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Chapter 17

OF HONESTY IN DEALING, AND LYING


There is some difference between an honest man and an honest tradesman; and though the distinction is very nice, yet, I must say, it is to be supported. Trade cannot make a knave of an honest man, for there is a specific difference between honesty and knavery which can never be altered by trade or any other thing; nor can that integrity of mind which describes and is peculiar to a man of honesty be ever abated to a tradesman; the rectitude of his soul must be the same, and he must not only intend or mean honestly and justly, but he must do so; he must act honestly and justly, and that in all his dealings; he must neither cheat nor defraud, over-reach nor circumvent his neighbour, nor indeed anybody he deals with; nor must he design to do so, or lay any plots or snares to that purpose in his dealing, as is frequent in the general conduct of too many, who yet call themselves honest tradesmen, and would take it very ill to have any one tax their integrity.

But after all this is premised, there are some latitudes, like poetical licences in other cases, which a tradesman is and must be allowed, and which by the custom and usage of trade he may give himself a liberty in, which cannot be allowed in other cases to any man, no, nor to the tradesman himself out of his business--I say, he may take some liberties, but within bounds; and whatever some pretenders to strict living may say, yet that tradesman shall pass with me for a very honest man, notwithstanding the liberty which he gives himself of this kind, if he does not take those liberties in an exorbitant manner; and those liberties are such as these.

1. The liberty of asking more than he will take. I know some people have condemned this practice as dishonest, and the Quakers for a time stood to their point in the contrary practice, resolving to ask no more than they would take, upon any occasion whatsoever, and choosing rather to lose the selling of their goods, though they could afford sometimes to take what was offered, rather than abate a farthing of the price they had asked; but time and the necessities of trade made them wiser, and brought them off of that severity, and they by degrees came to ask, and abate, and abate again, just as other business tradesmen do, though not perhaps as some do, who give themselves a fuller liberty that way.

Indeed, it is the buyers that make this custom necessary; for they, especially those who buy for immediate use, will first pretend positively to tie themselves up to a limited price, and bid them a little and a little more, till they come so near the sellers' price, that they, the sellers, cannot find in their hearts to refuse it, and then they are tempted to take it, notwithstanding their first words to the contrary. It is common, indeed, for the tradesman to say, 'I cannot abate anything,' when yet they do and can afford it; but the tradesman should indeed not be understood strictly and literally to his words, but as he means it, namely, that he cannot reasonably abate, and that he cannot afford to abate: and there he may be in earnest, namely, that he cannot make a reasonable profit of his goods, if he is obliged to abate, and so the meaning is honest, that he cannot abate; and yet rather than not take your money, he may at last resolve to do it, in hopes of getting a better price for the remainder, or being willing to abate his ordinary gain, rather than disoblige the customer; or being perhaps afraid he should not sell off the quantity; and many such reasons may be given why he submits to sell at a lower price than he really intended, or can afford to do; and yet he cannot be said to be dishonest, or to lie, in saying at first he cannot, or could not, abate.

A man in trade is properly to be said not to be able to do what he cannot do to his profit and advantage. The English cannot trade to Hungary, and into Slavonia--that is to say, they cannot do it to advantage; but it is better for them to trade to Venice with their goods, and let the Venetians carry on a trade into Hungary through Dalmatia, Croatia, &c, and the like in other places.

To bring it down to particular cases: one certain merchant cannot deal in one sort of goods which another merchant is eminent for; the other merchant is as free to the trade as he, but he cannot do it to profit; for he is unacquainted with the trade, and it is out of his way, and therefore he cannot do it.

Thus, to the case in hand. The tradesman says he cannot sell his goods under such a price, which in the sense of his business is true; that is to say, he cannot do it to carry on his trade with the usual and reasonable advantage which he ought to expect, and which others make in the same way of business.

Or, he cannot, without underselling the market, and undervaluing the goods, and seeming to undersell his neighbour-shopkeepers, to whom there is a justice due in trade, which respects the price of sale; and to undersell is looked upon as an unfair kind of trading.

All these, and many more, are the reasons why a tradesman may be said not to lie, though he should say he cannot abate, or cannot sell his goods under such a price, and yet may after think fit to sell you his goods something lower than he so intended, or can afford to do, rather than lose your custom, or rather than lose the selling of his goods, and taking your ready money, which at that time he may have occasion for.

In these cases, I cannot say a shopkeeper should be tied down to the literal meaning of his words in the price he asks, or that he is guilty of lying in not adhering stiffly to the letter of his first demand; though, at the same time, I would have every tradesman take as little liberty that way as may be: and if the buyer would expect the tradesman should keep strictly to his demand, he should not stand and haggle, and screw the shopkeeper down, bidding from one penny to another, to a trifle within his price, so, as it were, to push him to the extremity, either to turn away his customer for a sixpence, or some such trifle, or to break his word: as if he would say, I will force you to speak falsely, or turn me away for a trifle.

In such cases, if, indeed, there is a breach, the sin is the buyer's: at least, he puts himself in the devil's stead, and makes himself both tempter and accuser; nor can I say that the seller is in that case so much to blame as the buyer. However, it were to be wished that on both sides buying and selling might be carried on without it; for the buyer as often says, 'I won't give a farthing more,' and yet advances, as the seller says, 'I can't abate a farthing,' and yet complies. These are, as I call them, trading lies; and it were to be wished they could be avoided on both sides; and the honest tradesman does avoid them as much as possible, but yet must not, I say, in all cases, be tied up to the strict, literal sense of that expression, I cannot abate, as above.[26]

2. Another trading licence is that of appointing, and promising payments of money, which men in business are oftentimes forced to make, and forced to break, without any scrupple; nay, and without any reproach upon their integrity. Let us state this case as clearly as we can, and see how it stands as to the morality of it, for that is the point in debate.

The credit usually given by one tradesman to another, as particularly by the merchant to the wholesale-man, and by the wholesale-man to the retailer, is such, that, without tying the buyer up to a particular day of payment, they go on buying and selling, and the buyer pays money upon account, as his convenience admits, and as the seller is content to take it. This occasions the merchant, or the wholesale-man, to go about, as they call it, a-dunning among their dealers, and which is generally the work of every Saturday. When the merchant comes to his customer the wholesale-man, or warehouse-keeper, for money, he tells him, 'I have no money, Sir; I cannot pay you now; if you call next week, I will pay you.' Next week comes, and the merchant calls again; but it is the same thing, only the warehouseman adds, 'Well, I will pay you next week, without fail.' When the week comes, he tells him he has met with great disappointments, and he knows not what to do, but desires his patience another week: and when the other week comes, perhaps he pays him, and so they go on.

Now, what is to be said for this? In the first place, let us look back to the occasion. This warehouse-keeper, or wholesale-man, sells the goods which he buys of the merchant--I say, he sells them to the retailers, and it is for that reason I place it first there. Now, as they buy in smaller quantities than he did of the merchant, so he deals with more of them in number, and he goes about among them the same Saturday, to get in money that he may pay his merchant, and he receives his bag full of promises, too, every where instead of money, and is put off from week to week, perhaps by fifty shopkeepers in a day; and their serving him thus obliges him to do the same to the merchant.

Again, come to the merchant. Except some, whose circumstances are above it, they are by this very usage obliged to put off the Blackwell-hall factor, or the packer, or the clothier, or whoever they deal with, in proportion; and thus promises go round for payment, and those promises are kept or broken as money comes in, or as disappointments happen; and all this while there is no breach of honesty, or parole; no lying, or supposition of it, among the tradesmen, either on one side or other.

But let us come, I say, to the morality of it. To break a solemn promise is a kind of prevarication; that is certain, there is no coming off of it; and I might enlarge here upon the first fault, namely, of making the promise, which, say the strict objectors, they should not do. But the tradesman's answer is this: all those promises ought to be taken as they are made--namely, with a contingent dependence upon the circumstances of trade, such as promises made them by others who owe them money, or the supposition of a week's trade bringing in money by retail, as usual, both of which are liable to fail, or at least to fall short; and this the person who calls for the money knows, and takes the promise with those attending casualties; which if they fail, he knows the shopkeeper, or whoever he is, must fail him too.

The case is plain, if the man had the money in cash, he need not make a promise or appointment for a farther day; for that promise is no more or less than a capitulation for a favour, a desire or condition of a week's forbearance, on his assurance, that if possible he will not fail to pay him at the time. It is objected, that the words if possible should then be mentioned, which would solve the morality of the case: to this I must answer, that I own I think it needless, unless the man to whom the promise was made could be supposed to believe the promise was to be performed, whether it were possible or no; which no reasonable man can be supposed to do.

There is a parallel case to this in the ordinary appointment of people to meet either at place or time, upon occasions of business. Two friends make an appointment to meet the next day at such a house, suppose a tavern at or near the Exchange: one says to the other, 'Do not fail me at that time, for I will certainly be there;' the other answers, 'I will not fail.' Some people, who think themselves more religious than others, or at least would be thought so, object against these positive appointments, and tell us we ought to say, 'I will, if it pleases God.' or I will, life and health permitting;[27] and they quote the text for it, where our Saviour expressly commands to use such a caution, and which I shall say nothing to lessen the force of.

But to say a word to our present custom. Since Christianity is the public profession of the country, and we are to suppose we not only are Christians ourselves, but that all those we are talking to, or of, are also Christians, we must add that Christianity supposes we acknowledge that life, and all the contingencies of life, are subjected to the dominion of Providence, and liable to all those accidents which God permits to befall us in the ordinary course of our living in the world, therefore we expect to be taken in that sense in all such appointments; and it is but justice to us as Christians, in the common acceptation of our words, that when I say, I will certainly meet my friend at such a place, and at such a time, he should understand me to mean, if it pleases God to give me life and health, or that his Providence permits me to come, or, as the text says, 'If the Lord will;' for we all know that unless the Lord will, I cannot meet, or so much as live.

Not to understand me thus, is as much as to say, you do not understand me to be a Christian, or to act like a Christian in any thing; and on the other hand, they that understand it otherwise, I ought not to understand them to be Christians. Nor should I be supposed to put any neglect or dishonour upon the government of Providence in the world, or to suggest that I did not think myself subjected to it, because I omitted the words in my appointment.

In like manner, when a man comes to me for money, I put him off: that, in the first place, supposes I have not the money by me, or cannot spare it to pay him at that time; if it were otherwise, it may be supposed I would pay him just then. He is then perhaps impatient, and asks me when I will pay him, and I tell him at such a time. This naturally supposes, that by that time I expect to be supplied, so as to be able to pay; I have current bills, or promises of money, to be paid me, or I expect the ordinary takings in my shop or warehouse will supply me to make good my promise: thus my promise is honest in its foundation, because I have reason to expect money to come in to make me in a condition to perform it; but so it falls out, contrary to my expectation, and contrary to the reason of things, I am disappointed, and cannot do it; I am then, indeed, a trespasser upon my creditor, whom I ought to have paid, and I am under affliction enough on that account, and I suffer in my reputation for it also; but I cannot be said to be a liar, an immoral man, a man that has no regard to my promise, and the like; for at the same time I have perhaps used my utmost endeavour to do it, but am prevented by many several men breaking promise with me, and I am no way able to help myself.

It is objected to this, that then I should not make my promises absolute, but conditional. To this I say, that the promises, as is above observed, are really not absolute, but conditional in the very nature of them, and are understood so when they are made, or else they that hear them do not understand them, as all human appointments ought to be understood; I do confess, it would be better not to make an absolute promise at all, but to express the condition or reserve with the promise, and say, 'I will if I can,' or, 'I will if people are just to me, and perform their promises to me.'

But to this I answer, the importunity of the person who demands the payment will not permit it--nothing short of a positive promise will satisfy--they never believe the person intends to perform if he makes the least reserve or condition in his promise, though, at the same time, they know that even the nature of the promise and the reason of the promise strongly implies the condition--I say, the importunity of the creditor occasions the breach, which he reproaches the debtor with the immorality of.[28]

Custom, indeed, has driven us beyond the limits of our morals in many things, which trade makes necessary, and which we cannot now avoid; so that if we must pretend to go back to the literal sense of the command; if our yea must be yea, and our nay nay; if no man must go beyond, or defraud his neighbour; if our conversation must be without covetousness, and the like--why, then, it is impossible for tradesmen to be Christians, and we must unhinge all business, act upon new principles in trade, and go on by new rules--in short, we must shut up shop, and leave off trade, and so in many things we must leave off living; for as conversation is called life, we must leave off to converse: all the ordinary communication of life is now full of lying; and what with table-lies, salutation-lies, and trading-lies, there is no such thing as every man speaking truth with his neighbour.

But this is a subject would launch me out beyond the bounds of a chapter, and make a book by itself. I return to the case particularly in hand--promises of payment of money. Men in trade, I say, are under this unhappy necessity, they are forced to make them, and they are forced to break them; the violent pressing and dunning, and perhaps threatening too, of the creditor, when the poor shopkeeper cannot comply with his demand, forces him to promise; in short, the importunate creditor will not be otherwise put off, and the poor shopkeeper, almost worried, and perhaps a little terrified too, and afraid of him, is glad to do and say any thing to pacify him, and this extorts a promise, which, when the time comes, he is no more able to perform than he was before, and this multiplies promises, and consequently breaches, so much of which are to be placed to the accounts of force, that I must acknowledge, though the debtor is to blame, the creditor is too far concerned in the crime of it to be excused, and it were to be wished some other method could be found out to prevent the evil, and that tradesmen would resolve with more courage to resist the importunities of the creditor, be the consequence what it would, rather than break in upon their morals, and load their consciences with the reproaches of it for all their lives after.

I remember I knew a tradesman, who, labouring long under the ordinary difficulties of men embarrassed in trade, and past the possibility of getting out, and being at last obliged to stop and call his people together, told me, that after he was broke, though it was a terrible thing to him at first too, as it is to most tradesmen, yet he thought himself in a new world, when he was at a full stop, and had no more the terror upon him of bills coming for payment, and creditors knocking at his door to dun him, and he without money to pay. He was no more obliged to stand in his shop, and be bullied and ruffled by his creditors, nay, by their apprentices and boys, and sometimes by porters and footmen, to whom he was forced to give good words, and sometimes strain his patience to the utmost limits: he was now no more obliged to make promises, which he knew he could not perform, and break promises as fast as he made them, and so lie continually both to God and man; and, he added, the ease of his mind which he felt upon that occasion was so great, that it balanced all the grief he was in at the general disaster of his affairs; and, farther, that even in the lowest of his circumstances which followed, he would not go back to live as he had done, in the exquisite torture of want of money to pay his bills and his duns.

Nor was it any satisfaction to him to say, that it was owing to the like breach of promise in the shopkeepers, and gentlemen, and people whom he dealt with, who owed him money, and who made no conscience of promising and disappointing him, and thereby drove him to the necessity of breaking his own promises; for this did not satisfy his mind in the breaches of his word, though they really drove him to the necessity of it: but that which lay heaviest upon him was the violence and clamour of creditors, who would not be satisfied without such promises, even when he knew, or at least believed, he should not be able to perform.

Nay, such was the importunity of one of his merchants, that when he came for money, and he was obliged to put him off, and to set him another day, the merchant would not be satisfied, unless he would swear that he would pay him on that day without fail. 'And what said you to him?' said I. 'Say to him!' said he, 'I looked him full in the face, and sat me down without speaking a word, being filled with rage and indignation at him; but after a little while he insisted again, and asked me what answer I would make him, at which I smiled, and asked him, if he were in earnest? He grew angry then, and asked me if I laughed at him, and if I thought to laugh him out of his money? I then asked him, if he really did expect I should swear that I would pay him the next week, as I proposed to promise? He told me, yes, he did, and I should swear it, or pay him before he went out of my warehouse.

I wondered, indeed, at the discourse, and at the folly of the merchant, who, I understood afterwards, was a foreigner; and though I thought he had been in jest at first, when he assured me he was not, I was curious to hear the issue, which at first he was loth to go on with, because he knew it would bring about all the rest; but I pressed him to know--so he told me that the merchant carried it to such a height as put him into a furious passion, and, knowing he must break some time or other, he was resolved to put an end to his being insulted in that manner; so at last he rose up in a rage, told the merchant, that as no honest man could take such an oath, unless he had the money by him to pay it, so no honest man could ask such a thing of him; and that, since he must have an answer, his answer was, he would not swear such an oath for him, nor any man living, and if he would not be satisfied without it, he might do his worst--and so turned from him; and knowing the man was a considerable creditor, and might do him a mischief, he resolved to shut up that very night, and did so, carrying all his valuable goods with him into the Mint, and the next day he heard that his angry creditor waylaid him the same afternoon to arrest him, but he was too quick for him; and, as he said, though it almost broke his heart to shut up his shop, yet that being delivered from the insulting temper of his creditor, and the perpetual perplexities of want of money to pay people when they dunned him, and, above all, from the necessity of making solemn promises for trifling sums, and then breaking them again, was to him like a load taken off his back when he was weary, and could stand under it no longer; it was a terror to him, he said, to be continually lying, breaking faith with all mankind, and making promises which he could not perform.

This necessarily brings me to observe here, and it is a little for the ease of the tradesman's mind in such severe cases, that there is a distinction to be made in this case between wilful premeditated lying, and the necessity men may be driven to by their disappointments, and other accidents of their circumstances, to break such promises, as they had made with an honest intention of performing them.

He that breaks a promise, however solemnly made, may be an honest man, but he that makes a promise with a design to break it, or with no resolution of performing it, cannot be so: nay, to carry it farther, he that makes a promise, and does not do his endeavour to perform it, or to put himself into a condition to perform it, cannot be an honest man. A promise once made supposes the person willing to perform it, if it were in his power, and has a binding influence upon the person who made it, so far as his power extends, or that he can within the reach of any reasonable ability perform the conditions; but if it is not in his power to perform it, as in this affair of payment of money is often the case, the man cannot be condemned as dishonest, unless it can be made appear, either

1. That when he made the promise, he knew he should not be able to perform it; or,

2. That he resolved when he made the promise not to perform it, though he should be in a condition to do it. And in both these cases the morality of promising cannot be justified, any more than the immorality of not performing it.

But, on the other hand, the person promising, honestly intending when he made the appointment to perform it if possible, and endeavouring faithfully to be able, but being rendered unable by the disappointment of those on whose promises he depended for the performance of his own; I cannot say that such a tradesman can be charged with lying, or with any immorality in promising, for the breach was not properly his own, but the people's on whom he depended; and this is justified from what I said before, namely, that every promise of that kind supposes the possibility of such a disappointment, even in the very nature of its making; for, if the man were not under a moral incapacity of payment, he would not promise at all, but pay at the time he promised. His promising, then, implies that he has only something future to depend upon, to capacitate him for the payment; that is to say, the appointments of payment by other tradesmen, who owe him (that promises) the money, or the daily supply from the ordinary course of his trade, suppose him a retailer in a shop, and the like; all which circumstances are subject to contingencies and disappointments, and are known to be so by the person to whom the promise is made; and it is with all those contingencies and possibilities of disappointment, that he takes or accepts the tradesman's promise, and forbears him, in hopes that he will be able to perform, knowing, that unless he receives money as above, he cannot.

I must, however, acknowledge, that it is a very mortifying thing to a tradesman, whether we suppose him to be one that values his credit in trade, or his principle as to honest dealing, to be obliged to break his word; and therefore, where men are not too much under the hatches to the creditor, and they can possibly avoid it, a tradesman should not make his promises of payment so positive, but rather conditional, and thereby avoid both the immorality and the discredit of breaking his word; nor will any tradesman, I hope, harden himself in a careless forwardness to promise, without endeavouring or intending to perform, from any thing said in this chapter; for be the excuse for it as good as it will, as to the point of strict honesty, he can have but small regard to his own peace of mind, or to his own credit in trade, who will not avoid it as much as possible.

FOOTNOTES:

[26] [The practice of haggling about prices is now very properly abandoned by all respectable dealers in goods, greatly to the comfort of both sellers and buyers.]

[27] [It was a fashion of trade in Defoe's time, and down to a somewhat later period, to thrust the phrase 'God willing' into almost every promise or announcement, the purport of which might possibly be thwarted by death or any other accident. The phrase, in particular, appeared at the beginning of all letters in which a merchant announced his design of visiting retail dealers in the provinces; as, 'God willing, I shall have the honour of waiting on you on the 15th proximo:' hence English riders, or commercial travellers, came to be known in Scotland by the nickname of God-willings.' This pious phraseology seems now to be banished from all mercantile affairs, except the shipping of goods.]

[28] [Notwithstanding all this ingenious reasoning, we cannot help thinking that it would be better if conditional promises were made in conditional language. It is not necessarily to be understood in all cases that a direct unreserved promise means something conditional, so that there is a liability to being much deceived and grievously disappointed by all such promises. A sound morality certainly demands that the tradesman should use the practices described in the text as rarely, and with as much reluctance, as possible, and that, like other men, he should make his words, as nearly as may be, the echo of his thoughts.]


Daniel Defoe

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