THE ATLANTIC MONTHLY,
A MAGAZINE OF LITERATURE, ART, AND POLITICS.
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VOL. I.—FEBRUARY, 1858.—NO. IV.
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THE GREAT FAILURE.
The crucial fact, in this epoch of commercial catastrophes, is not the stoppage of Smith, Jones, and Robinson,—nor the suspension of specie payments by a greater or less number of banks,—but the paralysis of the trade of the civilized globe. We have had presented to us, within the last quarter, the remarkable, though by no means novel, spectacle of a sudden overthrow of business,—in the United States, in England, in France, and over the greater part of the Continent.
At a period of profound and almost universal peace,—when there had been no marked deficit in the productiveness of industry, when there had been no extraordinary dissipation of its results by waste and extravagance,—when no pestilence or famine or dark rumor of civil revolution had benumbed its energies,—when the needs for its enterprise were seemingly as active and stimulating as ever,—all its habitual functions are arrested, and shocks of disaster run along the ground from Chicago to Constantinople, toppling down innumerable well-built structures, like the shock of some gigantic earthquake.
Everybody is of course struck by these phenomena, and everybody has his own way of accounting for them; it will not, therefore, appear presumptuous in us to offer a word on the common theme. Let it be premised, however, that we do not undertake a scientific solution of the problem, but only a suggestion or two as to what the problem itself really is. In a difficult or complicated case, a great deal is often accomplished when the terms of it are clearly stated.
It is not enough, in considering the effects before us, to say that they are the results of a panic. No doubt there has been a panic, a contagious consternation, spreading itself over the commercial world, and strewing the earth with innumerable wrecks of fortune; but that accounts for nothing, and simply describes a symptom. What is the cause of the panic itself? These daring Yankees, who are in the habit of braving the wildest tempests on every sea, these sturdy English, who march into the mouths of devouring cannon without a throb, these gallant Frenchmen, who laugh as they scale the Malakoff in the midst of belching fires, are not the men to run like sheep before an imaginary terror. When a whole nation of such drop their arms and scatter panic-stricken, there must be something behind the panic; there must be something formidable in it, some real and present danger threatening a very positive evil, and not a mere sympathetic and groundless alarm.
Neither do we conceive it as sufficiently expressing or explaining the whole facts of the case, to say that the currency has been deranged. There has been unquestionably a great derangement of the currency; but this may have been an effect rather than a cause of the more general disturbance; or, again, it may have been only one cause out of many causes. In an article in the first number of this magazine, the financial fluctuations in this country are ascribed to the alternate inflation and collapse of our factitious paper-money. Adopting the prevalent theory, that the universal use of specie in the regulation of the international trade of the world determines for each nation the amount of its metallic treasure, it was there argued that any redundant local circulation of paper must raise the level of local prices above the legitimate specie over exports; which imports can be paid for only in specie,—the very basis of the inordinate local circulation. Of course, then, there is a rapid contraction in the issue of notes, and an inevitable and wide-spread rupture of the usual relations of trade. But although this view is true in principle, and particularly true in its application to the United States, where trade floats almost exclusively upon a paper ocean, it is yet an elementary and local view;—local, as not comprising the state of facts in England and France; and elementary, inasmuch as it omits all reference to the possibility of a great fluctuation of prices being produced by other means than an excess or deficiency of money.[A] In France, as we know, the currency is almost entirely metallic, while in England it is metallic so far as the lesser exchanges of commerce are concerned; there is an obvious impropriety, therefore, in extending to the financial difficulties of those nations a theory founded upon a peculiarity in the position of our own.
[Footnote A: A failure of one half the cotton or wheat crop, we suspect, would play a considerable part among "the prices," whatever the state of the note circulation.]
If, however, it be alleged that the disturbances there are only a reaction from the disturbances here, we must say that that point is not clear, and Brother Jonathan may be exaggerating his commercial importance. The ties of all the maritime nations are growing more and more intimate every year, and the trouble of one is getting to be more and more the trouble of the others in consequence; but as yet any unsettled balance of American trade, compared with the whole trade of those nations, is but as the drop in the bucket. John Bull, with a productive industry of five thousand millions of dollars a year, and Johnny Crapaud, with an industry only less, are not both to be thrown flat on their backs by the failure of a few millions of money remittances from Jonathan. The houses immediately engaged in the American trade will suffer, and others again immediately dependent upon them; but the disturbing shock, as it spreads through the widening circle of the national trade, will very soon be dissipated and lost in its immensity. That is, it will be lost, if trade there is itself sound, and not tottering under the same or similar conditions of weakness which produced the original default in this country; in which event, we submit, our troubles are to be considered as the mere accidental occasion of the more general downfall,—while the real cause is to be sought in the internal state of the foreign nations. Accordingly, let any one read the late exposures of the methods in which business is transacted among the Glasgow banks, the London discount-houses, and the speculators of the French Bourse, and he will see at a glance that we Americans have no right to assume and ought not to be charged with the entire responsibility of this stupendous syncope. Our bankruptcy has aggravated, as our restoration will relieve the general effects; but the vicious currency on this side the water, whatever domestic sins it may have to answer for, cannot properly be made the scapegoat for the offences of the other side of the water. The disasters abroad have occurred under conditions of currency differing in many respects from our own, and we believe that if there had been no troubles in America, there would still have been considerable troubles in England and France, as, indeed, the financial writers of both these countries long ago predicted from the local signs.
The same train of remark may be applied to those who impute the existing embarrassments to our want of a protective tariff; for, granting that to be an adequate explanation of our own difficulties, it is not therefore an adequate explanation of those in Europe. The external characteristics of the phenomena before us are everywhere pretty much the same, namely,—a prosperous trade gradually slackening, an increasing demand for money, depreciation and sacrifice of securities, numerous failures, disappearance of gold, panic, and the complete stagnation of every branch of labor; and it should seem that the cause or causes to be assigned for them ought also to be everywhere pretty much the same. At any rate, no local cause is in itself to be regarded as sufficient, unless it can be shown that such local cause has a universal operation. But who will undertake to contend that the absence of a protective system here is enough to prostrate both Great Britain and France,—the nations which the same theory supposes to have been chiefly benefited by such deficiency? The scheme of free trade is often denounced by its opponents as British free trade; but we respectfully suggest that if its operations lead to so serious a destruction of British interests as is now alleged, the phrase is at least a misnomer. No! as the characteristics of the crisis are common to the United States, England, and France, so the causes of that crisis are to be sought in something which is also common to the United States, England, and France.
Now the one thing common to all these nations, and to all commercial nations, is the universal use of Credit, in the transactions of business. We conceive, therefore, that the existing condition of things may be most correctly and comprehensively described as a suspension of credit, and the consequent pressure for payment of immense masses of outstanding debt. This, we say, is the central fact, common to all the nations; and the solution of it, as a problem, is to be sought in some vice or disturbing element common to the general system, and not in any local incident or cause.
Credit has gained so enormous an extension within the last two centuries, that it may almost be pronounced the distinctive feature of modern times. It existed, undoubtedly, in ancient days,—for its correlative, Debt, existed; and we know, that, among the Jews, Moses enacted a sponging law, which was to be carried into effect every fifty years; that Solon, among the Greeks, began his administration with the Seisachtheia, or relief-laws, designed to rescue the poor borrowers from their overbearing creditors; and that the usurers were a numerous class at Rome, where also the Patrician houses were immense debtor-prisons. But in ancient times, when the chief source of wealth (aside from conquest and confiscation by the State) was the labor of slaves, and the principal exchanges were effected either by direct barter or the coined metals, the system of credit could not have been very complicated or general. As for the lending of money on interest, it appears to have been looked at askance by most of the ancients; and the prejudice against it continued, under the fostering care of the Church, far down into the Middle Ages. With the emancipation of the towns, however, with the splendid development of the Italian republics, with the noble commercial triumphs of the cities of the Hansa, credit was recovered from the hands of the Jews, and began a career of rapid and beneficent expansion. It was in an especial manner promoted by the magnificent prospects unfolded to colonial and mining enterprise in the discovery of the New World, by the stimulus and the facilities afforded to industrial skill by the researches of natural science, and by the emancipation won for all the activities of the human mind through the free principles of the Reformation. Thus, by degrees, credit came to intervene in nearly every operation of commerce and of social exchange, from the small daily dealings of the mechanic at the shop, to the larger wholesale transactions of merchant with merchant, and to the prodigious expenditures and debts of imperial governments. Credit by note of hand, credit by book account, credit by mortgages and hypothecations, credit by bills of exchange, credit by certificates of stock, credit by bank-notes and post-notes, credit by exchequer and treasury drafts, credit, in short, in a thousand ways, enters into trade, filling up all its channels, turning all its wheels, freighting all its ships, coming down from the past, pervading the present, hovering over the future, reaching every nook and affecting every man and woman in the civilized world.
Such is the extent of credit; but let it be remarked in connection, that, in all these innumerable and multifarious forms of it, in all the stupendous interchanges of Mine and Thine, the ultimate reference is to one sole standard of value, which is the value of the precious metals. The civilized world has adopted these as the universal solvent of its vast masses of obligation. It is assumed that some standard is indispensable; it is asserted to be the imperative duty of governments, if they would not make their exactions of taxes arbitrary, unequal, and oppressive,—if they would render the dealings of individuals mutual and just,—if they would preserve the property and labor of their subjects from the merciless caprices of the powerful, and keep society from reverting to a more or less barbarous state,—to supply a fixed and equable money-measure; and the majority of the governments have selected gold and silver as the best. As seemingly less changeable in quantity and value than anything else, as imperishable, as portable, as divisible, as both convenient and safe, the precious metals challenge superiority over every other product; and accordingly every contract and every debt is resolvable into gold and silver. From this fact, the reader will see at once the prodigious significance of those materials in the economy of trade, and the prime necessity that they should be not only uniform in value, but so equally distributed that they may be easily attainable when needed. Every change in their value is a virtual change in the value of the vast variety of obligations which are measured and liquidated by them; and every apprehension of their scarcity or disappearance, by whatever cause excited, is an apprehension of embarrassment on the part of all those who have debts to pay or to receive.
But it happens that this standard is not an accurate standard. It does not stand, while other things alone move, but moves itself; its value is changeable,—fluctuating from time to time according to the relation of supply and demand, and from place to place according to the perturbations of the trade of the world. Moreover, its very preeminence of function—the universality and the durability of its worth—renders it peculiarly sensitive to accidental influences, or to influences outside of the usual workings of trade. A great war or revolution occurring anywhere, the loss by tempests or frosts of an important staple, such as wheat or cotton, the fall and reaction consequent upon some great speculative excitement, are all likely to produce enormous drains or sequestrations of this valuable material. When the revolt of 1848 broke out in Italy, every particle of specie disappeared as effectually as if it had been thrown into the Adriatic or the mouth of Vesuvius; when the corn crop failed in England in 1846, the Bank of England lost ten millions of dollars in gold in less than nine days, and the country five times that in about a month; and in our own late experiences, with three hundred millions of gold among the people, we have seen it so put away, that no charm or bait could allure it from its hiding-places.
Need we go any farther, then, than these simple truths, to lay our finger on the primal fact which underlies all financial embarrassments and panics? The mass of the transactions in commerce rests upon credit; the solvent of that credit is gold; and gold has not only a sliding scale of value, but is apt to disappear when most wanted. While business is moving on in the ordinary way, it is more than ample for every purpose; but the moment any event arises, such as a rapidly falling market, inducing hurried sales, or a drain of specie, disturbing the general confidence, everybody gets apprehensive, everybody calls upon everybody for payment, and everybody puts everybody off,—till a feeling of sauve qui peut becomes universal.
If there were no currency anywhere but a metallic currency, this liability to sudden revulsions would still hang over trade, provided credit and paper tokens of credit continued to be the media of exchanges; and the instinctive or experimental perception of this truth, combined with other motives, is what has led men to their various attempts to provide a money substitute for gold and silver. Lycurgus, in Sparta, found it, as he supposed, in stamped leather; but modern wisdom has preferred paper. The degree of success attained by Lycurgus we do not know; but of the success of the moderns we do know, by some one hundred and fifty years of recurring disaster. There are some steeds that cannot be ridden; they are so fractious and intractable, that, put whom you will upon their back, he is thrown, and invent what snaffle or breaking-bit you may, they will not be held to an equable or moderate pace. And of this sort, judging by the past attempts, is Paper Money. All the ingenuity and efforts of the most skillful trainers of the Old World, and of the most cunning jockeys of the New, have been tasked in vain to devise an effective discipline and curb for this impatient colt. Paper Money either refuses to be ridden, and runs rampant away, or, if any one succeed in mounting him for a time, he performs a journey like that which Don Quixote took on the back of the famous Cavalino, or Winged Horse. In imagination he ascended to the enchanted regions,—but in reality he was only dragged through alternate gusts of fire and of cold winds, to find the horse himself, in the end, a mere depository of squibs and crackers.
Paper money has been issued, for the most part, on the one or the other of two conditions, namely: as irredeemable, when it has been made to rest on the vague obligation of some government to pay it some time or other in property; or as convertible into gold and silver on demand. But under both conditions it seems to have been impossible to preserve it from excess and consequent depreciation. Nothing would appear to be safer and sounder, on the face of it, than a money-obligation backed by all the responsibility and property of a government; and yet we do not recall a single instance in which an irredeemable government-money has been issued, where it did not sooner or later swamp the government beyond all hope of its redemption. No virtue of statesmanship is proof against the temptation of creating money at will. Even where there has been a nominal convertibility on demand of the bills of government banks, they have worked badly in practice. In 1637, for instance, the monarch of Sweden established the Bank of Stockholm; yet in a little while its issues amounted to forty-eight millions of roubles, and their depreciation to ninety-six per cent. In 1736, Denmark created the Bank of Copenhagen; but within nine years from its foundation it suspended redemptions altogether, and its notes were depreciated forty-six per cent. We need not refer to the extraordinary issues of French assignats, or of American continental money,—nor to the deluges of paper which have fallen upon Russia and Austria. During all these experiments, the sufferings of the people, according to the different historians, were absolutely appalling. One of these experiments of paper money, however, begun under the most promising auspices, and on a professed basis of convertibility, was yet so stupendous and awful in its effects, that it has taken its place as a Pharos in History, and is never to be forgotten. We refer, of course, to the banking prodigalities of the Regency of France, undertaken in connection with the scheme known as Law's Mississippi Bubble,—although the Bank and the Bubble were not essentially connected. We presume that our readers are acquainted with the incidents, because all the modern historians have described them, and because the more philosophical impute to them an active agency in the origination of that moral corruption and lack of political principle which hastened the advent of the great Revolution. Louis XIV. having left behind him, as the price of his glory, a debt of about a thousand millions of dollars, the French ministry, with a view to reduce it, ordered a re-coinage of the louis-d'or. An edict was promulgated, calling in the coin at sixteen livres, to be issued again at twenty; but Law, an acute and enterprising Scotchman, suggested that the end might be more happily accomplished by a project for a bank, which he carried in his pocket. He proposed to buy up the old coin at a higher rate than the mint allowed, and to pay for it in bank-notes. This project was so successful that the Regent took it into his own hands, and then began an issue of bills which literally intoxicated the whole of France. No scenes of stock-jobbing, of gambling, of frenzied speculation, of reckless excitement and licentiousness ever surpassed the scenes daily enacted in the Rue Quincampoix; and when the bubble burst, the distress was universal, heartrending, and frightful. With millions in their pockets, says a contemporary memoir, many did not know where to get a dinner; complaints and imprecations resounded on every side; some, utterly ruined, killed themselves in despair; and mysterious rumors of popular risings spread throughout Paris the terror of another expected St. Bartholomew.
In this case the phenomena were the more striking because they were gathered within a short compass of time, and took place among a people proverbial for the versatility and extravagance of their impressions. The French are an excitable race, who carry whatever they do or suffer to the last extreme of theatrical effect; and for that reason it might be supposed that the tremendous revulsions we have alluded to were owing in part to national temperament. But similar effects have been wrought, by similar causes, among the slower and cooler English, with whom commercial disturbances have been as numerous and as disastrous as among the French, only that they have been distributed over wider spaces of time, and controlled by the more sluggish and conservative habits of the nation. Some twenty years before Law made his approaches to the French Regent, another Scotchman, William Patterson, had got the ear of Macaulay's hero, William, and of his ministers, and laid the foundations of the great Bank of England. It was chartered in 1694, on advances made to the government; and gradually, under its auspices, the vast system of English banking, which gives tone to that of the world, grew up. Let us see with what results; they may be expressed in a few words: every ten or fifteen years, a terrific commercial overturn, with intermediate epochs of speculation, panic, and bankruptcy.
We cannot here go into a history of this bank, nor of the various causes of its reverses; but we select from a brief chronological table, in its own words, some of the principal events, which are also the events of British trade and finance.
1694. The Bank went into operation.
1696. Bank suspended specie payments. Panic and failures.
1707. Threatened invasion of the Pretender. Run upon the Bank,—panic. Government helped it through, by guarantying its bills at six per cent.
1714. The Pretender proclaimed in Scotland. Run upon the Bank,—panic.
1718-20. Time of the South-Sea Bubble. Reaction,—demand for money,—Bank of England nearly swept away,—trade suspended,—nation involved in suffering.
1744. Charles Edward sails for Scotland, and marches upon Derby. Panic. Run upon the Bank,—is obliged to pay in sixpences, and to block its doors, in order to gain time.
1772. Extensive failures and a monetary panic. The Bank maintains the convertibility of its notes for several years, at an annual expense of L850,000.
1793. War with France,—drain of gold,—Bank contracts,—panic,—failures throughout the country,—universal hoarding,—one hundred country banks stop,—notes as low as five pounds first issued,—general fall of prices.
1796. An Order in Council suspends specie payment by the Bank.
1799. Numerous failures,—chiefly on the Continent. The pressure in England relieved by an issue of Exchequer bills.
1807-9. Great speculations in flax, hemp, silk, wool, etc.
1810. Recoil of speculation,—extensive failures, and great demand for money.
1811. Parliament adopts a resolution declaring a one-pound note and a shilling legal tender for a guinea.
1814-16. Heavy losses and bankruptcies,—failure of two hundred and forty country banks,—the distress and suffering of the people compared to that in France after the bursting of the Mississippi Scheme.
1819. Law passed for the resumption of specie payments in 1823,—after a suspension of twenty-seven years.
1822. Great commercial depression throughout Europe,—agricultural distress,—famine in Ireland.
1824. Speculations in scrips and shares of foreign loans and new companies, to a fabulous amount.
1825. Recoil of the speculations,—run upon the banks,—seventy banks stop,—a drain of gold exhausts the bullion of the Bank.
1826. Depression of trade,—government advances Exchequer bills to the Bank.
1832. A run for gold,—bullion in the Bank again alarmingly reduced.
1834-7. Jackson vs. Biddle in America produces considerable derangements in England,—drain of gold,—great alternate contractions and expansions,—severe mercantile distress.
1844. Renewal of the Bank Charter, limiting its issues,—great speculations in railroad shares, to the amount of L500,000,000.
1845. Recoil of the speculations,—immense sacrifice of property.
1846. Drain of gold,—large importations of corn,—alarm.
1847. Drain of gold continues,—panic and universal mercantile depression,—Bank refuses discounts,—forced sales of all kinds of property,—the Bank Charter suspended.
1857. The experiences of 1847 repeated on a more injurious scale, with another suspension of the Bank Charter Act.
Now this record does not show a brilliant success in banking; it does not encourage the hopes of those who place great hopes in a national institution; for the Bank of England is the highest result of the financial sagacity and political wisdom of the first commercial nation of the globe. A recognized ally of the government,—at the very centre of the world's trade,—enjoying a large freedom of movement within its sphere,—conducted by the most eminent merchants of the metropolis, assisted by the advice of the most accomplished political economists,—sanctioned and amended, from time to time, by the greatest ministers, from Walpole to Peel,—it has had, from its position, its power, and the talent at its command, every opportunity for doing the best things that a bank could do; and yet behold this record of periodical impotence! Its periodical mischiefs we leave out of the account.
In the United States, we have suffered from similarly recurring attacks of financial epilepsy; we have tried every expedient, and we have failed in each one; we have had three national banks; we have had thousands of chartered banks, under an infinity of regulations and restrictions against excesses and frauds; and we have had, as the appropriate commentary, three tremendous cataclysms, in which the whole continent was submerged in commercial ruin, besides a dozen lesser epochs of trying vicissitude. The history of our trade has been that of an incessant round of inflations and collapses; and the amount of rascality and fraud perpetrated in connection with the banks, in order to defeat the restrictions upon them, has no parallel but in the sponging-houses. A Belgian philosopher, from the study of statistics, has deduced a certain order in disorder,—or a law of periodicity in the recurrence of murders, suicides, crimes, and illegitimate births; and it appears that a similar regularity of irregularity might be easily detected in our cyclic bank explosions.
With the sad experiences of other nations before us,—with the rocks of danger standing high out of the water, and covered all over with the fragments of former wrecks, we have yet persisted in following the old wretched way. What a humiliating confession! what a comment on the alleged practical discernment of this practical people! what a text for radicals, socialists, and all sorts of Utopian dreamers! If the mischiefs of these monetary aberrations were confined to a mere loss of wealth,[B] which is proverbial for its winged uncertainty, we might regard them as a seeming admonition of Providence against putting too much trust in riches; but they are to be considered as something infinitely worse than mere reverses of fortune: the disorders they generate shake the very foundations of morals; and while shattering the industry, they undermine the economy and frugality and rend the integrity of mankind. We doubt whether any of the great forms of evil incident to our imperfect civilization—the slave-trade, debauchery, pauperism—cause more individual anguish or more public detriment than these incessant revolutions in the value and tenure of property. Those afflict limited classes alone, but these every class; they relax and pervert the whole moral regimen of society; and if, as it is sometimes alleged, the present age is more profoundly steeped in materialism than any before,—if its enterprise is not simply more bold, but more reckless and prodigal,—if the monitions of conscience have lost their force in practical affairs, and the dictates of religion and honor alike their sanctity, it is because of the uncertain principle, the gambling spirit, the feverish eagerness, and the insane extravagance, which beset the ways of traffic. Living in a world in which days of golden and delusive dreams are rapidly succeeded by nights of monstrous nightmares and miseries, society loses its grasp upon the realities of life, and goes staggering blindly on towards a fatal degeneracy and dissolution.
[Footnote B: Yet this is not to be lightly estimated. Seaman, in his Progress of Nations says the direct losses by paper money, within the last century and a half, have equalled $2,000,000,000.]
The question, then, is, whether this melancholy march of things should be allowed to proceed, or whether we should strive to do better. Our good sense, our moral sense, our progressive instincts, conspire with our interests in proclaiming that we ought to do better; but how shall we do better? "Why," reply the great Democratic doctors,—Mr. Buchanan, the President, and Mr. Benton, the Nestor of the people,—"suppress the issue of small bank-notes!" Well, that nostrum is not to be despised; there would be some advantages in such a measure; it would, to a certain extent, operate as a check upon the issues of the banks; it would enlarge the specie basis, by confining the note circulation to the larger dealers, and so exempt the poorer and laboring classes from the chances of bank failures and suspensions. But if these gentlemen suppose that the extrusion of small notes would be in any degree a remedy for overtrading, or moderate in any degree the disastrous fluctuations of which everybody complains, they have read the history of commerce only in the most superficial manner. Speculations, overtrading, panics, money convulsions, occur in countries where small notes are not tolerated, just as they do in countries where they are; and they occur in both without our being able to trace them always to the state of the currency. The truth is, indeed, that nearly all the great catastrophes of trade have occurred in times and places when and where there were no small notes. Every one has heard of the tulip-mania of Holland,—when the Dutchmen, nobles, farmers, mechanics, sailors, maid-servants, and even chimney-sweeps and old-clothes-women, dabbled in bulbs,—when immense fortunes were staked upon the growth of a root, and the whole nation went mad about it, although there was never a bank nor a paper florin yet in existence.[C] Every one has heard of the great South-Sea Bubble in England, in 1719, when the stock of a company chartered simply to trade in the South Seas rose in the course of a few weeks to the extraordinary height of eight hundred and ninety per cent., and filled all England with an epidemic frenzy of gambling, so that the recoil ruined thousands upon thousands of persons, who dragged down with them vast companies and institutions.[D] Yet there was not a banknote in England, at that time, for less than twenty pounds, or nearly a hundred dollars.
[Footnote C: Mackay's History of Popular Delusions.]
[Footnote D: Doubleday's Financial History of England, p. 93.]
More recent revulsions are still more to the point. In 1825, in England, there were enormous speculations in joint-stock enterprises and foreign loans. Some five hundred and thirty-two new companies were formed, with a nominal capital of about $2,200,000,000, and Greek, Austrian, and South American loans were negotiated, to the extent of $275,000,000. Scarcely one of these companies or of these loans ever paid a dividend; and the consequence was a general destruction of credit and property, and a degree of distress which was compared to the terrible sufferings inflicted by the Mississippi and the South-Sea Bubbles. Yet there were no bank-notes in circulation in England under five pounds, or twenty-five dollars. Again, our readers may recall the monstrous overtrading in railroad shares in the years 1845-6. Projects involving the investment of L500,000,000 were set on foot in a very little while; the contagion of purchasing spread to all the provincial towns; the traditionally staid and sober Englishman got as mad as a March hare about them; Mr. Murdle reigned triumphant; and, in the end, the nation had to pay for its delirium with another season of panic, misery, and ruin. Yet during all this excitement there were not only no small notes in circulation, but, what is most remarkable, there was no unusual increase in the issues of the banks, of any kind.
Let us not hope too much, therefore, from the suppression of small notes, should that scheme be carried into effect; let us not delude ourselves with the expectation that it will prove a satisfactory remedy, in any sense, for the periodical disease of the currency; for its benefits, though probable, must be limited.[E] It is a remedy which merely plays round the extremities of the disorder, without invading the seat of it at all.
[Footnote E: It is very curious, that, while our leaders are in favor of exorcising small notes, many of the French and English Liberals are calling for an issue of them!]
We have endeavored, in the foregoing remarks, to point out (for our limits do not allow us to expound) two things: first, that in the universal modern use of credit as the medium of exchanges,—which credit refers to a standard in itself fluctuating,—there is a liability to certain critical derangements, when the machinery will be thrown out of gear, if we may so speak, or when credit will dissolve in a vain longing for cash; and, second, that in the paper-money substitutes which men have devised as a provision against the consequences of this liability, they have enormously aggravated, instead of counteracting or alleviating the danger. But if these views be correct, the questions to be determined by society are also two, namely: whether it be possible to get rid of these aggravations; and whether credit itself may not be so organized as to be self-sufficient and self-supporting, whatever the vagaries of the standard. The suppression of small notes might have a perceptible effect in lessening the aggravations of paper, but it would not touch the more fundamental point, as to a stable organization of credit. Yet it is in this direction, we are persuaded, that all reformatory efforts must turn. Credit is the new principle of trade,—the nexus of modern society; but it has scarcely yet been properly considered. While it has been shamefully exploited, as the French say, it has never been scientifically constituted.
Neither will it be, under the influence of the old methods,—not until legislators and politicians give over the business of tampering with the currency,—till they give over the vain hope of "hedging the cuckoo," to use Locke's figure,—and the principle of FREEDOM be allowed to adjust this, as it has already adjusted equally important matters. Let the governments adhere to their task of supplying a pure standard of the precious metals, and of exacting it in the discharge of what is due to them, if they please; but let them leave to the good sense, the sagacity, and the self-interest of Commerce, under the guardianship of just and equal laws, the task of using and regulating its own tokens of credit. Our past experiments in the way of providing an artificial currency are flagrant and undeniable failures; but as it is still possible to deduce from them, as we believe, ample proof of the principle, that the security, the economy, and the regularity of the circulation have improved just in the degree in which the entire money business has been opened to the healthful influences of unobstructed trade,—so we infer that a still larger liberty would insure a still more wholesome action of the system. The currency is rightly named the circulation, and, like the great movements of blood in the human body, depends upon a free inspiration of the air.
Under a larger freedom, we should expect Credit to be organized on a basis of MUTUAL RESPONSIBILITY AND GUARANTY, which would afford a stable and beautiful support to the great systolic and disastolic movements of trade; that it would reduce all paper emissions to their legitimate character as mere mercantile tokens, and liberate humanity from the fearful debaucheries of a factitious money; and that Commerce, which has been compelled hitherto to sit in the markets of the world, like a courtesan at the gaming-table, with hot eye and panting chest and painted cheeks, would be regenerated and improved, until it should become, what it was meant to be, a beneficent goddess, pouring out to all the nations from her horns of plenty the grateful harvests of the earth.
THE BUSTS OF GOETHE AND SCHILLER.
This is GOETHE, with a forehead Like the fabled front of Jove; In its massive lines the tokens More of majesty than love.
This is SCHILLER, in whose features, With their passionate calm regard, We behold the true ideal Of the high heroic Bard,
Whom the inward world of feeling And the outward world of sense To the endless labor summon, And the endless recompense.
These are they, sublime and silent, From whose living lips have rung Words to be remembered ever In the noble German tongue:
Thoughts whose inspiration, kindling Into loftiest speech or song, Still through all the listening ages Pours its torrent swift and strong.
As to-day in sculptured marble Side by side the Poets stand, So they stood in life's great struggle, Side by side and hand to hand,
In the ancient German city, Dowered with many a deathless name, Where they dwelt and toiled together, Sharing each the other's fame:
One till evening's lengthening shadows Gently stilled his faltering lips, But the other's sun at noonday Shrouded in a swift eclipse.
There their names are household treasures, And the simplest child you meet Guides you where the house of Goethe Fronts upon the quiet street;
And, hard by, the modest mansion Where full many a heart has felt Memories uncounted clustering Round the words, "Here Schiller dwelt."
In the churchyard both are buried, Straight beyond the narrow gate, In the mausoleum sleeping With Duke Charles in sculptured state.
For the Monarch loved the Poets, Called them to him from afar, Wooed them near his court to linger, And the planets sought the star.
He, his larger gifts of fortune With their larger fame to blend, Living, counted it an honor That they named him as their friend;
Dreading to be all-forgotten, Still their greatness to divide, Dying, prayed to have his Poets Buried one on either side.
But this suited not the gold-laced Ushers of the royal tomb, Where the princely House of Weimar Slumbered in majestic gloom.
So they ranged the coffins justly, Each with fitting rank and stamp, And with shows of court precedence Mocked the grave's sepulchral damp.
Fitly now the clownish sexton Narrow courtier-rules rebukes; First he shows the grave of Goethe, Schiller's next, and last—the Duke's.
Vainly 'midst these truthful shadows Pride would daunt her painted wing; Here the Monarch waits in silence, And the Poet is the King!
THE LIBRARIAN'S STORY.
Librarians are a singular class of men,—or rather, a class of singular men. I choose the latter phrase, because I think that the singularities do not arise from the employment, but characterize the men who are most likely to gravitate toward it. A great philosopher, whom nobody knows, once stated the Problem of Humanity thus: "There are two kinds of people,—round people, and three-cornered people; and two kinds of holes,—round holes, and three-cornered holes. All mysterious providences, misfortunes, dispensations, evils, and wrong things generally, are attributable to this cause, namely, that round people get into three-cornered holes, and three-cornered people get into round holes." The librarian is not only a three-cornered person, but a many-cornered one,—a human polyhedron. And he is in his right place,—a many-cornered man in a many-cornered hole; especially if the hole be like that which I am thinking of,—an Historical Library.
The only bibliothecarian peculiarity in point at present is, a gift to root up, (country boys, speaking of pigs, say rootle; it is more onomatopoeian,) to rootle up the most obscure and useless pieces of information; not, like Mr. Nadgett, to work them into a chain of connected evidence for some actual purpose, but merely to know them, to possess a record of them, either as found in some printed or manuscript document, or as recorded by the librarian himself; and to keep the record pickled away in some place where it will be as little likely as possible to be found or read by anybody else.
So much concerning Librarians; a word now about Character.
Bad blood is hereditary. I don't mean scrofulous, but wicked blood. Vicious tendencies pass down in a family, appearing in the most various manifestations, until at last the evil of the race works its only possible remedy, by resulting in its extinction. There is, in some sense, an absolute unity amongst the successive generations of those of one blood; at least, so much so that our feeling of poetical justice is rather gratified than otherwise when the crimes of one are avenged, it may be a century after, upon the person of another of the name. This was the truth which underlay the vast gloomy fables of the ancient Fates, and the stories of the inevitable destruction of the great ancient houses of Greece. It is the same which the Indian feels when he revenges upon one of the white race the wrongs inflicted by another. Succession in time does not interfere with the stern promise of Jehovah to visit the sins of the fathers upon the children.—The reader will see presently how I have been led into this train of reflection.
My predecessor in office had a strong fancy for Numismatology. I have, too; nobody would more enjoy a vast collection of coins; but, oddly enough, I should prefer contemporary ones. He was simple and almost penurious in personal expenditure; yet, besides a great collection of books, he had, from his scanty income, got together, in the course of a long life, a large and very valuable collection of coins and medals, especially rich in gold. These coins lay—they do not now, for I assure you I keep them pretty carefully out of sight latterly—luxuriously imbedded in a neat case, among the great collection of antique objects, weapons, ornaments, furniture, clothing, etc., which usually accumulate within the precincts of an Historical Society's Library.
In the one under my charge there is an astonishing number of them; and naturally, where the long series of the ancient Indian wars, and later ones with civilized foes, form together so strong a strand in the thread of our history, there is a very great number proportionally of warlike weapons.
I like to read old books, both ex officio and ex natura. But I need not enlarge upon this liking. For my part, however, they please me most when I am wholly alone, in that deep silence which by listening you can seem to hear, and in a place well furnished,—especially in such a place as the Historical Library is, with many full bookshelves, and a great multitude of ancient portraits, grim curiosities, and weapons of war.
It may be unfortunate to be sensitive, but I am. The few things that do excite me excite me easily, and by virtue of the trooping together and thronging on of the procession of my own imaginations, thus awakened, I am prone to reveries of the most various complexion.
In one of the secret repositories where during his latter years my venerable predecessor used with senile cunning to hide, indiscriminately, the coins of the Romans and of the Yankees, rags, bottles of rhubarb and magnesia, books, papers, and buttons, I had found, one night, an ancient MS. I had been all the evening reading a High-German Middle-Age volume, illustrated with wood-cuts, cut as with a hatchet, and being, as per title-page, Julius der erste Roemische Kayser, von seinen Kriegen,—"Julius the first Roman Emperor, of his Wars."
Buried in the extraordinary adventures of the Kayser, not to be found in any Roman historian, and full of quaint and ludicrous jumbles of the ancient and the modern, I was suddenly stopped by finding that the last folios were missing.
After a moment of ineffectual vexation, I bethought me of several repositories in which I had seen portions of debris,—leaves, covers, brazen bosses, and other membra disjecta; in one of these I might very probably find the missing pages.
I fumbled through half a dozen; did not find what I sought, but did find the aforesaid MS. I was interested at once by the close but clear penmanship, and by the date, February 29, 1651/2; for this day, by its numeral, would be in leap-year, according to old style, but not according to new. How did they settle it? I asked; and what was to determine for lovelorn maidens, whether they might or might not use the privilege of the year?
I returned to my desk, and sat down to read; and, as I remember, the heavy bell of the First Church, close by, just then struck eleven, and I listened with pleasure to the long, mellow cadence of the reverberations after each deliberate and solid stroke.
Beginning at the beginning, I read until past midnight. The contents, after all, were not remarkable. It was a collection of copies of papers relating to various matters of accounts and law, all pertaining to a certain Beardsley family, of high and ancient fame in the Colony, and afterwards in the State. Somewhat beyond the middle, however, I lighted upon a document which attracted my more particular attention. It was a transcript from the State Records, and, as the date showed, from a very early volume of them, now missing from the office of the Secretary of State. It immediately occurred to me that this volume was strongly suspected to have been purloined by one Isaac Beardsley, an unscrupulous man, of some influence, who used, for amusement, to potter about in various antiquarian enterprises of no moment, but who had now been dead for some fifteen years. I then also recollected that he had an only child, a graceless gallows-bird of a son, who broke his father's heart, then wasted his substance in riotous living, and, after being long a disgrace and nuisance at home, had sunk out of sight amid the lowest strata of vice and crime in New York.
The document was a complaint to the "Generall Court" against "Goodman Joab Brice"—the complainant being designated by the honorable prefix of "Mr."—"for y't hee, the s'd Goodman Brice, had sayd in y'e hearing of" various persons mentioned, "and to the verry face of y'e s'd Mr. Isaac Beardslie, y't y'e s'd Mr. Beardslie did grind y'e faces of the poor, and had served him, the s'd Brice, worse than anie Turk w'd serve his slaves; and this with fearfull and blasphemous curses, and prayres that God would return evill upon the heads of this complaynant and his children after him," etc.
The transcript was long, alleging various similar offences. Its perusal recalled to my mind several hints and obscure allusions, and one or two brief histories of the proceedings in this case, which may be found in ancient books relating to the Colony. These proceedings between Beardsley and Brice were famous in their day, and were thought little creditable to the head of the Beardsley family. That he himself partook of the general opinion is shown by the circumstance that the matter was diligently hushed up in that day; and those most familiar with the ancient records of the State averred, that upon the pages of the missing volume was spread matter amply sufficient to account for its theft and destruction by the late Col. Isaac Beardsley.
The details of this ancient quarrel have perished out of remembrance. The chief substance of it was, however, a lawsuit which ended in the rich man's obtaining possession of the poor man's land. Brice, a yeoman of vindictive, obstinate, and fearless character, had insulted his opponent, who was a magistrate, had threatened his life, and otherwise so bore himself that his oppressor procured him to be whipped at the cart's tail, and to be held to give large sureties for the peace, with the alternative penalty of banishment. The bitter vehemence of Brice's curses was remarkable even among the dry phrases of the complaint; and tradition relates that his fearful imprecations even caused his dignified opponent, the magistrate, to turn pale and tremble.
I was sure, too, that among the stores of the Library I had seen some memorial of Brice as well as of Beardsley; but could not at the time call up any remembrance more definite than an impression that this memorial was something which had belonged to a descendant of Joab Brice, who had been in his youth a soldier in the old French War, and later a subaltern in the "State line" during the Revolution.
The Library room, in which I was reading, is a large, lofty hall, fitted with dark bookcases, heavy and huge as if for giants, singularly perfect in point of inconvenience and inaccessibility, and good only in that they bore a certain architectural proportion to the great height and expanse of the dark room. My desk was so placed that my back was toward the entrance, which was the balustraded opening, in the Library floor, of a wide staircase; and close at my side and before me were racks with muskets and spears, cases of curiosities, and other appurtenances of the room. It being now past the middle of the night, when sleep is heaviest, the stillness was perfect. My two shaded lamps made a small sphere of dusky yellow light, which I felt to be surrounded and, as it were, compressed by the thick darkness, which I could easily fancy to be something tangible and heavy, settling noiselessly down from beneath the lofty arches of the roof. The ancient penmanship and curious contents of the faded pages before me carried my thoughts backward into the old Colonial times, with their rigid social distinctions, lofty manners, and ill-concealed superstition; and I mused upon grim old magistrates, wizened witches, stately dames, rugged Indian-fighters, and all their strange doings and sayings in the ancient days, until, between drowsiness and imagining, I fell into a tangled labyrinth of romance, history, and reverie.
Then all at once I seemed half to awake, and fell into one of those fits of foolish nervous apprehension to which many even of the coolest and bravest are liable in deep solitude and darkness,—and if they, how much more an excitable person like myself! My heart throbbed for no reason, and, sitting with my head bowed down upon my hands, I fancied the most impossible dangers,—of men taking aim at me with the antique firearms out of the far dark corners, or casting heavy weights upon me through the skylight overhead. How easily, I fancied, could it happen. Did not the cellar-door open just now?
I half arose, almost frightened. I believe I should have taken an old rapier and a light and gone to look, but for very shame. And besides, there were two thick floors between me and the door, and that itself was set in the heavy wall between the cellar of this wing of the building and that under its main body; so that if it had been opened, I could not have heard it. Accordingly I resumed my posture and my painful intense musing. But now I could have almost sworn that I heard soft steps coming up the staircase, and whispers floating upon the air of the great solitary room:—I did!
But not soon enough. At the sound of a distinct, heavy footstep behind me, I sprang up and turned about, but only to find myself pinioned by one of the arms of a rough-looking, vicious-faced man, who pressed his other hand tightly over my mouth. A confederate was busy at the case of coins.
Although only a librarian, I have in my day been something of an athlete; much more than the person who had rushed into so sudden an intimacy reckoned upon. And I was pretty well strung up, too, with my nonsensical fancies.
Being face to face with me, therefore, my assailant had mastered my right arm, and was clasping my back with his left hand, while his right was over my month. So driving back my left elbow, I struck him a sharp and cruel blow in the right side, just above the hip-bone. It is a bad place to strike; I would not hit there, unless unfairly attacked. The sudden pain jerked a groan out of him, and surprised him into slackening his hold; so that I wrenched myself loose, and gave him a straight, heavy, right-hand hit in the nose, sending him reeling against the old chest that came over in the Mayflower, which saved him from a fall.
At one and the same moment, both the thieves drew knives and made at me together, and I, springing backwards, seized from the wooden rack of weapons the first which my hand reached. It was a musket. Instinctively, for there was no time to reason, I cocked, presented in a sort of charge-bayonet attitude, the only one possible, and pulled trigger. The old weapon went off with a deafening report, sending out a blinding sheet of flame in the darkness. One thief fell headlong at my very feet; the other, turning, fled blindly towards the staircase. I ought to have caught him; but, in the unreflecting anger of the moment, coming up with him at the stair-head, I struck at him with such good will and good effect, that he fell down stairs faster than I cared to chase him in the dark. Scrambling up at the bottom, he hurried out by the way he had come, and fled; while I returned to my prisoner.
He was quite dead. The charge, a bullet, had passed in just above the region of the heart, killing him instantly. I searched him, but found only a knife, a little money, and some tobacco; nothing which could identify him. He was well-made, middle-aged, and of a thoroughly vile and repulsive countenance.
The necessary legal formalities were gone through as quickly and quietly as possible, and the entrances by which the burglars had come in well secured. They had evidently reconnoitred within and without the building during the day, and selected a back way into the cellar, through which they found no trouble in ascending to the Library.
Some days afterwards, I bethought me to examine the old musket. It was a heavy, old-fashioned "queen's arm," with no unusual marks, as I thought; but upon a silver plate, let into the hollow of the butt, I found, coarsely and strongly engraved, "JOAB BRYCE, 1765."
Upon mentioning this circumstance to our Recording Secretary, and wondering how the gun came to be loaded, he told me that the fault was his. The weapon, he said, had been deposited in the Library by a son of the old revolutionary soldier; and he added, that this son had informed him that the old man, who seems to have inherited something of the peculiar traits of his ancient race, having had this charge in his gun at the conclusion of the siege of Yorktown, where he was present with a New England regiment, had managed afterwards to avoid discharging or drawing it, and had left it by will to his eldest son to be kept loaded as it was; with the strange clause, that the charge "might sarve out a Beardsley, if it couldn't a Britisher."
The depositor, the Secretary further told me, had religiously kept the old gun, and, with a curious, simple strictness of adherence to the spirit of his father's directions, had oiled the lock, picked the flint, wired the touch-hole, and put in fresh priming, when he brought the weapon to the Library.
"I meant to have unloaded it, of course," pursued the excellent Secretary, "but it passed out of my mind."
A week or two afterwards, I found in one of those obscure columns of "minion solid," in which the great New York papers embalm the memory of their current metropolitan crime, the following notice:—
"We are informed that the burglar lately killed in an attempt to rob the —— Historical Library has been found to be the notorious cracksman, 'Bill Young'; but that his real name was Isaac Beardsley."
* * * * *
DAYLIGHT AND MOONLIGHT.
In broad daylight, and at noon, Yesterday I saw the moon Sailing high, but faint and white, As a school-boy's paper kite.
In broad daylight, yesterday, I read a poet's mystic lay; And it seemed to me at most As a phantom, or a ghost.
But at length the feverish day Like a passion died away, And the night, serene and still, Fell on village, vale, and hill.
Then the moon, in all her pride, Like a spirit glorified, Filled and overflowed the night With revelations of her light.
And the poet's song again Passed like music through my brain; Night interpreted to me All its grace and mystery.
SOMETHING ABOUT PICTURES.
It is not surprising that pictures, with all their attraction for eye and mind, are, to many honest and intelligent people, too much of a riddle to be altogether pleasant. What with the oracular dicta of self-constituted arbiters of taste, the discrepancies of popular writers on Art, the jargon of connoisseurship, the vagaries of fashion, the endless theories about color, style, chiaro 'scuro, composition, design, imitation, nature, schools, etc., painting has become rather a subject for the gratification of vanity and the exercise of pedantic dogmatism, than a genuine source of enjoyment and culture, of sympathy and satisfaction,—like music, literature, scenery, and other recognized intellectual recreations. In these latter spheres it is not thought presumptuous to assert and enjoy individual taste; the least independent talkers will bravely advocate their favorite composer, describe the landscape which has charmed or the book which has interested them; but when a picture is the subject of discussion, few have the moral courage to say what they think; there is a self-distrust of one's own impressions and even convictions in regard to what is represented on canvas, that never intervenes between thought and expression, where ideas or sentiments are embodied in writing or in melody. Nor is this to be ascribed wholly to the technicalities of pictorial art, in which so few are deeply versed, but in a great measure to the incongruous and irrelevant associations which have gradually overlaid and mystified a subject in itself as open to the perception of a candid mind and healthy senses as any other department of human knowledge. Half the want of appreciation of pictures arises from ignorance, not of the principles of Art, but of the elements of Nature. Good observers are rare. The peasant's criticism upon Moreland's "Farm-yard"—that three pigs never eat together without one foot at least in the trough—was a strict inference from personal knowledge of the habits of the animal; so the surgeon found a head of the Baptist untrue, because the skin was not withdrawn somewhat from the line of decollation. These and similar instances show that some knowledge of or interest in the thing represented is essential to the appreciation of pictures. Sailors and their wives crowded around Wilkie's "Chelsea Pensioners," when first exhibited; French soldiers enjoy the minutiae of Vernet's battle-pieces; a lover can judge of his betrothed's miniature; and the most unrefined sportsman will point out the niceties of breed in one of Landseer's dogs. To the want of correspondence so frequent between the subject of a picture and the observer's experience may, therefore, be attributed no small degree of the prevalent want of sympathy and confident judgment. "Gang into an Exhibition," says the Ettrick Shepherd, "and only look at a crowd o' cockneys, some with specs, and some wi' quizzing-glasses, and faces without ae grain o' meaning in them o' ony kind whatsomever, a' glowering, perhaps, at a picture o' ane o' Nature's maist fearfu' or magnificent warks! What, I ask, could a Prince's-Street maister or missy ken o' sic a wark mair than a red deer wad ken o' the inside o' George's-Street Assembly-Rooms?"
The incidental associations of pictures link them to history, tradition, and human character, in a manner which indefinitely enhances their suggestiveness. Horace Walpole wove a standard collection of anecdotes from the lives and works of painters. The frescoes of St. Mark's, at Florence, have a peculiar significance to the spectator familiar with Fra Angelico's life. One of the most pathetic and beautiful tragedies in modern literature is that which a Danish poet elaborated from Correggio's artist career. Lamb's great treasure was a print from Da Vinci, which he called "My Beauty," and its exhibition to a literal Scotchman gave rise to one of the richest jokes in Elia's record. The pen-drawing Andre made of himself the night before his execution,—the curtain painted in the space where Faliero's portrait should have been, in the ducal palace at Venice,—and the head of Dante, discovered by Mr. Kirkup, on the wall of the Bargello, at Florence,—convey impressions far beyond the mere lines and hues they exhibit; each is a drama, a destiny. And the hard but true lineaments of Holbein, the aerial grace of Malbone's "Hours," Albert Durer's mediaeval sanctities, Overbeck's conservative self-devotion, a market-place by Ostade, Reynolds's "Strawberry Girl," one of Copley's colonial grandees in a New England farmer's parlor, a cabinet gem by Greuze, a dog or sheep of Landseer's, the misty depths of Turner's "Carthage," Domenichino's "Sibyl," Claude's sunset, or Allston's "Rosalie,"—how much of eras in Art, events in history, national tastes, and varieties of genius do they each foreshadow and embalm! Even when no special beauty or skill is manifest, the character of features transmitted by pictorial art, their antiquity or historical significance, often lends a mystery and meaning to the effigies of humanity. In the carved faces of old German church choirs and altars, the existent facial peculiarities of race are curiously evident; a Grecian life breathes from many a profile in the Elgin marbles, and a sacred marvel invests the exhumed giants of Nineveh; in the cartoons of Raphael, and the old Gobelin tapestries, are hints of what is essential in the progress and the triumphs of painting. Considered as a language, how definitely is the style of painters associated with special forms of character and spheres of life! It is this variety of human experience typified and illustrated on canvas, that forms our chief obligations to the artist; through him our perception of and acquaintance with our race, its individuality and career, its phases and aspects, is indefinitely enlarged. "The greatest benefit," says a late writer, "we owe to the artist, whether painter, poet, or novelist, is the extension of our sympathies. Art is the nearest thing to life; it is a mode of amplifying our experience and extending our contact with our fellow-creatures beyond the bounds of our personal lot."
The effect of a picture is increased by isolation and surprise. I never realized the physiognomical traits of Madame de Maintenon, until her portrait was encountered in a solitary country-house, of whose drawing-room it was the sole ornament; and the romance of a miniature by Malbone first came home to me, when an ancient dame, in the costume of the last century, with trembling fingers drew one of her husband from an antique cabinet, and descanted on the manly beauty of the deceased original, and the graceful genius of the young and lamented artist. Hazlitt wrote an ingenious essay on "A Portrait by Vandyck," which gives us an adequate idea of what such a masterpiece is to the eye and mind of genuine artistic perception and sympathy. Few sensations, or rather sentiments, are more inextricably made up of pleasure and sadness than that with which we contemplate (as is not infrequent in some old gallery of Europe) a portrait which deeply interests or powerfully attracts us, and whose history is irrevocably lost. A better homily on the evanescence of human love and fame can scarcely be imagined: a face alive with moral personality and human charms, such as win and warm our stranger eyes, yet the name, subject, artist, owner, all lost in oblivion! To pause before an interesting but "unknown portrait" is to read an elegy as pathetic as Gray's.
The mechanical processes by which Nature is so closely imitated, and the increase of which during the last few years is one of the most remarkable facts in science, may at the first glance appear to have lessened the marvellous in Art, by making available to all the exact representation of still-life. But, when duly considered, the effect is precisely the reverse; for exactly in proportion as we become familiar with the mechanical production of the similitudes of natural and artificial objects, do we instinctively demand higher powers of conception, greater spiritual expression in the artist. The discovery of Daguerre and its numerous improvements, and the unrivalled precision attained by Photography, render exact imitation no longer a miracle of crayon or palette; these must now create as well as reflect, invent and harmonize as well as copy, bring out the soul of the individual and of the landscape, or their achievements will be neglected in favor of the fac-similes obtainable through sunshine and chemistry. The best photographs of architecture, statuary, ruins, and, in some cases, of celebrated pictures, are satisfactory to a degree which has banished mediocre sketches, and even minutely finished but literal pictures. Specimens of what is called "Nature-printing," which gives an impression directly from the veined stone, the branching fern, or the sea-moss, are so true to the details as to answer a scientific purpose; natural objects are thus lithographed without the intervention of pencil or ink. And these several discoveries have placed the results of mere imitative art within reach of the mass; in other words, her prose language, that which mechanical science can utter, is so universal, that her poetry, that which must be conceived and expressed through individual genius, the emanation of the soul, is more distinctly recognized and absolutely demanded from the artist, in order to vindicate his claim to that title, than ever before.
Perhaps, indeed, the scope which Painting offers to experimental, individual, and prescriptive taste, the loyalty it invokes from the conservative, the "infinite possibilities" it offers to the imaginative, the intimacy it promotes with Nature and character, are the cause of so much originality and attractiveness in its votaries. The Lives of Painters abound in the characteristic, the adventurous, and the romantic. Open Vasari, Walpole, or Cunningham, at random, and one is sure to light upon something odd, genial, or exciting. One of the most popular novelists of our day assured me, that, in his opinion, the richest unworked vein for his craft, available in these days of civilized uniformity, is artist-life at Rome, to one thoroughly cognizant of its humors and aspirations, its interiors and vagrancies, its self-denials and its resources. I have sometimes imagined what a story the old white dog who so long frequented the Lepri and the Caffe Greco, and attached himself so capriciously to the brother artists of his deceased master, could have told, if blest with memory and language. He had tasted the freedom and the zest of artist-life in Rome, and scorned to follow trader or king. He preferred the odor of canvas and oil to that of conservatories, and had more frolic and dainty morsels at an al fresco of the painters, in the Campagna, than the kitchen of an Italian prince could furnish. His very name betokened good cheer, and was pronounced after the manner of the pert waiters who complacently enunciate a few words of English. Bif-steck was a privileged dog; and though occasionally made the subject of a practical joke, taught absurd tricks, sent on fools' errands, and his white coat painted like a zebra, these were but casual troubles; he was a sensible dog to despise them, when he could enjoy such quaint companionship, behold such experiments in color and drawing, serve as a model himself, and go on delicious sketching excursions to Albano and Tivoli, besides inhaling tobacco-smoke and hearing stale jests and love soliloquies ad infinitum. I am of Bif-steck's opinion. There is no such true, earnest, humorous, and individual life, in these days of high civilization, as that of your genuine painter; impoverished as it often is, baffled in its aspirations, unregarded by the material and the worldly, it often rears and keeps pure bright, genial natures whose contact brings back the dreams of youth. It is pleasant, too, to realize, in a great commercial city, that man "does not live by bread alone," that fun is better than furniture, and a private resource of nature more prolific of enjoyment than financial investments. It is rare comfort, here, in the land of bustle and sunshine, to sit in a tempered light and hear a man sing or improvise stories over his work, to behold once more vagaries of costume, to let the eye rest upon pictorial fragments of Italy,—the "old familiar faces" of Roman models, the endeared outlines of Apennine hills, the contadina bodice and the brigand hat, until these objects revive to the heart all the romance of travel.
The technicalities of Art, its refinements of style, its absolute significance, are, indeed, as dependent for appreciation on a special endowment as are mathematics; but the general and incidental associations, in which is involved a world of poetry, may be enjoyed to the full extent by those whose perception of form, sense of color, and knowledge of the principles of sculpture, painting, music, and architecture are notably deficient. It is a law of life and nature, that truth and beauty, adequately represented, create and diffuse a limitless element of wisdom and pleasure. Such memorials are talismanic, and their influence is felt in all the higher and more permanent spheres of thought and emotion; they are the gracious landmarks that guide humanity above the commonplace and the material, along the "line of infinite desires." Art, in its broad and permanent meaning, is a language,—the language of sentiment, of character, of national impulse, of individual genius; and for this reason it bears a lesson, a charm, or a sanction to all,—even those least versed in its rules and least alive to its special triumphs. Sir Walter Scott was no amateur, yet, through his reverence for ancestry and his local attachments, portraiture and architecture had for him a romantic interest. Sydney Smith was impatient of galleries when he could talk with men and women, and made a practical joke of buying pictures; yet Newton and Leslie elicited his best humor. Talfourd cared little and knew less of the treasures of the Louvre, but lingered there because it had been his friend Hazlitt's Elysium. Indeed, there are constantly blended associations in the history of English authors and artists; Reynolds is identified with Johnson and Goldsmith, Smibert with Berkeley, Barry with Burke, Constable and Wilkie with Sir George Beaumont, Haydon with Wordsworth, and Leslie with Irving; the painters depict their friends of the pen, the latter celebrate in verse or prose the artist's triumphs, and both intermingle thought and sympathy; and from this contact of select intelligences of diverse vocation has resulted the choicest wit and the most genial companionship. If from special we turn to general associations, from biography to history, the same prolific affinities are evident, whereby the artist becomes an interpreter of life, and casts the halo of romance over the stern features of reality. Hampton Court is the almost breathing society of Charles the Second's reign; the Bodleian Gallery is vivid with Britain's past intellectual life; the history of France is pictured on the walls of Versailles; the luxury of color bred by the sunsets of the Euganean hills, the waters of the Adriatic, the marbles of San Marco, and the skies and atmosphere of Venice, are radiant on the canvas of Titian, Tintoretto, and Paul Veronese; Michel Angelo has embodied the soul of his era and the loftiest spirit of his country; Salvator typified the half-savage picturesqueness, Neapolitan Claude the atmospheric enchantments, Carlo Dolce the effeminate grace, Titian the voluptuous energy, Guido the placid self-possession, and Raphael and Correggio the religious sentiment of Italy; Watteau put on canvas the fete champetre; the peasant-life of Spain is pictured by Murillo, her asceticism by the old religious limners; what English rustics were before steam and railroads Gainsborough and Moreland reveal, Wilkie has permanently symbolized Scotch shrewdness and domesticity, and Lawrence framed and fixed the elegant shapes of a London drawing-room; and each of these is a normal type and suggestive exemplar to the imagination, a chapter of romance, a sequestration and initial token of the characteristic and the historical, either of what has become traditional or what is forever true.
The indirect service good artists have rendered by educating observation has yet to be acknowledged. The Venetian painters cannot be even superficially regarded, without developing the sense of color; nor the Roman, without enlarging our cognizance of expression; nor the English, without refining our perception of the evanescent effects in scenery. Raphael has made infantile grace obvious to unmaternal eyes; Turner opened to many a preoccupied vision the wonders of atmosphere; Constable guided our perception of the casual phenomena of wind; Landseer, that of the natural language of the brute creation; Lely, of the coiffure; Michel Angelo, of physical grandeur; Rolfe, of fish; Gerard Dow, of water; Cuyp, of meadows; Cooper, of cattle; Stanfield, of the sea; and so on through every department of pictorial art. Insensibly these quiet but persuasive teachers have made every phase and object of the material world interesting, environed them with more or less of romance, by such revelations of their latent beauty and meaning; so that, thus instructed, the sunset and the pastoral landscape, the moss-grown arch and the craggy seaside, the twilight grove and the swaying cornfield, an old mill, a peasant, light and shade, form and feature, perspective and anatomy, a smile, a gesture, a cloud, a waterfall, weather-stains, leaves, deer,—every object in Nature, and every impress of the elements, speaks more distinctly to the eye and more effectively to the imagination.
The vicissitudes which sometimes attend a picture or statue furnish no inadequate materials for narrative interest. Amateur collectors can unfold a tale in reference to their best acquisitions which outvies fiction. Beckford's table-talk abounded in such reminiscences. An American artist, who had resided long in Italy and made a study of old pictures, caught sight at a shop-window in New Orleans of an "Ecce Homo" so pathetic in expression as to arrest his steps and engross his attention. Upon inquiry, he learned that it had been purchased of a soldier fresh from Mexico, after the late war between that country and the United States; he bought it for a trifle, carried it to Europe, and soon authenticated it as an original Guercino, painted for the royal chapel in Madrid, and sent thence by the government to a church in Mexico, whence, after centuries, it had found its way, through the accidents of war, to a pawnbroker's shop in Louisiana. A lady in one of our eastern cities, wishing to possess, as a memorial, some article which had belonged to a deceased neighbor, and not having the means, at the public sale of her effects, to bid for an expensive piece of furniture, contented herself with buying for a few shillings a familiar chimney-screen. One day she discovered a glistening surface under the flowered paper which covered it, and when this was torn away, there stood revealed a picture of Jacob and Rebecca at the Well, by Paul Veronese; doubtless thus concealed with a view to its secret removal during the first French Revolution. The missing Charles First of Velasquez was lately exhibited in this country, and the account its possessor gives of the mode of its discovery and the obstacles which attended the establishment of its legal ownership in England is a remarkable illustration both of the tact of the connoisseur and the mysteries of jurisprudence.
There is scarcely, indeed, an artist or a patron of art, of any eminence, who has not his own "story of a picture." Like all things of beauty and of fame, the very desire of possession which a painting excites, and the interest it awakens, give rise to some costly sacrifice, or incidental circumstance, which associates the prize with human fortune and sentiment. I remember an anecdote of this kind told me by a friend in Western New York.
"Waiting," said he, "in the little front-parlor of a house in the town of C——, to transact some business with its occupant, I was attracted by a clean sketch in oil that hung above the fireplace. It might have escaped notice elsewhere, but traces of real skill in Art were too uncommon in this region to be disregarded by any lover of her fruits. The readiness to seize upon any casual source of interest, common with those who "stand and wait" in a place where they are strangers, doubtless had something to do with the careful attention I bestowed upon this production. It was a very modest attempt,—a bit of landscape, with two horses grazing and a man at work in the foreground. Quiet in tone, and half-concealed by the shaded casement, it was only by degrees, and to ward off the ennui of a listless half-hour, that I gradually became absorbed in its examination. There were some masterly lines, clever arrangement, a true feeling, and a peculiar delicacy of treatment, that implied the hand of a trained artist.
"My pleasant communion with the unknown was at last interrupted by the entrance of my tardy man-of-business, but the instant our affair was transacted I inquired about the sketch. It proved to be the work of a young Englishman then residing in the neighborhood. I obtained his address and sought his dwelling. He was scraping an old palette as we entered, and advanced with it in one hand, while he saluted me with the air of a gentleman and the simplicity of an honest man. He wore a linen blouse, his collar was open, his hair long and dark, his complexion pale, his eye thoughtful, and a settled expression of sweetness and candor about the mouth made me feel, at a glance, that I had rightly interpreted the sketch. I mentioned it as an apology for my intrusion, and added, that a natural fondness for Art, and rare opportunities for gratifying the taste, induced me to improve occasions like this with alacrity. He seemed delighted to welcome such a visitor, as his life, for several weeks, had been quite isolated. The retirement and agreeable scenery of this inland town harmonized with his feelings; he was unambitious, happy in his domestic relations, and had managed, from time to time, to execute a portrait or dispose of a sketch, and thus subsist in comfort; so that an accidental and temporary visit to this secluded region had unconsciously lengthened into a whole summer's residence,— partly to be ascribed to the kindness and easy terms of his good old host, a thrifty farmer, whose wife, having no children of her own, doted upon the painter's boy, and grieved at the mention of their departure. I doubt if my new friend would have had the enterprise to migrate at all, but for my urgency; but I soon discovered, that, with the improvidence of his tribe, he had laid nothing by, and that he stood in need of medical advice, and, after a long conversation, upon my engaging to secure him an economical home and plenty of work in Utica, he promised to remove thither in a month; and then becoming more cheerful, he exhibited, one by one, the trophies of Art in his possession.
"Among them were a Moreland and a Gainsborough, some fine engravings after Reynolds, prints, cartoons, and crayon heads by famous artists, and two or three Hogarth proof-impressions; but the treasure which riveted my gaze was a masterly head of such vigorous outline and effective tints, that I immediately recognized the strong, free, bold handling of Gilbert Stuart. 'That was given me,' said the gratified painter, 'by the son of an Edinburgh physician, who, when a young practitioner, had the good-fortune to call one day upon Stuart when he was suffering from the effects of a fall. He had been thrown from a vehicle and had broken his arm, which was so unskilfully set that it became inflamed and swollen, and the clumsy surgeon talked of amputation. Imagine the feeling of such an artist at the idea of losing his right arm! The doctor's visit was not professional, but, seeing the despondent mood of the invalid artist, he could not refrain the offer of service. It was accepted, and proved successful, and the patient's gratitude was unbounded. As the doctor refused pecuniary compensation, Stuart insisted upon painting a likeness of his benefactor; and as he worked under no common impulse, the result, as you see, was a masterpiece.'