This letter was written by George G. Laurie (1806-1863) of Bordentown, New Jersey, who lived in Philadelphia most of his life but spent several years in New Orleans working as a clerk in a small counting house of some sort. He was married sometime before his death, which occurred in 1863 while employed as a collector in Philadelphia.
This letter was addressed to his good friend, Alfred Cope (1806-1875), the son of Thomas Pim Cope (1768-1854) and Mary Drinker (1766-1825). Thomas P. Cope was a prominent Quaker merchant, member of Philadelphia City Council and Pennsylvania legislature. He was also the founder of the Cope packet line – a mercantile shipping firm based in Philadelphia and trading with England and the Far East. His sons, Henry and Alfred later took on the business themselves when their father withdrew from the company in 1829.
Most of the content of the letter centers around the grim financial situation in New Orleans at the start of the Panic of 1837. Near the end of the letter we learn that Laurie’s views toward the South’s customs and institutions have changed during the four and a half years he has spent away from the “puritanical” air of New England and while residing in New Orleans.
Addressed to Alfred Cope, Esqr., Care of Messrs. H. & A. Cope, Philadelphia
New Orleans [Louisiana]
March 30, 1837
I am in receipt of thy estimable favor of the 21st unto., since the 21st inst., and having had no notes to pay today (a rare blessing considering the state of the times), I thought I might, with a reasonable probability of success, undertake a reply thereto & thereby set thee a praiseworthy example for the future government in the matter of promptness — particularly even for me.
I am now suffering for my imprudence with all my correspondents northward, in having even hinted at my intended departure hitherward before I was actually ready to set off. They no doubt all suppose me, like thee had nearly done, as halfway on the road to Philadelphia, or so near my time of starting that a letter could not possibly reach me in New Orleans, and thinking a bad excuse better than none, they have suspended all correspondence whatever, without a solitary letter save thine from the region of home for two months past. I shall certainly have some scolding to do when I get among them — a practice above all others I dislike, and one that I would much rather forgo onso interesting an occasion as that of my arrival in Philadelphia after an absence of four and a half.
May day is the one I have again fixed on for my exit. Whether I shall again be disappointed in my calculations depends somewhat upon the state of the money market during that time, which at the present moment is deplorable enough. Let the commercial world stagger as it will elsewhere, you always seem to get along somehow in Philadelphia, or at least we hear but little complaint from that quarter.
I have bever heard of such times before, much less seen them, as we now groan under in New Orleans. No money to be had from Bank on any terms and in the street the shavers are reaping a glorious harvest at 2½ & 5% per month. Another heavy house (Buchanan & Hagan — the latter son of the old man John Hagan) went by the board yesterday, and several others it is said must follow soon.
Thou has doubtless read in the newspapers ‘ere now the answer to thy question relative to a certain Cotton House — previous to that of this month considered of high standing — and being under the impression that this house — were your agents here formerly, I hope, thy suspicions of them were not aroused too late. The firm of Byrue Herman & Co., was substituted about 3 years since for Reynolds B & Co., and about one year since this gave place to that of Hermann Briggs & Co., who blowed out on the 4th inst. owing about six & a half millions of dollars! Hermann is the youngest son of old Sam Hermann — a rich Jew broker, a creole of the City & consequently not at all qualified in my opinion for the conducting of an ordinary Commercial House, much less for wielding such an immense amount of fictitious capital. Briggs is a very clever young man of good common abilities & would perhaps have become a merchant of good standing had he begun at the bottom instead of the top of the wheel, which inspired him with rather too much exhalation in his own opinion.
The __ resides in Natchez. This House undoubtedly possessed previous to its failure, in the minds of the community generally, as high a standing as any in town, but owing I imagine to the great reputation & wealth of its original founders, Reynolds & Marshall & the known capital of young Hermann thro’ his father, & not from any particular merits of its present active members.
The great credit of the Josephs of New York & the favoritism of a few Banks here altogether in the Cotton interest, sustained then much longer than, from the expose of their affairs, they ought to have been. Barrett & Co., successor of John Hagar & Co., are the heaviest endorsers on the Bills on Josephs besides a large amount for their own account, so that they must give way also, now that it is decided the Josephs do not go on, & the unpaid drafts come back protested.
All this, however, no further concerns me (and I hope thou art able to say as much) though as it creates such a hubbub about town & a panic among the Banks that there is no getting a note discounted, or a bill of exchange negotiated and consequently gives us small dealers no little trouble to make our moderate commissions. There is one consoling reflection, however, and that is that most of them who have as yet blowed out are Irishmen, and consequently enemies to a Bank of the United States — to the United States themselves — are anti-American in all their feelings and have no sympathy from me whatever.
What in the name of all that’s beautiful & lovely either in France or England could have mistaken thee for a frenchman in one of the Dockyards of John Bull? I am as much at a loss to imagine as thyself. Perhaps the natural in too alley they of the Island bear to their neighbors the frogs, caused them to imagine every stranger who came into the King’s navy yard a frenchman in disguise, come to spy out the strength of their naval armaments. At all events, I am very glad the odor of a frog stuck to thee no longer than the next morning, for of all the disgusting things in this world, that of —– is the most contemptible.
Having kept no notes of my last letter, I am altogether unable to defend myself against the implied charges in thy last, unless more particularly specified. Thou thinkest its time for me to make a journey north that I may inhale once more before it is too late, the wholesome puritanical air of that region, to counteract the evil effects of a long residence in the South. I will acknowledge to this, my friend, that my sentiments on some important subjects have undergone a material change since I left the pure atmosphere of Philadelphia. As regards most of the leading questions between the North & the South, I avow myself a southerner both in feeling & principle. But as a moral point of view, merely having discarded some dozen fanatical notions that possessed my mind when I first came here, I am not conscious of having descended much below the scale of right and wrong that ruled my conduct & sentiments while a resident in the North.
But during some pleasant ride in the latter part of the sweet month of May in the beautiful environs of thy native City, we’ll talk over these things & discuss them, I trust, to our mutual satisfaction, if not to our mutual edification. There are a good many points of every question which can only be correctly estimated at distance from them & when I get to the North, I may see things here in looking back, in a different light from that I view the in now, as I do in things at the North very different from the one I saw them in while there.
Meanwhile, there will be ample time to get thy answer to this before I set off, even if I go on the 1st of May. My route will be up the Mississippi River to St. Louis, & then thro’ the beautiful prairies of Illinois to Louisville & Cincinnati, from whence the fastest lines of Post coaches will not carry me any too fast.
Until then, farewell, & believe me as ever thine. — George G. Laurie