City Merchant (The); or, The Mysterious Failure


 title page for the first printing of the City Merchant. An illustration of the titular merchant and his assistant in their counting room is surrounded by an elaborate red and gold border. Text reads
John Beauchamp Jones wrote The City Merchant after living in Philadelphia during the tumultuous 1840s and 1850s. His novel is based on real events and racially motivated acts of violence that plagued the city’s antebellum years. (Google Books)

The novel The City Merchant; or, The Mysterious Failure, written by John Beauchamp Jones (1810-66), captures the height of Philadelphia’s anti-abolitionist movement and its emotional force and toll on the city, while at the same time transcending its locale to comment on the dynamics of market capitalism in early nineteenth-century America.

The City Merchant chronicles the rising fortunes of a third-generation Philadelphia merchant, Edgar Saxon, whose father and grandfather failed in business. Although Saxon’s father recognized commercial trends too late to help himself, he left a diary for his son that described how the capitalist economic system rose and fell in cycles, thus enabling Edgar to find great opportunities during times of bust. In addition to the novel’s economic concerns, the plot also reveals Beauchamp Jones’ anti-abolitionist position, using social conditions and rising violence in Philadelphia as a backdrop to the growing mercantile apprehensions on Market and Front Streets. Although he plays with chronology, real events are depicted in the novel, including the destruction of Philadelphia’s abolitionist meeting hall, Pennsylvania Hall; the financial panic of 1837; Andrew Jackson’s veto of the congressional rechartering of the Bank of the United States; and the Philadelphia riots of 1838 and 1842. Historical figures also appear, including Lucretia Mott (1793-1880) and Frederick Douglass (1818-95).

A color photograph of the Second Bank of the United States, a Greek Revival building resembling a temple with a cobblestone road in front of it.
The main character of The City Merchant, Edward Saxon, withdraws his money from the Second Bank of the United States on the advice of his father. The bank lost its charter by presidential veto in 1836 and was moribund by 1841. (Photograph by B. Krist for Visit Philadelphia)

The novel begins on Market Street in 1836 in Philadelphia’s thriving commercial marketplace. The first half is primarily concerned with Saxon and his decision to sell his stocks of various holdings. He tells Nicholas Biddle of the Bank of the United States (who was indeed president of the Bank of the United States headquartered in Philadelphia) that he is doing this in order to “secure his wealth against the possibility of serious diminution” that will be the result of the excesses of his fellow businessmen’s financial speculations assuming, as Saxon does, that Martin Van Buren will be elected president of the United States. Rumors then circulate that Saxon’s business is failing. Beauchamp Jones dramatizes the link between the excess of speculation and the politics of race during the second half of the novel, which builds up to and depicts the burning of Pennsylvania Hall on the evening of May 17, 1838.

Beauchamp Jones believed that Northern politicians, or “white instigators,” undercut the power of the Southern states by advocating, through agitation and riot, the end of slavery. He alleged that abolitionists deliberately provoked violence through public displays of interracial contact. The second half of the novel follows several lines of development. The author employs the sensational plot contrivance of depicting the kidnapping of Saxon’s nieces by mulatto men. The two men are cousins of Olivia, who was once a slave and is now “passing,” yet is unhappy with her lot in the North. Saxon’s porter, Paddy Cork, is exploited by Democrats in his facilitation of the burning of the hall and leaves the party, coming to the realization that “party business [is where] a man must demean himself to do all sorts of nasty tricks for a little bit of office.”

A color painting of a large building engulfed in flames with a cheering mob in the streets.
The May 1838 burning of Pennsylvania Hall features prominently in The City Merchant. The abolitionist meeting hall was burned by a mob just three days after its grand opening. (Library Company of Philadelphia)

A day in the country, minor love subplots, and a hypocritical pastor are additional components in the story of Edgar Saxon, who ultimately enjoys even greater financial success, while his fellow merchants, who erroneously relied on the market, lose their fortunes. A disturbing coda depicts a wealthy Philadelphia abolitionist hosting a party for African Americans on Chestnut Street. Her guests seemingly do not know how to behave, her Black staff refuses to serve them, and her white servant girls quit. The hostess, Miss Lofts, ends up personally attending to her guests and comes to the conclusion that “it would be best to be a philanthropist only in theory.”

Author, journalist, diarist, and southern Civil War clerk Beauchamp Jones was born in Baltimore. Raised in Kentucky and Missouri, he lived in or near Philadelphia during several years of his adult life (particularly 1839-40, 1845, 1847-48 and, 1857-61). He shared a brief correspondence with Edgar Allan Poe (1809-49) in the summer of 1839. The City Merchant; or The Mysterious Failure, published in 1851 by Philadelphia publisher Lippincott, Grambo & Co., was Beauchamp Jones’s third novel, but the first published under his name. His first, Wild Western Scenes (1841), sold over 100,000 copies and was followed by The Western Merchant: A Narrative Containing Useful Instruction for the Western Man of Business (1849). Both were published under the pseudonym Luke Shortfield. In 1857, Beauchamp Jones founded a Philadelphia weekly, The Southern Monitor, which he edited during its three years in press. According to the Dictionary of Missouri Biography, the newspaper “helped to fuel the growing sectional crisis.” His final work, A Rebel War Clerk’s Diary, for which he is mostly remembered, records his time as a clerk in Richmond’s Confederate War Office. Beauchamp Jones believed in the Union, but was sympathetic to the South. The diary, published in 1866, reveals his growing disillusionment with Jefferson Davis and is considered one of the finest civilian accounts on the conditions of the Confederacy. After the war, John Beauchamp Jones returned to the North, where he died in Burlington, New Jersey.

Susan Barile is an Adjunct Assistant Professor at Hunter College, New York, in the Department of English, and a graduate of The Graduate Center, New York, where she edited the letters of Edith Wharton to Bernard Berenson in fulfillment of her Ph.D. She is also the author of The Bookworm’s Big Apple: A Guide to the Booksellers of Manhattan (Columbia University Press, 1994). (Author information current at time of publication.)

Copyright 2016, Rutgers University


The City Merchant; or, the Mysterious Failure

Google Books

The City Merchant; or, The Mysterious Failure was written by John Beauchamp Jones and published by Philadelphia’s Lippincott, Grambo, & Company in 1851. Beauchamp Jones was born in Baltimore in 1810 and raised primarily in Kentucky and Missouri.

Many of his novels drew on this aspect of his life and featured tales of pioneers on the western frontier of the United States. Several times in the years leading to the Civil War, Beauchamp Jones resided in Philadelphia. His belief that northern instigators were causing the growing sectional crisis in America informed his writing during these periods, especially in The City Merchant, which takes place in Philadelphia in the late 1830s.

In 1857, Beuchamp Jones established a pro-South newspaper, The Southern Monitor, in the city and served as its editor. During the Civil War, he served as the chief clerk of the Confederate War Office. His diary of this time was published in 1866 as A Rebel War Clerk’s Diary and is considered one of the best civilian records of the Confederacy.

Second Bank of the United States

Visit Philadelphia

John Beauchamp Jones’s novel The City Merchant centers on Edgar Saxon, a young merchant in Philadelphia. His father leaves him a diary with instructions on maintaining wealth during times of financial crisis, by selling his stocks for silver and gold at the first sign of trouble. This puts him at odds with Nicholas Biddle, president of the Second Bank of the United States, which had recently lost its charter at the hands of President Andrew Jackson. Biddle invites Saxon to his home to urge him to reconsider the withdrawal of his vast fortune from the failing institution.

Like other plot points of The City Merchant, this interaction has a basis in real events. The Second Bank of the United States was chartered for twenty years in 1816, after the War of 1812 proved the need for a national federal bank. Its main branch, shown here at Fourth Street near Chestnut Street, was designed by famed architect William Strickland, who would later design the Musical Fund Hall and Merchant Exchange buildings.

In 1832, Nicholas Biddle appealed to Andrew Jackson to recharter the bank and despite a popular motion to protect it, Jackson vetoed the charter in 1833. In 1836, the Second Bank of the United States became a private business and funds were diverted to “pet banks” selected by Jackson. It remained in operation until 1841. Today the bank is part of Independence National Historical Park and holds a portrait gallery. (Photograph by B. Krist)

Lucretia Mott

Historical Society of Pennsylvania

The work of abolitionists like Lucretia Mott is strongly criticized by John Beauchamp Jones as being the cause of racial strife in Philadelphia. Mott herself briefly appears as a character in the novel during the burning of Pennsylvania Hall. Raised in a Quaker home in Boston, Mott in 1811 moved to Philadelphia, where she became a Quaker minister. She was a founding member of the American Anti-Slavery Society and president of its local women’s auxiliary, the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society. In 1837, she helped to organize the Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women, held in New York City.

On May 15, 1838, the second Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women was held in Pennsylvania Hall, opened just the day before. The convention met with a crowd of protesters and threatening notices posted in the area, calling for citizens of the city to oppose the hall’s abolitionist activities. Despite this, three thousand abolitionists attended the meeting. The convention continued as scheduled the next day in defiance of the mayor’s orders to bar African Americans from attending. That evening, the mob set fire to Pennsylvania Hall, reducing it to ashes after only three days. Mott’s house was targeted later that night, but a quick-thinking ally diverted the mob before it reached her home.

Two years after the fire, Mott was chosen as a delegate to the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London, where she met fellow delegate Elizabeth Cady Stanton of New York. Upon arrival, they were informed that women would not be allowed to speak at the proceedings. The two women soon began planning for a women’s rights convention. It was held in 1848 in Seneca Falls, New York, and is credited with starting the women’s movement in the United States.

In the years leading up to the Civil War, Mott opened her home to fugitive slaves, and in 1866 she was chosen as president of the American Equal Rights Association. Mott continued her activism until her death at age 87.

Burning of Pennsylvania Hall

Library Company of Philadelphia

While the novel is fictional, The City Merchant refers to a number of real incidents that occurred in nineteenth-century Philadelphia, including the climactic scene recalling the 1838 destruction of Pennsylvania Hall. Built as a headquarters for the city’s abolitionist movement, Pennsylvania Hall stood for only three days before being burned in a racially-motivated arson.

Philadelphia had a strong abolitionist movement dating back to at least 1688, when a group of Germantown Quakers urged the Society of Friends to take an official stance against slavery. The Pennsylvania Abolition Society, America’s first formal, secular abolition society, was formed in 1775, but allowed only white men to participate. In 1837, a group of black and white men and women founded the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society (PASS).

Unlike other abolitionist societies favoring gradual emancipation, PASS promoted immediate manumission of slaves, bringing a more radical edge to the movement. PASS raised the $40,000 necessary to build Pennsylvania Hall in less than one year. The hall opened on May 14, 1838, and featured a number of lecture halls and meeting rooms, a reading room, the offices of the Pennsylvania Freeman newspaper, and a Free Produce store.

Like the abolition movement, the city was changing in the early half of the nineteenth century. The Quaker founders had lost their primacy to a number of new immigrant and religious groups, many of which were not as keen to see the slaves liberated. From the moment it opened, protesters gathered around Pennsylvania Hall to voice their disapproval of the abolition movement. On May 17, the crowd became incensed by a fraudulent invitation to an interracial wedding; in reality both bride and groom were white. Despite this, the destruction of the hall was a relatively calm affair. One member of the crowd broke into the building and set fire, while the rest of the crowd merely watched. Fire crews responded but only to prevent the fire from spreading to nearby buildings. By the morning of May 18, Pennsylvania Hall was destroyed.

Martin van Buren

Library of Congress

While fictional, The City Merchant centers on real events of the 1830s, including the 1836 presidential election of Martin Van Buren. Van Buren was born to a large family of modest means, and raised in the family business, a tavern frequented by politicians. Unable to afford law school, he studied the law independently while serving as a law clerk and was admitted to the bar in 1803. He was elected a New York State senator ten years later, and a U.S. senator in 1821, representing the Democratic-Republican Party. When that party began to fracture, Van Buren aligned himself with presidential candidate Andrew Jackson and was one of the chief architects of Jackson’s Democratic Party. Jackson returned the favor by appointing Van Buren secretary of state during his first term, just a few weeks after Van Buren was elected governor of New York. He became vice president under Jackson four years later.

In 1836, Van Buren ran as the Democratic nominee for president on a platform of continuing Andrew Jackson’s policies. He won in a landslide over Whig nominee William Henry Harrison. Unfortunately for Van Buren, he entered the White House just weeks before the Panic of 1837, a financial crisis brought about by the collapse of a real estate bubble and the 1832 veto of the Second Bank of the United States’ recharter by Andrew Jackson. The City Merchant begins during Van Buren’s presidential campaign while real estate and stock market speculation are high. The titular city merchant, Edgar Saxon, sees the impending financial crisis and swiftly sells his stocks for gold and silver specie and closes his shop, as directed by his father’s diary.

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Related Reading

Balleisen, Edward J. Navigating Failure: Bankruptcy and Commercial Society in Antebellum America. Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 2001.

Bradford, Gamaliel. “A Confederate Pepys.” American Mercury (December 1925), 470-78.

Christensen, Lawrence O., William E. Foley, Gary R. Kremer, and Kenneth H. Winn. Dictionary of Missouri Biography. Columbia and London: University of Missouri Press, 1999.

Otter, Samuel. Philadelphia Stories: American Literature of Race and Freedom. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

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