Find this Story

Print, a form you can hold

Wireless download to your Amazon Kindle

Look for a summary or analysis of this Story.

Enjoy this? Share it!

by [?]

It is impossible to see, much less experience, a financial panic without an almost appalling consciousness that a new and terrible form of danger and distress has been added in comparatively recent times to the list of those by which human life is menaced or perplexed. Any one who stood on Wall Street, or in the gallery of the Stock Exchange last Thursday and Friday and Saturday (1873), and saw the mad terror, we might almost say the brute terror like that by which a horse is devoured who has a pair of broken shafts hanging to his heels, or a dog flying from a tin saucepan attached to his tail, with which great crowds of men rushed to and fro, trying to get rid of their property, almost begging people to take it from them at any price, could hardly avoid feeling that a new plague had been sent among men; that there was an impalpable, invisible force in the air, robbing them of their wits, of which philosophy had not as yet dreamt. No dog was ever so much alarmed by the clatter of the saucepan as hundreds seemed to be by the possession of really valuable and dividend-paying securities; and no horse was ever more reckless in extricating himself from the debris of a broken carriage than these swarms of acute and shrewd traders in divesting themselves of their possessions. Hundreds must really, to judge by their conduct, have been so confused by terror and anxiety as to be unable to decide whether they desired to have or not to have, to be poor or rich. If a Roman or a man of the Middle Ages had been suddenly brought into view of the scene, he would have concluded without hesitation that a ruthless invader was coming down the island; that his advanced guard was momentarily expected; and that anybody found by his forces in possession of Western Union, or Harlem, or Lake Shore, or any other paying stock or bond, would be subjected to cruel tortures, if not put to death. For neither the Roman nor the Mediaeval could understand a rich man’s being terrified by anything but armed violence. Seneca enumerates as the three great sources of anxiety in life the fear of want, of disease, and of oppression by the powerful, and he pronounces the last the greatest. If he had seen Wall-Street brokers and bankers last week trying to get rid of stocks and bonds, he could not of course have supposed that they were poor or feared poverty; he would have judged from their physical activity that they were in perfect health, so that he would have been driven to the conclusion that some barbarian host, commanded by Sitting Bull or Red Cloud, was entering the city, and was breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the owners of personal property. If you had tried to explain to him that there was no conqueror at the gates, that the fear of violence was almost unknown in our lives, that each man in that struggling crowd enjoyed an amount of security against force in all its forms which no Roman Senator could ever count upon, and that the terror he witnessed was caused by precisely the same agency as the flight of an army before it has been beaten, or, in other words, by “panic,” he would have gazed at you in incredulous amazement. He would have said that panic in an army was caused by the sudden dissolution of the bonds of discipline, by each soldier’s losing his confidence that his comrades and his officers would stand their ground; but these traders, he would have added, are not subject to discipline; they do not belong to an organization of any kind; each buys and sells for himself; he has his property there in that tin box, and if nobody is going to rob him what is frightening him? Why is he pale and trembling? Why does he run and shout and weep, and ask people to give him a trifle, only a trifle, for all he possesses and let him go?