« AnteriorContinuar »
in part its natural consequence, established for years in the minds of a great political party the notion,- it could hardly be called an opinion, — that paper currency of any sort is sure to work ruin. Under the domination of this party the general government in 1846 made specie its only currency, and left the paper, the currency of the people in three quarters of the States, to take care of itself. That this measure for the protection of the treasury was judicious, supposing it to be settled that the paper was to remain free from all control, few are now disposed to deny; but it involved an abdication of power over the part of the circulation which was of immediate importance to the mass of the community, and a confession of the insolubility of a great public question, which hardly has its. parallel.
The effect produced on our statesmen by thus drawing a line which left this whole subject in the exclusive province of State legislation, was disastrous. From 1846 to 1862 the study or discussion of currency and finance formed no part of the training of men for national politics. In the legislatures of the States questions of this class were dealt with by men of an inferior order, or by those who were only anxious to make their mark and go up into a broader field; but they had ceased to be national questions which could repay the political aspirants to national office for any considerable expenditure of time or thought. Congress had nothing to do with the currency, except to settle the weight and fineness of the coin, and government finance resolved itself into paying all demands in gold from a treasury which generally overflowed, and borrowing upon easy credit in any exceptional case of difficulty. It is not surprising that, when the war for the Union compelled the government to deal comprehensively and at short notice with questions of finance and currency in their most threatening form and on a gigantic scale, we had no leading man in public life who could speak upon them authoritatively or command general attention. The bald confessions of unfamiliarity with what had become the vital topics of the hour are a humiliating part of the record ; but what other outcome from our public history was possible? We need not characterize in detail the consequences of this misfortune. Victory came in season to avert the ruin with which the gross violation of the plainest economic principles threatened the nation, and the task of repairing the mischief and returning to specie was set before us. For eight years, however, it was overshadowed by the business of Southern reconstruction, and was habitually treated by men in public life as a topic of the second order, which could wait for settlement at a more convenient season, and as to which perhaps one need not yet make up his mind. The financial catastrophe of 1873 suddenly brought the currency question to the front, as one which must be answered if we would secure the return of stable prosperity; and the number of men, either in legislative or in executive position, who were then able to show that they had fairly investigated it and thought it out in the light of scientific principles, might almost be counted upon the fingers. The discussions which followed showed that the mass of public men were dealing with it, either with the audacity of unconscious ignorance or with the timidity of that which is conscious. The published debates exhibit our Congress for two sessions laboring painfully with sophisms which other countries disposed of half a century ago, and finally resorting to action which fails to be mischievous only because it has thus far been nugatory. The majority still drift upon the sea of doubt, without compass and without any directing impulse save such as may come from the veering gusts of popular feeling; and it is with this as the prevailing condition of opinion among the majority of our most conspicuous leaders on both sides, that we finish the first century of our national existence.
But that our statesmen have been incapable of taking any consistent action upon the currency question, and that every material interest is thus placed at the mercy of chance, is not, to our mind, the most serious evil resulting from this state of things. What appears to us most threatening is the sceptical turn thus given to opinion among the mass of our people. What is the ordinary voter to think of a subject which he himself finds dark, and as to which those whose opinion he is apt to follow either talk antiquated nonsense to him, or tell him that nothing is settled ? Add to this the fact that one half of the present political generation have come upon the stage since we abandoned specie, and have had no other experience to enlighten them, and we cannot wonder that the currency seems to the mass a subject on which mankind hare learned nothing, and that the plainest proposition of reason confirmed by history may any day be talked about as “an open question." The scepticism of searching inquiry is not to be feared ; but the incredulity of ignorance multiplies tenfold the difficulty of the task of restoring the financial health of the nation.
In the case of the currency question, then, it appears that the subject from the first came before our public men in a form which seemed to make its political bearings too important to be subordinated to any scientific treatment. The same might be said of the tariff discussion, which, apart from its inevitable complication with individual interests, has never failed also to present itself in such sectional or party relations as to make its settlement turn largely upon far other considerations than those of general principle. Whether this complication has been the result of some untoward chance, or has come from the errors of our statesmen themselves, we need not now inquire; in either case the effect is the same.
Under our form of government these two questions of currency and tariff cover most of the space within which those charged with national affairs have been called upon to investigate and apply economic laws. No doubt, important topics lie within the domain of State legislation ; but there the adoption of any general theory, however sound, has been impracticable from the nature of the case. It is a part of the price which we necessarily pay for the advantages of our federal system, that under it questions of essentially general interest, such as those of taxation, education, or poor-relief, are classed as merely local, and are therefore not subject to any one controlling authority. With the two great questions of national economy, then, prejudged or inextricably bound up with other issues, it is hardly surprising that our statesmen should have neglected the investigation of this subject, so that it is to-day easier to find well-read economists among our men of business than among public men of equally good general education, although the inducement to such pursuits should not properly be any stronger in one case than in the other.
It is necessary, however, to look deeper than this for the VOL. CXXII.— NO. 250. 10
reason of the general sterility of American thought upon this subject, and the failure of our scholars as well as statesmen to contribute their share in the progress made by the world. For the explanation of this we must look to the causes which have inade the progress of the United States so slow in philosophy, in the pure mathematics, and in abstract science generally, in philology, in the more recondite historical investigations, and in the higher generalizations in physics. Our position as a nation charged with the business of subduing a new world, and the rapid material development which has attended our success in this work, have given to our life for the greater part of the century an intensely practical aspect. Practical objects, and pursuits which are believed to be practical, have occupied the first place, almost as a necessity of our external conditions. It has been well remarked that some of our best achievements in natural science have been in those directions in which the promise of some material gain has afforded the stimulus, -as, for example, in economic geology, to which so powerful an impulse has been given by our eagerness to know the resources offered by our vast territory. Under such an influence as this it is but natural that the moral sciences should develop slowly. Nor could we expect that among these sciences political economy sliould outstrip the others. Broad as are its applications in the actual affairs of life, it is mastered and fruitfully studied best as an abstract inquiry. The thorough student soon finds that it is necessarily an investigation as to the direction which human volitions will take under given conditions, and that for its successful prosecution he must first direct his attention to the mind itself, finding in the complex phenomena of society the test but not the grounds for his conclusions. Especially has this been the necessary character of the study during the last century, while the work to be done was that of determining the fundamental principles of the science. Such a pursuit, at any rate in the stage from which it has hardly yet emerged, must needs appear remote from the present interests of a nation like ours, and could not offer an attractive field for scholars under the influence of a young and vigorous national life. Thus it has happened that not a few of our inquirers hare either been unwilling to recognize this essentially abstract character of the investigation, and so lave vainly sought to remodel the science, or else have strained its conclusions by the attempt to give them a practical bearing in advance of what their development would allow. In either case the wrong
road has been taken, and the result has been failure and disappointment. Hence, too, the occasional aspirations for an American political economy, or for a peculiarly national economy under any name, ending in nothing but fresh proof of the impossibility of stating the application of any scientific law under special conditions, until the nature of the law has first been thoroughly investigated, abstraction being made of all accidents of time, place, or disturbing influences.
Indeed, the strongly practical direction given to every pursuit in American life has not only served to turn our statesmen and scholars away from work in the field of political economy, but has also given a marked character to such work as they have done in that field. In the application of settled or accepted principles to special questions, particularly to questions of importance in politics, many of our writers have shown great skill. Examples of this kind of success in a narrowed field of definite practical relations may be found in the writings of Hamilton and Gallatin already referred to, in Henry Lee's report written in 1827 for the Boston committee in opposition to an increase of duties, in the valuable reports of Mr. Wells on the revenue system, in E. B. Bigelow's strong presentation of the protectionist argument, and in Grosvenor's application of the crucial test, “Does Protection Protect?” It is hardly too much to say that our best work is to be found in our pamphlets and occasional essays, and not in our systematic treatises, so powerful has been the stimulus of practical objects, and so weak the inducements to abstract philosophical inquiry. To the same influence must we ascribe the exceptional success sometimes attained in statistical inquiry, from the famous report of John Quincy Adams in 1821 on weights and measures, to some important discussions by Dr. Jarvis, and the admirable work done by General Walker on the census of 1870.
The fact must be taken into account, moreover, that deficiency in our comprehension of scientific reasoning and con