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  • A “Foundation in Nature”: New Economic Criticism and the Problem of Money in 1690s England
  • Courtney Weiss Smith (bio)

People in 1690s England were concerned about money. They needed to decide how they wanted to deal with problems like a degraded currency and with new realities like credit and national debt. This essay argues that many contemporary English writers addressed these problems by paying close attention to the created natural world.

These writers wanted their money and their economic systems more generally to have—as John Locke put it—a “Foundation in Nature.”1 Exciting recent work that attempts to do economic history as history of science has recognized something similar: in Margaret Schabas’s words, “until the mid-nineteenth century, economic theorists regarded the phenomena of their discourse as part of the same natural world studied by natural philosophers.”2 I extend Schabas’s argument to focus on what this belief meant for the pragmatics of economic theorizing. English economic thinkers of the 1690s approached the natural world as a rich source of concrete clues about the proper ways to order their economies, even about God’s will for human economies. Silver bullion could dramatize the imperative of not meddling with value, or invite governments to take advantage of its stretchiness. Bits of metal could actually prompt human decisions.

This argument—that contemporaries understood the natural world as a key source of information about how the economy should be ordered—is unusual. A more usual story about the 1690s takes the period as a crucial site for the emergence of modern capitalist ideas, the emergence of the modern world itself. Important work in “the new economic criticism” explores a move away from natural order in this period, towards an immaterial economic order. These scholars are “fascinat[ed] with debt and credit,” with proto-capitalist phenomena like paper money, and with the processes by which the economy was loosened from its natural material base and built instead on imaginations and a [End Page 209] play of signifiers. For example, with historical and theoretical nuance, James Thompson traces the complex cultural processes by which eighteenth-century England shifted “from realist to nominalist conceptions of [monetary] value, in a dematerialization from metal to paper medium,” and Sandra Sherman and Colin Nicholson investigate how the resulting new sense of money’s insubstantiality and instability (even fictionality) affected contemporary writers.3 The assumption guiding this work—an assumption encouraged by both liberal and Marxist narratives of modernization—is that, as the English economy became more modern, it increasingly lost touch with nature.4

Of course, new economic critics also recognize that some contemporaries made sense of these developments by appealing to the material world—land. In this, they are good students of J. G. A. Pocock’s influential work on civic humanism. Pocock argues that civic humanists of the “Country” party in early eighteenth-century England resisted the corruptions of a new finance by grounding the political personality in land. Land quite literally connected the owner to the country and its ancient customs, enabling him to contemplate public good free from that corrupting mix of human fantasy, appetite, and self-interest characteristic of emergent commercial society.5 Much recent scholarship associates Pocock’s argument that civic humanism could be used “as the vehicle of a basically hostile perception of early modern capitalism” with Isaac Kramnick’s treatment of the “politics of nostalgia.” Scholars thus recognize both a new money culture and a deeply conservative eighteenth-century reaction against it.6 Novelty, credit, the City, and Daniel Defoe are on the one side, and a conservative “Country” tradition, land, bullion, and Lord Bolingbroke, on the other. Of course, the best new economic critics argue that these categories were contested late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century constructs. And they recognize that at any given moment economic thought proceeded from a messy mixture of “the residual” and “the emergent.”7 Still, most scholars assume that weirdly material appeals to nature, land, or bullion belong to hostile conservative or “residual” backward-looking forces in this cultural moment.8

New economic critics are asking challenging questions, and they have enriched our understanding of late seventeenth-century economic thought. Yet...


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pp. 209-228
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