Carl Wennerlind

 

On his book Casualties of Credit: The English Financial Revolution, 1620-1720

Cover Interview of December 06, 2012

In a nutshell

Casualties of Credit offers a cultural history of early modern money. In exploring the intellectual underpinnings of the seventeenth-century English Financial Revolution, I uncover how people conceived of money and how their understanding was grounded in the prevailing thinking about science, philosophy, politics, commerce, law, and colonialism. While Casualties of Credit’s most immediate focus is on a series of unexpected connections between money and alchemy, slavery, and the death penalty, its more general aim is to illuminate the deep cultural and political embeddedness of credit. Moreover, I also explore the tension between credit’s marvelous productive potential and the integral role repressive violence played during the Financial Revolution.

I begin the book by arguing that the Scientific Revolution played a central role in the epistemic turn that paved the way for the development of a radically new culture of credit. In particular, I focus on how the Hartlib Circle—the period’s premier scientific and social reform group—embraced Baconian and alchemical thinking in developing a vision for the universal reformation of humanity. Armed with proper knowledge, they believed that it was possible for mankind to transmute nature, society, and people for utilitarian ends—and thus launch what they referred to as an “infinite improvement” process.

Money played an essential role in the Hartlibian reform project. But for money to be able to ignite industry and activate hidden resources, as well as mediate an ever-expanding world of goods, it was necessary to find a way to expand the quantity of money in society. After discussing how the Hartlib Society ambitiously sought to use their alchemical knowledge to turn lead into gold, I explore how they switched their attention to the development of a generally circulating credit currency once their transmutational efforts failed. Moving from a metallic currency to a paper currency did not strike them as that great of a leap considering their understanding that all forms of money are based on credit. Trust, not materiality, was thus the most essential ingredient in money. While silver and gold had successfully enabled trust in the past, the Hartlibians argued that value-less paper notes could also operate as money, granted they fulfilled certain criteria.

Casualties of Credit then proceeds to explore the ideas and practices associated with the formation of trust. Drawing on new models for probabilistic thinking developed by John Locke and other philosophers, political economists derived a set of principles for how to create the most confidence-inducing currency. In addition to solid assets securing the paper notes, transparent institutional designs and accounting practices, and honest and honorable directors, one of the most important conditions for the development a credit currency was that anyone who undermined trust and confidence was harshly punished. In exploring how these criteria informed the creation of the Bank of England in 1694, Casualties of Credit turns to its second primary focus: the role of violence in the English Financial Revolution.

The rest of the book engages with the debates surrounding, firstly, the use of the death penalty to protect the new credit currency against forgers and counterfeiters and, secondly, the initiative to use anticipated profits from the African slave trade to bolster trust in the nation’s public credit. In both instances, repression and violence played essential roles in protecting and promoting trust in the new culture of credit. While John Locke, Christopher Wren, and Isaac Newton played prominent roles in the debates about the use of the death penalty against monetary criminals, Daniel Defoe and Jonathan Swift actively and enthusiastically promoted the scheme to use profits from the slave trade to bolster public credit.