Home  »  Volume XVIII: American LATER NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART III  »  § 2. Colonial Problems

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVIII. Later National Literature, Part III.

XXIV. Economists

§ 2. Colonial Problems

As in every primitive society, the currency problem involved the means of payment, public and private, and always loomed large in popular interest. Since it was almost impossible, for well-known reasons, to retain in the colonies an adequate circulation of coin, the gap was filled by the issue of paper money. Banking and currency problems therefore early engrossed the attention of colonial thinkers.

The first, and the only, economic pamphlets of the seventeenth century that have been preserved are Severals Relating to the Fund (1682), A Discussion and Explanation of the Bank of Credit (1687), and Some Considerations on the Bills of Credit now passing in New England (1691). These were anonymous Massachusetts publications of ephemeral merit. In the eighteenth century there were several well-defined periods of active discussion in Massachusetts, centring respectively about the years 1714, 1720, and 1740. Among the disputants were men like John Wise, John Colman, Hugh Vance, and Richard Frye—clergymen, business men, and visionaries. Far and away the ablest was the learned physician, Dr. William Douglass (1692–1742), who wrote An Essay Concerning Silver and Paper More Especially with Regards to the British Colonies in New England (1738) and a Discourse Concerning the Currencies of the British Plantations in America, Especially with Regard to Their Paper Money (1740).

The currency debate was not confined to Massachusetts. In 1729 there appeared in Philadelphia Benjamin Franklin’s A Modest Inquiry into the Nature and Necessity of Paper Currency. This was a well-reasoned defence of the government notes issued by Pennsylvania on land security and in reference to which the distinguished author later wrote in his Autobiography: “My friends, who considered I had been of some service, thought fit to reward me by employing me in printing the money, a most profitable job and a great help to me.” In 1734 there was published in Charleston the first Southern tract on the subject, an Essay on Currency of some merit. In 1737 a New York pamphlet appeared, under the title Scheme (by Striking 20,000 Pounds of Paper Money) to Encourage Raising of Hemp and the Manufacture of Iron in the Province of New York. This was followed in the ensuing decade by two tracts, A Discourse Concerning Paper Money in which its Principles are Laid Open (Philadelphia, 1743), by John Webbe, and An Address to the Inhabitants of North Carolina on the Want of a Medium in Lieu of Money (Williamsburg, 1746).

With the prohibition, in 1751, of the further emission in the New England colonies of any paper money the discussion was transferred to coinage problems. Two Boston tracts of 1762 are here to be noted: Thomas Hutchinson’s A Projection for Regulating the Value of Gold and Silver Coins and Oxenbridge Thatcher’s Considerations on Lowering the Value of Gold Coins within the Province of Massachusetts Bay. An echo of the older discussions is found in Roger Sherman’s A Caveat against Injustice or an Enquiry into the Evil Consequences of a Fluctuating Medium of Exchange, published at New York in 1752 under the name of Philoeunomos; R. T.’s A Letter to the Common People of the Colony of Rhode Island Concerning the Unjust Designs … of a Number of Misers and Money Jobbers (Providence, 1763); and a Letter from a Gentleman in Connecticut relative to Paper Currency (Boston, 1766). The ablest of the pamphlets of this period was Considerations on a Paper Currency by Tench Francis, of Pennsylvania, in 1765.

While the currency question attracted the greatest attention, we find a few discussions of trade and tax problems. Among these tracts worthy of mention are Proposals for Traffic and Commerce or Foreign Trade in New Jersey by “Amicus patriæ” (Philadelphia, 1718); Observations on the Act for Granting an Excise on Wine (Boston, 1720); Francis Rawle’s Some Remedies Proposed for Restoring the Sunk Credit of the Province of Pennsylvania with Some Remarks on Its Trade (Philadelphia, 1721); and the anonymous The Interest of the Country in laying Duties: or a Discourse shewing how Duties on some Sorts of Merchandize may make the Province of New York richer than it would be without them (New York, n. d. [1726]). To the last tract two replies were published in the same year. It was not until the middle of the century that we again find any discussion of taxation in Some Observations on the Bill Intitled An Act for Granting to His Majesty an Excise upon Wines and on Spirits Distilled (Boston, 1754).

The writings on agriculture, on the other hand, began a little later. The well-known clergyman, Jared Eliot, published his Essays upon Field Husbandry in New England as it is or may be Ordered, in six parts from 1748 to 1759 in New London, New York, and New Haven. The interest engendered in the problem led to the publication of Extracts from the Essays of the Dublin Society Relating to the Culture and Manufacture of Flax (Annapolis, 1748) and to Charles Woodmaston’s A Letter from a Gentleman from South Carolina on the Cultivation of Indico (Charleston, 1754).

With the enactment of the Molasses Act of 1763 there ensued a discussion of the economic aspects of the problem. Among the pamphlets three deserve mention: Considerations upon the Act of Parliament whereby a Duty is Laid of 6d. Sterling per Gallon on Molasses, etc., Shewing some of the many Inconveniences Necessarily Resulting from the Operation of the said Act (Boston, 1764); Reasons Against the Renewal of the Sugar Act as it will be Prejudicial to the Trade not only of the Northern Colonies but to those of Great Britain also (Boston, 1764); and Thomas Fitch’s Reasons why the British Colonies in America should not be Charged with Internal Taxes (New Haven, 1764). In fact, the only tract of this period not directly connected with taxation was The Commercial Conduct of the Province of New York Considered by “A Linen Draper” (New York, 1767), which consisted of a plea to establish manufactures. With the imposition of the stamp taxes by the mother country in the following years there came a flood of controversial literature which was, however, so overwhelmingly political in character as to call for no detailed comment here.