Payment of Southern Debts to the North

Boston Daily Atlas and Bee, December 3, 1860

There is, doubtless, not a little apprehension in the minds of many northern merchants relative to the payment of the debts due them in the South. That the payments must necessarily be deferred in many cases, owing to financial difficulties, is to be expected, but back of that comes the fear of a final loss, should a disruption of the Union take place. As a general rule, mercantile honor is presumed to be as sacred among the merchants in the South as in the North, allowance always being made in the case of newer and ruder business localities, where more adventurers are to be expected, as compared with well established business communities. As a class it may be said that southern merchants are, or would be, if not acted upon by politicians, less under the influence of selfish motives in their political action than are the merchants of the North. The northern merchant very naturally wishes to offend no section of the country, and very easily conforms to the political institutions of any country with which he may trade. The northern merchant more fully represents that class of whom it has been said in all ages and in all countries, that they are averse to political changes, even to the extent of often becoming hindrances to political liberty. The southern merchant has his trade at home, mainly, and is little of a politician. He would, of his own will, follow the law of trade, and buy his goods where he can buy to the best advantage. That we suppose to constitute one of the essential elements in the character of a successful merchant anywhere. That fact, added to the peculiar state of southern society, shows the cause of the failure in the establishment of direct lines of traffic with Europe, and the natural turning of the southern merchant to northern cities to trade. It is only when turbulent politicians at the South create a public feeling against the North, that the southern merchant fears to let it be known where he purchases his goods.

Left to his own judgment and honor, the southern merchant would continue to buy his goods at the North, and would pay for them promptly, unless, as in the present financial embarrassments, he was unable to do so. In times of political commotion and revolution, those who are inclined to be dishonest would of course take advantage of the circumstances, to refuse payment of their just debts, especially if due to those whom the community in which they lived considered as enemies, and such refusal would find sufficient approval, and be applauded as a smart operation.

This subject will be likely to engage considerable attention, and if politics are considered of little account, the creditor will take interest enough to see how the matter will end. One of the leading papers of the South, the Richmond Enquirer, discusses the question, and quiets in a measure the fears which many might be disposed to entertain. The opinion is expressed "that there is as much individual honesty and commercial integrity among southern merchants and citizens as among any other people, and any acts of dishonesty will meet with the same condemnation at the South that they merit and receive among honest people everywhere." That is well, and to make it stronger it is said that not even the dishonorable conduct of merchants and manufacturers in the North in many instances in being shamefully derelict in their duty to the South and to the Union, will ever be made the pretext by honest southern merchants for an avoidance of a just obligation to pay an honest debt. Merchants and manufacturers at the North are not supposed to have the power or influence to do everything. They may, as a general thing, be acquitted of any such dereliction of duty. If the amount of money raised at the North among merchants to effect the elections could be stated, it would at least be likely to satisfy the South that everything was done save to purchase opinions, which no one ought to expect in a country in which the people are believed to be governed by their own convictions.

There is, however, one drawback in the article which we are considering, which looks a little like a threat. The proviso is made that the goods will be honestly paid for, "unless the North vacates the obligations to pay, by making war upon the South." The law of nations respecting debts vacated by a state of war, is stated, and it is further said "that the payment of debts due from the South to the North, will depend solely upon the North." "If that section appeals to war, to coercion, and seeks, not to maintain but to avenge the Union, then it will become the duty of every citizen of the South to seek for all means to inflict injury of every kind upon each and all of the citizens of the North. The effort at coercion, followed by war, can only prevent the North from receiving their just debts."

This implied threat, or foreshadowing of what may come, is not only bad morality, but is unjust to parties who may be innocent of any wrong, or even of neglect to use their influence as the South would have it. Some southern writers have been more just in proposing to discriminate between those who have endeavored to please the South and those who have not. That is bad enough, and based entirely on selfish motives. In all of these propositions, the mistake is made in supposing that the masses of the people at the North are governed entirely in their political opinions by the leading men, either of learning or of wealth. They might have learned differently from the example of our own State. Intelligence and principle, not learning or wealth simply, has either controlled such men, through public opinion, or left them with little or no influence. The South may as well let the matter stand where it is; men of influence as merchants or manufacturers, will undoubtedly, as a general thing, look after their material interests without the necessity of threats.

The latest intelligence from Georgia furnishes an illustration of a higher sense of honor among merchants than is found among the politicians. The Legislature has in contemplation the passage of laws staying execution in the collection of debts. The merchants of Columbus promptly and unequivocally denounce all measures having for their object any release from, or abatement of, their obligation as debtors at home or abroad. Such a step, they say, "would destroy all credit abroad and annul all confidence at home."