983. Jeremy Belknap: The Foresters, An American Tale
Boston, 1792 (excerpt)1

LETTER XIV.

The Foresters form a partnership.—It proves deficient and ineffectual.—Their Clock out of order.—Their strong box empty.—Disturbances in some of the families.—A meeting is called to revise and amend the partnership.

DEAR SIR, I was loth to break the thread of my narration in my former letters, and you know that we prattling folks love to tell our stories in our own way, which we are under great advantage to do when we are writing letters. But I will now go back to tell you something of the manner in which the foresters managed their domestic affairs during the controversy with Mr. Bull, and for some time after it was closed.

When they had broken their connexion with him, it was uncertain what connexions they might form abroad, but it was judged expedient for them to be united among themselves, that no one family should connect itself in trade with any merchant or factor, without the consent of the others. In short it became necessary for them to enter into a partnership for their mutual interest and convenience. To do this was a nice point, and required much delicacy. It was to them a new subject, and they had an untrodden path before them. After much consultation and inquiry, their ingenuity suggested to them the idea of an original social compact. “Why should we, said they, look abroad for precedents, when we have enough among ourselves? See the beavers in our own brooks and meadows, how they work in complete partnership, each family has its own cell, and a number of cells are placed in one pond. They carry on their operations with peace and unanimity, without even the appearance of a master. Here is a perfect republic, a complete equality, a striking example of order without subordination, of liberty without jealousy, of industry without coercion, of economy without parsimony, of sagacity without overbearing influence. Every one knows his own business and does it, their labour goes on with regularity and decency; their united efforts serve the common cause, and the interest of every one is involved in that of the whole. Let us go and do likewise.” The hint took, and a plan of CONFEDERATION, as it was called, was drawn up on principles of the purest equality; each family retaining the entire control of its own domestic concerns, without any interference of the others, and agreeing to contribute voluntarily its proportion of labour and money to support the common interest.

This was, in theory, a very pretty device, exactly suited to a set of people who thought themselves completely virtuous. But as it often happens that great ingenuity exists without much judgment or policy, so it proved here. These foresters did not consider that their intellects were not, like those of the beavers, confined to a few particular objects; that they were not like the beavers, void of passions and prejudices, void of ambition, jealousy, avarice and self interest. With all the infirmities and vices of humanity, they were expecting to establish a community on a plan similar to that in which no such deformities can possibly find admittance.

Though for a while, and during the period of the lawsuit, when common danger impelled them to keep themselves close together, this plan answered the end better than none; yet in fact the notion of independence has so intoxicated their minds, that having cast off their dependence on Mr. Bull, they thought themselves independent of all the world beside. When they had got entirely clear of the controversy with him, they were in the condition of a young heir just come of age, who feels proud of his freedom, and thinks he has a right to act without control. Each family felt its own importance, and expected a degree of respect from the others in proportion to its numbers, its property, its exertions, its antiquity, and other trifling considerations, which ought never to have had any place in a partnership of complete equality; and in consequence of this intoxicating idea of independence, each family claimed the right of giving or withholding its consent to what was proposed by any or all of the others.

In the club room, among a number of ingenious devices, there was a clock, of a most curious and intricate construction, by which all the common concerns of the partnership were to be regulated. It had one bell, on which thirteen distinct hammers struck the hours. Each hammer was moved by independent wheels and weights, each set of wheels and weights was enclosed in a separate case, the key of which was kept, not as it ought to have been, by the person who represented the family at club; but in each mansion house; and every family claimed a right either to keep the key at home or send it to club, when and by whom they pleased. Now as this clock, like all other automatons, needed frequently to be wound up, to be oiled and cleaned, a very nice and particular adjustment of circumstances was necessary to preserve the regularity of its motions, and make the hammers perform their functions with propriety. Sometimes one or two of the hammers would be out of order, and when it came to the turn of one to strike it would be silent; then there must be a running or sending home for the key, and the houses being at a considerable distance, much time was spent in waiting. Sometimes the messenger arrived at an unseasonable hour, when the family was asleep, or abroad in the fields, and it would take up a considerable time to collect them, and lay the case before them, that they might deliberate and determine whether the key should be sent or not; and before this could be done, the clock would get more out of order. By this means, the club was frequently perplexed; they knew neither the hour of the day, nor the day of the month; they could not date their letters nor adjust their books, nor do business with any regularity.

Besides this there was another inconvenience. For though they had a strong box, yet it was filled with nothing but bills of parcels and accounts presented for payment, contracts of loans and indentures for services. No money could be had from any of the families but by their own voluntary consent; and to gain this consent there was great difficulty. Some had advanced what they supposed to be more than their proportion; others had paid less. The former would give no more till the latter had made up their quotas, and there was no authority which could call any one to account, or make him do his duty. Their whole estates were mortgaged for the money which they had borrowed of Mr. Lewis and Mr. Frog; and yet they could carry on no business in partnership. In fact they had formed such an unheard of kind of partnership, that though they could run themselves in debt, yet they could not oblige one another to raise any money to discharge their debts.

Each family however carried on a separate trade, and they contrived to undersell each other, both at home and at market. Each family also had a separate debt, which some were providing means to discharge, and others neglected. In one or two of the families they went to loggerheads among themselves. John Codline’s family was for several days a scene of confusion and disorder; nothing was seen or heard but cursing and calling names, kicking shins and pulling noses. John at first tried to silence them by gentle means, but finding these ineffectual, he at length drew his scymitar, and swore he would cut off the ears of the first that should dare to make any more noise. This threatening drove two or three turbulent fellows out of doors, after which the house was tolerably quiet. Something of the same kind happened in Robert Lumber’s family, but he made so good a use of his fist as quelled the disturbance at once.

In the family of Roger Carrier there seemed to be a predominant lurch for knavery, for he publicly advertised that he was ready to pay his debts by notes of hand subject to a discount, the amount of which was indefinite, because continually increasing; and that whoever did not take his pay when thus offered, might go without. The other families were alarmed at his conduct; but had no power to oblige him to deal honestly, and he carried his roguery so far as to bid them all defiance.

In this state of debility and distraction, it became necessary to consult on some measures for a better plan of union. They began to be convinced that they were not beavers, nor capable of subsisting in such a state of society as had been adopted from them. Something more energetic was wanted to compel the lazy, to check the knavish, to direct the industrious, and to keep the honest from being imposed upon. It had been often in contemplation to amend the mode of partnership; but now the disorders in some of the families became so alarming, that though they had been quelled for the present, it was uncertain whether they would not break out again, especially as one whole family seemed determined openly to patronise roguery. These considerations served to hasten the change which had been contemplated. It was accordingly moved in the club, that each family should appoint one or more persons to meet together, and consult upon some alterations and improvements in the partnership. This meeting was accordingly held, and the result of it shall be the subject of my next letter.

Adieu.   

LETTER XV.

A new plan of partnership is proposed.—Arguments pro and con.—It is established.—A Chief Steward appointed, with inferior officers.—Hunting too much in fashion.—A new species of rats introduced.—Two families added to the number of apartments.

DEAR SIR, It is not in my power to give you a particular detail of the whole proceedings of the meeting which was held to reform the plan of partnership in the manner of your parliamentary journalists, who make speeches for the members, perhaps better than some of them make for themselves; but I will endeavour to give you a summary of the principles on which they proceeded.

The professed design of the meeting was to reform and amend the plan; but in fact when they came to examine it they found themselves obliged to pass the same sentence on it that was once delivered concerning the famous poet, Alexander Pope, whose usual ejaculation was, G—d mend me! “Mend you,” said a hackney coachman, (looking with contempt on his dwarfish form and hump back) “it would not be half so much trouble to make a new one.”

A new one was accordingly entered upon, and the fundamental principle of it was, not to suppose men as good as they ought to be, but to take them as they are. “It is true, said they, that all men are naturally free and equal; it is a very good idea, and ought to be understood in every contract and partnership which can be formed; it may serve as a check upon ambition and other human passions, and put people in mind that they may some time or other be called to account by their equals. But it is as true that this equality is destroyed by a thousand causes which exist in nature and in society. It is true that all beasts, birds, and fishes are naturally free and equal in some respects, but yet we find them unequal in other respects, and one becomes the prey of another. There is, and always will be, a superiority and an inferiority, in spite of all the systems of metaphysics that ever existed. How can you prevent one man from being stronger, or wiser, or richer than another? and will not the strong overcome the weak? will not the cunning circumvent the foolish, and will not the borrower become servant to the lender? Is not this noble, free, and independent creature man, necessarily subject to lords of his own species in every stage of his existence? When a child, is he not under the command of his parents? send him to school, place him out as an apprentice, put him on board a ship, enrol him in a company of militia, must he not be subject to a master? Place him in any kind of society whatever, and he has wants to be supplied, and passions to be subdued; his active powers need to be directed, and his extravagances to be controled, and if he will not do it himself, some body must do it for him. Self government is indeed the most perfect form of government in the world; but if men will not govern themselves, they must have some governors appointed over them, who will keep them in order and make them do their duty. Now if there is in fact such an inequality existing among us, why should we act as if no such thing existed? We have tried the beaver scheme of partnership long enough, and find it will not do. Let us then adopt the practice of another kind of industrious animals which we have among us—Let us imitate the bees, who are governed by one supreme head; and under that direction conduct their whole economy with perfect order and regularity.”

On this principle they drew up an entire new plan, in which there was one chief steward, who was to manage their united interests, and be responsible to the whole for his conduct. He was to have a kind of council to advise and direct him, and several inferior officers to assist him, as there might be occasion; and a certain contribution was to be levied on the trade, or on the estates of the whole, which was to make a common stock for the support of the common interest; and they were to erect a tribunal among themselves, which should decide and determine all differences. If nine of the families should agree to this plan, it was to take place; and the others might or might not adopt it; but if any one should finally refuse, or if any should adopt it and afterward fall from it, he was to be looked upon as an outcast, and no person was to have any connection with him.

The meeting having continued a long time, every body became extremely anxious to know what they were about; the doors were kept shut, and no person whatever was let into the secret till the whole was completed. A copy was then sent to each family for them to consider at their leisure.

Though curiosity was now gratified, yet anxiety was not relaxed. The new plan of partnership went by the name of the fiddle; those who were in favour of it called themselves fiddlers, and those who opposed it were stiled antifiddlers. The former said it was the best plan that human wisdom had ever contrived. The latter imagined it pregnant with mischief of every kind. The former compared it to a strong fence about a rich field of wheat. The latter compared it to the whale that swallowed up Jonah.

In each family a consultation was held on the question, Whether it should be adopted or not? and liberty was given for every one to speak his mind with the utmost freedom. The objections, answers, replies, rejoinders, and rebutters, which were produced on this occasion, would make a curious collection, and form an important page in the history of man. The fiddlers were extremely fond of having it examined, because they said it was like a rich piece of plate, which the more it be rubbed shines the brighter. The antifiddlers said it was like a worm eaten bottom of a ship, the defects of which would more evidently appear the more it was ripped to pieces; they were therefore for rejecting it at once, without any examination at all.

When they were urged to point out its defects, they would say, “It is dangerous to put so much power into the hands of any man, or set of men, lest they should abuse it. Our liberty and property will be safe whilst we keep them ourselves, but when we have once parted with them, we may never be able to get them back again.”

If the plan was compared to a house, then the objection would be made against building it too high, lest the wind should blow it down. How shall we guard it against fire? how shall we secure it against robbers? and how shall we keep out rats and mice?

If it was likened to a ship, then it would be asked, how shall we guard it against leaking? how shall we prevent it from running on the rocks and quicksands?

Sometimes it would be compared to a clock, then question was, how shall we secure the pendulum, the wheels and the balance from rust? who shall keep the key, and who shall we trust to wind it up?

Sometimes it was represented by a purse, and then it was said to be dangerous to let any one hold the strings. Money is a tempting object, and the best men are liable to be corrupted.

In short, the whole sum and substance of the arguments against it might be summed up in one word—JEALOUSY.

To shew the futility of these arguments it was observed by the opposite party, that it was impossible to put it into any man’s power to do you good, without at the same time putting it into his power to do you hurt. If you trust a barber to shave your beard, you put it into his power to cut your throat. If you trust a baker to make your bread, or a cook to dress your meat, you put it into the power of each to poison you; nay, if you venture to lie in the same bed with your wife, you put it into her power to choak you when you are asleep. Shall we therefore let our beards grow till they are long enough to put into our pockets, because we are afraid of the barber? Shall we starve ourselves because the baker and the cook may poison us? and shall we be afraid to go to bed with our wives? Fie, fie, gentlemen, do not indulge such whims: Be careful in the choice of your barbers, your bakers, your cooks, and your wives; pay them well and treat them well, and make it their interest to treat you well, and you need not fear them.

After much debate and discussion, some of the families adopted it without exception, but in others the opposition was so strong that it could not be made to pass, but by the help of certain amendments which were proposed; and of these amendments every family which thought proper to make any, made as many as they pleased. The new plan, with its appendage of amendments, cut such a grotesque figure, that a certain wag in one of the families, like Jotham the son of Gideon, ridiculed it in the following parable.

“A certain man hired a taylor to make him a pair of small clothes; the taylor measured him and made the garment. When he had brought it home, the man turned and twisted and viewed it on all sides; it is too small here, said he, and wants to be let out; it is too big here, and wants to be taken in; I am afraid there will be a hole here, and you must put on a patch; this button is not strong enough, you must set on another. He was going on in this manner, when his wife entered the room—Have you put on the small clothes, my dear, said she—No, said he. How then, replied she, can you possibly tell whether they will fit you or not? If I had made such objections to a gown or a pair of stays before I had put them on, how would you have laughed at my female wisdom? The man took his wife’s advice and saved the taylor a deal of trouble.”

In like manner, the new plan of partnership was tried on, and was found to fit very well. The amendments were thrown by for future consideration, and if ever adopted, will be so few and so trifling as to make no essential difference.

As soon as a sufficient number of the families had adopted the plan, they began to set it in operation; and unanimously chose for their chief steward and manager, George, the grandson of Walter Pipeweed. He had served them so faithfully and generously in conducting the lawsuit against Mr. Bull, that no person was higher in their confidence. As he would take no reward for his former services; so he began this new business with a declaration of the same kind, and a protestation that nothing could have induced him to quit the sweets of retirement for the toils of public business but a disposition to oblige his numerous friends who had united their suffrages in his favour. Every one who knows him is fully convinced of the sincerity of his declarations, and he has perhaps as large a share of the esteem and affection of the people in these families as any person ever could expect from a course of faithful and friendly offices.

Besides him there is an under steward, a council of advice, a chief clerk, a cashier, and a master of the hounds. The under steward is a person of a grave deportment, much reading and strict integrity, and was largely concerned in effecting the compromise with Mr. Bull. The council of advice are chosen from the several families, and consist of persons of the best education, abilities, and popularity. The chief clerk has the care of the most important papers, and the cashier keeps the key of the strong box, which now has something in it besides paper. By his advice the debts of the company are put in a fair way of being paid, though some grumbling still subsists among those who were obliged to sell their notes at a discount. The master of the hounds is an officer, who it was at first thought would have very little business; but as the wild beasts of the forest have of late grown very troublesome, it is supposed that he will have his hands full. There is too much of a lurch for hunting among many of the foresters; and some have not been ashamed to express their wishes that the whole race of wild creatures was exterminated from the face of the earth. There are others who still continue of the mind, that these animals are a degenerated part of the human species, and might yet be recovered if proper methods were used to tame them; but it is greatly feared, that while the rage for hunting continues, all such benevolent projects will fail in the execution.

In some late hunting matches, these wild animals discovered so much art and courage, that several of the hunters were laid to sleep in the bed of honour; and the rest were obliged to take their heels, that they might “live to hunt another day.” Some persons are of the mind that it is not best to seek these beasts in their dens, but rather to guard the fields and take care of the poultry at home. Others are for pursuing them to the thickest shades of the forest, and this seems at present to be the prevailing opinion. What the success of it will be time must determine

“The child that is unborn may rue,

 “The hunting of that day.”

Since the new partnership has been established, husbandry and trade have been carried on briskly; the houses are full of good things, and the children are well clad and healthy; but there is one inconvenience which usually attends a full house, and that is, that rats are very numerous, and a new species of them have lately found their way thither.(a) Some of them are very fat and sleek, and are not afraid to appear in open day light; though it is supposed they burrow under ground, and have subterraneous communications from house to house. This is an inconvenience against which no remedy has yet been found; though some people, from their apparent voracity, are of the mind that they will either prey upon one another, or else eat till they burst.

I had almost forgot to tell you that two new families have lately been added to the number of partners. One is that of Ethan Greenwood,(b) a stout, lusty fellow, born in the family of Robert Lumber, but married into that of Peter Bullfrog, from whom, after a long dispute, he has got a good tract of land, which originally belonged to his own father, but was surreptitiously taken possession of by his father in law. The other is Hunter Longknife,(c) he was bred in the family of Walter Pipeweed, and has a large share of his spirit of adventure. Having taken up his residence in the outskirts of the forest, he has had many a scuffle with the wild beasts, who are extremely fond of his green corn and young chickens, whenever they can get a taste of them.

1. Printed: The Foresters, An American Tale: Being a Sequel to the History of John Bull the Clothier. In a Series of Letters to a Friend (Boston, 1792) (Evans 24086), 172–99.

(a) Sp-c-l—rs [i.e., speculators].

(b) Vermont.

(c) Kentucky.