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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

Paper Money Beneficial to the Laboring Classes

By Hugh Swinton Legaré (1797–1843)

[Born in Charleston, S. C., 1797. Died in Boston, Mass., 1843. From a Speech in the U. S. H. of R., Oct., 1837.—Writings of Hugh Swinton Legaré. 1846.]

I HAVE already remarked that one of the effects of an increasing currency is to a distribution of the wealth of society more favorable to the industrious classes of it—to confiscate, in a manner, the property of those who lived on fixed incomes, for the benefit of those who produce the commodities on which those incomes are laid out. It is for this reason that the radicals of England—Mr. Atwood, for example—are all strenuous advocates of paper money, and even of inconvertible paper. The idea that the poor are to gain by a return to metallic currency is, so far as I know, confined to their friends in this country, whose zeal is certainly greater than their knowledge. It is true, sir, that, among other disadvantages attending frequent fluctuations in the currency, it is said that wages are the last thing that rises in a case of expansion. And that may be so in countries where the supply of labor is greater than the demand, but the very reverse is most certainly the fact here where the demand—especially, when stimulated by any extraordinary increase, real or fictitious, of capital—is always greater than the supply. All price is a question of power, or relative necessity between two parties, and everybody knows that in a period of excitement here wages rise immediately, and out of all proportion more than anything else, because the population of the country is entirely inadequate to its wants. During the last year, for instance, the price of labor became so exorbitant, that some of the most fertile land in South Carolina, rice fields which have been cultivated a hundred years, were in danger of being abandoned from the impossibility of paying for it. Sir, as a Southern man, I represent equally rent capital and wages, which are all confounded in our estates—and I protest against attempts to array, without cause, without a color of pretext or plausibility, the different classes of society against one another, as if, in such a country as this, there could be any natural hostility, or any real distinction between them—a country in which all the rich, with hardly an exception, have been poor, and all the poor may be rich—a country in which banking institutions have been of immense service, precisely because they have been most needed by a people who all had their fortunes to make by good character and industrious habits. Look at that remarkable picture—remarkable not as a work of art, but as a monument of history—which you see in passing through the Rotunda. Two out of five of that immortal committee were mechanics, and such men! In the name of God, sir, why should any one study to pervert the natural good sense and kindly feelings of this moral and noble people, to infuse into their minds a sullen envy towards one another, instead of that generous emulation which everything in their situation is fitted to inspire, to breathe into them the spirit of Cain, muttering deep curses and meditating desperate revenge against his brother, because the smoke of his sacrifice has ascended to heaven before his own! And do not they who treat our industrious classes as if they were in the same debased wretched condition as the poor of Europe, insult them by such an odious comparison? Why, sir, you do not know what poverty is—we have no poor in this country, in the sense in which that word is used abroad. Every laborer, even the most humble, in the United States, soon becomes a capitalist; and even, if he choose, a proprietor of land, for the West with all its boundless fertility is open to him. How can any one dare to compare the mechanics of this land (whose inferiority in any substantial particular—in intelligence, in virtue, in wealth—to the other classes of our society, I have yet to learn) with that race of outcasts, of which so terrific a picture is presented by recent writers—the poor of Europe? A race, among no inconsiderable portion of whom famine and pestilence may be said to dwell continually—many of whom are without morals, without education, without a country, without a God! and may be said to know society only by the terrors of its penal code, and to live in perpetual war with it. Poor bondmen! mocked with the name of liberty, that they may be sometimes tempted to break their chains, in order that, after a few days of starvation in idleness or dissipation, they may be driven back to their prison-house, to take them up again, heavier and more galling than before:—severed, as it has been touchingly expressed, from nature, from the common air and the light of the sun; knowing only by hearsay that the fields are green, that the birds sing, and that there is a perfume in flowers. And it is with a race, whom the perverse institutions of Europe have thus degraded beneath the condition of humanity, that the advocates, the patrons, the protectors of our working men, presume to compare them? Sir, it is to treat them with a scorn, at which their spirit should revolt, and does revolt!