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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
The United States just after the Revolution
By Horace Greeley (1811–1872)
 
From ‘The American Conflict’

THE DIFFICULTIES which surrounded the infancy and impeded the growth of the thirteen original or Atlantic States were less formidable, but kindred, and not less real. Our fathers emerged from their arduous, protracted, desolating Revolutionary struggle, rich indeed in hope, but poor in worldly goods. Their country had for seven years been traversed and wasted by contending armies, almost from end to end. Cities and villages had been laid in ashes. Habitations had been deserted and left to decay. Farms, stripped of their fences and deserted by their owners, had for years produced only weeds. Camp fevers, with the hardships and privations of war, had destroyed many more than the sword; and all alike had been subtracted from the most effective and valuable part of a population always, as yet, quite inadequate. Cripples and invalids, melancholy mementoes of the yet recent struggle, abounded in every village and township. Habits of industry had been unsettled and destroyed by the anxieties and uncertainties of war. The gold and silver of ante-Revolutionary days had crossed the ocean in exchange for arms and munitions. The Continental paper, which for a time more than supplied (in volume) its place, had become utterly worthless. In the absence of a tariff, which the Confederate Congress lacked power to impose, our ports, immediately after peace, were glutted with foreign luxuries,—gewgaws which our people were eager enough to buy, but for which they soon found themselves utterly unable to pay. They were almost exclusively an agricultural people, and their products, save only tobacco and indigo, were not wanted by the Old World, and found but a very restricted and inconsiderable market even in the West Indies, whose trade was closely monopolized by the nations to which they respectively belonged. Indian corn and potatoes, the two principal edibles for which the poor of the Old World are largely indebted to America, were consumed to a very limited extent, and not at all imported, by the people of the Eastern Hemisphere. The wheat-producing capacity of our soil, at first unsurpassed, was soon exhausted by the unskillful and thriftless cultivation of the eighteenth century. Though one third of the labor of the country was probably devoted to the cutting of timber, the axe-helve was but a pudding-stick, while the plow was a rude structure of wood, clumsily pointed and shielded with iron. A thousand bushels of corn (maize) are now grown on our Western prairies at a cost of fewer days’ labor than were required for the production of a hundred in New York or New England eighty years ago. And though the settlements of that day were nearly all within a hundred miles of tide-water, the cost of transporting bulky staples, for even that distance, over the execrable roads that then existed, was about equal to the present charge for transportation from Illinois to New York. Industry was paralyzed by the absence or uncertainty of markets. Idleness tempted to dissipation, of which the tumult and excitement of civil war had long been the school. Unquestionably, the moral condition of our people had sadly deteriorated through the course of the Revolution. Intemperance had extended its ravages; profanity and licentiousness had overspread the land; a coarse and scoffing infidelity had become fashionable, even in high quarters; and the letters of Washington and his compatriots bear testimony to the widespread prevalence of venality and corruption, even while the great issue of independence or subjugation was still undecided.  1
  The return of peace, though it arrested the calamities, the miseries, and the desolations of war, was far from ushering in that halcyon state of universal prosperity and happiness which had been fondly and sanguinely anticipated. Thousands were suddenly deprived by it of their accustomed employment and means of subsistence, and were unable at once to replace them. Those accepted though precarious avenues to fame and fortune in which they had found at least competence were instantly closed, and no new ones seemed to open before them. In the absence of aught that could with justice be termed a currency, trade and business were even more depressed than industry. Commerce and navigation, unfettered by legislative restriction, ought to have been, or ought soon to have become, most flourishing, if the dicta of the world’s accepted political economists had been sound; but the facts were deplorably at variance with their inculcations. Trade, emancipated from the vexatious trammels of the custom-house marker and gauger, fell tangled and prostrate in the toils of the usurer and the sheriff. The common people, writhing under the intolerable pressure of debt for which no means of payment existed, were continually prompting their legislators to authorize and direct those baseless issues of irredeemable paper money, by which a temporary relief is achieved at the cost of more pervading and less curable disorders. In the year 1786 the Legislature of New Hampshire, then sitting at Exeter, was surrounded, evidently by preconcert, by a gathering of angry and desperate men, intent on overawing it into an authorization of such an issue. In 1786 the famous Shay’s Insurrection occurred in western Massachusetts, wherein fifteen hundred men, stung to madness by the snow-shower of writs to which they could not respond and executions which they had no means of satisfying, undertook to relieve themselves from intolerable infestation and save their families from being turned into the highways, by dispersing the courts and arresting the enforcement of legal process altogether. That the seaboard cities, depending entirely on foreign commerce, neither manufacturing themselves nor having any other than foreign fabrics to dispose of, should participate in the general suffering and earnestly scan the political and social horizon in quest of sources and conditions of comprehensive and enduring relief, was inevitable. And thus industrial paralysis, commercial embarrassment, and political disorder combined to overbear inveterate prejudice, sectional jealousy, and the ambition of local magnates, in creating that more perfect Union whereof the foundations were laid and pillars erected by Washington, Hamilton, Franklin, Madison, and their compeers in the Convention which framed the Federal Constitution.  2
  Yet it would not be just to close this hasty and casual glance at our country under the old federation, without noting some features which tend to relieve the darkness of the picture. The abundance and excellence of the timber, which still covered at least two-thirds of the area of the then States, enabled the common people to supply themselves with habitations which, however rude and uncomely, were more substantial and comfortable than those possessed by the masses of any other country on earth. The luxuriant and omnipresent forests were likewise the sources of cheap and ample supplies of fuel, whereby the severity of our northern winters was mitigated, and the warm bright fireside of even the humblest family, in the long winter evenings of our latitude, rendered centres of cheer and enjoyment. Social intercourse was more general, less formal, more hearty, more valued, than at present. Friendships were warmer and deeper. Relationship, by blood or by marriage, was more profoundly regarded. Men were not ashamed to own that they loved their cousins better than their other neighbors, and their neighbors better than the rest of mankind. To spend a month in the dead of winter in a visit to the dear old homestead, and in interchanges of affectionate greetings with brothers and sisters married and settled at distances of twenty to fifty miles apart, was not deemed an absolute waste of time, nor even an experiment in fraternal civility and hospitality. And though cultivation was far less effective than now, it must not be inferred that food was scanty or hunger predominant. The woods were alive with game, and nearly every boy and man between fifteen and sixty years of age was a hunter. The larger and smaller rivers, as yet unobstructed by the dams and wheels of the cotton-spinner and power-loom weaver, abounded in excellent fish, and at seasons fairly swarmed with them. The potato, usually planted in the vegetable mold left by recently exterminated forests, yielded its edible tubers with a bounteous profusion unknown to the husbandry of our day. Hills the most granitic and apparently sterile, from which the wood was burned one season, would the next year produce any grain in ample measure, and at a moderate cost of labor and care. Almost every farmer’s house was a hive, wherein the “great wheel” and the “little wheel”—the former kept in motion by the hands and feet of all the daughters ten years old and upward, the latter plied by their not less industrious mother—hummed and whirled from morning till night. In the back room, or some convenient appendage, the loom responded day by day to the movements of the busy shuttle, whereby the fleeces of the farmer’s flock and the flax of his field were slowly but steadily converted into substantial though homely cloth, sufficient for the annual wear of the family, and often with something over, to exchange at the neighboring merchant’s for his groceries and wares. A few bushels of corn, a few sheep, a fattened steer, with perhaps a few saw-logs or loads of hoop-poles, made up the annual surplus of the husbandman’s products, helping to square accounts with the blacksmith, the wheelwright, the minister, and the lawyer, if the farmer was so unfortunate as to have any dealings with the latter personage. His life during peace was passed in a narrower round than ours, and may well seem to us tame, limited, monotonous: but the sun which warmed him was identical with ours; the breezes which refreshed him were like those we gladly welcome; and while his roads to mill and to meeting were longer and rougher than those we daily traverse, he doubtless passed them unvexed by apprehensions of a snorting locomotive, at least as contented as we, and with small suspicion of his ill fortune in having been born in the eighteenth instead of the nineteenth century.  3
  The illusion that the times that were are better than those that are, has probably pervaded all ages. Yet a passionately earnest assertion which many of us have heard from the lips of the old men of thirty to fifty years ago, that the days of their youth were sweeter and happier than those we have known, will doubtless justify us in believing that they were by no means intolerable. It is not too much to assume that the men by whose valor and virtue American independence was achieved, and who lived to enjoy for half a century thereafter the gratitude of their country and the honest pride of their children, saw wealth as fairly distributed, and the labor of freemen as adequately rewarded, as those of almost any other country or of any previous generation.  4
 
 
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