There is an old story which has been often told, and, like most old stories, in a good many different shapes, which we have been reminded of by the present state of affairs. An English gentleman once wanted to pay a visit to a coal mine, and instead of being let down the shaft by the ordinary process, he undertook to let himself down by the long rope which hung from the windlass at the mouth of the pit. It was very easy going down, for a while, but as he descended rapidly into the bowels of the earth, where he was enveloped in utter darkness, to his horror he discovered that he had got to the end of the rope, but had not reached a landing-place for the soles of his feet. What distance there might be between himself and a landing he couldn’t tell, and so he began to scream lustily for help; but there was no reply to his cries, save the echoes of his own voice, and he was momently growing weaker and weaker in his arms, and less able to hold on. At last, after screaming to no purpose for assistance, unable any longer to sustain himself, he let go his hold, expecting to be dashed into a thousand pieces in his fall, when to his mortification and delight he found he had been all the while hanging within two or three inches of the ground.
This was precisely the condition of our Banks for the past six weeks. If the consequences of their conduct had not been so calamitous, it would be amusing to look back and see how they struggled and held on against suspension, when they were compelled to let go at last, and then discovered, after all their agony, that their fall had not hurt them. They were, all the time, within a few inches of firm ground, if they could but have known it. When the suggestion was first made to them in the columns of the TIMES, that the way to afford relief to themselves and the community, was to take the bills of the State banks on deposit, they rejected it with contempt. They were determined to sacrifice everything and everybody sooner than yield to the pressure and suspend. But they have suspended and have adopted the suggestion when it came too late. Now, the very thing which they so feared might have been avoided, if they had only known how little harm would result to them from it, if it should take place. If they could have been favored with but a gleam of light so that they could see how small a distance they had to fall, they would have let go their grips in season, and have saved themselves from disgrace and their customers from loss. The suspensions in Philadelphia might have been unavoidable, but they could easily have been prevented here.
The Bank Presidents were thinking of the suspension twenty years ago, without taking into account the difference in our circumstances. The year before the suspension of specie payments in 1837, we had imported 1,600,000 bushels of wheat from Europe, and there were but $3,000,000 of specie in our banks when the run on them commenced; now we had four times that amount in the vaults of our banks and we exported last year to Europe 5,905,252 bushes of wheat, and 18,248,206 bushels of corn, with flour in proportion, besides having a larger quantity of grain on hand than we ever had before. Our foreign debt, it is true, had increased very nearly in the same ratio, but the great difficulty with the banks was that they did not know what the legal disabilities were to which suspension would subject them. If they could only have had the decision of the Supreme Court Judges a month sooner, an incalculable amount of commercial distress might have been averted.