This article appeared in the issue of August 24, 1865.
THE Evening Post and some other journals are disposed to ascribe the plague of forgeries and swindlings which has showed itself in the last few weeks to the influence of the paper currency in fostering the spirit of speculation. There is no doubt that the inflation of the currency, and its sensitiveness to the influence of military events, has during the past four years given an unusual impetus to speculation. But to ascribe the exploits of Ketchum, Jenkins, Mumford & Co. to it is, in our opinion, to be guilty of very slashing and reckless generalization. The spirit of speculation is nothing new in Wall Street. It was there before the war, and so was the eager desire to get rich suddenly, to procure fine clothes, fast horses, and fine houses. There is probably no “Street” in the world in which the spirit has been for many years more rampant; but its presence is due not to the nature of the currency, but the condition of the country. There is no more eagerness, in our opinion, to get rich quickly here than in France or England, but the means of getting rich quickly are within the reach of a good number, and it is this, and not the peculiar nature of the currency, which creates speculation.
The material resources of the United States are enormous, and it is only within the last twenty years that the development of them has fairly begun. Such mineral wealth of all kinds is nowhere else to be found; railroads have nowhere else the importance they possess here, and when a population as energetic as ours flings itself on such a harvest, the gains of many are naturally very great, the disappointment of those who do not gain naturally very great also. Moreover, the class which has the shrewdness and intelligence to speculate here is very large, larger than in any other country. Nearly every boy in America has a knowledge of business and of investments, and the mode of making them, such as only few men in Europe ever acquire; and the shares in most enterprises are sold so low that nearly everybody who has a little money to spare, and everybody has some, has the means of getting hold of them. The result is that the “commercial spirit,” as social philosophers now call it–or, in other words, the spirit of the age–is more widely diffused here than elsewhere, and not during the war alone, but at all times.
Moreover, we venture to assert that, judged, as they ought to be judged, not so much by the number of times they fall as by the number and nature of the temptations they resist–for this is the real test of virtue–Wall Street men are the honestest men of their class in the world. We doubt if there is any community in which swindling is so easy as in this. For instance, nowhere else are checks so generally used as they are here in making payments of money. On the continent of Europe they are entirely unknown; in England they are chiefly used in the transfer of large sums. Here almost every sum over ten dollars is paid in this way. Now the field this opens up to the forger and the swindler is immense, and yet how few avail themselves of it; how rarely we hear of a forged check, or of a check drawn without assets to meet it. We venture to assert, moreover, that a man of respectable appearance might travel through the United States and find less difficulty in paying his expenses in his own checks on any neighboring bank, than he would in getting a twenty pound or even a ten pound Bank of England note cashed in any part of England where he was a stranger. And the small amount of scrutiny bestowed on signatures in Wall Street, as illustrated by Ketchum’s success in passing off such clumsy forgeries as his were, shows the general prevalence of a confidence between men which could not exist if it were often abused. This very carelessness in the mode of doing business, which we have heard so much denounced during the last few days, is itself a proof that honesty and good faith are the rule; knavery of very rare occurrence.
We do not, for our part, look for any speedy change in these matters. We shall, we hope, never see men as distrustful here as they are in the Old World, until the country becomes as well filled, its resources as nearly exhausted, its capital as plentiful, and the means of increasing it as scarce as they are in England or Holland; and that period is, thank heaven, still remote enough to leave us the hope that our morality will, when it comes time, be so well rooted that it will not be affected by our material condition.
We do not intend, by any means, to set up as defenders of Wall Street practices or of the Wall Street spirit. We think the genius of the place is in many respects an odious demon; but this practice of ascribing the great social phenomena of the day, of which the speculating spirit is one, to one cause, such as the paper currency, is the quackery of social science. Of course, if the abundance of greenbacks leads men to rob the banks and disgrace their families, all we have to do is to come back to specie payments to restore the reign of virtue, just as the pill-vendors treat all diseases as local affections and have a medicine for each that goes “right to the spot.” For our part, we despair of putting down rascality by giving the rascals good advice. The true way to cure the evils of society is to improve the whole circle of social influence. The morality of Wall Street, the theatre, and the press, and all other institutions, will be found to bear a pretty constant ratio to the morality of the community at large, and the means which are found to be most efficacious in improving the latter will be found to operate beneficially on the former also.