Conspiracy Nation -- Vol. 5 Num. 14

("Quid coniuratio est?")

By Gustavus Myers
(Condensed, from chapter 4)


The large amount of paper money, without any basis of value whatever, was put out at a heavy rate of interest. When the merchant paid his interest, he charged it up as extra cost on his wares; and when the worker came to buy these same wares which he or some fellow-worker had made, he was charged a high price which included three things all thrown upon him: rent, interest and profit. The banks indirectly sucked in a large portion of these three factors. And so thoroughly did the banks control legislation that they were not content with the power of issuing spurious paper money; they demanded, and got through, an act exempting bank stock from taxation.

Thus year after year this system went on, beggaring great numbers of people, enriching the owners of the banks and virtually giving them a life and death power over the worker, the farmer and the floundering, struggling small business man alike. The laws were but slightly altered. "The great profits of the banks," reported a New York Senate Committee on banks and insurance in 1834, "arise from their issues. It is this privilege which enables them, in fact, to coin money, to substitute their evidences of debt for a metallic currency and to loan more than their actual capitals. A bank of $100,000 capital is permitted to loan $250,000; and thus receive an interest on twice and a half the amount actually invested."

-+- The Workingmen's Party Protest -+-

It cannot be said that all of the workingmen were apathetic, or that some did not see through the fraud of the system. They had good reason for the deepest indignation and exasperation. The terrible injustices piled upon them from every quarter -- the low wages that they were forced to accept, often in depreciated or worthless banknotes, the continually increasing exactions of the landlords, the high prices squeezed out of them by monopolies, the arbitrary discriminations of law -- these were not without their effect. The Workingmen's Party, formed in 1829 in New York City, was the first and most ominous of these proletarian uprisings. Its resolutions read like a proletarian Declaration of Independence, and would unquestionably have resulted in the most momentous agitation, had it not been that it was smothered by its leaders, and also because the slavery issue long obscured purely economic questions. "Resolved," ran its resolutions adopted at Military Hall, Oct. 19, 1829,

in the opinion of this meeting, that the first appropriation of the soil of the State to private and exclusive possession was eminently and barbarously unjust. That it was substantially feudal in its character, inasmuch as those who received enormous and unequal possessions were lords and those who received little or nothing were vassals. That hereditary transmission of wealth on the one hand and poverty on the other, has brought down to the present generation all the evils of the feudal system, and that, in our opinion, is the prime source of all our calamities.

-+- Radicalism Versus Respectability -+-

The "Courier and Enquirer," owned by Webb and Noah, in the pay of the United States Bank, burst out into savage invective. It held the Workingmen's Party up to opprobrium as an infidel crowd, hostile to the morals and the institutions of society, and to the rights of property. Nevertheless the Workingmen's Party proceeded with an enthusiastic, almost ecstatic, campaign and polled 6,000 votes, a very considerable number compared to the whole number of voters at the time.

By 1831, however, it had gone out of existence. The reason was that it allowed itself to be betrayed by the supineness, incompetence, and as some said, the treachery, of its leaders, who were content to accept from a Legislature controlled by the propertied interests various mollifying sops which slightly altered certain laws, but which in no great degree redounded to the benefit of the working class. For a few bits of counterfeit, this splendid proletarian uprising, glowing with energy, enthusiasm and hope, allowed itself to be snuffed out of existence.

-+- The Panic of 1837 -+-

Passing over the Equal Rights movement in 1834 which was a diluted revival of the Workingmen's Party, and which, also, was turned into sterility by the treachery of its leaders, we arrive at the panic of 1837.

The panic of 1837 was one of those periodic financial and industrial convulsions resulting from the chaos of capitalist administration. No sooner had it commenced, than the banks refused to pay out any money, other than their worthless notes. For thirty-three years they had not only enjoyed immense privileges, but they had used the powers of Government to insure themselves a monopoly of the business of manufacturing money. In 1804 the Legislature of New York State had passed an extraordinary law, called the restraining act. This prohibited, under severe penalties, all associations and individuals not only from issuing notes, but "from receiving deposits, making discounts or transacting any other business which incorporated banks may or do transact." Thus the law not only legitimatized the manufacture of worthless money, but guaranteed a few banks a monopoly of that manufacture. Another restraining act was passed in 1818. The banks were invested with the sovereign privilege of depreciating the currency at their discretion, and were authorized to levy an annual tax upon the country, nearly equivalent to the interest on $200,000,000 of deposits and circulation. On top of these acts, the Legislature passed various acts compelling the public authorities in New York City to deposit public money with the Manhattan Company. This company, although, as we have seen, expressly chartered to supply pure water to the city of New York, utterly failed to do so; at one stage the city tried to have its charter revoked on the ground of failure to carry out its chartered function, but the courts decided in the company's favor.

At the outbreak of the panic of 1837, the New York banks held more than $5,500,000 of public money. When called upon to pay only about a million of that sum, or the premium on it, they refused. But far worse was the experience of the general public. When they frantically besieged the banks for their money, the bank officials filled the banks with heavily armed guards and plug-uglies {5} with orders to fire on the crowd in case a rush was attempted.

In every State conditions were the same. In May, 1837, not less than eight hundred banks in the United States suspended payment, refusing a single dollar to the Government whose deposits of $30,000,000 they held, and to the people in general who held $120,000,000 of their notes. No specie whatever was in circulation.

-+- The Resulting Widespread Destitution -+-

Now the storm broke. Everywhere was impoverishment, ruination and beggary. Every bank official in New York City was subject to arrest for the most serious frauds and other crimes, but the authorities took no action. On the contrary, so complete was the dominance of the banks over Government that they hurriedly got the Legislature to pass an act practically authorizing a suspension of specie payments. The consequences were appalling. New York City was filled with the homeless and unemployed. In the early part of 1838 one-third of all the persons in New York City who subsisted by manual labor, were wholly or substantially without employment. Not less than 10,000 persons were in utter poverty.

---------------------------<< Notes >>--------------------------- {5} "...plug-uglies..." plug-ugly: thug, tough; esp: one hired to intimidate.

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