William Bradford Institute
for Study of the
Early Settlement of America

John Cotton on the Just Price


[Rev. John Cotton of Boston was the leading Puritan minister in the early
decades of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In the document below, Gov. John
Winthrop recorded in his Journal what Cotton's conclusions were in a sermon
about economic behavior.]

Mo. 9 [Sept. 1639]

At a general court holden at Boston, great complaint was made of the oppression
used in the country in sale of foreign commodities; and Mr. Robert Keaine, who
kept a shop in Boston, was notoriously above others observed and complained of,
and, being convented, he was charged with many particulars; in some, for taking
above six-pence in the shilling profit; in some above eight-pence; and, in some
small things, above two for one; and being hereof convict, (as appears by the
records,) he was fined 200, which came thus to pass: The deputies considered,
apart, of his fine, and set it at 200; the magistrates agreed but to 100. So,
the court being divided, at length it was agreed, that his fine should be 200,
but he should pay but 100, and the other should be respited to the further
consideration of the next general court. By this means the magistrates and
deputies were, brought to an accord, which otherwise had not been likely, and so
much trouble might have grown, and the offender escaped censure. For the cry of
the country was so great against oppression, and some of the elders and
magistrates had declared such detestation of the corrupt practice of this man
(which was the more observable, because he was wealthy and sold dearer than most
other tradesmen, and for that he was of ill report for the like covetous
practice in England, that incensed the deputies very much against him). And sure
the course was very evil, especial circumstances considered: 1. He being an
ancient professor of the gospel: 2. A man of eminent parts: 3. Wealthy, and
having but one child: 4. Having come over for conscience' sake, and for the
advancement of the gospel here: 5. Having been formerly dealt with and
admonished, both by private friends and also by some of the magistrates and
elders, and having promised reformation; being a member of a church and
commonwealth now in their infancy, and under the curious observation of all
churches and civil states in the world. These added much aggravation to his sin
in the judgment of all men of understanding. Yet most of the magistrates (though
they discerned of the offence clothed with all these circumstances) would have
been more moderate in their censure: 1. Because there was no law in force to
limit or direct men in point of profit in their trade. 2. Because it is the
common practice, in all countries, for men to make use of advantages for raising
the prices of their commodities. 3. Because (though he were chiefly aimed at,
yet) he was not alone in this fault. 4. Because all men through the country, in
sale of cattle, corn, labor, etc., were guilty of the like excess in prices. 5.
Because a certain rule could not be found out for an equal rate between buyer
and seller, though much labor had been bestowed in it, and divers laws had been
made, which, upon experience, were repealed, as being neither safe nor equal.
Lastly, and especially, because the law of God appoints no other punishment but
double restitution; and, in some cases, as where the offender freely confesseth,
and brings his offering, onlv half added to the principal. After the court had
censured him, the church of Boston called him also in question, where (as before
he had done in the 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. 2. 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, etc. These things gave occasion to
Mr. Cotton, in his public exercise the next lecture day, to lay open the error
of such false principles, and to give some rules of direction in the case."
Some false principles were these: --

1. That a man might sell as dear as he can, and buv as cheap as he can.
2. If a man lose by casualty of sea, etc., 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, etc., and though the
commodity be fallen, etc.
4. That, as a man may take the advantage of his own skill or ability, so he may
of another's ignorance or necessity.
5. Where one gives time for payment, he is to take like recompense of one as of

The rules for trading-, were these:

1. A man may not sell above the current price, i.e., such a price as is usual in
the time and place, and as another (who knows the worth of the commodity) would
give for it, if he had occasion to use it: as that is called current money,
which every man will take, etc.
2. When a man loseth in his commodity for want of skill, etc., he must look at
it as his own fault or cross, and therefore must not lay it upon another.
3. Where a man loseth by casualty of sea, or, etc., it is a loss cast upon
himself by providence, and he may not ease himself of it by casting it upon
another; for so a man should seem to provide against all providences, etc., that
he should never lose; but where there is a scarcity of the commodity, there men
may raise their price; for now it is a hand of God upon the commodity, and not
the person.
4. A man may not ask any more for his commodity than his selling price, as
Ephron to Abraham, the land is worth thus much. 14

[Keayne was censured by his church in Boston (in addition to the fine imposed by
the General Court). Fourteen years later (1653), Keayne found it necessary to
write a 158-page justification for his actions as his last will and testament.
See the document in Week 8.]

Source: John Winthrop, The History of New England from 1630 to 1649, 2 vols.
(Boston, 1853), 1:377-82.


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