Franklin On The Price of Corn, Democratic Thinker

American Thought

While in England prior to the Revolution, Benjamin Franklin, writing under to pseudonym Arator, favors farmers being abused by the newspapers and mobbed by the public. His economic principles mirror those observed some years later by Adam Smith in the Wealth of Nations.

In my youth I travelled much; and I observed, in different countries, that the more public provisions were made for the poor, the less they provided for themselves, and, of course, became poorer: And, on the contrary, the less was done for them, the more they did for themselves, and became richer.

The following Letter, written by the Dr. Franklin, on the subject of the Price of Corn, was originally printed in the London Chronicle in 1766, and was afterwards reprinted in the Repository, ‘De Re Rustica,’ published in 1769, Vol. I. p. 354. It was drawn up with the Doctor’s usual ability, and contains many observations equally applicable to these times as to the period when it was written.


On the Price of Corn, and the Management of the Poor.


I AM one of that class of people that feeds you all, and, at present, is abused by you all;—in short, I am a farmer.

By your newspapers we are told, that God had sent a very short harvest to some other countries of Europe. I thought this might be in favour of Old England; and that now we should get a good price for our grain, which would bring millions among us, and make us flow in money; that to be sure is scarce enough.

But the wisdom of Government forbad the exportation.

Well, says I, then we must be content with the market price at home.

No, says my lords the Mob, you sha’n’t have that. Bring your corn to market if you dare;—we’ll sell it for you for less money or take it for nothing.

Being thus attacked by both ends of the Constitution, the head and tail of Government, what am I to do?

Must I keep my corn in the barn to feed and increase the breed of rats? Be it so. They cannot be less thankful than those I have been used to feed.

Are we farmers the only people to be grudged the profits of honest labour? And why!—One of the late scribblers against us gives a bill of fare of the provisions at my daughter’s wedding, and proclaims to all the world that we had the insolence to eat beef and pudding! Has he not read that precept in the good book, Thou shalt not muzzle the mouth of the ox that treadeth out the corn? Or does he think us less worthy of good living than our oxen?

O, but the manufacturers! the manufacturers! they are to be favoured; and they must have bread at a cheap rate!

Hark ye, Mr. Oaf.—The farmers live splendidly, you say. And pray, would you have them hoard the money they get?—Their fine clothes and furniture, do they make them themselves, or for one another, and so keep the money among them? Or do they employ these your darling manufacturers, and so scatter it again all over the nation?

My wool would produce me a better price, if it were suffered to go to foreign markets. But that, Messieurs the Public, your laws will not permit. It must be kept all at home, that our dear manufacturers may have it the cheaper. And then, having yourselves thus lessened our encouragement for raising sheep, you curse us for the scarcity of mutton!

I have heard my grandfather say, that the farmers submitted to the prohibition on the exportation of wool, being made to expect and believe, that when the manufacturer bought his wool cheaper, they should have their cloth cheaper. But the deuce a bit. It has been growing dearer and dearer from that day to this. How so? Why, truly, the cloth is exported; and that keeps up the price.

Now, if it be a good principle that the exportation of a commodity is to be restrained, that so our own people at home may have it the cheaper, stick to that principle, and go thorough-stitch with it. Prohibit the exportation of your cloth, your leather and shoes, your iron-ware, and your manufactures of all sorts, to make them all cheaper at home. And cheap enough they will be, I will warrant you,—till people leave off making them.

Some folks seem to think they ought never to be easy till England becomes another Lubberland, where it is fancied the streets are paved with penny rolls, the houses tiled with pancakes, and chickens, ready roasted, cry ‘Come, eat me!’

I say, when you are sure you have got a good principle, stick to it, and carry it through. I hear it is said, that though it was necessary and right for the m————y to advise a prohibition of the exportation of corn, yet it was contrary to law; and also, that though it was contrary to law for the mob to obstruct waggons, yet it was necessary and right. Just the same thing to a tittle. Now they tell me, an act of indemnity ought to pass in favour of the m————y, to secure them from the consequences of having acted illegally. If so, pass another in favour of the mob. Others say some of the mob ought to be hanged, by way of example. If so—but I say no more than I have said before—when you are sure that you have got a good principle, go through with it.

You say, poor labourers cannot afford to buy bread at a high price, unless they had higher wages:—Possibly. But how shall we farmers be able to afford our labourers higher wages, if you will not allow us to get, when we might have it, a higher price for our corn?

By all I can learn, we should at least have had a guinea a quarter more if the exportation had been allowed. And this money England would have got from foreigners.

But, it seems, we farmers must take so much lees, that the poor may have it so much cheaper.

This operates then as a tax for the maintenance of the poor. A very good thing, you will say. But I ask, Why a partial tax? Why laid on us farmers only? If it be a good thing, pray, Messrs the public, take your share of it, by indemnifying us a little out of your public treasury. In doing a good thing, there is both honour and pleasure;—you are welcome to your share of both.

For my own part, I am not so well satisfied of the goodness of this thing. I am for doing good to the poor; but I differ in opinion about the means. I think the best way of going good to the poor is, not making them easy in poverty, but leading or driving them out of it. In my youth I travelled much; and I observed, in different countries, that the more public provisions were made for the poor, the less they provided for themselves, and, of course, became poorer: And, on the contrary, the less was done for them, the more they did for themselves, and became richer. There is no country in the world where so many provisions are established for them; so many hospitals to receive them when they are sick or lame, founded and maintained by voluntary charities; so many almshouses for the aged of both sexes, together with a solemn general law made by the rich to subject their estates to a heavy tax for the support of the poor. Under all these obligations, are our poor modest, humble, and thankful; and do they use their best endeavours to maintain themselves, and lighten our shoulders of this burden? On the contrary, I affirm, that there is no country in the world in which the poor are more idle, dissolute, drunken, and insolent. The day you passed that act, you took away from before their eyes the greatest of inducements to industry, frugality, and sobriety, by giving them a dependence on somewhat else than a careful accumulation during youth and health, for support in age or sickness.—In short, you offered a premium for the encouragement of idleness; and you should not now wonder that it has had its effect in the increase of poverty. Repeal that law, and you will soon see a change in their manners. St. Monday and St. Tuesday will soon cease to be holidays, Six days shalt thou labour, though one of the old commandments long treated as out of date, will again be looked upon as a respectable precept; industry will increase, and, with it, plenty among the lower people; their circumstances will mend; and more will be done for their happiness, by inuring them to provide for themselves, than could be done by dividing all your estates among them.

Excuse me, Messrs the Public, if upon this interesting subject, I put you to the trouble of reading a little of my nonsense. I am sure I have lately read a great deal of yours;—and therefore from you (at least from those of you who are writers) I deserve a little indulgence. I am, yours, etc.


Used with the permission of Democratic Thinker.