The Distressed State of the Town of Boston, Considered (1720)

This pamphlet was written by John Colman, whose plans for a privately run land bank were briefly and infamously put to the test in 1740.  Originally published in April, 1720, this pamphlet was the opening shot of a pamphlet war, waged between those supporting a new emission of paper money and those opposed to such an emission.  Colman himself wrote a second pamphlet as part of this debate.  The pamphlet presented here, though moderate in tone to modern sensibilities, apparently was considered radical at the time.  Colman was arrested, on the grounds that the pamphlet contained "many Passages reflecting upon the Acts and Laws of the Province, and other proceedings of the Government."

The supporters of a new emission eventually prevailed: Massachusetts created a new land bank and emitted 50,000 pounds old tenor in 1721.  That emission, a smallpox epidemic, and a heated debate over inoculation that grew out of the epidemic finally brought the monetary policy debate to a close.

A small portion of the pamphlet war is reproduced here, in the form of a rejoinder to Colman's pamphlet, entitled A Letter from one in the Country, attributed to Edward Wigglesworth.  To make the debate easier to follow, hyperlinks have been inserted into the text. Arrows of this kind in Colman's pamphlet carry one forward to Wigglesworth's comments on the corresponding section.  An arrow of this kind links back to the passage from Colman's Distressed State that Wigglesworth is discussing.  

Colman was a proto-Keynesian, and portions of his policy advice have a very modern ring.  This is most striking in a passage in which he proposes stimulating the economy though public works projects financed by money creation.  Colman's preferred policy, though, was the creation of a private bank under government auspices to issue paper money.  Correctly (in my view) he noted that the public land banks had a major shortcoming.  When their terms expired, they subjected the economy to a disruptive monetary contraction.  Privately issued currency would not be called in as bills of credit were, Colman argued.  Thus it was unfortunate, Colman argued, that the colony had adopted a public land bank in 1714 instead of the proposals then circulating for a private one.

In our secular age, modern readers are likely to overlook the extent to which this pamphlet is also a sermon.  Colman invokes biblical authority frequently, often relying on his readers' knowledge of the scriptures to make the obvious connection.  Among the biblical passages alluded to are:

  • 1 Cor. 12
  • Exodus 5
  • Matthew 18
  • 1 Kings 21
  • 1 John 3:17 

The pamphlet has been reprinted by Andrew McFarland Davis in Colonial Currency Reprints, 1682-1751, Boston: The Prince Society, 1911, volume I, pp. 398-408.  Davis, in recognition of the pamphlet's importance, provided an extended note on it.


Distressed State


Town of BOSTON, &c.


In a Letter from a Gentleman in the Town, to his Friend in the Country


Since you seem so much concerned about the Distresses of the Land, and want to know how Boston fares in this Day of Common Calamity; I could do no less than gratifie you, by giving you my Tho'ts, though I know the Theam will be as unpleasant to you to Read, as it is to me to Write. Truly Sir, This which was within these Ten years, one of the most Flourishing Towns in America, in the Opinion of all Strangers who came among us, will in less than half so many more years be the most miserable Town therein.

The Medium of Exchange, the only thing which gives life to Business, Employs the Poor, Feeds the Hungry, and Cloaths the Naked, is so Exhausted; that in a little time we shall not have wherewith to Buy our Daily Bread, much less to pay our Debts or Taxes. How happy are you in the Countrey, who have your Milk and Honey of your own, while we depend on the ready Penny from day to day; and there are so few Bills Circulating (for Silver there is not a Penny passing) that People are distressed to a very great degree, to get Bills to procure the Necessaries of Life; and that not the Poor only, but good substantial House-keepers, who have good real Estates in the Place, such as we call the middling sort, who it must be acknowledged bear the greatest part of the Burthen ; and by these Taxes support, both the Government, Ministry, and the Poor.

We find already the miserable Effects of the want of a Medium in these instances; besides a Torrent of other mischiefs breaking in upon us, viz

The vast Number of Law Suits occasioned thereby, the Courts are open, and every Term, four or five hundred Writs (and perhaps more) given out against good honest Housekeepers, who are as willing to pay their Debts as their Creditors would be, and have wherewith to Pay, but can't Raise Money, unless they will Sell their Houses at half Value, which they have been Working hard for, it may be these Twenty years, and so turn their Families into the Streets ; and this because they are obliged to Work for half, nay, some for two thirds Goods, and their Creditors will take nothing but Money; and so they are Squeezed and Oppress'd, to Maintain a few Lawyers, and other Officers of the Courts, who grow Rich on the Ruins of their Neighbours, while great part of the Town can hardly get Bread to satisfie Nature; Nay, to my astonishment, I am informed, that there a thousand Writs made out to this April Court, in this one County, which is a scandal to the Land, to have it spoken. And then,

I am perswaded that the Charges of the Courts in this County is Six Thousand Pounds per Annum; and this pays no Debt, but is a dead Loss to People, and brings them farther in Debt, and makes them the less able to support either Church or State.

The Law which was made about Twenty Months since to shorten Credit, happens to be very ill timed; and could the Government have foreseen the fatal Consequences which daily attend it, I am perswaded they would never have come into it, for tho' long Credit hath hurt us, yet this Remedy is worse then the disease.   For, it obliges some who are naturally inclined to be favourable to their Neighbours, to be severer then else they would be; and others who are of a more Cruel disposition, are glad of such an oppurtunity to Oppress them, by turning their Book-Debts into Bonds, and Exacting Interest, that the whole Land are turned Usurers, and thus Iniquity is Eventually though not Designedly Established by a Law; which was far from the thoughts of them that made it, for if the People complain of the hardship, their Creditors plead the Law for their justification. Some have been so unmerciful, I have been Informed, that they have demanded their Debtors, to anticipate one or two Years Interest on the Condition they would take their own Bond without other Security, such a piece of Oppression surely was never Practiced among Turks or Infidels, and this done by Professors to the scandal of the Christian name, forgetting that Precept left them by their compassionate Saviour. Be ye merciful, even as your Heavenly Father is merciful. I am glad that Act is Temporary: & tho' it was made but for five Years, I fear many People will greatly suffer by it, for besides the Mischiefs already mentioned, I could mention many others.

I confess to me the Law seems inconsistent with justice and Mercy, if I have a right notion of either; it is to suit the punishment according to the degree of Crime; and the Law is always tender of the Criminal, not to Exceed in the Punishment. We are commanded to put on Bowels of Compassion toward our Neighbour, and while I do so, I fulfil the Law of Righteousness. Will any then say, I am guilty of a Sin, either against God or my Neighbour, in Extending my Compassion and Forbearance to him? One would think my own Act is a sufficient punishment, by losing the Improvement of what is due to me; but to make me lose my Debt for not complying with that Law, is to punish me for that which is no Sin; for the Word of God accounts it a Vertue.

I believe by this Time every body's Belly is full of the Publick Bank which was Projected, and they must be very short sighted surely, who did not foresee the wretched Consequences which would attend it; There will be more than Threescore Thousand Pound to Pay, and nothing to pay it with; for the Bills come in for the Interest; how then shall the Principal be paid! This is putting men on impossibilities, and in a worse Condition than Israel was in Egypt; for tho' their Tale of Brick was Exacted, without supplying them with Straw, yet it only obliged them to the more diligence and Industry to gather it themselves.  

We are told, we must expect no more Bills, and Silver and Gold is become Merchandize, and Bought up for the Factors as fast as it comes in, and shipt home to their Principals; The Governour, Judges, Ministers, Schoolmasters and other Officers must be paid their Salaries, and I wish their Salaries were better then they are, if I could see how posible they should be paid, but I see plainly by and by it will be impossible. The Gentlemen who are against Emitting more Bills, think we have Money enough, and that there are Two Hundred Thousand Pounds out in all the Provinces; A Wonderful Cash indeed to manage the Trade of the four Goverments in which are more then Two Hundred Towns, and that going into the Treasury Daily, that in a few Years they will be all sunk, and indeed what Bills are passing, are mostly of the other Provinces, our own Bills are hoarded up, with what Noble design I know not, but it gives Room to suspect the worst.

It is the Opinion of many, that within these Twenty Years, near a Million of Gold or Silver hath been exported hence, & I believe they are not much out in their Computation, yet I don't Remember in the best of Times I ever heard any complain that we abounded with Money, & now we are near double in Number and our Trade greatly Increased, and consequently it calls for a proportionable Cash to manage it, yet some Men think, or at least say we have Money enough.

When People Complain and say there must be more Bills emitted on one foot or other; The cry is No ? No more Bills, Silver will never come in while we have any Bills, when they are all in we shal have Silver; but I observe, the Gentlemen who talk at this Rate are only Usurers, and Men who Live on their Salaries, Officers of the Courts and Lawyers, who never Trade, and therefore we are sure no Silver nor any thing else will come in through their means; would these few Gentlemen (for there are not many of them) call in their Bonds and enter on Trade and cast their Bread upon the Waters with their Neighbours to employ the Poor, what fine Voyages they may Project to bring in Gold and Silver I know not, but I confess it is past my shallow capacity to Project any such, I believe Men never Traded with greater uncertainties then at this Day, no Man knows where to make an Adventure to see a new Penny for an old one, is the common Cry of the best Merchants in the Place.

It is not sinking the Bills of Credit will bring in Silver, No? I rather think it must be done by going on Manufacturs, and so lessening our Import, &that must not be the work of a Day but of many Years to accomplish it, and those things cannot be gone upon to any degree without Money or Bills, were there more Bills, there are enough would go on such Projects, Iron would soon become cheaper, and Linnens and Woolens of our own make would grow more in use, as the Spiners and Weavers improved in making them, but there is no setting up such Works because there is no Money to Pay the Labourer.

That which hath kept this Town alive the last Year is the Number of Ships which have been Built in it, which Employs great part of the Town, I wish those who Build them, may find their Accompts therein, & be Encouraged to go on, it will be a great Mercy to us, & very much help us, but that alone will not do; There must be something to Pass from Man to Man by way of Exchange,; it is Vanity to talk that such a Town as this can subsist without Money or some other Medium of Exchange; You may as soon perswade me that People can live without Breathing, as without something, to purchase their daily Food.

Now People work for half, & some for two thirds Goods, and so have a little Money coming in, but what will they do when it comes to working for all Goods, Is it possible for Men to Truck for a Pound of Butter, a Pound of Candles, or a Loaf of Bread, or many other things a Family is Daily in need of. No? it is impossible.

If we consider the Poor, we are promised a Blessing, and as it is most certainly the duty of every Man, according to his capacity to consider them, in such a distressing time as this; when good Honest, Industrius, Modest People, are driven to such streights, as to Sell their Pewter and Brass out of their Houses, which is scarce worse for wearing, to Brasiers, at the price of Old Pewter and Brass to buy them food, as I have been Informed by the Brasiers, who have spoke it with great concern to me. Much more doth Heaven expect it from the Government, who are clothed with Power, to take care they are not Oppressed or distressed; & indeed I am sorry to see the Ministers of the Town so silent, when (if ever) it behoves them to improve all their Interest in the Government, that something may be done for the People to help them at such a time, when every man is taking his Neighbour by the Throat; saying, Pay me what thou owest ? If they will bestir themselves, perhaps it might work some good Effect.

When any Gentlemen propose any thing to Relieve us, as several have done, one Scheme or other for Emitting Bills on Land Security. I observe the Gentlemen who explode these Projections, never propose any other which makes People say, either they are not able to project any thing better; or else they really desire nothing may be done, that so they may advance their own Estates, and Families, by getting their Neighbours Lands at half value; but if any are so wicked, I am perswaded God will send his Blast on Estates so gotten, and the Labour of such People will perish; but I would hope, that men who profess the Name of Christ, cannot be so forgetful of that Precept he hath left us; To do by all men, as we would be done unto. Most certainly, If men oppose making more Bills, or hoard up them already made, with any such design, they are Breakers of the Tenth Commandment in the utmost latitude, and come but little short of Ahab's Sin, in the matter of Naboths Vineyard. 

In all Places it is observed, that Great Men alwayes have their Followers, who hang on their Skirts; and some who have no thoughts of their own, make the Rich and Powerful their Oracle; and so it hath been among us; but these pinching Times I find cool their Courage, and make them change their Note; and indeed it is time for them so to do. for they feel the Difficulties as much as their Neighbours.

His Excellency the Governour saith, He stands ready to come into any thing which may be thought for our Relief, and hath Called on the Gentlemen of his Council, to Project something; who indeed are more immediately Concerned so to do, as being the Eyes of the People; but these Worthy Gentlemen are some of them Men out of Trade; some Country Gentlemen, who Live on their Farms, and others, men of plentiful Fortunes, who do not feel the Straits of the Times, and therefore cannot sympathize so feelingly with their Neighbours. They have a daily Supply of Money coming in, either for Interest, Salleries or Rents, which suffices for their Occasions from day to day; and tho' their Coffers are not so full as at some Times, yet they are not in want, and plagued as others are; which I wish his Excellency would consider, and not be perswaded by a few Gentlemen, That Silver will come in, till this once flourishing place dwindle away to nothing, to the great dishonour of his Excellency, as well as inseparable Loss and damage [to] the Crown.

As I said before, our Province Bills are hoarded up and we are told we must have no more Emitted; but I believe the Government will find it absolutely necessary to depart from that Resolution ; for if they persist in it, it will most certainly perfect our Ruin; for as I have already hinted, it is not Sinking the Bills will bring in Silver; but the other things I have mentioned, and others which might be projected, to lessen our Import.

Most certainly it was a very wrong step to Crush the Private Bank, and set up this Pulick Bank in its place, for the farther we go on in this way, the worse our Case will be, for as we use to say, Pay Day will come, but when it doth come there will be nothing wherewith to Pay. Whereas the Private Bank would have still been the same, the Intrest Money would have circulated in Trade, and not have been diminished; the Stock would neither have increased nor decreased, but remained the same intire Sum which was at first agreed on, without any Addition or Diminution; and I wish there was not too much of an Invidious Spirit, in the Opposition that Projection meet with from some Gentlemen least their Neighbours should reap a benefit by it as well as themselves.

I am of Opinion, that if the Government would come into it, to Encourage such a Bank, and strengthen it by their Authority, and make suitable Laws to support it, that it is the only Remedy which can be proposed to extricate us out of our Difficulties, it would not be attended with the fatal Consequences which attended the Publick Bank. I can think of nothing so likely to give us a quick Relief by seting the Wheels a going; Man is an Active Projecting Creature, and every Body almost would be Improving his talent, if Money were stiring, but the wisest Projections must lye still, if there be not Money to go on with them. I know the Rich will oppose this; but the Richest Men are not always most beneficial to the Commonwealth, Men of Projecting Brains do most good to their Neighbours, for tho' they often hurt themselves by their Projects, yet others reap the benefit of them, and so the Publick is not hurt but helped by them, and I persume none will deny but that this Town hath been more advantaged by some Men now in it of mean Estates, then ever they were by the Richest Men in it. If any should deny it, I'll ven[ture] to affirm and prove it.

But if the Government will not come in a project of a Private Bank, I can think of nothing better, then to go on some great & Expensive Work, & Emit Bills to carry it on, as Fortifyng our exposed Setlements, that would Encourage People to sit down, & till the Earth, and raise Hemp and Flax, and so bring down the Prices of Linen and Canvas, as well as Provisions, that we may be able to Export Provisions as in former times to the Islands, wheras we are now beholding to our Neighbours to supply us, this would help to Ballance our Foreign Trade, and consequently in time be a means to bring Silver among us.

If there was a Bridge Built over Charles River, If Fifty Thousand Pounds were expended to make it durable, and so a moderate Toll laid on all Carts, Coaches, Horses, &c. this would help us by imploying the Poor, and the circulation of the Bills would be a great service to every Body: and other things of this nature might be thought on.

I hope our good Friends in the Country will consider our miserable circumstances, & send such Men to Represent them next May, as may be Spirited for our Relief, not Sheriffs and Lawyers, who are the only Men who are benefited by the straights of their Neighbours, else I fear Ruin and Destruction will come upon us, and truly it behoves you in the Country to consider this Town for your own sakes, shall the Head say to the Members, we have no need of thee, or shall thee Members say to the Head in like manner, as in the Body Natural; so it is also with the Body Politick in this Respect, our Interests are inseparable, and tho' I confess you can do without Money better then we, yet our want of Money to Buy, will very much lower the Prices of all your Produce, and your Lands will soon fall in Esteem and Value accordingly; and this the Coasters Experience already this Spring they are obliged to trust out their Provisions, and some to Truck them away for such things as they know not what to do with by reason there is not Money to Buy with.

And now least I should for this plain Dealing be accounted an enemy to the Governour or present Ministry. To justify my self I solemly Declare as in the presence of GOD, who knows my sincerity; that I Esteem & Honour the Governour, and every Gentleman of his Council, with whom I have acquaintance, and am prejudiced against no Man; It is the good & Happiness of my Country that lies upon my Spirits and hath Influenced me hereunto. I have no private sinister aim in pursuit separate from the good of the whole, but am animated only by a sense of the distresses of the Town and Country, for want of a Medium of Exchange.

It is a dark Day upon us, I pray GOD to Guide and Lead his Excellency and his Council, and others concerned in the Government, into some Measures for the Relief of the People, that when ever his Excellency is called from us, he may (as I am perswaded is his desire) leave us in better cicumstances then he found us, which will endear his Memory to us, when he is gone from us.


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