United We Scam | The Nation


United We Scam

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In 1849 William Thompson, a man of genteel appearance, was arrested by the New York City police. Compared with several recent big cons--the Enron boondoggle, the subprime mortgage swindle--the scam that got Thompson into trouble with the law was astonishingly simple, and his booty so penny ante that his arrest wouldn't merit a mention in today's tabloids. Thompson persuaded his marks to "lend" him their gold watches as a token of their confidence in him--tokens that, in fact, he had no intention of returning. Back then, however, Thompson's small con became notorious, first in New York City and then throughout the country. Once a mere confidence man, Thompson was touted as "The Confidence Man," and he so relished his celebrity that he scheduled interviews with the press from his cell in the Tombs, Manhattan's notorious municipal prison. One visitor reported that he was led to Thompson's cell by "two country looking individuals. When they arrived at the landing in the second tier, they were accosted by our hero, who sat in the keeper's chair, in this way, 'Gentlemen, have either of you a cigar? I am the Confidence Man.' "

About the Author

Steve Fraser
Steve Fraser is a visiting professor at New York University, co-founder of the American Empire Project, and the author...

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Why this media frenzy? At the time of Thompson's arrest, the United States was alive with the spirit of enterprise. Vast lands were being opened to settlement, commercial farming and mercantile undertakings of all sorts. Towns and cities rose up overnight. New turnpikes, canals, bridges, dockyards and railroads gave the market a vast geographical reach. Indeed, it was during the antebellum era that the marketplace first assumed its position as the country's lodestar. Previously most economic transactions had been local. They were conducted between people who knew and trusted each other as family members, neighbors and fellow villagers, who followed long-established routines and relied on barter or tangible pieces of gold and silver as means of exchange. But in Jacksonian America, perfect strangers separated by great distances entered more often and more freely into untried and faintly mysterious kinds of business relations. These new contractual arrangements involved untested technologies, undertakings of unprecedented size like the Erie Canal and risky investments in distant unsettled places like the Ohio Valley. In this new world, one increasingly populated by anonymous, highly mobile, self-interested people, there was nothing more precious than the confidence that these contractual promises would be kept. America was brimming over with confidence. It seemed an indigenous national instinct, a fervent faith in the notion that Americans could get rich and reinvent themselves while doing it--if one was audacious enough to take the risk of trusting a stranger. Confidence was a form of equality of opportunity open to the bold--Manifest Destiny without all the heavy breathing about democracy and divine election.

Yet even as this new economy expanded, Jacksonian Americans were plagued by a crisis of confidence. What would happen if all these strangers didn't keep their word? What if a land broker's Elysian field turned out to be a malarial swamp? What if your railroad shares entitled you to a stake in nothing but two streaks of rust? What if the canal in which you were an investor was nothing but a fifty-mile-long bone-dry rut? What if a town promoter's map depicting the churches, schools, stores, hotels and theaters of a New Jerusalem in some Midwestern outback was nothing more than a figment of his felonious imagination? More disconcerting still, these dealings inveigled people in an economy lubricated by paper currencies that no one could entirely trust. What if the currency issued by some faraway bank was worth no more than the useless tract of land the banker had recklessly speculated in, leaving not only the bank's depositors high and dry but fleecing everyone else unfortunate enough to hold the bank's paper? What if, indeed? Who do you trust?

During the quarter-century leading up to the Civil War, commonly identified as the takeoff stage of American capitalism, there were several troughs of panic and depression: a prolonged and deep one in 1837, following years of wild land speculation, and another in 1857. That year Herman Melville published The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade, perhaps the best known if least read example of a large literature: novels, memoirs, travelogues and plays devoted to exploring the era's crisis of confidence. Melville's gaze, as one might expect, was a coruscating one. In his novel a con artist reappears in different guises--land agent, herb doctor, stock speculator, etc.--aboard a steamboat headed from St. Louis to New Orleans. For Melville, all of American society could be likened to a confidence game, but none of his con artist's marks are the kind of unsuspecting folk whom William Thompson fleeced.

Melville understood that a confidence man's thievery depends on the willing collaboration of his mark, and a successful swindle requires a world of malignant innocence where people harbor the sneaky, illicit belief that fast money can be made by skirting the moral rigors and renunciations of the work ethic. Melville's confidence man meets men on the make whose cupidity and moral slipperiness make them ripe pickings. They are willfully credulous souls in pursuit of their own aggrandizement. Each mark's motivation may be ingenuous, idealistic even; after all, each is merely in a footrace to catch up with the American dream, to realize his own manifest destiny, the New World's promise of limitless opportunity for every man. Still, even the most innocent (that is to say, least calculating) mark approaches the confidence man with a certain foreboding: something feels not quite right; something shady hovers nearby--but that something is very hard to resist. In Melville's eyes, whether in the realm of politics, religion, philosophy, literature, philanthropy or commerce, confidence was a "masquerade," a devil's game, a phenomenon that called into question not only the underlying premise of a market economy but the very moral and existential fabric of the self and society.

Melville's devilish protagonist casts a long shadow, one that falls back past William Thompson--who, some have claimed, was the inspiration for Melville's novel--to the narrator of the memoir Sheppard Lee, Written by Himself, published in 1836. Its author, Robert Montgomery Bird, was a doctor and a writer. He was admired by Edgar Allan Poe and collaborated with the period's most famous actor, Edwin Forrest, on several successful plays. Sheppard Lee, which Bird published a year before breaking with Forrest, is a rollicking satire about the transmigration of the self in Jacksonian America. During Sheppard's strange odyssey, all of the era's cherished, self-congratulatory maxims about the heroic individual, equality, the work ethic and invincible optimism are mocked mercilessly. Jacksonian democracy comes in for an especially withering comeuppance, perhaps in part because Bird considered himself a Whig.

The offspring of middling farmers in New Jersey, Sheppard quickly fritters away his inheritance, the family homestead, because he is allergic to work--"dull and disagreeable labour." Like many of his neighbors, he has a taste for get-rich-quick schemes but is not cunning enough to stay out of trouble or spot those plotting to take advantage of him. More hapless than roguish, he's utterly lacking in the ambition and energy, not to mention the moral appetite, for hard work that is supposed to animate every red-blooded American. His situation grown dire, he tries to recoup his losses by going into politics. He thinks of it as pure charade, nothing more than inflated invective aimed at banks and aristocrats (he's apparently joined the local Jacksonian Democratic Party), which he parrots eagerly to curry favor. He is cheated out of the spoils of office by cleverer men, and then he blithely joins the opposition party but with no better result.

Creditors hot on his trail, Sheppard, while desperately chasing a rumor about Captain Kid's buried treasure, finds himself dead, but not truly dead. Instead, he is rescued by an act of infernal intervention: he discovers he has the power to transmigrate his soul or spirit, which up to this point has been wandering about the countryside in some hard-to-pin-down disembodied state, into the body of someone recently deceased. After some momentary disorientation, with amazing alacrity Sheppard's spirit settles into the corpse of the deceased Squire Higginson, who, as the devil's justice would have it, had long made a habit of mocking Sheppard's sorry state. The Squire is a man of substance, and Sheppard's mouth waters at the prospect of taking over his wealth and persona.

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