NEWTON WAS HARDLY the only man to gain by what was finally understood as a genuine national crisis. William Chaloner quickly recognized the movable feast created by war, debt, and the collapse of the currency. The only problem was where to begin, given all the ways to take advantage of the desperate shortage of cash. The most obvious choice was to respond to the demand for an adequate supply of currency, which is why the middle years of the 1690s were (literally) the golden age of English counterfeiting. The tally Newton would make in 1696 found that more than one in every ten coins in circulation was a fake.
But among all the counterfeiters racing to get rich off the crisis, Chaloner was unique now in recognizing that he could use his knowledge of coining to play both sides of the street. This time his scam was far more sophisticated and ambitious than simply betraying the occasional accomplice. His biographer referred to it as "his Double Deception, serving and cheating the Nation." He had in his sights nothing less than the Royal Mint itself.
Chaloner's first shot at the Mint came in a spray of paper. The collapse of the coinage had evoked a barrage of broadsides, pamphlets, petitions to Parliament, even books. The influential economic thinker Charles Davenant opined on how to pay for William's Continental war, and John Locke weighed in with at least three short pieces on the proper response to the failing money supply. But the Republic of Letters did not belong only to the well-connected. In that era of emerging global trade, the empty tills of London's markets presented a genuinely novel phenomenon that could not be solved by a return to the practices of a simpler age, as many of the pamphleteers pointed out. They presented an array of observations (The Groans of the Poor) and solutions (Proposals for Supplying the Government with Money on easie Terms). By the height of the crisis, it seemed that everyone in London (and beyond) had some strong view about the nation's finances, and the field was open to an astonishing number of the literate who were willing (and able to pay) to set their thoughts in type. This flood of polemic and diatribe was not merely a reflection of the agitation caused by the crumbling coinage; it also provides another way into the daily experience of what has been called, too narrowly, the scientific revolution taking hold in England.
In the living memory of those who made the discoveries—Newton included—paper as a tool of thought and a means of communication had been constrictingly scarce. The first English paper mill was established in 1557, but it almost certainly made only coarse brown paper used for wrapping, not higher-quality white paper suitable for writing or printing. All of England's writing paper came from Italy or France, and twenty-four sheets cost the equivalent of a day's wage for a laboring man. This is one of the reasons that Shakespeare's plays made it into print only after they were widely acknowledged as a grand achievement. About eighty thousand reams suitable for printing or writing—or roughly seven sheets per person—were imported to England in 1623, the year the First Folio was published (domestic production was still essentially zero). Combined with the cost of the printing itself, the risk of committing anything to the press was so high that no rational businessman would risk a print run unless he was sure of his market.
But by the 1690s, paper imports had shot up, and about a hundred English mills were producing paper domestically. Paper and printing equipment remained expensive, which helps account for the small print runs of even the most important books, like the two hundred fifty or so copies of Newton's Principia. But ideas conveyed in the abstract, impersonal medium of the page became available in late-seventeenth-century England at levels unthinkable a century before. Since its 1665 debut, England's first continuously published newspaper, the London Gazette, had been joined by a cascade of printed works, passing arguments from mind to mind without the need for face-to-face confrontation. The range of an individual voice now extended far beyond the limit of an orator's shout.
The rise of a technology and culture of (relatively) cheap texts could not determine the course of the revolution in science, or in any body of ideas. But it did have an enormous effect on the speed with which it could achieve its impact. One could offer an account of the value of systematic climate measurements, or of the proper way to calculate the flight of a cannonball—or, at a moment of recognized peril, one could take up the problem of the coinage. Hundreds did, with suggestions that were good, bad, ambitious, fanciful, and even criminal. Among them, William Chaloner.
Chaloner first appeared in print in 1694. In a pamphlet titled Reasons Humbly Offered Against Passing an Act for Raising Ten Hundred Thousand Pounds, he made the rather modern-sounding argument that it would be a mistake to raise taxes to make good the shortfall in government revenues caused by deficiencies in the coinage. He had plenty of sparring partners on this issue. One man proposed an inheritance tax of five percent—shocking!—while another proposed higher property taxes for the rich. To no one's surprise, then or now, such ideas went nowhere, and Chaloner was not so foolish as to countenance anything so unthinkable. Rather, the alignment of his views with the interests of men who could be useful in the proper circumstances was almost certainly no coincidence.
Even so, it is hard to avoid the flash of unintended comedy here. William Chaloner writing on tax policy is a bit like John Gotti weighing in on Social Security, or the Kray brothers offering their thoughts on the National Health Service. It is a credit to Chaloner's contemporaries that they seem to have been unmoved by his arguments. None of the wilder schemes to raise revenue were taken seriously, and a Parliament composed of propertied men hardly needed a probably illiterate weaver's son and sometime receiver of stolen goods to tell them how to protect their estates. But the work served Chaloner's purposes, since it was, in essence, his warm-up act.
Chaloner took aim at his real target a few months later. This time he tackled a subject on which he did possess expert knowledge, the benefit of which he kindly revealed under the title Proposals Humbly Offered, for Passing, an Act to Prevent Clipping and Counterfeiting of Money. The first part of this booklet takes up an odd but unquestionably innovative idea to rescue the ever-shrinking coin supply. Chaloner proposed a swift recoinage to issue underweight coins—a currency that would measure about two-thirds of the legal standard, similar to what Newton proposed. That devalued coinage would, he argued, render unauthorized clipping unprofitable. Chaloner then broke new ground: after a brief interval to drive the amateurs out of business, he suggested, the entire stock of money should be recalled a second time, melted down, and remade once more at full weight.
It was a clever-sounding notion—but wholly unrealistic, given the cost of even a single recoinage and the Mint's incapacity for the kind of efficiency Chaloner's proposal demanded. No matter. Chaloner was not actually trying to solve the currency problem; he was advertising himself as an expert on the coinage, a man to notice, and perhaps to use—a point the second part of the pamphlet drove home.
Here Chaloner welcomed his readers into the daily life of a counterfeiter. "All Coyning is done either by Casting or Stamping it," he informed his audience. Skilled practitioners often used silver at or close to Mint standards of fineness, making their profit by striking slightly undersized copies of the real stuff. They needed specific tools: those who cast counterfeits used sand molds held in heatproof flasks, while "Stamping mony is Principally done by the use of Flatting Mills and Sheers." Using casting techniques, Chaloner claimed, "in a Daies time one Man can make 100 [pounds]," while, in somewhat more laborintensive fashion, "By the use of the Flatting Mills, the Coyners of mony do Flat Silver, which they afterwards Stamp, and with the Sheers cut it into mony."
The key to stanching the plague of false coining, Chaloner asserted, lay in denying coiners access to the tools of their illicit trade. The difficulty was that everything used to make money also had a variety of legitimate applications, and cautious crooks hid behind the screen of honest labor. "It being lawful for them to keep such Tooles, in the Night, and other convenient times, they Coyn and afterwards break the Moulds." If they were any good at their trade, he said, in a brazen instance of self-revelation, "the mony being good Silver, it is difficult to discover them."
Chaloner proposed that a seal be placed on all instruments that could be used in coining. Only those who had "a Certificate from the Keeper of the said Seal" could "keep, sell, or dispose of any Sheers, Flatting-Mills, or Flasks." To obtain such a seal would require each applicant to bring with him testimony from "two of the Masters of the Parish they then live in ... that they are of such Trades as do necessarily use such Tools in their lawful Employments."
In keeping with the conventions of the genre, Chaloner carefully listed several objections to his scheme and responded with seemingly unassailable counterarguments. Some might say that it would cost metalworkers too much to comply. Not so, he responded, for even a busy goldsmith could not use more than two pairs of shears, for example. Perhaps coiners could use legitimate metalworkers as frontmen to buy "Sheers, Flasks, &c for them." But no! It would be easy to keep records of the buyers, and "if they offer to Buy more than two or three pair in seven Years, they shall be questioned, and suspected to be Coy[n]ers."
Most important, Chaloner explained, the whole idea of a black market in unlicensed tools was a fantasy. In all England, there were no more than twelve to fourteen master craftsmen capable of making the sophisticated metal tools required for a large-scale coining operation, most of them in London, no more than four in Birmingham and Sheffield. So small a group could be easily watched.
Even if Chaloner's numbers were off—and they probably were—they caught the underlying rhythm of England's transformation from a backwater into a true power in the world. There lived in the nation masters of the most sophisticated technical tasks then known—but not that many. Here was the daily reality in which Chaloner and Newton lived: a kingdom that traded in goods and knowledge across the globe—and that made its nails by hand.
Nothing came of Chaloner's suggestions, in the sense that Parliament ignored his advice. No act was passed to register metalworking tools; no effort was made to police instrument makers' workshops; no ledgers tallied how many pairs of scissors goldsmiths bought and sold. No matter: Chaloner was playing a long game, and for that his writings had the desired effect. Proposals Humbly Offered seems to have caught the eye of at least one important man: Charles Mordaunt, Earl of Monmouth and a former Lord of the Treasury, whom Locke had earlier approached as one of Newton's potential benefactors.
Chaloner's claim of knowledge superior to the Mint's made him potentially valuable in Mordaunt's own risky political gamesmanship. Once King William's confidant, Mordaunt had fallen out of royal favor by the early 1690s. Seeking a return to power, he was looking for possible weaknesses in his successors at the Treasury. His primary target was the man who had become Newton's patron, Charles Montague, Earl of Halifax, now Chancellor of the Exchequer. These two magnates had a long history of intertwined alliance and enmity. Their followers did not, yet. For the moment, each brushed past the other, unknowing.
In the meantime, Chaloner could not have been happier. Mordaunt's support finally forced the government to pay out the thousand-pound reward he had won for betraying the Jacobite printers two years before. Late in the year, with Mordaunt's encouragement and influence, perhaps at his order, Chaloner delivered a scathing indictment of the Mint's incompetence to control—or worse, its complicity in—the debasement of the coinage in testimony before the Privy Council.
It must have been a remarkable moment, the former runaway apprentice and sexual-novelty salesman entering the council room designed by Sir Christopher Wren in the palace of Whitehall. He came to speak to those who spoke to the King. If he could demonstrate that he truly understood the mechanics of moneymaking, and further, could persuade them that his expert knowledge had ferreted out villainy at the heart of the English monetary system, the ultimate prize might already be in reach: entry into the Mint itself.
It did not work out as he might have hoped. In that first appearance Chaloner could not quite convince his hearers that he was the man to set the Mint to rights. But his testimony was taken seriously enough to spark an investigation and to compel the Mint officials to respond to his charges. It was a good start. But before he could produce a more detailed account of the alleged corruption, he needed hard cash. And so, determined to "live as well as any person of Quality in the Kingdom by his Art, which he would follow," he declared, "spight of the Law," Chaloner now came up with perhaps the most inspired scheme of his fertile career.
Here is where Chaloner saw his chance. In August 1694, the Bank of England had opened its doors. Chartered specifically to raise capital from London's rich to lend to the government, it did something else as well, a kind of business never before seen in England. Day after day, clerks passed slips of paper—nicely decorated, to be sure—with numbers written on them, rather large numbers, in fact, and passed them to their customers. Those customers, wealthy men all, placed those papers in their purses or their pockets and walked out into London. They handed their papers on to others, men to whom they owed money—a tax collector at the Treasury, or perhaps a partner in some new business. Eventually that paper made its way back to the Bank. There, on demand, a clerk would fetch the appropriate stack of golden guineas or silver crowns and trade metal for paper.
To some—to Chaloner, certainly—the sudden appearance of what came to be called bank notes must have seemed like a gift from heaven: here at last was the road to wealth, paved not with gold but with sheets of England's first paper money.