Jonathan Swift on Wood's Halfpence

Jonathan Swift
Penny Readings for Irish People
Volume 2

We give below the first of the famous “Drapier's Letters,” those wonderful compositions by which the immortal Swift rekindled the national spirit of Ireland after it had long lain dormant and apparently dead. Most Irish readers, we dare say, are conversant with the general facts regarding those Letters, and we need here do no more than briefly allude to them. There had been for some time a lack of copper coinage in Ireland, and a supply being requisite, the king granted a patent to one William Wood to coin £108,000, in halfpence, for use in that kingdom. The granting of this patent was an act of favouritism, it was in some sense unconstitutional, and it was a clear violation of the rights of the Irish Parliament and Privy Council. Swift desired to rouse the whole people against this outrage on what remained of national authority in Ireland, and the mode he adopted was to issue anonymously those letters, in which he declared the coin to be base, and argued that its reception would ruin the kingdom. Having succeeded in working the popular mind into a ferment on this subject, he, in his Fourth Letter, skilfully turned the public mind to higher thoughts and a larger question—the question of Irish legislative independence—which was involved in the transaction. The printer of this Letter was prosecuted by the Government, and a large reward was offered, but vainly, for the discovery of the author. Swift's design proved eminently successful. The Government were compelled to withdraw the obnoxious patent, and the national spirit awakened in his letter triumphed, under Grattan, in 1782, and though subsequently overclouded for a time, has never been, and never can be, extinguished in Ireland:—

To the Tradesmen, Shopkeepers, Farmers, and Country-People in General, of the Kingdom of Ireland.

BRETHREN, FRIENDS, COUNTRYMEN, AND FELLOW-SUBJECTS—What I intend now to say to you is, next to your duty to God and the care of your salvation, of the greatest concern to yourselves and your children; your bread and clothing, and every common necessary of life, entirely depend upon it. Therefore I do most earnestly exhort you as men, as Christians, as parents, and as lovers of your country, to read this paper with the utmost attention, or get it read to you by others; which that you may do at the less expense, I have ordered the printer to sell it at the lowest rate.

It is a great fault among you, that when a person writes with no other intention than to do good, you will not be at the pains to read his advices. One copy of this paper may serve a dozen of you, which will be less than a farthing a-piece. It is your folly that you have no common or general interest in your view, not even the wisest among you; neither do you know or inquire or care who are your friends, or who are your enemies.

About four years ago a little book was written to advise all people to wear the manufactures of this our own dear country. It had no other design, said nothing against the king or Parliament, or any person whatsoever, yet the poor printer was prosecuted two years with the utmost violence; and even some weavers themselves, for whose sake it was written, being upon the jury, found him guilty. This would be enough to discourage any man from endeavouring to do good, when you will either neglect him, or fly in his face for his pains; and when he must expect only danger to himself, and to be fined and imprisoned, perhaps to his ruin.

However, I cannot but warn you once more of the manifest destruction before your eyes, if you do not behave yourselves as you ought.

I will therefore first tell you the plain story of the fact; and then I will lay before you how you ought to act in common prudence, and according to the laws of your country.

The fact is thus: it having been many years since copper halfpence were last coined in this kingdom, they have been for some time very scarce, and many counterfeits passed about under the name of raps. Several applications were made to England that we might have liberty to coin new ones, as in former times we did; but they did not succeed. At last one Mr. Wood, a mean, ordinary man, a hardware dealer, procured a patent, under his Majesty's broad seal, to coin £108,000 in copper for this kingdom; which patent, however, did not oblige anyone here to take them, unless they pleased. Now you must know that the halfpence and farthings in England pass for very little more than they are worth; and if you should beat them to pieces, and sell them to the brazier, you would not lose much above a penny in a shilling. But Mr. Wood made his halfpence of such base metal, and so much smaller ones, that the brazier would hardly give you above a penny of good money for a shilling of his; so that this sum of £108,000, in good gold and silver, must be given for trash that will not be worth above eight or nine thousand pounds real value. But this is not the worst; for Mr. Wood, when he pleaseth, may by stealth send over another £108,000, and buy all our goods for eleven parts in twelve under the value. For example, if a hatter sells a dozen of hats for five shillings a-piece, which amounts to three pounds, and receives the payment in Mr. Wood's coin, he really receives only the value of five shillings.

Perhaps you will wonder how such an ordinary fellow as this Mr. Wood could have so much interest as to get his Majesty's broad seal for so great a sum of bad money to be sent to this poor country, and that all the nobility and gentry here could not obtain the same favour, and let us make our own halfpence as we used to do! Now I will make that matter very plain. We are at a great distance from the king's court, and have nobody there to solicit for us, although a great number of lords and squires, whose estates are here, and are our countrymen, spend all their lives and fortunes there. But this same Mr. Wood was able to attend constantly for his own interest; he is an Englishman, and had great friends, and it seems knew very well where to give money, to those that would speak to others that could speak to the king, and would tell a fair story. And his Majesty, and perhaps the great lord or lords who advised him, might think it was for our country's good; and so, as the lawyers express it, the king was deceived in his grant; which often happens in all reigns. And, I am sure, if his Majesty knew that such a patent, if it should take effect according to the desire of Mr. Wood, would utterly ruin this kingdom, which hath given such great proofs of its loyalty, he would immediately recal it, and, perhaps, show his displeasure to somebody or other; but a word to the wise is enough. Most of you must have heard with what anger our honourable House of Commons received an account of this Wood's patent. There were several fine speeches made upon it, and plain proofs that it was all a wicked cheat from the bottom to the top; and several smart votes were printed, which that same Wood had the assurance to answer likewise in print, and in so confident a way, as if he were a better man than our whole Parliament put together.

This Wood, as soon as his patent was passed, or soon after, sends over a great many barrels of those halfpence to Cork and other seaport towns, and, to get them off, offered a hundred pounds in his coin for seventy or eighty in silver. But the collectors of the king's customs very honestly refused to take them, and so did almost everybody else. And since the Parliament had condemned them, and desired the king that they might be stopped, all the kingdom do abominate them.

But Wood is still working underhand to force his halfpence upon us; and if he can, by help of his friends in England, prevail so far as to get an order that the commissioners and collectors of the king's money shall receive them, and that the army is to be paid with them, then he thinks his work shall be done. And this is the difficulty you will be under in such a case. For the common soldier, when he goes to the market or ale-house, will offer this money, and if it be refused, perhaps he will swagger and hector, and threaten to beat the butcher or ale-wife, or take the goods by force, and throw them the bad halfpence. In this and the like cases, the shopkeeper or victualler, or any other tradesman, hath no more to do than to demand ten times the price of his goods, if it is to be paid in Wood's money—for example, twenty pence of that money for a quart of ale, and so in all things else—and not part with his goods till he gets the money.

For suppose you go to an ale-house with that base money, and the landlord gives you a quart for four of those halfpence, what must the victualler do? His brewer will not be paid in that coin; or if the brewer should be such a fool, the farmers will not take it from them for their bere,[1] because they are bound by their leases to pay their rents in good and lawful money of England, which this is not, nor of Ireland neither; and the squire their landlord will never be so bewitched to take such trash for his land; so that it must certainly stop somewhere or other, and wherever it stops it is the same thing, and we are all undone.

The common weight of these halfpence is between four and five to an ounce; suppose five, then three shillings and four pence will weigh a pound, and consequently twenty shillings will weigh six pounds butter weight. Now, there are many hundred farmers who pay two hundred pounds a year rent; therefore when one of these farmers comes with his half-year's rent, which is one hundred pounds, it will be at least six hundred pounds weight—which is three horses' load.

If a squire hath a mind to come to town to buy clothes and wine and spices for himself and family, or perhaps to pass the Winter here, he must bring with him five or six horses loaden with sacks, as the farmers bring their corn; and when his lady comes in her coach to our shops it must be followed by a car loaded with Mr. Wood's money. And I hope we shall have the grace to take it for no more than it is worth.

They say Squire Conolly hath sixteen thousand pounds a year; now, if he sends for his rent to town, as it is likely he does, he must have two hundred and fifty horses to bring up his half-year's rent, and two or three great cellars in his house for stowage. But what the bankers will do I cannot tell. For I am assured that some great bankers keep by them forty thousand pounds in ready cash to answer all payments, which sum in Mr. Wood's money would require twelve hundred horses to carry it.

For my own part, I am already resolved what to do; I have a pretty good shop of Irish stuffs and silks, and, instead of taking Mr. Wood's bad copper, I intend to truck with my neighbours, the butchers, and bakers, and brewers, and the rest, goods for goods; and the little gold and silver I have I will keep by me like my heart's blood till better times, or until I am just ready to starve; and then I will buy Mr. Wood's money as my father did the brass money in King James's time, who could buy ten pound of it with a guinea; and I hope to get as much for a pistole, and so purchase bread from those who will be such fools as to sell it me.

These halfpence, if they once pass, will soon be counterfeit, because it may be cheaply done, the stuff is so base. The Dutch, likewise, will probably do the same thing, and send them over to us to pay for our goods; and Mr. Wood will never be at rest, but coin on; so that in some years we shall have at least five times £108,000 of this lumber. Now the current money of this kingdom is not reckoned to be above four hundred thousand pounds in all; and while there is a silver sixpence left, these bloodsuckers will never be quiet.

When once the kingdom is reduced to such a condition, I will tell you what must be the end. The gentlemen of estates will all turn off their tenants for want of payment; because, as I told you before, the tenants are obliged by their leases to pay sterling, which is lawful current money of England; then they will turn their own farmers, as too many of them do already—run all into sheep where they can, keeping only such other cattle as are necessary; then they will be their own merchants, and send their wool, and butter, and hides, and linen beyond sea for ready money and wine and spices and silks. They will keep only a few miserable cottagers. The farmers must rob or beg, or leave their country. The shopkeepers in this and every other town must break and starve; for it is the landed man that maintains the merchant, and shopkeeper, and handicraftsman.

But when the squire turns farmer and merchant himself, all the good money he gets from abroad he will hoard up to send for England, and keep some poor tailor or weaver, and the like, in his own house, who will be glad to get bread at any rate.

I should never have done if I were to tell you all the miseries that we shall undergo, if we be so foolish and wicked as to take this cursed coin. It would be very hard if all Ireland should be put into one scale, and this sorry fellow Wood into the other—that Mr. Wood should weigh down this whole kingdom, by which England gets above a million of good money every year clear into their pockets; and that is more than the English do by all the world beside.

But your great comfort is, that, as his Majesty's patent doth not oblige you to take this money, so the laws have not given the Crown a power of forcing the subjects to take what money the king pleaseth; for then, by the same reason, we might be bound to take pebble-stones or cockle-shells or stamped leather for current coin, if ever we should happen to live under an ill prince; he might likewise by the same power make a guinea pass for ten pounds, a shilling for twenty shillings, and so on; by which he would in a short time get all the silver and gold of the kingdom into his own hands, and leave us nothing but brass or leather, or what he pleaseth. Neither is anything reckoned more cruel or oppressive in the French Government than their common practice of calling in all their money after they have sunk it very low, and then coining it anew at a much higher value, which, however, is not the thousandth part so wicked as this abominable project of Mr. Wood. For the French give their subjects silver for silver and gold for gold; but this fellow will not so much as give us good brass or copper for our gold and silver, nor even a twelfth part of their worth.

Having said thus much, I will now go on to tell you the judgments of some great lawyers in this matter, whom I feed on purpose for your sakes, and got their opinions under their hands, that I might be sure I went upon good grounds.

A famous law-book, called the “Mirror of Justice,” discoursing of the charters (or laws) ordained by our ancient kings, declares the law to be as follows:—It was ordained that no king of this realm should change or impair the money, or make any other money than of gold or silver, without the assent of all the counties—that is, as my Lord Coke says, without the assent of Parliament.

This book is very ancient, and of great authority for the time in which it was wrote, and with that character is often quoted by that great lawyer, my Lord Coke. By the laws of England several metals are divided into lawful or true metal, and unlawful or false metal; the former comprehends silver or gold, the latter all baser metals. That the former is only to pass in payments appears by an Act of Parliament made the twentieth year of Edward the First, called the statute concerning the passing of pence, which I give you here as I got it translated into English; for some of our laws at that time were, as I am told, written in Latin:

“Whoever, in buying or selling, presume to refuse an halfpenny or farthing of lawful money, bearing the stamp which it ought to have, let him be seized on as a contemner of the king's majesty, and cast into prison.”

By this statute no person is to be reckoned a contemner of the king's majesty, and for that crime to be committed to prison, but he who refuseth to accept the king's coin made of lawful metal; by which, as I observed before, silver and gold only are intended.

That this is the true construction of the Act, appears not only from the plain meaning of the words, but from my Lord Coke's observation upon it. By this Act (says he) it appears that no subject can be forced to take in buying or selling, or other payments, any money made but of lawful metal; that is, of silver or gold.

The law of England gives the king all mines of gold and silver, but not the mines of other metals; the reason of which prerogative or power, as it is given by my Lord Coke, is because money can be made of gold and silver, but not of other metals.

Pursuant to this opinion, halfpence and farthings were anciently made of silver, which is evident from the Act of Parliament of Henry the Fourth, chap. 4, whereby it is enacted as follows:—Item, for the great scarcity that is at present within the realm of England of halfpence and farthings of silver, it is ordained and established that the third part of all the money of silver plate which shall be brought to the bullion shall be made into halfpence and farthings. This shows that by the words halfpenny and farthing of lawful money in that statute concerning the passing of pence, is meant a small coin in halfpence and farthings of silver.

This is further manifest from the statute of the ninth year of Edward the Third, chap. 3, which enacts—That no sterling halfpenny or farthing be molten for to make vessels or any other things by the goldsmiths, nor others, upon the forfeiture of the money so molten (or melted).

By another Act in this king's reign black money was not to be current in England. And by an Act made in the eleventh year of his reign, chap. 5, galley halfpence were not to pass. What kind of coin these were I do not know; but I presume they were made of base metal. And these Acts were no new laws, but further declarations of the old laws relating to the coin.

Thus the law stands in relation to coin. Nor is there any example to the contrary, except one in Davis's Reports, who tells us that, in the time of Tyrone's rebellion, Queen Elizabeth ordered money of mixed metal to be coined in the Tower of London, and sent over hither for payment of the army, obliging all people to receive it, and commanding that all silver money should be taken only as bullion—that is, for as much as it weighed. Davis tells us several particulars in this matter, too long here to trouble you with, and that the Privy Council of this kingdom obliged a merchant in England to receive this mixed money for goods transmitted hither.

But this proceeding is rejected by all the best lawyers as contrary to law, the Privy Council here having no such legal power. And besides it is to be considered that the queen was then under great difficulties, by a rebellion in this kingdom assisted from Spain; and whatever is done in great exigencies and dangerous times should never be an example to proceed by in seasons of peace and quietness.

I will now, my dear friends, to save you the trouble, set before you, in short, what the law obligeth you to do, and what it doth not oblige you to.

First—You are obliged to take all money in payments which is coined by the king, and is of the English standard or weight, provided it be of gold or silver.

Secondly—You are not obliged to take any money which is not of gold or silver; not only the halfpence or farthings of England, but of any other country. And it is merely for conveniency or ease that you are content to take them; because the custom of coining silver halfpence and farthings hath long been left off—I suppose on account of their being subject to be lost.

Thirdly—Much less are we obliged to take those vile halfpence of that same Wood, by which you must lose almost eleven pence in every shilling.

Therefore, my friends—stand to it one and all—refuse this filthy trash. It is no treason to rebel against Mr. Wood. His Majesty, in his patent, obligeth nobody to take these halfpence. Our gracious prince hath no such ill advisers about him; or if he had, yet you see the laws have not left it in the king's power to force us to take any coin but what is lawful, of right standard, gold or silver. Therefore you have nothing to fear.

And let me in the next place apply myself particularly to you who are the poorer sort of tradesmen. Perhaps you may think you will not be so great losers as the rich if these halfpence should pass, because you seldom see any silver, and your customers come to your shops or stalls with nothing but brass, which you likewise find hard to be got. But, you may take my word, whenever this money gains footing among you, you will be utterly undone. If you carry these halfpence to a shop for tobacco or brandy, or any other thing you want, the shopkeeper will advance his goods accordingly, or else he must break and leave the key under the door. Do you think I will sell you a yard of tenpenny stuff for twenty of Mr. Wood's halfpence? No, not under two hundred at least; neither will I be at the trouble of counting, but weigh them in a lump. I will tell you one thing further; that if Mr. Wood's project should take, it will ruin even our beggars.

For when I give a beggar a halfpenny it will quench his thirst, or go a good way to fill his belly; but the twelfth part of a halfpenny will do him no more service than if I should give him three pins out of my sleeve.

In short, these halfpence are like the accursed thing which, as the Scripture tells us, the children of Israel were forbidden to touch. They will run about like the plague and destroy everyone who lays his hands upon them. I have heard scholars talk of a man who told the king that he had invented a way to torment people by putting them into a bull of brass with a fire under it; but the prince put the projector first into his own brazen bull to make the experiment. This very much resembles the project of Mr. Wood; and the like of this may possibly be Mr. Wood's fate—that the brass he contrived to torment this kingdom with may prove his own torment and his destruction at last.

N.B.—The author of this paper is informed by persons who have made it their business to be exact in their observations on the true value of those halfpence, that any person may expect to get a quart of twopenny ale for thirty-six of them.

I desire that all families may keep this paper carefully by them, to refresh their memories whenever they shall have farther notice of Mr. Wood's halfpence or any other the like imposture.


[1] A sort of barley in Ireland.