Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

"A Due Circulation in the Veins of the Publick": Imagining Credit in Late Seventeenth- and Early Eighteenth-Century England

Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

"A Due Circulation in the Veins of the Publick": Imagining Credit in Late Seventeenth- and Early Eighteenth-Century England

Article excerpt

"I am to speak of what all People are busie about, but not one in Forty understands: Every Man has a Concern in it, few know what it is, nor is it easy to define or describe it. If a Man goes about to explain it by Words, he rather struggles to lose himself in the Wood, rather than bring others out of it." (1)

In 1695 Charles Davenant, the political arithmetician, observed that the "whole Art of War is in a manner reduced to Money." (2) Indeed, the financial costs of England's extensive military activities in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were enormous and dominated public spending. To sustain such spending, borrowing was undertaken on a massive scale--most prominently, from 1694, through the Bank of England. Such developments--alongside the emergence of speculative markets in stocks, insurance, lotteries, and numerous other projects--widened opportunities for the ownership of property based on credit, rather than land or goods. (3) Paper credit became more prevalent and more visible, and the forms it took became more diverse; in the 1690s Exchequer bills, lottery tickets, the various Bank of England sealed bills, and running-cash notes all circulated alongside private bankers' notes and other forms of privately negotiated bills.

The destabilizing effects of what has become known as the "financial revolution," with its non-land-based investments and speculations, were seen to be far-reaching--turning, in John Pocock's words, the "counters" of language "into marketable commodities" and threatening that "all men, and all sublunary things, will now become things of paper."4 A lot was at stake. Many were caught up in the financial schemes of the period, "pursuing," in the words of one contemporary, "butterflies," on account of, suggested another, "the greatest part of the World being Soft and Silly, and taken with Sound and Emptiness." (5) The nature of money was questioned, and credit was conceived to be particularly vulnerable. As Davenant put it: "Of all Beings that have Existence only in the Minds of Men, nothing is more fantastical and nice than Credit; 'tis never to be forc'd; it hangs upon Opinion; it depends upon our Passions of Hope and Fear." (6)

Credit, as Daniel Defoe observed in the quotation that opens this article, was preoccupying, perplexing, and difficult to pin down. "Unlike commodities such as wheat, cloth, or gold," as one modern critic has written, "credit has no easily-apprehended form already existing in the world, which means that it must be given form if it is to be the object of social, political, or economic discussion." (7) In the early eighteenth century, credit was conceived of as a female figure, most notably Defoe's "Lady Credit," and scholars have argued that this metaphor was employed to highlight public credit's fickle and insubstantial nature. I would not want to dispute this. However, we must be wary of allowing Defoe's current dominance of Augustan scholarship to obscure the prominence of other images of credit which writers deployed in this period, and the purpose of this article is to offer a corrective. In the numerous pamphlets and broadsides which debated the controversial proposals for various banking schemes in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, writers appealed to metaphors that glossed over distinctions between money and credit and that stressed the motion, distribution, and circulation of the "mediums" of trade. Some of these metaphors appealed to images of water flowing. Most, however, developed the well-established association of money with blood to describe the circulation of credit in the body politic. Thus public credit was not always imagined as capricious, slight, and fantastical but could, to some extent, also be imagined as effective, substantial, and dynamic.

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Scholars have largely concentrated their attention on the images developed by Augustan writers of credit asa woman. Lady Credit, the most prominent of such images, was introduced by Defoe in 1706 in his periodical, the Review, as a "coy Lass" who once "disoblig'd, [is] the most difficult to be Friends again with us, of any thing in the World. …

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