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Private Credit in Eighteenth-Century New York City: The Mayor’s Court Papers, 1681-1776

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This article considers eighteenth-century urban credit and its relationship to social context and commerce from the perspective offered by two thousand private credit agreements preserved in complaints filed to initiate suits in the New York City Mayor’s Court from the late seventeenth century to the eve of the American Revolution. The complaints cover the gamut of urban colonial commerce, from mundane local exchanges to ambitious and high-value ventures aimed at overseas markets. Some of the complaints run to as many as seventeen pages, but many are cast in formulaic terms over two or three manuscript sheets. The loss of most of the city’s eighteenth-century tax records make it difficult to produce a comprehensive assessment of the litigants’ social and economic status. But the patterns that do emerge from the aggregate glimpses of everyday practice give some sense of the city’s distinctive credit market. Previous studies of neighbouring colonies have noted the increasing use of paper instruments and a shift to restrictive common law pleading in debt which, it is argued, provided creditors with greater commercial certainty and confidence and thereby nurtured the expansion of trade. However, in New York the complaints indicate that city traders retained a preference for dealing on account and presented their suits in the more flexible common law form of assumpsit, casting the city’s economic and legal change in a different light. What we can glimpse of the practices and procedures associated with different forms of borrowing, indicate a local market that depended on inter-related household exchange and a commercial rationale that balanced considerations of profit with wider but cautiously-reckoned social obligations. For example, comparing the usual repayment terms available in the city with those offered wealthier borrowers, and the credit agreed between two upriver fur dealers and their Native American partners, reveals the city’s credit market as a relatively conservative provider of support for residents and the able-bodied, thereby ensuring minimal public out-relief, which offered limited opportunities for investment and social mobility, even for those from within local circles.

Affiliations: 1: University of Sheffield, E-mail:


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