Fleetwood, William

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William Fleetwood, Royal Chaplain in England during the late seventeenth century, preached a sermon, the Sermon against Clipping, in the Guildhall chapel on 16 December 1694. Clipping was a means of debasing coins by removing precious metal from around their edges. Perfectly round coins with a ribbed edge, called a milled edge, were introduced to prevent clippers from robbing domestic currency of its precious metal content. Before the development of the milled edge, governments constantly struggled with the problem of clipped coins, often enacting legislation governing the use of clipped coins.

Fleetwood took the text for his sermon from Genesis 23:16, a passage in which Abraham paid for land to bury his dead:

Abraham agreed with Ephron; and Abraham weighed out for Ephron the silver which he had named in the hearing of the Hittites, four hundred shekels of silver, according to the weights current among merchants.

Before plunging into the hellfire and damnation portion of his sermon, Fleetwood gave a reasoned treatment of monetary theory, citing the importance that money be portable, durable, and beautiful. According to Fleetwood, in the days of Abraham, silver:

was valued both by Buyer and Seller according to its weight but because it was too troublesome, and took up too much time, to carry Scales Men found it convenient to have a stamp or Mark set upon every piece, to signify its weight and value. Yet something was still needed to secure the truth of Payments: Men might be fraudulent and false.

(Chown, 1994)

Fleetwood proceeded to denounce the sin and evil of clipping, arguing that the failure of the clipper to identify or see a specific victim of his sin did not absolve him of moral responsibility. He exclaimed that the convicted “can be sorry for their great misfortune, but they know not how to repent the sense of these offenses affects them little or nothing” (Chown, 1994).

He told of the punishment in past times for the crime of clipping, such as severing the right hand. In past times some “who were found to Adulterate the King’s Coin, were so punished as if the Laws intended to prevent Adultery itself” (Chown, 1994). He noted that in his own time society had become merciful, letting clippers off with a modern execution, “a short and easy death.”

In the following year Parliament again legislated against clipping and counterfeiting, prompting one observer to say, “But did this prohibition, tho by Act of Parliament, cure the evil? Alas no. The forbidden Fruit, was of too luscious a relish to be so easily relinquished. It was not in the power of any paper spell to stop the spreading Gangrene” (Chown, 1994).

Despite the pessimism expressed in the above passage, the government was already laying plans to replace all coinage in circulation with milled-edge coins. The milled-edge coins effectively discouraged the clipper by making the effects of clipping very noticeable.