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ON THE SUB-TREASURY BILL, DELIVERED IN THE SENATE OF THE UNITED STATES, JANUARY 31, 1838.
"Let the Government attend to its own business, and let the people attend to theirs."
"Let the Government take care that it secures a sound currency for its own use, and let it leave all the rest to the States and to the people."
These ominous sentences, Mr. President, have been ringing in my ears ever since they were uttered yesterday, by the member from New York. Let the Government take care of itself, and let the people take care of themselves. This is the whole principle and policy of the administration, at the present most critical moment, and on this great and all-absorbing question of the currency.
Sir, this is an ill-boding announcement. It has nothing of consolation, of solace, or of hope in it.
It will carry through all the classes of commerce and business nothing but more discouragement, and deeper fears. And yet it is but repetition. It is only a renewed exhibition of the same spirit, which was breathed by the message, and the bill of the last session, of which this bill is also full, and which has pervaded all the recommendations, and all the measures of Government, since May. Yet I confess that I am not, even yet, so familiar with it, so accustomed to hear such sentiments avowed, as that they cease to astonish me. I am either groping in thick and palpable darkness myself, in regard to the true objects of the constitution, and the duties of Congress under it, or else these principles of public policy, thus declared, are at war with our most positive and urgent obligations.
The honorable member made other observations indicative of the same general tone of political feeling. Among his chosen topics of commendation of the bill before us, a prominent one was, to shelter the administration from that shower of imputations, as he expressed the idea, which would always beat upon it, as it beats now, when disasters should happen to the currency. Indeed! And why should the administration, now or ever, be sheltered from that shower? Is not currency a subject over which the power and duty of Government extend? Is not Government justly responsible for its condition? Is it not, of necessity, wholly and entirely under the control and regulation of political power? Is it not a matter, in regard to which, the people cannot, by any possibility, protect themselves, any more than they can, by their own individual efforts, supersede the necessity of the exercise, by Government, of any other political power? What can the people do for themselves to improve the currency? Sir, the Government is justly answerable for the disasters of the currency, saving always those accidents which cannot at all times be foreseen or provided against. It is at least answerable for its own neglect, if it shall be guilty of it, in not exercising all its constitutional authority for the correction and restoration of the currency. Why does it, how can it, shrink from this responsibility? Why does it retreat from its own duty? Why does it seek, not the laurels of victory, not the reputation even of manly contest, but the poor honors of studied and eager escape? Sir, it never can escape. The common sense of all men pronounces that the Government is, and ought to be, and must be, answerable for the regulation of the currency of the country; that it ought to abide, and must abide, the peltings of the storm of imputation, so long as it turns its back upon this momentous question, and seeks to shelter itself in the safes and the vaults, the cells and the caverns, of a sub-Treasury system.
But of all Governments that ever existed, the present administration has least excuse for withdrawing its care from the currency, or shrinking from its just responsibility in regard to it.
Its predecessor, in whose footsteps it professes to tread, has interfered, fatally interfered, with that subject. That interference was, and has been, the productive cause of our disasters. Did the administration disclaim power over the currency in 1833, when it removed the deposits? And what meant all its subsequent transactions, all its professions, and all its efforts, for that better currency which it promised, if in truth it did not hold itself responsible to the people of the United States, for a good currency? From the very first year of the late administration to the last, there was hardly a session, if there was a single session, in which this duty of Government was not acknowledged, promises of high improvement put forth, or loud claims of merit asserted, for benefits already conferred. It professed to erect the great temple of its glory on improvements of the currency. And, sir, the better currency which has been so long promised, was not a currency for the Government, but a currency for the people. It was not for the use of revenue merely, but for the uso of the whole commerce, trade, and business of the nation. And now, when the whole industry, business, and labor of the country, is harassed and distressed, by the evils brought upon us by its own interference, Government talks with all possible coolness, of the great advantage it will be to adopt a system, which shall shield itself from a thick-falling shower of imputations. It disclaims, it renounces, it abandons its duties, and then seeks an inglorious shelter in its professed want of power to relieve the people.
We demand the better currency; we insist on the fulfilment of the high and flattering promises; and surely there never was a Government on the face of the earth, that could, with less propriety, resist the demand; yet, we see it seek refuge in a bold, cold, and heartless denial of the competency of its own constitutional powers. It falls back km its own undertakings, and flatly contradicts its own pretensions. In my opinion, it can find no refuge, where the public voice will not reach it. There can be no shelter while these times last, into which Government can retreat, wherein it can hide, and screen itself from the loud voice of the country, calling upon it to come forth to fulfil its promises; or, at least, now that these promises are all broken, to perform its duties. The evils of a disordered currency are evils which do not naturally correct or cure themselves. Nor does chance, or good luck, often relieve that community which is suffering under them. They require political remedy; they require provision to be made by Government; they demand the skilful hand of experienced statesmen. Until some just remedy be applied, they are likely to continue, with more or less of aggravation, and no man can tell when or how they will end. It is vain, therefore, quite vain, for Government to hope that it may retreat from this great duty, shield itself under a system, no way agreeing either with its powers or its obligations, and thus escape reproaches, by attempting to escape responsibility.
Mr. President, there is fault, and failure somewhere. Either the Constitution has failed, or its administration fails. The great end of a uniform and satisfactory regulation of commerce is not answered, because the national currency, an indispensable instrument of that commerce, is not preserved in a sound and uniform state.
Is the fault in the constitution itself? Those who affirm that it is, must show how it was, if that be so, that other administrations, in other times, have been able to give the people abundant satisfaction in relation to the currency. I suppose it will be said, in answer to this, that the constitution has been violated; that it was originally misconstrued; that those who made it did not understand it; and that the sage and more enlightened politicians of our times see deeper, and judge more justly of the constitution, than Washington and Madison. Certain it is that they have more respect for their own sagacity than for all the wisdom of others, and all the experience of the country; or else they find themselves, by their party politics and party commitments, cut off from all ability of administering the constitution according to former successful practice.
Mr. President, when I contemplate the condition of the country; when I behold this utter breaking down of the currency; this wide-spread evil among all the industrious classes; this acknowledged inability of Government to pay its debts legally; this prostration of commerce and manufactures; this shocking derangement of internal exchange, and the general crash of credit and confidence; and when I see that three hundred representatives of the people are here assembled to consult on the public exigency; and that, repudiating the wisdom of our predecessors, and rejecting all the lights of our own experience, nothing is proposed, for our adoption, to meet an emergency of this character, but the bill before us, I confess, sir, the whole scene seems to me to be some strange illusion. I can hardly persuade myself that we are all in our waking senses. It appears like a dream — like some phantasy of the night, that the opening light of the morning usually dispels.
There is so little of apparent relation of means to ends; the measure before us has so little to promise for the relief of existing evils; it is so alien, so outlandish, so abstracted,so remote from the causes which press down all the great public interests, that I really find it difficult to regard as real what is thus around me.
Sir, some of us are strangely in error. The difference between us is so wide; the views which we take of public affairs so opposite; our opinions, both of the causes of present evils, and their appropriate remedies, so totally unlike, that one side or the other must be under the influence of some strange delusion. Darkness, thick darkness, hangs either over the supporters of this measure, or over its opponents. Time and the public judgment, I trust, will sooner or later disperse these mists, and men and measures will be seen in their true character. I think, indeed, that I see already some lifting up of the fog.
The honorable member from New York has said that wc hare now, already existing, a mode of conducting the fiscal affairs of the country, substantially such as that will be which this bill will establish. We may judge, therefore, h% says, of the future by the present. A sub-Treasury system, in lact, he contends is now in operation; and he hopes the country sees so much good in it, as to be willing to make it permanent and perpetual.
The present system, he insists, roust at least be admitted not to have obstructed or impeded the beneficial action of the immense resources of the country. Sir, this seems to me a most extraordinary declaration. The operation and energy of the resources of the country not obstructed! The business of the community not impeded! Why, sir, this can only be true, upon the supposition that present evils are no way attributable to the policy of Govern-, ment; that they all spring from some extraneous and independent cause. If the honorable member means that the disasters which have fallen upon us arise from causes which Government cannot control, such as overtrading or speculation, and that Government is answerable for nothing, I can understand him, though I do not at all concur with him. But that the resources of the country are not now in a state of great depression and stagnation, is what I had supposed none would assert. Sir, what are the resources of the country? The first of all, doubtless, is labor. Does this meet no impediment? Does labor find itself rewarded, as heretofore, by high prices, paid in good money? The whole mass of industry employed in commerce and manufactures, does it meet with no obstruction, or hinderance, or discouragement? And commerce and manufactures, in the aggregate, embracing capital as well as labor, are they, too, in a high career of success? Is nothing of impediment or obstruction found connected with their present condition?
Again, sir; among our American resources, from the very first origin of this Government, credit and confidence have held a high and foremost rank. We owe more to credit and to commercial confidence than any nation which ever existed; and ten times more than any nation, except England. Credit and confidence have been the life of our system, and powerfully productive causes of all our prosperity. They have covered the seas with our commerce, replenished the Treasury, paid off the national debt, excited and stimulated the manufacturing industry, encouraged labor to put forth the whole strength of its sinews, felled the forests, and multiplied our numbers, and augmented the national wealth, so far beyond all example as to leave us a phenomenon for older nations to look at with wonder. And this credit, and this confidence, are ihey now no way obstructed or impeded? Are they now acting with their usual efficiency, and their usual success, on the concerns of society?
The honorable member refers to the exchanges. No doubt, sir, the rate of foreign exchange has nothing in it alarming; nor has it had, if our domestic concerns had been in a proper condition. But that the internal exchanges are in a healthful condition, as the honorable member alleges, is what I can by no means admit. I look upon the derangement of the internal exchanges as the precise form in which existing evils most manifestly exhibit themselves. Why, sir, look at the rates between large cities in the neighborhood of each other. Exchange between Boston and New York, and also between Philadelphia and New York, is 1J a 2 per cent. This could never happen but from a deranged currency; and can this be called a healthful state of domestic exchange?
I understand that the cotton crop has done much towards equalizing exchange between New Orleans and New York; and yet I have seen, not many days since, that in other places of the South,