Sidebilder
PDF
ePub

Committee on the Herbert Baxter Adams Prize: Professor

Charles Gross, Harvard University, chairman; Professors George L. Burr, Victor Coffin, John M. Vincent, and James W. Thompson.

General Committee: Professor Henry E. Bourne, Western Re

serve University, chairman ; Professors Charles H. Haskins, Lucy M. Salmon, Lilian W. Johnson, John S. Bassett, William MacDonald, Frank H. Hodder, Franklin L. Riley, Benjamin F. Shambaugh, Reuben G. Thwaites, Esq., and Professor Frederick G. Young (with power to add adjunct members).

Finance Committee: James H. Eckels, Esq., Chicago, chairman,

and Peter White, Esq.

Committee of Eight on History in Elementary Schools: Pro

fessor J. A. James, Northwestern University, chairman; Superintendents E. C. Brooks, Wilbur F. Gordy, and J. H. Van Sickle, Professors Julius Sachs, Henry E. Bourne, and Henry W. Thurston, and Miss Mabel Hill.

OLD STANDARDS OF PUBLIC MORALS.1

WHOEVER reads the book-lists of publishers, whoever glances over the titles of new books displayed on the counters of the bookshops, must surely have remarked the extraordinary activity shown in recent years by writers on American history. Essays, travels, monographs, biographies of our great men of every sort from frontiersmen to presidents, histories of our country in many volumes, histories of the states, and scores of books on particular phases of our national life, have come from the press year after year in a steadily increasing quantity. It should seem at first sight as if every nook and corner of the broad domain of history must have been by this time fully explored. But a sifting of the output for ten years past leaves no doubt that back of much of this activity is pure commercialism ; that some of it is, after all, but a new threshing of the old straw; and that but little of it can be said to be inspired by a sincere desire to do better what has been done before. Meantime great fields of history have been left untilled. No writer has as yet thought it worth while to enrich our literature with an impartial, well-told story of the rise and fall of political parties. Much has been written concerning the political and still more concerning the military events of the great struggle for independence. But where shall we turn for a narrative of the doings and the sufferings of the people during that long period of strife and revolution ? No feature of our national existence is more fascinating than the westward movement of population, the great march across the continent. Yet we have no history of this migration-no account of the causes which led to it; of the paths along which the people moved ; of the economic conditions which now accelerated, now retarded it; of the founding of great states; of the ever-changing life on the frontier as the frontier was pushed steadily westward over the Alleghenies, across the valley of the Mississippi, and over the plains to disappear in our own day at the foot of the Rocky Mountains. We still wait for a history of the Continental Congress; for the man who shall compress within the limits of a single volume the history of our national life; for the man who within a like space shall tell the marvellous story of our economic and industrial development; and for the man who shall do for American what Mr. Lecky has so well done for European morals.

1 The President's address to the American Historical Association, December 26, 1905.

Such a work would indeed be an addition to our historical literature, and not the least interesting part of it would be that devoted to the study of public morals. The code of public morality which has at any time really been lived up to, in our country, is a great help to the understanding of the social and political conditions of that time. The sort of men who find their way into public life; the kind of government which prevails at any time or in any place; the acts done by Congresses, legislatures, city councils, municipal bodies of any sort, are just such as the mass of the people are content to have and often insist on having. What has been the conduct of the people when called on to meet great issues, where expediency, profit, prosperity stood on the one hand, and some principle of public morality on the other hand, is therefore very properly a part of our history, and sheds a flood of light on the phases of life which it is the duty of the historian to record.

Of struggles of this sort the annals of our country furnish many signal instances. When the Continental Congress which gathered at Philadelphia in May of 1775 found itself forced to assume the conduct of a war with the mother-country, it sought to pay expenses by an issue of bills of credit. The fatal step once taken, other issues followed fast and followed faster till depreciation brought the bills so low that to print one cost more than it was worth. On the faces of them were no solemn promises that they should ever be redeemed at any time or place. “This bill ”, so ran the wording, “ entitles the bearer to receive two Spanish milled dollars, or the value thereof in gold or silver, according to the resolution of the Congress held at Philadelphia on the tenth of May 1775." But that the bills should be redeemed at some time and place was the plain intent and expectation of both the Congress and the people. To doubt this intent, to deny that the Congress money was as good as gold, to refuse to take it at par, to refuse to take it at all, was rank toryism. For so doing scores of men were dragged before committees of safety, were reported to provincial congresses, were advertised as enemies of their country, were forced to submit under threats of imprisonment, and were stripped of their property without due process of law.

In the dark days when the British were marching across the Jerseys, when the fate of the rebellious colonies seemed trembling in the balance, Putnam put forth a proclamation warning the people of Philadelphia that if any man refused to sell his goods for continental money, the goods should be seized and the offender cast into prison ; Congress called on the Council of Safety for help, and the Council decreed that any man who would not take the Congress money should forfeit the goods for which the bills were offered, or cancel the debt for which the bills were tendered and pay a fine of five pounds Pennsylvania money.

Congress meantime had again and again solemnly promised that the bills should be redeemed. On June 22, 1775, it was resolved, " That the twelve confederated colonies be pledged for the redemption of the bills of credit"; on December 26, 1775, it was resolved, “ That the thirteen United Colonies be pledged for the redemption of the bills of credit "; and after independence was declared each issue was made “on the faith of the United States ", and the faith of the thirteen states was pledged for its redemption. When repeated issues had set afloat more than a hundred million dollars in paper, and men began to whisper that Congress never could and never would redeem it, Congress, on December 29, 1778, vigorously denied the imputation.

Whereas (said the resolution) a report hath circulated in divers parts of America that Congress would not redeem the bills of credit issued by them to defray the expences of the war, but would suffer them to sink in the hands of the holder, whereby the value of the said bills hath, in the opinion of many of the good people of these states, depreciated; and least the silence of Congress might give strength to the said report; Resolved, That the said report is false and derogatory to the honour of Congress.

But the report, unhappily, did not cease to circulate, and in September of 1779 Congress found it necessary to make its good name and credit the subject of a long and elaborate address to the people. In the course of it three questions were discussed: Has the faith of the United States been pledged for redemption of the bills? Are the United States in a condition to redeem them? Is there any reason to apprehend a wanton violation of public faith? In answer to this last question the language of Congress was most vigorous. From the enemy, it was said, had come the notable discovery that as the Congress made the money they also can destroy it; and that it will exist no longer than they find it convenient to permit it. . . . We should pay an ill compliment to the understanding and honour of every true American, were we to adduce many arguments to shew the baseness or bad policy of violating our national faith, or omitting to pursue the measures necessary to preserve it. A bankrupt faithless republic would be a novelty in the political world, and appear among reputable nations like a common prostitute among chaste and respectable matrons. The pride of America revolts from the idea: her citizens know for what purposes these emissions were made, and have repeatedly plighted their faith for the redemption of them; they are to be found in every man's possession, and every man is interested in their being redeemed; they must therefore entertain a high opinion of American credulity, who suppose the people capable of believing, on due reflection, that all America will, against the faith, the honour and the interest of all America, be ever prevailed upon to countenance, support or permit so ruinous so disgraceful a measure ... it is impossible that America should think without horror of such an execrable deed.'

Six months after this bold assertion was uttered the “execrable deed” was done. In March, 1780, the famous forty-for-one act was passed, forty dollars in bills of credit were declared to be equal to one in specie, provision for their redemption at this rate in new-tenor bills was made, and thirty-nine-fortieths of the continental paper debt was repudiated. “This ”, said Witherspoon, was “the first and great deliberate breach of public faith.”

The second was like unto it. Ten years passed away, and our country, a sovereign, free, and independent republic, had taken her place among the nations of the world. The old Articles of Confederation had been abandoned, and the Constitution framed and adopted. The people, as the phrase went, had come under the new roof. Congress had been given express power to pay the debts of the United States, and in 1790 undertook to fund those incurred by the Continental Congress, and to assume and fund those created. by the states in the war for independence. The old excuse that Congress could not tax, that the states did not respond to appeals for money, were no longer available, for Congress had ample power to lay taxes, duties, imposts, and excises. For a people living under a high standard of public morals the opportunity, it would seem, had come to wipe off a foul spot on the good name of America. But the chance was not made use of; and when the funding bill passed, it contained a provision for the redemption of the continental bills of credit at one cent in the dollar, and ninety-nine-hundredths of the debt was repudiated.

But the bills of credit were by no means the only kind of indebtedness. There were the loan-office certificates, the lottery tickets, the interest indents, the quartermasters' certificates, the commissary certificates, the final settlements with the soldiers, and many other sorts of paper acknowledgments of debt. What, it was asked, shall be done with these? Some were for funding them at their face-value in interest-bearing stock. Others, and a very considerable number of others, led on by Madison, insisted on discrimination between the original holder of the paper and subsequent takers. Where the certificate, the indent, the lottery ticket, was in the hands of the man who first received it, the obligation should be funded at the value expressed on its face. Where paper had passed from hand

1 Journals of Congress, September 13, 1779.

« ForrigeFortsett »