Unfortunately only the most general and eulogistic accounts of the careers of most of the rich shippers have appeared in such biographies as have been published.

Scarcely any details are preserved of the underlying methods and circumstances by which these fortunes were amassed. Sixty years ago, when it was the unqualified fashion to extol the men of wealth as great public benefactors and truckle to them, and when sociological inquiry was in an undeveloped stage, there might have been some excuse for this. But it is extremely unsatisfactory to find pretentious writers of the present day glossing over essential facts or not taking the trouble to get them. A „popular writer,” who has pretended to deal with the origin of one of the great present fortunes, the Astor fortune, and has given facts, although conventionally interpreted, as to one or two of Astor’s land transactions,[49] passes over with a sentence the fundamental facts as to Astor’s shipping activities, and entirely ignores the peculiar special privileges, worth millions of dollars, that Astor, in conjunction with other merchants, had as a free gift from the Government. This omission is characteristic, inasmuch as it leaves the reader in complete ignorance of the kind of methods Astor used in heaping up millions from the shipping trade – millions that enabled him to embark in the buying of land in a large and ambitious way. Certainly there is no lack of data regarding the two foremost millionaires of the first decades of the nineteenth century – Stephen Girard and John Jacob Astor. The very names of nearly all of the other powerful merchants of the age have receded into the densest obscurity. But both those of Girard and Astor live vivifyingly, the first by virtue of a memorable benefaction, the second as the founder of one of the greatest fortunes in the world.


Because of their unexcelled success, these two were the targets for the bitter invective or the envy of their competitors on the one hand, and, on the other, of the laudation of their friends and beneficiaries. Harsh statements were made as to the methods of both, but, in reality, if we but knew the truth, they were no worse than the other millionaires of the time except in degree. The whole trading system was founded upon a combination of superior executive ability and superior cunning – not ability in creating, but in being able to get hold of, and distribute, the products of others’ creation.

Fraudulent substitution was an active factor in many, if not all, of the shipping fortunes. The shippers and merchants practiced the grossest frauds upon the unsophisticated people. Walter Barrett, that pseudonymic merchant, who took part in them himself, and who writes glibly of them as fine tricks of trade, gives many instances in his volumes dealing with the merchants of that time.

The firm of F. & G. Carnes, he relates, was one of the many which made a large fortune in the China trade. This firm found that Chinese yellow-dog wood, when cut into proper sizes, bore a strong superficial resemblance to real Turkey rhubarb. The Carnes brothers proceeded to have the wood packed in China in boxes counterfeiting those of the Turkey product. They then made a regular traffic importing this spurious and deleterious stuff and selling it as the genuine Turkey article at several times the cost. It entirely superseded the real product. This firm also sent to China samples of Italian, French and English silks; the Chinese imitated them closely, and the bogus wares were imported into the United States where they were sold as the genuine European goods. The Carneses were but a type of their class. Writing of the trade carried on by the shipping class, Barrett says that the shippers sent to China samples of the most noted Paris and London products in sauces, condiments, preserves, sweetmeats, syrups and other goods. The Chinese imitated them even to fac-similies of printed Paris and London labels. The fraudulent substitutions were then brought in cargoes to the United States where they were sold at fancy prices.


This was the prevalent commercial system. The most infamous frauds were carried on; and so dominant were the traders’ standards that these frauds passed as legitimate business methods. The very men who profited by them were the mainstays of churches, and not only that, but they were the very same men who formed the various self-constituted committees which demanded severe laws against paupers and petty criminals. A study of the names of the men, for instance, who comprised the New York Society for the Prevention of Pauperism, 1818-1823, shows that nearly all of them were shippers or merchants who participated in the current commercial frauds. Yet this was the class that sat in judgment upon the poverty of the people and the acts of poor criminals and which dictated laws to legislatures and to Congress.

Girard and Astor were the superfine products of this system; they did in a greater way what others did in a lesser way. As a consequence, their careers were fairly well illumined. The envious attacks of their competitors ascribed their success to hard-hearted and ignoble qualities, while their admirers heaped upon them tributes of praise for their extraordinary genius. Both sets exaggerated. Their success in garnering millions was merely an abnormal manifestation of an ambition prevalent among the trading class. Their methods were an adroit refinement of methods which were common. The game was one in which, while fortunes were being amassed, masses of people were thrown into the direst poverty and their lives were attended by injustice and suffering. In this game a large company of eminent merchants played; Girard and Astor were peers in the playing and got away with the greater share of the stakes.


Before describing Girard’s career, it is well to cast a retrospective fleeting glance into conditions following the Revolution.

Despite the lofty sentiments of the Declaration of Independence – sentiments which were submerged by the propertied class when the cause was won – the gravity of law bore wholly in favor of the propertied interests. The propertyless had no place or recognition. The common man was good enough to shoulder a musket in the stress of war but that he should have rights after the war, was deemed absurd. In the whole scheme of government neither the feelings nor the interests of the worker were thought of.

The Revolution brought no immediate betterment to his conditions; such slight amelioration as came later was the result of years of agitation. No sooner was the Revolution over than in stepped the propertied interests and assumed control of government functions. They were intelligent enough to know the value of class government – a lesson learned from the tactics of the British trading class. They knew the tremendous impact of law and how, directly and indirectly, it worked great transformations in the body social. While the worker was unorganized, unconscious of what his interests demanded, deluded by slogans and rallying-cries which really meant nothing to him, the propertied class was alert in its own interests.


It proceeded to intrench itself in political as well as in financial power. The Constitution of the United States was so drafted as to take as much direct power from the people as the landed and trading interests dared. Most of the State Constitutions were more pronounced in rigid property discriminations. In Massachusetts, no man could be governor unless he were a Christian worth a clear £1,000; in North Carolina if he failed of owning the required £1,000 in freehold estate; nor in Georgia if he did not own five hundred acres of land and £4,000, nor in New Hampshire if he lacked owning £500 in property. In South Carolina he had to own £1,500 in property clear of all debts. In New York by the Constitution of 1777, only actual residents having freeholds to the value of £100 free of all debts, could vote for governor and other State officials. The laws were so arranged as effectually to disfranchise those who had no property. In his „Reminiscenses” Dr. John W. Francis tells of the prevalence for years in New York of a supercilious class which habitually sneered at the demand for political equality of the leather-breeched mechanic with his few shillings a day.

Theoretically, religious standards were the prevailing ones; in actuality the ethics and methods of the propertied class were all powerful. The Church might preach equality, humility and the list of virtues; but nevertheless that did not give the propertyless man a vote. Thus it was, that in communities professing the strongest religious convictions and embodying them in Constitutions and in laws and customs, glaring inconsistencies ran side by side. The explanation lay in the fact that as regarded essential things of property, the standards of the trading class had supplanted the religious. Even the very admonition given by pastors to the poor, „Be content with your lot,” was a preachment entirely in harmony with the aims of the trading class which, in order to make money, necessarily had to have a multitude of workers to work for it and from whose labor the money, in its finality, had to come. In the very same breath that they advised the poverty-stricken to reverence their superiors and to expect their reward in heaven, the ministers glorified the aggrandizing merchants as God’s chosen men who were called upon to do His work.[50]

Since the laws favored the propertied interests, it was correspondingly easy for them to get direct control of government functions and personally exercise them. In New England rich shipowners rose at once to powerful elective and appointive officers. Likewise in New York rich landowners, and in the South, plantation men were selected for high offices. Law-making bodies, from Congress down, were filled with merchants, landowners, plantation men and lawyers, which last class was trained, as a rule, by association and self-interest to take the views of the propertied class and vote with, and for, it. A puissant politico-commercial aristocracy developed which, at all times, was perfectly conscious of its best interests. The worker was regaled with flattering commendations of the dignity of labor and sonorous generalizations and promises, but the ruling class took care of the laws.

By means of these partial laws, the propertied interests early began to get tremendously valuable special privileges. Banking rights, canal construction, trade privileges, government favors, public franchises all came in succession.


At the same time that laws were enacted or were twisted to suit the will of property, other laws were long in force oppressing the poor to a terrifying degree.

Poor debtors could be thrown in jail indefinitely, no matter how small a sum they owned. In law, the laborer was accorded few rights. It was easy to defraud him of his meager wages, since he had no lien upon the products of his labor. His labor power was all that he had to sell, and the value of this power was not safeguarded by law. But the products created by his labor power in the form of property were fortified by the severest laws. For the laborer to be in debt was equal to a crime, in fact, in its results, worse than a crime. The burglar or pickpocket would get a certain sentence and then go free. The poor debtor, however, was compelled to languish in jail at the will of his creditor.

The report of the Prison Discipline Society for 1829 estimated that fully 75,000 persons were annually imprisoned for debt in the United States and that more than one-half of these owed less than twenty dollars.[51] And such were the appalling conditions of these debtors’ prisons that there was no distinction of sex, age or character; all of the unfortunates were indiscriminately herded together. Sometimes, even in the inclement climate of the North, the jails were so poorly constructed, that there was insufficient shelter from the elements. In the newspapers of the period advertisements may be read in which charitable societies or individuals appeal for food, fuel and clothing for the inmates of these prisons. The thief and the murderer had a much more comfortable time of it in prison than the poor debtor.


With the law-making mercantile class the situation was very different. The state and national bankruptcy acts, as apply to merchants, bankers, storekeepers – the whole commercial class – were so loosely drafted and so laxly enforced and judicially interpreted, that it was not hard to defraud creditors and escape with the proceeds. A propertied bankrupt could conceal his assets and hire adroit lawyers to get him off scot-free on quibbling technicalities – a condition which has survived to the present time, though in a lesser degree.[52]

But imprisonment for debt was not the only fate that befell the propertyless. According to the „Annual Report of the Managers of the Society for the Prevention of Pauperism in New York City,” there were 12,000 paupers in New York City in 1820.[53] Many of these were destitute Irish who, after having been plundered and dispossessed by the absentee landlords and the capitalists of their own country, were induced to pay their last farthing to the shippers for passage to America. There were laws providing that ship masters must report to the Mayors of cities and give a bond that the destitutes that they brought over should not become public charges. These laws were systematically and successfully evaded; poor immigrants were dumped unceremoniously at obscure places along the coast from whence they had to make their way, carrying their baggage and beds, to the cities the best that they could. Cadwallader D. Colden, mayor of New York for some years, tells, in his reports, of harrowing cases of death after death resulting from exposure due to this horrible form of exploitation.

Now when the immigrant or native found himself in a state of near, or complete, destitution and resorted to the pawnbrokers’s or to theft, what happened? The law restricted pawnbrokers from charging more than seven per cent on amounts more than $25, but on amounts below that they were allowed to charge twenty-five per cent. which, as the wage value of money then went, was oppressively high. Of course, the poor with their cheap possessions seldom owned anything on which they could get more than $25; consequently they were the victims of the most grinding legalized usury. Occasionally some legislative committee recognized, although in a dim and unanalytic way, this onerous discrimination of law against the propertyless. „Their [the pawnbrokers’] rates of interest,” an Aldermanic committee reported in 1832, „have always been exorbitant and exceedingly oppressive. It has from time to time been regulated by law, and its sanctions have (as is usual upon most occasions when oppression has been legalized) been made to fall most heavily upon the poor.” The committee continued with the following comments which were naïve in the extreme considering that for generations all law had been made by and for the propertied interests: „It is a singular fact that the smallest sums advanced have always been chargeable with the highest rates of interest…. It is a fact worthy of consideration that by far the greater number of loans effected at these establishments are less than one dollar, and of the whole twelve-fifteenths are in sums less than one dollar and a half.”[54]

On the other hand, the propertied class not only was able to raise money at a fairly low rate of interest, but, as will appear, had the free use of the people’s money, through the power of government, to the extent of tens of millions of dollars.


If a man were absolutely destitute and took to theft as the only means of warding off starvation for himself or his family, the whole force of law at once descended heavily upon him. In New York State the law decreed it grand larceny to steal to the value of $25, and in other States the statutes were equally severe. For stealing $25 worth of anything the penalty was three years in prison at hard labor. The unfortunate was usually put in the convict chain-gang and forced to work along the roads. Street-begging was prohibited by drastic laws; poverty was substantially a crime. The moment a propertyless person stole, the assumption at once was that he was prima facie a criminal; but let the powerful propertied man steal and government at once refused to see the criminal intent; if he were prosecuted, the usual outcome was that he never went to jail. Hundreds of specific instances could be given to prove this. One of the most noted of these was that of Samuel Swartwout, who was Collector of the Port of New York for a considerable period and who, at the same time, was a financier and large land-speculation promoter. It came out in 1838 that he had stolen the enormous sum of $1,222,705.69 from the Government,[55] which money he had used in his schemes. He was a fugitive from justice for a time, but upon his return was looked upon extenuatingly as the „victim of circumstances” and he never languished in jail.

Money was the standard of everything. The propertied person could commit any kind of crime, short of murder, and could at once get free on bail. But what happened to the accused who was poor? Here is a contemporaneous description of one of the prisons of the period:

„In Bridewell, white females of every grade of character, from the innocent who is in the end acquitted, down to the basest wretch that ever disgraced the refuges of prostitution, are crowded into the same abandoned abode. With the white male prisons, the case is little altered…. And so it is with the colored prisoners of both sexes. Hundreds are taken up and sent to these places, who, after remaining frequently several weeks, are found to be innocent of the crime alleged and are then let loose upon the community.”[56]

„Let loose upon the community.” Does not this clause in itself convey volumes of significance of the attitude of the propertied interests, even when banded together in a pseudo „charitable” enterprise, toward the poverty-stricken? While thus the charitable societies were holding up the destitute to scorn and contumely as outcasts and were loftily lecturing down to the poor on the evils of intemperance and gambling – practices which were astoundingly prevalent among the rich – at no time did they make any attempt to alter laws so glaringly unjust that they practically made poverty a distinct crime, subject to long terms of imprisonment.

For instance, if a rich man were assaulted and made a complaint, all that he had to do was to give bail to insure his appearance as a witness. But if a poor man or woman were cheated or assaulted and could not give bail to insure his or her appearance at the trial as a complaining witness, the law compelled the authorities to lock up that man or woman in prison. In the debates in the New York Constitutional Convention of 1846, numerous cases were cited of this continuing barbarity in New York, Maryland, Pennsylvania and other states. In Maryland a young woman was assaulted and preferred criminal charges. As she could not give bail she was locked up for eighteen months as a detained witness. This was but one instance in thousands of similar cases.


For an apprenticed laborer to quit his master and job was a crime in law; once caught he was forthwith bundled off to jail, there to await the dispensation of his master. No matter how cruelly his master ill-treated him, however dissatisfied he was, the apprenticed laborer in law had no rights. Almost every day the newspapers of the eighteenth, and the early part of the nineteenth, century contained offers of rewards for the apprehension of fugitive apprentice laborers; from a survey of the Pennsylvania, New York, Massachusetts and other colonial and state newspapers it is clear that thousands of these apprentices had to resort to flight to escape their bondage. This is a specimen advertisement:


RAN away from the subscriber, an Apprentice Boy, named William Rustes, about 18 years and 3 months old, by trade a house carpenter, of a dark complexion, dark eye brows, black eyes and black hair, about 5 feet, 8 inches high, his dress unknown as he took with him different kinds of clothes. The above reward will be paid to any person that will secure him in gaol or return him to his master.

GEORGE LORD, No. 12 First Street.[57]

In contradistinction to the scorpion-like laws which worked such injustice to the poor and which made a mockery of doctrines of equality before the law, the propertied interests endowed themselves, by their control of government, with invaluable exemptions and peculiarly profitable special privileges.

Even where, in civil cases, all men, theoretically, had an equal chance in courts of equity, litigation was made so expensive, whether purposely or not, that justice was really a one-sided pastime, in which the rich man could easily wear out the poor contestant. This, however, is not the place for a dissertation on that most remarkable of noteworthy sorcerer’s arts, the making of justice an expensive luxury, while still deluding the people with the notion that the law knows no preferences. The preferences which are more to the point at present are those in which government force is used to enrich the already rich and impoverish the impoverished still further. At the very time that property was bitterly resisting enlightened pleas for the abolition of imprisonment for debt, for the enactment of a mechanic’s lien law, and for the extension of the suffrage franchise it was using the public money of the whole people for its personal and private enterprises. In works dealing with those times it is not often that we get penetration into the underlying methods of the trading class. But a lucid insight is inadvertently given by Walter Barrett (who, for sixty years, was in the mercantile trade), in his smug and conventional, but quaintly entertaining, volumes, „The Merchants of Old New York.” This strong instance shows like a flashlight that while the success of the shippers was attributed to a fine category of energetic qualities, the benevolent assistance of the United States Government was, in a large measure, responsible for part of their accumulations.


The Griswolds of New York owned the ship, „Panama.” She carried spelter, lead, iron and other products to China and returned with tea, false cinnamon and various other Chinese goods. The duty on these was extremely high. But the Government was far more lenient to the trading class than the trader was to the poor debtor. It generously extended credit for nine, twelve and eighteen months before it demanded the payment of the tariff duties. What happened under this system? As soon as the ship arrived, the cargo was sold at a profit of fifty per cent. The Griswolds, for example, would pocket their profits and instead of using their own capital in further ventures, they would have the gratuitous use of Government money, that is to say, the people’s money, for periods of from six months to a year and a half. Thus the endless chain was kept up. According to Barrett, this was the customary attitude of the Government toward merchants: it was anything but unusual for a merchant to have the free use of Government money to the sum of four or five hundred thousand dollars.[58]

„John Jacob Astor,” says Barrett in a view of admiration, „at one period of his life had several vessels operating in this way. They would go to the Pacific and carry furs from thence to Canton. These would be sold at large profits. Then the cargoes of tea would pay enormous duties which Astor did not have to pay to the United States for a year and a half. His tea cargoes would be sold for good four and six months paper, or perhaps cash; so that for eighteen or twenty years John Jacob Astor had what was actually a free-of-interest loan from the Government of over five millions of dollars.”[59]

„One house,” continues Barrett, „was Thomas H. Smith & Sons. This firm went enormously into the Canton trade, and, although possessing originally but a few thousand dollars, Smith imported to such an extent that when he failed he owed the United States three millions and not a cent has ever been paid.” Was Smith imprisoned for debt? Not at all.

It is such revelations as these that indicate how it was possible for the shippers to pile up great fortunes at a time when „a house that could raise $260,000 in specie had an uncommon capital.” They showed how the same functions of government which were used as an engine of such oppressive power against the poor, were perverted into highly efficient auxiliary of trading class aims and ambitions. By multifarious subtle workings, these class laws inevitably had a double effect. They poured wealth into the coffers of the merchant-class and simultaneously tended to drive the masses into poverty. The gigantic profits taken in by merchants had to be borne by the worker, perhaps not superficially, but in reality so. They came from his slender wages, from the tea and cotton and woolen goods that he used, the sugar and the coffee and so on. In this indirect way the shippers absorbed a great part of the products of his labor; what they did not expropriate the landlord did. Then when the laborer fell in debt to the middleman tradesman to jail he went.[60]


The worker denounced these discriminations as barbarous and unjust. But he could do nothing. The propertied class, with its keen understanding of what was best for its interests, acted and voted, and usually dragooned the masses of enfranchised into voting, for men and measures entirely favorable to its designs. Sometimes these interests conflicted as they did when a part of New England became manufacturing centers and favored a high protective tariff in opposition to the importing trades, the plantation owners and the agricultural class in general. Then the vested class would divide, and each side would appeal with passionate and patriotic exhortations to the voting elements of the people to sustain it, or the country would go to ruin. But when the working class made demands for better laws, the propertied class, as a whole, united to oppose the workers bitterly. However it differed on the tariff, or the question of state or national banks, substantially the whole trading class solidly combated the principle of manhood suffrage and the movements for the wiping out of laws for imprisonment for debt, for mechanic’s liens and for the establishment of shorter hours of work.

Political institutions and their offspring in the form of laws being generally in the control of the trading class, the conditions were extraordinarily favorable for the accumulation of large fortunes, especially on the part of the shipowners, the dominant class. The grand climax of the galaxy of American fortunes during the period from 1800 to 1831 – the greatest of all the fortunes up to the beginning of the third decade of that century – was that of Girard. He built up what was looked up to as the gigantic fortune of about ten millions of dollars and far overtopped every other strainer for money except Astor, who survived him seventeen years, and whose wealth increased during that time to double the amount that Girard left.


[49] „The Astor Fortune,” McClure’s Magazine, April, 1905.

[50] Innumerable were the sermons and addresses poured forth, all to the same end. To cite one: The Rev. Daniel Sharp of the Third Baptist Meeting House, Boston, delivered a sermon in 1828 on „The Tendency of Evil Speaking Against Rulers.” It was considered so powerful an argument in favor of obedience that it was printed in pamphlet form (Beals, Homer & Co., Printers), and was widely distributed to press and public.

[51] Various writers assert that twenty dollars was the average minimum. In many places, however, the great majority of debts were for less than ten dollars. Thus, for the year ending November 26, 1831, nearly one thousand citizens had been imprisoned for debt in Baltimore. Of this number more than half owed less than ten dollars, and of the whole number, only thirty-four individually had debts exceeding one hundred dollars. – Reports of Committees, First Session, Twenty-fourth Congress, Vol. II, Report No. 732:3.

[52] In his series of published articles, „The History of the Prosecution of Bankrupt Frauds,” the author has brought out comprehensive facts on this point.

[53] The eminent merchants who sat on this committee had their own conclusive opinion of what produced poverty. In commenting on the growth of paupers they ascribed pauperism to seven sources. (1) Ignorance, (2) Intemperance, (3) Pawnbrokers, (4) Lotteries, (5) Charitable Institutions, (6) Houses of Ill-Fame, (7) Gambling.

No documents more wonderfully illustrate the bourgeois type of temperament and reasoning than their reports. The people of the city were ignorant because 15,000 of the 25,000 families did not attend church. Pawnbrokers were an incentive to theft, cunning and lack of honest industry, etc., etc. Thus their explanations ran. In referring to mechanics and paupers, the committee described them as „the middling and inferior classes.” Is it any wonder that the working class justly views „charitable” societies, and the spirit behind them, with intense suspicion and deep execration?

[54] Documents of the Board of Assistant Aldermen of New York City, 1831-32, Doc. No. 45:1.

[55] House Executive Document, No. 13, Twenty-fifth Congress, Third Session; also, House Report, No. 313.

[56] Report for 1821 of the „Society for the Prevention of Pauperism.”

[57] „New York Gazette and General Advertiser”, Aug. 5, 1797. The rewards offered for the apprehension of fugitive apprentices varied. An advertisement in the same newspaper, issue of July 3, 1797, held out an offer of five dollars reward for an indented German boy who had „absconded.” The fear was expressed that he would attempt to board some ship, and all persons were notified not to harbor or conceal him as they would be „proceeded against as the law directs”. That old apprentice law has never been repealed in New York State.

[58] The Government reports bear out Barrett’s statements, although in saying this it must be with qualifications. The shippers engaged in the East India and China trade were more favored, it seems, than other classes of shippers, which discrimination engendered much antagonism. „Why,” wrote the Mercantile Society of New York to the House Committee on Manufactures in 1821, „should the merchant engaged in the East India trade, who is the overgrown capitalist, have the extended credit of twelve months in his duties, the amount of which on one cargo furnishes nearly a sufficient capital for completing another voyage, before his bonds are payable?” The Mercantile Society recommended that credits on duties be reduced to three and six months on merchandise imported from all quarters of the globe. – Reports of Committees, Second Session, Sixteenth Congress, 1820-21, Vol. I, Document No. 34.

[59] „The Old Merchants of New York,” 1:31-33. Barrett was a great admirer of Astor. He inscribed Vol. iii, published in 1864, to Astor’s memory.

[60] The movement to abolish imprisonment for debt was a protracted one lasting more than a quarter of a century, and was acrimoniously opposed by the propertied classes, as a whole. By 1836, however, many State legislatures had been induced to repeal or modify the provisions of the various debtors’ imprisonment acts. In response to a recommendation by President Andrew Jackson that the practise be abolished in the District of Columbia, a House Select Committee reported on January 17, 1832, that „the system originated in cupidity. It is a confirmation of power in the few against the many; the Patrician against the Plebeian.” On May 31, 1836, the House Committee for the District of Columbia, in reporting on the debtors’ imprisonment acts, said: „They are disgraceful evidences of the ingenious subtlety by which they were woven into the legal system we adopted from England, and were obviously intended to increase and confirm the power of a wealthy aristocracy by rendering poverty a crime, and subjecting the liberty of the poor to the capricious will of the rich.” – Reports of Committees, Second Session, Twenty-second Congress, 1832-33, Report No. 5, and Reports of Committees, First Session, Twenty-fourth Congress, 1836, Report No. 732, ii:2.

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