"Fated to perish by consumption": the political economy of Arthur Mervyn.
Was this the penalty of disobedience?--this the stroke of a vindictive and invisible hand? --Charles Brockden Brown, Wieland
The study of political economy was a new field of inquiry in the late eighteenth century. First appearing in English in Sir James Steuart's An Inquiry into the Principles of Political Economy (1767), the phrase "political economy" was taken up by Adam Smith in Wealth of Nations, where he defined it as "a branch of the science of a statesman or legislator" with two objects: "first, to provide a plentiful revenue or subsistence for the people, or more properly to enable them to provide such a revenue or subsistence for themselves; and secondly, to supply the state or commonwealth with a revenue sufficient for the public services." (1) Charles Brockden Brown encountered the discipline when, as a member of the New York Friendly Club, he read Wealth of Nations, a book that also would have been standard reading in the law curriculum he studied in the 1790s. (2) That he had the subject of political economy in mind when composing Arthur Mervyn; or, Memoirs of the Year 1793 is evident in the preface, where Brown noted that the "evils of pestilence ... have already supplied new and copious materials for reflection to the physician and the political economist." (3)
Beyond his academic knowledge of political economy, Brown observed business practices and their economic consequences first-hand as he watched his brothers undertake successful mercantile careers in the commercial milieu of Philadelphia. In Arthur Mervyn, Brown captures this environment in all of its complexity. James Justus memorably characterized the economic facet of the novel by noting its concern with
commissions, bills of exchange, claims and deeds, banknotes, notes and bonds, sued mortgages and mortgages entered up, forgeries and robberies, patrimonies and inheritances, generous loans and imprudent debts, premiums of insurance, equitable rates of interest and hazardous securities, obdurate creditors and debtors' prisons, executors' powers, competences and subsistencies, rewards, and warrants of attorney. (4)
Justus's comprehensive list nicely sums up the microeconomic aspect of the novel, but does not get at the macroeconomic level of inquiry implied by the phrase "political economy" as Brown used it in his preface. The question is whether Brown applied the larger lessons of the study of political economy to the commercial environment that Arthur Mervyn so effectively analyzes. Besides showing Arthur himself engaged in the project of acquiring revenue sufficient for his own subsistence, does Brown also investigate how Arthur's individual pursuit of wealth affects the prosperity and political health of the nation?
A strong case can be made that he does. In this essay, by reading the novel in light of the political and economic context of the 1790s, I intend to make several related points about Arthur Mervyn. (5) A number of incidents in the novel can be read as Brown's comment on the social costs of speculation, a financial practice that generated controversy and scandal in America during the 1790s. The economic liberalism pursued by speculators and embodied by the title character would have been judged wanting by Brown's original audience when viewed in light of the still influential ideology of classical republicanism and the restraints and duties it imposed on the civic-minded individual. And the yellow fever epidemic famously described in the novel might be seen as a judgment on economic liberalism, a vindictive invisible hand that punished the people of Philadelphia for their habits of conspicuous consumption.
Set in 1793, the events of Arthur Mervyn are not far removed from a crisis that took place in the government bond market in 1791-92. To pay for expenses incurred during the Revolutionary War, the national government had issued bonds to farmers, merchants, and veterans, who received them in lieu of payment for their goods or services. During the 1780s many of the original holders of these bonds, struggling financially, sold them at deeply discounted prices to speculators--buyers with ready money who took advantage of the original holders' destitution, gambling that the value of the bonds would eventually increase. When Alexander Hamilton proposed in 1790 to establish the nation's credit by funding the national debt at par, this meant that the original bonds would be exchanged on a dollar-for-dollar basis with new certificates. Concerned about the injustice that this measure would create, Congressman James Madison and others proposed distinguishing between the parties to whom the bonds were originally issued and the speculators who had opportunistically purchased them on the cheap. Congress ultimately implemented Hamilton's plan, which, as expected, proved a windfall to the speculators. In many cases, original holders of the bonds received nothing while wealthy merchants augmented their fortunes. Meanwhile, some government officials profited from inside knowledge, buying up the old bonds before word of their funding had been widely disseminated, thereby reaping huge rewards. This financial scandal made some people's fortunes, sent others to jail, and deepened divisions between the Hamiltonian and Jeffersonian political philosophies. (6)
As analyzed by Adam Smith in Wealth of Nations, the practice of speculating was connected with no particular value judgment. Smith merely observed that "sudden fortunes, indeed, are sometimes made in [great towns] by what is called the trade of speculation," describing speculators as merchants who gambled from year to year on particular commodities that held the promise of generating extraordinary profit. (7) But the word "speculation," sometimes referring specifically to the gambling in public securities that followed the funding of the national debt, and at other times applied more broadly to dealing in other commodities such as land, had strongly negative connotations in the United States in the 1790s. Benjamin Rush entered in his commonplace book a litany of complaints against the way the debt had been funded, lamenting that it had "robbed the soldier and the original holder of his property and [given] it to men who had neither earned nor deserved it" and "checked improvements in agriculture, commerce, and manufactures by drawing the capital of the country into speculation." Defending his funding scheme, even Hamilton conceded in a letter to President Washington that "paper speculation ... fosters a spirit of gambling, and diverts a certain number of individuals from other pursuits." (8)
Speculation was particularly troubling to Thomas Jefferson and his political supporters. Jefferson wrote to David Humphreys in 1791 that "A spirit of gambling in the public paper has lately seised too many of our citizens. Commerce, manufactures, the arts and agriculture will suffer from it if not checked." Jefferson warned President Washington that this "rage of gambling in the stocks of various descriptions" had the effect of "withdrawing our citizens from the pursuits of commerce, manufactures, buildings, and other branches of useful industry, to occupy themselves and their capitals in a species of gambling, destructive of morality, and which has introduced it's [sic] poison into the government itself." The bubble that resulted from the funding scheme in the fall and winter of 1791 burst in March of 1792, leading to a panic in the securities markets of major cities, including Philadelphia. Jefferson compared the state of affairs in the commercial cities of the 1790s to the South Sea Bubble, lamenting that a gullible public had been misled by "cunning and unprincipled men." This phrase serves as an apt description of a number of the characters in Arthur Mervyn, who engage in various forms of financial misconduct. (9)
Late into the 1790s, social critics continued to rail against the vice of speculation. One pamphleteer lamented in 1798, for example, that "if divided among the original holders, the debt would have fostered a substantial and republican yeomanry," but instead certain members of Congress had been able to accumulate "an enormous fortune.... Speculation was not to be hedged in for them." (10) By the time Brown was composing Arthur Mervyn, the practice had become a byword for the unprincipled pursuit of wealth, particularly through gambling in stocks and bonds. Brown himself condemned the practice in an essay that he published in the Monthly Magazine and American Review in April 1799 (a month before publication of the first part of Arthur Mervyn). In "On the State of American Literature," Brown complained that "there never was such a theatre for speculation as the United States have presented for the last twelve or fifteen years.... perhaps a more mercenary and speculating nation than our own hardly at this day exists" (16). (11)
To Rush, Jefferson, and Brown, speculation represented a degradation of public morality. Subscribing to classical republicanism, citizens of the Revolutionary era and the early Republic valued civic virtues such as industry and frugality, believing that the chief threat to the survival of the vulnerable young nation was indulgence in socially destructive habits of luxury and idleness. (12) According to this line of thought, speculating in stocks and bonds resulted in numerous undesirable social and moral consequences. Speculators made their money from the mere exchange of paper, rather than from any productive form of industry or commerce. Gambling on the promise of quick profits, speculators cultivated habits of idleness which were detrimental to the moral health of individuals and to the prosperity of the nation. Moreover, the windfall profits reaped from speculation led to huge individual fortunes and ostentatious displays of wealth. Speculation led to luxury, which would turn the country in the direction of the corrupt aristocracy from which it had fought to free itself.
One need not delve deeply into Arthur Mervyn to find Brown railing against speculation. Though Brown cannily avoids the term, speculators are roundly condemned in chapter one of the second part of the novel by Dr. Stevens, narrator and moral center of the novel. Speaking of a character named Thetford, Stevens says:
The latter ... was one of those who employed money, not as the medium of traffic, but as in itself a commodity.... He thought it a tedious process to exchange to day, one hundred dollars for a cask or bale, and to-morrow exchange the bale or cask for an hundred and ten dollars. It was better to give the hundred for a piece of paper, which, carried forthwith to the money changers, he could procure an hundred twenty-three and three-fourths. In short, this man's coffers were supplied by the despair of honest men and the stratagems of rogues. (434-35)
Undoubtedly, Thetford is a speculator. He defrauds honest men (such as the Revolutionary War veterans) of their rightful wealth by trading in paper instead of commodities. At first glance, this overwrought passage appears to be one of Brown's characteristic digressions, since Thetford is a minor character. But the practice described here is akin to the way Arthur Mervyn makes his way in the world.
Certain aspects of Mervyn's enigmatic character are illuminated when he is viewed as a speculator who is seduced away from the more productive pursuits of commerce, manufacturing, the arts, or agriculture by the promise of quick profits arrived at through trade rather than labor. (13) The process begins shortly after Mervyn's arrival in Philadelphia, where he experiences an archetypal American rags-to-riches reversal, but at a suspiciously accelerated pace. As Mervyn himself tells it, he was raised in the country to value "the dignity and safety of the middle path" (272). But in Philadelphia Mervyn is struck by a house "of the loftiest and most stately order" which "exhibited, to my unpracticed eyes, the magnificence of palaces" (271). Invoking the vocabulary of classical republicanism, as he frequently does throughout the novel, Mervyn considers that a person wealthy enough to own this house "would only abuse it to the purposes of luxury" but then admits to Dr. Stevens that "the lofty edifices, the splendid furniture, and the copious accommodations of the rich, excited my admiration and my envy" (272). These accoutrements of wealth initially seem far out of the penniless Mervyn's reach. But after begging from a man on the street, who turns out to be Welbeck, Mervyn is taken in as a clerk and provided with rich clothes and a room in the very mansion that aroused his envy, practically in the space of an hour. Later in the novel, a character who has known Mervyn since childhood comments on how these events appeared to an outsider: "Nothing could be quicker than this change, for he left the country on a Saturday morning, and was seen in a French frock and silk stockings, going into Christ's Church the next day" (437). Though he is not yet trading in paper, Mervyn's transformation embodies the get-rich-quick fate of the successful speculator. His newfound affluence, just as Jefferson described the process, turns Mervyn's thoughts from more honorable but laborious vocations. For the rest of the novel, Mervyn hovers around the city and speculates in men, women, and documents, not working but trading his way up from poverty to affluence.
The opulent houses of Philadelphia's elite, such as the lavish home that Welbeck rents, were seen by many as symbols not of the healthy pursuit of self-interest but of a socially destructive devotion to luxury. The political and economic implications of such houses were described by Republican politician Albert Gallatin in his Sketch of the Finances of the United States (1796), which has been characterized as "the most comprehensive and informed analysis of American finances" in the period and was read at the time by "all major political leaders." (14) Like Jefferson, Gallatin--whom Brown met in the summer of 1798, after publication of the Sketch and before publication of Arthur Mervyn--was disturbed by the behavior of speculators, particularly those whose fortunes were acquired as a result of European investment in the U.S. He wrote in his Sketch:
Thus America has received from foreigners a capital of several millions of dollars ... which has been an acquisition of wealth to the speculators in stock alone, and not to the nation.... Acquired suddenly by individuals, that capital has ... enabled those individuals to consume, to spend more, and they have consumed and spent extravagantly. Taking in the great number of elegant houses which have been built within a few years in all the large cities, and which, however convenient to the inhabitants, afford no additional revenue to the nation, it may be asserted that the greater part of the capital thus drawn from Europe has been actually consumed, without leaving in its stead any other productive capital. (15)
The elegant houses alluded to by Gallatin sound very much like the home that inspires Mervyn's envy. (16) Welbeck's estate, in fact, has been acquired as a result of a kind of European investment, since he moved into it with the money he received from a dying European aristocrat (314). Moreover, Welbeck's sharp financial dealings, detailed later in the novel, make it clear that he can be classified with the speculators whom Gallatin feared were a drain on the national economy. Mervyn's attraction to this house, which later becomes the site not of luxury but of disease, signals a character who might be lured into the morally and socially destructive cycle of speculation and consumption.
For a while, Welbeck becomes Mervyn's mentor in exploiting an unstable currency environment. Like Mervyn, Welbeck was left penniless by his father and forced to find a profession, a search that was abandoned when he realized that "a thousand methods of subsistence, honest hut laborious, were at my command, but to these I entertained an irreconcilable aversion" (310). It was at this point that Welbeck encountered the dying son of Vincentio Lodi, who entrusted him with $20,000 to transfer to his sister. Welbeck found the sister, chose not to tell her of the money, and established himself with her (now pregnant with his child) in opulence in Philadelphia. By affecting a lifestyle of conspicuous affluence, Welbeck convinced his neighbors that he was a "Nabob" with bank deposits of "not less than half a million" (265-66). Welbeck's plan was to leverage the appearance of great wealth into opportunities to partner with or swindle Philadelphia's merchant elite. For example, Welbeck secured loans from Thetford in the form of three bills for eight hundred dollars, on which he forged the word "eighteen," profiting some three thousand dollars with a few strokes of a pen (435). The irony is that Thetford was himself a speculator, as Brown's narrative unveils an economic environment rife with fraud in which the distinction between merchants and con artists is hazy. Coming from the yeomanry of the country, Mervyn had known nothing about these kinds of transactions, admitting that "I was unhabituated to ideas of floating or transferable wealth" (280). But Mervyn is a quick study. Elizabeth Hinds suggests that Mervyn soon comes to revel in the "fluidity of the market capital system" to which Welbeck originally exposes him. (17)
Mervyn's education into the vagaries of transferable wealth continues under Welbeck's tutelage in one of the more memorable scenes of the novel. Mervyn and Welbeck quarrel over a set of documents. Having discovered the notes in a book manuscript owned by Welbeck, Mervyn's stated intent is to restore them to their rightful owner, Clemenza Lodi. Upon finding Mervyn with the bank notes, Welbeck convinces him that they are forged. Mervyn believes Welbeck and burns the notes with a candle, to Welbeck's horror, who reveals that they were genuine. Beneath the comical transparency of Welbeck's ploy and its ironic outcome Brown conceals a serious point. What Welbeck and Mervyn enact is a burlesque of the transactions of the speculators. To gain possession of the government bonds, the speculator convinces the original holder that the notes are worthless. Given the uncertainties of the market, the holder is persuaded and gives them up at a fraction of their value. In this scene the bonds fluctuate in value before the reader's eyes--from $20,000, to worthless, to $20,000 going up in smoke. This unpredictable series of transformations is Brown's wry comment on the vicissitudes of paper currency.
The merchants in Arthur Mervyn are relentlessly dishonest. In addition to Welbeck's crimes and Thetford's speculation, Brown includes a subplot involving Thetford's nephews, who cheat Welbeck of $30,000 through an insurance fraud scheme. The mendacity of this group of characters might be read as Brown's gloss on certain passages from Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations. Given that his brothers were merchants and that Brown felt pressured to join the family business, one imagines that he would have read with interest Smith's comments on the moral character of merchants. For example, Smith writes in Book I that merchants are an "order of men ... who have generally an interest to deceive and even to oppress the public, and who accordingly have, upon many occasions, both deceived and oppressed it" (250). And commenting in Book IV on the creation of monopolies, Smith condemns the "mean rapacity" and "interested sophistry" of "merchants and manufacturers" (460-61). The merchants in Brown's novel all too closely resemble Smith's unflattering portrait. Having eschewed for the time being a mercantile career himself, Brown impugns the entire milieu in Arthur Mervyn, implicitly justifying his decision to pursue a different, and to his mind more socially beneficial, career. (18) The multi-layered seediness and complexity of the financial dealings in the novel constitute Brown's extended critique of economic liberalism; the urban atmosphere in which a commercial economy thrives promotes speculation and fraud at the expense of productive labor and civic duty.
Evidence that "we [should] read Arthur Mervyn's behavior in the context of the rhetoric of republican literature" is found by looking at one of his probable sources for the novel, the anonymously published Account of the Rise, Progress, and Termination, of the Malignant Fever (1793). (19) This pamphlet includes a striking account of conditions at Bush-hill hospital, in words very similar to those used by Brown. According to the Account, "It soon became crouded with patients; and, from a concurrence of causes, in a short time it fell into great disorder. Unprincipled nurses, neglected the sick and consumed in riot the provisions gathered for their comfort." (20) In both diction and sentence structure, Brown's depiction in Arthur Mervyn sounds very similar: "The wretches who are hired, at enormous wages, to tend the sick and convey away the dead, neglect their duty and consume the cordials, which are provided for the patients, in debauchery and riot" (386). After hearing from Wallace of the desolation and cruelty of the hospital, Mervyn offers an explanation for the poor quality of care, "The wretches whom money could purchase, were of course, licentious and unprincipled; super-intended and controlled they might be useful instruments, but that superintendence could not be bought" (389). Economic liberalism--relying on a market to provide as caretakers "the wretches whom money could purchase"--proves a woefully inadequate response to severe social crisis. Mervyn himself makes it clear that disinterested civic virtue is required when he opines that the governor of such an institution "must have zeal, diligence and perseverance. He must act from lofty and pure motives" (389).
In what appears to be an unambiguously benevolent moment, Mervyn considers it his duty to offer his services as governor of the hospital: "Cannot my efforts obviate some portion of this evil?" (389). In failing to carry out this intention, however, Mervyn fails short of the republican virtue exhibited by other prominent Philadelphians. The author of An Account wrote that reforming the hospital seemed to require "an immediate sacrafice [sic] of the lives of the undertakers. To search into the horrors of this dismal receptical, where every breath was pestilence, and every sight distress, required the humanity and fortitude of a Howard." Rising to the occasion, two members of the committee charged with caring for the poor during the epidemic offered their services. Stephen Gerard and Peter Helm "generously stepped forth and undertook the perilous task," earning the praise of the pamphleteer: "If an ancient Roman, who saved the life of one citizen, at the risque of his own, was crowned with a civic wreath, what rewards do these men deserve?" (21) The reference to Rome in particular makes clear that classical republican ideals of civic virtue colored Philadelphians' perception of the bounds of individual responsibility in responding to the yellow fever epidemic. Showing Mervyn conspicuously failing in the reform effort that Gerard and Helm successfully carried out (as Philadelphia readers of the time would have known), Brown implies that his title character falls short of the rigid standard of civic duty imposed by the republican model.
While at times, as in his evaluation of the hospital, Mervyn mouths the pieties of classical republican virtue, his behavior often suggests that such protestations are empty. Aspects of the scene where Mervyn accepts a one thousand dollar reward for delivering some papers to the Maurice family call his commitment to republican ideology into question. The mouthpiece of civic virtue in this episode is the character Williams, who explains the Maurices' situation to Mervyn. Williams believes that only one member of the clan had been ennobled by the family's temporarily straitened economic circumstances; the youngest daughter, Fanny, "was not ashamed to owe her subsistence to her own industry" and had therefore taken up a profession, teaching music for a living (580). Due to the pride of her mother, however, upon the restoration of the full family fortune Fanny will be obliged "to relinquish her new profession," a change that Williams opines is "to be deplored" (581). In classical republican terms, trading an honest profession for genteel idleness can only be detrimental to Fanny's moral character. Industrious Fanny implicitly contrasts with Mervyn, who made the extraordinary statement early in the narrative that he was looking for a profession "which would suffer at least nine tenths of his attention to go free," and who will eventually move to Europe to live a life of leisure (238). Moreover, Mervyn's actions in this scene bear an uncanny resemblance to those of a currency speculator as described by Dr. Stevens early in the novel: Mervyn receives documents from one party and carries them to another, receiving a thousand dollar profit for no more labor than was required to deliver them. Williams questions whether Mervyn will "have no scruple" to accept a reward for merely restoring the family's rightful wealth, but Mervyn assures him he has no such moral qualms (581). The rewards of "floating and transferable wealth" are no longer lost on Mervyn, who now moves easily through the complex market environment of the novel, realizing that trading in documents proves both more lucrative and easier than the demands of a profession.
In the course of the novel Brown expands the concept of speculation to include other methods of trading up for economic gain. One could say that Mervyn speculates in mentors, abandoning the promising but ultimately worthless Welbeck in favor of the more stable (but still moderately prosperous) Dr. Stevens. A similar exchange takes place during Mervyn's search for a wife. Many readers have been disturbed by Mervyn's callous treatment of the virtuous young farm girl Eliza Hadwin, initially regarded as marriage material, whose eligibility declines when it is learned that her uncle has claims on her family property. (22) As Hinds describes the process, Eliza is rapidly converted from fiancee into sister with the arrival on the scene of the wealthy widow Achsa Fielding. (23) Mervyn believes that Eliza needs years of education before she would be a suitable intellectual match, but this is not an investment he is willing to allow to mature, at least not while his capital is poised to flow in more lucrative directions. The attraction of speculation is the promise of quick profits, which neither the medical profession nor Eliza Hadwin can deliver. Trading Eliza for the widow Achsa Fielding offers the kinds of rewards a speculator can appreciate.
The source of Achsa Fielding's wealth, elaborated in painstaking detail at the end of the novel, is fraught with political and economic connotations. From a classical republican point of view, Achsa's wealth is suspicious for its origin among the European aristocracy. Her first husband, the (unnamed) son of Sir Ralph Fielding, was a member of the declining English nobility, the class of people whose luxurious habits Americans were presumed to be in danger of imitating. On her father's side, Achsa is of Jewish descent. In this regard it is worth re calling that Jews in English literature had traditionally been associated with usury, loaning money at interest, a practice that was through the Middle Ages believed to be specifically forbidden to Christians. The usurer fits the profile of Dr. Stevens' definition of speculation, being someone who makes a profit from merely trading in paper rather than performing labor or undertaking the honest risks of mercantile exchange. The fortune that Mervyn ends up with at novel's end, therefore, itself faintly bears the speculator's taint. And his plan for enjoying this wealth is also extremely suspect. At the end of the novel, Mervyn renounces all other ambitions in order to take up a life of leisured gentility in Europe. Such a decision not only deprives American society of his talents and labor, but bleeds off Achsa Fielding's capital from productive investment in America as well. From the standpoint of political economy, Mervyn's successful pursuit of wealth impoverishes his country.
The most often admired aspect of Arthur Mervyn, its depiction of the yellow fever epidemic of 1793, which many critics have seen as a metaphor for a society in crisis, has important--and specifically economic-implications. (24) In using the spread of the yellow fever as a symbol of rampant economic opportunism, Brown drew on a metaphor common in the 1790s. Speculation, in particular, was often figured in terms of a disease. Writing to his bankers in Amsterdam in 1797, Jefferson described speculation this way:
You will hear o f wonderful revolutions of fortune among the merchants and speculators of Philadelphia and New York.... Whilst the enormous sums of paper thus thrown into circulation banished all the precious metals, and raised all commodities to double and treble prices, the spirit of gambling in paper, in lands, in canal schemes, town lot schemes, manufacturing schemes and whatever could hit the madness of the day, spread like a contagion to our former good merchants.
Similarly, Benjamin Rush wrote that "the influence of that ardor in trade and speculation, which seized many of the friends of the Revolution, and which was excited by the fallacious nominal amount of the paper money, should rather be considered as a disease than as a passion." (25) Brown evidently recognized that the yellow fever epidemic of 1793, which coincided so closely with the stock market crisis of the early 1790s, could be turned into a potent condemnation of a city (or a nation) devoted to the unethical pursuit of wealth.
Built into the plot of the novel is the idea that greed, like disease, is contagious. Mervyn contracts his tendency toward ignoble monetary gain from the milkmaid-turned-stepmother Betty Laurence. Betty is the novel's first speculator, playing on the widower Sawny Mervyn's ignorance to vault herself from poverty to wealth. Through Mervyn, Brown informs us that Betty did not acquire such wiles in the country: "Her character, profligate and artful, libidinous and imprudent, and made up of the impressions which a city life had produced on her coarse but active mind, was open to my study, and I studied it" (543). Brought up in the commercial milieu of Philadelphia that Brown has so devastatingly caricatured, Betty preys on the small farmer as the original speculators did on Revolutionary War veterans, and it is her successful pursuit of ill-gotten gain that starts Mervyn on his own quest. Betty demonstrates to Mervyn that rapid upward social mobility can be achieved without benefit of hard work, a lesson that is only reinforced by his experiences with Welbeck. Admitting that he studied Betty's character, Mervyn proves his aptness as a pupil at the end of the novel when he too pursues a widow across an inappropriate difference in ages and acquires a fortune. One of the most affecting aspects of the novel's depiction of yellow fever is the way Brown shows it radiating outward from the city in widening circles, as formerly safe neighborhoods fall into the swath of destruction. Through Betty, the novel shows how the vicious pursuit of wealth that originated in cities could be carried into the country, where it infects even the virtuous population of yeoman farmers. The spread of habits of gambling, licentiousness, and greed that began in major commercial centers with the speculative crisis of the 1790s is figured as a serious threat to the continued prosperity of the United States.
If extravagant consumption of luxury goods is a danger to the body politic, then the perfect metaphor for such acquisitive behavior is a physiological consumption that ravages the population and leaves whole classes of laborers unproductive. Brown's harrowing accounts of the yellow fever epidemic serve the purposes of both a gritty realism and a kind of allegory on the subject of political economy. This way of viewing the disease is something Brown might have picked up from his sources. The anonymous account of the fever quoted earlier uses the rhetoric of republican virtue in arguing that when the malignant fever appeared, Philadelphia "had grown to a state of opulence not often recorded in this historic page. Her inhabitants indulged themselves in all the gratifications of luxury and dissipation, to be procured in this Western hemisphere." The author goes on to imply that the disease was visited on the city for having "forgotten the Fountain from whom all their blessings flowed." Similarly, Mathew Carey prefaced his Short Account of the Malignant Fever (1794) with commentary on the economic situation of Philadelphia just before the plague struck:
The manufactures, trade, and commerce of this city had, for a considerable time, been improving and extending with great rapidity.... The number of coaches, coaches, chairs, &c. lately set up by men in the middle rank of life, is hardly credible.... [E]xtravagance, in various forms, was gradually eradicating the plain and wholesome habits of the city.... [F]ew, I believe, will pretend to deny, that something was wanting to humble the pride of a city, which was running on in full career, to the goal of prodigality and dissipation. (26)
As these authors interpret it, the yellow fever is a judgment on the people of Philadelphia for their indulgence in luxury. The newly prosperous citizens are struck down by a vengeful Providence intent on restoring the city to its habits of classical republican simplicity. This is the inverse of Adam Smith's invisible hand; what is described here is a force that chastens those who subscribe to an ethic of economic liberalism for their presumption rather than rewards their pursuit of personal gain. These authors seem to echo Clara Wieland, the narrator of Brown's novel Wieland Clara asks of her father's death, as they inquire rhetorically of the fever, "Was this the penalty of disobedience? this the stroke of a vindictive and invisible hand?" (27)
The key to this reading of the yellow fever in Arthur Mervyn is embodied in the title character. Carrying within himself a tendency toward physiological decay, Arthur represents the young nation in a time of crisis. He says of his family, in diction that applies equally well to the country as a whole: "We are a race, whose existence some inherent property has limited to the short space of twenty years. We are exposed, in common with the rest of mankind, to innumerable casualties; but if these be shunned, we are unalterably fated to perish by consumption" (351, Brown's emphasis). In these sentences, Mervyn concisely sums up classical republican thought on the subject of the consequences of luxury. A race of citizens pursuing conspicuous wealth, particularly by means other than industrious labor, courts its own destruction through moral decay. Highlighting his pun on consumption, Brown condemns the pursuit of wealth that figures so prominently in his narrative, implying that luxurious habits threatened to bring about the nation's downfall a mere twenty years after its founding. While the epidemic rages on, the economy of Philadelphia grinds to a halt. As Jefferson predicted would be the consequences of rampant speculation, "commerce, manufactures, the arts and agriculture ... suffer."
It must be conceded that Arthur performs a number of genuinely benevolent acts in the course of the narrative, and does not himself seem to recognize any immorality in his behavior. The same could be said in 1790s America of a speculator. Hamilton defended the speculation in public securities by pointing out that buyers and sellers arrived at a mutually satisfactory price for their transactions, so neither party could be considered defrauded: "Each made his calculation of chances, and founded upon it an exchange of money for certificates. It has turned out generally that the buyer had the best of the bargain; but the seller got the value of his commodity according to his estimate of it, and probably in a great number of instances more." (28) However, while it was true that nothing illegal had transpired, the perception was nevertheless widespread that buyers had often acted upon superior information and taken advantage of the ignorance or poverty of the sellers. In the late 1790s, before he had completed his transformation toward Federalism, Brown would hardly have credited Hamilton's blithe defense of speculation. (29)
As a student of political economy who had come of age during the height of classical republican ideology in the United States, Brown understood that individual economic practices had much wider social and political implications. Though the pursuit of wealth was by no means forbidden in classical republican thought, Americans of Brown's generation recognized the perils of unfettered economic liberalism and looked with skepticism on the accumulation of great fortunes. These ideas emerge with clarity when Arthur Mervyn is read as a response to the political and economic context of the 1790s. Recent historical treatments of the novel have tended toward a benign view of Arthur, seeing in him an embodiment of either republican virtue or socially advantageous economic liberalism. (30) But if on the individual level Arthur is hardly a criminal, his actions partake of a culture of material gain that could only be seen in republican terms as detrimental to the nation's well-being.
(1) Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (New York: Modern Library, 1937), 397.
(2) Elizabeth Jane Wall Hinds documents Brown's encounter with Wealth of Nations in Private Property: Charles Brockden Brown's Gendered Economics of Virtue (Newark: Univ. of Delaware Press, 1997), 73. Study of political economy was standard in preparing for a career in the law. After applauding Thomas Mann Randolph, Jr.'s decision to study law, Thomas Jefferson recommended several books, the first of which was Smith's Wealth of Nations. Jefferson said that on the subject of political economy it was "the best book extant." To Thomas Mann Randolph, Jr., May 30, 1790, The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 16, ed. Julian P. Boyd (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1961), 449.
(3) Charles Brockden Brown, Three Gothic Novels (New York: Library of America, 1998), 231; hereafter cited parenthetically.
(4) James H. Justus, "Arthur Mervyn, American," American Literature 42 (1970), 315.
(5) Steven Watts reads the novel in this context, asserting that critical disagreement about how to judge the title character stems from Brown's own conflicted response to "social disarray, institutional failure, and personal incoherence in late eighteenth-century America." The Romance of Real Life: Charles Brockden Brown and the Origins of American Culture (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1994), 115. However, as my essay will show, I think Brown is much more critical of emergent market capitalism than Watts implies.
(6) Joseph J. Ellis offers a concise explanation of Hamilton's funding plan and its attendant injustices in Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation (New York: Vintage Books, 2002), 55-56.
(7) Smith, Wealth of Nations, 113-14.
(8) The Autobiography of Benjamin Rush; His "Travels Through Life" Together with His "Commonplace Book" for 1789-1813, ed. George W. Corner (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1948), 200; Alexander Hamilton to George Washington, August 18, 1792, The Papers of Alexander Hamilton, vol. 12, ed. Harold C. Syrett (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1967), 247.
(9) Jefferson to David Humphreys, August 23, 1791, The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 22, ed. Charles T. Cullen (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1986), 62; "Memoranda of Conversations with the President," March 1, 1792, The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 23, ed. Charles T. Cullen (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1990), 186; Jefferson to Henry Remsen, April 14, 1792, The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 23, 425-26. I focus this attention on the negative connotations of the word speculation in the 1790s in order to counter Elizabeth Hinds's recent reading of the novel, which emphasizes the speculator as a positive character who "invests faithfully, [and] trusts his association with a public world of trade to merit him returns on his investment" (Hinds, Private Property, 71). This understanding of the term seems to me at odds with the view of speculators widely held in the United States in Brown's era.
(10) Callender, Sedgwick & Co., or a Key to the Six Per Cent Cabinet (1798). Quoted in Charles Beard, Economic Origins of Jeffersonian Democracy (New York: Macmillan Company, 1949), 212.
(11) Charles Brockden Brown, "On the State of American Literature," The Monthly Magazine and American Review 1, no. 1 (April 1799), 15. According to biographer Harry Warfel, one of the topics Brown discussed with the Society for the Attainment of Useful Knowledge was "Are Speculations in the Public Funds Injurious?" Harry R. Warfel, Charles Brockden Brown: American Gothic Novelist (1949; New York: Octagon Books, 1974), 35.
(12) The three major works setting forth the so-called "classical republican synthesis" are Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1967); Gordon S. Wood, The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787 (1969; Chapel Hill: The Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1998); and J. G. A. Pocock, The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Synthesis (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1975). Though it is generally agreed that in the course of the nineteenth century the ideology of classical republicanism was supplanted by a cultural faith in economic liberalism, in the 1790s these two ways of seeing the world co-existed. As Wood writes in his preface to the 1998 edition of his work, "Republicanism was indeed gradually transformed into something we call liberalism, but in subtle and complicated ways that kept many republican sentiments alive" (xii).
(13) Critical consensus has not been reached on how to interpret the main character. On critical disagreement over the novel, Cathy Davidson writes that "the critical reception of Arthur Mervyn is as labyrinthine and contradictory as anything in a Gothic novel." Revolution and the Word: The Rise of the Novel in America (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1986), 240.
(14) John R. Nelson, Jr., Liberty and Property: Political Economy and Policymaking in the New Nation, 1789-1812 (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1987), 102.
(15) The Writings of Albert Gallatin, vol. 3, ed. Henry Adams (New York: Antiquarian Press, 1960), 146-47.
(16) Brown's meeting with Gallatin is recorded in Warfel, Charles Brockden Brown, 98.
(17) Hinds, Private Property, 85.
(18) That Brown saw novel writing as a way of bettering the republic is clear from his prefaces. For example, in the preface to Arthur Mervyn he says by way of justifying the ensuing narrative that "it is every one's duty to profit by all opportunities of inculcating on mankind the lessons of justice and humanity" (231).
(19) Michael Warner, Letters of the Republic: Publication and the Public Sphere in Eighteenth-Century America (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1990), 155.
(20) An Account of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the Malignant Fever, Lately Prevalent in Philadelphia (Philadelphia: Benjamin Johnson, 1793), 19-20.
(21) An Account of the Rise, Progress, and Termination, 21.
(22) The most famous example of this reaction is Percy Shelley, who, according to Leslie Fiedler, was "infuriated" by Mervyn's marriage. Love and Death in the American Novel (New York: Stein and Day, 1966), 152. Emory Elliott writes that "Arthur's self-centered rejection of Eliza serves as another clue to the dubious nature of his character." Revolutionary Writers: Literature and Authority in the New Republic 1725-1810 (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1982), 245.
(23) Hinds, Private Property, 84.
(24) Several critics have noted this connection. Arthur Kimball writes that "in Arthur Mervyn the chief germ is money, and Welbeck plots continually to get it." Rational Fictions: A Study of Charles Brockden Brown (McMinnville, Oreg: Linfield Research Institute, 1968), 176. Alan Axelrod claims that the novel is "a vision of dis-ease of civilization in the New World. Brown ... created in his most detailed portrait of an American city a plague-smitten, apocalyptic vision of an antiutopia, in which the only real sources of social relationship lie in a monetary system liable to counterfeiting and imposture." Charles Brockden Brown: An American Tale (Austin: Univ. of Texas Press, 1983), 159.
(25) To Van Staphorst & Hubbard, March 27, 1797, The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 29, ed. Barbara B. Oberg (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 2002), 329; The Selected Writings of Benjamin Rush, ed. Dagobert D. Runes (New York: Philosophical Library, 1947), 331.
(26) An Account of the Rise, Progress, and Termination, 3-4; Mathew Carey, A Short Account of the Malignant Fever, Lately Prevalent in Philadelphia (4th ed., 1794; New York: Arno Press, 1970), 9-10.
(27) Charles Brockden Brown, Three Gothic Novels (New York: Library of America, 1998), 18. Smith described the invisible hand in this way: "By preferring the support of domestic to that of foreign industry, he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was no part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it" (Wealth of Nations, 423).
(28) Hamilton to Washington, August 18, 1792, op. cit., 257.
(29) As evidence of Brown's Jeffersonian sympathies in the late 1790s one might adduce the fact that he sent a copy of the novel Wieland to Thomas Jefferson, writing on December 25, 1798: "In thus transmitting my book to you, I tacitly acknowledge my belief that it is capable of affording you pleasure and of entitling the writer to some portion of your good opinion" (quoted in Warfel, Charles Brockden Brown, 112). During Jefferson's presidency, however, and after he had renounced his own body of fictional writing, Brown became a Federalist and wrote political pamphlets criticizing Jefferson's policies.
(30) Jane Tompkins writes that in Arthur Mervyn "the main character, insofar as he can be distinguished from other characters, sets forth the ground rules which everyone in the society must obey if the social order is to survive." Sensational Designs." The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790-1860 (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1985), 67. Similarly, Michael Warner argues strongly against finding any irony in Brown's treatment of the title character (Letters of the Republic, 153). And Elizabeth Hinds sees nothing amiss in Arthur's pursuit of wealth along Smithian lines, arguing that Arthur is "virtuous to begin with" and that "his virtue ... joins forces with a will-to-wealth to the end of a specifically capitalist success" (Private Property, 69).
Carl Ostrowski Middle Tennessee State University
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|Publication:||Studies in American Fiction|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2004|
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