Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. VIVIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 18351860
The Old-Time Virginian in a New Country
By Joseph Glover Baldwin (18151864)
[Born in Sumter, Ala., 1815. Died in San Francisco, Cal., 1864. The Flush Times of Alabama and Mississippi. 1853.]
SUPERIOR to many of the settlers in elegance of manners and general intelligence, it was the weakness of the Virginian to imagine he was superior too in the essential art of being able to hold his hand and make his way in a new country, and especially such a country, and at such a time. What a mistake that was! The times were out of joint. It was hard to say whether it were more dangerous to stand still or to move. If the emigrant stood still, he was consumed, by no slow degrees, by expenses; if he moved, ten to one he went off in a galloping consumption, by a ruinous investment. Expenses thennecessary articles about three times as high, and extra articles still more extra-pricedwere a different thing in the new country from what they were in the old. In the old country, a jolly Virginian, starting the business of free living on a capital of a plantation and fifty or sixty negroes, might reasonably calculate, if no ill-luck befell him, by the aid of a usurer and the occasional sale of a negro or two, to hold out without declared insolvency until a green old age. His estate melted like an estate in chancery, under the gradual thaw of expenses; but in this fast country it went by the sheer cost of living,some poker losses included,like the fortune of the confectioner in California, who failed for one hundred thousand dollars in the six months keeping of a candy-shop. But all the habits of his life, his taste, his associations, his education,everything: the trustingness of his disposition, his want of business qualifications, his sanguine temper, all that was Virginian in him, made him the prey, if not of imposture, at least of unfortunate speculations. Where the keenest jockey often was bit, what chance had he? About the same that the verdant Moses had with the venerable old gentleman, his fathers friend, at the fair, when he traded the Vicars pony for the green spectacles. But how could he believe it? How could he believe that that stuttering, grammarless Georgian, who had never heard of the resolutions of 98, could beat him in a land trade? Have no money dealings with my father, said the friendly Martha to Lord Nigel; for, idiot though he seems, he will make an ass of thee. What a pity some monitor, equally wise and equally successful with old Trapboiss daughter, had not been at the elbow of every Virginian! Twad frae monie a blunder freed him, an foolish notion.
If he made a bad bargain, how could he expect to get rid of it? He knew nothing of the elaborate machinery of ingenious chicane, such as feigning bankruptcy, fraudulent conveyances, making over to his wife, running property; and had never heard of such tricks of trade as sending out coffins to the graveyard, with negroes inside, carried off by sudden spells of imaginary disease, to be resurrected in due time, grinning, on the banks of the Brazos.
The new philosophy, too, had commended itself to his speculative temper. He readily caught at the idea of a new spirit of the age having set in, which rejected the saws of Poor Richard as being as much out of date as his almanacs. He was already, by the great rise of property, compared to his condition under the old-time prices, rich; and what were a few thousands of debt, which two or three crops would pay off, compared to the value of his estate? (He never thought that the value of property might come down, while the debt was a fixed fact.) He lived freely, for it was a liberal time, and liberal fashions were in vogue, and it was not for a Virginian to be behind others in hospitality and liberality. He required credit and security, and of course had to stand security in return. When the crash came, and no accommodations could be had, except in a few instances, and in those on the most ruinous terms, he fell an easy victim. They broke by neighborhoods. They usually indorsed for each other, and when one felllike the childs play of putting bricks on end at equal distances, and dropping the first in the line against the second, which fell against the third, and so on to the lastall fell; each got broke as security, and yet few or none were able to pay their own debts! So powerless of protection were they in those times that the witty H. G. used to say they reminded him of an oyster, both shells torn off, lying on the beach, with the sea-gulls screaming over them; the only question being which should gobble them up.
There was one consolation: if the Virginian involved himself like a fool, he suffered himself to be sold out like a gentleman. When his card house of visionary projects came tumbling about his ears, the next question was the one Webster plagiarized, Where am I to go? Those who had fathers, uncles, aunts, or other like derniers ressorts in Virginia limped back, with feathers moulted and crestfallen, to the old stamping-ground, carrying the returned Californians fortune of ten thousand dollars,six bits in money, and the balance in experience. Those who were in the condition of the prodigal (barring the father, the calf,the fatted one I mean,and the fiddle) had to turn their accomplishments to account; and many of them, having lost all by eating and drinking, sought the retributive justice from meat and drink, which might, at least, support them in poverty. Accordingly, they kept tavern, and made a barter of hospitality a business, the only disagreeable part of which was receiving the money, and the only one I know of for which a man can eat and drink himself into qualification. And while I confess I never knew a Virginian, out of the State, to keep a bad tavern, I never knew one to draw a solvent breath from the time he opened house until death or the sheriff closed it.