Friday, January 16, 2009

The Barnburners: The Prequel

The Erie Canal gave birth to the Barnburners.

Shortly after the Canal opened in the mid-1820s, "it became evident that the income . . . would exceed even the sanguine predictions of the most ardent Clintonians." In 1827, "the [New York] legislature suspended entirely the imposition of a direct tax."

Over the next decade, however, increasing expenditures, particularly on uneconomical feeder canals that did not pay their way, depleted the state treasury. By 1834, the New York state general fund was reduced to $190,000. By 1835, it was clear that the State would either have to re-impose a direct tax to fund projects or resort to deficit spending.

In that year, the state comptroller was Democrat Azariah C. Flagg. "It was he," according to Herbert H.D. Donovan, "who at this time outlined and urged the financial policy which, in its application later, became the bone of contention . . . between two almost equally-balanced sections of the Democrats themselves."

Flagg did so by reporting as follows (paragraph breaks and emphasis added):
The annual reports from this office the last nine years have urged upon the consideration of the representatives of the people the necessity of a state tax, to enable the treasury to meet the ordinary expenses of the government, and to save the general fund from annihilation. The acts of the legislature, instead of favoring the policy of preserving the principal of the general fund, have indicated a settled determination to use it up for the current expenses of the treasury, and not to levy a tax, so long as there remained a remnant of that fund . . ..

The alternative is now presented, whether a light tax shall be levied, or a state debt created, for supplying the treasury with the means of paying the daily demands upon it. A decision of the question cannot be postponed any longer. It is necessary for the preservation of a sound financial system, that a tax should be levied, of at least one mill upon the dollar of valuation of real and personal estate. If the treasury is not relieved by a tax, there will be a debt against the treasury of at least $1,500,000 by the close of 1837. In addition to this, there will be a debt on account of the lateral canals of at least $3,000,000. . . .

In authorizing money to be borrowed and stock to be issued for the construction of the lateral canals, the salutary principle adopted (in 1817) has not been adhered to. . . . It is a wise rule . . . never to borrow a dollar without laying a tax in the same instant for paying the interest annually, and the principal within a given term, and to consider that tax as pledged to the creditors of the public faith.

Within the next several years, "[c]onflicting impulses on the subject of expenditures for canals . . . began to open a rift in the hitherto solid lines of the majority party."
Those who believed in a rather liberal policy of pledging the state's credit and resources to the extension and completion of the canal system at an early date began to be called "Conservatives." Those, on the other hand, who favored the new policy of limiting the canal expenditures to the amount available from the surplus revenue of those canals, received the designation "Radicals." It is by these names that the two groups are always referred to in the early days of their strife.

About the illustration:
A satire on the Van Buren administration's involvement in New York State politics. Although the precise context of the cartoon is unclear, specific reference is made to Van Buren's alliance with postmaster general and political strategist Amos Kendall against Senator Nathaniel P. Tallmadge, leader of the conservative faction of New York Democrats. In an interior, Kendall (left) and Van Buren are at a table strewn with "discharge" papers. Kendall, seated below a painting of Andrew Jackson titled "Glory," reads the "Globe" newspaper. Van Buren sits below a portrait of "Globe" editor and administration apologist Francis Preston Blair. Van Buren: "So they've nailed that infernal Tallmadge to the counter-Whole hog fellows these eighteen-we must show our gratitude-any room in your concern Amos?" Kendall: "You're right sir we must back up the Albany Boys. Ill send every d--md whig in my department to "Jones" locker. Theres that old superanuated hero Van Ranselaer [i.e., probably, Canal Commissioner Stephen Van Rensselaer] we'll bury him decently and put a "Flagg" [State Comptroller Azariah C. Flagg] over him." Tallmadge watches from behind a curtain, saying "Those fellows can only conceive of mens souls as marketable commodities." Weitenkampf dates the print tentatively 1836, but the artist's rendering of Kendall is clearly based on Charles Fenderich's life portrait, etched by William W. Bannerman and published in the "United States Magazine and Democratic Review" in March 1838. The likeness of Tallmadge also appears to be from a Fenderich portrait copyrighted in 1839.

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