Page images
PDF
EPUB

there was no longer any doubt; he spoke with unconscious authority. Take, for example, the passages in the debate on the tariff which deal with economics and those which deal with finance. See the difference of tone. Speaking in the House on May 8, 1860, he said, “They (manufacturers) send them (their goods] abroad in order to keep up their own markets and, if possible, to depress and discourage production elsewhere" a highly inadequate account of the function of export trade. And in his speech of April 23, 1860, one is really at a loss to decide whether protection or free trade is the ideal to be attained.

But how sure becomes the tone when he touches on money matters. See the passage which begins, “There is not a private banker in the country who does not borrow money upon his own ‘shinplasters' cheaper than does the United States.” The whole passage is vigorous, clear, and vibrant with indignation that the credit of the country should have been so degraded.

Though he did not possess the art by which Gladstone was said to make a speech on the budget more entrancing than a romance, he succeeded in lifting the subject of national revenue above the dullness which usually engulfed it. His speeches on tax and tariff bills were lighted by flashes of humor. Speaking in favor of a tax on foreign wines, he remarked, “It is true, that when wines are just landed they are in what is called a sick condition and their true value is difficult to be estimated. A specific duty will undoubtedly restore them to health more rapidly than any other.” 1 And in support of the internal revenue tax on whiskey he said, “Whiskey and rum, with the duty added, will still leave it possible for any man or brute to get drunk in our land on cheaper terms than in any other I know of.” ? It was not the

* Speech on Tariff, April 23, 1860.
* Speech on Internal Tax Bill, March 12, 1862.

form, phrasing, or rhetoric of his speeches, however, admirable though they were in these respects, but the substance that gave them weight. Morrill penetrated with a sure thrust to the heart of a financial problem. Banking and finance were the subjects of his mature study; he had come to them with a mind trained in practical affairs and broadened by experience of life. Whereas in dealing with questions of the tariff his view was liable to distortion by the Vermonter's local jealousy of Canada or the traditional dislike for England, he faced financial and banking problems unaffected by political or patriotic bias. When he dealt with the question of paper money, he spoke out with clear and unequivocal voice.

There was every reason why his speech on “The Impolicy of Making Paper a Legal Tender" should be, as it was, a notable effort. He was then just a little over fifty-two, in the prime of life and at the height of his powers; he had grown familiar with all the moods and currents of the House of which he was one of the most popular and influential members; he was inspired by the stern emotion of a great war which was going none too favorably for the North; he felt the need of stemming the tide of a rash and defiant patriotism which would plunge forward without considering the future. The movement for issuing legal-tender paper money"greenbacks” – had gained great headway, supported by the numerous and vociferous classes who always clamor for more and cheaper money - the debtors, the speculators, and the thoughtless. Besides these there was a substantial and more respectable body, including not a few bankers and men of affairs, who were perplexed and almost panicky over the magnitude and urgency of the Government's obligations.

Such were the conditions when he rose on February 4, 1862, to oppose the bill reported by the majority of the Committee on Ways and Means which proposed to issue $150

000,000 inconvertible paper money “a measure” which he denounced in his opening paragraph as “not blessed by one sound precedent, and damned by all.” The natural excuse for it was that it was a war measure; but, said he, “If this paper money is 'a war measure,' it is not waged against the enemy, but one that may well make him grin with delight. I would as soon provide Chinese wooden guns for the army as paper money alone for the Treasury."

What is it she asked) that we most need? Clearly we lack money, and wish to inspire our own people with that confidence that will induce them to lend the requisite amount. But the very first step we propose is one to destroy whatever of confidence yet remains among those who have a dollar to lend. We proclaim by an engraved advertisement - to be forced into the pocket of every man by the fiat of the Government — that we will hereafter liquidate all our debts with paper only. With such a stamp on our forehead it cannot be expected that we shall find either patriotism or selfishness hereafter prompting anybody to volunteer to take a single bond more of the United States. Some unhappy contractor may be caught, and forced to accept in payment of existing debts the ill-starred notes and bonds, to be disposed of as fancy stocks for the most they will bring; but, profiting by experience, no contractor will be caught the second time without securing an ample margin to enable him to deal at last with the Jews on the Rialto.

If the people would not take the legal tenders, he argued, still less would the banks; in short, they would not circulate.

It is pretended that, as the whole United States are holden for the redemption of these notes, they must be good, and will, therefore, pass at par, especially if made a legal tender. Never was a greater fallacy.... If so made, they would, to the extent they are tendered for public dues, be a forced loan; and to the extent of the difference between their current value and that of standard coin, it would be a breach of public faith.

Turning then to the probable effects of the bill, he denounced it on grounds of policy:

Mr. Chairman, I object to this bill on the ground, as I conceive, of its utter impolicy. I admit that from the contracts entered into ... and from the heavy monthly disbursements to our army, that the Government can flood the country with even one hundred and fifty millions of paper dollars. But from that moment you would vastly increase the cost of carrying on the war; prices would go up, and the additions we should pile upon our national debt would prove that it might have been even wiser to have burnt our paper dollars before they were issued. The inflation of the currency would be inevitable. In ordinary times few comprehend the Archimedean leverage of a very few millions added to or subtracted from the currency of a nation actively engaged in the affairs of the world. In the former case it produces a crisis and general bankruptcy, and in the latter it puts every speculator on tip-toe to buy out his neighbor — his horse, his ox, his ass, or anything that by keeping overnight will put money in his purse. Property becomes as volatile as alcohol at boiling heat, and cannot be kept within its ancient boundaries. ... The ecstasy of an inflated currency is enjoyed by the few only, and these are cruelly punished when the gaseous influence subsides. They now have this inflated currency in the rebel States, and all property there, real and personal, sells at nearly twice its usual value. Yet we know their positive misery. The rich men are getting possession of even the little that poor men were before suffered to retain. I hope we may remain true to our traditions.

He ventured to doubt the constitutionality of the measure, a question which, he modestly remarked, “will undoubtedly be examined by far abler hands," but on which he ventured so far as to say, “It will be conceded that the power is nowhere contained in the letter of the Constitution, and that, in all our history since the adoption of the Constitution, it has never been exercised.”

He might well have spoken more strongly, and had he been able to cast his gaze forward for only eight years he would have seen the Secretary of the Treasury who now supported the ill-conceived measure, handing down from the high bench of Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, a decree which supported his contentions with all the august authority of that court. Chief Justice Chase declared that "the Legal-Tender Act violated justice, that it was inconsistent with the spirit of the Constitution, and that it was prohibited by the Constitution.” Had Chase seen as clearly and spoken as plainly in 1862 as he did in 1870, Morrill's opposition to inflation would not have been in vain. With prophetic vision he saw the evils to come:

By making paper a legal tender, no more specie will be seen, except through offers of rewards to draw it from its hiding-places, until we emerge from our present difficulties, and not for an indefinite period, perhaps, thereafter. The $300,000,000 of specie said to be in the country, though I think there is not quite so much, will be hoarded, and remain useless and idle for the rest of the war. I am for keeping this, the vital fluid of commerce, in healthy, active circulation. The sight of our eagles is as necessary to the courage of our people at home as to the men in the army.

He saw also the toil and labor of recovery:

No one here contemplates but that at some future time the banks and the Government shall resume specie payments — the banks depending entirely upon whether the Government does so or not — and, if so, I invite them to calculate the cost of the descent from that basis, the cost of the return - the expiatory pains to be suffered; and then determine whether we shall carry on this war on a specie basis or on a ceaseless flood of paper, bartered at discordant prices in every city, town, and hamlet of the country, bearing in mind that, however cheaply obtained, every dollar is to be and will be ultimately repaid in gold or silver coin raised by taxation.

He saw also that during the length of the war the step would be irrevocable:

By taking the first step in making paper a legal tender we shall sever all connection with any other fountains of supply. We cannot retrace our steps, but must go on. No sane man would spontaneously take stock liable by the practices of the Govern

« PreviousContinue »