Jacksonian Miscellanies, #50

February 24, 1998

Abdy on Economics, Manners, and Almshouses

Copyright by the editor, Hal Morris, Secaucus, NJ 1997. Permission is granted to copy, but not for sale, nor in multiple copies, except by permission.

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The following is a third excerpt from Journal of a Residence and Tour in the United States of North America, from April, 1833, to October, 1834, by Edward S. Abdy (London: Murray, 1835).

  Abdy sympathises with striking carpenters, but considers them misguided due to not understanding economic science.

He seems to consider it scientifically proven that strikes could never elevate the worker's income, and proposes making (Adam Smith style) economics a subject taught to everyone in school.

He complements Americans on having good manners -- unaffected by showiness that can sometimes make "politeness" burdensome.

The remaining impressions are of an almshouse, holding around 1500 paupers and 400 prisoners, intermingled; a "large penitentiary for the reception of misdemeanants and petty offenders" on Blackwell's Island, and a hospital on Broadway, which he praises.


Trades' Unions.­­State of Economical Science.-Good breeding. - Alms­house, Penitentiary, Hospital, &c.-President's visit to New York.-Aristocracy of the Skin.-Relative value of the two races.-Colonization Society.

I HAD not been long in New York before I found that the spirit of combination had crossed the Atlantic, and infected the minds of the mechanics with the chimerical hope of raising their wages. I was one day walking in the Broadway, when I met a numerous procession of journeymen carpenters, who had "turned out" for an advance of a shilling (about sixpence of our money) upon the eleven they were receiving for a day's work. They had been parading the streets for upwards of a fortnight, with the object of persuading others in the trade to join them. At a house, where they had collected in large numbers, some men were engaged in their work; and the parley that ensued between the two parties, appeared to be conducted without any attempt or apprehension of intimidation. Many of the malcontents were well­dressed men; and all of them orderly and respectable in their appearance. Not far off; as if in contrast, lay an Irish laborer, contented with his wages and his whiskey, prostrate like his unfortunate country, and surrounded by commiserating friends;-not that it was not his own will and deed that had brought him down, or that those who were so busy about him, were either accessary to his debasement or interested in its continuance.

It is not very likely that the average rate of wages was lower among the carpenters than in other occupations, though a contrary inference might perhaps be drawn from the pecuniary assistance they had received from the workmen, who would naturally wish to secure themselves against an influx from without, by placing all of the same rank on a level with themselves. In a young and free country it will always be difficult to establish a permanent fund, or continue a steady course of opposition against a body, into which the leaguers are constantly passing; where change of place or of business is every day occurring; and where the object aimed at must vary with the population and the locality.

Each party appealed to the public through the press; and sundry hard names were given and returned, with a due observance of candor and courtesy. In the meantime the employers called in aid from the country; which was thus in a fair way of harassing the enemy by a class of competitors who would derive improved skill from the contest. Whether the charge of injustice, or that of intimidation, were least unfounded; whether man or master triumphed, it would require some time to calm the bad passions that had been inflamed on both sides; and it was plain that the community could never recover, by the renewal of industry, what it was losing by its suspension. The struggle had already assumed a political aspect; a party in the state, whose tenure of office was bound up with the ignorance and antipathies of the people, were encouraging the errors to which they led, and the conflicting claims of capital and labor, had assumed, in the hands of a corrupt faction, the form of an irreconcileable war between patrician and plebeian.

We, who, till lately, had an assize of bread in London, and still have a legal rate of interest, have no right to find fault with the carpenters of New York for endeavoring to fix a minimum of what to them is the price of all the property they can lend, and of all the provisions they can command.In the North American States too, with one or two exceptions, those who are supposed to be better informed than journeymen mechanics, have prohibited interest for money beyond a certain amount; thus defeating the object in view, by raising the price in the exact proportion in which a breach of the enactment can be insured against its infringement. In all these cases the relation between demand and supply has been equally overlooked. The value of each link in the chain between the producer and the consumer cannot be altered by any arbitrary tariff of interest, though its cohesion may for a time be disturbed by the artificial pressure upon any particular part-a pressure which the natural elasticity of its materials will ultimately remove or remedy. Why should not these matters be explained to the pupils of the public schools in a plain and simple style of language adapted to their comprehensions? A blunder in geography or arithmetic may expose an individual to inconvenience or ridicule, but could have no great influence on the welfare of society or his own; whereas both might be irreparably injured by an imperfect acquaintance with those laws which regulate the social relations and determine both the direction and the value of human labor. He who expects to find "perfect wisdom" in the western world will be not a little astonished to find the exploded errors of Europe passing current there as undoubted truths. A writer in the New York Gazette, who signs himself O. P. Q., accuses an unfortunate market­woman of the unpardonable crime of forestalling while she is vindicated by an equally sagacious correspondent of the impartial journal, on the ground that her charges are fair. Thus the buyer is made the judge, as well as the accuser, of an imaginary offence; and the poor defendant is to be handed over, without pity and without a trial, to the tender mercies of a mob, stimulated by ignorance, resentment, and self­interest. Monopoly attacks the poor carpenter with a double­barrel:-when he sells his labor, the "boss" robs him; when he buys his mutton, the butcher cheats him. Another writer in Niles's Register, after announcing that a carpet costing 2000 dollars, and an oil­cloth carpet costing the same sum, had been imported from England to decorate the President's house at Washington, exclaims, with patriotic indignation: "If the royal palace at Windsor were furnished with French carpets,-what would the people of England say about it? But such a thing cannot happen in England, where the Queen will not receive the visits of British subjects unless clothed in British manufactures." What a change in human affairs! The folly of a crowned head in Europe, is quoted as wisdom in America!-While we are making treaties and threatening wars to extend our foreign trade, we must not take what alone foreigners have to give us in return!-we must not carry about our persons the proofs of our mercantile enterprise and commercial prosperity! Let us sell to every one, and buy of no one! Let us get as little as we can for our labor; and bribe other nations to consume the fruits of our industry!

If a stranger should imagine these to be the solitary opinions of individuals, let him peruse the following law, passed by the proper authorities . the good city of Boston, in the year of enlightenment 1813: "It is ordered, that no person who shall be convicted of either of the offenses of forestalling, regrating, or engrossing, or any species of fraudulent dealing in the market, shall be permitted to use or hire a stall, or have and occupy any stand in either of the public markets of the town, or in any of the streets leading thereto, for the purpose of offering for sale any article of provisions, usually sold in market, for the term of one year from and after such conviction." The penalty for disobedience to be not exceeding five dollars, nor less than two. It is also ordered, by the same law, "That no person, not offering for sale the produce of his own farm, shall be permitted to occupy that part of the ancient market, called Dock Square," under penalty of a sum from five to two dollars for every hour during which the prohibited offense is continued.

I had but few acquaintances among what may be called the refined classes of society in New York. From the little I saw, however, I was led to conclude that the manners that prevailed in those circles, differed no further from those in the corresponding rank among ourselves, than what might be explained by a reference to habits that give a different value in the eyes of each to the connection between essentials and externals. There is a natural good breeding about an American gentleman that places you at once in a position most congenial to your feelings, and points out to you the exact limits between social freedom and vulgar familiarity. He has, in general, too much respect for himself to treat you with hauteur;-to mortify you by an assumption of superiority, or embarrass a stranger by a display of those conventional forms, which mediocrity has imposed upon the spirit of exclusiveness to shelter its insignificance and protect its privileges. These remarks are suggested by what occurred on a visit I paid to a family whom I had engaged myself to accompany to Hoboken, a favorite resort, on the New Jersey side of the river, to the cockneys of New York, as well as to strangers. They were staying at the Clinton Hotel, which, like the other houses of that kind, is divided into two portions, with separate entrances, one of which is appropriated to private families. I found them just sitting down to dinner; and the reception I met with was such as to shew me that I had not intruded on an occasion, which, with us, too often assumes, on the arrival of a stranger, an appearance of ceremony and constraint. I could not but contrast the manner in which my declining to partake of their meal was received, with the pressing importunities I should, most likely, have been "bored" with in my own country. No one was "put out" or "hurt" because a sick man would not make himself ill to please others. Often have I suffered severely in England from compliance with entreaties, which were so urged as to carry with them an evident disposition to find cause for displeasure and perhaps offence in a refusal There were two young ladies of our party with as fair a claim-because they had no pretension-to the title of gentlewomen, as any of any country, whatever meaning indicative of admiration and distinction may be affixed to the appellation. Hoboken presented an enchanting scene; and the family party to which I had been admitted was neither insensible to its beauties, nor the least interesting of the different groups that gave animation to its attractions.

In the early part of June, having been honored with an official invitation from the Common Council to attend the Governor on a visit to Blackwell's Island, I was punctual to my appointment at the city hall, whence the procession set out at 10 A.M. In our way we went to the almshouse. The establishment contained about 1900 inmates, of whom 1500 were paupers, and the rest prisoners, including 60 untried. None of the latter were classified, except that the sexes were separated.

In both divisions, the work of demoralization was going on in a way that demanded something stronger than the regret, and the wish for a remedy, with which those who might have done something for its removal by remonstrance or direct influence, had hitherto contented themselves. The case of the untried was particularly cruel and unjust.-For them, neither youth nor innocence afforded any security against corruption, or any shelter against scenes and language which must shock and disgust where they fail to debase and vitiate.

The new­comers are regaled with what is called a blanketing.-When left alone with the other prisoners, who are huddled together without regard to difference of age or of crime, they are suddenly surrounded by the most abandoned and daring, covered with a blanket, and robbed of every thing they may have about them of value. After having thus "crossed the line," they are admitted to the privileges of the place.

The inspectors reported to the Legislature in 1833, that "the convicts were confined in one room, or on different galleries, but within the same general inclosure. No attempt had ever been made to establish a system of discipline among them;-the old, the young," (and to cap the climax of iniquity,) "all colors and conditions were indiscriminately mixed together." A very large proportion both of the prisoners and of the paupers consisted of foreigners, many of whom find the comforts and conveniences of the place more to their taste, than a precarious and laborious life out of its walls. Complaints were made by the officers of the establishment of the increasing tendency in this system to encourage pauperism among a mixed population, containing so many improvident and intemperate. In addition to those who are provided for in the almshouse, there are generally 4000 families of out­door paupers, who receive relief from the corporation of the city.

From Bellevue (by which name the almshouse is known) the party proceeded to Blackwell's Island, where the city has a large penitentiary for the reception of misdemeanants and petty offenders, who are condemned to imprisonment for short periods from a few weeks to twelve months. The plan is much the same as that at Singsing prison, except that the situation has enabled the projectors to erect a more airy and spacious building in proportion to the number of its inmates, of whom there was then sufficient accommodation for 240, and another wing was in progress, of equal dimensions.

From the nature of the visit, little opportunity was given to make enquiries, or to observe more than the general appearance of the establishment, which was admirably adapted to its object. The island on which it is built is small, and abounds in beautiful scenery,-presenting points of view towards the opposite shores on every side that were truly enchanting. It is a spot that impresses the mind with peculiar associations;-favored as it is by Nature and sullied by man, whose vices and crimes are brought into painful contrast with all that she has employed to delight and embellish it. Our day's excursion ended as such jaunts generally do on both sides of the Atlantic, with an excellent dinner, which was laid out with considerable taste under an arbor prepared for the purpose. The whole party were in high spirits, and fun and frolic were not wanting. A more merry set of people, "within the limits of becoming mirth, I never spent an hour's chat withal."

On the 10th of June, Dr. Alexander Hosack took me with him to see the New York Hospital, situated in the Broadway, on the highest ground in the city. Every part of the establishment was remarkable for cleanliness and comfort. The patients had a much more cheerful and contented expression of countenance than is generally seen in the sick room of a private house. This must strike every visitor to institutions of this kind; it is probably owing to the self­restraint which the presence of others equally afflicted brings into action. As we avoid or pursue any object, not because it refuses or promises pleasurable sensation, but because we cannot bear the uneasiness that its presence or absence creates in our minds, it may truly be said that we are as much indebted to pain for the virtue we possess, as for the good we obtain or the ill we escape. The best qualities of the heart, that had lain dormant in health, are elicited in sickness; and he who had forgotten others to think of his own enjoyments, is taught to think of others that he may forget his own sufferings. Health of mind springs from disease of body. We may almost say with Joannes Meursius:-

There is an excellent garden, with a court for exercise, attached to the building. There are cows kept on the premises, to supply the inmates who require it with milk. This little indulgence, with a generous diet, when suited to the case, is found conducive to the restoration of health in a degree which shortens the term of residence, and is ultimately beneficial on the score of economy. On the 31st of December, 1832, there were but 182 patients in the house, as there is an honorable reluctance, or perhaps it is considered somewhat degrading, to enter the walls of a charitable institution, or receive relief in the shape of alms. Some of the beds were unoccupied. Of 1983 patients admitted the preceding year, 808 were foreigners. We afterwards visited the Ophthalmic Infirmary and one of the Dispensaries-there are two. All these are supported by voluntary contributions, and are highly creditable to the city.

A few days after, an official visit was made by the recorder and the other trustees to an establishment for decayed seamen, called the "Sailor's Snug Harbor," on Staten Island. It was founded, about thirty years ago, by a man of the name of Randall, who had been a mariner, and who left by will an estate in New York, now worth 20,000 dollars a year, to build an asylum for those whose career has been marked by the struggles of his early life without sharing any of the good fortune that attended its close. As the city extends and rents rise, the income arising from this bequest will be very large, and, added to the legacies and donations which may be expected from future benefactors, will suffice for the comfortable maintenance of many who have served under the stripes (( These are not the stripes alluded to by Mr. Canning, when he sneered at the "bit of bunting." Flogging is not abolished in the American navy. The captains of the packet­ships have the power of enforcing discipline by blows.)) of an ungrateful mistress. The estate was claimed, as heir­at­law, by the Bishop of Nova Scotia (Inglis); but the decision was in favor of the trust. The trial was rendered memorable by the death of Emmet, the Irish refugee. He was counsel for the charity, and was seized, during the proceedings, with the illness which shortly afterwards terminated his existence, to the great and lasting regret of all who knew him.

The situation for the building, which was nearly completed, has been well selected, both for the salubrity of the air and the fine prospect it commands. There are about 130 or 140 acres of land attached to it. Sailors, whose complexion is not of the orthodox color, however meritorious their conduct, or reduced their circumstances, find no "Snug Harbour" here.

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