This Day in Virginia History: Spending Beyond Our Means, 1738 Style

The following is an excerpt from an article in The Virginia Gazette, Mar 2, 1738:

The Soil of Great-Britain is sufficient to supply us plentifully with the common Necessaries of Life, and our Woolen and other Manufactures furnish us with several Commodities of great Use; but, considering the growing Power of our Neighbours, by Sea and Land, it is absolutely necessary to be always upon our Guard, and at such an Expence in maintaining a Fleet sufficient for our Security, as cannot be supported merely by the Product and Income of our own Country; and therefore it is incumbent on us, if we have any Regard for ourselves, or our Posterity, to have Recourse to Industry and Frugality, and to encourage and put our Trade under proper Regulations.

Our vigilant Neighbours have made such Advantages of our Weakness, as are greatly beneficial to them, and may be of fatal Consequence to us. We have, indeed, a considerable Navigation, and our ships of War never were more numerous, or in a better Condition; our Exports, as well as Imports, are also very large; from whence most People flatter themselves that we have still a flourishing and beneficial Commerce; but considerate and knowing Men, who look into the Bottom of Things, plainly perceive the Canker that is in every Branch, and will inevitably eat out and destroy it.

—-Dr. [Charles] Davenant observes, “That a Country may have all the outward Marks of Wealth, and yet its Condition be unfound at Bottom. A Nation may have great Fleets and Armies, and the Appearance of a great Foreign Traffick; the Buildings may be magnificent, private Persons may accumulate much Wealth, and the Way of Living of many appear sumptuous; and yet Poverty may be all the while secretly creeping upon such a Country.”

Again, —- “The Symptoms of a Bankrupt Nation are easily discerned, and of a whole People collectively consider’d growing poor, by living above their Circumstances. That a few will gather to themselves gret Fortunes; but the Number of such as grow poor, will be far more considerable; and that there will be here and there Marks of Splendor among the better Sort; but thee shall be an universal Face of Poverty upon the common People.

“The Trade of a Nation, says Mr. Gee, is of mighty Consequence. A Nation may gain vast Riches by Trade and Commerce, or for Want of due Attention, may be drain’d of them. I am more willing to mention this, because I am afraid the present Circumstances of ours carry out more Riches than they bring home. As there is Cause to apprehend this, surely it ought to be look’d into; and the more, since there be a Wound, there are Remedies, which, if rightly applied, will make our Commerce flourish, and the Nation happy.”

At the risk of being too simplistic, there were fiscal problems in England’s 1730s, which eventually caused a territorial and economic war with France, which, in turn led to an unmanageable national debt, which led to a strict enforcement of the Navigation Acts, which led to the Stamp Act, which led to, well… you know.

Bonus History: Also in this issue of The Virginia Gazette, the following announcement was made:

“We hear, that on the 6th ult. [i.e., of last month] the Rev. Mr. [William] Mackoy [McKay], Rector of HanoverParish, in King George County, was married to Miss Barbara Fitzhugh, Daughter to Major John Fitzhugh, of Stafford County, deceas’d, a young Lady of great Beauty and Merit.”

Who was Barbara Fitzhugh, you ask? Why, she was Robert E. Lee’s great-grandfather’s sister’s husband’s brother’s daughter, of course.

  • Fantastic, Andrew, thank you. I’d be interested to see your take on this in modern context.

    • In modern context, there is a neighborhood in Stafford County that still bears the name Fitzhugh. 🙂

    • Seriously, though, while we cannot forget that Messrs. Davenant and Freeport (who wrote this particular article) were mercantilist economists, there are certain fiscal principles that carry across differing economic philosophies.

      “Carrying out more Riches than they bring home” is, the way it is worded here, particularly applicable to an economic system of mercantilism. However, whether it’s worded as it is in the article, or worded as simply “increasing the national debt,” in each case each system may for a time enjoy the facades of luxury while the foundations deteriorate and crumble under increasing burdens and blind neglect toward structural principles.

  • This is awesome! I love these little tidbits that are completely divorced from current events, but somehow put a little light on today…

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.