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

Michel Chevalier

Found in Society, Manners and Politics in the United States

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 …

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.”