Page images
PDF
EPUB

If we have made our views intelligible to our readers, they will perceive the importance of lessening, as far as practicable, their reliance upon foreign countries for the sale of their raw material, and also for the purchase of foreign fabrics; for we are fully persuaded that it is only by encouraging the manufacture of our own raw material, and consequently enlarging our internal commerce, that we can avoid the disastrous effects of foreign revulsions. Nor can we by any other means secure to the agriculturists of the United States the just reward of their labor. We have furthermore endeavored to show the tendency of money to accumulate in the great commercial marts, and that this accumulation operates to the disadvantage of those who reside at a distance from the place where their exchanges are effected. From this we discover the importance of encouraging and building up markets as near home as practicable. This is a subject in which the people of the west are vitally interested, for until the farmer of this Valley can find a market for his produce, nearer than the coast of the Auantic, he must be content to receive a far less reward for his labors than do those in that region.

[TO BE CONTINUED.]

ART. II.-THE MORALS OF COMMERCE.

KOTES OF A LECTURE DELIVERED BEFORE THE YOUNG MEN'S MERCANTILE LIBRARY

ASSOCIATION OF CINCINNATI, NOVEMBER 30TH, 1847, BY T. WALKER.

My subject is the Morals of Commerce.” I have given it this name for want of any one more definite, under which I could bring together a variety of random thoughts, all more or less connected with the mercantile profession, but not susceptible of a convenient arrangement under a less comprehensive title. What I shall say will have reference principally, tɔ two things; first, the preparation for a mercantile life, and, secondly, the line of conduct to be pursued therein.

First, then, as to the preparation. And here the result to which I would conduct your minds is, that to the merchant knowledge is capital. If it be a general truth in human affairs, that knowledge is power, I hold it to be pre-eminently so in regard to mercantile pursuits. Without it, all the capital of a Girard or an Astor, would not make a merchant; and with it, as the principal thing, capital soon follows as an incident. Accordingly, the first duty of every person destined for a merchant, is to prepare himself, by a suitable education, for an intelligent discharge of his diversified functions-just as much so, as of a lawyer, a physician, or a clergyman; and to this end, there is just as much need of commercial schools and colleges, as of any other-and these, I rejoice to say, we are beginning to have in all our commercial cities. We have, too, commercial dictionaries and magazines a distinct commercial department for newspapers-chambers of commerce-boards of trade-reading rooms and, best of all, library associations.

All these things bear gratifying testimony to the increased interest taken in mercantile education. And why should it not be so? Why should not the mercantile profession stand side by side with the other so called liberal professions ? There is, in truth, no good reason, whether we look to its dignity, ditficulty, or utility. For what is commerce ? and who is the merchant?

In the sense in which I am considering it, commerce comprehends whatsoever relates to the exchange of commodities between individuals and nations. Regarded then as a mere department of business, what a stupendous concern it is! Even if the products of the earth were every where the same-instead of being so wondrously, yet admirably diversified—even then that ever active principle, the division of labor, which restricts every worker, as far as possible, to a single operation, in order that practice may make him perfect, would still require the co-operation of a countless number of individuals in supplying the wants of each ; and this alone would create an immense commerce. There is probably not a person in this presence, whose mere covering is not the product of more than ten thousand hands. But the commerce, growing out of these exchanges is almost nothing, when compared with that which results írom that endless variety of soil, climate, taste, and character, by which it has pleased the all-wise Creator to distinguish the different portions of the globe. I presume there is not one of you who passes a single day, to the comforts of which each quarter of the earth, if not every parallel of latitude, has not contributed something peculiar to itself. And it is only when we contemplate commerce on this world-wide scale; when we think of all the productions of every clime, every machine, and every working animal up to man, as constantly passing over the land, and over the sea, in one mighty circle of exchange and distribution—it is only then that we can rise to any thing like an adequate idea of what commerce really is. It is only then that we recognize in commerce the grand instrument of human civilization, as well as the medium of supplying mere physical wants; and cease to wonder at the deep reverence paid to the merchant princes of those early days, when commerce first opened the highway of the world, and caused the light of knowledge to shine upon the darkness of the middle ages.

But from the general idea of commerce, let us descend to a brief analysis of its principal functions, for the purpose of deducing therefrom the particular branches of knowledge essential to every merchant, who aspires to be anything more than a mere trader. Of course I say nothing of the elementary branches of school education, for these belong to every body. But presupposing these, I observe that, commerce, being pre-eminently a national concern, the regulation of it has been committed exclusively to the National Government. Hence, every merchant should acquaint himself with our commercial treaties and navigation laws, together with the general subjects of finance, currency, tariffs and revenues, upon which those treaties and laws are predicaled. In short with the science of political econ. omy. Nor should he be ignorant of so much of the law of nations as determines the commercial rights of belligerent and neutral nations in case of war. If to this view it be objected that I require every merchant to be a statesman, I reply, that I know.of no better preparation for the practical duties of statesmanship, than mercantile pursuits conducted on a large and liberal scale; and the history of our government, had I time to adduce it, would prove that whatever is of wisdom in the commercial legislation of Congress, or the commercial measures of the Executive, is wholly attributable to those enlightened and accomplished merchants, who, when not themselves members of Congress or of the cabinet, have been resorted to by those who were, for their advice and aid. The truth is, that in every commercial nation-at London no less than at Washington—from the very necessity of the case, merchants must, either directly or indirectly control the government in respect to commercial regulations, because no other persons have the requisite knowledge. And if such be the influence of this class upon the government, the reciprocal influence of the government upon mercantile interests is not less important. In either aspect therefore, the merchant should, to the extent above stated, have the education of a statesman.

Descending now from these general subjects to those of more immediate and daily concern, and taking up commercial operations in the natural order of events, we are led directly to the following subjects of study

First—That comprehensive knowledge of Geography, which comprises not only the productions peculiar to each region, and the channels of transportation, but also the wants of each region-in short, every thing connected with supply and demand.

Secondly-An essential requisite for buying and selling well, is to understand what constitutes a bargain in the eye of the law-all that relates to the contract of sale, whether private or at auction.

Thirdly, The great business of transporting merchandize from place to place by common carriers, makes it necessary for the merchant to understand their rights and responsibilities.

Fourthly-Merchandize, in the course of transportation, and when lying in the warehouse, is exposed to various perils, which have given rise to a complicated system of insurance, with which the merchant should make himself familiar.

Fifthly-For the purpose of increasing their capital or other means, merchants often find it convenient to associate themselves in partnerships or corporations ; with the nature of which relations, therefore, they should be well acquainted.

Sixthly-In almost all mercantile operations, there is a necessity of employing agents of various descriptions; and this makes it necessary for a merchant to understand the rights and duties of this important relation of principal and agent.

Seventhly-Credit has become so important an element in commercial operations, in the shape of bills of exchange, promissory notes, and guarantees, that a knowledge of these contracts has become indispensable to the merchant,

Eighthly-The relations of debtor and creditor, so far as relates to the facilities furnished by law for the collection of debts in different places, and the operation of bankrupt or insolvent laws, should be well understood by the merchant. I

may be told that I am requiring every merchant to be educated for a lawyer. I answer, that while there is a vast field of law which I would not advise the merchant to meddle with, I would have him study the general principles of mercantile law, for the same reason that I would have a mechanic familiar with the tools of his trade. Indeed so essential do I deem this kind of knowledge to every merchant, that, were I educating my son for that profession, I would set apart at least two years of his noviciate) expressly for this study--nay more, so much do the two professions run into each other, especially in commercial cities, that if I were educating my son for the law, I should desire to have him spend at least the same period in a good counting-room. I speak now from my own professional experience. After having occupied more than the usual time in preparing to practice law, when I entered upon the practice, the most serious want I encountered, was the want of a more accurate knowledge of those customs of merchants, which constitute so large a part of mercantile law. But while I make this confession let me say, on the other hand, that a somewhat extensive professional intercourse with the mercantile class, has often caused me to feel astonished at their profound ignorance of their legal rights and duties, although to that very ignorance I was indebted for the need of my professional services. Permit me then to conclude what I have to say upon this part of my subject, by earnestly recommending to this association to provide for an annual course of lectures upon commercial law. I feel confident that, in the shape of lectures, you cannot spend your time or money better. Be assured that you will find such knowledge to be capital.

But it is time that I turn from the subject of preparation, to that of conduct. And I begin this branch of my subject with the remark, that, as there is no department of business in which, from its very nature, men are obliged to repose so much confidence in each other, so, there is none in which the highest integrity is so much required. If it be a common maxim that honesty is the best policyit becomes a fundamental truth in commercial transactions. Here, as in geometry, the straight line is always the shortest distance between two points. The customs of merchants have created, and now constitute the great body of commercial law, of which it has long been the boast, that it approaches nearer to the strictly ethical standard, than any other branch of law. Of the law in general-alas! that I should be obliged to say so—too often you cannot answer the question, what is the law ?--by resolving a still higher question, what is right between the parties? Nor can this always be done in controversies between merchants. For, in either case, we must resort to the precedents for a rule, and not to the untrammelled conscience of a good man. But then in commercial law, the precedents themselves have been based upon a higher morality, than in any other branch,

because the customs of merchants created them, and they have been most recently established. Yet the commercial code is very far from furnishing a rule for every case; and no class of men have more frequent occasion to consult the higher code of ethics, than conscientious merchants.

To take a single example by way of illustration : There is not perhaps a more difficult question in ethics, than this, which the merchant is required to solve almost every day-namely, how far, in making a bargain, he may rightfully avail himself of knowledge which he knows the other does not possess, without informing him of it. In other words, where is the dividing line between fair dealing and cheating? And this question has acquired a new importance, now that the lightning has been harnessed to the newsman's car. Now if we go to the law for a solution, we find it laid down that fraud will be fatal to any bargain; but, at the same time, that parties are not required to contract with equal advantages, nor for equivalent considerations. If a man has understanding enough to comprehend common things of every day life, the law pronounces him to have a contracting and disposing mind; and then if the other party makes no misrepresentation, the bargain is valid, though he may have much the best of it. He has a right to conceal his superior knowledge. Yet this general rule is subject to many exceptions, one of which occurs in the matter of insurance, where concealment by the insured is often as fatal as misrepresentation. Now in this want of any certain and specific rule of law applicable to all cases-and, may I not add, in the lax morality of the rule so far as it is laid down?—the conscientious mer. chant, more perhaps than any other man of business, is called upon to consult the higher law written by conscience upon the heart. And when, in addition to this, we consider how inevitable it is that merchants, who never saw each other, perhaps never heard of each other, and residing at the antipodes, should nevertheless repose the same confidence in each other as if they lived on the same street. And when we further consider that the first requisite for that credit, which is so much used in commerce, is integrity-may we not say that a dishonest merchant is the basest of all dishonest men, because he adds folly to knavery? But without dwelling longer upon the high morality so indispensable for the merchant, let me advert lo some of the evils which prevail in our commercial system.

Of these evils, the greatest, and that towards which all the lesser ones contri. bute, is instability, fluctuation, uncertainty. It has been said by close observers that, in this country, nine merchants out of every ten fail, in the course of their lives. I know not whether this be strictly true. It is enough for my purpose to know, that failures are far more frequent among merchants than among any other class of business men; and that every few years there occurs a general crisis, or revulsion, sometimes confined to one country only, and sometimes embracing the whole commercial world, in which bankruptcies become the order of the day. Those who seemed rolling in wealth are suddenly reduced to beggary--the break. ing of one house drags down another, though perhaps oceans intervene. He whe

« PreviousContinue »