Sunday, February 1, 2009

The More Things Change

One of the more entertaining parts of being an historian is coming across statements and laments from hundreds of years ago that sound like they could have appeared in yesterday's newspaper. I suppose that one value of our work is to remind us that, even though we think society is on the brink of total collapse, the problems that so exercise us are not new. I've found a few of these types of statements lately that I thought worth sharing.

1. In 1818, when a committee of the English House of Commons was taking evidence about the need to reform the law that made fraudulent bankruptcy a capital crime, one reform advocate wrote, "I conceive that there is scarcely any person who will think . . . that a man ought to be put to death for the non-delivery of his property; particularly when it is remembered that the offender is not the only person to blame; there must be a feeling in the community, that the imprudent confidence reposed by creditors, is not wholly exempt from censure."

2. In 1710, the creditor of an early Bernie Madoff-sort of schemer was asked why he had violated an agreement made with the debtor in order to get more money by going against the debtor's guarantors, Coggs and Dann. "The said J__ W___ being asked upon some Occasionall discourse, of the justice of their prosecuting Brerewood so violently, after so solemne an Agreement between him and them . . . and the hardship and injustice they had done Mr. Coggs and Dann; made this or the like Answer--"Justice! (he said) they did not minde justice; the Parliament design'd them money, and money they would have right or wrong."

3. "Why do we daily see augment the number of laws? The reason: a great increase in deceit. Deceit grows each day among the majority of men, as we approach the coming of the Antichrist." --Mathias Mareschal, Traicté des changes et rechanges, licites, et illicites, et moyens de pourvoir aux frauds des banqueroutes (Paris: Nicholas Buon, 1625).

4. In 1705, merchants petitioned the English parliament in favor of a bankruptcy bill that they hoped would bail them out of an economic perfect storm brought on by war, natural disaster, over-extension of credit, and a failing economy. One of the arguments they made was, "That unless this BILL be incouraged [sic], it will be utterly impracticable for Persons in this Case to accommodate their Affairs with their respective Creditors, which are very Numerous, many of them unknown; because the Assurances are made in Trust for divers Persons in remote Parts of the Kingdom, and Places beyond the Seas." I sort of thought that for "assurances" (meaning here marine insurance), one could read mortgage backed securities and it would all sound very familiar.