Stephen Pearl Andrews on Equitable Commerce, 1850

Stephen Pearl Andrews was a bizarre, multi-faceted character, whose contributions to anarchism have sometimes been overshadowed by the peculiarity of his contributions in other fields of study. I’ve been slowly-but-surely trying to make sense of my notes on Andrews, and in the course of trying to fill some gaps in the story of his involvement with a sort of perpetual-motion machine scheme (a story in which Josiah Warren also plays at least a bit part), I discovered that the Library of Congress had made large runs of the New York Daily Tribune available online. They aren’t pretty—they are, in fact, some of the roughest scans it has been my privilege to attempt to read—but they’re there, and sort of searchable. The particular story I’m tracking down has all sorts of inherent difficulties of its own: too many players, with names that people seemed intent on misspelling; no very stable set of keywords to search; a few keywords particularly prone to frustrating OCR programs, etc. As a result, it’s been slow going digging the details out of a daily like the Tribune, and I will admit to resorting to the microfilm at Portland State University for the serious searching, but I have been much more successful in digging out the other contributions that Andrews made to the paper at the same time. Having been instrumental in introducing shorthand into the United States, Andrews actually worked for awhile as a reporter in Washington, DC contributing his own brand of political journalism to a number of papers, including the Tribune. And, as it turns out, he was also engaged in introducing the paper’s readership to Josiah Warren’s system of equitable commerce.

Andrews’ series on “Equitable Commerce” ran for seven installments, between August 3 and November 7, 1850. I haven’t had a chance to transcribe the whole series, but all the issues are on the LOC archive site. For easiest reading, download the pdf pages.

Equitable Commerce….No. 1.

To the Editor of The Tribune:

In your leading article in The Tribune of Wednesday last, one the Labor Movements in New York, you say with entire truth:

“Establish to-morrow an simple and fair Scale of Prices in every employment under the sun, and two years of quiet and the ordinary mutations of business would suffice to undermine and efface nearly the whole. No reform under the Wages system but a decided step out of and above that system is the fit and enduring remedy for the wrongs and oppressions of Labor by Capital. And this must inevitably be a work of time, of patience, of genius, of self-sacrifice and true heroism. And it is mainly because the Trade organizations of 1850 tend to and prepare for this—no matter how unconsciously—that we regard them with approbation and lively hope.”

I quote this paragraph because there is in it the admission that to discover and reveal the appropriate method by which the laboring classes can step out from under the Wages system, and place themselves above that system, is the appropriate work of genius, among other elements which you enumerate.

The knowledge on the part of the laboring classes or their friends, that they are under an oppressive and exhausting system of the relations of capital and labor does not amount to a knowledge of the true system, in which, when known, it should be their object to bring themselves as rapidly as possible. To discover that true system, by any other means than by long years, perhaps long generations of fallacious and exhausting experiments must be he work of genius, of true science, profound fundamental investigation, or any other name you choose to bestow upon that faculty and that process by which elementary truths are evolved by contemplating the nature of a subject.

If some profound philosopher, whose high authority could command universal belief, were to step forward and announce the discovery of some simple principle, which, if adopted in trade or business, would determine with arithmetical certainty, the equitable price to be charged for every article sold, and fore every species of property, and for every hour of time bestowed upon its production and distribution, so that labor in every department should get precisely its due reward and the existing inequalities in the distribution of wealth, and the consequent poverty and wretchedness of the mass be speedily alleviated and finally removed,—and if, in addition, the principal were such that its adoption and practical consequences did not depend upon convincing the intellects or appealing to the benevolence of the wealthy classes, but lay within the compass of the powers of the laboring men themselves—if still further than this, the principle did not demand as a preliminary the extensive cooperation, the mutual and implicit confidence, the complicated arrangements, the extensive knowledge of administration, and the violent change in domestic habits, some one or other of which is involved in nearly every proposition of socialism, and for which the laboring classes are specially disqualified. If, in one word, this simple principle furnished demonstrably, unequivocally, immediately ad practically the means, whereby the laboring classes might step out from under the Wages system, and place themselves in a condition of independence above that system, would not this announcement come in good time; would it not be a supply eminently adapted to the present demand, as intimated by the various labor movement in New-York and elsewhere.

With some misgivings as to the prudence of asserting such a faith, I will state my conviction that such a principle has been discovered and is now in the possession of a small number of persons who have been engaged in practically testing it, until its regulating and wealth producing effects have been sufficiently though not as yet abundantly demonstrated.

Josiah Warren, formerly of Cincinnati, more recently of New Harmony, Ia., now in this city, is, I believe, justly entitled to be considered the discoverer of the principle to which I refer, along with several others whom he deems essential to the rectification of the social evils of the existing state of society.

The principle itself is one which will probably not strike you when first stated as either very profound, very practicable in its applications, very important in its consequences, and perhaps not even as equitable in itself. It requires thought to be bestowed on each of these points. You will find, however, as you subject it to analysis, as you trace it into its ten thousand different applications, to ownership, to rent, to wages, &c. that it places all human transactions relating to property upon a new basis of exact justice—that is, it has the perfectly simple but all pervading character of a universal principle.

The question as to the method of commencing to put the principle in operation is a distinct one, and only needs to be explained after the principle itself is understood. I have already observed that it has been and is now being practically tested with entire success.

The principle put into a formula is thus stated: “Cost is the Limit of Price.”

The counter principle upon which all ownership is now maintained and all commerce transacted in the world is that: “Value is the limit of prince,” or as the principle is generally stated in the cant language of trade, “A thing is worth what it will bring.” Between these two principle, so similar that the difference in the statement will hardly attract a moment’s attention unless it were specially insisted upon, lies the essential difference between the whole system of civilized cannibalism by which the masses of human beings are mercilessly ground to powder for the accumulation of the wealth of the few and the reign of equity, the just remuneration of labor, and the independence and elevation of the workingman.

There is nothing apparently more innocent, harmless and equitable in the world than the statement that “a thing should bring what it is worth,” and yet that statement covers the most subtle fallacy which it has ever been given to human genius to detect and expose—a fallacy more fruitful of evil than any other which the human intellect has ever been beclouded by.

Value has nothing whatever to do upon scientific principle, as demonstrated by Mr. Warren, with setting the price at which any article of property should be sold. Cost is the only equitable limit, and by cost is meant the amount of labor bestowed on its production, that measure being again measured by the painfulness or repugnance of the labor itself—which point is the only one appropriately left to bargain or agreement between the parties.

Value is a consideration for the purchaser alone, and determines him whether he will give the amount of the cost or not.

Now this statement, which is all I can make in a single communication, is calculated to raise a host of objections and inquiries. If one purchaser values an article more highly than another, by what principle will he be prevented from offering a higher price? How is the amount of labor bestowed on the article to be ascertained? How is it possible to measure the relative painfulness or repugnance of labor? What allowance is to be made for superior skill or natural capacity? How is that to be settled? How does this principle settle the questions of interest? What is the nature of the practical experiment which have already been made? &c. &c.

I hope to be permitted through your columns to answer these inquiries from time to time, and to place before the readers of The Tribune a clear exposition of what I believe to be the most immensely important principle of Social Reform which genius has yet developed.

S. P. A.


Equitable Commerce….No. 2.

To the Editor of The Tribune:

In a letter accompanying my first article of this subject, published in The Tribune of Saturday last, I partially corrected a statement contained in a previous editorial of The Tribune, to the effect that “according to Mr. Warren, set commercial exchanges right and other things will come right in consequence.” I stated that by the term “Commerce” he means, first, commerce in the minor sense as synonomous with “trade,” and secondly, commerce in the major sense as synonomous with the old English signification of the word, “conversation”—i. e. human intercourse of all sorts—the concrete or tout ensemble of human relations.

I will first show that Mr. Warren’s investigations take in the whole scope of Commerce in this major sense, after which I shall return to the particular consideration and elucidation of the single principle “Cost is the Limit of Price,” which does, as I have said, chiefly relate to commerce in the minor sense, although the modes in which it affects commerce in the major sense are almost infinite.

According to Mr. Warren the following is

The Problem to be Solved

in all its several branches

  1. “The proper, legitimate, and just reward of labor.”
  2. “Security of person and property.”
  3. “The greatest practicable amount of freedom to each individual.”
  4. “Economy in the production and uses of wealth.”
  5. “To open the way for each individual to the possession of and, and all other natural wealth.
  6. To make the interests* of all to co-operate with and assist each other, instead of clashing with and counteracting each other.”
  7. “To withdraw the elements of discord, of war, of distrust and repulsion, and to establish a prevailing spirit 01 peace, order, and social sympathy.”

MEANS OF THE SOLUTION.

  1. “Individuality. “
  2. “Sovereignty of Every Individual.”
  3. III. “Cost The Limit of Price.”
  4. “Circulating Medium founded on the Cost of Labor.”
  5. “Adaptation of the Supply to the Demand.”

The mere reading of this programme is an ample answer to your criticism to which I have adverted. I preferred to select a single principle—the third among those abovenamed, and to my mind the most immediately important and practical, and to adhere to a pretty thorough exposition of it rather than to overload the mind of the reader by bringing into view the whole of an immense system, covering all possible human relations. I should have pursued that course, except for your remark, which I could not permit to go unanswered, to forestall the public judgment. Perhaps it is better as it is. A few minds may, from the mere statement of these principle, begin to perceive the rounded outlines of what, I do not hesitate to affirm, is the most immediately practical, if not the most complete, scientific statement of the problem of human society, and of the fundamental principles of social science, which has ever been presented to the world. Most, however, will not even begin to understand the universal and all-pervading potency of these few simple principles, until they find them elaborately displayed and elucidated.—At present I must take the broad license of asserting that they are universal principles, and referring the reader for what I mean by a universal principle to what I have to say of the particular one which I selected for a particular explanations—“Cost is the Limit of Price.”

As a mere hint, however, in relation to the others, let us take the last, “Adaptation of the Supply to the Demand.” This seems to be a formula relating merely, as, in fact, it does relate mainly, to ordinary commerce—trade—commerce in the minor sense; and, in that sense, it expresses an immense want of civilized society—nothing less, as Carlyle has it, than a knowledge of the way of getting the supernumerary shirts into contact with the back so the men who have none. But this same principle introduced into the parlor becomes the regulator of politeness and good manners. I am, for example, overflowing with immoderate zeal for the principle which I am now discussing. I broach them on every occasion. I seize every man by the button-hole and inflict on him a lecture on the beauties of Equitable Commerce; in fine, I make myself a universal bore, as every reformer is, more or less. But at the moment some urbane and conservative old gentleman politely observes to me, “Sir, I perceive one of your principles is ‘The adaptation of the Supply to the Demand.’” I take the hint immediately. My mouth is closed. I perceive I am carrying coals to Newcastle, or in other words, that my lecture is not wanted—that he does not care to interest himself in the subject.—There is no demand, and I stop the supply.

But you are ready to say, Would not the same hint given in some other form stop the impertinence of our zealous advocacy in any case? Let those answer who have been bored. But suppose it did, could it be done so gracefully in any way as by referring the offender to one of the very principles he is advocating, or which he professes? Again, grant that it might have the effect to stop that annoyance, the hint itself would be taken as an offense, and the offended man—that is not me—takes the sulks, and, instead of continuing the conversation upon some other subject that might be agreeable, goes off in a huff, and most probably you have made him an enemy for life. But in my case it will not even be necessary for the conservative old gentleman to remind me. I shall at once recollect that another of my principles is “The Sovereignty of the Individual,” and that one of the highest exercises of that sovereignty is the choice of the subjects about which one will converse and upon which he will bestow his time—hence I recognize cordially his right to exclude my subject, and immediately, gracefully and good-humoredly I glide off upon some other subject, while if it is possible that there should ever arise a demand with him to hear anything about my subject my uniform deference for even his prejudices will hasten the day. All conservative old gentlemen who hate reform of all sorts as they do ratsbane, should at once make themselves familiar with these principles of reform and disseminate them as the means of defending themselves. Do you begin to perceive that such a mere tradesman-like formula at first blush, as “The Adaptation of the Supply to the Demand,” becomes one of the highest regulators of good manners—a part of the ethics of conversation—of the “equitable commerce” of gentlemanly intercourse—as well as what it seems to be, an important element of trade; and do you catch a glimpse of what I mean when I say that it is a universal principle of commerce in the major sense, and so of “The Sovereignty of the Individual?” if you do, it is lucky for you, for I cannot stop to go into any detail here of the ten thousand applications which these principles have as universal regulators of social intercourse. I am beating through this lumber of introduction in order to get back, if I don’t get swamped altogether, to my “Cost Principle.”

The doctrine of Individuality is equally universal. I have only to say here that it mean the next thing to everything, when you come to its applications. It means, as applied to persons, that every human being has a distinct character or individuality of his own, so that any attempt at classifying him with others or to measure him by others is a breach of his natural liberty; and as applied to facts, that no two cases ever occurred precisely similar, and hence that no arbitrary general rule can possible be applied to cases not yet arisen. It follows, therefore, that all laws, systems and constitutions whatsoever, must yield to the individual or else that liberty must be infringed—or in other words, that the individual is above all institutions, and that no social system can claim to be the true one which requires for its harmonious operation that the individual shall be subjected to the system, or to any institutions whatsoever.

It appears also that all combinations of interest whatsoever are limitations upon the individuality of the parties, or restrictions upon natural liberty—hence the practical movement of Mr. Warren begins with a complete disintegration of all amalgamated interests, such as partnerships, in a manner peculiar to his system—hence again to the casual observer his movement seems to be in exact antagonism to Association and the view of Socialism of al the various schools. A more thorough acquaintance with the subject will show, however, that his individualizing of all interest is the analysis of society, preliminary to association as the synthesis—association which is demanded by the economies, being a growth of that cooperation of interests—not amalgamation—which results from the operation of the cost principle.

Now I fell most painfully that by attempting such a condensation of these matters I am rendering myself woefully obscure, and I only beg your readers not to set me down for a fool until I have time to tell what I do mean. I will take a special occasion to show that “Equitable Commerce” is mot the antagonist of any other of the great Reforms proposed, but that it comes in as the harmonizer of the whole. If Fourier has shown “the what,” Warren shows “the how,” in which last respect Social Reformers generally are lamentably deficient.

As I have now prolonged my communication too much to resume the exposition of the cost principle in it, I will conclude by stating how the principle in its operation will address itself to the different classes of community, so that those who have no demand for the article need not be over burdened by the supply.

The whole community may be divided under this system—not according to the old classification of Political Economy into producers and non-producers—but into those who receive more than equivalents for their labor, and those who receive less that equivalents—those who perform no productive labor and receive a living or more than that, being included in the former class.

Of these classes the latter, all those who receive less than equivalents, including the great mass of simple operatives who have not the aid of capital, have an immediate and what I must call a pecuniary interest in at once adopting the principle.

The remaining class—those who receive more than equivalents, have no such interest, but contrariwise. Of these, only such as are moved by considerations of benevolence or justice, of the love of order and harmony in human relations, have any demand for this new principle of Commerce, and so soon as those with whom such considerations are not potential, have read enough to know how equivalents can be measured, and that they are now of the gaining side, they will need no further supply of this reform, and the reform must go on without them as it best may. There are only distant advantages to offer the, and as they have the immediate advantages in their own hands, they must be expected to do the best they can to retain them. Thee glory of this reform is, however, that it does not proceed by their leave.

S. P. A.

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Independent scholar, translator and archivist.