7 DECEMBER 1889, Page 24


THE deduction which sensible people will draw from President Harrison's Message of Tuesday is, that it is very pleasant for any country to be geographically situated like the United States. All his references to foreign countries are pleasant, because the Union neither has nor, except at her own discretion, can have any serious dispute with any foreign country. There can be httle bitterness where there is no fear ; and the Union has nothing to fear from any State in the world. Only one Great Power touches her frontier, and that Power is compelled by every interest it has, whether political, financial, or domestic, to avoid all causes of offence. The Union is bounded on the east and west by the sea, on the north by the territories of a necessarily friendly State, and on the south by a nation which is only not conquered because American statesmen have no desire to increase either the coloured or the Roman Catholic vote. With such a geographical position, it needs only sense and temper to settle all international disputes in a satisfactory way ; and we are bound to admit that President Harrison displays both. He threatens nobody, quarrels with nobody, carps at nobody ; but is pleased to allow that the friction between Canada and the Union is dying away, that a better extradition treaty with Great Britain is in course of preparation, and that the dispute with Germany about Samoa has ended in an arrangement which will restore order and tranquillity to the island. All that is most satisfactory ; but the American calm is due to the American position at least as much as to American good feeling or American institutions. If the Union were surrounded by jealous nations of equal power, we might hear Messages pervaded by a very different tone. Indeed, even the financial prosperity of the Union is due in great part to her magnificent geographical position. Observers in the Old World cannot help admiring or envying the American Treasury, which does not know what to do with its wealth, which can propose with a light heart the remission of a great tax upon a luxury, and which, after wasting a tremendous sum—.217,000,000 a year— upon pensions which it never contracted to pay, has still an annual surplus of £11,000,000 a year, and declares that its savings are so vast as to impede and endanger all commercial business. Those observers wish that such a condition were possible in Europe, and forget that if the Union had to expend, like England, France, and Germany, some £30,000,000 annually on military and naval defence, she would have, instead of these embarrassing surpluses, a deficit of from £15,000,000 to £18,000,000 a year. Much credit is due to the American Constitution, if only because the people worship it after a century's experience ; but this prosperity of the Treasury is not due to it, but to a situation on the planet unparalleled alike in its exemption from danger, and in the natural wealth it places at the disposition of an industrious people. With such a country so placed, the statesmen of the Union can hardly impede the progress of their people ; but if they could do it, the plans they adopt, and think the perfection of wisdom, most certainly would. Their reck- less waste on pensions seems to do the people no harm, and is clearly popular ; but it establishes as most dangerous precedent against the next occasion on which America calls out her young men for war, and tends to make the duty of self-defence unendurably costly to the nation. The Government, moreover, not only recommends that Protection be continued—that is, that the nation be taxed in order that an aristocracy, the owners of shares in industrial speculations, should prosper—but that the system should be extended so as to protect the " farm products " of the West. How that is to be done in a country which imports no grain or cattle, it is difficult to conceive ; but the President advises it, and we suppose he has some plan in his mind, possibly one for securing preferential railway rates to the growers of corn and meat. Nothing else, except a direct bounty, can possibly benefit them ; but the White House rarely speaks wholly at random, and Presi- dents, when they promise, must either try to perform, or lose the votes of the disappointed. To keep up Protection, the Government refuses to lower duties on imports, and while refusing to abolish the imposts on sugar, clothes, and iron, proposes formally to abolish the excise on tobacco —a mere luxury—which produces £6,132,000 a year. This recommendation will, it is believed, be accepted, and the annual surplus thus reduced one-half, to the delight of all who see in a poor revenue an unanswerable argument for the taxation of everything which foreigners can make cheaper, and which therefore, if imported, would leave the people's money to fructify in the people's pockets.

We seem, in reading the President's message, to be in another world than ours, a world in which no axioms are certain, not even those of arithmetic or commerce, and that impression is not reduced by the official proposals about silver. America, produces great quantities of silver, and for reasons too many to state, some of them political and some of them sentimental, specially wishes that industry to prosper. The plan of coining silver has in great measure failed ; for as the Secretary to the Treasury admits, the silver coin remains in his vaults in masses which nobody will take. They will and do take cer- tificates stating that it is there ; but that is not quite convenient, the certificate constituting a vast paper cur- rency, redeemable in a metal which may lose part of its value. Mr. Windom therefore proposes a new scheme, which, if it succeeds, will make of the Govern- ment a huge shop for the purchase and sale of the mer- chandise called silver. He proposes that anybody should send silver bars to the Treasury, and receive for them certificates of their market value in dollars. These certificates are to be receivable in all State Treasuries for all purposes, and may be redeemed whenever the holder chooses ; not, however, at their face-value, but at their value according to the market price of silver on that morning. We will not pretend to predict the result of this scheme in all its details ; but one consequence seems to be clear past cavil. A great proportion of the taxes will be virtually paid in kind instead of cash,—that is, in certificates representing not coin, but bars of silver treated as merchandise, and received and parted with at the price of the day. That is an extraordinary experiment in a course which has long been condemned by European financiers as "Asiatic finance." Up to a point it may succeed, the certificates for the silver bars being, in fact, nothing but a new paper currency supported by the readiness of the State to receive it in payment of taxes ; but there must surely be a point at which, in the case of any other Treasury, there would arise a danger. Suppose a silver panic to set in, would not the Union have received its taxes in a depreciated currency ? As we have said, nothing can endanger the finance of a rich country with no Army to keep up, with limitless culturable or mineral land, and with a people who will for a time endure any taxation without complaint ; but certainly it is not the financial wisdom of her statesmen which makes America so prosperous.

We wonder, as we read of the action of Congress, whether an inordinately prosperous condition of the finances is really a good thing for a people. It enables them to do great things, like the grants for the special education of Negroes, which were proposed, and we believe sanctioned last year, but it must also tend to a certain deterioration of character. The effects may not be as great as they seem to be, the people being more puzzled than demoralised ; but to all appearance the American surpluses have diminished the general apprecia- tion of economic truths, have increased in an astonishing way the national readiness to waste money—recollect this generation of Americans once boasted that the Union was well served without pensions—and have lowered the sense entertained by the Representatives of their being trustees in all matters for the benefit of their electors. Those are serious disadvantages to set against the existence of a full Treasury ; and we are not sure that, if we were Americans, we should not vote even for the repeal of the taxes on tobacco and beer, in order to be rid of a temptation which greatly tries, if it does not imperil, the existence of one invaluable form of public virtue. Too much money some- times spoils the character of individuals ; and States are not wholly exempt from a danger differing only in degree.