"What Must Poor People Do?": Economic Protest and Plebeian Culture in Philadelphia, 1682-1754
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"What Must Poor People Do?":
Economic Protest and Plebeian Culture in Philadelphia, 1682-1754

By the early 1720s falling prices for grain exports to the West Indies and the bursting of the South Sea Bubble resulted in the worst economic crisis in Pennsylvania's short history. As trade ground to a standstill in Philadelphia, unemployment rose and Pennsylvanians submitted numerous petitions to the provincial assembly requesting the printing of paper money in the cash-poor colony.1 The assembly responded by emitting £15,000 in bills of credit in 1722, followed by another printing of £30,000 in 1723 and the creation of a provincial Loan Office.2 Despite the emissions, in subsequent years urban tradesmen and small farmers continued to protest the lack of money in the province and persistently demanded an increase in the money supply throughout the colonial era. Supporters of paper currency, such as "Roger Plowman," claimed in 1725 that the "poor Husbandman" was being squeezed by usurious landlords, while urban smiths, [End Page 117] shoemakers, tanners, tailors, weavers, and shopkeepers were beset by a "thousand Difficulties" in carrying on their trades because of the scarcity of money in the town.3 The city's merchants were divided on the issue—Quaker trader Francis Rawle penned the first public argument in favor of paper money, while defenders of the elite merchant and proprietary interest subscribed to a hard money position, believing supporters of paper encouraged disorder among the "mighty and many Headed Multitude."4

Philadelphia in the 1720s was indeed tumultuous, yet the political conflicts that erupted in that decade brought to the surface grievances many laboring Philadelphians had fostered for decades.5 And though economic and political conditions in the colony stabilized in the 1730s, city commoners protested against urban and provincial monetary policies well into the middle decades of the century. Servitude for repayment of debt, rates of interest, ground rents, wages, a lack of money, and merchants' manipulation of currency were all sources of complaint for seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Philadelphians.6 Inhabitants' petitions to the assembly reflect the variety of economic challenges that confronted colonists involved in the Atlantic economy, and petitioners ranged from wealthy traders to poor day laborers. In times of acute conflict, however, free Philadelphians of all social classes expressed a fundamental antagonism between rich and poor. Popular protests were directed at urban merchant-creditors or political authorities, and remonstrators often expressed an opposition among the "common People," the "poor People," or the "laborious People," and the city's "Rich Men and Merchants."7 When James Logan claimed that the "common People" would believe "strongly what they are told is for their Interest" in 1725, he was expressing a widespread perception among the upper class concerning the susceptibility of ordinary people to demagoguery and licentiousness. For Plowman and others who cited the interests of the "Commonalty," without an adequate amount of currency local producers would be subjected to the depredations of "Extortioners and Lawyers," evidence of a traditional belief that would find a distinctive expression in early Philadelphia.8

While by the 1720s and 1730s many Pennsylvania legislators supported the printing of bills of exchange, all authorities agreed on the threat posed by counterfeited currency.9 Political leaders in colonial Pennsylvania consistently expressed concern over the importation of counterfeited notes and coins into the province, and it is significant that the first property offender executed in Philadelphia, Edward Hunt, was convicted of high treason for counterfeiting in 1720. It is also suggestive that in condemning Hunt the provincial council [End Page 118] cited a statute of 1718 that vastly increased the number of capital offenses in the province, at a time of growing economic hardship in the city.10

Yet in medieval and early modern England, as in colonial Philadelphia, "Extortioners and Lawyers" were often targets of popular protests, while crimes like counterfeiting were viewed by the common people as comparatively benign.11 In England, despite increasingly punitive corporal punishments for coining beginning in the sixteenth century, counterfeiters were often portrayed in cultural productions as highly skilled heroes, who could argue their crimes were attempts to correct the failure of the national mint and treasury to...