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THE COAL QUESTION - 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 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.