Jacksonian Miscellanies, #68

September 1, 1998

Quodlibet: Whig Political Satire of 1840

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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Quodlibet: Whig Political Satire of 1840

The following is chapter I of Quodlibet, containing Some Annals Thereof, with an Authentic Account of the Origin and Growth of the Borough, And the Sayings and Doings of Sundry of the Towns-people; Interspersed with Sketches of the Most Remarkable and Distinguished Characters of that Place and Vicinity, by Solomon Secondthoughts, Schoolmaster ... Second Edition, Phila: J.B. Lippincott & Co. 1860.

The real author is John Pendleton Kennedy. The book was very ably discussed by Thomas Brown in the Journal of the Early Republic, Winter 1996, so I'll say little, except to note that the author brought it out again, for the even more famous election year of 1860, with the claim, in "A Word From the Author":




IT was at the close of the year 1833, or rather, I should say, at the opening of the following spring, that our Borough of Quodlibet took that sudden leap to greatness which has, of late, caused it to be so much talked about. Our folks are accustomed to set this down to the Removal of the Deposits. Indeed, until that famous event, Quodlibet was as one might say in common parlance, a place not worth talking about ­it might hardly be remarked upon the maps. But since that date, verily like Jeshurun, it has waxed fat. It has thus come to pass that "The Removal" is a great epoch in our annals­our Hegira­the A. U. C. of all Quodlibetarians.

Michael Grant, a long time ago­that is to say, full twenty years­had a tanyard on Rumblebottom Creek, occupying the very ground which is now covered by the canal basin. Even as far back as­that day he had laid up, out of the earnings of his trade, a snug sum of money, which sufficed to purchase the farm where he now lives at the foot of the Hogback. Quodlibet, or that which now is Quodlibet, was then as nothing. Michael's dwelling house and tanyard, Abel Brawn's blacksmith­shop, Christy M'Curdy's mill, and my school­house, made up the sum­total of the settlement. It is now ten years, or bard on to it, since the commissioners came this way and put the cap­sheaf on Michael's worldly fortune by ruining his tanyard and breaking up his business, whereof the damage was so taken to heart by the jury that, in their rage against internal improvements, they brought in a verdict which doubled Mr. Grant's estate in ready money, besides leaving him two acres of town lots bordering on the basin, and which, they say, are worth more to­day than the whole tanyard with its appurtenances ever was worth in its best time. This verdict wrought a strange appetite in our county, among the landholders, to be ruined in the same way; and I truly believe it was a chief cause of the unpopularity of internal improvements in this neighborhood, that the commissioners were only able to destroy the farms on the lowlands which fact, it was said, brought down the price of the uplands on the whole line of the canal, besides creating a great deal of ill humor among all who were out of the way of being damaged.

With the money which this verdict brought him, Mr. Grant improved a part of his two acres­which he was persuaded to cut up into town lots­by building the brick tavern, and the store that stands next door to it. These were the first buildings of any note in Quodlibet, and are generally supposed to have given rise to the incorporation of the Borough by the Legislature. Jesse Ferret took a lease of the tavern as soon as it was finished, and set up the sign of "The Hero"­meaning thereby General Jackson­which, by­the­by, was the first piece of historical painting that the celebrated Quipes ever attempted. The store was rented by Frederick Barndollar for his son Jacob, who was just then going to marry Ferret's daughter Susan, and open in the Iron and Flour Forwarding and Commission line, in company with Anthony Hardbottle, his own brother­in­law.

This was the state of things in Quodlibet five years before "The Removal," from which period, up to the date of the Removal, although Barndollar & Hardbottle did a tolerable business, and Ferret bad a fair run of custom, there were not above a dozen new tenements built in the Borough. But a bright destiny was yet in reserve for Quodlibet; and as I propose to unfold some incidents of its history belonging to these later times, I cannot pretermit the opportunity now afforded me to glance, though in a perfunctory and hasty fashion, at some striking events which seemed to presignify and illustrate its marvelously sudden growth.

I think it was in the very month of the Removal of the Deposits, that Theodore Fog broke up at Tumbledown, on the other side of the Hogback, and came over to Quodlibet to practice law. And it was looked upon as a very notable thing, that, in the course of the following winter, Nicodemus Handy should have also quitted Tumbledown and brought his sign, as a lottery agent, to Quodlibet, and set up that business in our Borough. There was a wonderful intimacy struck up between him and Fog, and a good many visits were made by Nicodemus during the fall, before he came over to settle. Our people marveled at this matter, and were not a little puzzled to make out the ­meaning of it, knowing that Nicodemus Handy was a shrewd man, and not likely, without some good reason for it, to strike up a friendship with a person so little given to business as Theodore Fog, against whom I desire to say nothing, holding his abilities in great respect, but meaning only to infer that as Theodore is considered high­flown in his speech, and rather too fond of living about Ferret's bar­room, it was thought strange that Nicodemus, who is plain spoken, and of the Temperance principle, should have taken up with him. It was not long after Mr. Handy had seated himself in Quodlibet, and placed his sign at the door of a small weather­boarded office, ten feet by twelve, and within a stone­throw of Fogs, before the public were favored with an insight into the cause of this intimacy between these two friends. This was disclosed in a plan for establishing The Patriotic Copperplate Bank of Quodlibet, the particulars whereof were made known at a meeting held in the dining­room of 11 The Here" one evening in March, when Theodore Fog made a flowery speech on the subject to ten persons, counting Ferret and Nim Porter the bar­keeper. The capital of the bank was proposed to be half a million, and the stock one hundred dollars a share, of which one dollar was to be paid in, and the remainder to be secured by promissory notes, payable on demand, if convenient.

This excellent scheme found many supporters; and, accordingly, when the time came for action, the whole amount was subscribed by Handy and Fog and ten of their particular friends, who had an eye to being directors and officers of the bank­to whom might also be added about thirty boatmen, who, together with the boys of my academy, lent their names to Mr. Handy.

Through the liberality of Fog, the necessary cash was supplied out of three hundred dollars, the remains of a trust fund in his hands belonging to a family of orphans in the neighborhood of Tumbledown, who had not yet had occasion to know from their attorney, the said Theodore Fog himself, of their success in a cause relating to this fund which had been gained some months before. As Nicodemus managed the subscriptions, which indeed he did with wonderful skill, these three hundred dollars went a great way in making up the payments on considerably more than the majority of the stock : and this being adjusted, he undertook a visit to the Legislature, where, through the disinterested exertions of some staunch Democratic friends, he procured a most unexceptionable charter for the bank, full of all sorts of provisions, conditions, and clauses necessary to enable it to accommodate the public with as much paper money as the said public could possibly desire.

In consideration of these great services, Nicodemus Handy elected himself Cashier; and, at the same time, had well­nigh fallen into a quarrel with Fog, who had set his heart upon being President­which, in view of the fact that that gentleman's habits were somewhat irregular after twelve o'clock in the day, Nicodemus would by no means consent to. This dissension, however, was seemingly healed, by bringing in as President my worshipful pupil, the Hon. Middleton Flam, now our member of Congress, and by making Theodore one of the directors, besides giving him the law business of the bank. It was always thought, notwithstanding Fog pretended to be satisfied at the time with this arrangement, that it rankled in his bosom, and bred a jealousy between him and his associates in the bank, and helped to drive him to drinking faster than he would naturally have done, if his feelings bad not been aggravated by this act of supposed ingratitude.

I should not omit to mention that Nicodemus Handy was a man of exact and scrupulous circumspection, and noted for the deliberation with which be weighed the consequences of his actions, or, as the common saying is, "looked before he leapt­­a remarkable proof of which kind of wisdom he afforded at this time. Having been compelled by circumstances to live beyond the avails of his lottery business, and thereby to bring himself under some impracticable liabilities, he made it a point of conscience, before he could permit himself to be clothed with the dignity of a cashier, or even to place a share of stock in his own name on the books, to swear out in open court, and to surrender, for the benefit of his numerous and patient creditors, his whole stock of worldly goods­consisting, according to the inventory thereof on record, which I have seen, of a cylindrical sheet­iron stove, two chairs, a desk and a sign­board, this latter being, as I remember, of the shape of a screen, on each leaf of which "NICODEMUS HANDY" was printed, together with the scheme of a lottery, set forth in large red and blue letters. He barely retained what the law allowed him, being his mere wearing apparel; to wit, a bran new suit of black superfine Saxony, one dozen of the best cambric linen shirts, as many lawn pocket handkerchiefs, white kid gloves, and such other trivial but gentlemanlike appurtenances as denoted that extreme neatness of dress in which Mr. Handy has ever taken a just pride, and which has been so often remarked by his friends as one of the strong points in his character. These articles, it was said, he bad procured not more with a provident eye to that state of destitution into which the generous surrender of his property was about to plunge him, than with a decent regard to the respectability of appearance which the public, he conceived,­ had a right to exact from the Cashier of the Patriotic Copperplate Bank of Quodlibet. All right­minded persons will naturally commend this prudence, and applaud Mr. Handy's sense of the dignity proper to so important and elevated a station­a station which Theodore Fog, in his speech at "The Hero," so appropriately eulogized as one "of financial, fiscal, and monetary responsibility."

There was one circumstance connected with the history of the establishment of the bank that excited great observation among our folks: that was the dislike Michael Grant took up against it from its very beginning. It was an indiscriminate, unmitigable, dogged dislike to the whole concern, which, by degrees, brought him into a bad opinion of our Borough, and I verily believe was the cause why, from that time forward, he kept himself so much at his farm near the Hogback, and grew to be, as if it were out of mere opposition, so unhappily, and indeed I may say, so perversely stubborn in those iniquitous Whip, sentiments which he was in the habit of uttering. I have beard him say that be thought as badly as a man could think, of the grounds for starting the bank, and still worse of the men who started it,­which, certainly, was a very rash expression, considering that our congressman, the Hon. Middleton Flam, was President and one of the first patrons of the institution, and that such a man as Nicodemus Handy was Cashier; to say nothing of Theodore Fog, whose habits we are willing to confess, might, in the estimation of some men, give some little color to my worthy friend's vituperation.

Now, there was no man in Quodlibet whom Handy and Fog so much desired, or strove so hard,. to bring into the bank scheme as Mr. Grant. They made every sort of effort and used all kinds of arguments to entice him. Nicodemus Handy on one occasion, I think it was in April, put the matter to him in such strong points of view, that I have often marveled since how the good gentleman stood it. He argued, with amazing cogency, that General Jackson had removed the deposits for the express purpose of destroying the Bank of the United States, and giving the State banks a fair field: that the Old Hero was an enthusiastic friend to State rights, and especially to State banks, which it was the desire, of his heart to see increased and multiplied all over the country; that he was actually, as it were, making pets out of these banks, and was determined to feed them up with the public moneys and give them such a credit in the land as would forever shut out all hope to the friends of a National Bank to succeed with their purpose : and, finally, that although Clay and the Whigs were endeavoring to resist the General in his determination to establish new banks in the States, that resistance was already considered hopeless. It was with a visible air of triumph that Mr. Handy, in confirmation of this opinion, read from the Globe of the 21st of December previous these words:

Having laid this fact before Mr. Grant, by way of clinching the argument Mr. Handy pulled out of his pocket a letter which he had just received from the Secretary of the Treasury. It contained a communication of the deepest import to the future fortunes of our Borough; which communication, as I have been favored by Mr. Handy with a copy, I feel happy to transcribe here for the edification of my reader. It is a circular, and came to our cashier printed on gilt-edged letter­paper, having the title of the bank, the date, and some other items filled up in writing.

"There, sir," said Mr. Handy, after be had read this paper to Mr. Grant­"read that over again and tell me if there is any Quodlibetarian that ought not to rejoice in this great event, and lend his endeavors, with both heart and soul, to promote and sustain an institution so favored by the government. The Secretary, you perceive, has confidence in the I solidity and established character' of our bank­how can you refuse your confidence after that ? Sir, the Secretary is an honor to the Democracy of Quodlibet:­what does be say ? Does be tell us to keep the public moneys locked up only for the selfish purposes of the government? Oh no: far from it; 'the deposits' says he, 'will enable you to afford increased facilities to commerce, and to extend your accommodations to individuals.' Mark that! there's a President and Secretary for you! True friends, Mr. Grant­true friends to the people. How careful are they of our great mercantile and trading classes! Sir, the government cannot do too much for such people as we are­that's the true Democratic motto­we expect a great deal but they outrun our expectations. No more low prices for grain, Mr. Grant­no more scarcity of money :accommodation is the word­better currency is the word­high prices, good wages and plenty of work is the word now­a­days. We shall have a city here before you can cleverly turn yourself round. Depend upon it, sir, we are destined to become a great, glorious, and immortal people."

" Sir," said Theodore Fog, interposing at this moment, with a look that wore a compound expression of thoughtful sternness and poetical frenzy­"when the historic muse shall hereafter contemplate the humble origin of Quodlibet­"

"Fog," interrupted Nicodemus, somewhat petulantly ­and I feel sorry to be obliged to record this inconsiderate language­"Blame the historic muse!­we are now on business."

"As a director, sir," replied Fog, with a subdued air, but with a dignified gravity, "I have a right to speak. I meant to say, sir, in plain phrase, that Quodlibet must inevitably, from this day forth, under the proud auspices of democratic principles­obedient to that native impulse which the profound statesmanship of this people­sustaining and people­sustained administration has imparted to it, soar aloft to place herself upon the proud pinnacle of commercial prosperity, wealth, and power. I have no doubt, Mr. Grant, your tavern lot will increase to three times its present value. You ought to take stock;­let me tell you, sir, as a citizen of Quodlibet, you ought. As to the cash, that's a bagatelle. Handy and I can let you have any number of shares on your own terms. Flam will do anything we say to let you in. By­the­by, be got us the deposits. Flam's a man of influence­but whether on the whole he will make us the best President we could have procured, is perhaps somewhat apocryphal."

"You cannot fail to see," said Mr. Handy, "that we must all make our fortunes, if the government is only true to its word; and who can doubt it will be true ? We start comparatively with nothing, I may say, speaking of myself­absolutely with nothing. We shall make a large issue of paper, predicated upon the deposits; we shall accommodate everybody, as the Secretary desires­of course, not forgetting our friends, and more particularly ourselves:­we shall pay, in this way, our stock purchases. You may run up a square of warehouses on the Basin; I will join you as a partner in the transaction, give you the plan of operations, furnish architectural models, supply the funds, et cetera, et cetera. We will sell out the buildings at a hundred per cent. advance before they are finished; Fog here will be the purchaser. We have then only to advertise in the papers this extraordinary rise of property in Quodlibet­procure a map to be made of our new city; get it lithographed, and immediately sell the lots on the Exchange of New York at a most unprecedented valuation. My dear sir, I have just bought a hundred acres of land adjoining the Borough, with an eye to this very speculation. You shall have an interest of one­half in this operation at a reasonable valuation­I shall want but a small profit, say two hundred per cent. ­a mere trifle­in consideration of my labors in laying it off into streets, lanes, and alleys;­and if there is any convenience in it to you­although I know you are a moneyed man­you have only to make a proposal for a slice of accommodation­just drop a note now and then into the discount box. You understand. The Secretary will be delighted, my dear sir, to hear of our giving an accommodation to you. But there's one thing, Mr. Grant, I must not forget to remark­the Secretary, in fact, makes it a sort of sine qua non you must come out a genuine­declare yourself a Whole Hog­and go for Flam in the fall elections. The Secretary expects, you know," and as he said this he laid his finger significantly upon his nose, "that the accommodation principle­is to be measurably­extended­in proportion to the­Democracy­­of the applicants. You understand?­a word to the wise­that's all. lt couldn't be expected, you perceive, that we, holding the deposits, should be quite as favorable to the Whigs, who rather charge us with experimenting on the currency­you know­and who, in fact, don't scruple to say that our banking system will be a failure­it couldn't be expected we should be as bountiful to them as to those who go with us in building up this concatenation­tweedle dum and tweedle dee, you know, betwixt you and me;­but it's made a point of­and has its effect on ulterior expectations you understand. The long and the short is, without being mealy­mouthed, we must prefer the old Hero's friends;­but, after all, that's a small matter:­be a Democrat, and go for Flam!"

"Flam and the immutable principles of civil liberty!" said Fog, with great animation. "Middleton Flam, the embodiment and personification of those deep and profound truths, based upon the eternal distinctions of the greatest good to the greatest number! Diffusive wealth, combined capital, increased facilities to commerce, and accommodation to individuals there is the multum in parvo of General Jackson's Democratic creed!­there is the glorious consummation of the war with the great money power, which, like Juggernaut, was crushing down the liberties of our Republic!"

Michael Grant was a patient listener, and a man of few words. He stood all the time that Fog and Handy were plying him with this discourse, with his thumbs in his waistcoat pockets, looking down, with a grum cogitation, at his own image in the water of the basin, on the margin of which the parties had met, and every now and then rocking on his heels and flapping the soles of his feet sharply on the ground, denoting, by this movement, to those who knew his habit, that be was growing more and more positive in his opinion. Once or twice he was observed to raise his head, and with one eye half shut, seemed as if studying the heavens. At length be broke out with an answer which, from the vehemence of his tone, caused Handy and Fog to prick up their ears, and gaze upon each other with a look of incredulous surprise.

"Your bank, gentlemen," said he, "is a humbug. Your speculation in lots, your accommodations and the fortunes you are going to make, are humbugs. Flam and the immutable principles of civil liberty are humbugs, and the greatest humbug of all is your Democracy."

With these very rash and inconsiderate words, Mr. Grant turned on his heel and walked away, leaving Handy and Fog looking significantly at each other. From that time Mr. Grant was generally considered an enemy to our bank, and, as far as I can learn, never had any dealings with it.

Mr. Handy set up a dry laugh as soon as Mr. Grant was out of sight, and laughed on for some moments. At last he said, somewhat mysteriously, and with a great deal of deliberation "Fog, it's my opinion that the old tanner has cut his eye teeth­what do you think of him?"

He labors , replied Fog, "under a sinistrous and defective obliquity of comprehension; and from all I can make out of this colloquy, I rather incline to the opinion that he is not very willing to embark largely in our stock." And saying this, Fog folded his arms and looked steadfastly in Mr. Handy's face.

"Nor, as I should judge," said Handy in a kind of whisper, "is he likely to join me in my speculation in town lots. Fog, don't forget, you will endorse my note for the purchase­money of that hundred acres­I shall discount it to­morrow­I like to pay cash­that was always my principle."

"Undoubtedly­consider me a sure card in that line," replied Fog:­"it is understood, of course, that you reciprocate the favor on my purchase of the meadow?"

"Without question­assuredly, Fog­one good turn deserves another."

"Then, let's go up and take a drink," said Fog, imitating the tone of a tragedy­player­" we'll call it twelve, although my dial points but half way from eleven."

"You know I never drink," quoth Handy.

"Then come and look on me while I that act perform," said Theodore.

"Agreed," said Nicodemus. And thereupon these trusty friends went straight to Nim Porter's bar.

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