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.’ ”
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.