1860: Benjamin Field to John Houston Bills

This letter was written by 40 year-old Benjamin Field (1820-1876), a partner with Thomas F. Langstroth (1815-1879) in the Philadelphia hardware merchant who kept a store at 440 Market Street. His home was, at the time, located at 321 S. Third Street in the Society Hill District. The Field, Langstroth & Co. was advertised in the 1860 Philadelphia City Directory as a “Hardware & Cutlery, Importers of, and Wholesale Dealers in” firm located at 440 Market Street.

We have no image of Benjamin Field so I have used an Ambrotype from my collection of a middle-aged man who looks like a wealthy Eastern merchant.

According to the Death Certificates Index, Benjamin Field (Hardware Merchant) died in Philadelphia on 29 April 1876 and was buried in North Laurel Hill Cemetery. His last known residence was at 1116 Walnut Street. Benjamin was a Quaker and attended the Philadelphia Monthly Meeting.

Benjamin wrote the letter to a client and friend named Maj. John Houston Bills, a wealthy planter residing in Bolivar, Tennessee—not far from Nashville. The purpose of the letter was to convey information pertaining to the intended purchase of jewelry by Major Bills but Benjamin using the opportunity to share his thoughts on the recent election of Abraham Lincoln as the next President. The “present course” of South Carolina mentioned in the letter of course refers to the calling of a convention to secede from the Union. That convention was subsequently convened and South Carolina seceded on 20 December 1861. Benjamin states in his letter that he supported South Carolina’s action thinking that only such a bold move will awaken the northern populace to the potential economic impact of disunion with the southern states and prevent the election of yet more Republicans in both houses of Congress who would pass laws that did not honor the existing Constitution.


Philadelphia [Pennsylvania]
November 24, 1860

Major John H. Bills
Bolivar, Tennessee

Dear Sir,

The set of jewelry which Messers. Pratt & Reath were to show us today is not as near the description of your order as we supposed it might be. We have examined the stock of Bailey & Co. but do not find anything made up that answers the description. We have therefore instructed Pratt & Reath to have a set made Etruscan Gold, Carbuncle Crescent, set with pearls. They promise it by Thursday night. We hope that the worst of the financial panic is over though we will not feel decided on that subject until we see the return of the New York Banks which we get on Tuesday next 27th. We have had no failures here of consequence (except the Banks themselves) but hundreds of our deluded workmen who voted for Lincoln are already out of employment.

We think it fortunate that South Carolina has taken the present course at this time as we believe that it was necessary for the people to feel the power of southern commerce and to realize what they would suffer in losing it. The change in public sentiment within the last two weeks exceeds anything that we could have conceived possible.

We think it quite possible that if Carolina had made no stir, we would in a year or two have elected a “Republican” majority in both branches of Congress; and such a majority might pass a bill clearly unconstitutional in the eyes of the whole South, and in opposition to the decisions of the Supreme Court. Under such circumstances, the slaveholding states in a body would probably have withdrawn—never to return. Now we think it entirely clear that a majority of the slave-holding states will oppose secession, and we also think that the Northern States will withdraw all unfriendly legislation.

Until I had the law of our state published in the Pennsylvania last Monday, there was not one man in an hundred in this county knew that we had any law that interfered at all with the effective execution of the Fugitive Slave Act. The vast majority here mean to do right but they so not take the trouble to inform themselves.

Sight exchange on New York sells at 1% premium though if we buy from brokers we would pay 3%. We have no use for any at this time (I allude to our firm) as we have nothing to pay there. Our Banks are sound and can resume soon if New York continues to pay specie. It is of course merely a matter of confidence whether the New York Banks are compelled to suspend or not. Our Banks were much stronger when they suspended than in 1857, but New York was sending stocks and notes here for sale and drawing the Gold for proceeds and our Banks thought best to stop. Whether this was good policy is a question I feel a little uncertain about. I have always declined a seat as director of a Banking Institution and I am now very glad of it.

Having done all in my power to defeat Lincoln, I feel now quite cool and calm, and thinking that the present financial distress and suspended commerce is for the general good in the end, I bear my share of it with entire composure.

Truly your friend, — Ben. Field

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