Item of the Day: An Account of the European Settlements by William Burke and Edmund Burke (1758)

Full Title:  An Account of the European Settlements in America. In Six Parts. I. A Short History of the Discovery of that Part of the World.  II.  The Manners and Customs of the Original Inhabitants.  III.  Of the Spanish Settlements.  IV. Of the Portuguese.  V.  Of the French, Dutch, and Danish.  VI.  Of the English.  Each Part contains An Accurate Description of the Settlements in it, their Extent, Climate, Productions, Trade, Genius and Disposition of their Inhabitants:  the Interests of the several Powers of Europe with respect to those Settlements; and their Political and Commercial views with regard to each other.  Vol. II.  The Second Edition, with Improvements.  London: Printed for R. and J. Dodsley in Pall-Mall. MDCCLVIII.


The royal, proprietary, and charter governments.  Laws of the colonies.  Paper currency.  Abuses in it.  Another sort of money proposed.

 THE settlement of our colonies was never pursued upon any regular plan; but they were formed, grew, and flourished as accidents, the nature of the climate, or the dispositions of private men happened to operate.  We ought not therefore to be surprised to find in the several constitutions and governments of our colonies, so little of any thing like uniformity.  It has been said that there is scarce any form of government known, that does not prevail in some of our plantations; the variety is certainly great and vicious; but the latitude of the observation must be somewhat restrained; for some forms they are certainly strangers to.  To pass over several, nothing like a pure hereditary aristocracy has ever appeared in any of them.  . . .

The law in all our provinces, besides those acts which from time to time they have made for themselves, is the common law of England, the old statute law, and a great part of the new, which in looking over their laws I find many of our settlements have adopted, with very little choice or discretion.  And indeed the laws of England, if in the long period of their duration they have had many improvements, so they have grown more tedious, perplexed, and intricate, by the heaping up many abuses in one age, and the attempts to remove them in another.  These infant settlements surely demanded a more simple, clear, and determinate legislation, though it were of somewhat an homelier kind; laws suited to the time, to their country, and the nature of their new way of life.  Many things still subsist in the law of England, which are built upon causes and reasons that have long ago ceased, many things are in those laws suitable to England only.  But the whole weight of this ill-agreeing mass, which neither we nor our fathers were well able to bear, is laid upon the shoulders of these colonies; by which a spirit of contention is raised, and arms offensive and defensive supplied to keep up and exercise this spirit, by the intricacy and unsuitableness of the laws to their object.  And thus in many of our settlements the lawyers have gathered to themselves the greatest part of the wealth of the country; men of less use in such establishments than in more settled countries, where the number of people naturally sets many apart from the occupations of husbandry, arts, or commerce.  Certainly our American brethren might well have carried with them the privileges which make the glory and happiness of Englishmen, without taking them encumbered with all that load of matter, perhaps so useless at home, without doubt so extremely prejudicial in the colonies.

Laws themselves are hardly more the cement of societies than money; and societies flourish or decay according to the condition of either of these.  It may be easily judged, that as the ballance of trade with Great Britain is very much against the colonies, that therefore whatever gold or silver they may receive from the other branches of their commerce, makes but a short stay in America. This consideration at first view would lead one to conclude, that in a little time money for their ordinary circulation would be wanting; and this is apparently confirmed by experience.  Very little money is seen amongst them, notwithstanding the vast increase of their trade.  This deficiency is supplied, or more properly speaking, it is caused by the use of money or credit, which they commonly call paper currency.  This money is not created for the conveniency of traffic, but by the exigencies of the government, and often by the frauds and artifices of private men for their particular profit.  Before this invention money was indeed scarce enough in America, but they raised its value, and it served their purpose tolerably.  I shall forbear entering into the causes that increased the charges of government so greatly in all our American provinces.  But the execution of projects too vast for their strength, made large sums necessary.  The feeble state of a colony which had hardly taken root in the country, could not bear them; and to raise sudden and heavy taxes, would destroy the province without answering their purpose. . . .

The currency of our plantations must not be set upon a level with the funds in England.  For besides that the currency carries no interests to some amends for the badness of the security; the security itself is so rotten, that no art can give it any lasting credit; as there are parts of New England wherein, if the whole stock and the people along with it were sold, they would not bring money enough to take in all the bills which have been emitted.

I hope it is not too late to contrive some remedy for this evil, as those at the head of affairs here are undoubtedly very sollicitous about so material a grievance.  I should imagine that one current coin for the whole continent might be struck here, or there, with such an allay as might at once leave it of some real value, and yet so debased as to prevent its currency elsewhere, and so to keep it within themselves.  . . .


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Filed under 1750's, Colonial America, Great Britain, Posted by Rebecca Dresser

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