The Financial Flurry

"The bowels of the banks, with us the great money-lenders, close with the snap and tenacity of steel-traps; and then a general panic, or want of commercial confidence, brings on a paralysis of the domestic exchanges, and wide-spread bankruptcy and ruin. Importations are checked, of course; but they are checked in a sharp, rapid, and violent way, accompanied by the most painful embarrassments and convulsions."
"Break, break, break,
On thy cold, gray crags, O Sea!"

"I remember a day," said a friend not long since, "a day as sweet, calm, cool, and bright as that whose wedding and funeral song the poet sings in the same verse, when I stood upon the white sea-coast near Naples, and looked far away across the blue, silent waters, and up the gray, flowery steeps, to where the towering cone of Vesuvius cleaves the skies. It was in the spring-time; luxuriant nature seemed to have nothing to do but to grow and bloom, and the huge mountain itself was profoundly at peace,--smiling a welcome, apparently, to the delicate bean-plants and wild vines which clambered up its sides, and wearing a light curl of smoke, like a gay coronal, around its brow. The bay was alive with red-capped fishermen, each one intent on fishing up his inverted brother below him; the beach was thronged with women, who chattered cheerfully over their baskets; and along the road scampered soldiers in bright uniforms, as if they had no conceivable purpose in life but to bathe in that clear sunshine, and breathe that soft, delicious air.

"A few hours later," continued he, "I stood not far from the same spot, and saw that mountain angrily belching forth pitch and flames; the earth beneath my feet groaned with sullen, suppressed rage, or as if it were in pain; vast volumes of lurid smoke rolled through the sky, and streams of melted brimstone coursed down the hill-sides, burning up the pretty flowers, crushing the trees, and ruthlessly devouring the snug farms and cottages of the loving Philemons and Baucises who had incautiously built too near the fatal precinct. The poor contadini, who lately chaffered so vivaciously over their macaroni and chestnuts, were flying panic-smitten in all directions; some clasped their crucifixes, and called wildly upon the saints for protection; others leaped frantically into boats and rowed themselves dead, in the needless endeavor to escape death; while the general expression of the people was that of a multitude who, the next minute, expected to see the skies fall to crush them, or the earth open to swallow them up forever. But I was myself unmoved," our friend concluded, in his usual vein of philosophy, "though, I trust, not unsympathizing; because I saw, through those dun clouds of smoke, the stars still shining serenely aloft, and because I felt that after that transient convulsion of nature the great sun would rise as majestically as ever on the morrow, to show us, here and there, no doubt, a beautiful tract now desolate, here and there a fruitful vale now filled with ashes,--but also, the same glorious bay breathing calmly in its bed, the same cloudless sky holding the green and peaceful earth in its complacent embrace."

We could not, as we listened to the story of the traveller, help considering it an illustration of that great convulsion of finance which has visited us during the last month. We do not mean to call this an eruption, which would scarcely be appropriate,--inasmuch as the characteristic of it was not a preternatural activity, but rather a preternatural stagnation and paralysis; but there is certainly a striking similarity in the contrasts presented by the two pictures just painted, and the contrasts presented in the condition of the commercial world as it is now, and as it was only a few weeks since. Then all nature smiled, and we scarcely thought of the future in the happy consciousness of the present; whereas now all nature seems to frown, and we eagerly long for the future to escape the endless vexations and miseries of the present. Our trade, which lately bloomed like a Neapolitan spring-day, is now covered with clouds and sifted with ashes, as if some angry Vesuvius had exploded its contents over us and shot the hot lava-tides among our snug vineyards and cottages. May we not also, in this case, as in that, draw some consolation from the knowledge that the stars are still shining behind the smoke, and that the sun will assuredly come up to-morrow, as it has come up on so many morrows, for so many thousands of years? Convulsions, by the very fact of their violence, show that they are short-lived; and though we, who suffer by them directly, are apt to derive the slenderest solace from the philosophy which demonstrates their transientness, or their utility in certain aspects, it is nevertheless profitable, for various reasons, to make them a subject of remark.

In a season of great public calamity, moreover, everybody feels that he ought to participate in it in some way, if not as a sufferer, then as a sympathizer, and, in either capacity, as a speculator upon its causes and probable effects. The learned historian, Monsieur Alcofribas, who preserves for our instruction "the heroic deeds and prowesses" of the great king of the Dipsodes, tells us how that once, when Philip of Macedon threatened Corinth, the virtuous inhabitants of that city were thrown into mortal fear; but they were not too much paralyzed to forget the necessity of defence; and while some fortified the walls, others sharpened spears, and others again carried the baskets, the noble Diogenes, who was doubtless the chief literary man of the place, was observed to thwack and bang his tub with unmerciful vehemence. When he was asked why he did so, he replied, that it was for the purpose of showing that he was not a mere slug and lazy spectator, in a crowd so fervently exercised. In these times, therefore, when Philip of Macedon is not precisely thundering at our walls, but nibbling at every man's cupboard and cheese-press, it behooves each Diogenes to rattle his tub at least, in order to prove, in the spirit of his prototype and master,

"Though he be rid of fear,
He is not void of care."

If the noise he makes only add to the general turbulence and confusion, the show of sympathy will at least go for something.

The same authority, whom we have just quoted, has a piece of advice with which we intend to set our tub in motion. "Whatsoever," he says, "those blindfolded, blockheady fools, the astrologers of Louvain, Nuremberg, Tubingen, and Lyons, may tell you, don't you feed yourselves up with whims and fancies, nor believe there is any Governor of the whole universe this year but God the Creator, who by his Word rules and governs all things, in their nature, propriety, and conditions, and without whose preservation and governance all things in a moment would be reduced to nothing, as out of nothing they were by him created." It is a most sound and salutary truth, not to be forgotten in times of commercial distress, nor even in discussing financial questions, remote as they may seem to be from the domain of ethics. God rules in the market, as he does on the mountain; he has provided eternal laws for society, as he has for the stars or the seas; and it is just as impossible to escape him or his ways in Wall Street or State Street as it is anywhere else. We do not wish to suggest any improper comparisons, but does not the Psalmist assert, "If I make my bed in sheol, behold Thou art there"?

In other words, commerce, the exchange of commodities, banking, and whatever relates to it, currency, the rise and fall of prices, the rates of profits, are all subject to laws as universal and unerring as those which Newton deduces in the "Principia," or Donald McKay applies in the construction of a clipper ship. As they are manifested by more complicated phenomena, man may not know them as accurately as he knows the laws of astronomy or mechanics; but he can no more doubt the existence of the former than he can the existence of the latter; and he can no more infringe the one than he can infringe the other with impunity. The poorest housekeeper is perfectly well aware that certain rules of order are to be observed in the management of the house, or else you will have either starvation or the sheriff inside of it in a little time. But what means that formidable, big-sounding phrase, Political Economy, more than national housekeeping? Can you manage the immense, overgrown family of Uncle Sam with less calculation, less regard to justice, prudence, thrift, than you use in your own little affairs? Can you sail that tremendous vessel, the Ship of State, without looking well to your chart and compass and Navigator's Guide?

When the "Central America" sinks to the bottom of the sea with five hundred souls on board, though it is in the midst of a terrible tempest, the public instinct is inclined to impute the disaster less to the mysterious uproar of wind and wave than to some concealed defect in the vessel. Had she sunk in a tranquil ocean, while the winds were idle and the waves asleep, the incident would have produced a burst of indignation, above the deeper wail of sorrow, strong enough to sweep the guilty instruments of it out of existence. The world would have felt that some great law of mechanics had been wilfully violated. But here is a whole commercial society suddenly wrecked, in a moment of general peace, after ten years of high, but not very florid or very unwholesome prosperity, on the heel of an abundant recompense to the efforts of labor,--when there has occurred no public calamity, no war, no famine, no fire, no domestic insurrection, scarcely one startling event, and when the interpositions of the government have been literally as unfelt as the dropping of the dew, a whole commercial society is wrecked; values sink to the bottom like the California gold on the "Central America"; great money-corporations fall to pieces as her state-rooms and cabins fell to pieces; the relations of trade are dislocated as her ribs and beams were dislocated; and the people are cast upon an uncertain sea, as her passengers were cast,--not to struggle for physical existence like them, but to endure an amount of anguish and despair almost equal to what was endured by those unhappy victims.

Presented by

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


A Stop-Motion Tour of New York City

A filmmaker animated hundreds of still photographs to create this Big Apple flip book


The Absurd Psychology of Restaurant Menus

Would people eat healthier if celery was called "cool celery?"


This Japanese Inn Has Been Open for 1,300 Years

It's one of the oldest family businesses in the world.


What Happens Inside a Dying Mind?

Science cannot fully explain near-death experiences.

More in Business

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In