Democratick Editorials: Essays in Jacksonian Political Economy
Evening Post, 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.
Evening Post, 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
Evening Post, 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.
Evening Post, 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
Evening Post, 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
Evening Post, 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,*68 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.
Notes for this chapter
That is, stagecoaches.—Ed.
End of Notes
Plaindealer, 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.