“A Revolution in the Currency”: Colonial Massachusetts Silver Specie Petition
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Copy of a memorial of Boston merchants to the Governor, Council, and House of Representatives of Massachusetts. The petitioners, including Benjamin Faneuil, Samuel Wentworth, William Bowdoin, Edmund Quincy, William Molinaux, and Isaac Winslow, sought the reestablishment of silver-based currency to stabilize the economy after King George’s War (1744-1748). Their influence helped swing the tide of the Massachusetts legislature back in favor of the mercantile elite, who had opposed inflationary land bank schemes of the 1740s. Two days after this memorial, the legislature passed a law retiring the province’s extant bills of credit and requiring that “all debts, dues, demands, bargains and contracts payable in bills of credit … shall be understood to be payable in coin’d silver only…” after the date of March 31, 1751. This act reinforced by Parliament’s stricture that Massachusetts refrain from issuing new paper currency emissions, ended “the first public paper money issued in the history of Western civilization.” [COLONIAL MASSACHUSETTS FINANCE].
William Bowdoin, et al., “Memorialists,” to Governor, Council, and House of Representatives of Massachusetts. Boston, January 23, 1749 (the document reads “1748,” but before 1752, Britain and its colonies held to the Julian calendar with March 25th as the first of the year). Contemporary clerical copy. 1 p.
To his Excellency the Governr the Honble ye Councill & House of Represet in Generall Court Assembled ~
The humble memorials of the Subscribers sheweth that your memorialists being sensible of the great mischiefs which have been brought upon the province by means of a depreciating currency heard with satisfaction that a bill had passed the two houses to be engrossed for putting an end to the said currency and establishing a silver medium instead of itt. Butt itt gave them great concern to be informd that a sugestion had been made that the body of the merchs of the Town apprehended the said bill might prove of pernicious consequence. Your memorialists therefore beg leave to vindicate themselves from a charge of this nature and humbly to declare that notwithstanding the Rate of Redemption of the Bills of Creditt as proposd by said Bill may prove less advantageous to the merchants than any other part of the community yett as they apprehend the said rate will be greatly for the ease for the majr part of the people and make a Revolution in the Currency more agreeable; They willingly submitt their particular to the Interests of the whole and will use their Endeavours that the good design of the bill both with respect to the rate of the New Currency and to itts Continuance among us & the preventing the currency of the bills of the other governments may be answered, att the same time beg leave humbly to express their apprehension that there is no room to expect a more Equitable Regulation than will be Effected by the speedy passing said bill into a law.
Boston Jany 23 1748 ~
Will. Bowdoin / John Avery / John Gooch / John Jones / JamS Griffin / Edmd Quincy / Benja Faneuil / Thoms Oxnard / Jams Boutineau / Cha: Paxton / Wm Molinaux / John Jones / Nic Boylstone / Mela: Bourne / Benja Green / Thos Green / Thos Harding / Ralph Inman / Isaac Winslow / Nath Bethune / Seth Parker / Solomon Davis / Henry Liddell / Sam Deming / Benja Austin / John Phillips / Joseph Douse / Tho Savage / Saml Wells Junr / Jams Pitts / Thos Flaker / Saml Hews / Stephen Hall / Foster Hutchison / Wm Fletcher / Henry Newman / Henry Atkins / Edwd Hutchinson / Jona Tyng / Thoms Lee / John Matchett / Nat Cunningham / Hugh Wade / And McKenzie / Saml Wentworth / Jos Sherberne / Antho Davis / John Knight
The leading proponent of Massachusetts currency reform did not sign this petition. Thomas Hutchinson, as Speaker of the House of Representatives, could not formally entreat the body over which he presided (though Edward Hutchinson, his uncle, did sign). Hutchinson, a wealthy Boston merchant enjoying a meteoric rise in British colonial politics, argued vehemently against the Land Bank schemes of the early 1740s. Governor William Shirley, however, paid for the exorbitant costs of participating in King George’s War—and capturing Louisbourg—through nineteen issues of paper bills. The result was disastrous inflation. “The price of silver in terms of Massachusetts paper nearly doubled,” writes historian Malcolm Freiberg. Debtors benefited, but wealthy creditors were predictably anxious, and the poor and those living on fixed incomes—including widows and ministers—suffered the most from the rising cost of basic provisions.
Hutchinson suffered from his victory. He was taunted by rioters after his townhouse accidentally burned on May Day, 1749, and he was voted out of the House of Representatives a week later. Hutchinson became, and remained until the Revolution, the symbolic emissary of the interests of the Massachusetts elite. His wealth grew, he was chosen to join the Massachusetts Council, and became Chief Justice of the Superior Court, but was never popular. Hutchinson remained proud of his accomplishment in reforming the Massachusetts monetary system when he sat down to write his History of the Colony and Province of Massachusetts-Bay. He never changed his belief that “it was absolutely our Duty to bring our wicked Mony to an End.”
Hutchinson’s legislative gambit was made possible by Britain’s decision to reimburse Massachusetts for its contributions to the successful campaign against the French fortress of Louisbourg (in what is now Nova Scotia) in 1745. Massachusetts was the most energetic colonial government in British North America during King George’s War (1744-1748), fighting the French in the maritime provinces and on their long, exposed northern frontier.
In 1749, after this legislation passed, the British sent 21 tons of Spanish silver coins and 10 tons of British coppers (equivalent to £183,649 2s 7 ½ d sterling). In 1750, Massachusetts printed an emission of notes with the motto “Restituit rem” (the situation has been restored) on the bottom. No further emissions were issued in the colony until the “Soldiers’ Notes” printed by Paul Revere to pay the Massachusetts militia to fight the British in 1775. By then, Thomas Hutchinson, a Loyalist, had fled to England.
Freiberg, Malcolm, “Thomas Hutchinson and the Province Currency,”
New England Quarterly 30, 2 (June, 1957), 190-208.
“Introduction to Early Massachusetts Currency, 1690-1750,”