to effect certain objects, which never could be effected by spontaneous individual action. We should then answer him by supposing cases in which the action of a single extortionate individual, without transcending his undoubted legal rights, might be productive of great evil; and we should further show that the steady influence of publick opinion is the best law to regulate the conduct of associations and individuals in both classes of cases. A combination of a hundred wealthy men might, under peculiar circumstances of season, monopolize all the provisions in this city, and refuse to sell a starving inhabitant a mouthful of food, unless he paid its weight in gold. A single individual without wealth, a poor fisherman, for example, might have it in his power to rescue a hundred men from certain death at sea, and might refuse to do so, unless each promised to pay him his weight in gold for the service. The fisherman does not do so, because publick opinion, composed of the general sentiment of humanity as applicable to the subject, his own notions of humanity included, is a supreme law to regulate his conduct. The hundred rich men, in the same way, do not monopolize all the food, and retail it at a dollar an ounce, because they are restrained by the same supreme law.
The Montreal Transcript will yet discover, we hope, that it egregiously misapprehends the real tendency of our doctrines. We are quite willing to admit that combinations to regulate prices are, for the most part, very foolish and expensive undertakings, and, in familiar phrase, cost much more than they come to. But this very fact furnishes a reason why the combiners should be left to themselves. If they have a taste for expensive amusements, let them indulge themselves; for those who pay the piper surely have a right to dance.
All that we have here said is comprehended in a very brief sentence, which was once, a long time since, uttered by the leading men of the mercantile community of France, when they were asked by the minister what they desired the government to do to promote their interests. Their reply, though it consists of but three words, comprises a whole volume of political wisdom. It was, Laissez nous faire.
SALE OF PUBLICK LANDS
January 14, 1837.
Will the editor of the Plaindealer oblige us by an exposition and application of his free trade principles, as they may or should be adapted to the sale of the Publick Lands? More concisely, will he inform us whether he does or does not deem a restriction of the sales of publick lands to actual settlers on the same, constitutional, salutary and proper?
The above is from a weekly contemporary print, published in this city, called the New Yorker. Without acknowledging any right which that or any other journal has to catechize us on subjects on which we have offered no opinions, we yet have no objection whatever to answer the question put to us.
Free trade we take to consist in the buyer and seller being left to make their own bargain; it would therefore be no violation of the principles of free trade for the Government, which is the seller in the case stated, to ask any price, or make any conditions it thought proper, in disposing of the publick lands. So much for the free trade part of the question.
The constitutionality of such a restriction as is stated depends upon the fact whether there is or is not any clause in the Constitution of the United States stipulating the mode and terms of sale in regard to the publick lands. The Constitution of the United States says that “the Congress shall have power to dispose of, and make all needful rules and regulations respecting, the territory or other property belonging to the United States.” As there is here no limitation of power as to the mode or terms of the sale of the publick lands, we should think the constitutionality of the restriction about which we are asked could not be doubted.
With regard to the propriety of the restriction, the question, in our view, should be decided by a careful consideration of it solely as it will tend to promote the greatest good of the greatest number. That this object would be most certainly effected by that mode of disposal which would lead to the largest amount of actual settlement upon, and cultivation of, the publick lands, we do not doubt.
Having thus been drawn out to express our views on this subject, which we certainly had no desire to withhold, may we take the liberty to ask the New Yorker a question? We understand it to be in favour of special legislation in regard to banking, insuring against losses from fire and the perils of the sea, &c. Will it be good enough to inform us why the business of manufacturing gilt ginger bread and sugar whistles is not as much entitled to be protected by special charters and the provisions of a restraining law, as that of bankers and insurers?
MANACLES INSTEAD OF GYVES
January 21, 1837.
The American, some days ago, in an article on the subject of the laws relative to pilots, proposed the following as the features proper to be embraced in a new law on the subject:
. . .
We see, also, by the newspapers, that a committee of merchants have drawn up a scheme, which embraces similar provisions. It proposes to have appointed, by legislative authority, a Board of Commissioners, whose business it shall be to superintend the whole pilot system, to examine candidates, appoint and license pilots, and attend to the enforcement of a multitude of minute and complicated arrangements.
It seems to us that this scheme merely recommends manacles instead of gyves; that it is a mere substitution of one kind of fetter for another. It would diminish the burden, but does not propose to cast it off entirely. It mitigates the evil, but does not go to the extent of abating it. It enlarges our bounds, but does not give us freedom. Is not the piloting of our vessels, in and out of our harbour a simple matter of trade? Then why not leave it to be governed by the laws of trade? Why should it be a matter of political regulation? Why should control of the subject be left to a body of legislators, nine-tenths of whom cannot, in the nature of things, be supposed to have any knowledge concerning it? Why should it not be submitted to the operation of those principles, which, in all the affairs of trade to which they have ever been applied, have invariably been found of adequate efficacy?
The ocean, beyond the limits of our jurisdiction, has its bars and rocks and quicksand; yet no difficulty is experienced in finding persons of sufficient knowledge and skill to guide commerce through all its dangers, without asking legislative supervision, or requiring those entrusted with the important business to be authenticated by official appointment. It seems to us if the business of piloting a vessel were left equally free from political interference, with that of navigating it across the ocean, the result would be greatly to the advantage of all concerned, directly or indirectly, except those only who fatten on the unearned fruits of monopoly, and those who derive an undue political influence from the power of dispensing official patronage.
If there were no law regulating the number of pilots, it would be fixed by that law of trade which adjusts the supply to the demand. The compensation would also be adjusted, in the same way, by the amount of competition; as the wages of masters and mates of vessels, and of seamen, for any given voyage, or as the prices of any other service or commodity, are now fixed. Ignorant and unskilful persons might engage in the business; but competition here again would remedy the difficulty. It would naturally lead those possessing the requisite qualifications to obtain the best sort of credential which, under any circumstances, they could possible have, namely, a certificate, duly authenticated, from a board constituted by the underwriters and merchants. It might lead, also, to the formation of rival joint stock pilot associations, of sufficient capital to afford ample pecuniary guarantees against loss by the carelessness or ignorance of those employed. The insurers, also, would devise a code of regulations for their own security, the tendency of which would necessarily be to promote the interests of commerce, for the interests of commerce and of the insurers are identical.
We do not like to speak with unbecoming positiveness on this subject, lest we incur an application to ourselves of the sentiment of Pope, that “fools rush in, where angels fear to tread;” yet we must say that, after a good deal of meditation on the subject, and an examination of it by such tests as our knowledge supplies, we have arrived at the conviction that the business of piloting might as safely be left to the principles of absolute free trade, as any other business whatever. If there were no law to regulate the subject, it may be said, an extortionate pilot might, under peculiar circumstance, exact an exorbitant compensation, and refuse to act unless it were paid. A physician, or surgeon, too, might be brought to the bedside of an affluent patient under circumstances which required instant medical or chirurgical aid, and refuse to administer the potion or the knife, on which all hope depended, without being previously paid an enormous remuneration. If the common sentiment of mankind, in the one case as well as the other, were not sufficient to prevent the attempt of such extortion, could a jury be found that would ratify the compulsory bargain?
If the laws of trade would of themselves lead to the best results in regard to piloting, we think no one will dispute that it would then be clearly proper to separate the subject from political control. We are of those, who, as a principle of abstract political doctrine, desire to confine government to the fewest possible offices. Those who differ from us in political creed, and, as an abstract principle, desire to strengthen the powers and multiply the functions of government, will yet admit that it is desirable to retrench power in the hands of its present possessors. Thus, on the one ground or the other, we should count upon the cooperation of both the democracy and the aristocracy, to bring about the emancipation of trade, in the respect of which we speak, if it could be shown that the simple principle of competition is adequate to all the purposes which the law now vainly attempts to enforce. That it is so we do not entertain a doubt; and the opinion is sustained by every species of analogical reasoning to which it can be subjected. The experiment could not, at any rate, place our commerce in worse peril than it is exposed to by our present system; and, in that view of the subject, is it not worth a trial?
THE MEANING OF FREE TRADE
January 28, 1837.
In our last number but one, we replied to some questions put to us by a weekly contemporary print, the New Yorker, on the subject of the conditions proposed, in Mr. Walker’s land bill, to be annexed to the sale of publick lands. The views we there expressed do not meet the approbation of our querist, who enters into a discussion of them at so great a length, as forbids alike our copying the article entire, and our replying to all the points of the argument. Some of them, however, shall receive such attention as our limits permit us to bestow. Our definition of free trade, that it consists in the buyer and seller being left to make their own bargain, does not seem to satisfy the New Yorker, which confesses that it has heretofore looked on the term as expressive of a much wider signification. We quote the passage:
“Free trade,” says our enlightener, “we take to consist in the buyer and seller being left to make their own bargain.” Indeed! In the plenitude of our ignorance we had given a much wider signification to the phrase. Let us illustrate: Suppose on the next day that the new tariff bill before the House of Representatives is under discussion in Committee of the Whole, Mr. C. C. Cambreleng should propose an increase of the duty on iron imported to one hundred per cent, except iron intended for the construction of railroads, which should be admitted free of duty. There would doubtless be evinced what is called a “sensation,” and some member, ignorant, like us, of the true import of the term, might accuse the honourable gentleman of an abandonment or violation of the principles of free trade, for his consistent support of which he has long been distinguished. “You mistake,” replies the commercial representative, with a compassionating smile; “free trade consists in the buyer and seller being allowed to make their own bargain; and as I propose no restriction of this liberty, my free trade consistency is unimpeachable.” The caviller, rebuked, instructed, and satisfied, would of course humbly acknowledge his errour. Now, if it be true that free trade has no further import than this, we must of course stand corrected. But we have hitherto understood that the law which authorizes so many pilots and no more to conduct vessels into the harbour of New York, (though allowing shipmasters to “make their own bargains”) and the law which forbids the keeping of offices of discount and deposite by individuals or voluntary associations (though allowing depositors and the banks to “make their own bargains”) are violations of the principle of free trade. As such, we have advocated their unqualified repeal; and we have thought the strenuous and efficient hostility of the Plaindealer to these and many kindred restrictions was based on a like conviction. We appeal, then, to the common sense of the reader to bear us out in the assertion that the passage of a law restricting the sales of publick lands to those only who would bind themselves to settle upon and cultivate the same, would be a measure of the same generick kind with those which, under such sounding titles as “the American system,” “protection to domestick industry,” &c. &c. have encountered the unremitting and ardent hostility of the editor of the Plaindealer for years past. It is a system of cobbling, and forcing, and discriminating, designed to supersede one of real and palpable free trade.
And again, after expatiating at some length on the difficulties which it supposes would be experienced in carrying the provisions of Mr. Walker’s land bill into effect, and the presumed evil consequences which would result from them, the New Yorker says:
We do not assert that the Plaindealer sees all this as we do; but we do believe that it cannot give an hour’s consideration to this system of restriction to actual settlers without being convinced that it is not a free trade system. It surely cannot believe that an act providing that a blacksmith might buy publick lands, but a physician must not—that a Kentuckian might have lands at fifty cents per acre, while a Pennsylvanian should not have them at any price—would be consistent with the broad and distinctive principles which it has hitherto maintained. And yet it affirms as much in its sweeping assertion that it would be no violation of the principles of free trade for the government to make any conditions it thought proper.
If Mr. Cambreleng should be guilty of the silly conduct which the New Yorker has taken for one of its illustrative hypotheses, he certainly would commit a very egregious violation of the plainest principles of free trade; simply because he would not, in that case, leave the buyer and seller free to make their own bargain, but would seek to thrust a prodigious legislative barrier between them. The buyers, in the case supposed, are the workers and consumers of iron in this country; and the sellers are those who deal in the article in Great Britain. The trade between them is free, when no legislative hindrances, of any kind, are interposed by a third party. Congress, in this case, is that third party; and the buyer and seller are not left alone to make their bargain; but the third party steps in with its conditions, which are of as imperative obligation on the purchaser, as those of the seller.
In the other case adduced, that of the pilots, the errour is the same. The buyers are those who have occasion for the services of pilots; and the sellers are those who have such services to dispose of. The trade between them would be free, if each party were left to make its own bargain, without legal limitation or restraint. But the legislature is a third party, and says to those needing the aid of the pilots, you shall not be free to make your own bargain, but, will you, nill you, you must take a pilot of my appointing, or at all events, whether you take one or not, you must pay as if the service were actually rendered. And it says to the pilots, you shall not be left free to charge that rate which the demand for your services and the amount of free competition might warrant, but you shall always, be the circumstances what they may, and be the service relatively worth more or less, have liberty to charge, and power to enforce your demand, according to certain immutable rates, which are hereby established. This is not free trade, because this is not leaving the buyer and seller free to make their own bargain. They are both under the necessity of deferring to a third party, who makes the bargain for them.
So also in the other case which has been chosen as of analogous force, that of the law which forbids all except specially chartered corporations from keeping offices of discount and deposite. It is an errour to say that the depositors and the banks are free to make their own bargains. The depositors are not free, because the law restricts them to a certain limited number of companies, and says, in effect, you shall not deposite your money except with A, B, or C, and none but A, B, and C, are authorized to discount your note. You shall not, therefore, make your own bargain; but you shall be subject to the conditions which the shutting up of the business of discount and deposite in such narrow bounds, by counteracting the effect of competition, will necessarily impose upon you. Here, as in the other cases, a third party interposes between buyer and seller; and consequently they are not free to make their own bargain, or, in other words, their rights of free trade are violated.
Our antagonist is mistaken in supposing that we should consider a law in relation to the publick lands, exactly and particularly designating the classes and descriptions of persons who might and who might not buy those lands, a violation of the principles of free trade. We should certainly consider it a very absurd law, but absurd on different grounds from those imputed. There are many modes in which government may abuse its powers besides by violating the principles of free trade; as there are many ways in which a man may commit crime, without taking the life of a fellow being. If a person should be proved guilty of forgery, the jury would hardly be instructed to bring in a verdict of wilful murder; and so, if the government should impose very silly conditions upon itself with regard to the publick lands, we should not pronounce it guilty of violating the freedom of trade. The government has the sole and absolute right of disposal of the publick lands, under but one limitation: that of disposing of them for the general welfare. The conditions which it imposes upon itself, or the terms which it annexes to the sale, may be unwise, and subversive of the professed object; but cannot properly be considered a violation of free trade, any more than could the conduct of the proprietor of the New Yorker, if he refused to sell his paper except to a particular class of purchasers, or to none, except for their own exclusive use, and on the express condition that they would not resell. If a third party, the legislature for example, imposed these conditions, they would be a violation of free trade, inasmuch as they would come between buyer and seller, and would not leave them free to make their own bargain. But it is no more a violation of free trade for the seller to say, I will not sell except on certain terms, than for the buyer to say, I will not buy, except at a certain price.
The New Yorker, it seems, is less of a monopolist than we had been led to suppose. It says:
Having uniformly advocated the unqualified repeal of the Restraining Law, the removal of all kindred restraints, and the reform of our banking system generally, we feel that we are unjustly ranked with the advocates of chartered monopolies. All the restriction on banking we desire is, simply the restriction of the right of issuing paper as money to those alone (whether individuals or companies) who shall establish before a proper tribunal that they are unquestionably able to redeem a certain amount of paper whenever called upon, and such a constant supervision over them as shall ensure their continued solvency. As to insurance, we do not regard such a supervision as so necessary, but we think it would be found salutary. We want no charters, (unless the above is a charter,) no distribution of stock, no exclusive privileges, no restrictions, except the restriction of the power of coining paper money to those who are able to redeem it.
This shows, whatever erroneous notions the New Yorker may entertain as to the definition of the term free trade, that it has made greater advances towards the thing, than many journals which make a more boastful display of their economick knowledge. We trust a little further investigation will satisfy it that the salutary restrictions, which it is now in favour of having imposed by legislative authority, would be much more certainly and efficiently imposed by the laws of free trade. They would be the natural and necessary consequence of unrestricted competition.
January 28, 1837.
Mr. Cutting lately introduced a bill into the Assembly, which, it will be seen, has been passed in that house, for the more effectual punishment of crime. The first section of the bill is in the following words:
The keeping of a gambling house by any person in the city of New York, shall be, and hereby is declared, a misdemeanour, and indictable as such; and upon conviction thereof, the offender shall be subject to a fine, not exceeding five hundred dollars, or to imprisonment not exceeding one year, or both, in the discretion of the court before whom the same is tried.
We do not believe that a law of this kind is the best method of preventing gaming. There have always been laws against gaming in this city; yet they have slumbered on the statute book, mere dead letters, while gambling has been pursued with a degree of openness scarcely inferiour to that of the licensed gaming houses in New Orleans. Our readers are aware that we belong to that class of persons who do not believe in the omnipotence of law to effect every conceivable object of reformation. The law of publick opinion, if left free to act, would, in a vast multitude of cases, be found more efficient, than a penal statute. We believe that gaming is one of the vices which would be much more effectually restrained, if left entirely to the salutary influences of publick opinion, than it ever can be by legislative interference. If laws on the subject are highly penal, they are not enforced; and if slightly penal, they are ineffectual: and, in both cases, they forestall and render sluggish and inoperative the publick sentiment, which otherwise, we think, we would be found an active and efficient agent in restraining the vice.
A legislature is always badly set to work in manufacturing crime. To risk money in a wager is not a crime per se, whether the wager be on the result of a race, on the fate of a lottery ticket, on the turn of a dicebox, or on any other like contingency. It is folly, perhaps, in all cases, and it becomes crime and madness in some; but to draw the line between allowable folly and criminality, in a matter of this kind, is rather the office of publick opinion, than of the law.
But Mr. Cutting’s bill does not go to the extent of punishing gaming, but merely to punish those who afford facilities to gamblers, to punish the keepers of gaming houses. It is one of the heaviest charges against the law, that it spreads a flimsy net to catch small offenders, while it weaves no meshes strong enough to hold the larger ones. The poor wretch who gets drunk on threepenny gin is sent to bridewell1 or the watchhouse, while the judge who sentences him daily inebriates himself with impunity on Madeira or Champaigne. The keeper of the shilling faro table is lodged in prison, and mulcted in a heavy fine; while the dashing coterie of rich and fashionable blacklegs, who support their own hell, under the thin disguise of a club house, and nightly allure spendthrifts to their ruin, have passage free. Mr. Cutting knows dozens of conspicuous individuals in this city, who, to all intents and purposes, and to the worst intents and purposes, keep gambling houses, that would not be touched by his bill, if it should be passed into a law.
To suppress vice in part is perhaps better than not to suppress it at all; but the objection we urge to the proposed law, and to all such legislation, is that it does not really promote its ostensible object. If the legislature had spent as much time in framing penal statutes against intemperance, as it has wickedly spent, for years past, in framing grants of special charters, it could not possibly have effected the reform, in that respect, which publick opinion has accomplished. We would leave the vice of gambling to be corrected in the same way.
FREE TRADE POST OFFICE
February 4, 1837.
Text abridged and extract deleted.
A bill, it will be seen, is now before Congress, reported by the Post Office Committee, the object of which is to carry into effect the recommendation in the Postmaster General’s last annual report, on the subject of epistolary communication between the inhabitants of this country and Great Britain. . . .
. . .
. . .[I]t is not improbable that the bill will have been passed into a law before these remarks are presented to our readers. It is therefore with no expectation of arresting or changing, in the slightest degree, the course of action on the subject, that we choose it as the theme for our speculations in the present article; but merely because it may answer a useful purpose to invite the reader’s mind to a consideration of what constitute the proper functions of political government, and how far the principle of unrestricted competition may be safely left to form its own laws and supply the wants of society.
Everybody must admit that the Post Office, as a branch of the Government, is an institution obviously and inevitably liable to the most prodigious abuses. Under the present system, there are some twelve or fifteen thousand postmasters, holding their appointments directly from one man, and removable at his mere will. Nearly all this numerous army of postmasters, at least a full myriad of them, have subordinates under their control; and if we include in the estimate the contractors, drivers, carriers, and the various other persons more or less dependent for support on the enormous system, it will probably yield an aggregate of not much less than half a million of persons under the immediate direction, to some extent, of a single individual, seated at the head of the federal government. Can any one be so blind as not to perceive, at a glance, that this is a monstrous power, at all times susceptible of being exerted, with the most dangerous effect, for the advancement of objects hostile to the true interests of the people? We do not ask the question with reference to the present, or the past, or any future administration, or with particular reference to any event which has occurred or is likely to occur; but simply in reference to the subject in the abstract, and to the aspect it presents under all the changes and fluctuations of party affairs.
It is not only the vast means of undue influence which the present system gives to a single federal officer, in enabling him, to some extent, directly to control the suffrages of a numerous body of organized dependents; but the facilities it furnishes for the rapid and simultaneous diffusion of political intelligence which it may be desired to circulate, for the obstruction of that of a contrary tenor, and for the exercise of all the arts of political espionage, also render the Post Office, as a branch of government, a dangerous institution. If this is a danger not necessary to be incurred; if the duties which it performs are a matter of trade which might safely be left to the laws of trade; and if the transmission of our letters and newspapers, from place to place, might be submitted, with salutary results, to the operation of the same principles which now secure the carrying of our merchandize and our persons, there are many who will readily admit that the free trade system, as tending to simplify the offices of government and restraining its powers, would be better than one of political regulation. We are ourselves strongly inclined to the belief, that if the clause in the federal charter which gives to Congress the control of the Post Office had never been inserted, a better system would have grown up under the mere laws of trade. The present system, let it be conducted as it may, can never, in the nature of things, be wholly free from political abuses, and is always in danger of being converted into a mere political machine. The abuses which are its inevitable incidents, will necessarily increase from year to year, as the population swells in numbers, and spreads over a wider surface. It must always, managed by political intermediaries and rapacious subordinates, be attended with a vast amount of unnecessary expense; and this expense must be drawn from the people by a method of taxation in utter violation of their equal rights.
Should the history of this Confederacy stretch out for ages, it will probably never exhibit to the world the spectacle of a chief magistrate combining more exalted qualities than distinguish him who now occupies that lofty station. Sincerer patriotism and more unbending integrity no man can ever possess. Sagacity, firmness, restless activity, and unceasing vigilance, are also among his characteristics. Yet even under his administration, what numerous and not unfounded complaints have vexed the ears of the people of the errors and mismanagement of the Post Offices! Much of the clamour, beyond all question, arose out of party motives, and had no reasonable foundation; but much, on the other hand, was prompted by real delinquency, and was little exaggerated beyond the warrant of truth. If these abuses have existed during the administration of Andrew Jackson, it is not probable that they will not recur under future Presidents. They are inseparable from the system. It is a government machine, cumbrous, expensive, and unwieldly, and liable to be perverted to the worst of uses.
On what principle is the line drawn which separates the matters which are left to the laws of trade, from those which are deemed to require political regulation? The Post Office is established for the purpose of facilitating intercourse by letter between different places. But personal intercourse, though less frequently necessary, is not less positively so, than communication by correspondence. The intertransmission of merchandize is as necessary as either. Why should the government confine its mediation to the mere carrying of our letters? Why not also transport our persons and our goods? These objects, it will be answered, are readily accomplished by the laws of trade, and may therefore properly be left to individual enterprise. But what constitutes this the precise point where the laws of trade become impotent, and where individual enterprise needs to be substituted by political control?
If the clause of the Constitution under which the Post Office establishment exists were struck from the instrument to-morrow, is any one weak enough to suppose that the activity of commerce would not soon supply a system of its own? Modes of conveyance would be instituted at once; they would speedily be improved by the rival efforts of competition; and would keep pace, step by step, with the public demand. It may be said that places far inland and thinly inhabited would suffer by the arrangement. The solitary squatter in the wilderness might not, it is true, hear the forest echoes daily awakened by the postman’s horn, and his annual letter might reach him charged with a greater expense than he is now required to pay. But there is no place on the map which would not be supplied with mail facilities by paying a just equivalent; and if they are now supplied for less, it is because the burden of post office taxation is imposed with disproportional weight on the populous sections of the land. But there is no reason why the east should pay the expense of threading with the mail the thick wildernesses of the west, or of wading with it through the swamps and morasses of the south. This is a violation of the plainest principles of equal rights.
The subject of a free trade Post Office presents many considerations which it would be tedious to the reader to pursue to the end in all their ramifications. It is enough for the present that we lay before him a theme of meditation, which will exercise his ingenuity, and afford a not unprofitable incentive to thought. We open the mine, and leave him to trace its various veins of ore. Some of these lay obvious to view. The curse of office-hunting, for example, an inseparable incident of popular government, every year exercises, and in a ratio of prodigious increase, a pernicious influence on the political morals of the country. Under a free trade system of post office business this epidemic evil would necessarily be abated in a vast degree. But would you withdraw, it may be asked, the stimulus which our post office system, by extending mail routes through the wilderness, furnishes to emigration; which provokes a spirit of enterprise to explore the wilds of the west, and to plant colonies in the interminable woods and on the boundless prairies; which causes towns and villages to spring up where the wolf howled and the panther screamed but the week before; and covers with the activity of social life and industry the desert which, but for the impulse furnished by the government, would continue desolate and solitary for ages?
We have no hesitation to answer in the most direct and unequivocal affirmative. All government bounties, of every shape and name, are as much opposed to our notions of the proper freedom of trade, as government restraints and penalties. We would withdraw all government stimulants, for they are bad things at best. But let no man suppose the progress of improvement would be thus retarded. Its direction might be changed; but its advance would be unobstructed. The country would continue to grow, from year to year, not less rapidly and more healthfully than now. Instead of the forcing system, which exhausts the soil, and brings forth only sickly and immature productions, we should merely adopt one of nature and of reason. We should merely leave water to flow in its proper channels, instead of endeavouring to compel its current, without reference to the laws of gravitation. The boundaries of population would still continue to enlarge, like ripples on a sheet of water, circle beyond circle; but they would not be forced into unnatural irregularities, and to shoot out this way and that, according to the schemes of politicians and speculators, who, through interested agents in the halls of Congress, should choose to open roads and penetrate with the mails into places which, if left to the natural course of things, would sleep for centuries in the unbroken solitude of nature.
The project now before Congress, to which we adverted in the outset of this article, is liable to no objection, in our view, except that it adds new complication, and gives greater extent and firmness to the post office system under its political organization, thus rendering more distant and feeble our present slight prospect of economic reform.
FREE TRADE, TAXES, AND SUBSIDIES
February 11, 1837.
Title added. Text abridged and extract deleted.
The New Yorker has no warrant for saying that, according to the opinions expressed by this journal, a reduction of the tariff to such an ad valorem duty as would merely supply the means of defraying the current expenses of the government “would be just no free trade at all.” It would certainly not place trade in a state of absolute freedom; but it would be such an enlargement of its bounds, such a relaxation of its fetters, as might well deserve to be spoken of as comparative freedom. We are in favour of absolute freedom of trade in banking; yet we consider the limited repeal of the Restraining Law, although it does not restore to the community their natural rights, in their fullest integrity, a great triumph of free principles, nevertheless. We rejoice at every successive victory obtained, because it carries us nearer to the goal. In war, every advantage over your enemy is, to some extent, a triumph of the principles you maintain, though there may be other battles yet to fight, and other victories to achieve, before the whole object embraced in the ground of quarrel can be accomplished. In religion, every convert whom you bring to kneel at your altar is a triumph of your creed; though its perfect success is not established till the whole world acknowledges its truth. The same remark holds good in relation to science, to art, and to every variety of subject. The gradations of legislative interference with trade are innumerable. Any law which creates an intermediary condition between absolute freedom and absolute restriction is a fetter upon trade. But these fetters may be as light as the pinions on the heels of the feathered Mercury, or they may be as heavy as the chains which bound Prometheus to his rock.
It is a mistake to say that theoretick free trade consists in the equality of duties. It consists in levying no duties at all. It consists in leaving the parties to trade—the buyer and seller—perfectly unrestrained by the conditions of a third party. The amount of revenue necessary for the purposes of government should be derived through a system of taxation that would rest with equal proportional burden upon all, and not merely upon the consumers of foreign merchandize. The man who is clad in deerskins, whom the forest and lake supply with animal food, and whose own field yields him whatever else the necessities of nature demand, should no more be exempt from proportional taxation, than he who flaunts in silks, whose blood is warmed with the spices of the east and the wines of the south, and whose table groans beneath the weight of imported luxuries. Taxes, to the extent of the necessary expenses of government, laid by a rule of universal equality, are no infringement of the principles of free trade; because trade cannot exist without organized government, and organized government cannot be supported without taxation. But the moment government says to the citizens, you who are engaged in one branch of trade, or you who consume one description of commodity, shall pay taxes; and you who deal in another branch of traffick, or consume articles of a different description, shall not be taxed; it obviously violates the proper freedom of trade, as well as the great democratick principle of equal rights.
The New Yorker has very imperfectly acquainted itself with our views, if it is not aware that a system of bounties is as much opposed to them, as a system of prohibitory or protective duties. Would it be free trade if the government should say to the Postmaster, you may carry the New Yorker, and the other weekly newspapers, free of postage; but you must allow the Plaindealer one cent for every number which passes through your hands? Would this not be a direct interference on the part of the government with the weekly newspaper trade? Would it not be saying to those concerned in it, you shall not be left free to make your own terms with your subscribers, but shall be compelled to make such a charge as will enable you to meet an onerous and unjust tax, imposed on the whole community, for the special benefit of one exclusively privileged newspaper? When the government allows a bounty, it devotes, for the benefit of an individual or a class, money derived from the whole community, under the pretence that it was to be expended for the benefit of the whole. Such legislation is objectionable on precisely the same grounds of political justice and economy that may be urged against discriminating duties.
We do not “hesitate or turn recreant” in regard to any subject. We are for applying the principles of political economy to every possible subject which they embrace in their widest latitude of correct interpretation. But it is one thing to condemn political regulation, when, in a matter of trade, the government, as a third party, interferes between the other two, the buyer and seller; and another to withhold condemnation, when those political regulations are merely the rules which one of the two parties, the seller, sets down for his own guidance.1
MEEK AND GENTLE WITH THESE BUTCHERS
February 18, 1837.
It will be seen, by our paragraph under the proper head, that Mr. Brady introduced a proposition into the Board of Aldermen last Wednesday evening, the object of which is graciously to permit all butchers to sell meat in their own shops, provided they take out a license, at an expense of fifty dollars, and enter into some sort of security that they will open only a single shop. This proposition is not to be considered as containing the views of its mover as to the degree of freedom which the citizen should be permitted to enjoy in the business of dealing in meat; for that individual has distinguished himself, for a good while past, as the earnest opponent of the unjust and arbitrary restraints and limitations which are imposed on that branch of traffic, giving a monopoly to a few, and forcing the citizen to pay a price much greater than would be asked, if competition were left free to regulate the supply to the demand. But the resolution of Mr. Brady was probably framed with reference to his prospect of success in any measure tending towards an enlargement of the bounds of the butchers’ monopoly; and in that view of it he is entitled to thanks for the measure. But what a sorry picture does not this proceeding exhibit to us of the ignorance and tyranny of our municipal legislators! It is solicited, as a measure of freedom, that a free citizen, as free and intelligent as any member of the Common Council, may be permitted to follow a respectable and useful calling, provided he brings proof that he faithfully served the full term of apprenticeship to that branch of business, gives bonds that he will pursue it only within a specified limit, and pays into the public treasury a large sum of money for the gracious permission which the fathers of the city vouchsafe to him! Can any thing be a greater outrage of common sense than these stipulations? Can any thing be in more palpable and direct violation of the most obvious natural rights? Can any thing, even under the despotic government of Czars, Autocrats, and Grand Seignors, be more arbitrary, unequal, oppressive, and unjust? The prohibitions and restrictions within which butchers are circumscribed, may, with equal warrant of propriety, be drawn round other callings. There is as much reason why the Common Council should take upon themselves to regulate your private affairs, reader, or our own. They may, with equal grace, ordain that no carpenter, or tailor, or hatter, or shoemaker, shall open a shop, except he served a regular apprenticeship to the business, gives bonds that he will open but one, and pays a large bonus into the general coffers for “the blessings of liberty,” in that case extended to him. Doctors, lawyers, merchants, and ministers of the gospel, are not less liable than butchers to this municipal supervision and control; and there is quite as much reason, in relation to every one of those vocations, why it should be limited and regulated by the Common Council, as there is in the case of butchers. We hope that among those who have undertaken this business on free trade principles, there are some citizens spirited enough to resist the present ordinances, and defy the inquisitorial power which attempts to tyrannize over them. We should like to see the question tried whether we are, in fact, mere serfs and vassals, holding our dearest privileges but by the sufferance of our municipal servants, or whether we are in truth freemen, possessed of certain inalienable rights, among which is that of pursuing, unmolested, and in our own way, any calling which does not interfere with the rights of others, subject only to the impositions of an equal tax.
THE CAUSE OF HIGH PRICES, AND THE RIGHTS OF COMBINATION
March 4, 1837.
Text abridged and extracts deleted or abridged.
The New Era does not differ from us in opinion as to the general and pervading cause of high prices. It considers the bank monopoly system as the fruitful mother of most of the financial ills under which the community labours, and looks to the complete enfranchisement of trade as the great legislative panacea which alone can effectually cure the complicated disorders of the body politick. But in regard to the late flour riot, it seems disposed to extenuate the conduct of the mob, on the ground that the merchants whose storehouse was invaded had actually monopolized an immense quantity of flour, having been enabled to do so by loans from the State Bank.
. . .
. . . We admit the facts of the New Era, at the same time that we reassert the opinion first expressed by us, that the riot was both causeless and disgraceful. In admitting its facts, however, we must not be understood as asserting them; for we know nothing, except from the statements of that journal, either as to the quantity of flour held by the mercantile house which it names, or the particular nature or source of its bank accommodations. But assuming that the New Era speaks only upon accurate information, we receive its allegations as true, and still refuse to mitigate the strength of our censure, or extenuate the conduct of the mob.
It is no offence against society for a flour dealer to purchase as much flour and grain as he thinks he can readily dispose of to advantage, or can afford to retain in his possession until the consumers shall accede to his demands. It is no offence against society to borrow funds to enable him to accomplish this object; and none to borrow them from a bank. And it is no offence against society for a bank to lend a flour dealer money, any more than it would be to lend it to any other person, in any other branch of business. Nay, if the purpose for which the money was required was communicated to the officers of the bank as the ground of the application, they might still lend it, without committing the slightest offence against society. The sole consideration which is obligatory upon the bank is that of the pecuniary responsibility of the borrower. The object for which the funds are required, further than as it affects that consideration, should not weigh with them a pin’s weight.
If the transaction then, in none of its particular features, was an offence against society, it could not become such in its aggregate aspect. The people might well deplore that they had so long permitted their legislative servants to go on, chartering one monopoly after another, until the whole money business of the community, instead of being left open to the wholesome influence of unbounded competition, was placed under the exclusive control of a comparatively few specially privileged individuals, having the power to regulate, according to the dictates of folly or cupidity, the precise channels in which the streams of credit shall flow. But they would surely have no right to assail, either the bank, for lending its money to whom it pleased, or the borrower, for availing himself of its disposition in his favour. To do so would be a causeless outrage; since neither of the parties had transcended its clear, indisputable rights.
The mere fact that the merchants whose warehouse was attacked had more flour on hand than all the other dealers, only shows that they conducted the business on a larger scale. If they asked higher prices than other dealers, they would obtain no custom. If their influence over other dealers caused them all to raise their prices to the same level, and that was above the general level of value, in other places, as fixed by the relations of supply and demand, or any other cause, they would but provoke immediate competition from abroad; for it is the nature of all commodities of traffick to flow upwards to the highest level, as much so as it is the nature of water to flow downwards to the lowest. But if we suppose, for the sake of the argument, (a thing that would not be possible in fact) that the influence of these same flour dealers extended to every other flour dealer in the country, and their prices fixed the universal standard of price: or, to simplify the matter still more, if we suppose that they were the sole owners of all the flour in the United States, they would still have a right to fix their own price; and whatever that might be, it would afford—great extenuation, we admit—but no justification of a riot.
We take this extreme hypothesis to illustrate our views. Publick opinion in this country is the supreme law. Publick opinion, expressed without tumult, would, in the case supposed, supply an adequate remedy for the evil; but expressed through the means of tumult would defeat the very end proposed. Publick opinion, in such a case, would make a spontaneous, unanimous, and irresistible call on the legislative agents of the community, to take the subject of grievance into their own hands. The flour of a single monopolist, which he was holding from a starving people, would be seized by due process of law; it would be “private property taken for publick use;” and “a just compensation,” estimated by an equitable comparison of the amount of supply with the amount of demand, would be awarded to the owner. In such a case, the conservative principle, the universal principle of self-preservation, which resides in communities, not less than in individuals, would be fairly called into exercise. It would be an analogous instance with those which are perpetually occurring in times of warfare, but of much stronger obligation. It would be adequate to the end proposed, the relief of the community, according to some just scheme of supplying their wants; whereas, should an unruly mob attempt to achieve the same object by the means of tumult, the effort would but end in the destruction, or most partial and unequal distribution, of the food for which they were famishing, and thus aggravate distress, and place it beyond the reach of alleviation.
Thus, even in the extremest hypothesis which can be framed, we pronounce sentence against tumult. But in the case which really occurred there does not seem to have been the slightest provocation. It does not appear that the flour dealers, whose premises were invaded, had given the smallest occasion of offence to the community. They had a large quantity of flour, and held it at a high price. But they had not “monopolized” flour, even so far as this city is concerned, and according to the New Era’s own showing—which “proclaims fearlessly” the names of half a dozen extensive dealers in flour, whose stores were “jammed to bursting, on every floor, with barrels of flour collected from our native mills and fields,” and which promises to name more. If the persons singled out as the objects of mob vengeance charged more than others for their flour, purchasers would only have to leave them, and draw their supply from some of those bursting storehouses. If they all charged alike, the fact would be evidence of one of two things: either that the price was fixed by the relation of the supply to the demand, or by combination. If by combination, rivalry would be provoked from abroad, and this would relieve the community. But the New Era may answer that the combination was universal. The burden of proof for such a position would rest upon itself; but we do not hesitate to meet it. Our answer then is, that a universal combination to sustain prices at the point fixed by the relations of supply and demand is perfectly justifiable: and a universal combination to raise them above that point is impossible in the nature of things. The extent and diversity of the interests engaged in the traffick, the varieties of character, and the natural rivalry of trade, forbid it. Even where the parties to such a league or compact are few, and all centered in one narrow circle of business, it is found impracticable to maintain it for any length of time. There are continual violations of faith; there are continual evasions of the terms of agreement, under the impulse of that strong, natural, irradicable spirit of competition which constitutes the mainspring of trade. Despite all the covenants that might be entered into, the price of flour would inevitably adjust itself according the demand, as compared with the supply; according to that principle which furnishes the universal scale of value, the instant price transcends the absolute cost of production under the most favourable circumstances.
It is a happy thing for mankind that this principle does thus invariably operate; because it furnishes a warning to the improvident, checks the profusion of the wasteful, teaches frugality to the extravagant, and arouses a wholesome spirit of economy and foresight in the whole population. If an inadequate supply were not instantly revealed by the tell-tale index of price, a community might run on in profusion and wastefulness, until famine suddenly seized them in his bony clutch. But the mercury in the chrystal tube does not more surely indicate the temperature of the air, than the price of any general staple of a country does the relation of supply and demand. It not only furnishes a warning against thoughtless improvidence at the present time, but supplies a stimulus to competition for the time to come, and induces enterprise to engage in that field which had been imperfectly cultivated before. The events of this year will teach a useful lesson, to be practised the next. Agriculture, admonished of its folly in deserting the plough, to follow in the deluded train of crazy speculation, will return, with renewed industry, to its proper toil. Our fields will smile again with waving harvests; our rivers will glisten with the snowy canvass that wafts the products of the teeming earth to the marts of commerce; and labour will go cheerfully about his work, full fed on nourishing food, which the abundance of supply will have placed amply within his means.
That the present price of flour is the result of the inadequacy of the crop, and not of combination, is a fact perfectly demonstrable, notwithstanding all the allegations which have been uttered to the contrary. It is but little beyond the general average of price; which, in itself, is convincing proof. But independent of this, all the elements which enter into the computation are of a notorious character. The amount of flour raised in the entire country is ascertainable from publick sources, and to a surprising degree of accuracy. The amounts exported and imported are likewise readily ascertained; together with the average amount of consumption by the stationary population, and the average increase of consumers. If a consideration of these elements shows that there is not in existence that quantity of flour which will be in demand before another crop can be brought into market, the price naturally and necessarily adjusts itself according to the scale of deficiency. The effect of this probably is to place flour immediately and entirely beyond the reach of one class of purchasers; and each successive rise diminishes the number of competitors. We may easily carry out the process in our minds, until the stock should be diminished to the last loaf, and none but the wealthiest could enter into the rivalry which the precious food would occasion. In all this, we cannot perceive that immediate injustice is done to any portion of society; while the remote effects of the rise of price in proportion to the diminution of supply are of the happiest kind in averting a recurrence of the evil.
But let us suppose that other views prevailed, and that the dealers in flour were compelled to dispose of it at the same rates which were asked during the most abundant seasons. And let us suppose, too, that this forced cheapness had not the natural effect of causing thoughtless and wasteful expenditure. Still, the time would soon come when the entire stock would be exhausted, and the whole community alike would be without that description of food. It would be very hard that they should be without flour; but whom could they blame? Whom should the mob attack? What description of rights of property should now become the object of outrage? The exhaustion of flour was occasioned by the deficiency of the crop; the deficiency of the crop by the withdrawal of labour from agriculture to other pursuits; the withdrawal of labour by the rage for speculation; the rage for speculation by the sudden expansion of the paper currency; and the sudden expansion of the paper currency by exclusive legislation. Shall any of these intermediate causes of the evil, or shall the great first cause, legislative folly and rapacity, become the object of tumult and violence? Clearly no! The people have the matter perfectly in their control, by the mere influence of peaceful opinion, expressed in the constituted modes. The duty of the press, then, is neither to justify nor extenuate outrage; but to point out, calmly and dispassionately, the prolifick fountain of the evils which oppress the people, and to arouse the publick mind to such action as shall put an end, utterly and forever, to that entire system of exclusive legislation, which is in direct hostility to the rights of man, to the fundamental maxims of our government, and to the great cause of social order and happiness.
The right to combine we have heretofore treated as an indispensable attribute of the freedom of trade; but the New Era contests the position, in an article devoted exclusively to that topick. We copy it entire.1
. . .
. . . An individual has a right to stand still in the street from the rising to the going down of the sun; but a multitude have not, because they would obstruct the free passage and business of others. So every flour merchant, in a beleagured city, whose inhabitants are wan with famine, may demand what price he likes for his precious commodity; but a combination of these merchants to demand even the same price, would be an overt act against the commonweal, and an impediment to free trade. And so each one of the tailors who were prosecuted a short time since in one of our criminal courts, might lawfully have demanded any rate of wages he chose, and have withheld his labour until his condition of exchange had been complied with; but when they all united to accomplish that which was no more than the warrantable object of each, they were indicted for “a conspiracy to injure trade and commerce,” and the charge being proved by their overt acts, they were convicted and punished.
. . .
. . .The notions here expressed against the right to combine, are entertained by other intelligent journals, and very extensively among thinking men in the community. Yet we are satisfied that they are founded in errour, and that their natural tendency, if made a motive of political action, will be to institute the most oppressive and intolerable evils of legislation. The position which we maintain is, that men have a perfect natural right to do by combination, what they have a right to do by separate, unconcerted action; and that any laws to limit or abridge that right are necessarily arbitrary and tyrannous. Nay more, we are disposed to regard the principle of combination as the great natural bulwark of the rights of the poor and the oppressed, and, indeed, in many cases, as the only means which weakness has of resisting the aggressions of power, simplicity of craft, and unprotected labour, of the grasping selfishness of the rich.
The instances which are adduced in the foregoing article are easily answered. No man has a right to combine with others to do what he has not a right to do by separate action. He would not, therefore, have a right to combine to obstruct the streets, because he would not have a right to do so in his own individual person. His right to stand in the street from morning to night rests on the fact that his doing so does not obstruct it. But if you suppose a case where the standing in the street becomes a positive inconvenience to the publick, the individual so blocking up the way would be liable to be removed as a nuisance, and punished for committing it. The instance of the beleaguered city comes within that category of cases over which society, in its corporate capacity, has absolute control. The property of the flour dealers, in such an event, would be taken, not because of their combination, but because it was necessary to the publick preservation. It would be taken in virtue of that power which is inherent in all governments, of taking private property for publick use, when the exigences of state requires it. The case of the tailors, so far as they were punished merely for combination, was an exceedingly hard one, and violently outraged the universal publick sense of justice. So fa[r] as punishment was awarded to them for a breach of the peace, in attempting to overawe others by coercive measures, it was fully deserved. Two persons have a natural right to combine; but they have no right to compel a third to join their combination, or punish him for refusing to do so.
The position that, because money is an article of merchandize, the chartered money-changers have an unlimited right either to retain it in their own hands, or to ask what terms they please for it, is unsound; simply because such conduct would be in positive violation of their charters, and would forfeit all the privileges—abundantly large—which they really do possess under them. If the position were asserted of those who deal in money without a charter, it would undoubtedly be true, putting the usury laws out of question, as we trust they will, before many years, be put out of existence. But the New Era is mistaken in this: that the evil of which it complains, in terms not stronger than are warranted by its enormity, is chargeable to a combination of the banks, or any subordinate combination to which the banks supply the means of mischief. It is chargeable to those who institute those banks, who confer on them their special and exclusive privileges, and shut up all competition in the narrow and tyrannous bounds of ignorant and unjust legislation. We do not by any means deny that, if the whole monetary power of the country, or the whole and exclusive right of pursuing any other important branch of business, were conferred, by the supreme legislative authority, on a limited number of associations or individuals, a combination among those associations or individuals might be productive of the most disastrous effects. But we should charge those effects, not to the principle of combination, but to the hideous and paralysing principle of monopoly legislation. We should attempt to remedy the evil, not by erecting ineffectual dams and barriers against the desolating tide where it was hurrying along in swollen and irresistable fury, inundating the land with its waters of bitterness, but by tracing it to its source, and demolishing the monstrous impediments placed there by ignorance and fraud, to prevent its winding through its thousand natural channels, and force the whole volume with destructive rapidity in one particular direction. The principle of combination should not be charged with those evils which result from legislative restrictions upon competition. Let the New Era try the question by instances in which that principle alone operates, unmixed with legislative interference, in the shape either of bounties or impositions, and we think it will arrive at the same conclusion with ourselves.
We concede to our opponent, fully and freely, and have often so argued before, that combinations, for the most part, are exceedingly silly, and end in loss and discomfiture to those who combine. But this is a matter for the parties to judge of for themselves, and does not affect the question of right. The owners of all the packets to Liverpool, for example, have a perfect right to combine, and fix their own terms of freight and passage. If their combination was so regulated as not to require more for freight or passage than a fair return upon their investment of capital, they would not, by combining, provoke competition, any more than if each individual acted separately and for himself. Neither would the publick have any reason to complain. But the moment this combination produced the natural effect of increasing the demands beyond a just compensation, or diminishing the excellence of the accommodations, the public would complain, and the complaint, exciting the attention of ever ready enterprise, would lead rival competitors to establish opposition lines of packets. It would be precisely the same with money and credit, if those who deal, or who would deal in money and credit, instead of being circummured in the narrow limits of a pernicious system of legislation, were left solely to the government of the laws of trade. A few capitalists of vast wealth might combine together to raise the rate of usance; but all capital could not possibly be drawn into such a league, and competition would speedily demolish the baseless fabrick of avarice and cupidity. Even if such a league could be so extended as to embrace all the capital in the country, it would only provoke competition from abroad; and if it could be so extended as to embrace all the capital in the world, it would only provoke labour to form a counter combination.
What is combination? It is a mere league of trade between two or more individuals. It is a modified form of partnership. Every partnership is, indeed, a combination, and much more positive and stable, than those temporary and imperfect compacts now under consideration. The New Era would not deny the right of two or more individuals to form a partnership for any purpose of trade. Yet such a partnership might embrace the capitalists in the business of lending money; or the coal merchants in the business of selling coal; or the flour dealers in the business of selling flour. Where then would be the remedy of the community? In those simple principles which always govern trade. In the simple fact, that profit is the object of trade, and that, in order to insure it, price must bear a just proportion to the relations of supply and demand.
Combination is one of the great means by which the highest interests of society are promoted. What is it that raises the wages of the printers in your office to something like a tolerable equivalent for their patient toil? Is it the spontaneous liberality of their employers? Is it individual action? If they trusted to the efficacy of either of these, we fear their labour would be sadly unrequited. No, it is combination. It is the influence of associated effort and mutual coöperation. What is it that increases the pittance of the day labourer in some sort of proportion with the monstrous advance of other things, and enables him scantily to appease the cravings of hunger? It is combination, less effectual, in his case, because planned with less intelligence, and acted upon with less obedience to the terms of the compact, but still of sufficient efficacy to mitigate the evils which he would otherwise endure. What is it that has, in a great degree, banished the curse of intemperance from the land, and snatched myriads of human beings from all the complicated horrours it entails? Again we say, combination, the bulwark of the rights of the poor and lowly, and a powerful instrument in the hands of the good. It is an efficient weapon against the oppressor; but, like the sword bestowed by the good genius in the fairy tale, it shivers into fragments when drawn against the oppressed.
OMNIPOTENCE OF THE LEGISLATURE
April 1, 1837.
In one of George Colman’s metrical oddities,1 that writer advances the bold opinion that,
This seems, however, to be a great mistake. The wisdom of modern legislation is continually performing impossibilities. The laws of physics and metaphysics, of mind and matter, are every day abrogated by the laws of man, and the march of improvement is so rapid, that it would scarcely be surprising if the whole system of things should shortly be taken wholly under the control of our lawgivers.
Judge Soule, of our state legislature, has lately made a great step towards that consummation. He has introduced a bill to fix the value of money, under every variety of financial circumstances, at precisely seven per cent. a year, and he has framed its provisions with such profound sagacity, that money lenders and money borrowers will never attempt to evade them. This will be glad news to those who are at present paying three per cent. a month.
The notable project of Judge Soule provides that bonds, bills, notes, assurances, all other contracts or securities whatsoever, and all deposites of goods or other things whatsoever, whereupon or whereby there shall be received or taken, or secured or agreed to be reserved or taken, any greater sum, or greater value, for the loan or forbearance of any money, goods or other things in action, than the legal rate of seven per cent. per annum, shall be void; and any bond, bill, note, assurance, pledge, conveyance, contract, and all evidences of debt whatsoever, which may have been sold, transferred, assigned or indorsed upon, for or upon which any greater interest, discount or consideration may have been reserved, obtained or taken than is provided in the first section of the said title shall be absolutely null and void; and no part of any such contract, security or evidence of debt, shall be collectable in any court of law or equity. It also declares every violation of the provisions of the act to be a misdemeanor, subjecting the person offending to fine or imprisonment, or both.
There was a certain philosopher who spent his life in bottling moonbeams. Judge Soule seems to belong to the same school.
The Astronomer in Rasselas,2 by a long and attentive study of the heavenly bodies, at length discovered the secret of their governments, and qualified himself to direct their courses, and regulate the seasons. “I have possessed for five years,” said he to Imlac, “the regulation of the weather and the distribution of the seasons: the sun has listened to my dictates, and passed from tropic to tropic by my direction; the clouds, at my call, have poured their waters, and the Nile has overflowed at my command; I have restrained the rage of the dog-star and mitigated the fervours of the crab. I have administered this great office with exact justice, and made the different nations of the earth an impartial dividend of rain and sunshine. What must have been the misery of half the globe, if I had limited the clouds to particular regions, or confined the sun to either side of the equator!”
Judge Soule has now taken upon himself an office not less important in the financial system, than that of the learned astronomer in the planetary. He is for dividing the rain and sunshine of the money-market with an impartial hand, and giving equal portions to borrower and lender. In doing this he perhaps may be thought to carry the principle of equality to an undue extent, since it places all borrowers on a level, whatever the difference in the nature of the security they offer, or in the precariousness of the objects to which the loan is to be applied. But Judge Soule is too much of a philosopher to regard such slight circumstances of difference. He looks down on the money-market from such a height as reduces both bulls and bears to uniformity of stature.
The Astronomer, in Rasselas, confessed that there was one thing, in the system of nature, over which he had not been able to obtain complete control. “The winds alone,” said he, “of all the elemental powers, have hitherto refused my authority, and multitudes have perished by equinoctial tempests, which I found myself unable to prohibit or restrain.” We are afraid that the astronomer’s worthy prototype in our legislature will also find there is likewise one thing which is beyond his authority. Judge Soule will yet discover, we imagine, that the interest on money is as variable as the winds, and that as the latter sometimes whisper in zephyrs and sometimes rave in tempests, so the former, in spite of all his efforts will sink down and almost die away, and at others swell and rage to the tune of three per cent. a month.
It is a matter of astonishment to us that any man, having sense enough to recommend him to his constituents for a seat in the legislature, can be so blind as not to see that usury laws are essentially and necessarily unjust and arbitrary. The value of money depends on a thousand very varying contingencies, as much so as the value of any other commodity. A failure of our chief articles of export, either as to quantity or price, immediately increases the demand for money, and at the same time decreases the security of the borrower. An abundant crop and large prices have, as certainly, the opposite result. This is a difference which affects whole communities. The differences which distinguish individual borrowers are not less obvious. One has ample security to offer; another has none. One needs money to aid him in a pursuit which promises certain profit; another needs it to prosecute an enterprise of exceeding hazard, which, if successful, promises a large return, but if unsuccessful, leaves no hope of re-payment. One borrower, has health, activity and prudence; another is infirm, indolent and rash. Judge Soule is for making up a Procrustean bed for all alike, without reference to the variety of form and stature. We recommend him to the muse of Croaker, as a fit subject for poetic honours, and in the meanwhile apply to him a stanza addressed by that writer to a great leveller in another line:3
[* ]See preface to the American edition of Say’s Political Economy.
[1 ]William Bard was president of the New York Life Insurance and Trust Company, chartered in 1830.—Ed.
[1 ]Abraham Leggett, William’s father, attained the rank of major in the revolutionary war.—Ed.
[1 ]That is, stagecoaches.—Ed.
[1 ]That is, to prison.—Ed.
[1 ]Leggett here refers to the question of the federal government selling western land only to settlers. See “Sale of Publick Lands” and “The Meaning of Free Trade” above, p. 350 and p. 355.—Ed.
[1 ]Here abridged.—Ed.
[1 ]George Colman (the younger) was an English playwright and author of comic verse whose Poetical Works were published in their first American edition in 1834.—Ed.
[2 ]Rasselas (1759) is a tale by the English critic and essayist Samuel Johnson.—Ed.
[3 ]“Croaker” was a pseudonym used by Joseph Rodman Drake and Fitz-Greene Halleck for a series of satirical poems which appeared in the Evening Post in 1819. The stanza quoted is from “The National Paintings: Col. Trumbull’s ‘The Declaration of Independence’” by Drake.—Ed.