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Chapter 24

OF CREDIT IN TRADE,

AND HOW A TRADESMAN OUGHT TO VALUE AND IMPROVE IT:

HOW EASILY LOST,

AND HOW HARD IT IS TO BE RECOVERED


Credit is, or ought to be, the tradesman's mistress; but I must tell him too, he must not think of ever casting her off, for if once he loses her, she hardly ever returns; and yet she has one quality, in which she differs from most of the ladies who go by that name--if you court her, she is gone; if you manage so wisely as to make her believe you really do not want her, she follows and courts you. But, by the way, no tradesman can be in so good circumstances as to say he does not want, that is, does not stand in need of credit.

Credit, next to real stock, is the foundation, the life and soul, of business in a private tradesman; it is his prosperity; it is his support in the substance of his whole trade; even in public matters, it is the strengh and fund of a nation. We felt, in the late wars, the consequence of both the extremes--namely, of wanting and of enjoying a complete fund of credit.

Credit makes war, and makes peace; raises armies, fits out navies, fights battles, besieges towns; and, in a word, it is more justly called the sinews of war than the money itself,[42] because it can do all these things without money--nay, it will bring in money to be subservient, though it be independent.

Credit makes the soldier fight without pay, the armies march without provisions, and it makes tradesmen keep open shop without stock. The force of credit is not to be described by words; it is an impregnable fortification, either for a nation, or for a single man in business; and he that has credit is invulnerable, whether he has money or no; nay, it will make money, and, which is yet more, it will make money without an intrinsic, without the materia medica (as the doctors have it); it adds a value, and supports whatever value it adds, to the meanest substance; it makes paper pass for money, and fills the Exchequer and the banks with as many millions as it pleases, upon demand. As I said in last chapter, it increases commerce; so, I may add, it makes trade, and makes the whole kingdom trade for many millions more than the national specie can amount to.

It may be true, as some allege, that we cannot drive a trade for more goods than we have to trade with, but then it is as true, that it is by the help of credit that we can increase the quantity, and that more goods are made to trade with than would otherwise be; more goods are brought to market than they could otherwise sell; and even in the last consumption, how many thousands of families wear out their clothes before they pay for them, and eat their dinner upon tick with the butcher! Nay, how many thousands who could not buy any clothes, if they were to pay for them in ready money, yet buy them at a venture upon their credit, and pay for them as they can!

Trade is anticipated by credit, and it grows by the anticipation; for men often buy clothes before they pay for them, because they want clothes before they can spare the money; and these are so many in number, that really they add a great stroke to the bulk of our inland trade. How many families have we in England that live upon credit, even to the tune of two or three years' rent of their revenue, before it comes in!--so that they must be said to eat the calf in the cow's belly. This encroachment they make upon the stock in trade; and even this very article may state the case: I doubt not but at this time the land owes to the trade some millions sterling; that is to say, the gentlemen owe to the tradesmen so much money, which, at long run, the rents of their lands must pay.

The tradesmen having, then, trusted the landed men with so much, where must they have it but by giving credit also to one another? Trusting their goods and money into trade, one launching out into the hands of another, and forbearing payment till the lands make it good out of their produce, that is to say, out of their rents.

The trade is not limited; the produce of lands may be and is restrained. Trade cannot exceed the bounds of the goods it can sell; but while trade can increase its stock of cash by credit, it can increase its stock of goods for sale, and then it has nothing to do but to find a market to sell at; and this we have done in all parts of the world, still by the force of our stocks being so increased.

Thus, credit raising stock at home, that stock enables us to give credit abroad; and thus the quantity of goods which we make, and which is infinitely increased at home, enables us to find or force a vent abroad. This is apparent, our home trade having so far increased our manufacture, that England may be said to be able almost to clothe the whole world; and in our carrying on the foreign trade wholly upon the English stocks, giving credit to almost all the nations of the world; for it is evident, our stocks lie at this time upon credit in the warehouses of the merchants in Spain and Portugal, Holland and Germany, Italy and Turkey; nay, in New Spain and Brazil.

The exceeding quantity of goods thus raised in England cannot be supposed to be the mere product of the solid wealth and stocks of the English people; we do not pretend to it; the joining those stocks to the value of goods, always appearing in England in the hands of the manufacturers, tradesmen, and merchants, and to the wealth which appears in shipping, in stock upon land, and in the current coin of the nation, would amount to such a prodigy of stock, as not all Europe could pretend to.

But all this is owing to the prodigious thing called credit, the extent of which in the British trade is as hard to be valued, as the benefit of it to England is really not to be described. It must be likewise said, to the honour of our English tradesman, that they understand how to manage the credit they both give and take, better than any other tradesmen in the world; indeed, they have a greater opportunity to improve it, and make use of it, and therefore may be supposed to be more ready in making the best of their credit, than any other nations are.

Hence it is that we frequently find tradesmen carrying on a prodigious trade with but a middling stock of their own, the rest being all managed by the force of their credit; for example, I have known a man in a private warehouse in London trade for forty thousand pounds a-year sterling, and carry on such a return for many years together, and not have one thousand pounds' stock of his own, or not more--all the rest has been carried on upon credit, being the stocks of other men running continually through his hands; and this is not practised now and then, as a great rarity, but is very frequent in trade, and may be seen every day, as what in its degree runs through the whole body of the tradesmen in England.[43]

Every tradesman both gives and takes credit, and the new mode of setting it up over their shop and warehouse doors, in capital letters, No trust by retail, is a presumption in trade; and though it may have been attempted in some trades, was never yet brought to any perfection; and most of those trades, who were the forwardest to set it up, have been obliged to take it down again, or act contrary to it in their business, or see some very good customers go away from them to other shops, who, though they have not brought money with them, have yet good foundations to make any tradesmen trust them, and who do at proper times make payments punctual enough.

On the contrary, instead of giving no trust by retail, we see very considerable families who buy nothing but on trust; even bread, beer, butter, cheese, beef, and mutton, wine, groceries, &c, being the things which even with the meanest families are generally sold for ready money. Thus I have known a family, whose revenue has been some thousands a-year, pay their butcher, and baker, and grocer, and cheesemonger, by a hundred pounds at a time, and be generally a hundred more in each of their debts, and yet the tradesmen have thought it well worth while to trust them, and their pay has in the end been very honest and good.

This is what I say brings land so much in debt to trade, and obliges the tradesman to take credit of one another; and yet they do not lose by it neither, for the tradesmen find it in the price, and they take care to make such families pay warmly for the credit, in the rate of their goods; nor can it be expected it should be otherwise, for unless the profit answered it, the tradesman could not afford to be so long without his money.

This credit takes its beginning in our manufactures, even at the very first of the operation, for the master manufacturer himself begins it. Take a country clothier, or bay-maker, or what other maker of goods you please, provided he be one that puts out the goods to the making; it is true that the poor spinners and weavers cannot trust; the first spin for their bread, and the last not only weave for their bread, but they have several workmen and boys under them, who are very poor, and if they should want their pay on Saturday night, must want their dinner on Sunday; and perhaps would be in danger of starving with their families, by the next Saturday.

But though the clothier cannot have credit for spinning and weaving, he buys his wool at the stapler's or fellmonger's, and he gets two or three months' credit for that; he buys his oil and soap of the country shopkeeper, or has it sent down from his factor at London, and he gets longer credit for that, and the like of all other things; so that a clothier of any considerable business, when he comes to die, shall appear to be 4000 or 5000 in debt.

But, then, look into his books, and you shall find his factor at Blackwell Hall, who sells his cloths, or the warehouse-keeper who sells his duroys and druggets, or both together, have 2000 worth of goods in hand left unsold, and has trusted out to drapers, and mercers, and merchants, to the value of 4000 more; and look into his workhouse at home, namely, his wool-lofts, his combing-shop, his yarn-chamber, and the like, and there you will find it--in wool unspun, and in yarn spun, and in wool at the spinners', and in yarn at and in the looms at the weavers'; in rape-oil, gallipoli oil, and perhaps soap, &c, in his warehouses, and in cloths at the fulling-mill, and in his rowing-shops, finished and unfinished, 4000 worth of goods more; so that, though this clothier owed 5000 at his death, he has nevertheless died in good circumstances, and has 5000 estate clear to go among his children, all his debts paid and discharged. However, it is evident, that at the very beginning of this manufacturer's trade, his 5000 stock is made 10,000, by the help of his credit, and he trades for three times as much in the year; so that 5000 stock makes 10,000 stock and credit, and that together makes 30,000 a-year returned in trade.

When you come from him to the warehouse-keeper in London, there you double and treble upon it, to an unknown degree; for the London wholesale man shall at his death appear to have credit among the country clothiers for 10,000 or 15,000, nay, to 20,000, and yet have kept up an unspotted credit all his days.

When he is dead, and his executors or widow come to look into things, they are frightened with the very appearance of such a weight of debts, and begin to doubt how his estate will come out at the end of it. But when they come to cast up his books and his warehouse, they find,

In debts abroad, perhaps 30,000

In goods in his warehouse 12,000

So that, in a word, the man has died immensely rich; that is to say, worth between 20,000 and 30,000, only that, having been a long standard in trade, and having a large stock, he drove a very great business, perhaps to the tune of 60,000 or 70,000 a-year; so that, of all the 30,000 owing, there may be very little of it delivered above four to six months, and the debtors being many of them considerable merchants, and good paymasters, there is no difficulty in getting in money enough to clear all his own debts; and the widow and children being left well, are not in such haste for the rest but that it comes in time enough to make them easy; and at length it all comes in, or with but a little loss.

As it is thus in great things, it is the same in proportion with small; so that in all the trade of England, you may reckon two-thirds of it carried on upon credit; in which reckoning I suppose I speak much within compass, for in some trades there is four parts of five carried on so, and in some more.

All these things serve to show the infinite value of which credit is to the tradesman, as well as to trade itself; and it is for this reason I have closed my instructions with this part of the discourse. Credit is the choicest jewel the tradesman is trusted with; it is better than money many ways; if a man has 10,000 in money, he may certainly trade for 10,000, and if he has no credit, he cannot trade for a shilling more.

But how often have we seen men, by the mere strength of their credit, trade for ten thousand pounds a-year, and have not one groat of real stock of their own left in the world! Nay, I can say it of my own knowledge, that I have known a tradesman trade for ten thousand pounds a-year, and carry it on with full credit to the last gasp, then die, and break both at once; that is to say, die unsuspected, and yet, when his estate has been cast up, appear to be five thousand pounds worse than nothing in the world: how he kept up his credit, and made good his payments so long, is indeed the mystery, and makes good what I said before, namely, that as none trade so much upon credit in the world, so none know so well how to improve and manage credit to their real advantage, as the English tradesmen do; and we have many examples of it, among our bankers especially, of which I have not room to enter at this time into the discourse, though it would afford a great many diverting particulars.[44]

I have mentioned on several occasions in this work, how nice and how dainty a dame this credit is, how soon she is affronted and disobliged, and how hard to be recovered, when once distasted and fled; particularly in the story of the tradesman who told his friends in a public coffee-house that he was broke, and should shut up his shop the next day. I have hinted how chary we ought to be of one another's credit, and that we should take care as much of our neighbour tradesman's credit as we would of his life, or as we would of firing his house, and, consequently, the whole street.

Let me close all with a word to the tradesman himself, that if it be so valuable to him, and his friends should be all so chary of injuring his reputation, certainly he should be very chary of it himself. The tradesman that is not as tender of his credit as he is of his eyes, or of his wife and children, neither deserves credit, nor will long be master of it.

As credit is a coy mistress, and will not easily be courted, so she is a mighty nice touchy lady, and is soon affronted; if she is ill used, she flies at once, and it is a very doubtful thing whether ever you gain her favour again.

Some may ask me here, 'How comes it to pass, since she is so nice and touchy a lady, that so many clowns court and carry her, and so many fools keep her so long?' My answer is, that those clowns have yet good breeding enough to treat her civilly; he must be a fool indeed that will give way to have his credit injured, and sit still and be quiet-that will not bustle and use his utmost industry to vindicate his own reputation, and preserve his credit.

But the main question for a tradesman in this case, and which I have not spoken of yet, is, 'What is the man to do to preserve his credit? What are the methods that a young tradesman is to take, to gain a good share of credit in his beginning, and to preserve and maintain it when it is gained?'[45]

Every tradesman's credit is supposed to be good at first. He that begins without credit, is an unhappy wretch of a tradesman indeed, and may be said to be broke even before he sets up; for what can a man do, who by any misfortune in his conduct during his apprenticeship, or by some ill character upon him so early, begins with a blast upon his credit? My advice to such a young man would be, not to set up at all; or if he did, to stay for some time, till by some better behaviour, either as a journeyman, or as an assistant in some other man's shop or warehouse, he had recovered himself; or else to go and set up in some other place or town remote from that where he has been bred; for he must have a great assurance that can flatter himself to set up, and believe he shall recover a lost reputation.

But take a young tradesman as setting up with the ordinary stock, that is to say, a negative character, namely, that he has done nothing to hurt his character, nothing to prejudice his behaviour, and to give people a suspicion of him: what, then, is the first principle on which to build a tradesman's reputation? and what is it he is to do?

The answer is short. Two things raise credit in trade, and, I may say, they are the only things required; there are some necessary addenda, but these are the fundamentals.

1. Industry. 2. Honesty.

I have dwelt upon the first; the last I have but a few words to say to, but they will be very significant; indeed, that head requires no comment, no explanations or enlargements: nothing can support credit, be it public or private, but honesty; a punctual dealing, a general probity in every transaction. He that once breaks through his honesty, violates his credit--once denominate a man a knave, and you need not forbid any man to trust him.

Even in the public it appears to be the same thing. Let any man view the public credit in its present flourishing circumstances, and compare it with the latter end of the years of King Charles II. after the Exchequer had been shut up, parliamentary appropriations misapplied, and, in a word, the public faith broken; who would lend? Seven or eight per cent, was given for anticipations in King William's time, though no new fraud had been offered, only because the old debts were unpaid; and how hard was it to get any one to lend money at all!

But, after by a long series of just and punctual dealing, the Parliament making good all the deficient funds, and paying even those debts for which no provision was made, and the like, how is the credit restored, the public faith made sacred again, and how money flows into the Exchequer without calling for, and that at three or four per cent. interest, even from foreign countries as well as from our own people! They that have credit can never want money; and this credit is to be raised by no other method, whether by private tradesmen, or public bodies of men, by nations and governments, but by a general probity and an honest punctual dealing.

The reason of this case is as plain as the assertion; the cause is in itself; no man lends his money but with an expectation of receiving it again with the interest. If the borrower pays it punctually without hesitations and defalcations, without difficulties, and, above all, without compulsion, what is the consequence?--he is called an honest man, he has the reputation of a punctual fair dealer. And what then?--why, then, he may borrow again whenever he will, he may take up money and goods, or anything, upon his bare words, or note; when another man must give bondsmen, or mainprize, that is, a pawn or pledge for security, and hardly be trusted to neither. This is credit.

It is not the quality of the person would give credit to his dealing; not kings, princes, emperors, it is all one; nay, a private shopkeeper shall borrow money much easier than a prince, if the credit of the tradesman has the reputation of being an honest man. Not the crown itself can give credit to the head that wears it, if once he that wears it comes but to mortgage his honour in the matter of payment of money.

Who would have lent King Charles II. fifty pounds on the credit of his word or bond, after the shutting up the Exchequer? The royal word was made a jest of, and the character of the king was esteemed a fluttering trifle, which no man would venture upon, much less venture his money upon.

In King William's time the case was much the same at first; though the king had not broken his credit then with any man, yet how did they break their faith with the whole world, by the deficiency of the funds, the giving high and ruinous interest to men almost as greedy as vultures, the causing the government to pay great and extravagant rates for what they bought, and great premiums for what they borrowed--these were the injuries to the public for want of credit; nor was it in the power of the whole nation to remedy it; on the contrary, they made it still grow worse and worse, till, as above, the parliament recovered it. And how was it done? Not but by the same method a private person must do the same, namely, by doing justly, and fairly, and honestly, by every body.

Thus credit began to revive, and to enlarge itself again; and usury, which had, as it were, eaten up mankind in business, declined, and so things came to their right way again.

The case is the same with a tradesman; if he shuffles in payment, bargains at one time, and pays at another, breaks his word and his honour in the road of his business, he is gone; no man will take his bills, no man will trust him.

The conclusion is open and clear: the tradesman cannot be too careful of his credit, he cannot buy it too dear, or be too careful to preserve it: it is in vain to maintain it by false and loose doing business; by breaking faith, refusing to perform agreements, and such shuffling things as those; the greatest monarch in Europe could not so preserve his credit.

Nothing but probity will support credit; just, and fair, and honourable dealings give credit, and nothing but the same just, and fair, and honourable dealings will preserve it.

FOOTNOTES:

[42] [How strikingly was this proved in the last war, when the British government obtained credit for no less than six hundred millions to conduct warlike operations, and by these means was ultimately victorious.]

[43] [The author's praises of credit must be received with caution. If his descriptions of the credit system of his own day are true, an improvement has since taken place, as business neither is nor can be now carried on to such an extent upon credit--a circumstance that redounds to the advantage of all parties.]

[44] [Defoe speaks of such cases as if there were something laudable in them, whereas it is obviously for the interest of all honest traders, that no such men should be allowed to carry on business.]

[45] [Defoe almost appears in this place to lay capital out of the question, and to represent credit as all in all. Credit is a matter of great consequence; but we must not attempt to carry on business by its means alone. It should only be considered as an aid to capital. Those who, without capital, endeavour to set up in business by means of credit, or, when capital is exhausted, attempt to struggle on by means of credit alone, will, in general, only have a life of anxiety and dispeace for their pains.]


Daniel Defoe

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