Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

Chapter 15

OF TRADESMEN RUINING ONE ANOTHER

BY RUMOUR AND CLAMOUR,

BY SCANDAL AND REPROACH


I have dwelt long upon the tradesman's management of himself, in order to his due preserving both his business and his reputation: let me bestow one chapter upon the tradesman for his conduct among his neighbours and fellow-tradesmen.

Credit is so much a tradesman's blessing that it is the choicest ware he deals in, and he cannot be too chary of it when he has it, or buy it too dear when he wants it; it is a stock to his warehouse, it is current money in his cash-chest, it accepts all his bills, for it is on the fund of his credit that he has any bills to accept; demands would else be made upon the spot, and he must pay for his goods before he has them--therefore, I say, it accepts all his bills, and oftentimes pays them too; in a word, it is the life and soul of his trade, and it requires his utmost vigilance to preserve it.

If, then, his own credit should be of so much value to him, and he should be so nice in his concern about it, he ought in some degree to have the same care of his neighbour's. Religion teaches us not to slander and defame our neighbour, that is to say, not to raise or promote any slander or scandal upon his good name. As a good name is to another man, and which the wise man says, 'is better than life,' the same is credit to a tradesman--it is the life of his trade; and he that wounds a tradesman's credit without cause, is as much a murderer in trade, as he that kills a man in the dark is a murderer in matters of blood.

Besides, there is a particular nicety in the credit of a tradesman, which does not reach in other cases: a man is slandered in his character, or reputation, and it is injurious; and if it comes in the way of a marriage, or of a preferment, or post, it may disappoint and ruin him; but if this happens to a tradesman, he is immediately and unavoidably blasted and undone; a tradesman has but two sorts of enemies to encounter with, namely, thieves breaking open his shop, and ill neighbours blackening and blasting his reputation; and the latter are the worst thieves of the two, by a great deal; and, therefore, people should indeed be more chary of their discourse of tradesmen, than of other men, and that as they would not be guilty of murder. I knew an author of a book, who was drawn in unwarily, and without design, to publish a scandalous story of a tradesman in London. He (the author) was imposed upon by a set of men, who did it maliciously, and he was utterly ignorant of the wicked design; nor did he know the person, but rashly published the thing, being himself too fond of a piece of news, which he thought would be grateful to his readers; nor yet did he publish the person's name, so cautious he was, though that was not enough, as it proved, for the person was presently published by those who had maliciously done it.

The scandal spread; the tradesman, a flourishing man, and a considerable dealer, was run upon by it with a torrent of malice; a match which he was about with a considerable fortune was blasted and prevented, and that indeed was the malicious end of the people that did it; nor did it stop there--it brought his creditors upon him, it ruined him, it brought out a commission of bankrupt against him, it broke his heart, and killed him; and after his death, his debts and effects coming in, there appeared to be seven shillings in the pound estate, clear and good over and above all demands, all his debts discharged, and all the expenses of the statute paid.

It was to no purpose that the man purged himself of the crime laid to his charge--that the author, who had ignorantly and rashly published the scandal, declared himself ignorant; the man was run down by a torrent of reproach; scandal oppressed him; he was buried alive in the noise and dust raised both against his morals and his credit, and yet his character was proved good, and his bottom in trade was so too, as I have said above.

It is not the least reason of my publishing this to add, that even the person who was ignorantly made the instrument of publishing the scandal, was not able to retrieve it, or to prevent the man's ruin by all the public reparation he could make in print, and by all the acknowledgement he could make of his having been ignorantly drawn in to do it. And this I mention for the honest tradesman's caution, and to put him in mind, that when he has unwarily let slip anything to the wounding the reputation of his neighbour tradesman, whether in his trading credit, or the credit of his morals, it may not be in his power to unsay it again, that is, so as to prevent the ruin of the person; and though it may grieve him as long as he lives, as the like did the author I mention, yet it is not in his power to recall it, or to heal the wound he has given; and that he should consider very well of beforehand.

A tradesman's credit and a virgin's virtue ought to be equally sacred from the tongues of men; and it is a very unhappy truth, that as times now go, they are neither of them regarded among us as they ought to be.

The tea-table among the ladies, and the coffee-house among the men, seem to be places of new invention for a depravation of our manners and morals, places devoted to scandal, and where the characters of all kinds of persons and professions are handled in the most merciless manner, where reproach triumphs, and we seem to give ourselves a loose to fall upon one another in the most unchristian and unfriendly manner in the world.

It seems a little hard that the reputation of a young lady, or of a new-married couple, or of people in the most critical season of establishing the characters of their persons and families, should lie at the mercy of the tea-table; nor is it less hard, that the credit of a tradesman, which is the same thing in its nature as the virtue of a lady, should be tossed about, shuttle-cock-like, from one table to another, in the coffee-house, till they shall talk all his creditors about his ears, and bring him to the very misfortune which they reported him to be near, when at the same time he owed them nothing who raised the clamour, and owed nothing to all the world, but what he was able to pay.

And yet how many tradesmen have been thus undone, and how many more have been put to the full trial of their strength in trade, and have stood by the mere force of their good circumstances; whereas, had they been unfurnished with cash to have answered their whole debts, they must have fallen with the rest.

We need go no farther than Lombard Street for an exemplification of this truth. There was a time when Lombard Street was the only bank, and the goldsmiths there were all called bankers. The credit of their business was such, that the like has not been seen in England since, in private hands: some of those bankers, as I have had from their own mouths, have had near two millions of paper credit upon them at a time; that is to say, have had bills under their hands running abroad for so much at a time.

On a sudden, like a clap of thunder, King Charles II. shut up the Exchequer, which was the common centre of the overplus cash these great bankers had in their hands. What was the consequence? Not only the bankers who had the bulk of their cash there, but all Lombard Street, stood still. The very report of having money in the Exchequer brought a run upon the goldsmiths that had no money there, as well as upon those that had, and not only Sir Robert Viner, Alderman Backwell, Farringdon, Forth, and others, broke and failed, but several were ruined who had not a penny of money in the Exchequer, and only sunk by the rumour of it; that rumour bringing a run upon the whole street, and giving a check to the paper credit that was run up to such an exorbitant height.

I remember a shopkeeper who one time took the liberty (foolish liberty!) with himself, in public company in a coffee-house, to say that he was broke. 'I assure you,' says he, 'that I am broke, and to-morrow I resolve to shut up my shop, and call my creditors together.' His meaning was, that he had a brother just dead in his house, and the next day was to be buried, when, in civility to the deceased, he kept his shop shut; and several people whom he dealt with, and owed money to, were the next day invited to the funeral, so that he did actually shut up his shop, and call some of his creditors together.

But he sorely repented the jest which he put upon himself. 'Are you broke?' says one of his friends to him, that was in the coffee-house; 'then I wish I had the little money you owe me' (which however, it seems, was not much). Says the other, still carrying on his jest, 'I shall pay nobody, till, as I told you, I have called my people together.' The other did not reach his jest, which at best was but a dull one, but he reached that part of it that concerned himself, and seeing him continue carelessly sitting in the shop, slipped out, and, fetching a couple of sergeants, arrested him. The other was a little surprised; but however, the debt being no great sum, he paid it, and when he found his mistake, told his friends what he meant by his being broke.

But it did not end there; for other people of his neighbours, who were then in the coffee-house, and heard his discourse, and had thought nothing more of it, yet in the morning seeing his shop shut, concluded the thing was so indeed, and immediately it went over the whole street that such a one was broke; from thence it went to the Exchange, and from thence into the country, among all his dealers, who came up in a throng and a fright to look after him. In a word, he had as much to do to prevent his breaking as any man need to desire, and if he had not had very good friends as well as a very good bottom, he had inevitably been ruined and undone.

So small a rumour will overset a tradesman, if he is not very careful of himself; and if a word in jest from himself, which though indeed no man that had considered things, or thought before he spoke, would have said (and, on the other hand, no man who had been wise and thinking would have taken as it was taken)--I say, if a word taken from the tradesman's own mouth could be so fatal, and run such a dangerous length, what may not words spoken slyly, and secretly, and maliciously, be made to do?

A tradesman's reputation is of the nicest nature imaginable; like a blight upon a fine flower, if it is but touched, the beauty of it, or the flavour of it, or the seed of it, is lost, though the noxious breath which touched it might not reach to blast the leaf, or hurt the root; the credit of a tradesman, at least in his beginning, is too much at the mercy of every enemy he has, till it has taken root, and is established on a solid foundation of good conduct and success. It is a sad truth, that every idle tongue can blast a young shopkeeper; and therefore, though I would not discourage any young beginner, yet it is highly beneficial to alarm them, and to let them know that they must expect a storm of scandal and reproach upon the least slip they make: if they but stumble, fame will throw them down; it is true, if they recover, she will set them up as fast; but malice generally runs before, and bears down all with it; and there are ten tradesmen who fall under the weight of slander and an ill tongue, to one that is lifted up again by the common hurry of report.

To say I am broke, or in danger of breaking, is to break me: and though sometimes the malicious occasion is discovered, and the author detected and exposed, yet how seldom is it so; and how much oftener are ill reports raised to ruin and run down a tradesman, and the credit of a shop; and like an arrow that flies in the dark, it wounds unseen. The authors, no nor the occasion of these reports, are never discovered perhaps, or so much as rightly guessed at; and the poor tradesman feels the wound, receives the deadly blow, and is perhaps mortally stabbed in the vitals of his trade, I mean his trading credit, and never knows who hurt him.

I must say, in the tradesman's behalf, that he is in such a case to be esteemed a sacrifice to the worst and most hellish of all secret crimes, I mean envy; which is made up of every hateful vice, a complication of crimes which nothing but the worst of God's reasonable world can be guilty of; and he will indeed merit and call for every honest man's pity and concern. But what relief is this to him? for, in the meantime, though the devil himself were the raiser of the scandal, yet it shall go about; the blow shall take, and every man, though at the same time expressing their horror and aversion at the thing, shall yet not be able, no not themselves, to say they receive no impression from it.

Though I know the clamour or rumour was raised maliciously, and from a secret envy at the prosperity of the man, yet if I deal with him, it will in spite of all my abhorrence of the thing, in spite of all my willingness to do justice, I say it will have some little impression upon me, it will be some shock to my confidence in the man; and though I know the devil is a liar, a slanderer, a calumniator, and that his name devil is derived from it; and that I knew, if that, as I said, were possible, that the devil in his proper person raised and began, and carried on, this scandal upon the tradesman, yet there is a secret lurking doubt (about him), which hangs about me concerning him; the devil is a liar, but he may happen to speak truth just then, he may chance to be right, and I know not what there may be in it, and whether there may be any thing or no, but I will have a little care, &c.

Thus, insensibly and involuntarily, nay, in spite of friendship, good wishes, and even resolution to the contrary, it is almost impossible to prevent our being shocked by rumour, and we receive an impression whether we will or not, and that from the worst enemy; there is such a powerful sympathy between our thoughts and our interest, that the first being but touched, and that in the lightest manner imaginable, we cannot help it, caution steps on in behalf of the last, and the man is jealous and afraid, in spite of all the kindest and best intentions in the world.

Nor is it only dangerous in case of false accusations and false charges, for those indeed are to be expected fatal; but even just and true things may be as fatal as false, for the truth is not always necessary to be said of a tradesman: many things a tradesman may perhaps allow himself to do, and may be lawfully done, but if they should be known to be part of his character, it would sink deep into his trading fame, his credit would suffer by it, and in the end it might be his ruin; so that he that would not set his hand to his neighbour's ruin, should as carefully avoid speaking some truths, as raising some forgeries upon him.

Of what fatal consequence, then, is the raising rumours and suspicions upon the credit and characters of young tradesmen! and how little do those who are forward to raise such suspicions, and spread such rumours, consult conscience, or principle, or honour, in what they do! How little do they consider that they are committing a trading murder, and that, in respect to the justice of it, they may with much more equity break open the tradesman's house, and rob his cash-chest, or his shop; and what they can carry away thence will not do him half the injury that robbing his character of what is due to it from an upright and diligent conduct, would do. The loss of his money or goods is easily made up, and may be sometimes repaired with advantage, but the loss of credit is never repaired; the one is breaking open his house, but the other is burning it down; the one carries away some goods, but the other shuts goods out from coming in; one is hurting the tradesman, but the other is undoing him.

Credit is the tradesman's life; it is, as the wise man says, 'marrow to his bones;' it is by this that all his affairs go on prosperously and pleasantly; if this be hurt, wounded, or weakened, the tradesman is sick, hangs his head, is dejected and discouraged; and if he does go on, it is heavily and with difficulty, as well as with disadvantage; he is beholding to his fund of cash, not his friends; and he may be truly said to stand upon his own legs, for nothing else can do it.

And therefore, on the other hand, if such a man is any way beholding to his credit, if he stood before upon the foundation of his credit, if he owes any thing considerable, it is a thousand to one but he sinks under the oppression of it; that is to say, it brings every body upon him--I mean, every one that has any demand upon him--for in pushing for their own, especially in such cases, men have so little mercy, and are so universally persuaded that he that comes first is first served, that I did not at all wonder, that in the story of the tradesman who so foolishly exposed himself in the coffee-house, as above, his friend whom he said the words to, began with him that very night, and before he went out of the coffee-house; it was rather a wonder to me he did not go out and bring in half-a-dozen more upon him the same evening.

It is very rarely that men are wanting to their own interest; and the jealousy of its being but in danger, is enough to make men forget, not friendship only, and generosity, but good manners, civility, and even justice itself, and fall upon the best friends they have in the world, if they think they are in the least danger of suffering by them.

On these accounts it is, and many more, that a tradesman walks in continual jeopardy, from the looseness and inadvertency of men's tongues, ay, and women's too; for though I am all along very tender of the ladies, and would do justice to the sex, by telling you, they were not the dangerous people whom I had in view in my first writing upon this subject, yet I must be allowed to say, that they are sometimes fully even with the men, for ill usage, when they please to fall upon them in this nice article, in revenge for any slight, or but pretended slight, put upon them.

It was a terrible revenge a certain lady, who was affronted by a tradesman in London, in a matter of love, took upon him in this very article. It seems a tradesman had courted her some time, and it was become public, as a thing in a manner concluded, when the tradesman left the lady a little abruptly, without giving a good reason for it, and, indeed, she afterwards discovered, that he had left her for the offer of another with a little more money, and that, when he had done so, he reported that it was for another reason, which reflected a little on the person of the lady; and in this the tradesman did very unworthily indeed, and deserved her resentment: but, as I said, it was a terrible revenge she took, and what she ought not to have done.

First, she found out who it was that her former pretended lover had been recommended to, and she found means to have it insinuated to her by a woman-friend, that he was not only rakish and wicked, but, in short, that he had a particular illness, and went so far as to produce letters from him to a quack-doctor, for directions to him how to take his medicines, and afterwards a receipt for money for the cure; though both the letters and receipt also, as afterwards appeared, were forged, in which she went a dismal length in her revenge, as you may see.

Then she set two or three female instruments to discourse her case in all their gossips' companies, and at the tea-tables wherever they came, and to magnify the lady's prudence in refusing such a man, and what an escape she had had in being clear of him.

'Why,' says a lady to one of these emissaries, 'what was the matter? I thought she was like to be very well married.'

'Oh no, Madam! by no means,' says the emissary.

'Why, Madam,' says another lady, 'we all know Mr H----; he is a very pretty sort of a man.'

'Ay, Madam,' says the emissary again, 'but you know a pretty man is not all that is required.'

'Nay,' says the lady again, 'I don't mean so; he is no beauty, no rarity that way; but I mean a clever good sort of a man in his business, such as we call a pretty tradesman.'

'Ay,' says the lady employed, 'but that is not all neither.'

'Why,' says the other lady, 'he has a very good trade too, and lives in good credit.'

'Yes,' says malice, 'he has some of the first, but not too much of the last, I suppose.'

'No!' says the lady; 'I thought his credit had been very good.'

'If it had, I suppose,' says the first, 'the match had not been broke off.'

'Why,' says the lady, 'I understood it was broken off on his side.'

'And so did I,' says another.

'And so did I, indeed,' says a third.

'Oh, Madam!' says the tool, 'nothing like it, I assure you.'

'Indeed,' says another, I understood he had quitted Mrs----, because she had not fortune enough for him, and that he courted another certain lady, whom we all know.'

Then the ladies fell to talking of the circumstances of his leaving her, and how he had broken from her abruptly and unmannerly, and had been too free with her character; at which the first lady, that is to say, the emissary, or tool, as I call her, took it up a little warmly, thus:--


1. Lady.--Well, you see, ladies, how easily a lady's reputation may be injured; I hope you will not go away with it so.

2. Lady.--Nay, we have all of us a respect for Mrs----, and some of us visit there sometimes; I believe none of us would be willing to injure her.

1. Lady.--But indeed, ladies, she is very much injured in that story.

2. Lady.--Indeed, it is generally understood so, and every body believes it.

1. Lady.--I can assure you it is quite otherwise in fact.

2. Lady.--I believe he reports it so himself, and that with some very odd things about the lady too.

1. Lady.--The more base unworthy fellow he.

2. Lady.--Especially if he knows it to be otherwise.

1. Lady.--Especially if he knows the contrary to be true, Madam.

2. Lady.--Is that possible? Did he not refuse her, then?

1. Lady.--Nothing like it, Madam; but just the contrary.

2. Lady.--You surprise me!

3. Lady.--I am very glad to hear it, for her sake.

1. Lady.--I can assure you, Madam, she had refused him, and that he knows well enough, which has been one of the reasons that has made him abuse her as he has done.

2. Lady.--Indeed, she has been used very ill by him, or somebody for him.

1. Lady.--Yes, he has reported strange things, but they are all lies.

2. Lady.--Well; but pray, Madam, what was the reason, if we may be so free, that she turned him off after she had entertained him so long?

1. Lady.--Oh, Madam! reason enough; I wonder he should pretend, when he knew his own circumstances too, to court a lady of her fortune.

2. Lady.--Why, are not his circumstances good, then?

1. Lady.--No, Madam. Good! alas, he has no bottom.

2. Lady.--No bottom! Why, you surprise me; we always looked upon him to be a man of substance, and that he was very well in the world.

1. Lady.--It is all a cheat, Madam; there's nothing in it; when it came to be made out, nothing at all in it.

2. Lady.--That cannot be, Madam; Mr ---- has lived always in good reputation and good credit in his business.

1. Lady.--It is all sunk again then, if it was so; I don't know.

2. Lady.--Why did she entertain him so long, then?

1. Lady.--Alas! Madam, how could she know, poor lady, till her friends inquired into things? But when they came to look a little narrowly into it, they soon found reason to give her a caution, that he was not the man she took him for.

2. Lady.--Well, it is very strange; I am sure he passed for another man among us.

1. Lady.--It must be formerly, then, for they tell me his credit has been sunk these three or four years; he had need enough indeed to try for a greater fortune, he wants it enough.

2. Lady.--It is a sad thing when men look out for fortunes to heal their trade-breaches with, and make the poor wife patch up their old bankrupt credit.

1. Lady.--Especially, Madam, when they know themselves to be gone so far, that even with the addition they can stand but a little while, and must inevitably bring the lady to destruction with them.

2. Lady.--Well, I could never have thought Mr ---- was in such circumstances.

3. Lady.--Nor I; we always took him for a ten thousand pound man.

1. Lady.--They say he was deep in the bubbles, Madam.

2. Lady.--Nay, if he was gotten into the South Sea, that might hurt him indeed, as it has done many a gentleman of better estates than he.

1. Lady.--I don't know whether it was the South Sea, or some other bubbles, but he was very near making a bubble of her, and 3000 into the bargain.

2. Lady.--I am glad she has escaped him, if it be so; it is a sign her friends took a great deal of care of her.

1. Lady.--He won't hold it long; he will have his desert, I hope; I don't doubt but we shall see him in the Gazette quickly for a bankrupt.

2. Lady.--If he does not draw in some innocent young thing that has her fortune in her own hands to patch him up.

1. Lady.--I hope not, Madam; I hear he is blown where he went since, and there, they say, they have made another discovery of him, in a worse circumstance than the other.

2. Lady.--How, pray?

1. Lady.--Nothing, Madam, but a particular kind of illness, &c. I need say no more.

2. Lady.--You astonish me! Why, I always thought him a very civil, honest, sober man.

1. Lady.--This is a sad world, Madam; men are seldom known now, till it is too late; but sometimes murder comes out seasonably, and so I understand it is here; for the lady had not gone so far with him, but that she could go off again.

2. Lady.--Nay, it was time to go off again, if it were so.

1. Lady.--Nay, Madam, I do not tell this part of my own knowledge; I only heard so, but I am afraid there is too much in it.


Thus ended this piece of hellish wildfire, upon the character and credit of a tradesman, the truth of all which was no more than this--that the tradesman, disliking his first lady, left her, and soon after, though not presently, courted another of a superior fortune indeed, though not for that reason; and the first lady, provoked at being cast off, and, as she called it, slighted, raised all this clamour upon him, and persecuted him with it, wherever she was able.

Such a discourse as this at a tea-table, it could not be expected would be long a secret; it ran from one tittle-tattle society to another; and in every company, snow-ball like, it was far from lessening, and it went on, till at length it began to meet with some contradiction, and the tradesman found himself obliged to trace it as far and as well as he could.

But it was to no purpose to confront it; when one was asked, and another was asked, they only answered they heard so, and they heard it in company in such a place, and in such a place, and some could remember where they had it, and some could not; and the poor tradesman, though he was really a man of substance, sank under it prodigiously: his new mistress, whom he courted, refused him, and would never hear any thing in his favour, or trouble herself to examine whether it were true or no--it was enough, she said, to her, that he was laden with such a report; and, if it was unjust, she was sorry for it, but the misfortune must be his, and he must place it to the account of his having made some enemies, which she could not help.

As to his credit, the slander of the first lady's raising was spread industriously, and with the utmost malice and bitterness, and did him an inexpressible prejudice; every man he dealt with was shy of him; every man he owed any thing to came for it, and, as he said, he was sure he should see the last penny demanded; it was his happiness that he had wherewith to pay, for had his circumstances been in the least perplexed, the man had been undone; nay, as I have observed in another case, as his affairs might have lain, he might have been able to have paid forty shillings in the pound, and yet have been undone, and been obliged to break, and shut up his shop.

It is true, he worked through it, and he carried it so far as to fix the malice of all the reports pretty much upon the first lady, and particularly so far as to discover that she was the great reason of his being so positively rejected by the other; but he could never fix it so upon her as to recover any damages of her, only to expose her a little, and that she did not value, having, as she said wickedly, had her full revenge of him, and so indeed she had.

The sum of the matter is, and it is for this reason I tell you the story, that the reputation of a tradesman is too much at the mercy of men's tongues or women's either; and a story raised upon a tradesman, however malicious, however false, and however frivolous the occasion, is not easily suppressed, but, if it touches his credit, as a flash of fire it spreads over the whole air like a sheet; there is no stopping it.

My inference from all this shall be very brief; if the tongues of every ill-disposed envious gossip, whether man-gossip or woman-gossip, for there are of both sorts, may be thus mischievous to the tradesman, and he is so much at the mercy of the tattling slandering part of the world, how much more should tradesmen be cautious and wary how they touch or wound the credit and character of one another. There are but a very few tradesmen who can say they are out of the reach of slander, and that the malice of enemies cannot hurt them with the tongue. Here and there one, and those ancient and well established, may be able to defy the world; but there are so many others, that I think I may warn all tradesmen against making havoc of one another's reputation, as they would be tenderly used in the same case.

And yet I cannot but say it is too much a tradesman's crime, I mean to speak slightly and contemptibly of other tradesman, their neighbours, or perhaps rivals in trade, and to run them down in the characters they give of them, when inquiry may be made of them, as often is the case. The reputation of tradesmen is too often put into the hands of their fellow-tradesmen, when ignorant people think to inform themselves of their circumstances, by going to those whose interest it is to defame and run them down.

I know no case in the world in which there is more occasion for the golden rule, Do as you would be done unto; and though you may be established, as you may think, and be above the reach of the tongues of others, yet the obligation of the rule is the same, for you are to do as you would be done unto, supposing that you were in the same condition, or on a level with the person.

It is confessed that tradesmen do not study this rule in the particular case I am now speaking of. No men are apter to speak slightly and coldly of a fellow-tradesman than his fellow-tradesmen, and to speak unjustly so too; the reasons for which cannot be good, unless it can be pleaded for upon the foundation of a just and impartial concern in the interest of the inquirer; and even then nothing must be said but what is consistent with strict justice and truth: all that is more than that, is mere slander and envy, and has nothing of the Christian in it, much less of the neighbour or friend. It is true that friendship may be due to the inquirer, but still so much justice is due to the person inquired of, that it is very hard to speak in such cases, and not be guilty of raising dust, as they call it, upon your neighbour, and at least hurting, if not injuring him.

It is, indeed, so difficult a thing, that I scarce know what stated rule to lay down for the conduct of a tradesman in this case:--A tradesman at a distance is going to deal with another tradesman, my neighbour; and before he comes to bargain, or before he cares to trust him, he goes, weakly enough perhaps, to inquire of him, and of his circumstances, among his neighbours and fellow-tradesmen, perhaps of the same profession or employment, and who, among other things, it may be, are concerned by their interest, that this tradesman's credit should not rise too fast. What must be done in this case?

If I am the person inquired of, what must I do? If I would have this man sink in his reputation, or be discredited, and if it is for my interest to have him cried down in the world, it is a sore temptation to me to put in a few words to his disadvantage; and yet, if I do it in gratification of my private views or interest, or upon the foot of resentment of any kind whatever, and let it be from what occasion it will, nay, however just and reasonable the resentment is, or may be, it is utterly unjust and unlawful, and is not only unfair as a man, but unchristian, and is neither less nor more than a secret revenge, which is forbidden by the laws of God and man.

If, on the other hand, I give a good character of the man, or of his reputation, I mean, of his credit in business, in order to have the inquirer trust him, and at the same time know or believe that he is not a sound and good man (that is, as to trade, for it is his character in trade that I am speaking of), what am I doing then? It is plain I lay a snare for the inquirer, and am at least instrumental to his loss, without having really any design to hurt him; for it is to be supposed, before he came to me to inquire, I had no view of acting any thing to his prejudice.

Again, there is no medium, for to refuse or decline giving a character of the man, is downright giving him the worst character I can--it is, in short, shooting him through the head in his trade. A man comes to me for a character of my neighbouring tradesman; I answer him with a repulse to his inquiry thus--


A.--Good sir, do not ask me the character of my neighbours--I resolve to meddle with nobody's character; pray, do not inquire of me.

B.--Well, but, sir, you know the gentleman; you live next door to him; you can tell me, if you please, all that I desire to know, whether he is a man in credit, and fit to be trusted, or no, in the way of his business.

A.--I tell you, sir, I meddle with no man's business; I will not give characters of my neighbours--it is an ill office--a man gets no thanks for it, and perhaps deserves none.

B.--But, sir, you would be willing to be informed and advised, if it were your own case.

A.--It may be so, but I cannot oblige people to inform me.

B.--But you would entreat it as a favour, and so I come to you.

A.--But you may go to any body else.

B.--But you are a man of integrity; I can depend upon what you say; I know you will not deceive me; and, therefore, I beg of you to satisfy me.

A.--But I desire you to excuse me, for it is what I never do--I cannot do it.

B.--But, sir, I am in a great strait; I am just selling him a great parcel of goods, and I am willing to sell them too, and yet I am willing to be safe, as you would yourself, if you were in my case.

A.--I tell you, sir, I have always resolved to forbear meddling with the characters of my neighbours--it is an ill office. Besides, I mind my own business; I do not enter into the inquiries after other people's affairs.

B.--Well, sir, I understand you, then; I know what I have to do.

A.--What do you mean by that?

B.--Nothing, sir, but what I suppose you would have me understand by it.

A.--I would have you understand what I say--namely, that I will meddle with nobody's business but my own.

B.--And I say I understand you; I know you are a good man, and a man of charity, and loth to do your neighbours any prejudice, and that you will speak the best of every man as near as you can.

A.--I tell you, I speak neither the best nor the worst--I speak nothing.

B.--Well, sir, that is to say, that as charity directs you to speak well of every man, so, when you cannot speak well, you refrain, and will say nothing; and you do very well, to be sure; you are a very kind neighbour.

A.--But that is a base construction of my words; for I tell you, I do the like by every body.

B.--Yes, sir, I believe you do, and I think you are in the right of it--am fully satisfied.

A.--You act more unjustly by me than by my neighbour; for you take my silence, or declining to give a character, to be giving an ill character.

B.--No, sir, not for an ill character.

A.--But I find you take it for a ground of suspicion.

B.--I take it, indeed, for a due caution to me, sir; but the man may be a good man for all that, only--

A.--Only what? I understand you--only you won't trust him with your goods.

B.--But another man may, sir, for all that, so that you have been kind to your neighbours and to me too, sir--and you are very just. I wish all men would act so one by another; I should feel the benefit of it myself among others, for I have suffered deeply by ill tongues, I am sure.

A.--Well, however unjust you are to me, and to my neighbour too, I will not undeceive you at present; I think you do not deserve it.


He used a great many more words with him to convince him that he did not mean any discredit to his neighbour tradesman; but it was all one; he would have it be, that his declining to give his said neighbour a good character was giving him an ill character, which the other told him was a wrong inference. However, he found that the man stood by his own notion of it, and declined trusting the tradesman with the goods, though he was satisfied he (the tradesman) was a sufficient man.

Upon this, he was a little uneasy, imagining that he had been the cause of it, as indeed he had, next to the positive humour of the inquirer, though it was not really his fault; neither was the construction the other made of it just to his intention, for he aimed at freeing himself from all inquiries of that nature, but found there was no prevailing with him to understand it any other way than he did; so, to requite the man a little in his own way, he contrived the following method: he met with him two or three days after, and asked him if he had sold his goods to the person his neighbour?

'No,' says he; 'you know I would not.'

'Nay,' says the other, 'I only knew you said so; I did not think you would have acted so from what I said, nor do I think I gave you any reason.'

'Why,' says he, 'I knew you would have given him a good character if you could, and I knew you were too honest to do it, if you were not sure it was just.'

'The last part I hope is true, but you might have believed me honest too, in what I did say, that I had resolved to give no characters of any body.'

'As to that, I took it, as any body would, to be the best and modestest way of covering what you would not have be disclosed, namely, that you could not speak as you would; and I also judged that you therefore chose to say nothing.'

'Well, I can say no more but this; you are not just to me in it, and I think you are not just to yourself neither.'

They parted again upon this, and the next day the first tradesman, who had been so pressed to give a character of his neighbour, sent a man to buy the parcel of goods of the other tradesman, and offering him ready money, bought them considerably cheaper than the neighbour-tradesman was to have given for them, besides reckoning a reasonable discount for the time, which was four months, that the first tradesman was to have given to his neighbour.

As soon as he had done, he went and told the neighbour-tradesman what he had done, and the reason of it, and sold the whole parcel to him again, giving the same four months' credit for them as the first man was to have given, and taking the discount for time only to himself, gave him all the advantage of the buying, and gave the first man the mortification of knowing it all, and that the goods were not only for the same man, but that the very tradesman, whom he would not believe when he declined giving a character of any man in general, had trusted him with them.

He pretended to be very angry, and to take it very ill; but the other told him, that when he came to him for a character of the man, and he told him honestly, that he would give no characters at all, that it was not for any ill to his neighbour that he declined it, he ought to have believed him; and that he hoped, when he wanted a character of any of his neighbours again, he would not come to him for it.

This story is to my purpose in this particular, which is indeed very significant; that it is the most difficult thing of its kind in the world to avoid giving characters of our neighbouring tradesmen; and that, let your reasons for it be what they will, to refuse giving a character is giving a bad character, and is generally so taken, whatever caution or arguments you use to the contrary.

In the next place, it is hard indeed, if an honest neighbour be in danger of selling a large parcel of goods to a fellow, who I may know it is not likely should be able to pay for them, though his credit may in the common appearance be pretty good at that time; and what must I do? If I discover the man's circumstances, which perhaps I am let into by some accident, I say, if I discover them, the man is undone; and if I do not, the tradesman, who is in danger of trusting him, is undone.

I confess the way is clear, if I am obliged to speak at all in the case: the man unsound is already a bankrupt at bottom, and must fail, but the other man is sound and firm, if this disaster does not befall him: the first has no wound given him, but negatively; he stands where he stood before; whereas the other is drawn in perhaps to his own ruin. In the next place, the first is a knave, or rather thief, for he offers to buy, and knows he cannot pay; in a word, he offers to cheat his neighbour; and if I know it, I am so far confederate with him in the cheat.

In this case I think I am obliged to give the honest man a due caution for his safety, if he desires my advice; I cannot say I am obliged officiously to go out of my way to do it, unless I am any way interested in the person--for that would be to dip into other men's affairs, which is not my proper work; and if I should any way be misinformed of the circumstances of the tradesman I am to speak of, and wrong him, I may be instrumental to bring ruin causelessly upon him.

In a word, it is a very nice and critical case, and a tradesman ought to be very sure of what he says or does in such a case, the good or evil fate of his neighbour lying much at stake, and depending too much on the breath of his mouth. Every part of this discourse shows how much a tradesman's welfare depends upon the justice and courtesy of his neighbours, and how nice and critical a thing his reputation is.

This, well considered, would always keep a tradesman humble, and show him what need he has to behave courteously and obligingly among his neighbours; for one malicious word from a man much meaner than himself, may overthrow him in such a manner, as all the friends he has may not be able to recover him; a tradesman, if possible, should never make himself any enemies.

But if it is so fatal a thing to tradesmen to give characters of one another, and that a tradesman should be so backward in it for fear of hurting his neighbour, and that, notwithstanding the character given should be just, and the particular reported of him should be true, with how much greater caution should we act in like cases where what is suggested is really false in fact, and the tradesman is innocent, as was the case in the tradesman mentioned before about courting the lady. If a tradesman may be ruined and undone by a true report, much more may he be so by a false report, by a malicious, slandering, defaming tongue. There is an artful way of talking of other people's reputation, which really, however some people salve the matter, is equal, if not superior, in malice to the worst thing they can say; this is, by rendering them suspected, talking doubtfully of their characters, and of their conduct, and rendering them first doubtful, and then strongly suspected. I don't know what to say to such a man. A gentleman came to me the other day, but I knew not what to say; I dare not say he is a good man, or that I would trust him with five hundred pounds myself; if I should say so, I should belie my own opinion. I do not know, indeed, he may be a good man at bottom, but I cannot say he minds his business; if I should, I must lie; I think he keeps a great deal of company, and the like.

Another, he is asked of the currency of his payments, and he answers suspiciously on that side too; I know not what to say, he may pay them at last, but he does not pay them the most currently of any man in the street, and I have heard saucy boys huff him at his door for bills, on his endeavouring to put them off; indeed, I must needs say I had a bill on him a few weeks ago for a hundred pounds, and he paid me very currently, and without any dunning, or often calling upon, but it was I believe because I offered him a bargain at that time, and I supposed he was resolved to put a good face upon his credit.

A tradesman, that would do as he would be done by, should carefully avoid these people who come always about, inquiring after other tradesman's characters. There are men who make it their business to do thus; and as they are thereby as ready to ruin and blow up good fair-dealing tradesmen as others, so they do actually surprise many, and come at their characters earlier and nearer than they expect they would.

Tradesmen, I say, that will thus behave to one another, cannot be supposed to be men of much principle, but will be apt to lay hold of any other advantage, how unjust soever, and, indeed, will wait for an occasion of such advantages; and where is there a tradesman, but who, if he be never so circumspect, may some time or other give his neighbour, who watches for his halting, advantage enough against him. When such a malicious tradesman appears in any place, all the honest tradesmen about him ought to join to expose him, whether they are afraid of him or no: they should blow him among the neighbourhood, as a public nuisance, as a common barrettor, or raiser of scandal; by such a general aversion to him they would depreciate him, and bring him into so just a contempt, that no body would keep him company, much less credit any thing he said; and then his tongue would be no slander, and his breath would be no blast, and nobody would either tell him any thing, or hear any thing from him: and this kind of usage, I think, is the only way to put a stop to a defamer; for when he has no credit of his own left, he would be unable to hurt any of his neighbour's.


Daniel Defoe

Sorry, no summary available yet.