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Puritan Economics
Digital History ID 62

Author:   John Winthrop


The New England Puritans, like many Americans before the nineteenth century, rejected the idea that prices should fluctuate freely according to the laws of supply and demand. Instead, they believed that there was a just wage for every trade and a just price for every good. Charging more than this just amount was "oppression," and authorities sought by law to prevent prices or wages from rising above a customary level.

Yet within a few decades of settlement, the Puritan blueprint of an organic, close-knit community, a stable, self-sufficient economy, and a carefully calibrated social hierarchy began to fray as New England became increasingly integrated into the Atlantic economy. To try to maintain traditional social distinctions, Massachusetts Bay colony in 1651 adopted a sumptuary law, which spelled out which persons could wear certain articles of clothing and jewelry.

But as early as the second half of the seventeenth century, a growing number of New Englanders were engaged in an intricate system of Atlantic commerce, selling fish, furs, and timber not only in England but throughout Catholic Europe, investing in shipbuilding, and transporting tobacco, wine, sugar, and slaves. Particularly important was trade with the West Indies and the Atlantic islands off of northwestern Africa. Such trade was highly competitive and risky, but over time it gradually created distinct classes of merchants, tradesmen, and commercially-oriented farmers.

In this document, John Winthrop refers to an episode in 1639 when Robert Keayne (1595-1656), a Boston merchant, was tried, convicted, and fined 100 pounds sterling for selling imported goods for higher prices than those set by the Massachusetts General Court. In his will, Keayne protested a censure he received from his own church. "If they should have cast me out of the church 20 times for this," he wrote, "I should have chosen it rather than to have confessed myself guilty."


After the court had censured him [Puritan merchant Robert Keaynes], the church of Boston called him also in question, where (as before he had done in court) he did, with tears, acknowledge and bewail his covetous and corrupt heart, yet making some excuse for many of the particulars, which were charged upon him, as partly by pretence of ignorance of the true price of some wares, and chiefly by being misled by some false principles, as, 1. That, if a man lost in one commodity, he might help himself in the price of another. That if, through want of skill or other occasion, his commodity cost him more than the price of the market in England, he might then sell it for more than the price of the market in New England &c. These things gave occasion to Mr. [John] Cotton [a leading Puritan minister], in his publick exercise the next lecture day, to lay open the errour of such false principles, and to give some rules of direction in the case.

Some false principles are these:

1. That a man might sell as dear as he can, and buy as cheap as he can.

2. If a man lose by casualty of sea, &c. in some of his commodities, he may raise the price of the rest.

3. That he may sell as he bought, though he paid too dear, &c. and though the commodity be fallen, &c.

4. That, as a man may take the advantage of his own skill or ability, so he may of another's ignorance or necessity.

John Winthrop, The History of New England from 1630 to 1649 (Boston, 1853), I, 313-7

Source: John Winthrop, The History of New England from 1630 to 1649, (Boston: Little, Brown, 1853), Vol. 1, pp. 313-17

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