Front Page Titles (by Subject) PREFACE. - A Select Collection of Early English Tracts on Commerce from the Originals of Mun, Roberts, North, and Others
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PREFACE. - John Ramsay McCulloch, A Select Collection of Early English Tracts on Commerce from the Originals of Mun, Roberts, North, and Others 
A Select Collection of Early English Tracts on Commerce from the Originals of Mun, Roberts, North, and Others, with a Preface and Index (London: Printed for the Political Economy Club, 1856).
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This Volume has been printed by the Political Economy Club of London for private distribution amongst its members and their immediate friends The Tracts contained in it are taken from the originals supplied by J. R. McCulloch, Esq., who has also been good enough to contribute the Preface.
one hundred copies printed
Various motives have led to this publication. The Tracts of which it consists are all of great, and some of them of extraordinary rarity. And they are interesting, partly from their containing some of the earliest indications of those liberal commercial principles now so generally diffused—partly from their embodying statements and reasonings that were supposed to demonstrate the truth of theories which, however erroneous, were long universally assented to; and, further, from some of them having been much referred to by subsequent writers. They afford an epitome of the commercial knowledge of the 17th century, both in its theory and practice. And it seemed desirable, by collecting and reprinting treatises of such importance in a separate volume, to provide against the imminent risk of their being lost, and render them accessible to future inquirers.
They are as follows, viz.
The first and third of these Tracts were written by Mr. Thomas Mun, of whom we know nothing, except that he was an eminent merchant of London, and a Director of the East India Company. Though published in 1664, the second and principal Tract had been written several years previously. Mr. Mun’s son, in the Dedication to Lord Southampton, which he prefixed to it, says: “my father was in his time famous among merchants,” a mode of expression which he would hardly have used had not a considerable period elapsed since his father’s death. And Misselden in his “Circle of Commerce,” published in 1623, (p. 36,) refers to Mun’s Tract on the East India Trade,* and speaks of its author as an accomplished and experienced merchant. Perhaps therefore, we may not be far wrong in supposing, that the “Treasure by Forraign Trade” was written as early as 1635 or 1640. Mr. Hallam is inclined to think it may have been a little earlier.† The doctrines in Mun’s tracts are substantially the same; and they are also the same with those in a petition presented by the East India Company to Parliament in 1628, which was written by Mun.
Previously to the formation of this Company, in 1600, it had been the policy of England, as of other nations, to prohibit the exportation of the precious metals, which were then reckoned the only real wealth that a country could possess. But bullion being one of the most advantageous articles of export to the East, this prohibition was relaxed, under certain conditions, in favour of the East India Company. And whatever may now be thought of it, this, when taken, was a considerable step in advance; and in no long time it was much and strenuously objected to, as being subversive of all sound principle and highly injurious to the public interests. On this occasion Mun came forward in defence of the Company. He did not, however, take his stand on the broad ground that the exportation of bullion to the East was advantageous because it was more valuable there than here. He had recourse to a more subtle theory, and tried to reconcile the interests of his clients with the opinions then generally entertained. In this view he contended that the exportation of bullion by the Company was advantageous, because they employed it to purchase commodities in India, most part of which was afterwards sent to the Continent, whence a greater amount of bullion was imported in their stead than had originally been expended upon them in India. And hence the famous doctrine of The Balance of Trade, that is, of an excess of exports over imports; the excess being, it was taken for granted, necessarily paid in gold and silver. No sophistry was ever more completely successful. Its influence was not confined to England, but extended to most other countries. The rule that in dealing with strangers, “wee must ever sell more to them yearly than wee consume of theirs in value”* was looked upon as infallible. Its merits were proclaimed alike by philosophers and merchants, while statesmen exerted themselves to give it a practical effect. Agriculture, commerce, and manufactures, ceased to be objects of public solicitude, The “balance of trade” was regarded as the only source of national wealth, and the only measure of its increase; and all the complex machinery of premiums and bounties on the one side, and of restrictions and prohibitions on the other, was set in motion to render it favourable. It soon, however, became obvious, that customs regulations, how vigilantly soever they might be enforced, were not sufficient to make the golden current flow in the desired channels. Recourse was, consequently, had to still more stringent measures. Treaties and alliances were entered into and set aside, fleets were sent to sea, armies were embodied, and sanguinary conflicts waged in every quarter of the globe, in the vain attempt to realize an imaginary advantage, to seize a mere ignis fatuus! And such and so powerful was the delusion, that long after its fallaciousness had been fully demonstrated by North, and Hume, and Smith, and others, it continued to maintain an unimpaired ascendancy. Even in our own times Parliament was annually congratulated on the excess of the exports over the imports. The gilded image of clay and mud stood for more than a century, an object of slavish adoration, after its foundations had been rent in all directions.
The treatises, in which the theory which had such results, was first brought forward, and in which it is most skilfully defended, must always be objects of liberal curiosity and attention. Few delusions have been so widely spread as that to which they gave rise, and of few have the consequences been so disastrous.
The second Tract in this Volume, published in 1641, is by Mr. Lewes Roberts, “merchant and captaine of the city of London.” He had previously published, in 1638, in one volume folio, a sort of encyclopædia of commercial knowledge, called the “Merchant’s Mappe of Commerce.” And it appears from some statements introductory to that work, that after having been in the employment of the Levant Company at Constantinople, he became, subsequently to his return to England, a member of that Company, and of the East India Company. He had evidently been very well informed, and master of all the mercantile knowledge of his time. It is highly to his credit that he should be found at this early period, in favour of the free exportation of gold and silver; of low customs; and of coins of the standard weight and fineness. Roberts’ Tract contains the earliest notice of Manchester as a seat of the cotton manufacture.
The fourth of the following tracts, first published in 1663, and re-printed in 1673, was written by Samuel Fortrey, Esq., a gentleman of the King’s bedchamber. It contains a forcible argument in favour of enclosures; and the author is favourable to the policy of allowing foreigners to settle in the kingdom, to hold lands, and to enjoy the other privileges of Englishmen, under such restrictions as Parliament may think fit to enact. But this tract is chiefly remarkable for its having powerfully assisted in raising and perpetuating that prejudice against the trade with France, which resulted not long after in its almost total prohibition. Fortrey gives the substance of a statement which he alleges (but without quoting any authority for the fact) had been presented to Louis XIV, in which the value of the commodities annually exported from France to England is estimated at above 2,600,000l., and that of the commodities exported from England to France at about 1,000,000l.; “By which it appears,” says he, “that our trade with France is at least 1,600,000l. a year clear lost to this kingdom” (p. 234.) And this vague and, indeed, worthless statement, appears to have been generally acquiesced in at the time and for long after. Fortrey’s Tract has been referred to over and over again, especially during the discussions on the commercial treaty with France in 1713, in vindication of that felo-de-se policy by which we laboured to suppress what had been, and might, but for our interference, have continued to be, an extensive and advantageous branch of trade.
The fifth tract in this volume, a Dialogue by an unknown anonymous author, was published in 1677. The speakers are Content and Complaint, the last of whom dwells on what were then reckoned principal grievances, viz. the exportation of money occasioned by the supposed adverse balance in the trade with France, extravagance in living, the influx of foreigners, the inclosure of commons, the too great multiplication of traders, &c. But these and other alleged grievances are satisfactorily disposed of by Content, who shows that instead of deserving that name, they are either innocuous or advantageous. The author is at once a decided and an intelligent opponent of restraints on trade, on private expenditure, and on immigration and emigration. Were the tract to be re-written at the present moment, there would be nothing in it to amend, except, perhaps, the style; and in that there is little to object to.
The next, or sixth of the annexed tracts, a considerable treatise, intituled “Britannia Languens,” appeared in 1680. We have no certain knowledge of the author. The late Mr. George Chalmers ascribes it to Mr. William Petyt, who published some political writings; but this is doubtful.
This treatise exhibits a curious medley of truth and error, intelligence and prejudice. The aim of the author is to show that agriculture, manufactures, and trade, were at the time in a very depressed, or, as he terms it, “consumptive condition.” And that this condition was partly a consequence of the exportation of treasure, arising out of the importation of luxuries from France and elsewhere; and partly of the operation of the navigation laws, the monopolies of the East India Company and other trading associations, corporation privileges, &c.
It is certain, however, that the depressed condition of industry for which the author endeavoured to account, was wholly imaginary; that instead of falling off, all sorts of industrial occupations, wealth, and population, were very materially increased between the Restoration and the Revolution; and that the amount of treasure in the country was considerably greater than at any former period. But notwithstanding this fundamental error, the work contains sundry statements not to be found elsewhere, of much interest in regard to various branches of our domestic resources, and of those of the United Provinces and other foreign states. And though the author erred in estimating the character and influence of some of the institutions and circumstances upon which he animadverts, his observations are, notwithstanding, for the most part, to a greater or less extent, well founded.
The seventh of the following tracts, and the most remarkable in many respects of any that appeared in the course of the century, was written by the Hon. Sir Dudley North, brother to the Lord Keeper Guildford. Having been bred a Turkey merchant, Sir Dudley resided for a considerable period in the Ottoman dominions. After his return home, he was made successively a Commissioner of the Customs, then of the Treasury, and again of the Customs. He was also Sheriff of London during the reign of James II.; and having been afterwards called upon to account for some rather questionable proceedings in that capacity, it must be admitted, that he defended himself in a way more creditable to his shrewdness than to his honesty or straightforwardness. But such conduct was then too common to incur much censure; and whatever might be his defects as a politician, they neither obscured nor perverted his views in regard to questions where party interests and prejudices were not directly affected. His acuteness and experience as a man of business, made him peculiarly alive to the many inconveniences and disorders that were occasioned by the state of the currency, which then consisted principally of silver coins, that were so much clipped and degraded, that a guinea was ordinarily rated at from 27s. to 28s. or upwards. Having reflected maturely on the subject, he determined to bring the principles of the coinage and the state of the coin, with a view to their amendment, before the House of Commons, of which he was a member. But losing his seat in that assembly, he embodied his opinions on the subject, the importance of which it would not be easy to exaggerate, in the original, comprehensive, and admirably written tract now reprinted, which he published in 1691. It is, however, supposed, that for some reason or other he had soon after consented to its suppression. At all events it speedily became exceedingly scarce, so that, to use his brother’s expression, “it hath been ever since utterly sunk, and a copy not to be had for money.”* It was believed, indeed, to be entirely lost; but luckily this was not the case. A copy, which had belonged to the Rev. Rogers Ruding, author of the work on the coinage, was purchased at the sale of his library by a gentleman of Edinburgh, who printed a few copies for distribution among his friends; and we have since picked up three copies of the original impression, from one of which the subjoined reprint has been made.
North is an uncompromising advocate of commercial freedom. He is not, like the greater number of his predecessors, well-informed on one subject, and erroneous on others. An Achilles without a heel, he has no vulnerable points, no bounties, no duties, no prohibitions. His system is sound throughout, consentaneous in its parts, and complete. His reasoning in defence of a moderate seignorage is quite conclusive. Had it been acted upon, the new silver coins issued during the great recoinage of 1696-98, would not have begun, almost immediately, to disappear; and the currency of last century would, speaking generally, have been vastly improved. In commercial matters he shows that nations have the same interest as individuals. He exposes the folly of thinking that any trade advantageous to the merchant can be injurious to the public; and he ridicules the efforts to retain the precious metals in a country by dint of Customs regulations, pronouncing them to be no better than attempts to hedge-in the cuckoo! “For” as he truly observes, “no people ever yet grew rich by policies; but it is peace, and industry, and freedom, that bring trade and wealth, and nothing else.”
The last tract in this volume, “Considerations on the East India Trade,” was published in 1701; and notwithstanding the deference so justly due to North, it probably also is the ablest and most profound. A controversy was carried on for several years previously to its appearance between the home manufacturers and the importers of East Indian silks and cotton stuffs. The former did not fail to resort to the arguments invariably used on such occasions, affirming that the substitution of Indian for English goods occasioned the ruin of our manufactures, the exportation of the coin, and the impoverishment of the kingdom. Such arguments could not be successfully resisted without showing the hollowness of the assumptions on which they were founded, and, maintaining in opposition to them, that it is for the public advantage to buy whatever may be wanted, in the cheapest markets. And this the author has done in a very masterly manner, with great force of reasoning and variety of illustration. He has discussed the most specious objections that have been made, or that may be made, to his doctrine, and has shown that none of them are well founded; that the important practical principle which he has laid down, does not operate by fits and starts, but continuously at all times and in all places; and that it can never be departed from without loss and injury to the public. “He is, also, the first who has conclusively shown the advantage of employing machinery, and cheaper methods of production, in the manufacture of commodities; and who has proved that such employment, instead of being injurious to the labourers is advantageous to them, as well as to the other classes of the community. And in doing this, he has set the powerful influence of the division of labour in a very striking point of view, and has illustrated it with a skill and felicity which even Smith has not surpassed, but by which he most probably profited.”*
Mr. Macaulay has passed a very high eulogium on this tract: “The pamphlet on the East India Trade is excellent, first-rate. I have seen nothing of that age equal to it. Davenant’s two tracts on the same subject are contemptible in comparison.”
It is to be regretted that we have no information in regard to the author of a treatise, which has been so commended. We have sometimes been half inclined to suppose that it might have proceeded from the pen of Mr. Henry Martin, who contributed some papers to the Spectator. But we are not disposed to lay much stress on this conjecture.
That this admirable tract should have had, when published, little or no influence, is wholly to be ascribed to the author being very far in advance of his age. It required a long series of still more powerful lights, and a far wider experience, to dissipate the prejudices which swayed his contemporaries and their successors.
It may very likely be supposed that we should have given a place in this collection to the tracts of the celebrated Sir Josiah Child, long the leader, or rather dictator, of the East India Company, and one of the greatest and most successful merchants of his age. But the statements in his tract on the Trade to India, published in 1681, are very similar to those in Mun’s tract on the same subject, which we have laid before the reader; and though his “New Discourse of Trade,” be a work of much merit, and has frequently been referred to, yet, as it has been often reprinted, the last time, perhaps, by Foulis of Glasgow, in 1751, and is of common occurrence, it was destitute of that rarity which has been a principal recommendation to a place in this volume.
London, January, 1856.
[* ]The first Edition of this Tract is said to have appeared in 1609, but we have only seen the Second Edition of 1621.
[† ]Literature of Europe, IV. 385.
[* ]Post, p. 125.
[* ]North’s Lives of the Norths, 8vo. ed. I.II. 173.
[* ]Literature of Political Economy, p. 100.