The Fortunes of War.
We don't feel the war! is the exulting cry of the contractors, money-changers, and speculators, whose shouts of revel stifle the tearful voice of misery. It is in our large cities especially where this boasted insensibility to the havoc of war is found. It is there in the market-place and exchange, where fortunes are being made with such marvelous rapidity, and in the haunts of pleasure, where they are being spent with such wanton extravagance, that they don't feel this war. They are at a banquet of abundance and delight, from which they are not to be unseated, though the ghosts of the hundreds of thousands of their slaughtered countrymen, shake their gory locks at them.
While the national wealth has been poured out with a profuse generosity in behalf of a cause dear to the-national heart, there have been immense fortunes made by enterprising money-getters, seeking only to fill their own pockets.
When the war suddenly burst upon the nation, and before it was able to arouse its gigantic energies, the Government was so helpless that it besought aid at any cost. It was then, as our brave fellow-citizens came forward in multitudes to defend their country, there arose an urgent demand for arms, clothing, and subsistence. Every thing required for the use and consumption of the soldier was wanted, and wanted at once. Tents and blankets to protect him from the weather — clothes, from cap to shoe, to dress him — bread and meat and all the varied necessaries of the daily ration, even to the salt, to feed him — the knapsack, haversack, belt, and cartridge box, to equip him — muskets, pistols, cannon, swords, sabres, powder, shot, and percussion caps to fight with — horses and mules, wagons, railways, steam and sailing vessels of all kinds, for transportation.
A hundred thousand men or more in the immediate and continued want not only of all the ordinary necessaries of life, but of the many additional requirements for war, were to be provided for without delay. The Government, with a commissariat organized only for an army of some sixteen thousand soldiers, and suddenly called upon to clothe, arm, and subsist more than six times the number, could do nothing but appeal to the enterprise of trade to supply its pressing necessities. The appeal, with the treasure of the whole nation to sustain it, was not made in vain. Another army — the army of contractors — then came forward no less promptly than the hundred thousands of citizen soldiers. These with their lives as their offering asking nothing in exchange, and receiving only a bare subsistence; the former, no less liberal of the contents of their docks, ships, fields, stables, granaries, warehouses, and shops, demandng a great price, and getting it.
Think of the immense activity with which trade was inspired by the numerous and multifarious demands of the Government! Contractors for meat, contractors for bread, contractors for tents, contractors for clothing, contractors for arms, contractors for ammunition, contractors for equipments, contractors for wagons, contractors for horses, contractors for mules, contractors for forage, contractors for railway conveyance, contractors for steamers, contractors for ships, contractors for coal, contractors for hospitals, contractors for surgical instruments, contractors for drugs, and contractors for every thing else required for human use and consumption in order not only to sustain life but to destroy it, suddenly started into existence. The Government, pressed by a necessity which admitted of no hesitation in regard to time, character, quantity, quality, and cost, accepted almost every offer, and paid almost any price. It is true, that political allies and social friends and relatives were favored with the earliest information and the best places in the general race and scramble for the national treasure. That eager partisans and devoted brothers, cousins and brothers-in-law, having taken the shortest road, should come in ahead and grasp the first and biggest prizes, was not unnatural. There was one of these lucky favorites who made a fortune of a hundred thousand dollars or more as easily as these words which state the fact are written. Having secured a contract or agency for the purchase of transport steamers and other vessels, he fulfilled it with no more cost to himself than a cigar or two over the preliminary negotiation, and no greater effort than signing his name. The fortune was made by a minimum of personal labor given and a maximum of pay received.
The contractors of all kinds, with their contracts signed and sealed, hastened to pocket the profits. In many cases, with a mere dash of their pens, they transferred their bargains at an advance, and made snug fortunes, without the labor of an hour or the expense of a shilling. In other instances they fulfilled their contracts in a way more profitable to themselves than useful to the Government. The quality of the article they heeded little, provided it bore the name and the semblance of the thing, and could be had for almost nothing, or for much less than they were to receive for it. Thus shoddy, a villainous compound, the refuse stuff and sweepings of the shop, pounded, rolled, glued, and
228smoothed to the external form and gloss of cloth, but no more like the genuine article than the shadow is to the substance, was hastily got up, at the smallest expense, and supplied to the Government at the greatest. Our soldiers, on the first day's march, or in the earliest storm, found their clothes, over-coats, and blankets, scattering to the winds in rags, or dissolving into their primitive elements of dust under the pelting rain. Splendid looking warriors to-day, in their bran-new uniforms! To-morrow, in their rags and nakedness more pitiful objects than the ragged regiment of Falstaff, without a whole shirt among em! Shoddy, with the external gloss and form of a substantial thing but with the inherent weakness and solubility of its reflected image, has ever since become a word, in the vocabulary of the people, always quick in their forcible and incisive rhetoric to catch and appropriate a simple and expressive figure to represent a familiar idea. The ostentatious nonveau riche, the fraudulent contractor who makes a display of his ill-gotten gains, and vulgar pretenders of all kinds, will forever, in the popular eye, bear upon their emblazoned coaches, the fronts of their palatial residences, the liveries of their coachmen, and on their own backs of superfine cloths and glistening silks, the broad mark SHODDY It is a good and significant word, and expresses exactly the opposite of a long-used term in popular parlance, to wit: Made of whole cloth, aptly applied to a complete thing of any kind or to a person of sound integrity. Shoddy, false pretension will be called as long as false pretension exists. It is obvious how large fortunes were made in this way, when contractors received immense sums for cloth and delivered only valueless shoddy.
It was not only in the contracts for clothing, but in those for almost every other supply that Government paying for the substance was mocked by the shadow. For sugar it often got sand; for coffee, rye; for leather, something no better than brown paper; for sound horses and mules, spavined beasts and dying donkeys; and for serviceable muskets and pistols the experimental failures of sanguine inventors, or the refuse of shops and foreign armories. There was, it is true, a show of caution on the part of the authorities in the form of a Governmental inspection; but the object of this was often thwarted by haste, negligence, collusion, or favoritism.
A proprietor of a patent breach-loading carbine, who had been for years groaning over his unfortunate speculation, was suddenly animated with the hope of making a fortune out of what had long since reposed and been mourned over among his "dead stock." He did make his fortune, for the Government gave him a contract, received the carbines, paid largely for, but never, it is believed, used them. There was, however, a valiant resistance on the part of an honest inspector of the Ordnance Department. The proposal of the adventurous dealer in carbines was sent back to him with the indorsement — " Respectfully returned. This carbine has never been adopted for the United Service. This proposition is objectionable on account of its introducing an arm untried in the field — of its requiring a special cartridge, and of the price charged." The importunate proprietor of the carbine returned to the charge, but was again met with a repulse from the sturdy defender of the Ordnance Department. "I have carefully considered," he wrote, "the proposition of Mr. — - to furnish ten thousand of — 's patent breach-loading carbines at $35 each. I would gladly avail myself of any opportunity of obtaining at this time, at any price not beyond reason, such arms as are required for the troops called into the service. The carbine is only, however, a cavalry arm; it is used only by dragoons when dismounted and fighting on foot; and the orders in the Division of the Potomac are to arm the cavalry with pistols and sabres only. In view of all those circumstances, "quietly adds the honest inspector, "it is submitted whether it will be advisable to accept a proposition involving so large an expenditure [$350,000] as that of Mr. — does."
But in spite of all this the lucky proprietor, having a friend at court, got a contract for his carbines, which, we venture to declare in answer to the submissive inquiry of the modest inspector, it was not "advisable" for the Government to buy at any price. This is one of the many easy ways in which the large fortunes of this war have been made. The carbine proprietor may exult in his sudden wealth, but he and his "friend at court" are emblazoned all over in letters of light with "shoddy."
There were fifty millions of dollars spent by the Government in a few months, at the beginning of the war, for arms alone. Out of this a dozen or more contractors enriched themselves for life. Poor men thus became rich between the rising and setting of the same day's sun; while the hundreds of thousands of dollars of the wealthy increased to millions in the same brief space of time. It is said that one of our great merchant princes gained from his transactions with Government two millions of dollars in a single year.
The proprietors of coal-mines came in for a large share of the national treasure. One company made such enormous profits from its supplies of coal to the Government, and the general rise in price in consequence of the increased demand, that it was enabled to declare, in a single year, dividends that, in the aggregate, amounted to two-thirds of its capital. Its stock, which a few years since could hardly tempt a purchaser at ten dollars a share, has arisen since the war to more than two hundred dollars, and is eagerly caught up at that price. One shareholder, in a twelvemonth, received in dividends no less than a hundred and fifty thousand dollars for a stock which cost him less than that sum, but which he could now sell for a million.
The "good time" of the contractors has, however, now gone. The Government, with the
229experience of three years war, and with its commissariat thoroughly organized, is no longer at the mercy of the fraudulent and extortionate. In fact, it is said that in some later contracts the Government, more thanks to its luck than shrewdness, has, with the depreciation of the currency and the consequent rise in prices, got the best of the bargain.
As fortunes can be no longer made in a day out of the national treasury the eager money-seekers have taken to the stock exchange to make them out of each other. The rage of speculation — excitement is too mild a word — which has seized upon the community, and is fast making us a nation of stock-jobbers, has never been equaled since the days of John Law during the French regency of the Due d'Orleans. The city exchanges and their approaches are already crowded with a frenzied throng of eager speculators, as was the Rue de Quincampoix of old. Streets are blocked up by a mass so frenzied by the general passion for gain that almost all regard for individual safety and respect for personal propriety seems lost. The drayman can only make his way by the dint of whip, curse, and the brute strength of his sturdy beast through the heaving but coherent multitude, whose reluctant flanks, as they are forced aside, are still so absorbed by the ruling passion that, while pressed upon by hoof and grazed by grinding wheels, they seem unconscious of their danger. The stranger goes to take a look at the speculators at the hour of exchange as he does at a collection of wild beasts at feeding-time, and comes away with the same impression, namely, that in their hunger to get their fill they are ready to devour each other. The prudent citizen turns the street, and shuns the place as dangerous to his morals and his person. If not tempted to risk his fortune, he is sure to be so hustled by the unruly crowd as to spoil his temper or his clothes, and perhaps endanger his limbs or life.
The passion for stock-gambling is fast extending to every class of society. Merchants, mechanics, and traders of all kinds are abandoning their counting-houses, their work-shops, and their stalls, and thronging into Wall Street. The daily industry, the constant self-denial, the vigilant prudence, and the patient expectation necessary to acquire a decent competence are scorned for the chances of making a fortune in a day. The number of brokers has more than quadrupled in a few months, such has been the enormous increase of stock-jobbing. Their aggregate business, in the city of New York alone, has arisen from twenty-five to more than a hundred millions a day. The transactions of several sum up to the amount of millions each in a morning, with a profit in commissions, alone of more than a thousand dollars daily. There would be a cause of congratulation if this enormous business was an indication of the increased productive wealth of the nation; but it is nothing of the kind. It is only a proof of the passion for buying and selling, with the hope of benefiting by the fluctuations of price. Purchase and sale are essential means for the exchange of products, without which, no doubt, the productive power of the country would be paralyzed. The merchant, the broker, and trader are to it what the sensitive and motor nerves are to the brain — subordinate to its functions, but necessary to its action. The nerves may be active, though the brain be torpid, but the result is a St. Vitus's dance of excited sensation, and perpetual and irregular movement, which waste the power, and finally destroy the organization. So it is when the merchant, broker, and trader make their function of exchange, which should be subordinate, paramount to the productive power of labor. This is what the rage of speculation is doing, and it requires no prophet to tell the result. Ruin must come with the certainty of the fulfillment of a natural law.
Yet, when the passion of speculation, however obvious the fatal consequences, has once fevered the blood of a people, it unfortunately is seldom checked, except by its own retributive effect of exhaustion. The homilies of the pulpit, the daily warnings of the press, and the demonstrations of political economy are unheeded by ears ringing with the jubilant shouts of the favorites of fortune. When they hear of one who was a bankrupt but a few months since, but now counts by millions his fortune, made in a short half year at the stock exchange, or rather in "the street" — for his credit was never clean enough for admission to the fastidious company of gentlemen at "the Board;" when they hear of another who was but yesterday a vendor of apples and peanuts at the street corner, and is to-day, by fortunate speculations, the possessor of hundreds of thousands; and again of a third, who, in the course of a flying visit from a neighboring city to New York, took a chance, merely pour passer Ie temps, in the lottery of Cumberland or Mariposa, and went home, after a week's absence, with a prize of a hundred thousand dollars in his pocket — when they hear of these and the like, as we all do every day, they are 10th to turn from so brilliant examples of success to listen to the sober precepts of Prudence. The small voice of Prudence, moreover, is hourly becoming fainter and fainter, drowned as it is in the general shout of triumph. Prudence, it is feared, will soon cease altogether, for want of a listener, from uttering further warnings, and leave to retributive justice to vindicate a natural law, the abuse of which she could not prevent.
The mania of speculation is wondrously contagious, especially among a people so gregarious and sympathetic as we are. What touches one is apt to be felt by all. As men of every class, age, and business arealready thronging Wall Street, it may not be long before our women shall be seen, as in the times of John Law in France, and of the South Sea bubble in England, trailing their silks and satins in the dust of the exchange, and raising their voice in its din of
230excited barter. Already the spirit of speculation so pervades the community that the rise and fall of stocks is the most common topic of daily conversation in our houses during the hours of leisure, if hours of leisure we can be said to have when they are filled with the thoughts and talks of business. Some of our women are already infected with the prevailing passion of money-making as they have been long with that of spending it. "What's the price of gold to-day, my dear?" escapes from the pretty mouth of your wife before she has impressed the habitual kiss of connubial welcome upon your expectant lips. If you are a speculator, as you probably are in common with most of your fellow-citizens at this moment, and have made a good day of it, you answer blandly and don't complain of the loss of the conjugal embrace. If you have been unlucky and want consolation, and seek what you have a right to expect but don't find, you mourn over the loss, and conclude probably, with St. Paul, that money, or rather the love of it, is the root of all evil.
The day has been found too short for the untiring stock speculators. They gather in a great hotel, and renewing the morning's strife for gain prolong it to the late hours of the night, which they make hideous with their eager and noisy competition. What care they for wives deserted, children unseen from day to day and turned night after night into bed unblessed by a father's kiss; domestic joys and duties forsaken, and all the claims of social intercourse neglected, provided they gain their cent. per cent. on the rise or fall, as it may be, of Cumberland and Mariposa?
It is obvious that when all are seeking to make their fortunes at others expense that most will be disappointed. Each one, however, thinks that it will be his neighbor until he awakes some morning and finds it is himself who is ruined. There are some seductive examples undoubtedly of great success, of the rise of poverty to wealth in the course of a few weeks. There will be, too, with no less certainty before long, many striking instances of a fall from riches to beggary. Michelet, in his chapter on Law's scheme, tells of one who was a footman at the beginning of the month, a millionaire by his successful speculations at its close, and again a footman before the end of another thirty days, with nothing in possession but his suit of livery, and nothing in prospect but his wages.
It is not within our province to discuss the policy or necessity of the issue of the present paper currency. It is obvious, however, to all that its increasing abundance is the exciting cause which, acting upon a community singularly prone to the disease, has produced the prevalent fever of speculation. Some of the largest fortunes have been made by those shrewd men, who from the beginning foresaw the natural effect of a redundant paper currency in raising prices. These, with apparent recklessness but with real shrewdness, bought every thing of value they could borrow money enough to buy or purchase on credit. As the currency depreciated and prices necessarily rose, they paid their debts in less value than they had received, and received a greater value in what they had bought than they paid. The rise in prices from day to day, as the paper money becomes more abundant and less valuable, is the great stimulus to speculation. It is advisable for those who possess substantial property to cling to it. If you have houses, farms, land, dividend paying stocks, or even merchandise which can be kept without spoiling, do not be tempted to part with them too readily by the high prices offered in paper. Again, if you have currency to invest, do not be frightened by the high prices, but buy what is of substantial value and that alone, even if it takes a great deal of paper to do it. Above all eschew speculation, and trust not the bubbles which the flatulant enterprise of the day is blowing so industriously. They may rise and float for awhile, glittering with a false sparkle of gold and silver and all the bright colors of the rainbow, but when you shall attempt to grasp them the air will escape, leaving you nothing in hand but the scum of which they are made. Such a discretion on the part of men of real means would do much to check the dangerous passion of speculation, or if not, save themselves and the conntry from ruin.
The old proverb says: "That which comes easy goes easy." The suddenly enriched contractors, speculators, and stock-jobbers illustrate its truth. They are spending money with a profusion never before witnessed in our country, at no time remarkable for its frugality. Our great houses are not big enough for them; they pull them down and build greater. They, like the proud and wanton Caligula, construct stables of marble at a fabulous cost, in which their horses are stabled (some, doubtless, to be fed on gilded oats), with a luxury never hitherto indulged in by the most opulent of our fellow-citizens. Even the manure heaps lie upon more resplendent floors than are swept by the silken trains of our proudest dames. So magnificent are these structures that their proprietors have not hesitated to assemble within them "the best society" they could command of fine gentlemen and finer ladies, to hold a carnival of pleasure. The playing of Comedies, it is said, was a part of the programme, as if the presence of the beaumonde, seeking pleasure in a stable, was not in itself a sufficiently sorry farce. What was acted we know not; but we can testify that "High Life Below Stairs" was the chief performance, The very horses must have neighed in applause of the appropriateness of the piece, and lifelike action of the players. A horse-laugh was surely their well-merited reward.
These Sybarites of "shoddy" buy finer furniture than was ever bought before, and dress in costher cloths and silks than have been hitherto imported. No foreign luxury, even at the present enormous prices, is too dear for their exorbitant desires and swollen pockets. The importations of the country have arisen to the large
231amount of thirty millions of dollars a month, chiefly to satisfy the increased appetite for luxurious expense.
The ordinary sources of expenditure seem to have been exhausted, and these ingenious prodigals have invented new ones. The men button their waistcoats with diamonds of the first water, and the women powder their hair with gold and silver dust.
As excess, overflowing the natural channels of enjoyment, is always sure to take an irregular and perverted course for the indulgence of its unchecked vagaries, it is not surprising to find the boundless extravagance of the times assuming forms at variance with propriety and taste. Paris provoked to excessive folly and wild extravagance by an imperial court willing to enervate the people by debauchery that they may become too languid for resistance to tyranny, has, among other forms of dissipations, invented a grotesque kind of fancy ball. In this the guests represent things instead of persons. For example, one presents herself as a kitchen, with her person hung all over with pots and kettles, wearing a sauce-pan for a helmet, like Sancho Panza, brandishing a shovel and tongs, and playing the part of a kitchen wench with probably a dish-clout hanging to her tail. Another of a more sentimental turn is a flower-garden, festooned with roses and bearing a spade and rake. A third is a pack of playing-cards, bedizened all over with clubs, diamonds, and hearts, and so on with every possible transformation of the human spiritual being (supposed to be rational) into the senseless, material thing.
This absurdity has been imported by our wealthy New Yorkers, together with other Parisian extravagances. Last winter, during which high carnival was held by our nouveaux riches, a dame who has traveled, and had the honor of fainting in the arms, it is said, of Imperial Majesty, in the course of which embrace she probably imbibed her high appreciation of imperial folly, got up one of these grotesque fancy balls. She herself appeared on the occasion as music, and bore upon her head an illuminated lyre supplied with genuine gas, from a reservoir and fixtures concealed somewhere under her clothes. "We don't feel this war," they say. We believe them. Nothing, we fear, while they are stupefying themselves in this whirl of absurd folly would bring them to their senses short of a shower of Greek fire.
If this extravagance and wantonness were confined to the fools of fortune we might leave them to the exhaustion that must come from this waste of means and perversion of the faculties of mind and body. Their ruin would be hardly felt or regretted. But, unfortunately, our people are so imitative that when one simpleton, provided he be rich, leads the way, all follow. Every man and woman thinks he must do as his wealthy neighbor does. The consequence is already shown in the general prevalence of extravagance and dissipation. The shops of the dry-goods man, the jeweler, the dealer in carpets and cabinet-ware, and the gilded establishments of the restaurateur were never so crowded. The tradesman hardly shows any but his most expensive wares, which his greedy customer snatches up without solicitation. Thus camel's-hair shawls, at fifteen hundred dollars or more, go off briskly at the price; rivers of diamonds (riviere de diamants) flow unchecked by any regard for cost. Aubusson and tapestry carpets of fabulous expense are bought unhesitatingly and recklessly trod upon, and dinners are eaten and wine drunk at Delmonico's and the Maison Doree at a price per head, in a single sitting, which would support a soldier and his family for a good portion of the year. Who knows but that our wives and daughters may all take to powdering their hair with gold and silver dust at fifteen dollars per head, or transforming themselves into gas-fixtures? What is to hinder our young dandies of the counting-house and shop — for haven't they an old fool of the Stock Exchange to show them the example — from buttoning their waistcoats with diamonds?
Apart from the fatal and permanent effect of the habit of expense and sensual indulgence upon the individual and national character, it may have a disastrous influence upon the war. While the passion for speculation is raging, and the means for gratifying the appetite for luxury and pleasure areabounding, the war is not felt, and is willingly concurred in. Let, however, the reaction come, as it surely will, when fortunes shall scatter more rapidly than they have been gathered, and abundance and delight be no longer so easily purchasable, then the sensibility of our luxurious citizens may be so awakened as to feel the war, and feel it so much that they may wish it at an end before its great purpose is accomplished. We shall perhaps find our Capua at home, and its people too enervated by indulgence to smite their enemies. Are we deluding ourselves with the idea that this war is to be a continued carnival of abundance and pleasure? If so, we had better awaken at once to the fact that it is a sacrifice demanding the utmost effort of patient endurance. No noble cause, such as we are struggling for, was ever won by men while besotting themselves with excess and dallying pleasure. We must feel this war, and feel it resolutely, or we shall never triumph. Are we willing to prove ourselves worthy to triumph?