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Michel Chevalier on two kinds of political power in America, the Caesars and the Commissioners (1835)

The French economist Michel Chevalier (1806-1879) visited the United States in 1835 and observed that the power of the state governors (the Cæsars) were declining, while the power of the Commissioners of public works and banks were expanding rapidly:

In each State there are two authorities, distinct in their composition and their attributes. The one corresponds to the government in the European social system, to the old Cæsar. At its head is a magistrate who bears the old name of Governor, with the pompous title of commander-in-chief of the sea and land forces. This authority is reduced to a shadow. …

… by the side of the power of Cæsar, in political affairs, another regular authority is beginning to show itself, which embraces within its domain the modern institutions and new establishments of public utility, such as the public routes, banks, and elementary schools, that, in the United States, have acquired an unparallelled magnitude. Thus there are Canal Commissioners, Bank Commissioners, School Commissioners. Their power is great and real. The Canal Commissioners establish administrative regulations, which they change at will, without previous notice. They fix and change the rate of tolls; they are surrounded by a large body of agents, entirely dependent upon them and removeable at pleasure; they are charged with the management of large sums of money …

LETTER XXVI. POWER AND LIBERTY. (Richmond, Aug. 16, 1835)

In each State there are two authorities, distinct in their composition and their attributes. The one corresponds to the government in the European social system, to the old Cæsar. At its head is a magistrate who bears the old name of Governor, with the pompous title of commander-in-chief of the sea and land forces. This authority is reduced to a shadow. In the new States of the West, which have come into the world since the establishment of Independence, its attributes have been gradually suppressed, or rather the citizens have reserved the exercise of them to themselves. Thus the people itself appoint most of the public officers. The management of funds is rarely confided to the Governor, but is generally entrusted to a special board of Commissioners. The Governor has not the control of the forces of the State; strictly speaking, indeed, there are none; but in case of necessity, the Sheriff has the right to summon the posse comitatus, and to oblige all bystanders, armed or not, to render him assistance, and to act as police officers. There is no regular police, there are no passports; but nobody can stop at an inn without entering his name and residence on the register. This register is open to the examination of all in the bar-room, which is a necessary appendage of every public place, and there it remains at all times to be turned over by all. The bar-keeper fills, in fact, the post of commissioner of police, and the crowd that assembles in the bar-room to read the newspapers, smoke, drink whiskey, and talk politics, that is to say all travellers, would, in case of necessity, be ready to act the part of constables. This is real self-government; these are the obligations and responsibilities, that every citizen takes upon himself when he disarms authority. The power of the Governor, who was formerly the representative of royalty, the brilliant reflexion of the omnipotence of the proud monarchs of Europe, is crumbled to dust. Even the exterior of power has not been kept up; he has no guards, no palace, no money. The Governors of Indiana and Illinois have a salary of 1000 dollars a year, without a house or any accessories. There is not a trader in Cincinnati, who does not pay his head-clerk better; the clerks at Washington have 700 dollars a year.

This fall of power is to be explained by other considerations than those drawn from the principle of self-government. The ancient power was Cæsar, was military in its character. American society has denied Cæsar. In Europe, it has been necessary that Cæsar should be strong for the security of national independence; for in Europe we are always on the eve of war. The United States, on the contrary, are organised on the principle, that war between the States is an impossibility, and that a foreign war is scarcely probable. The Americans, therefore, can dispense with Cæsar, but we are obliged to cleave to him. Yet it is not to be inferred that they can and will long dispense with authority, or that they are even now free from its control. There is, in America, religious authority, which never closes its eyes; there is the authority of opinion, which is severe to rigour; there is the authority of the legislatures, which sometimes savours of the omnipotence of parliament; there is the dictatorial authority of mobs.

Still more; by the side of the power of Cæsar, in political affairs, another regular authority is beginning to show itself, which embraces within its domain the modern institutions and new establishments of public utility, such as the public routes, banks, and elementary schools, that, in the United States, have acquired an unparallelled magnitude. Thus there are Canal Commissioners, Bank Commissioners, School Commissioners. Their power is great and real. The Canal Commissioners establish administrative regulations, which they change at will, without previous notice. They fix and change the rate of tolls; they are surrounded by a large body of agents, entirely dependent upon them and removeable at pleasure; they are charged with the management of large sums of money; the sums that passed through the hands of the Pennsylvania Commissioners amounted to nearly [336] 23,000,000 dollars. They are certainly subjected to a less minute and rigourous control, than is extended to the most trifling affairs of our Board of Public Works or our Engineer Department. If they had had our financial regulations, our system of responsibility, our court of accounts, they would, certainly, have spent ten years more in executing the works entrusted to them, and they would have executed them no better and no cheaper. The Bank Commissioners in the State of New York, by the provisions of the Safety Fund Act, are clothed, by right, if not in fact, with a sort of dictatorship; they have, in certain cases, power of life and death over the banks.

About this Quotation:

Less well known than Tocqueville’s account of his travels to America in 1831-32 is the French economist and free trade advocate Michel Chevalier’s (1806-1879) Society, Manners and Politics in the United States which is a series of letters he wrote during his trip in 1835 to inspect the American system of public works for the French government (Tocqueville and Beaumont had been sent by the government to inspect the American prison system). Because of his training as an economist Chevalier had quite a different approach to describing life in America than Tocqueville as this quotation shows. It comes from Letter 26 on “Power and Liberty” which he wrote while he was in Richmond in August 1835. He is struck on the one hand by the weakness of the American state governor (who he calls “the old Cæsar”), who had once been “the representative of royalty, the brilliant reflexion of the omnipotence of the proud monarchs of Europe” but whose power in the Republic had “crumbled to dust.” On the other hand he noted the much greater power of the Commissioners who controlled the government regulated or monopoly public utilities such as infrastructure, the banks, and the public schools and whose authority had “acquired an unparallelled magnitude.”

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