4. Lawrence Rushing, 2010.
Numero Uno—“The following Letters are printed for the first time from the original manuscripts, kindly lent for the purpose by Colonel Malthus, C.B. The representatives of Ricardo have been good enough to make search for the corresponding letters of Malthus, but without success.The Collection covers the whole period of the friendship of the two men. What is of purely private interest (a very small portion) has, as a rule, been omitted. There is seldom any obscurity in the text; the handwriting of Ricardo is clear and good. The earlier letters have no envelopes. The breaking of the seal has frequently torn a page, and destroyed a word or two. In two cases we have nothing but the fragment of a letter. But fortunately the bulk of the series has reached us in a complete state.
These Letters were evidently known to Empson and MacCulloch, whose references to them are quoted in their proper place. Other letters of Ricardo, as well as his speeches in Parliament, are quoted here and there when they illustrate the text or fill up a gap. The Correspondence with J. B. Say is given at some length, as it is probably little known to English readers.
The Outline of Subjects will be found to contain only a bare sketch of the main positions taken up by Ricardo against Malthus in these Letters. It could not fairly be expanded into an account of both sides of the argument, for, when we are within hearing of only one of the disputants, we cannot with fairness believe ourselves to have the whole case before us. We cannot accept his statement of the terms of the discussion, for, though he had every desire to be just to his opponent, his cast of mind was so different that he can hardly be thought to have entered into his opponent’s views with perfect sympathy.
[Pg viii]These Letters indeed show on almost every page how completely the two economists differed in their point of view. Beginning in a deep mutual respect, their acquaintance with each other grew into a very close intimacy; but it was the friendship of two men entirely unlike in mental character. Ricardo admits that he had been deeply impressed by the Essay on Population (p. 107), but thinks that Malthus is apt to miss the true subject of political economy, the inquiry into the distribution of wealth, and to confine himself to production, of which nothing can be made (pp. 111, 175); Malthus seems to his friend to have too strong a practical bias (p. 96); instead of reflecting on the general principles that determine (for example) the Foreign Exchanges, he tries to get light from Jamaica merchants and City bullion dealers (p. 3, cf. 12); he buries himself in temporary causes and effects instead of looking to permanent ones (p. 127); he gains his point by a definition instead of an argument (p. 237) and, perhaps through the same practical bias, he is too much absorbed in questions of his own College (p. 125), and not eager enough for political reform (pp. 151, 152). Malthus, Cambridge Wrangler and Haileybury Professor, was free from any academical bias in favour of abstract thinking; he had in fact little of the typical University man except his love of boating (p. 158). Ricardo, a self-made and largely a self-educated man (though he had neither the pride of the first nor the vanity of the second), had no traditions that were not mercantile, and made a large fortune on the Stock Exchange. But, in his thinking, he was under no slavery to details; he was even conscious of a strong theoretical bias (p. 96). He was fonder of ‘imagining strong cases’ to elucidate a principle, than of adducing actual incidents to establish it (pp. 164, 167). The very narrowness of his programme enabled him (as later it enabled Cobden and his school) to seem to exhaust all the[Pg ix] difficulties of the subject, and dispose of them by plain straightforward proofs. Malthus, who had a less acute logical understanding, but saw more clearly the real breadth and complexity of the subject, seemed often more faltering, and less consistent with himself.
Ricardo agreed with his friend in looking, on the whole, at the bright side of things, and forecasting prosperity for England even in the dark days of Luddites and Six Acts (pp. 139, 141). They were, both of them, unready writers, partly from deference to each other’s criticism (pp. 20, 23, 117, 125, 155, 159, 207),—partly, in Ricardo’s case, from awkwardness in composition, where he was always, in his own opinion, the worse man of the two (pp. 104, 108, 145, 208),—partly because the obscurity of the subject was felt by them to be inconsistent with dogmatic certainty (pp. 111, 176, 181). But they are free in their criticism; they never dream of allowing it to affect their good temper (pp. 175, 240), and they are never afraid to confess mistakes (pp. 20, 184, 207, 231, etc.).
Personally, they agreed in enjoying society and travel, in loving ‘law and order’ and hating ‘a row’ (pp. 64, 208), and in being nowhere so happy as in their family circle, in Ricardo’s case a patriarchally large one (p. 146). The robust health of Malthus was not shared by his friend (p. 140), but the latter had more of the qualities of a public man, and in the House of Commons he was by no means a silent member. Their range of interests was perhaps equally wide, though Ricardo’s bent was to natural science as Malthus’ to mathematics. In politics they were both in favour of Parliamentary Reform. Francis Place, writing in 1832 to a correspondent who had reproached Political Economists with hostility to reform, says that the study tends almost necessarily to political enlightenment, and points to Malthus, Mill, Ricardo, and others in confirmation. ‘Mr. Malthus’ (he says) ‘was an aristocratic parson when he first published his Essay on Population … but in going[Pg x] on with his work and being obliged to study political economy, his prejudices gave way before principles, and he became the advocate so far as he dared of good government. His work contains irrefragable arguments for universal suffrage, which cannot be overlooked, but must be applied by every reader who understands the subject; and there are also in his work other indications of what you and I should call liberal principles.’ For myself, Place adds, I have been ‘a plain Republican for forty years;’ James Mill is ‘as bad as myself.’ As to Ricardo: ‘He was one of the most enlightened of reformers I ever knew; he was a man who never concealed his opinions.’ There is no doubt, from all the evidence, what these opinions were. Ricardo advocated a widely extended suffrage, frequent parliaments, and especially secret voting. In his speeches in the House of Commons, which are more than a hundred in number, from the first on the 25th March, 1819, to the last on the 4th July, 1823, he speaks his mind plainly not only on the Bank, the Sinking Fund, the currency, agriculture, the Poor Law, and the tariff, but on the reform of Parliament, retrenchment, freedom of the press and right of public meeting. His oratory seems in many respects to have resembled that of Cobden. The arguments were given with plain directness without elegance of diction; and they were brought home by matter-of-fact similes from every-day life or commercial experience. We know from Brougham that his manner of speaking was earnest, modest, genial, frank, and unaffected; and, as he only spoke on what he knew, he was always heard with attention, though his sentiments were unpalatable and he was usually in a hopeless minority.[Pg xi]
Bentham claimed to be the spiritual grandfather of Ricardo, and Ricardo may have got his first thoughts on Politics from him and Mill, as on Economics from Adam Smith; he may also have caught from Bentham his habit of reasoning abstractly. But the arguments he uses on behalf of his political opinions are such as to leave the impression that he reached his politics through his political economy, the former being only the latter from a different point of view. He seems to construct his notion of a free government on the lines of his notion of a free trade. When he takes the unpopular side in the case of the Carliles, imprisoned for blasphemous libel, he is not unfairly described by Wilberforce as simply ‘carrying into more weighty matters those principles of free trade which he has so successfully expounded’ in other cases. His interest in popular education seems to spring from the desire that our people may be rightly equipped for industrial competition. He attends a City dinner to the Spanish Minister at a time when the European Powers are threatening Spain, and appeals to the principle of Non-Intervention, thus anticipating the Manchester School and applying laissez faire on the large scale. He applies the same principles perhaps too abstractly in the case of the Spitalfield Acts, which made the wages of the silkweavers to be fixed by the Justices instead of by the ‘higgling of the market,’ and in the case of the Truck System, or payment of wages in kind; but there was much to justify his hostility to the first, and there was Robert Owen’s successful use of something very like the Truck system in New Lanark to excuse his defence of the second. He had a statesman’s willingness to accept part where he could not get the whole, and to welcome a compromise rather than no progress at all. He would not abolish the Corn Laws at a stroke, but would prepare our agriculturists for the change by lessening the duty on imports year by year till nothing was left but 10s.[Pg xii] a quarter, to remain as a ‘countervailing duty’ roughly equal in amount to the peculiar burdens of the British agriculturist. Some of his opponents called him a ‘mere theorist’; but this is a common taunt of men who cannot render a reason against men who can. Even his disciple MacCulloch thinks that his investigations were ‘too abstract to be of much practical utility.’ But in his own hands they were not so abstract that they were divorced from practice, or unmodified by the needs of each case. Such measures as he recommended in the House were of great practical utility, and have nearly all been embodied in subsequent legislation; yet he founded them all on certain general principles which in the order of his thinking were economical first and political afterwards. As far as politics are concerned, we find the principles abstract simply because they are not in our own day the principles most needed in legislation.
In short, Ricardo’s thinking was abstract only in the sense in which Bentham’s was so. They had arrived, by a different road, at the same political philosophy. Ricardo had a fixed idea of the individual as being logically prior to society; and the interest of the community only meant to him the interest of a large number of individuals, the collection as a whole having no qualities not possessed by each of the parts, and there being no spiritual bond. Nature (which means in this case theory instead of history) begins and ends with individuals; Nature made the individuals, and Man made the groups. Ricardo agreed with Bentham that ‘the community is a fictitious Body, composed of individual persons who are considered as constituting, as it were, its Members. The interest of the community then is what? The sum of the interests of the several members who compose it.’ We find Ricardo arguing: ‘Let me know what the state of men’s interests is, and I will tell you what measures they will recommend;’ and ‘that State[Pg xiii] is most perfect in which all sanctions concur to make it the interest of all men to be virtuous,’ in other words, to promote the general happiness. Now, to consider human beings as first and chiefly separate from one another and having a separate self-interest which rules their action, is certainly to reason abstractly. But this abstract reasoning of the Philosophical Radicals is due, in the case of the Economists among them, more to Adam Smith than to Bentham. Most of them, like Ricardo, had got not only their first economics but their first lessons in thinking, from the ‘Wealth of Nations.’ The ‘Wealth of Nations’ bore the stamp of that Individualism which we usually associate with Rousseau. Its author had written, seventeen years before, a book in which he gave almost exclusive consideration to the common bond that unites man to man, the power one man has of putting himself by thought in the place of another, or (in a wide sense of the word) to sympathy. There is no need to suppose that Adam Smith had forgotten or recanted the ‘Moral Sentiments;’ but it is certainly the case that in the later and greater work, which became the text-book of Political Economy, he deliberately takes up another point of view, and presents men as dominated by private interest. With every allowance for his frequent qualifications (‘upon the whole,’ ‘in many respects,’ etc.), there is no doubt that he there considers ‘the natural effort which every man is continually making to better his own condition’ as a principle of growth and health which owes little or nothing to State or Society, but is continually transforming them and bringing good out of their evil. He is fully aware how industry in all its forms has been affected by the government and civilization of a people; but he regards industry itself, or the commercial ambition of the industrious classes, as more potent still. As far as industrial progress is concerned, he would have said with Bentham that Nature begins and ends with individuals; in matters of trade he has no confidence in associations of men, even when they are[Pg xiv] voluntary. To him, the really beneficent association is that unintended and unpreventible organization resulting from the division of labour, the separation of trades, and the uncontrolled movements of commercial ambition on the part of individual men. He is careful to say that Political Economy is not Politics; but he insists that all political restraints and preferences must be taken away from industry, and ‘the obvious and simple system of natural liberty’ will ‘establish itself of its own accord.’ It is not surprising that this lesson in individualism was learned by his successors without the cautions with which the teacher would have surrounded it. The pupils unconsciously argued as if political individualism was part and parcel of economical principles, for it certainly seemed so in the one book of their teacher that they had been led to study; and, when Bentham made self-interest a leading principle of politics, Ricardo, to follow him, needed only to make clear to himself the underlying political basis of his economical ideas. In Malthus, economical individualism is held in check by a strong devotion to the principle of nationality, as well as by a wide range of philosophical and general interests. But to Ricardo political economy is all in all; the ruling principles of all his thinking are determined for him by the economical; and the result is individualism in politics as well as in political economy. The animosity of his critics is perhaps as often due to their strong dislike of this political philosophy underlying his doctrines, and derived through Adam Smith from Rousseau, as to any real or supposed abstractness of the doctrines themselves.
Ricardo’s political work has therefore the merits and the defects of the theory of individualism and policy of laissez faire, which crowned its achievements with the Repeal of the Corn Laws and Navigation Acts. John Stuart Mill, who was bred an individualist, has left us in his writings a faithful reflection of the change which has passed over English politics and English economics in the course of his[Pg xv] lifetime, and which he himself welcomed with some misgivings. We have ceased to believe that the removal of obstacles is enough to secure the highest good either in government or in industry. But we must not deny that the Manchester School and its predecessors were indispensable in their own day.
It is sometimes said that in addition to the faults of his school, Ricardo had flaws of his own which were due to a certain strong bias of self-interest. We might answer that his arguments must none the less stand or fall by their own logic. But there is no reason to suppose any bias in Ricardo except his peculiar character of mind and cast of thought. He had the intellectual interest of a reasonable man in getting the right instead of the wrong answer to a difficult question; and his selfish interest as a member of the ‘propertied’ classes was not clear enough to be a snare to him. ‘It would puzzle a good accountant’ (he says in the House) ‘to make out on which side my interest predominated; I should find it difficult myself from the different kinds of property which I possess (no part funded property) to determine the question.’ He could be chivalrous and even Quixotic on occasion. His best political friends thought he was Quixotic when he proposed to levy a high property tax to pay off the National Debt: ‘I should contribute any portion of my own property for the attainment of this great end if others would do the same.’ There was chivalry in his praise of Cobbett’s Letter to the Luddites; Cobbett had given him abuse unmixed with any drop of generosity. We may therefore look in vain in Ricardo for any feeling of antipathy to landlords or any other body of men, though he spoke, as in duty bound,[Pg xvi] against landlords, bank directors, and all classes of monopolists, whenever they stood in the way of urgent reforms. Like other men, he not improbably had a lurking partiality for what had been the main business of his working life. But in his writings and speeches he gives us not feelings but arguments, and arguments that cannot be dismissed as feelings in disguise.
In the purely economical works there is more of abstract theory than the author is ever fully aware. Not only did he as an individualist habitually regard men as separate competing atoms, and the desire of wealth as the permanent and dominant motive of men; but he made his general statements too absolute. He sometimes guarded himself by saying (as he does in these Letters): What I am laying down is true over any considerable period of time; the causes to which I point are permanent; I allow that other causes may prevail for short intervals; temporary causes may seem to overrule the permanent ones; but I look to the final settlement. Nevertheless, he admitted more than once in the course of his career that he had stated the permanent causes too absolutely. The doctrine of Value is first presented by him as extremely simple,—the value of a thing depends on the labour employed in producing it. Then, as we go on, we find this is only true of ‘the early stages of society before much machinery or durable capital is used,’ while it is not meant to be true, even there, of objects that have a ‘fancy’ value, due purely to their scarcity. Next, we are told that in modern times the relative value of two things is affected by the proportions in which fixed capital and circulating enter into their production; if fixed capital enters more into one than into another, then a rise of wages will lower the value of the first, for it will lower the rate of profits, and, as there are more profits concerned in the first, the value of this first will fall in relation to the other. This is not all;—if two things are produced with a like amount of fixed[Pg xvii] capital, yet, if the durability of the capital is different, there will be more labour where there is less durability, and more profits where there is more durability; the things produced by the more durable fixed capital will be lowered in value by a rise in wages, which lowers the rate of profit; and so on, mutatis mutandis. In short, value is affected not only by labour, but by the wages of labour. To these concessions we may add the important change of view, which (as we know from these Letters) made MacCulloch tremble for the Ark of his Covenant; we had heard nothing at first but the praise of machinery as lowering prices and increasing the general wealth; now we are reminded that the invention of it may for the time cause serious injury to the working classes.
It is not difficult for men living two generations after Ricardo, and having (as he himself expressed it) ‘all the wisdom of their ancestors and a little more into the bargain,’ to point out many unjustified assumptions, many ambiguous terms, and even many wavering utterances, in Ricardo’s ‘Principles,’ in spite of their appearance of severe logic. The author’s detached practical pamphlets were in those respects far more powerful than this volume of imperfectly connected essays on general theory. The flattering importunities of friends had induced an unsystematic writer to attempt a systematic treatise. The cardinal doctrine, that of Value, is applied to only one class of cases, and, even to that, with serious modifications. It was left for later economists, like Jevons in this country, and Menger and Böhm Bawerk in Germany, to take up the task of giving a theory of value that will embrace all cases of it, not excluding those objects that possess a value ‘wholly independent of the quantity of labour originally necessary to produce them, and varying with the varying wealth and inclinations of those who are desirous to possess them.’[Pg xviii]
Malthus has left a clear statement of the points at issue between Ricardo and himself in the Quarterly Review for January, 1824. He contended against Ricardo that (1) Quantity of Labour is not the chief cause of Value, but (2) ‘Supply and Demand’ are more truly so described, while (3) Competition of Capital, and not fertility of the soil, determines the rate of profits. But, in regard to the first, he hardly gives Ricardo sufficient credit for his large concessions. In regard to the second, he does not realize that supply and demand are vague terms which can only be made definite by a theory of value itself. In regard to the third position, if fertility of soil be translated productiveness of the staple industry, Ricardo’s view seems nearer the truth than his own. The inadequacy of the whole discussion on this third head is largely due to the fact that economists had not then been pushed by Socialism into a thorough investigation of Profits and Interest. They were content to borrow these ideas from every-day commercial life, and treat them as given ultimate facts needing no explanation. They therefore never fully accomplished the very first task of Political Economy, to state the facts as they are, and analyse into its fundamental laws the existing industrial system of modern nations. Still less did they fulfil its second task, to estimate the relation of the industrial system to the larger social and political body in which it lives and moves and has its being. The peculiar wants and motives of an individual people, changing, as they do, with the growth of civilization, must be viewed in their effects upon the production and distribution of the national wealth, if the truth about the latter is to be fully known. It is because the older economists did not attempt this that their discussions, carried on even by their most eminent representative men, seem to later readers superficial and unreal. But in their Economics, as in their Politics, they had their own work and not ours to do; and we must not blame them for not answering questions that have only very recently occurred to ourselves.
In only two cases do the letters of this collection form groups that have a subject of their own not discussed at any length in the other letters. Letters I to XIV are the only ones that discuss at any length the influence of the Depreciation of the Currency on the Foreign Exchanges. Letters LXXVIII to LXXXVIII are the only ones that so discuss the Measure of Value. After these the nearest approach to continuity is perhaps in Letters LXXI to LXXVII, when Over-production is the chief subject. But the discussion of Rent, Wages and Profits is not conducted by chapters as in a book; it follows the course of conversations which were not recorded, and obeys suggestions that are given in replies lost to us. We cannot hope to make the propositions on these three heads fall into a consecutive logical series.
The following analysis of the letters is not meant to be exhaustive. Ricardo’s opinions on the Bank of England (XXXV, etc.) and on the East India College (XL, etc.), for example, will not be found in it. It is simply a statement of the chief economical arguments.
In the early letters the correspondence turns chiefly on matters made prominent at the time (1810 seq.) by the Bullion Committee and Ricardo’s own pamphlet, ‘The High Price of Gold Bullion.’ Though this pamphlet did not appear in its separate form till early in 1810, the matter of it had been published by Ricardo in a series of letters to the ‘Morning Chronicle’ beginning in September, 1809. These letters brought their author into public notice, and they seem to have led Malthus to seek his acquaintance. The earliest letters (of which Letter I in this collection was clearly not the first of the whole correspondence) were naturally on the subjects that first brought the two men together.
Ricardo’s main positions as against Malthus are as follows:—
1. The amount of the currency of a nation is determined for it not simply by its size and population but by the[Pg xx] nature and extent of its trading transactions; and yet, when these elements are given, the currency of one nation will stand to the currency of another in some ascertainable normal proportion, to alter which is to alter the relative value of the currencies affected (VI, VII, X).
2. Such events as a bad harvest, a change in articles of consumption or the transmission of a subsidy abroad, will, by altering the relative value of our currency, produce effects on the exchanges which, apart from their own specific remedy, are permanent, not transitory (I, VII, X).
3. An increase in the amount of gold and silver in a country will lead to an increased use of these metals for general purposes rather than to a proportionate fall in their value, there (II, III).
4. An increase in the value of a nation’s exports and imports may involve no increase of its wealth or its capital, but may be due to a mere change from one set of articles of consumption to another, or to a carrying trade with foreign capital (IV).
5. In any case, such an increase is not the cause, but the effect of a change in the currency; it is a sign that money is going from where it is cheap to where it is dear (IV, VI, IX, cf. XII and XVII), and the Exchanges are an accurate measure of the difference (VII).
6. There has certainly been an increase of wealth in our own country in recent years, but it has not necessarily been accompanied with an increased rate of profits (V, cf. XX).
In Letters XV to XXI the following are the chief propositions:—
1. Restrictions on the importation of corn by keeping up the price of necessaries have a tendency to lower profits (XV), unless, indeed, they are followed by a great reduction of capital (XVI, XVII).
2. The only cause of permanently high or low profits is the facility of procuring necessaries, for on that mainly depends the rate of wages (XVI, XVIII, XIX, XX, XXI, cf. V, and for qualification LXXIX, LXXX).
4. Improvements in agriculture or machinery by increasing productiveness permanently increase profits (XX, cf. V and XXIII).
To these may be added—
5. Consumption and accumulation equally promote demand, and are both of them ineradicable tendencies of our nature, the one adding to our enjoyments, the other to our power (XIX).
6. Accumulation increases not only production, but consumption (XXI).
7. It is worth while to establish the truth of a principle, even if we cannot establish its utility (XXI).
In Letters XXIII to LXVIII, and in LXXVIII to LXXX, the positions are as follows:—
1. By importing cheap foreign corn the public saves the whole difference in price (XXIII, XXIV).
2. It must be allowed that the prices of articles, besides varying with the amount of necessary labour bestowed on them, vary with the value of their raw material (XXV).
3. Apart from changes in the currency, a rise in the price of corn and a fall in the corn wages of labour, would be a contradiction (XXVI).
4. It follows from the principle of Population that the rate, as distinguished from the amount, of agricultural production, grows not greater, but less, when the increase of population drives agriculture to the cultivation of poorer soils (XXVII, XXVIII, cf. XLIX).
5. This means that the whole cost in corn will be greater in proportion to the whole produce of corn, and, though the whole cost in money may be less in proportion to the whole produce in money, the rate of profits from farming will fall (XXIX).
6. A tax on home corn raises prices twice over, and should be accompanied by a countervailing duty, not necessary in other cases (XXIX).
7. In order of time, the increased price of corn comes first, and the costly cultivation second, but this increase of farmers’ profits may be due to a fall in general profits that is itself caused by the increased price of corn (XXIX).
8. The progress of wealth has a tendency to lower profits and increase rent (XXIX).
10. A rise in the price of corn will not be followed by a rise in the price of other commodities, but by a fall in profits (XXXI, XXXIV, XXXV).
11. An addition of rich land to our island would reduce the price of corn by reducing the cost of raising the total supply of corn; and it would not raise the value of manufactured goods (XXXII).
12. High prices, whether caused by depreciation of money or by difficulty of production, are not a public benefit; in the first case, they are a cause of distress, especially to the working classes; in the second, they are a sign but not a cause of prosperity (XXXIII, XXXIV).
13. Facility of production includes skill and appliances as well as fertility of soil, and in that sense, when suddenly introduced in a fertile country, it would for some time extinguish rent (XXXVI).
14. There is no real distinction between productiveness of industry and productiveness of capital; and in the progress of society both of them will diminish, and rents will increase (XXXVI).
15. Wages do not rise when labour is productive unless the productiveness of the labour gives rise to a new capital that demands new labour (XXXVII).
16. There can be no such demand for new labour unless there is a reduction in the value of food (XXXVII).
17. The only permanent cause of diminished demand for capital is the increased price of food (XXXVIII).
18. Low prices are not necessarily a discouragement to production (XXXIX).
19. The need of cultivating less productive soils is the cause of higher nominal and lower real wages (XLII), and it is the only cause in constant and permanent operation (XLVIII, cf. LXIX).
20. Profits depend on wages; wages on the supply and demand of labour, and on the cost of the labourers’ necessaries (XLIX).
22. In two lands with equal capital and equal population, but with different fertility of soil, profits would differ in favour of the more fertile (L).
23. The rate of interest is no sure indication of the rate of profits; and a low rate of interest may co-exist with a low rate of wages and a high rate of profits (LXIII).
24. Profits cannot be said to depend on ‘the proportion which capital bears to labour,’ for, where profits were lowest, most capital would be needed to produce a given return, and, where highest, least, in proportion (LI).
25. By a rise in the value of money it is possible (though not probable) that a reduced cost of labour, materials, and machinery might be followed by an increase instead of a reduction, in their money value (LXIII).
26. A dearth may increase profits and wealth by making labour cheap (LXIII).
27. Free trade in corn may increase the amount of profits more than a policy of Restriction may increase the amount of Rents (LXVII, cf. LXX).
28. Rent is always a transfer, and never a creation of wealth (LIII, LXVIII).
29. There cannot be two rates of profit at the same time in the same country (LXXVIII), nor under free trade could there be a very different rate in different countries, the cost of necessaries and therefore the rate of wages being brought nearly to a level, allowance being made for differences between one country and another in regard to the standard of living (LXXIX). It seems impossible that under free trade a fertile country, unless agriculture were its sole and only industry, and its capital were small, would long continue to sell its corn at the high prices of its less favoured rivals; the prices would fall to cost price (LXXX).
In Letter LXV, and in Letters LXIX to LXXVII, the positions are as follows:—
1. Natural Price should not be described as depending, like Market Price, on Supply and Demand, for it can never permanently fall below or rise above the expenses of production (LXV).
2. A universal over-production is impossible (LXXII, LXXVII), and a glut of particular articles may be cured by a cessation in the production of those articles (LXXII); a ‘superior genius’ might so lay out our capital even now, that all might be prosperous (LXXIII).
3. It is not demand, but supply, which regulates value, and supply is itself determined by comparative cost of production (LXXIII, LXXIV).
4. If all labour and capital were devoted to production of necessaries, there might then be an over-supply or general glut, of them; but in no other case is such a glut possible (LXXIV, LXXVII).
5. Over-production tends to cure itself by destroying profits, and thereby removing the producer’s motive for production. But production could not go on when this point had been reached, and therefore the over-production could not last (LXXVI).
6. The remedy would be not the greater consumption of non-producers, but the payment of lower wages, which means the securing of higher profits by the producers. When wages are excessive, the labourers are the unproductive consumers, and the employers who pay them are thereby causing instead of curing the over-production (LXXVI, LXXVII).
7. A diminished demand for labour may mean, not the employment of fewer men, but the payment of lower wages (LXXVII).
In Letters LXXVIII to LXXXVIII the positions are:—
1. It is better to take, as a Measure of Value, some foreign commodity [like gold], the cost of producing which is nearly invariable, than to estimate either by the amount of labour or by the amount of corn or of other goods generally that will be purchased by the article measured (LXXVII, LXXVIII).
2. There is nothing in the said labour which fits it to be a better measure of value than anything else; but, on the contrary, to use it as a measure is to involve ourselves in paradoxes (LXXXIII, LXXXV to LXXXVIII).
3. There cannot be an absolute or universal measure of value, for there is no uniformity in the conditions under which commodities are produced, the time taken and the proportion and durability of the capital employed being, for example, very different (LXXXIV).
THOMAS ROBERT MALTHUS.
Stock Exchange, 25th Feb., 1810.
My dear Sir,
I have just time, after a very busy day, to tell you that I will endeavour to get Mr. Mushet to meet you at my house at breakfast on Sunday morning. At any rate I shall expect you, and, if Mushet is engaged, I shall be able to tell you whether he will meet us on Monday or Tuesday in the City. He is exceedingly obliging, and would I am sure not mind trouble if he could contribute to throw light on the subject of exchanges, yet I think he will not be inclined to publish anything under his own name as he gave great offence to the higher powers on a former occasion.
You have clearly stated the point of difference now between us; I think we never so well understood each other before. There are some causes which operate on the exchange which are in their nature of transitory duration; there are others which have a more permanent character. If we agree that a change of taste in one country for the commodities of the other,—and the transmission of a subsidy will produce certain effects on the exchange,—the only question between us is as to their[Pg 2] duration. I am of opinion that they will operate for a very considerable time and that in fact recourse is not had to bullion but as a last resort.
I cannot believe that you give a correct account of your habits of application any more than you did of your memory when I last saw you. From all my observations I should have been led to the very opposite conclusions from those which you have formed; and I believe most of your friends would be of my opinion. When you have once fairly begun, I expect that you will advance at a giant’s pace.
I beg you to remember me kindly to Mrs. Malthus.
I am, my dear Sir,
Yours very truly,
Stock Exchange, 22 March, 1810.
My dear Sir,
Mrs. Ricardo is expecting Mrs. Malthus to accompany her on Friday next to Knyvett’s concert, and will, I am sure, be very much disappointed at the information which I am to give her that she will not be able to accompany you to town. I will not however quite give up all hopes of seeing her.
You must positively not think of leaving us before Tuesday. I have engaged several of your friends to meet you at dinner on Monday, and I not only advance my own claims but those of Mr. Wishaw, Mr. Sharp, Mr. Tennant, and Mr. Dumont.[Pg 3]
I have been making enquiries concerning a bullion merchant. I find that the trade is mostly carried on by a class of people not particularly scrupulous in their modes of getting money, and I am told that they would not be very communicative, particularly on the subject of theirexports. There are however some well-informed merchants who know a great deal of the trade without themselves being actively engaged in it, to whom I hope I shall be able to introduce you.
I do not admit that if you were to double the medium of exchange it would fall to half its former value, not even if you were also to double the quantity of metal which was the standard of such medium. The consumption would increase in consequence of its diminished value, and the fall of its value would be regulated precisely by the same law as the fall in the value of indigo, sugar, or coffee.
Mr. Mushet will dine with us on Sunday. What do you think of Mr. Vansittart’s financial talents?
Yours very truly,
Note.—Speaking in the House of Commons on Agricultural Distress, on May 7, 1822, Ricardo gives an illustration which bears on some points in the foregoing and following letters: ‘Suppose my own case. I am possessed of a considerable quantity of land, the whole unburthened with a single debt. Now according to the honourable member (Mr. Attwood) I and the tenants on that land would have only been injured to the amount of the increase which the change in the value of money has made in the burthen of taxation; but we are in point of fact injured much more.’ ‘The superabundant supply’ has caused a sinking in the value of corn greater than in proportion to the additional quantity itself. To understand why, take the case of a commodity introduced for the first time, say a particular kind of superfine cloth: ‘If 10,000 yards of this cloth[Pg 4] were imported, under such circumstances, many persons would be desirous of purchasing it, and the price consequently would be enormously high. Suppose this quantity of cloth to be doubled; the aggregate value of the 20,000 yards would be much more considerable than the aggregate value of the 10,000 yards, for the article would still be scarce and therefore in great demand. If the quantity of cloth were to be again doubled, the effect would still be the same, for, although each particular yard of the 40,000 would fall in price, the value of the whole would be greater than that of the 20,000. But, if they went on in this way increasing the quantity of the cloth until it came within the reach of the purchase [sic] of every class in the country, from that time any addition to its quantity would diminish the aggregate value. This argument would apply to corn. Corn is an article which is necessarily limited in its consumption, and, if you went on increasing it in quantity, its aggregate value would be diminished beyond that of a smaller quantity. I make an exception in favour of money. If there were only £100,000 in this country, it would answer all the purposes of a more extended circulation; but, if the quantity were increased, the value of commodities would alter only in proportion to the increase, because there is no necessary limitation of the quantity of money [wanted].’ (Cf. Letter III, p. 3.) So on June 12th he says: ‘Quantity regulates the value of everything,’ though it is also true (he says in a speech of May 9, 1822) ‘that the price of every commodity is constituted by the wages of labour and the produce [sic] of stock.’
Stock Exchange, 24 March, 1810.
My dear Sir,
I have left you quite free for Friday, but I regret that your engagements will not conveniently allow you to come to us on that day. We shall expect you on Saturday morning. I hope Mrs. Malthus’ visit will not be deferred longer than the next meeting of the King of Clubs.
It appears to me that you ascribe the difference in the[Pg 5] variations of price which would probably be the effect of doubling the quantity of coffee, sugar, or indigo, on [the] one hand, or of doubling the quantity of the precious metals on the other, to a wrong cause. Coffee, sugar, and indigo are commodities for which, although there would be an increased use if they were to sink much in value, still, as they are not applicable to a great variety of new purposes, the demand would necessarily be limited; not so with gold and silver. These metals exist in a degree of scarcity, and are applicable to a great variety of new uses; the fall of their price, in consequence of augmented quantity, would always be checked, not only by an increased demand for those purposes to which they had before been applied, but to the want of them for entirely new employments. If they were in sufficient abundance, we might even make our tea-kettles and saucepans of them. It is to this essential difference between these commodities, and not to the circumstance of one of them being employed as a circulating medium, that I should attribute the different effects which would follow from the augmentation of their quantity. In any point of view however I do not see how it bears materially on the question between us, namely whether the precious metals are frequently resorted to for the payment of debts between countries when no disturbance has taken place in the amount or proportion of the currency.
I wonder as you do that the stocks have not felt the effects of Mr. Vansittart’s vigorous system. The delay which has taken place in creating new stock, the good news from abroad, and, above all, the want of reflection in the mass of stockholders may be considered as the cause.
Ever truly yours,
Note.—’The King of Clubs’ is described in the Life of Sir James Mackintosh, (by his son,—2nd ed. 1836), vol. i. p. 137[Pg 6] (under date 1800): ‘As an agreeable rallying point in addition to the ordinary meetings of a social circle, a dinner-club (christened “The King of Clubs” by Mr. Robert Smith [Bobus, brother of Sydney Smith]), was founded by a party at his [Mackintosh’s] house, consisting of himself [Mackintosh] and the five following gentlemen, all of whom still survive:—Mr. Rogers, Mr. Sharp, Mr. Robert Smith, Mr. Scarlett, and Mr. John Allen. To these original members were afterwards added the names of many of the most distinguished men of the time; and it was with parental pride and satisfaction that he received intelligence some time after of their “being compelled to exclude strangers and to limit their numbers, so that in what way ‘The King of Clubs’ eats, by what secret rites and institutions it is conducted, must be matter of conjecture to the ingenious antiquary, but can never be regularly transmitted to posterity by the faithful historian.”‘—The biographer adds in a note that the Club was suddenly dissolved in the year 1824. Some of the most distinguished members are enumerated, among them Ricardo (l. c. p. 138 n.). To judge by a letter of Mackintosh to Sharp on 29th June, 1804, the Club at that date included (besides the writer and his correspondent) only Sydney Smith, Scarlett, Boddington, the poet Rogers, Whishaw, and Horner (Mack. Life, vol. i. 209). The time of meeting seems to have been the first Saturday of every month. See below Letter XLIV, but cf. XLIII. Add Memoirs of Horner, i. 193, under date April 1802, and Holland’s Memoir of Sydney Smith i. 91, &c.
London, 10 Aug., 1810.
My dear Sir,
On my return to London, after a short excursion to Tunbridge Wells, I found your obliging letter…. On further reflection I am confirmed in the opinion which I gave with regard to the effect of opening new markets or extending the old. I most readily allow that since the war not only the nominal but the real value of our exports and imports has increased; but I do not see how[Pg 7] this admission will favour the view which you take of the subject.
England may have extended its carrying trade with the capital of other countries. Instead of exporting sugar and coffee direct from Guadaloupe and Martinique to the continent of Europe, the planters in those colonies may first export them to England, and from England to the continent. In this case the list of our exports and imports will be swelled without any increase of British capital. The taste for some foreign commodity may have increased in England at the expense of the consumption of some home commodity. This would again swell the value of our exports and imports, but does not prove a general increase of profits nor any material growth of prosperity.
I am of opinion that the increased value of commodities is always the effect of an increase either in the quantity of the circulating medium or in its power, by the improvements in economy [in] its use [sic],—and is never the cause. It is the diminished value, I mean nominal value, of commodities, which is the great cause of the increased production of the mines; but the increased nominal value of commodities can never call money into circulation. It is certainly an effect and not a cause. I am writing in a noisy place; you must therefore excuse all blunders. I must offer the same apology for my two half sheets. I did not like to copy the first half over again.
With best compliments to Mrs. Malthus, I remain,
Yours very sincerely,
Stock Exchange, 17 Aug., 1810.
My dear Sir,
… I cannot deny myself the pleasure of accepting your kind invitation for Saturday next. I will be with you at the usual hour.
That we have experienced a great increase of wealth and prosperity since the commencement of the war, I am amongst the foremost to believe; but it is not certain that such increase must have been attended by increased profits, or rather an increased rate of profits, for that is the question between us. I have little doubt however that for a long period, during the interval you mention, there has been an increased rate of profits, but it has been accompanied with such decided improvements of agriculture both here and abroad, for the French Revolution was exceedingly favourable to the increased production of food, that it is perfectly reconcileable to my theory. My conclusion is that there has been a rapid increase of capital, which has been prevented from showing itself in a low rate of interest by new facilities in the production of food. I quite agree that an increased value of particular commodities occasioned by demand has a tendency to occasion an increased circulation, but always in consequence of the cheapness of some other commodities. It is therefore their cheapness which is the immediate cause of the introduction of additional money.
I have not been home since I received your letter. I will look at the passage you refer me to in Adam Smith, and will consider of the other matters in your letter, so as to be prepared to give you my theory when we meet.[Pg 9]
The facts you have extracted from Wetenhall’s tables are curious, and are hardly reconcileable to any theory. I attribute many of them to the state of confusion into which Europe has been plunged by the extent and nature of the war; and it would be quite impossible to reason correctly from them without calculating what the state was of the real as well as the computed exchange during the periods referred to. Pray make my best respects to Mrs. Malthus, and believe me,
I lose no time in answering your obliging letter and endeavouring as far as lies in my power to remove the very few objections which prevent us from being precisely of the same opinion on the subject of money and the laws which regulate its value in the countries which have constant commercial intercourse with each other. I have no view in this discussion but that which you have avowed, the circulation of truth; if therefore I should fail to convince you, and you should express your opinions in print, it is immaterial to me whether you mention my name or not. I trust you will do that which shall most fully tend to establish the just principles of the science.
There does not appear to me to be any substantial difference between bullion and any other commodity as far as regards the regulation of its value and the laws which determine its exportation or importation. It is true that bullion, besides being a commodity useful in the arts, has been adopted universally as a measure of value and a medium of exchange; but it has not on that account been taken out of the list of commodities. A new use has been found for a[Pg 10] particular article; consequently there has been an increased demand for it and an augmented supply. This new use has made every man a dealer in bullion; he buys it to sell it again, and the general competition of all these dealers will as surely, and as strictly, regulate its value in every country, as the competition of the same or other dealers will regulate the value of all other commodities. I have your sanction for calling every purchaser of commodities a dealer in bullion; and, though in the language of commercial men the sellers of money are in all cases called purchasers, it is not on that account less true that they are sellers of one commodity and purchasers of another. The nature of corn was not changed by the discovery that a new use might be made of it by fermentation and distillation; and, if we should hereafter discover that it might be used for a hundred other purposes, contributing to the comforts and enjoyments of mankind, the demand for it would increase, and its price would in the first instance be considerably augmented; but this would be the only change it would undergo; it would continue to be imported and exported by the same rules as every other commodity. I have no doubt that on this point we should not differ; it remains therefore for you to show why the new uses, to which gold has been applied in consequence of its being adopted as the money of the world, should exempt it from the general law of competition, and why it should not certainly and invariably (invariably only as that term is applied to other commodities) seek the most advantageous market.
It is probable that the word ‘redundancy’ has not been happily chosen by me to express the impression made on my mind of the cause of an unfavourable balance of trade; but on looking over the article in the Review I find that you use it precisely in the sense in which I wish to convey my meaning, for you admit that a relatively redundant[Pg 11] currency may be, and frequently is, a cause of an unfavourable balance of trade; but you contend that it is not the only cause. Now I, so understanding the word, contend that it is the invariable cause. This relative redundancy may be produced as well by diminution of goods as by an actual increase of money (or which is the same thing by an increased economy in the use of it) in one country; or by an increased quantity of goods or by a diminished amount of money in another. In either of these cases a redundancy of money is produced as effectually as if the mines had become more productive. I do not deny that temporary fluctuations do occur in the value of the precious metals; on the contrary I maintain that those fluctuations never cease; but I attribute them all to one cause, namely a redundancy of the currency produced in one of the ways above mentioned, and not to the demand for particular commodities. These demands are in my opinion regulated by the relative state of the currency; they are not causes but effects. You appear to me not sufficiently to consider the circumstances [which] induce one country to contract a debt to another. [In] all the cases you bring forward you always suppose the [deb]t already contracted, forgetting that I uniformly contend that it is the relative state of the currency which is the motive to the contract itself. The corn, I say, will not be bought unless money be relatively redundant; you answer me by supposing it already bought and the question to be only concerning the payment. A merchant will not contract a debt for corn to a foreign country unless he is fully convinced that he shall obtain for that corn more money than he contracts to pay for it, and, if the commerce of the two countries were limited to these transactions, it would as satisfactorily prove to me that money was redundant in one country as that corn was redundant in the other. It would prove too that nothing but money was redundant. If indeed sugar were exported[Pg 12] by some other merchant, the debt for corn would be paid without the exportation of money, and I should say that sugar was the redundant commodity; and the exportation of sugar, the more redundant commodity, by diminishing the aggregate amount of commodities, would raise the value of money, so that in a short time money would, if corn continued to be imported and sugar exported, no longer be redundant even as compared with corn. Your observation is just, concerning the extra expenses attending the exportation of bulky commodities; but in all these discussions we must suppose these expenses to make part of the price of the commodity; our comparison is made on the prices at which the importer could afford to sell them, and those prices necessarily include expenses of every sort. I do not think that the knowledge of the computed exchange of Jamaica would throw any light on the subject in dispute. I will, however, endeavour to learn every particular concerning it, and hope to be able on Saturday next to pay you a visit in Hertfordshire, when we will further discuss these seeming difficulties.
I am, dear Sir, with great respect,
Your obedient Servant,
Throgmorton Street, 18th June, 1811.
I have been so much engaged since I had the pleasure of receiving your letter that I have not had an opportunity of answering it till this evening.
The information which you are desirous of obtaining respecting the premium on bills in Jamaica from the year[Pg 13] 1808 to the present period, I will endeavour to procure, but, as these transactions all take place in Jamaica, and as the merchants here are frequently not acquainted with the prices at which the bills remitted to them are negociated, I am not sure that I shall be successful.
I very much regret that there is so little probability of our finally agreeing on the subject which has lately engaged our attention. The definition which you give of the word ‘redundant,’ as applied to the currency, is not satisfactory to me. Though it should be allowed that the rise in the price of one commodity, in the case of a scarcity of corn, should be accompanied with a fall in the prices of all others, why should a redundancy of currency be impossible under such circumstances? The currency must, I apprehend, be considered as a whole, and as such must be compared with the whole of the commodities which it circulates. If then it be in a greater proportion to commodities after than before the scarce harvest, whilst no such alteration has taken place in the proportions between money and commodities abroad, it appears to me that no expression can more correctly describe such a state of things than a ‘relative redundancy of currency.’ Under these circumstances not only money but every other commodity would become comparatively cheap as compared with corn, and would therefore be exported in return for the corn which would be in demand in this country. By relative redundance then I mean, relative cheapness, and the exportation of the commodity I deem, in all ordinary cases, the proof of such cheapness. Indeed, from one who allows that the amount of money employed in any country is regulated by its value, and might therefore be comparatively redundant though it consisted only of a million, or deficient though it amounted to a hundred millions, I should not have expected any difference of opinion on the comparative cheapness of money being the only satisfactory[Pg 14] proof of its redundance. If however I thought that the difference between us was as to the correct use of a word, I should immediately yield the point in dispute, but I am persuaded that we do not agree in the principle. You are of opinion that a bad harvest will raise the price of corn, but will lower in some degree the prices of other commodities. Whether it would or would not do so is not material; but, if your opinion is correct, then I say there would be no exportation of money, because money would not be the cheapest exportable commodity. If, before the deficient harvest, money was at the same value in any two countries, that is to say all their exportable commodities without exception were at the same prices in both, then, according to your view of the question, after the scarcity the prices of all commodities would fall in the country where such scarcity occurred. Whilst then the prices were unequal in the two countries, commodities only would be exported in exchange for corn, and there would be no question between us, because we differ as to the cause of the exportation of money. You have indeed said that there may be a glut of commodities in the foreign market. What! a glut of commodities with a dearer price! impossible,—these two circumstances are incompatible. If the price of any commodity had been £20 in both countries and in consequence of the bad harvest it had been lowered to £15 in one of them, there could not be a glut of that commodity in the other country till it had there also fallen to £15. Not only must the price of one commodity fall in the foreign market, but the prices of all (because you suppose them all to have fallen in England) before money could be exported in exchange for corn, and then I would allow that money would be exported, but even then it would be so only because it was more cheap on the whole, as compared with commodities in the exporting country, and this I contend is[Pg 15] the proof of its relative redundance. You maintain that money is rendered cheap by a bad harvest as compared with corn only, but with all other commodities it is dearer than before,—and then, what appears to me very inconsistent, you insist that this commodity thus rendered scarce and dear will be exported, though, before it had increased in value, it had no tendency to leave us, whilst too there are commodities which have undergone an opposite change, which from being dearer have become cheaper, and which will nevertheless be obstinately retained by us. This is a mode of reasoning which I cannot reconcile.
With respect to the other point, namely, that the exchange accurately measures the depreciation of the currency, I cannot but humbly retain that opinion notwithstanding the high authorities against me. I do not mean to contend that a convulsed state of the exchange, such as would be caused by a subsidy granted to a foreign power, would accurately measure the value of the currency, because a demand for bills arising from such a cause would not be in consequence of the natural commerce of the country. Such a demand would therefore have the effect of forcing the exports of commodities by means of the bounty which the exchange would afford. After the subsidy was paid the exchange would again accurately express the value of the currency. The same effects would follow, as in the case of a subsidy, from the foreign expenditure of Government. These have a natural tendency to create an unfavourable exchange, yet if the demand for bills is regular it is surprising how this bounty on exportation will be reduced by the competition amongst the exporters of commodities. I am of opinion that in the ordinary course of affairs, if, from any of the circumstances so often mentioned, there should be a slight alteration in the value of the currencies of any two countries, it[Pg 16] will speedily be communicated to the exchange; and, if such a state of things should permanently continue, the exchange has no tendency to correct itself. The fact however appears to be that there is no degree of permanence in the proportions between the currencies and the commodities of nations,—they are subject to constant fluctuations always approaching an absolute level but never really finding it. I hope I have not wearied you with the defence which I have endeavoured to make for the opinions which I have imbibed. I assure you that I am not obstinately attached to any system, but am ready to relinquish any views I may have taken as soon as I am satisfied that they are incorrect. I shall not fail attentively to consider the chapters in Sir J. Steuart’s work which you have mentioned. I hope before the summer is over to pay you a visit at Hertford.
I am, dear Sir,
Yours very sincerely,
New Grove, Mile End, 17 July, 1811.
I hoped long ere this to have had the pleasure of seeing you in London. I am anxious for an opportunity of introducing Mrs. Malthus and Mrs. Ricardo to each other, and I shall certainly claim the half promise which Mrs. Malthus made me on that subject when I experienced your hospitality at Hertford. We have few engagements, and have a bed always at your disposal, so that I shall hope on your very first visit to London you will favour me by occupying it.[Pg 17]
A friend of mine has been writing on the subject of bullion. I take the liberty of sending you the MS. If you could look over it and give me your opinion of it you will much oblige me. He would be induced to prepare it for the press if he thought that the mode in which the argument is put is more likely to silence our adversaries and convince those who are not our adversaries than the mode in which it has been put by any other person. Should you be so engaged that you cannot devote your attention to it at the present time, use no ceremony with me, but return the MS. by the coach, directed to me at No. 16 Throgmorton Street. With best respects to Mrs. Malthus,
I am, dear Sir,
Yours very truly,
Stock Exchange, 17th Oct., 1811.
Throgmorton Street, 22nd Oct., 1811.
I am exceedingly obliged to you for the trouble which you have taken in looking over the papers which I sent you, and for the remarks which you have made upon them. Notwithstanding your flattering encouragement I think I shall not have sufficient confidence again to address the public;—the object which I had in view is completely attained,—the public attention has been awakened, and the discussion is now in the most able hands. I regret, however, that you cannot bring yourself to subscribe to my doctrine respecting the exchange being influenced by no other causes but by the relation which the amount of currency bears to the uses for which it is required in the[Pg 18] different nations of the earth. This may proceed from your interpreting my proposition somewhat too rigidly. I wish to prove that if nations truly understood their own interest they would never export money from one country to another but on account of comparative redundancy. I assume indeed that nations in their commercial transactions are so alive to their advantage and profit, particularly in the present improved state of the division of employments and abundance of capital, that in point of fact money never does move but when it is advantageous both to the country which sends and the country that receives that it should do so. The first point to be considered is, what is the interest of countries in the case supposed? The second what is their practice? Now it is obvious that I need not be greatly solicitous about this latter point; it is sufficient for my purpose if I can clearly demonstrate that the interest of the public is as I have stated it. It would be no answer to me to say that men were ignorant of the best and cheapest mode of conducting their business and paying their debts, because that is a question of fact not of science, and might be urged against almost every proposition in Political Economy. It rests with you therefore to prove that a case can exist where it may become the interest of a nation to pay a debt by the transmission of money rather than in any other mode, when money is not the cheapest exportable commodity,—when money (taking into account all expenses which may attend the exportation of different commodities as well as money) will not purchase more goods abroad than it will at home. You appear to me to have repeatedly admitted that it is the relative prices of commodities which regulates their exportation. Is it not[Pg 19] then as certain that money will go to that country where the major part of goods are cheap, as that goods will go to any other country where the major part are dear? I say the major part, because if the cheapness of one half of the exportable commodities be balanced by the dearness of the other half, in both countries, it is obvious that the commerce of such countries will be confined to the exchange of goods only. When you say that money will go abroad to pay a debt or a subsidy, or to buy corn, although it be not superabundant, but at the same time admit that [it] will speedily return and be exchanged for goods, you ap[pear to me] to concede all for which I contend, namely, that [it will] be the interest of both countries, when money is not superabundant in the one owing the debt, that the expense of exporting the money should be spared, because it will be followed by another useless expense,—sending it back again.
If in any country there exists a dearness of importable commodities and no corresponding cheapness of exportable commodities, money in such country is above its natural level and must infallibly be exported in payment of the dear commodities,—but what does this state of things indicate but an excess of currency, and it may surely be correctly said that money is exported to restore the level not to destroy it. I ought to apologise for again troubling you with my opinions, but you have drawn me into it. I shall be happy to renew our conversation on these disputed points as soon as you can make it convenient to visit us in London, and I trust it will not be long before Mrs. Malthus and you will favour us with your company. On some future day I shall have great pleasure in again visiting you at Hertford.
I am, dear Sir,
Yours very truly,
New Grove, Mile End, 22nd Dec., 1811.
My dear Sir,
I write to you, in the first place, to remind you that Mrs. Ricardo and I fully depend on having the pleasure of Mrs. Malthus’ and your company at Mile-end in the next month, when we hope that our endeavours to make your visit comfortable will induce you to make a long stay with us. In the second place, I am desirous of correcting some of the errors in the papers which I left with you and which I have been enabled to discover, as I have many others, by the ingenious arguments with which you have opposed my conclusions. In my endeavours to trace the effects of a subsidy in forcing the exportation of commodities, I stated, if I recollect rightly, that it would occasion, first, a demand for bills; secondly, an exportation of all those commodities the prices of which already differed so much, in the two countries, as to require only the trifling stimulus which the first fall in the exchange would afford; thirdly, a real alteration in the relative state of prices, viz. a rise in the exporting and a fall in the importing country,—in a degree too to counterbalance the advantage from the unfavourable exchange; and lastly, a further fall of the exchange and a consequent exportation of an additional quantity of goods and then of money till the subsidy were paid. It appears, then, that if the subsidy were small it would be wholly paid by the exportation of commodities, as the fall in the exchange would be sufficient to encourage their exportation, but not sufficient to encourage the exportation of money. If the exportation of money were in the same proportion as the exportation of commodities, that is to say, supposing the commodities of a country to be equal to 100, and its money equal to two, then if not less than one fiftieth of the[Pg 21] exports in payment of the subsidy consisted of money, prices would after such payment be the same as before in both countries, and, although the exchange must have fallen to that limit at which the exportation of money became profitable, it would immediately have a tendency to recover, and would shortly rise to par; but it is precisely because less than this proportion of money will be exported that the exchange will continue permanently unfavourable and will have no tendency to rise, more than it will have to fall.
I believe you admit, that in the case of an augmentation of 2 per cent. to our currency, although it were wholly metallic, the prices of commodities would rise in this country 2 per cent. above their former level, and that such rise being confined to this country alone it would check exportation and encourage importation; the consequence of which would be a demand for bills and a fall in the exchange. This rise of prices and fall of the exchange, proceeding from what you do not object to call a redundant currency, would not be temporary but permanent, unless it were corrected by a reduction of the amount of the currency here, or by some change in the relative amount of the currencies of other countries. That these would be the effects of a direct augmentation of currency, I believe, you, with very few qualifications, admit. Now, as a bad harvest or the vote of a subsidy tend [sic] to produce the very same effects, namely, a relative state of high prices at home, accompanied by an unfavourable exchange, they admit only of the same cure,—and, as in the case of an augmentation of currency the exchange would have no tendency to rise, neither would it in the case of a subsidy, the unfavourable exchange being in both instances produced by a redundant currency, or in more popular language by a relative state of prices which renders the exportation of money most profitable. I have[Pg 22] uniformly maintained that the money of the world is distributed amongst the different countries according to their commerce and payments, and that, if in any country it should from any cause happen to exceed that proportion, the excess would infallibly be exported to be divided amongst the other countries. I have, however, always supposed that my readers would understand me to mean that this would be strictly the fact only if money could be exported free from all expense. If the expenses of exporting money to France be 3 per cent., to Vienna 5 per cent., to Russia 6 per cent., and to the East Indies 8 per cent., the currency of England may exceed its natural level as compared with those countries by 3, 5, 6, and 8 per cent. respectively, and consequently the exchange may permanently continue depressed in th[ose pr]oportions. If an excess of currency once occurs, [the unfa]vourable exchange must continue till some alterati[on in] the relative amount of currency. The circumstances which [may] occasion such an alteration are numerous, and are fully detailed in the papers which I left with you. To the precise agreement between the effects of an augmented currency and the effects of a subsidy I most particularly request your attention, as on such agreement depends the whole success of the argument which I am advancing in favour of my opinion that an unfavourable exchange has no tendency to correct itself. It may be urged that the relative state of high prices at home occasioned by an augmentation of currency is the natural effect of such a cause, but that this is not the case in a subsidy; that the exportation of commodities in payment of a subsidy is forced, and that it will produce a glut in the foreign market, but that after the subsidy is paid and the necessity for exportation shall cease prices will rise in the foreign market to their former rate. This however will not be true. Commodities may rise in a trifling degree abroad, but cannot regain their[Pg 23] former rate unless the exchange should also rise to par, but this it can never do whilst the demand for bills do[es] not exceed the supply. Now, as the prices of foreign commodities in the home market, which could not have been supplied in the usual abundance during the operation of the subsidy when we had a large balance to pay, would fall, and would be in greater demand from the moment that our commodities would be received in exchange, the exportation of our goods would be balanced by the importation of foreign goods, and the sellers of bills would neither exceed nor fall short of the purchasers. These are the substance of the amendments which I wish to make to my paper, which is now so faulty that I shall be glad to have it returned to me. Have the goodness to bring it with you when you come to town.
I am, my dear Sir,
Yours with great esteem,
London, 29th, August, 1812.
My dear Sir,
I intend leaving town this evening for Ramsgate, where I think I shall stay about a fortnight, so that I cannot accept your kind invitation for Saturday next; but I hope it will not be long before I bend my steps towards your hospitable roof. If on Saturday the 19th of September you should be quite disengaged and it should be every way convenient to you and Mrs. Malthus, I shall be glad to take tea with you on the evening of that day. I shall be obliged to quit you on the Monday morning. I hope I need not say that I shall be exceedingly sorry if I put you to the least inconvenience and that it will[Pg 24] be equally agreeable to me to visit you on any Saturday after the 19th if I am not engaged to go to Ramsgate.
Perhaps you will be so good as to write a few lines directed to the Stock Exchange a few days previously to the 19th as I shall certainly be in town at that time. I am obliged to you for the interest you take in the price of Omnium. It appears to be in a very thriving condition. Mr. Goldsmid informs me that at the period of the improvement in the exchange about Christmas last there were no importations, as far as he knows, of gold from France. A small quantity was imported from Lisbon. I have consulted Wetenhall’s list, and the following appear to be the variations in the exchange and the price of gold about Christmas last.
|1811.||£ s. d.||£ s. d.|
|Nov. 29||24||4 15 0|
|Dec. 3||24·6||4 18 6|
|” 6||24·6||4 14 6||4 18 6|
|” 13||25||4 15 6|
|” 20||25||4 19 0|
|Jan. 3||27·6||4 14 0||4 18 6|
|” 31||27·6||4 18 6|
|Feb. 21||28||4 17 0|
|Mar. 20||29||4 15 6|
|” 31||29·4||4 14 6||4 13 6|
|April 21||29·4||4 17 6||4 17 6|
|June 5||28·6||4 18 6|
|July 31||28·9||4 19 0||5 0 0|
|Aug. 28||28·9||5 0 0|
The price of dollars yesterday was 6/3½ per oz., higher[Pg 25] by one penny than any price ever yet quoted. I should think that a very trifling rise more will send the tokens out of circulation. We will speak on our old subject when we meet. I am now in great haste and must therefore conclude. Pray make my kind compliments to Mrs. Malthus,
And believe me, my dear Sir,
Yours very truly,
[At the end is written in pencil in Malthus’s handwriting, ‘Was any bullion imported from Hamburg in March?’]
London, 17 Dec., 1812.
My dear Sir,
I have written to Mr. Thornton to request him to meet you at dinner, at my house, on any day most convenient to him, after Saturday and before Thursday, but I have not had his answer in time for this day’s post. I will send you a line at the King of Clubs. I shall only ask Mr. Sharp to meet us. Will you not stay with us whilst you are in town? I assure you it would be quite convenient, and it would afford me great pleasure. If Mrs. Malthus accompany you it will be still more agreeable, and I am desired by Mrs. Ricardo to add her solicitations to my own.
On many points connected with our old question we are I believe agreed,—though there is yet some difference between us. I have not lately given it so much consideration as you have,—and I always regret that I do not put down in writing, for I have a very treacherous memory, the chief points of difference that occur in our discussions. I cannot help thinking that there is no un[Pg 26]favourable exchange which may not be corrected by a diminution in the amount of the currency, and I consider this to afford a proof that the currency must be redundant for a time at least. Whilst the exchange is unfavourable it is always accompanied, though not always caused, by an excess of currency. With best respects to Mrs. Malthus,
I am, my dear Sir,
Yours most truly,
… As I was about leaving the city I received Mr. Thornton’s answer. He is engaged on Wednesday and Thursday, and has fixed on Monday for our meeting, but he wishes us to meet at his house as there is to be a debate in the House of Lords on the Bullion question, and he is not sure that his presence may not be necessary in the Commons. I will settle this point with him, and if you do not hear from me I shall expect you at my house on Monday, if you do not agree to come on Saturday evening.
Note.—Thomas Tooke, in his ‘History of Prices and of the State of the Circulation from 1839 to 1847’ (publ. 1848), refers to this dispute between Ricardo and Malthus, on the relation of the currency to the balance of trade, and quotes long extracts from the article of Malthus in the Edinburgh Review, where (as in this correspondence) Malthus maintains that the precious metals are continually used in payments made by one country to another even if, till that moment, the currencies of both have been at their usual level. The view of Ricardo is that nothing but the state of the currency can influence the foreign exchanges. As late as 1840 statesmen clung to the idea that the Directors of the Bank of England could only operate on the exchanges by increasing or diminishing the circulation. Tooke (followed later by Newmarch, hardly a less authority) sides with Malthus, and thinks that[Pg 27] Ricardo’s reply to him, in the Appendix to the Tract on Bullion, is ‘little more than a repetition in varied forms of expression, according to the phraseology peculiar to the theory in question, of the axiom that gold will not be exported unless it is cheaper than another commodity, assuming consequently the fact to have been that all commodities were at that time dearer in this country than they were abroad, and relatively to gold;’—whereas it appears that between 1809 and 1811 the bulk of commodities were at a far higher price (measured in gold) on the Continent than in England; the ‘continental system’ had forced vast stores of goods to lie unsaleable in England for want of physical ability, on the part of the merchants of them, to land them on the Continent, though they did their best to smuggle them by way of Heligoland or Turkey into Germany and the door of Portugal was ajar. Coffee was unsaleable in England at 6d. the pound, and at the same time it was fetching 4s. or 5s. on the Continent. Napoleon used to look at the English price current, and, if he found gold dear and coffee cheap in England, he was satisfied that his Berlin and Milan decrees were well carried out, while the English saw only another proof that the Bank was extending its issues overmuch. Tooke and Malthus agreed that the difference between the market price and the mint price of gold bullion was the full measure of the depreciation of the currency; but the ‘ultra-bullionists’ would not stop there. Tooke, like Ricardo on another occasion (see Letter XLII), had to ‘write a book to convince’ them, namely his ‘Thoughts and Details on the High and Low Prices of the last Thirty years,’ (1823).
London, 30th Dec., 1813.
My dear Sir,
I have been amusing myself for one or two evenings in calculating the exchanges, price of gold, etc., at Amsterdam, and I enclose the result of my labour. I have every reason to believe that my calculations are correct,—though[Pg 28] I am somewhat puzzled at the profit which there appears to be on the importation of gold from Amsterdam, if the prices there be quoted correct [sic]. If the difference were the other way, we might ascribe it to the money of Holland not being so good as it ought to be by the mint regulations; but in the present instance for guilders, as good as they are coined, gold can be bought 9½ per cent. cheaper than in London. I am told that gold which cannot be exported has sunk considerably in price although gold that may be exported keeps its price. I fully expect that foreign gold will be lower.
We have had a continuance of foggy weather ever since Monday. We are obliged to burn candles during the day, and at night it is with the greatest difficulty we can find our way to our homes. I hope you are more fortunate and breathe a clearer atmosphere. We shall expect you in Brook Street on your next visit to London. Have the goodness to write the day before you come. With best wishes to Mrs. Malthus,
I am, dear Sir,
Yours very truly,
[TABLES ENCLOSED IN LETTER XII.]
Columns 11 and 12 will show on inspection whether silver be passing from London to Amsterdam or from Amsterdam to London. S uppose the price of silver in London to be 6s. 7d. and the exchange with Amsterdam 28s. Against 6s. 7d. in column 11 the par of exchange is 29·41 in column 12; consequently being at 28 it is unfavourable to Amsterdam, and silver can be exported from Amsterdam to London with a profit of 5 per cent. If under the same circumstances the exchange had been 31, silver could have been exported to Amsterdam with a profit of 5 per cent.
Columns 8, 9 and 10 will show from which country gold may be profitably exported. Suppose the price of gold in Amsterdam to be 16 per cent. premium, the agio 3 per cent., the exchange with London 31, and the price of gold in London £5 10s., from which country would gold be exported and with what profit?
Against 16 per cent. in column 1 the par of exchange in column 8 is 39·64, and against £5 10s. the price of gold in London in column 9 the multiplier ·708 stands in column 10. 39·64 multiplied by ·708 gives 28·06 as the par for bank notes; therefore, when the exchange is at 31, it is unfavourable to Holland, and gold may be exported from thence with a profit of 10½ per cent. nearly. Or thus: an oz. of standard gold, when the marc could be bought at 16 per cent. premium at Amsterdam, would cost 154·3 Flemish shillings banco, when the agio was 3 per cent., which reduced into English money at 31 [Flemish] shillings per £ sterling will give £4 19s. 6¾d. But it will sell in London for £5 10s.which is a profit of 10½ per cent. nearly.” David Ricardo, Letters of David Ricardo to Thomas Robert Malthus, 1810-1823; Preface & #’s I-XIII, 1810 et seq
Numero Dos—“My going to Valencia was entirely an accident. But the more often I stated that fact, the more satisfied was everyone at the capital that I had come on some secret mission. Even the venerable politician who acted as our minister, the night of my arrival, after dinner, said confidentially, ‘Now, Mr. Crosby, between ourselves, what’s the game?”What’s what game?’ I asked.
‘You know what I mean,’ he returned. ‘What are you here for?’
But when, for the tenth time, I repeated how I came to be marooned in Valencia he showed that his feelings were hurt, and said stiffly: ‘As you please. Suppose we join the ladies.’
And the next day his wife reproached me with: ‘I should think you could trust your own minister. My husband NEVER talks—not even to me.’
‘So I see,’ I said.
And then her feelings were hurt also, and she went about telling people I was an agent of the Walker-Keefe crowd.
My only reason for repeating here that my going to Valencia was an accident is that it was because Schnitzel disbelieved that fact, and to drag the hideous facts from me followed me back to New York. Through that circumstance I came to know him, and am able to tell his story.
The simple truth was that I had been sent by the State Department to Panama to “go, look, see,” and straighten out a certain conflict of authority among the officials of the canal zone. While I was there the yellow-fever broke out, and every self-respecting power clapped a quarantine on the Isthmus, with the result that when I tried to return to New York no steamer would take me to any place to which any white man would care to go. But I knew that at Valencia there was a direct line to New York, so I took a tramp steamer down the coast to Valencia. I went to Valencia only because to me every other port in the world was closed. My position was that of the man who explained to his wife that he came home because the other places were shut.
But, because, formerly in Valencia I had held a minor post in our legation, and because the State Department so constantly consults our firm on questions of international law, it was believed I revisited Valencia on some mysterious and secret mission.
As a matter of fact, had I gone there to sell phonographs or to start a steam laundry, I should have been as greatly suspected. For in Valencia even every commercial salesman, from the moment he gives up his passport on the steamer until the police permit him to depart, is suspected, shadowed, and begirt with spies.
I believe that during my brief visit I enjoyed the distinction of occupying the undivided attention of three: a common or garden Government spy, from whom no guilty man escapes, a Walker-Keefe spy, and the spy of the Nitrate Company. The spy of the Nitrate Company is generally a man you meet at the legations and clubs. He plays bridge and is dignified with the title of “agent.” The Walker-Keefe spy is ostensibly a travelling salesman or hotel runner. The Government spy is just a spy—a scowling, important little beast in a white duck suit and a diamond ring. The limit of his intelligence is to follow you into a cigar store and note what cigar you buy, and in what kind of money you pay for it.
The reason for it all was the three-cornered fight which then was being waged by the Government, the Nitrate Trust, and the Walker-Keefe crowd for the possession of the nitrate beds. Valencia is so near to the equator, and so far from New York, that there are few who studied the intricate story of that disgraceful struggle, which, I hasten to add, with the fear of libel before my eyes, I do not intend to tell now.
Briefly, it was a triangular fight between opponents each of whom was in the wrong, and each of whom, to gain his end, bribed, blackmailed, and robbed, not only his adversaries, but those of his own side, the end in view being the possession of those great deposits that lie in the rocks of Valencia, baked from above by the tropic sun and from below by volcanic fires. As one of their engineers, one night in the Plaza, said to me: “Those mines were conceived in hell, and stink to heaven, and the reputation of every man of us that has touched them smells like the mines.”
At the time I was there the situation was “acute.” In Valencia the situation always is acute, but this time it looked as though something might happen. On the day before I departed the Nitrate Trust had cabled vehemently for war-ships, the Minister of Foreign Affairs had refused to receive our minister, and at Porto Banos a mob had made the tin sign of the United States consulate look like a sieve. Our minister urged me to remain. To be bombarded by one’s own war-ships, he assured me, would be a thrilling experience.
But I repeated that my business was with Panama, not Valencia, and that if in this matter of his row I had any weight at Washington, as between preserving the nitrate beds for the trust, and preserving for his country and various sweethearts one brown-throated, clean-limbed bluejacket, I was for the bluejacket.
Accordingly, when I sailed from Valencia the aged diplomat would have described our relations as strained.
Our ship was a slow ship, listed to touch at many ports, and as early as noon on the following day we stopped for cargo at Trujillo. It was there I met Schnitzel.
In Panama I had bought a macaw for a little niece of mine, and while we were taking on cargo I went ashore to get a tin cage in which to put it, and, for direction, called upon our consul. From an inner room he entered excitedly, smiling at my card, and asked how he might serve me. I told him I had a parrot below decks, and wanted to buy a tin cage.
“Exactly. You want a tin cage,” the consul repeated soothingly. “The State Department doesn’t keep me awake nights cabling me what it’s going to do,” he said, “but at least I know it doesn’t send a thousand-dollar-a-minute, four-cylinder lawyer all the way to this fever swamp to buy a tin cage. Now, honest, how can I serve you?” I saw it was hopeless. No one would believe the truth. To offer it to this friendly soul would merely offend his feelings and his intelligence.
So, with much mystery, I asked him to describe the “situation,” and he did so with the exactness of one who believes that within an hour every word he speaks will be cabled to the White House.
When I was leaving he said: “Oh, there’s a newspaper correspondent after you. He wants an interview, I guess. He followed you last night from the capital by train. You want to watch out he don’t catch you. His name is Jones.” I promised to be on my guard against a man named Jones, and the consul escorted me to the ship. As he went down the accommodation ladder, I called over the rail: “In case they SHOULD declare war, cable to Curacoa, and I’ll come back. And don’t cable anything indefinite, like ‘Situation critical’ or ‘War imminent.’ Understand? Cable me, ‘Come back’ or ‘Go ahead.’ But whatever you cable, make it CLEAR.”
He shook his head violently and with his green-lined umbrella pointed at my elbow. I turned and found a young man hungrily listening to my words. He was leaning on the rail with his chin on his arms and the brim of his Panama hat drawn down to conceal his eyes.
On the pier-head, from which we now were drawing rapidly away, the consul made a megaphone of his hands.
“That’s HIM,” he called. “That’s Jones.”
Jones raised his head, and I saw that the tropical heat had made Jones thirsty, or that with friends he had been celebrating his departure. He winked at me, and, apparently with pleasure at his own discernment and with pity for me, smiled.
“Oh, of course!” he murmured. His tone was one of heavy irony. “Make it ‘clear.’ Make it clear to the whole wharf. Shout it out so’s everybody can hear you. You’re ‘clear’ enough.” His disgust was too deep for ordinary words. “My uncle!” he exclaimed.
By this I gathered that he was expressing his contempt.
“I beg your pardon?” I said.
We had the deck to ourselves. Its emptiness suddenly reminded me that we had the ship, also, to ourselves. I remembered the purser had told me that, except for those who travelled overnight from port to port, I was his only passenger.
With dismay I pictured myself for ten days adrift on the high seas—alone with Jones.
With a dramatic gesture, as one would say, “I am here!” he pushed back his Panama hat. With an unsteady finger he pointed, as it was drawn dripping across the deck, at the stern hawser.
“You see that rope?” he demanded. “Soon as that rope hit the water I knocked off work. S’long as you was in Valencia—me, on the job. Now, YOU can’t go back, I can’t go back. Why further dissim’lation? WHO AM I?”
His condition seemed to preclude the possibility of his knowing who he was, so I told him.
He sneered as I have seen men sneer only in melodrama.
“Oh, of course,” he muttered. “Oh, of course.”
He lurched toward me indignantly.
“You know perfec’ly well Jones is not my name. You know perfec’ly well who I am.”
“My dear sir,” I said, “I don’t know anything about you, except that your are a damned nuisance.”
He swayed from me, pained and surprised. Apparently he was upon an outbreak of tears.
“Proud,” he murmured, “AND haughty. Proud and haughty to the last.”
I never have understood why an intoxicated man feels the climax of insult is to hurl at you your name. Perhaps because he knows it is the one charge you cannot deny. But invariably before you escape, as though assured the words will cover your retreat with shame, he throws at you your full title. Jones did this.
Slowly and mercilessly he repeated, “Mr.—George—Morgan—Crosby. Of Harvard,” he added. “Proud and haughty to the last.”
He then embraced a passing steward, and demanded to be informed why the ship rolled. He never knew a ship to roll as our ship rolled.
“Perfec’ly satisfact’ry ocean, but ship—rolling like a stone-breaker. Take me some place in the ship where this ship don’t roll.”
The steward led him away.
When he had dropped the local pilot the captain beckoned me to the bridge.
“I saw you talking to Mr. Schnitzel,” he said. “He’s a little under the weather. He has too light a head for liquors.”
I agreed that he had a light head, and said I understood his name was Jones.
“That’s what I wanted to tell you,” said the captain. “His name is Schnitzel. He used to work for the Nitrate Trust in New York. Then he came down here as an agent. He’s a good boy not to tell things to. Understand? Sometimes I carry him under one name, and the next voyage under another. The purser and he fix it up between ‘em. It pleases him, and it don’t hurt anybody else, so long as I tell them about it. I don’t know who he’s working for now,” he went on, “but I know he’s not with the Nitrate Company any more. He sold them out.”
“How could he?” I asked. “He’s only a boy.”
“He had a berth as typewriter to Senator Burnsides, president of the Nitrate Trust, sort of confidential stenographer,” said the captain. “Whenever the senator dictated an important letter, they say, Schnitzel used to make a carbon copy, and when he had enough of them he sold them to the Walker-Keefe crowd. Then, when Walker-Keefe lost their suit in the Valencia Supreme Court I guess Schnitzel went over to President Alvarez. And again, some folks say he’s back with the Nitrate Company.”
“After he sold them out?”
“Yes, but you see he’s worth more to them now. He knows all the Walker-Keefe secrets and Alvarez’s secrets, too.”
I expressed my opinion of every one concerned.
“It shouldn’t surprise YOU,” complained the captain. “You know the country. Every man in it is out for something that isn’t his. The pilot wants his bit, the health doctor must get his, the customs take all your cigars, and if you don’t put up gold for the captain of the port and the alcalde and the commandant and the harbor police and the foreman of the cargadores, they won’t move a lighter, and they’ll hold up the ship’s papers. Well, an American comes down here, honest and straight and willing to work for his wages. But pretty quick he finds every one is getting his squeeze but him, so he tries to get some of it back by robbing the natives that robbed him. Then he robs the other foreigners, and it ain’t long before he’s cheating the people at home who sent him here. There isn’t a man in this nitrate row that isn’t robbing the crowd he’s with, and that wouldn’t change sides for money. Schnitzel’s no worse than the president nor the canteen contractor.”
He waved his hand at the glaring coast-line, at the steaming swamps and the hot, naked mountains.
“It’s the country that does it,” he said. “It’s in the air. You can smell it as soon as you drop anchor, like you smell the slaughter-house at Punta-Arenas.”
“How do YOU manage to keep honest,” I asked, smiling.
“I don’t take any chances,” exclaimed the captain seriously. “When I’m in their damned port I don’t go ashore.”
I did not again see Schnitzel until, with haggard eyes and suspiciously wet hair, he joined the captain, doctor, purser, and myself at breakfast. In the phrases of the Tenderloin, he told us cheerfully that he had been grandly intoxicated, and to recover drank mixtures of raw egg, vinegar, and red pepper, the sight of which took away every appetite save his own. When to this he had added a bottle of beer, he declared himself a new man. The new man followed me to the deck, and with the truculent bearing of one who expects to be repelled, he asked if, the day before, he had not made a fool of himself.
I suggested he had been somewhat confidential. At once he recovered his pose and patronized me.
“Don’t you believe it,” he said. “That’s all part of my game. ‘Confidence for confidence’ is the way I work it. That’s how I learn things. I tell a man something on the inside, and he says: ‘Here’s a nice young fellow. Nothing standoffish about him,’ and he tells me something he shouldn’t. Like as not what I told him wasn’t true. See?”
I assured him he interested me greatly.
“You find, then, in your line of business,” I asked, “that apparent frankness is advisable? As a rule,” I explained, “secrecy is what a—a person in your line—a—”
To save his feelings I hesitated at the word.
“A spy,” he said. His face beamed with fatuous complacency.
“But if I had not known you were a spy,” I asked, “would not that have been better for you?”
“In dealing with a party like you, Mr. Crosby,” Schnitzel began sententiously, “I use a different method. You’re on a secret mission yourself, and you get your information about the nitrate row one way, and I get it another. I deal with you just like we were drummers in the same line of goods. We are rivals in business, but outside of business hours perfect gentleman.”
In the face of the disbelief that had met my denials of any secret mission, I felt to have Schnitzel also disbelieve me would be too great a humiliation. So I remained silent.
“You make your report to the State Department,” he explained, “and I make mine to—my people. Who they are doesn’t matter. You’d like to know, and I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but—that’s MY secret.”
My only feelings were a desire to kick Schnitzel heavily, but for Schnitzel to suspect that was impossible. Rather, he pictured me as shaken by his disclosures.
As he hung over the rail the glare of the sun on the tumbling water lit up his foolish, mongrel features, exposed their cunning, their utter lack of any character, and showed behind the shifty eyes the vacant, half-crooked mind.
Schnitzel was smiling to himself with a smile of complete self-satisfaction. In the light of his later conduct, I grew to understand that smile. He had anticipated a rebuff, and he had been received, as he read it, with consideration. The irony of my politeness he had entirely missed. Instead, he read in what I said the admiration of the amateur for the professional. He saw what he believed to be a high agent of the Government treating him as a worthy antagonist. In no other way can I explain his later heaping upon me his confidences. It was the vanity of a child trying to show off.
In ten days, in the limited area of a two-thousand-ton steamer, one could not help but learn something of the history of so communicative a fellow-passenger as Schnitzel. His parents were German and still lived in Germany. But he himself had been brought up on the East Side. An uncle who kept a delicatessen shop in Avenue A had sent him to the public schools and then to a “business college,” where he had developed remarkable expertness as a stenographer. He referred to his skill in this difficult exercise with pitying contempt. Nevertheless, from a room noisy with type-writers this skill had lifted him into the private office of the president of the Nitrate Trust. There, as Schnitzel expressed it, “I saw ‘mine,’ and I took it.” To trace back the criminal instinct that led Schnitzel to steal and sell the private letters of his employer was not difficult. In all of his few early years I found it lying latent. Of every story he told of himself, and he talked only of himself, there was not one that was not to his discredit. He himself never saw this, nor that all he told me showed he was without the moral sense, and with an instinctive enjoyment of what was deceitful, mean, and underhand. That, as I read it, was his character.
In appearance he was smooth-shaven, with long locks that hung behind wide, protruding ears. He had the unhealthy skin of bad blood, and his eyes, as though the daylight hurt them, constantly opened and shut. He was like hundreds of young men that you see loitering on upper Broadway and making predatory raids along the Rialto. Had you passed him in that neighborhood you would have set him down as a wire-tapper, a racing tout, a would-be actor.
As I worked it out, Schnitzel was a spy because it gave him an importance he had not been able to obtain by any other effort. As a child and as a clerk, it was easy to see that among his associates Schnitzel must always have been the butt. Until suddenly, by one dirty action, he had placed himself outside their class. As he expressed it: “Whenever I walk through the office now, where all the stenographers sit, you ought to see those slobs look after me. When they go to the president’s door, they got to knock, like I used to, but now, when the old man sees me coming to make my report after one of these trips he calls out, ‘Come right in, Mr. Schnitzel.’ And like as not I go in with my hat on and offer him a cigar. An’ they see me do it, too!”
To me, that speech seemed to give Schnitzel’s view of the values of his life. His vanity demanded he be pointed at, if even with contempt. But the contempt never reached him—he only knew that at last people took note of him. They no longer laughed at him, they were afraid of him. In his heart he believed that they regarded him as one who walked in the dark places of world politics, who possessed an evil knowledge of great men as evil as himself, as one who by blackmail held public ministers at his mercy.
This view of himself was the one that he tried to give me. I probably was the first decent man who ever had treated him civilly, and to impress me with his knowledge he spread that knowledge before me. It was sale, shocking, degrading.
At first I took comfort in the thought that Schnitzel was a liar. Later, I began to wonder if all of it were a lie, and finally, in a way I could not doubt, it was proved to me that the worst he charged was true.
The night I first began to believe him was the night we touched at Cristobal, the last port in Valencia. In the most light-hearted manner he had been accusing all concerned in the nitrate fight with every crime known in Wall Street and in the dark reaches of the Congo River.
“But, I know him, Mr. Schnitzel,” I said sternly. “He is incapable of it. I went to college with him.”
“I don’t care whether he’s a rah-rah boy or not,” said Schnitzel, “I know that’s what he did when he was up the Orinoco after orchids, and if the tribe had ever caught him they’d have crucified him. And I know this, too: he made forty thousand dollars out of the Nitrate Company on a ten-thousand-dollar job. And I know it, because he beefed to me about it himself, because it wasn’t big enough.”
We were passing the limestone island at the entrance to the harbor, where, in the prison fortress, with its muzzle-loading guns pointing drunkenly at the sky, are buried the political prisoners of Valencia.
“Now, there,” said Schnitzel, pointing, “that shows you what the Nitrate Trust can do. Judge Rojas is in there. He gave the first decision in favor of the Walker-Keefe people, and for making that decision William T. Scott, the Nitrate manager, made Alvarez put Rojas in there. He’s seventy years old, and he’s been there five years. The cell they keep him in is below the sea-level, and the salt-water leaks through the wall. I’ve seen it. That’s what William T. Scott did, an’ up in New York people think ‘Billy’ Scott is a fine man. I seen him at the Horse Show sitting in a box, bowing to everybody, with his wife sitting beside him, all hung out with pearls. An’ that was only a month after I’d seen Rojas in that sewer where Scott put him.”
“Schnitzel,” I laughed, “you certainly are a magnificent liar.”
Schnitzel showed no resentment.
“Go ashore and look for yourself,” he muttered. “Don’t believe me. Ask Rojas. Ask the first man you meet.” He shivered, and shrugged his shoulders. “I tell you, the walls are damp, like sweat.”
The Government had telegraphed the commandant to come on board and, as he expressed it, “offer me the hospitality of the port,” which meant that I had to take him to the smoking-room and give him champagne. What the Government really wanted was to find out whether I was still on board, and if it were finally rid of me.
I asked the official concerning Judge Rojas.
“Oh, yes,” he said readily. “He is still incomunicado.”
Without believing it would lead to anything, I suggested:
“It was foolish of him to give offence to Mr. Scott?”
The commandant nodded vivaciously.
“Mr. Scott is very powerful man,” he assented. “We all very much love Mr. Scott. The president, he love Mr. Scott, too, but the judges were not sympathetic to Mr. Scott, so Mr. Scott asked our president to give them a warning, and Senor Rojas—he is the warning.”
“When will he get out?” I asked.
The commandant held up the glass in the sunlight from the open air-port, and gazed admiringly at the bubbles.
“Who can tell,” he said. “Any day when Mr. Scott wishes. Maybe, never. Senor Rojas is an old man. Old, and he has much rheumatics. Maybe, he will never come out to see our beloved country any more.”
As we left the harbor we passed so close that one could throw a stone against the wall of the fortress. The sun was just sinking and the air became suddenly chilled. Around the little island of limestone the waves swept through the sea-weed and black manigua up to the rusty bars of the cells. I saw the barefooted soldiers smoking upon the sloping ramparts, the common criminals in a long stumbling line bearing kegs of water, three storm-beaten palms rising like gallows, and the green and yellow flag of Valencia crawling down the staff. Somewhere entombed in that blotched and mildewed masonry an old man of seventy years was shivering and hugging himself from the damp and cold. A man who spoke five languages, a just, brave gentleman. To me it was no new story. I knew of the horrors of Cristobal prison; of political rivals chained to criminals loathsome with disease, of men who had raised the flag of revolution driven to suicide. But never had I supposed that my own people could reach from the city of New York and cast a fellow-man into that cellar of fever and madness.
As I watched the yellow wall sink into the sea, I became conscious that Schnitzel was near me, as before, leaning on the rail, with his chin sunk on his arms. His face was turned toward the fortress, and for the first time since I had known him it was set and serious. And when, a moment later, he passed me without recognition, I saw that his eyes were filled with fear.
When we touched at Curacoa I sent a cable to my sister, announcing the date of my arrival, and then continued on to the Hotel Venezuela. Almost immediately Schnitzel joined me. With easy carelessness he said: “I was in the cable office just now, sending off a wire, and that operator told me he can’t make head or tail of the third word in your cable.”
“That is strange,” I commented, “because it’s a French word, and he is French. That’s why I wrote it in French.”
With the air of one who nails another in a falsehood, Schnitzel exclaimed:
“Then, how did you suppose your sister was going to read it? It’s a cipher, that’s what it is. Oh, no, YOU’RE not on a secret mission! Not at all!”
It was most undignified of me, but in five minutes I excused myself, and sent to the State Department the following words:
“Roses red, violets blue, send snow.”
Later at the State Department the only person who did not eventually pardon my jest was the clerk who had sat up until three in the morning with my cable, trying to fit it to any known code.
Immediately after my return to the Hotel Venezuela Schnitzel excused himself, and half an hour later returned in triumph with the cable operator and ordered lunch for both. They imbibed much sweet champagne.
When we again were safe at sea, I said: “Schnitzel, how much did you pay that Frenchman to let you read my second cable?”
Schnitzel’s reply was prompt and complacent.
“One hundred dollars gold. It was worth it. Do you want to know how I doped it out?”
I even challenged him to do so. “‘Roses red’—war declared; ‘violets blue’—outlook bad, or blue; ‘send snow’—send squadron, because the white squadron is white like snow. See? It was too easy.”
“Schnitzel,” I cried, “you are wonderful!”
Schnitzel yawned in my face.
“Oh, you don’t have to hit the soles of my feet with a night-stick to keep me awake,” he said.
After I had been a week at sea, I found that either I had to believe that in all things Schnitzel was a liar, or that the men of the Nitrate Trust were in all things evil. I was convinced that instead of the people of Valencia robbing them, they were robbing both the people of Valencia and the people of the United States.
To go to war on their account was to degrade our Government. I explained to Schnitzel it was not becoming that the United States navy should be made the cat’s-paw of a corrupt corporation. I asked his permission to repeat to the authorities at Washington certain of the statements he had made.
Schnitzel was greatly pleased.
“You’re welcome to tell ‘em anything I’ve said,” he assented. “And,” he added, “most of it’s true, too.”
I wrote down certain charges he had made, and added what I had always known of the nitrate fight. It was a terrible arraignment. In the evening I read my notes to Schnitzel, who, in a corner of the smoking-room, sat, frowning importantly, checking off each statement, and where I made an error of a date or a name, severely correcting me.
Several times I asked him, “Are you sure this won’t get you into trouble with your ‘people’? You seem to accuse everybody on each side.”
Schnitzel’s eyes instantly closed with suspicion.
“Don’t you worry about me and my people,” he returned sulkily. “That’s MY secret, and you won’t find it out, neither. I may be as crooked as the rest of them, but I’m not giving away my employer.”
I suppose I looked puzzled.
“I mean not a second time,” he added hastily. “I know what you’re thinking of, and I got five thousand dollars for it. But now I mean to stick by the men that pay my wages.”
“But you’ve told me enough about each of the three to put any one of them in jail.”
“Of course, I have,” cried Schnitzel triumphantly.
“If I’d let down on any one crowd you’d know I was working for that crowd, so I’ve touched ‘em all up. Only what I told you about my crowd—isn’t true.”
The report we finally drew up was so sensational that I was of a mind to throw it overboard. It accused members of the Cabinet, of our Senate, diplomats, business men of national interest, judges of the Valencia courts, private secretaries, clerks, hired bullies, and filibusters. Men the trust could not bribe it had blackmailed. Those it could not corrupt, and they were pitifully few, it crushed with some disgraceful charge.
Looking over my notes, I said:
“You seem to have made every charge except murder.”
“How’d I come to leave that out?” Schnitzel answered flippantly. “What about Coleman, the foreman at Bahia, and that German contractor, Ebhardt, and old Smedburg? They talked too much, and they died of yellow-fever, maybe, and maybe what happened to them was they ate knockout drops in their soup.”
I disbelieved him, but there came a sudden nasty doubt.
“Curtis, who managed the company’s plant at Barcelona, died of yellow-fever,” I said, “and was buried the same day.”
For some time Schnitzel glowered uncertainly at the bulkhead.
“Did you know him?” he asked.
“When I was in the legation I knew him well,” I said.
“So did I,” said Schnitzel. “He wasn’t murdered. He murdered himself. He was wrong ten thousand dollars in his accounts. He got worrying about it and we found him outside the clearing with a hole in his head. He left a note saying he couldn’t bear the disgrace. As if the company would hold a little grafting against as good a man as Curtis!”
Schnitzel coughed and pretended it was his cigarette.
“You see you don’t put in nothing against him,” he added savagely.
It was the first time I had seen Schnitzel show emotion, and I was moved to preach.
“Why don’t you quit?” I said. “You had an A-1 job as a stenographer. Why don’t you go back to it?”
“Maybe, some day. But it’s great being your own boss. If I was a stenographer, I wouldn’t be helping you send in a report to the State Department, would I? No, this job is all right. They send you after something big, and you have the devil of a time getting it, but when you get it, you feel like you had picked a hundred-to-one shot.”
The talk or the drink had elated him. His fish-like eyes bulged and shone. He cast a quick look about him. Except for ourselves, the smoking-room was empty. From below came the steady throb of the engines, and from outside the whisper of the waves and of the wind through the cordage. A barefooted sailor pattered by to the bridge. Schnitzel bent toward me, and with his hand pointed to his throat.
“I’ve got papers on me that’s worth a million to a certain party,” he whispered. “You understand, my notes in cipher.”
He scowled with intense mystery.
“I keep ‘em in an oiled-silk bag, tied around my neck with a string. And here,” he added hastily, patting his hip, as though to forestall any attack I might make upon his person, “I carry my automatic. It shoots nine bullets in five seconds. They got to be quick to catch me.”
“Well, if you have either of those things on you,” I said testily, “I don’t want to know it. How often have I told you not to talk and drink at the same time?”
“Ah, go on,” laughed Schnitzel. “That’s an old gag, warning a fellow not to talk so as to MAKE him talk. I do that myself.”
That Schnitzel had important papers tied to his neck I no more believe than that he wore a shirt of chain armor, but to please him I pretended to be greatly concerned.
“Now that we’re getting into New York,” I said, “you must be very careful. A man who carries such important documents on his person might be murdered for them. I think you ought to disguise yourself.”
A picture of my bag being carried ashore by Schnitzel in the uniform of a ship’s steward rather pleased me.
“Go on, you’re kidding!” said Schnitzel. He was drawn between believing I was deeply impressed and with fear that I was mocking him.
“On the contrary,” I protested, “I don’t feel quite safe myself. Seeing me with you they may think I have papers around MY neck.”
“They wouldn’t look at you,” Schnitzel reassured me. “They know you’re just an amateur. But, as you say, with me, it’s different. I GOT to be careful. Now, you mightn’t believe it, but I never go near my uncle nor none of my friends that live where I used to hang out. If I did, the other spies would get on my track. I suppose,” he went on grandly, “I never go out in New York but that at least two spies are trailing me. But I know how to throw them off. I live ‘way down town in a little hotel you never heard of. You never catch me dining at Sherry’s nor the Waldorf. And you never met me out socially, did you, now?”
I confessed I had not.
“And then, I always live under an assumed name.”
“Like ‘Jones’?” I suggested.
“Well, sometimes ‘Jones’,” he admitted.
“To me,” I said, “‘Jones’ lacks imagination. It’s the sort of name you give when you’re arrested for exceeding the speed limit. Why don’t you call yourself Machiavelli?”
“Go on, I’m no dago,” said Schnitzel, “and don’t you go off thinking ‘Jones’ is the only disguise I use. But I’m not tellin’ what it is, am I? Oh, no.”
“Schnitzel,” I asked, “have you ever been told that you would make a great detective?”
“Cut it out,” said Schnitzel. “You’ve been reading those fairy stories. There’s no fly cops nor Pinks could do the work I do. They’re pikers compared to me. They chase petty-larceny cases and kick in doors. I wouldn’t stoop to what they do. It’s being mixed up the way I am with the problems of two governments that catches me.” He added magnanimously, “You see something of that yourself.”
We left the ship at Brooklyn, and with regret I prepared to bid Schnitzel farewell. Seldom had I met a little beast so offensive, but his vanity, his lies, his moral blindness, made one pity him. And in ten days in the smoking-room together we had had many friendly drinks and many friendly laughs. He was going to a hotel on lower Broadway, and as my cab, on my way uptown, passed the door, I offered him a lift. He appeared to consider the advisability of this, and then, with much by-play of glancing over his shoulder, dived into the front seat and drew down the blinds. “This hotel I am going to is an old-fashioned trap,” he explained, “but the clerk is wise to me, understand, and I don’t have to sign the register.”
As we drew nearer to the hotel, he said: “It’s a pity we can’t dine out somewheres and go to the theatre, but—you know?”
With almost too much heartiness I hastily agreed it would be imprudent.
“I understand perfectly,” I assented. “You are a marked man. Until you get those papers safe in the hands of your ‘people,’ you must be very cautious.”
“That’s right,” he said. Then he smiled craftily.
“I wonder if you’re on yet to which my people are.”
I assured him that I had no idea, but that from the avidity with which he had abused them I guessed he was working for the Walker-Keefe crowd.
He both smiled and scowled.
“Don’t you wish you knew?” he said. “I’ve told you a lot of inside stories, Mr. Crosby, but I’ll never tell on my pals again. Not me! That’s MY secret.”
At the door of the hotel he bade me a hasty good-by, and for a few minutes I believed that Schnitzel had passed out of my life forever. Then, in taking account of my belongings, I missed my field-glasses. I remembered that, in order to open a trunk for the customs inspectors, I had handed them to Schnitzel, and that he had hung them over his shoulder. In our haste at parting we both had forgotten them.
I was only a few blocks from the hotel, and I told the man to return.
I inquired for Mr. Schnitzel, and the clerk, who apparently knew him by that name, said he was in his room, number eighty-two.
“But he has a caller with him now,” he added. “A gentleman was waiting for him, and’s just gone up.”
I wrote on my card why I had called, and soon after it had been borne skyward the clerk said: “I guess he’ll be able to see you now. That’s the party that was calling on him, there.”
He nodded toward a man who crossed the rotunda quickly. His face was twisted from us, as though, as he almost ran toward the street, he were reading the advertisements on the wall.
He reached the door, and was lost in the great tide of Broadway.
I crossed to the elevator, and as I stood waiting, it descended with a crash, and the boy who had taken my card flung himself, shrieking, into the rotunda.
“That man—stop him!” he cried. “The man in eighty-two—he’s murdered.”
The clerk vaulted the desk and sprang into the street, and I dragged the boy back to the wire rope and we shot to the third story. The boy shrank back. A chambermaid, crouching against the wall, her face colorless, lowered one hand, and pointed at an open door.
“In there,” she whispered.
In a mean, common room, stretched where he had been struck back upon the bed, I found the boy who had elected to meddle in the “problems of two governments.”
In tiny jets, from three wide knife-wounds, his blood flowed slowly. His staring eyes were lifted up in fear and in entreaty. I knew that he was dying, and as I felt my impotence to help him, I as keenly felt a great rage and a hatred toward those who had struck him.
I leaned over him until my eyes were only a few inches from his face.
“Schnitzel!” I cried. “Who did this? You can trust me. Who did this? Quick!”
I saw that he recognized me, and that there was something which, with terrible effort, he was trying to make me understand.
In the hall was the rush of many people, running, exclaiming, the noise of bells ringing; from another floor the voice of a woman shrieked hysterically.
At the sounds the eyes of the boy grew eloquent with entreaty, and with a movement that called from each wound a fresh outburst, like a man strangling, he lifted his fingers to his throat.
Voices were calling for water, to wait for the doctor, to wait for the police. But I thought I understood.
Still doubting him, still unbelieving, ashamed of my own credulity, I tore at his collar, and my fingers closed upon a package of oiled silk.
I stooped, and with my teeth ripped it open, and holding before him the slips of paper it contained, tore them into tiny shreds.
The eyes smiled at me with cunning, with triumph, with deep content.
It was so like the Schnitzel I had known that I believed still he might have strength enough to help me.
“Who did this?” I begged. “I’ll hang him for it! Do you hear me?” I cried.
Seeing him lying there, with the life cut out of him, swept me with a blind anger, with a need to punish.
‘I’ll see they hang for it. Tell me!’ I commanded. ‘Who did this?’
The eyes, now filled with weariness, looked up and the lips moved feebly.
‘My own people,’ he whispered.
In my indignation I could have shaken the truth from him. I bent closer.
‘Then, by God,’ I whispered back, ‘you’ll tell me who they are!’
The eyes flashed sullenly.
‘That’s my secret,’ said Schnitzel.
The eyes set and the lips closed.
A man at my side leaned over him, and drew the sheet across his face.” Richard Harding Davis, “The Spy;” circa 1906
Numero Tres—“Someday when peace has returned to this odd world I want to come to London again and stand on a certain balcony on a moonlit night and look down upon the peaceful silver curve of the Thames with its dark bridges.
From now onward, stretching for months and months into the future, life is completely changed for thousands of American boys on this side of the earth. For at last they are in there fighting.The jump from camp life into front-line living is just as great as the original jump from civilian life into the Army. Only those who served in the last war can conceive of the makeshift, deadly urgent, always-moving-onward complexion of front-line existence. And existence is exactly the word: it is nothing more.The last of the comforts are gone. From now on you sleep in bedrolls under little tents. You wash whenever and wherever you can. You carry your food on your back when you are fighting.You dig ditches for protection from bullets and from the chill north wind off the Mediterranean. There are no more hot-water taps. There are no post exchanges where you can buy cigarets. There are no movies.
When you speak to a civilian you have to wrestle with a foreign language. You carry just enough clothing to cover you, and no more. You don’t lug any knickknacks at all.
When our troops made their first landings in North Africa they went four days without even blankets, just catching a few hours sleep on the ground.
Everybody either lost or chucked aside some of his equipment. Like most troops going into battle for the first time, they all carried too much at first. Gradually they shed it. The boys tossed out personal gear from their musette bags and filled them with ammunition. The countryside for twenty miles around Oran was strewn with overcoats, field jackets and mess kits as the soldiers moved on the city.
Arabs will be going around for a whole generation clad in odd pieces of American Army uniforms.
They are camped in every conceivable way. In the city of Oran some are billeted in office buildings, hotels and garages. Some are camping in parks and big vacant lots on the edge of town. Some are miles away, out in the country, living on treeless stretches of prairie. They are in tiny groups and in huge batches.
Some of the officers live in tents and sleep on the ground. Others have been lucky enough to commandeer a farmhouse or a barn, sometimes even a modern villa.
The tent camps look odd. The little low tents hold two men apiece and stretch as far as you can see.
There are Negro camps as well as white.
You see men washing mess kits and clothing in five-gallon gasoline cans, heated over an open fire made from sticks and pieces of packing cases. They strip naked and take sponge baths in the heat of the day. In the quick cold of night they cuddle up in their bedrolls.
You see Negroes playing baseball under the bright African sun during their spare hours of an afternoon.
They’ve been here only three days and they know they’re unlikely to be here three days more, but they patch up some kind of home nevertheless.
Even in this short waiting period life is far from static. Motor convoys roar along the highways. Everything is on a basis of ‘not a minute to spare.’ There is a new spirit among the troops – a spirit of haste.
Planes pass constantly, eastbound. New detachments of troops wait for orders to move on. O ld detachments tell you the stories of their first battle, and conjecture about the next one. People you’ve only recently met hand you slips of paper with their home addresses and say, ‘You know, in case something happens, would you mind writing…’
At last we are in it up to our necks, and everything is changed, even your outlook on life.
Swinging first and swinging to kill is all that matters now.
The town as a whole has been turned back to the French, but the Army keeps a hand raised and there will be no miscues. …
When our Sahara salvage expedition finally found the wrecked airplanes far out on the endless desert, the mechanics went to work taking off usable parts, and four others of us appointed ourselves the official ditchdiggers of the day.We were all afraid of being strafed if the Germans came over and saw men working around the planes, and we wanted a nice ditch handy for diving into. The way to have a nice ditch is to dig one. We wasted no time.
Would that all slit trenches could be dug in soil like that. The sand was soft and moist; just the kind children like to play in. The four of us dug a winding ditch forty feet long and three feet deep in about an hour and a half.
The day got hot, and we took off our shirts. One sweating soldier said: ‘Five years ago you couldn’t a got me to dig a ditch for five dollars an hour. Now look at me.’
‘You can’t stop me digging ditches. I don’t even want pay for it; I just dig for love. And I sure do hope this digging today is all wasted effort; I never wanted to do useless work so bad in my life.’
‘Any time I get fifty feet from my home ditch you’ll find me digging a new ditch, and brother I ain’t joking. I love to dig ditches.’
Digging out here in the soft desert sand was paradise compared with the claylike digging back at our base. The ditch went forward like a prairie fire. We measured it with our eyes to see if it would hold everybody.
“Throw up some more right here,” one of the boys said, indicating a low spot in the bank on either side. “Do you think we’ve got it deep enough?”
“It don’t have to be so deep,” another one said. “A bullet won’t go through more than three inches of sand. Sand is the best thing there is for stopping bullets.”
A growth of sagebrush hung over the ditch on one side. “Let’s leave it right there,” one of the boys said. “It’s good for the imagination. Makes you think you’re covered up even when you ain’t.”
That’s the new outlook, the new type of conversation, among thousands of American boys today. It’s hard for you to realize, but there are certain moments when a plain old ditch can be dearer to you than any possession on earth. For all bombs, no matter where they may land eventually, do all their falling right straight at your head. Only those of you who know about that can ever know all about ditches.
While we were digging, one of the boys brought up for the thousandth time the question of that letter in Time magazine. What letter, you ask? Why, it’s a letter you probably don’t remember, but it has become famous around these parts.
It was in the November 23  issue, which eventually found its way over here. Somebody read it, spoke to a few friends, and pretty soon thousands of men were commenting on this letter in terms which the fire department won’t permit me to set to paper.
To get to the point, it was written by a soldier, and it said: ‘The greatest Christmas present that can be given to us this year is not smoking jackets, ties, pipes or games. If people will only take the money and buy war bonds . . . they will be helping themselves and helping us to be home next Christmas. Being home next Christmas is something which would be appreciated by all of us boys in service!’
The letter was all right with the soldiers over here until they got down to the address of the writer and discovered he was still in camp in the States. For a soldier back home to open his trap about anything concerning the war is like waving a red flag at the troops over here. They say they can do whatever talking is necessary.
“Them poor dogfaces back home,” said one of the ditch-diggers with fine soldier sarcasm, “they’ve really got it rugged. Nothing to eat but them old greasy pork chops and them three-inch steaks all the time. I wouldn’t be surprised if they don’t have to eat eggs several times a week.”
‘And they’re so lonely,’ said another. ‘No entertainment except to rassle them old dames around the dance floor. The USO closes at ten o’clock and the nightclubs at three. It’s mighty tough on them. No wonder they want to get home.’
‘And they probably don’t get no sleep,’ said another, ‘sleeping on them old cots with springs and everything, and scalding themselves in hot baths all the time.’
‘And nothing to drink but that nasty old ten-cent beer and that awful Canadian Club whiskey,’ chimed in another philosopher with a shovel.
‘And when they put a nickel in the box nothing comes out but Glenn Miller and Artie Shaw and such trash as that. My heart just bleeds for them poor guys.’
‘And did you see where he was?’ asked another. ‘At the Albuquerque Air Base. And he wants to be home by next Christmas. Hell, if I could just see the Albuquerque Air Base again I’d think I was in heaven.’
That’s the way it goes. The boys feel a soldier isn’t qualified to comment unless he’s on the wrong side of the ocean. They’re gay and full of their own wit when they get started that way, but just the same they mean it. It’s a new form of the age-old soldier pastime of grousing. It helps take your mind off things. …
We’re now with an infantry outfit that has battled ceaselessly for four days and nights.This northern warfare has been in the mountains. You don’t ride much anymore. It is walking and climbing and crawling country. The mountains aren’t big, but they are constant. They are largely treeless. They are easy to defend and bitter to take. But we are taking them.
The Germans lie on the back slope of every ridge, deeply dug into foxholes. In front of them the fields and pastures are hideous with thousands of hidden mines. The forward slopes are left open, untenanted, and if the Americans tried to scale these slopes they would be murdered wholesale in an inferno of machine-gun crossfire plus mortars and grenades.
Consequently we don’t do it that way. We have fallen back to the old warfare of first pulverizing the enemy with artillery, then sweeping around the ends of the hill with infantry and taking them from the sides and behind.
I’ve written before how the big guns crack and roar almost constantly throughout the day and night. They lay a screen ahead of our troops. By magnificent shooting they drop shells on the back slopes. By means of shells timed to burst in the air a few feet from the ground, they get the Germans even in their foxholes. Our troops have found that the Germans dig foxholes down and then under, trying to get cover from the shell bursts that shower death from above.
Our artillery has really been sensational. For once we have enough of something and at the right time. Officers tell me they actually have more guns than they know what to do with.
All the guns in any one sector can be centered to shoot at one spot. And when we lay the whole business on a German hill the whole slope seems to erupt. It becomes an unbelievable cauldron of fire and smoke and dirt. Veteran German soldiers say they have never been through anything like it.
Now to the infantry – the God-damned infantry, as they like to call themselves.
I love the infantry because they are the underdogs. They are the mud-rain-frost-and-wind boys. They have no comforts, and they even learn to live without the necessities. And in the end they are the guys that wars can’t be won without.
I wish you could see just one of the ineradicable pictures I have in my mind today. In this particular picture I am sitting among clumps of sword-grass on a steep and rocky hillside that we have just taken. We are looking out over a vast rolling country to the rear.
A narrow path comes like a ribbon over a hill miles away, down a long slope, across a creek, up a slope and over another hill.
All along the length of this ribbon there is now a thin line of men. For four days and nights they have fought hard, eaten little, washed none, and slept hardly at all. Their nights have been violent with attack, fright, butchery, and their days sleepless and miserable with the crash of artillery.
The men are walking. They are fifty feet apart, for dispersal. Their walk is slow, for they are dead weary, as you can tell even when looking at them from behind. Every line and sag of their bodies speaks their inhuman exhaustion.
On their shoulders and backs they carry heavy steel tripods, machine-gun barrels, leaden boxes of ammunition. Their feet seem to sink into the ground from the overload they are bearing.
They don’t slouch. It is the terrible deliberation of each step that spells out their appalling tiredness. Their faces are black and unshaven. They are young men, but the grime and whiskers and exhaustion make them look middle-aged.
In their eyes as they pass is not hatred, not excitement, not despair, not the tonic of their victory – there is just the simple expression of being here as though they had been here doing this forever, and nothing else.
The line moves on, but it never ends. All afternoon men keep coming round the hill and vanishing eventually over the horizon. It is one long tired line of antlike men.
There is an agony in your heart and you almost feel ashamed to look at them. They are just guys from Broadway and Main Street, but you wouldn’t remember them. They are too far away now. They are too tired. Their world can never be known to you, but if you could see them just once, just for an instant, you would know that no matter how hard people work back home they are not keeping pace with these infantrymen in Tunisia. …
Before the first day of the great surrender on the Bizerte-Tunis front was over, I believe half the Americans in the area had German souvenirs of some sort.There was very little of what one would call looting of German supply dumps. The Germans gave away helmets, goggles and map cases, which they will not be needing anymore. The spoils of war which the average doughboy has on him are legitimate, and little enough recompense for his fighting.
Practically every American truck has a German or Italian helmet fastened to its radiator. Our motorcycles are decorated like a carnival, with French flags and the colorful little black-and-yellow death’s-head pennants the Germans use for marking their own mine fields.
Many soldiers have new Lugers in their holsters. Lots of our men clowningly wear German field caps. German goggles are frequently seen on American heads. I got in on the souvenirs, too. I got one memento that is a little gem. It’s an automobile – yep, a real automobile that runs.
I drove back to camp that first evening in my German ‘Volkswagen,’ the bantam car the Nazis use as we use our jeep. It is a topless two-seater with a rear motor, camouflaged a dirty brown.
Mine was given me by our 1st Armored Division for – as they said – ‘sweating it out with us at Fa•d Pass all winter.’ As I drove back from the lines, Americans in the rear would stare, startled-like and belligerent; then, seeing an American at the wheel they would laugh and wave. I have owned half a dozen autos in my life, but I’ve never been so proud of one as of my clattering little Volkswagen.
On that first day of surrender the Germans sat in groups of hundreds in the fields, just waiting. They lay on their overcoats, resting. They took off their shirts to sun themselves. They took off their shoes to rest their feet.
They were a tired army but not a nondescript one. All were extremely well equipped. Their uniforms were good. They had plenty in the way of little personal things, money, cigarets, and food. Their equipment was of the best materials.
One English-appearing soldier had a Gem nail-clipper. He said he paid twenty-five cents for it in New York in 1939.
Some were cleanly shaven, some had three- or four-day beards, just like our soldiers. Lots of them had red-rimmed eyes from lack of sleep.
As a whole, they seemed younger than our men, and I was surprised that on the average they didn’t seem as big. But they did appear well fed and in excellent health.
They think Americans are fine fighters. They express only good-natured contempt for their allies, the Italians. As one of them said:
‘It isn’t just that Italians don’t fight well. It’s simply that Germans don’t like Italians very much in the first place.’
Wherever any American correspondents stopped, prisoners immediately gathered around. They all seemed in good spirits. Even those who couldn’t speak a word of English would try hard to tell you something.
The main impression I got, seeing German prisoners, was that they were human like anybody else, fundamentally friendly, a little vain. Certainly they are not supermen. Whenever a group of them would form, some American soldier would pop up with a camera to get a souvenir picture. And every time, all the prisoners in the vicinity would crowd into the picture like kids.
One German boy had found a broken armchair leaning against a barn, and was sitting in it. When I passed he grinned, pointed to his feet and then to the chair arms, and put back his head in the international sign language for ‘Boy, does this chair feel good!’
This colossal German surrender has done more for American morale here than anything that could possibly have happened. Winning in battle is like winning at poker or catching lots of fish – it’s damned pleasant and it sets a man up. As a result, the hundreds of thousands of Americans in North Africa now are happy men, laughing and working with new spirits that bubble.” Ernie Pyle, Wartime Columns; “A Dreadful Masterpiece,” “Killing Is All That Matters,” “Digging and Grousing,” “The God-Damned Infantry,” “German Supermen Up Close,” 1940 et seq.
Numero Cuatro—“Adam Clayton Powell Jr., one of America’s most militant 20th century black leaders, was also one of its most paradoxical. This son of Harlem, who called himself a ‘marching black’ and the ‘first bad nigger’ in Congress was to all appearances a white man. His fair complexion, hazel eyes, aquiline nose, and straight hair belied his black identity. In a nation consumed by racial distinctions, Powell’s apparent racial ambiguity influenced his life in significant ways. As a young man, it caused him to pass for white and later to create a false racial ancestry that would legitimize his black identity. Ultimately, it made him even more militant as a black leader and enabled him to redefine what it meant to be black.
Powell developed his reputation for aggressive, outspoken leadership as a young man in the midst of the Great Depression of the 1930s. He led protests that secured thousands of jobs for African Americans in New York City. In 1941, he became the first African American elected to the New York City Council. Four years later, he was the first African American to enter the United States Congress from New York City. Until the emergence of the civil rights movement in the 1950’s and the appearance of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the national stage, Powell kept the African American struggle for equal rights alive. In the 1960’s Powell reached the pinnacle of his political influence as chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee. Although his legislative power was eclipsed when he was stripped of his chairmanship and excluded from membership in the 90th Congress in 1967,–a matter which is dealt with elsewhere–he retained his influence among African Americans. It is significant that during his legal battles, civil rights leaders Martin Luther King, A. Phillip Randolph, Roy Wilkins, and Whitney Young came to his defense.
In the African American civil rights struggle, Powell was supremely self-confident, at times even arrogant. He acquired a national reputation as a fearless fighter who would not tolerate racial bigotry directed at him personally or at his people. He never hesitated to speak his mind, whether it was in denouncing New York’s Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia as a fascist or in attacking Mississippi’s Congressman Theodore Bilbo as a racist. Nevertheless, when Powell’s own racial identity was at issue, he could be insecure and uncertain. Throughout his life, he was defensive about his fair skin and self-conscious about his race. As Chuck Stone, his press representative said, Powell “was always sensitive about a white skin that housed a black militancy.” (5)
There were good reasons for his sensitivity. Despite Powell’s widespread acceptance in the black community, there were blacks and whites who viewed him suspiciously. Once at a City Hall hearing, a black man accused Powell of fraudulently calling himself a Negro. (6) Journalist, Roi Ottley, Powell’s childhood friend, said, that his fair complexion resulted in “Negroes who complain that he is a stranger in our midst.” (7) Writer, Frank Hercules, who admired Powell, confessed that he considered Powell to be essentially a white man calling himself black. He was “black merely by courtesy,” Hercules asserted. (8) But it was a white journalist, Richard Levine, who in analyzing Powell’s ancestry, concluded that “his blackness [was] more a matter of choice than identity. (9) Such attitudes made skin color a central dilemma of Powell’s life, but one that ultimately strengthened him and enabled him to better understand the meaning of race in America.
The origin of Powell’s insecurity can be traced to a childhood that did not emphasize race. He was born in 1908, the same year his father left New Haven’s Immanuel Baptist Church to pastor the Abyssinian Baptist Church, founded a century earlier. (10) Adam Clayton Powell, Sr. was a self-made man, born into a desperately poor family in Virginia in 1865. He worked his way through Weyland Seminary, a Baptist institution in Washington, D.C. and became a charismatic leader, dynamic orator and adroit administrator. Powell Sr. was responsible for moving Abyssinian into an imposing new edifice on 138th Street in Harlem in 1923 and developing it into the largest black congregation in the United States, with over 10,000 members.
Adam was raised as a rich, indulged child, adored by his father and the three women in his home: his mother Mattie, his nurse Josephine, and his sister Blanche, ten years his senior. “Old-timers remember young Adam as a pretty, curly-haired child, coddled and pampered by his parents and every Sister and Saint in the church,” said writer, Claude Lewis. Residing in a palatial townhouse that his father had purchased when whites were fleeing Harlem, Adam was prohibited from engaging in rough and tumble street life. Although he attended a public school in the neighborhood, his parents ensured that his friends came from well-to-do circumstances. Years later, when Adam started working in Harlem, he had to confront the uncomfortable fact that he knew very little about how the other half lived. Up until then, he had resided in but had not truly understood Harlem. (11)
Adam’s first encounter with race was traumatic. It occurred when he was about ten years old and was sent by his father on an errand to purchase a newspaper. He ran into a gang of Negro boys from the black side of Harlem who wanted to know his race. Being unsure, he looked at his skin and told them he was white, which immediately resulted in his being administered a good whipping. The next day he was sent on another errand and ran into a gang of white boys from the white side of Harlem who also demanded that he tell them what race he was. Remembering what occurred previously, he told them he was “colored” and received another beating. Adam later told his first wife, Isabel Washington, that he was “neither fish nor fowl.” He said, “the Irish boys would beat him because he wouldn’t admit being white, and the blacks would beat him because he wasn’t black enough to be black.” The experience was life-changing because it sowed the seeds of his discovery that being black transcended color.
Powell’s father and mother were as fair skinned as Adam, but had always identified as black. Powell Sr. was an advocate of racial pride who stated that he never desired to be anything other than a Negro. He used to declare, Isabel Washington said, that “God made the most beautiful flower garden in the world when he made the colored race. He made ’em from alabaster white to ebony black and all colors in between.” Yet, when Adam appealed to him for help in understanding his race, he was ignored. All his father would say was that he was “mixed,” which only added to Adam’s confusion. At home, Adam said, “there was never any consciousness of race.” (12)
While Powell Sr. publically promoted racial acceptance and uplift, privately he gave a wide berth to any mention of race. He feared that it might adversely influence his son and cause him to experience feelings of inferiority and worthlessness. According to psychologists, however, this was a poor strategy. Psychologist Kurt Lewin asserted that avoiding racial problems rather than producing a self-confident child most often results in its opposite. If a child grows up in an unreal world believing that there is no prejudice, their security will be shattered when they encounter it. The group a child belongs to must be valued because it provides a foundation of stability. Kenneth B. Clark demonstrated that black children as young as three, who are not taught racial pride, will often reject their color and show a preference for white skin. Adam’s upbringing, therefore, could have contributed to his early confusion about race. (13)
Powell Sr. may have avoided discussing racial issues because he was beset by his own ambivalence. Despite the difference in his appearance from most Harlemites, with his white skin, blue eyes and light brown hair, he occupied prestigious positions as a leading black representative of his community. He sat on the boards of the NAACP and the Urban League, and was appointed to commissions on Harlem by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia. Members of Abyssinian looked on his fair skin favorably and at times would compare him in appearance to Jesus Christ. Kenneth B. Clark, who grew up in Harlem, recalls: “When as a child I first saw him I thought he was God.” (14) Yet, despite this social acceptance from the black community, there were limits to Powell Sr.’s racial pride. In fact, he was known not to reveal his racial origins when it was convenient. Although he claimed never “at any time,[wanting] to be a white man,” and of never trying “to pass for anything but what I am,” he willingly rode in white-only Pullman cars when traveling in the South. (15)
Bright and quick-witted, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. was an excellent student until adolescence when he discovered girls and began spending inordinate time socializing. As a result, he was forced to spend an additional semester in high school in order to graduate. Even so, he graduated at the age of 16, and with considerable parental pressure, enrolled at the City College of New York. By the end of the first semester, however, carousing caused him to fail three subjects. Only his father’s personal acquaintance with the college president kept him from being expelled. In the following semester he failed five of six subjects and was expelled. Adam’s academic failure resulted from his rebellion against his father’s puritanical strictures against card playing, movies, and drinking, and his own inherent propensity for enjoying life’s sensual pleasures. In this, he was following the example of his married sister, Blanche, 10 years his senior. She encouraged his rebelliousness by teaching him the latest dances and accompanying him to parties and on double dates. Her sudden death during his second semester culminated in his complete withdrawal from college work. (16)
Adam’s expulsion from CCNY precipitated a family crisis. Considering him out of control, his mother tried to reform her wayward son by forcing him to get down on his knees and pray with her for deliverance from his wantonness. Fortunately, an old family friend, diagnosed Adam as suffering from normal adolescent rebelliousness, and he recommended that Adam be sent away from home to Colgate University, an all male institution with a reputation for academic rigor and manly discipline. The choice of Colgate was fortuitous since the president of the college, Dr. George Barton Cutton, was an old acquaintance of Powell Sr. from his New Haven days. This personal connection got Adam admitted despite his dismal academic record. When Adam arrived at Colgate in September 1926, at the age of 17, he could not have known that over the next four years his racial identity would be permanently transformed, paving the way for his success as a minister and political leader. (17) The Colgate student body consisted of almost 1,000 men, all of whom were white, with the exception of Adam and four other black students, who were recruited as athletes: senior, Merton Anderson; sophomore, Ray Vaughn; and freshmen, Daniel Cosby and John Enoch.
The lopsided racial ratio was typical of white institutions of the era. What was exceptional was that the college violated its own tradition of segregating the races in the dormitories by placing Adam with a white roommate, Howard Patterson, who was also from New York City. Blacks were always assigned other black roommates or they roomed alone. President Cutten, by treating Adam as a white student, even though he knew his father identified as black, gave Adam the option to assume a white identity. Adam proceeded to take advantage of the situation and made the crucial decision to pass for white. “The boys didn’t know I was a Negro and I didn’t bother to tell them,” he later confessed. (18)
Things did not work out as Adam had expected, although it was months before black star football player, Ray Vaughn discovered that there might be another black student on campus. Adam, who loved sports, had avoided speaking to the black athletes, including Vaughn, even though he and Vaughn were in the same German language class. One black student who was acquainted with Powell during this period was Conrad Lynn, from nearby Syracuse University. Lynn, who came from Long Island, occasionally accompanied Adam on the New York Central train ride upstate on weekends. He reported that Powell spoke openly about his passing for white and used to laugh and joke about how it facilitated his clandestine interracial dating. (19) In fact, as soon as Adam arrived at Colgate, he began dating the daughter of a local white Baptist minister.
Adam had no intention of reforming his party boy life style and spent as little time as possible on his studies. He got along famously with his white roommate, with whom he drove to nearby towns in search of liquor and girls. Things were going so well that he applied for membership in an all-white fraternity on campus, which turned out to be his undoing. As his future friend, Ray Vaughn explained, “They checked into his family background, the way they do when you are a pledge and found out that he was passing.” When the news traveled around the small campus community, “Nobody … white or Negro would speak to him.” What most disturbed Adam was that Patterson, his best friend, went to the Dean saying he couldn’t live with a Negro and asked to be moved to another room. It was a request Adam felt that the college was all too willing to grant. Deeply wounded, and finding himself rooming alone, he said that ” it was the first time in [his] life that deep discrimination had touched [him] directly.” (20)
However, it was the black, not the white students, who were most unsettled by Adam’s actions. Among the white students, Patterson was the exception. Notwithstanding Adam’s rejection from the fraternity, many white students took his passing in stride, and he maintained numerous white friendships over the course of his four years at the college. Howard Armstrong became his closest white friend during that first year, and remained so thereafter. They drove together all over central New York, from Utica to Ithaca, in Armstrong’s car, and Powell invited Armstrong to his home, where he introduced him to Abyssinian, the Cotton Club and Harlem night life.
The four black students were another matter. They were furious with Adam. His behavior had touched their core beliefs concerning racial integrity and left them feeling insulted and rejected. Adam was now faced with a choice. Was he going to try to ingratiate himself with the majority whites on campus, or was he going to acknowledge his black identity and draw closer to the small circle of black students? Powell tried to pass because he arrived at Colgate with unresolved identity conflicts. He felt that he occupied a marginal status on the boundary between white and black. “It’s some kind of joke,” Adam said about his white skin, “white folks think I’m black and black folks think I’m white.” Uncertain of the racial ground he stood on made him vulnerable to self-rejection and to crossing over the slender line separating the races. (21)
A few days later, Adam made his choice. He approached Ray Vaughn in his dorm room and apologized, saying, “I think I made a mistake.” Replying, “Boy, you sure did,” Vaughn graciously offered him forgiveness and friendship, as did black freshmen, John Enoch and Daniel Crosby. Merton Anderson, however, was not appeased. To the lone black senior, whose complexion was as fair as Adam, passing was unthinkable. When Adam entered the room to apologize, Anderson walked out and thereafter refused to have anything to do with him. (22)
Ironically, Adam’s identity crisis had not been entirely negative since it propelled him on a journey of discovery into what it meant to be black. Circumstances had forced him to make a declaration of his choice of race. He now took the initial steps to become more self-aware of his black identity, a process that William E. Cross Jr. called the “encounter stage” of black identity formation. At the beginning of his second semester, Adam began keeping a diary in order to force himself to be more reflective and self-conscious. He seemed to think his mistake had been in permitting his feelings to have too much sway, and that he needed to acquire more humility and self-control. Influenced by this insight, he copied, on a front page of his diary, lines from a poem by Countee Cullen, which went: “All day long and/All night through/One thing only must I do/Quench my pride and cool my blood/Lest I perish in the flood.” (23)
By January, 1927 when he began his diary, Vaughn, Crosby and Enoch had become his closest friends and he spent most of his social time outside of class with them. His white friends, with the exception of Howard Armstrong, whom he called Brownie, receded in importance. In September, he began rooming with Vaughn and, during the following year, Enoch and Crosby moved in too. That first year, he invited all three to spend several days at his home in Harlem. Adam stopped dating interracially, and he asked Brownie to speak to the girls he had been seeing to let them know that he was black. From that time on, he selected all of his girlfriends from his own Harlem community. His favorite during his freshman year was 17 year old Lil Handy, but he enjoyed receiving letters and kept up a steady stream of correspondence with other female friends from Harlem. (24)
Ray Vaughn, who smoothed over Adam’s passing with the other black students, came to his assistance in another way. Recognizing Adam’s considerable social needs, Vaughn helped him get accepted into Alpha Phi Alpha, the renowned black fraternity. Since there were not enough black students to form a chapter at Colgate, Adam was initiated into the New York City chapter, but he was also able to participate in the chapter at Syracuse University. Vaughn and Adam purchased a car for $35 during his sophomore year, which enabled them to spend a lot of time socializing at the Syracuse fraternity house, about a hour’s drive away. Conrad Lynn, their fraternity brother at Syracuse, objected to their excessive partying, and characterized them as part of a “hard drinking, whore-mongering crowd.” (25) Nonetheless, Adam managed to get decent grades in all of his six courses his first semester, thereby avoiding academic suspension and his father’s wrath.
By the end of his freshman year, Adam had immersed himself in black life to the extent that it was possible in a white, upstate, rural environment. On May 20th, 1927, when his father came to Colgate to lecture in the chapel on race relations, Adam was relieved that the issue of his racial identity was resolved. “Well, everyone knows I’m colored,” Adam penned in his diary. He had made clear to his classmates that he identified as black and no longer had an interest in passing. (26)
Adam’s diary over the next three college years charted his growth in maturity, self-confidence and identity. During his first year and part of his second, Adam was enrolled in a rigorous pre-medical curriculum but showed little interest in his studies, doing only did the bare minimum to get by. Then, at the intervention of his father, Adam took another decisive step. One weekend when Vaughn was visiting the Powell home, Powell Sr. asked Vaughn to persuade Adam to switch his major from pre-med to religion and consider becoming a preacher.
That night as they drove back to Colgate, Vaughn spoke to Adam about the advantages of going into the church, explaining that “it was all set up for him” to inherit his father’s position. Adam, who had always known that his father wanted him to follow in his footsteps, required little convincing, for he soon changed his major and started preparing for the ministry. His grades improved, going from C’s to B’s in his junior year and to A’s in his senior year. (27) Years later, looking back with satisfaction at fulfilling his father’s wishes, he stated: “I take particular pride in the fact that … I have carried out my father’s hope for his church. As he wrote in one of his books: ‘I built this church, but my son will interpret it’, this I have done. … ” (28)
Adam’s newly formed association with the black church, especially an historic one like Abyssinian, drew him that much closer to the cultural heritage of African Americans, thereby strengthening his black identity. While still in college, he began preaching at Abyssinian and before he graduated, his growing reputation as an orator led to his being invited to preach at other large Harlem churches, including St. Paul, Mt. Olivet and Salem. (29) As he contemplated his future as a black minister in Harlem, he wrote in his diary during his junior year, “I wonder how it will all turn out? Whatever the final outcome,” he stated, “all I want to do is to keep the faith, and serve my people. …” (30)
When Powell left Colgate with a bachelor’s degree in June 1930, at the beginning of the Great Depression, the development of his black identity shifted from college to the church and the streets. He was more confident of his identity now than when he had entered Colgate four years previously, nevertheless, it was not certain what kind of black man he would be, or how he would cope with the problem of his fair complexion. After a summer tour of Europe that his father gave him as a graduation present, the twenty-two year old began working as director of Abyssinian’s charities. It was a challenging job for someone whose privileged upbringing had kept him from gaining any real knowledge of the hard- scrabble life of ordinary black folks. He admitted that, at the time, he “had no feeling or sensitivity for the suffering around [him.]” (31)
Setting up operations in the church basement, he immediately began to concern himself with the neediest members of the Harlem community, thousands of whom had lost their employment, were being evicted from their homes, and lacked food and clothing. Inspired by the widely publicized statement of his father that “when you give men and women coats, shoes and dresses, you are giving clothing to God,” Adam organized a free food and clothing distribution program. In a few weeks, with the help of a staff of 50, he was feeding 150 to 300 people a day. In a few months, his staff provided 28,000 meals and distributed 17,000 pieces of clothing and 2,000 pairs of shoes. Over the following years, Adam expanded Abyssinia’s operations to include an employment agency, a Works Progress Administration adult education program of 33 courses, a free child care nursery for 120 pre-schoolers, plus free arts, crafts and drama classes that enrolled hundreds. (32)
Adam’s charity work broadened his understanding of the black community and caused him to empathize more deeply with the people on the bottom of the social ladder. It was the maids, janitors, and laborers who struggled to put food on the table and pay Harlem’s exorbitant rents who earned his sympathy. In due course, he publically identified himself with the ordinary, working-class “field Negroes,” in contrast to the upper-echelon, fair-skinned class into which he was raised, whom he denigrated as “house Negroes.” It is “the masses of folk” in whom he had “implicit faith,” he said. It was the “people in high places” whom he “distrusted.” (33) His proletarian sympathies, however, formed a marked contrast with his love of luxury and high living. He might have identified with the masses, but he lived in an affluent Westchester County suburb, lunched at the exclusive 21 Club and vacationed at his summer home on Martha’s Vineyard. It was a contradiction he never resolved. (34)
What differentiated Adam from most black political leaders was his greater militancy and outspokenness. It was a militancy that was motivated by the uniqueness of his fair complexion. Compensating for his unusual appearance and his anxiety about his identity, Adam became more politically aggressive than blacks of the darkest complexions. He idolized the ebony colored black nationalist, Marcus Garvey, not the NAACP’s ivory colored Walter White. Adam may have been afraid that if he was less militant than other black leaders, people would attribute it to the color of his skin, thinking that he was associating himself with the elitism of the lighter-skinned black upper-classes. Consequently, the harder and more militantly he fought, the less likely it would be that his black identity would be challenged.
Only a few years out of college, Adam had already earned a reputation for being more militant and independent than most of Harlem’s political leaders. As a result, in 1933, a group of five black physicians bypassed more experienced leaders and asked for his help at Harlem Hospital. Conditions at the city operated hospital were so deplorable that neighborhood residents called it the “butcher shop” and the “morgue.” The physicians were particularly upset by hospital policies that segregated black nurses, gave inferior assignments to black doctors and condoned substandard medical care. (35) Taking up the cause, the 24 year old preacher brought thousands of Harlemites to a protest rally on the steps of City Hall. As the crowd shouted slogans outside, Powell barged into the Board of Estimate meeting, and with the voices of the protestors wafting through the windows, Powell called for the firing of the Health Commissioner. Powell referred to this his first major political protest as “very heady wine for a youngster.” It inaugurated the militant style of political leadership and social activism that was to become his hallmark. (36)
From the very beginning of his political career, Powell decided that his role as a black leader was to be as courageous and confrontational as necessary in fighting on behalf of justice for his people. “I intended to fashion that church into a mighty weapon, keen edged and sharp-pointed,” he asserted.” (37) Placing himself in the radical tradition of Nat Turner and Frederick Douglass, he constantly called for raising the decibel level of political activism. Powell felt that his function was to be an irritant and he attempted to get blacks to increase their opposition to discrimination. Referring to his mode of protest as “sustained indignation,” and to himself as a “marching black,” he considered the protest tradition as an ancestral heritage, beginning with his rebellious grandparents. “Whenever a person keep prodding, keeps them squirming … it serves a purpose. It may not in contemporary history look so good. But as times roll on future historians will say, they served a purpose.” (38)
Indeed, civil rights leader Bayard Rustin thought that Adam’s attraction to black people was that he was “not afraid to give white folks hell. He could say what blacks could not if they wanted to keep food on the table.” The NAACP’s Roger Wilkins added that Adam ” … wouldn’t bow low to white folks.” These were the same qualities which won the admiration of a subsequent generation of black leadership as represented by the Reverend Al Sharpton, who called Powell one of the greatest men he had ever known. He “defied the taboos, he defied the limitations of black men,” Sharpton asserted. “The establishment didn’t want blacks to emulate that independence, that self-assurance, that arrogance.” (39)
Powell’s militancy also extended to fighting prejudice among blacks themselves. He felt that black identity included having respect for dark skin color and that feelings of superiority, based on shades of color differences between blacks, was an insidious practice which undermined racial progress. Especially critical of light-skinned blacks who passed for white, he condemned them as constituting the “most ruthless form of division.” In his first book, Powell castigated a light skinned, black upper class family, for their contemptuous treatment of his friends Roi Ottley and Frank Kinnard because of their dark complexion. “Differences in color must disappear, caste must vanish and the problem of each Negro [must] become the problem of all Negroes,” Powell asserted. (40)
Before the advent of the black consciousness movement of the sixties, Powell promoted black pride and self-respect. “Light himself,” the NAACP’s Roy Wilkins stated, “he delights in aligning himself with the blacks.” Powell exhorted blacks to seek “audacious power,” which he said “begins with the stand-up-and-be-counted racial pride in being black and thinking black.” He had used the term “black” a generation before it was widely accepted in order to encourage African Americans to look favorably on the darkest complexions. When he was in the pulpit at Abyssinian Baptist Church, one of his preferred sermons was on the subject, “Think Big, Think Black and Think like a Child of God.” (41)
Whenever Adam entered a room at a social affair, he spoke to the darkest complexioned blacks before anyone else. In the 1960’s, when Harlem ministers and political leaders shunned Malcolm X, the black nationalist firebrand and promoter of black pride, Powell endorsed him and provided him with a speaking platform at his church. Malcolm respected Powell more than any other black leader because of his outspokenness and independence from the white political establishment. It was this independence which enabled Powell to champion dark skin color to African Americans, at a time when to be called black was considered an insult. (42)
Notwithstanding Powell’s advocacy of black pride, he was not completely free from skin color preferences. From childhood, the ideal of physical attractiveness was his fair-skinned sister, Blanche. “My real love, my passionate love, had always been my sister … my Princess,” he wrote in his autobiography. “She was about five foot ten and her blond hair never changed in color as mine did. She looked totally white, with blue eyes like Daddy’s. … ” Powell’s standard of beauty evolved during the 1930’s. When he left college in 1930, the woman he was dating and later married was Isabel Washington, a Cotton Club showgirl and Broadway actress. Although she was not quite as fair as Blanche, she could have served as a reasonably close facsimile. Isabel had fair skin and aquiline features that matched his own. (43)
It was not until the 1940’s that Powell started to become the resolute advocate of black consciousness and pride found in his book, Marching Blacks. Not coincidentally, it was around this time, in 1945, that he obtained a divorce from Washington and married, Hazel Scott, the jazz pianist and singer. Scott’s dark complexion and more African-like features were in stark contrast to Washington’s. Powell’s lingering sensitivity on this issue may account for the fact that he omitted any mention of the skin color of either woman in his autobiography. Nevertheless, it is interesting that he described Isabel as being “excitingly beautiful … with a beautiful mouth, lovely light-brown eyes, and an exquisite figure,” whereas Hazel was referred to only as “brilliant” and “gifted.” Perhaps some ambivalence about color remained. (44)
Throughout the poverty stricken 1930’s, Powell worked assiduously ministering to the political, economic and spiritual needs of the Harlem community and his own congregants. When a “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work” job discrimination protest movement began on 125th Street in Harlem in 1934, he was one of the few ministers who would walk the picket lines. The example of his leadership was widely noted in the black press and encouraged hundreds of additional people to turn out for picket duty. A year later, ten days after a major riot broke out in Harlem on 125th Street, Powell wrote a series of trenchant articles in the New York Post taking Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia to task for failing to address racial discrimination in the city. Denouncing LaGuardia’s fusion administration as a “fusion for Fascism,” Powell concluded that the death and destruction was “not a riot; it was an open, unorganized protest against empty stomachs, overcrowded tenements … chiseling landlords … and a disinterested administration.” (45)
In 1938, at the age of 29, Powell resumed the jobs campaign, which had been aborted due to an anti-picketing court decision. He became the chief organizer of the Greater New York Coordinating Committee. The GNYCC organized thousands of pickets and boycotters, which resulted in unprecedented job opportunities in white collar, skilled and semi-skilled positions for blacks, who were traditionally relegated to menial jobs as maids, janitors and laborers. Through boycotts and non-violent direct action, Powell’s organization got blacks employed in the New York Telephone company, which had no blacks among its staff of 4,500 operators; the Consolidated Edison Gas and Electric Company, where black workers numbered fewer than one percent; and at two major bus companies, which had never hired blacks either as drivers or mechanics. The GNYCC also obtained hundreds of jobs on 125th Street, Harlem’s main commercial thoroughfare, and at the 1939 World’s Fair. From this time forward, African Americans employed in non-menial jobs in New York City would be indebted to Powell’s combative grass-roots leadership. Acknowledging Powell’s contribution, Wilkins said, “He took the march, which was to flourish 25 years later under Martin Luther King and made it work for Harlemites in his time.” (46)
Powell subsequently transformed the GNYCC into the People’s Committee, which successfully campaigned to get him elected in 1941 as the first African American on the New York City Council, and, in 1945, as the second African American to sit in the United States Congress. The high point of his political career came in 1960 when he became chair of the House Education and Labor Committee. Under his leadership, 60 major bills were passed to reduce poverty and extend economic and educational opportunity for the most disadvantaged Americans. They included fair employment practices, the minimum wage, aid to elementary and secondary schools, vocational rehabilitation, head start, the student loan program, the manpower development training act, and the war on poverty. “He showed to a superb degree,” Wilkins said, “how the American electoral and legislative processes can be made to work for an abused citizenry.” (47)
Ironically, although Powell obtained wide acclaim throughout the 1930’s and 1940’s for his accomplishments as a black minister and political activist, he still had doubts about the authenticity of his putative African ancestry. His problem derived from his having no verifiable blacks in his family tree. Consequently, to establish his racial credentials, he created a fictional narrative of his origins. Unlike his father, who admitted knowing virtually nothing about his black ancestors, Powell constructed a dramatic account of his ancestry that was sufficiently compelling to silence his critics. In Marching Blacks, he stated that when he was ten years old he stood on a chair and ran his fingers over the letter P, nine inches high, which had been seared into his Grandfather’s back as punishment for running away from slavery. “I swore to my God,” he said “that I would not rest until I had wiped that brand from my memory and from the conscience of white America.” Powell repeated this apocryphal story in public speeches for decades. (48)
There are several discrepancies in Adam’s account, starting with his having no proof of African ancestry in his genetic background. In reality this grandfather was not a biological relative, as Powell implied, but was his father’s stepfather. His name was Anthony Bush when he was enslaved, but he changed his name to Powell when he was freed after the Civil War. Consequently, if Bush was branded, it could not have been with the letter P. Powell’s father contradicted Adam’s narrative when he wrote that he knew “less than nothing” about the paternal side of his family and never knew who his father was. All he knew was that his step-father, Anthony Bush Powell, was legally married to his fair-complexioned mother, Sally Dunnings, and raised him as his own son.
About his mother’s family, Powell Sr. had little to say with the exception that his grandmother, Mildred Dunnings, Sally’s mother, “was dominated by Indian blood.” Contrary to family lore, perpetuated by Adam, Sally was not a former slave. Sally and Mildred, both of whom were physically indistinguishable from whites, were part of a tiny community of free, so-called mulatto landowners in Franklin County, Virginia. This is as far as anyone has been able to go in establishing the Powell’s’ paternal black ancestry. (49)
Information concerning the maternal side of Adam’s family is equally sketchy. All that is known is that his blond, blue eyed mother, Mattie, was born to mulatto laborers, fair-skinned Samuel Buster and Eliza Wilson Buster, in Fayette County, Virginia. Mattie’s name was changed to Shaffer when her mother changed her name following her divorce from her husband a few years after the marriage. The names and racial background of Mattie’s grandparents are not known. Adam’s claim that his mother was related to the prominent Schaeffer brewing company heirs is totally fictitious.
In short, contrary to Powell family lore advanced by Adam, there were no authenticated slaves in his biological family background on either side. While some of his grandparents were considered mulattoes, the term lacks specificity. In the nineteenth century, any light skinned or even white skinned individuals thought to have African ancestry were called mulattoes. The Powells were not able to specify who in their gene pool was indisputably African. All that is known is that Adam’s grandparents might have had black ancestry. This uncertainty did not seem to bother Powell, Sr., but for Adam it was a constant source of discontent.
The problem of not being considered as unimpeachably black was common to African Americans light enough to pass. Fair skinned, blue eyed John Hope, the president of Morehouse College, was so disturbed at being perceived as white that ‘he admitted that he would ‘not mind being darker.” Cyrus Field Adams, a light skinned member of the upper class, despaired of convincing some blacks that he was not trying to pass as a white man. ‘My trouble is, all my life I have been trying to pass for colored,’ he said regretfully. By the last decade of Powell’s life, he would have agreed with Adams, because he too had been passing for colored. Finally, he accepted the futility of trying to convince people of his racial ancestry on genetic evidence. Instead, he focused on having willingly embraced the life experience and values of blacks, notably their aspirations for equality and their frustrations at its denial.” Lawrence Rushing, “The Racial Identity of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.–A Case Study in Racial Ambivalence and Redefinition;” Afro-Americans in New York Life and History, 2010