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Usurers Of The Seventeenth Century
by [?]

A person whose history will serve as a canvass to exhibit some scenes of the arts of the money-trader was one AUDLEY, a lawyer, and a great practical philosopher, who concentrated his vigorous faculties in the science of the relative value of money. He flourished through the reigns of James I., Charles I., and held a lucrative office in the “court of wards,” till that singular court was abolished at the time of the Restoration.[1] In his own times he was called “The great Audley,” an epithet so often abused, and here applied to the creation of enormous wealth. But there are minds of great capacity, concealed by the nature of their pursuits; and the wealth of Audley may be considered as the cloudy medium through which a bright genius shone, and which, had it been thrown into a nobler sphere of action, the “greatness” would have been less ambiguous.

Audley lived at a time when divines were proclaiming “the detestable sin of Usury,” prohibited by God and man; but the Mosaic prohibition was the municipal law of an agricultural commonwealth, which being without trade, the general poverty of its members could afford no interest for loans; but it was not forbidden the Israelite to take usury from “the stranger.” Or they were quoting from the Fathers, who understood this point, much as they had that of “original sin,” and “the immaculate conception;” while the scholastics amused themselves with a quaint and collegiate fancy which they had picked up in Aristotle, that interest for money had been forbidden by nature, because coin in itself was barren and unpropagating, unlike corn, of which every grain will produce many. But Audley considered no doubt that money was not incapable of multiplying itself, provided it was in hands which knew to make it grow and “breed,” as Shylock affirmed. The lawyers then, however, did not agree with the divines, nor the college philosophers; they were straining at a more liberal interpretation of this odious term “Usury.” Lord Bacon declared, that the suppression of Usury is only fit for an Utopian government; and Audley must have agreed with the learned Cowell, who in his “Interpreter” derives the term ab usu et aere, quasi usu aera, which in our vernacular style was corrupted into Usury. Whatever the sin might be in the eye of some, it had become at least a controversial sin, as Sir Symonds D’Ewes calls it, in his manuscript Diary, who, however, was afraid to commit it.[2] Audley, no doubt, considered that interest was nothing more than rent for money; as rent was no better than Usury for land. The legal interest was then “ten in the hundred;” but the thirty, the fifty, and the hundred for the hundred, the gripe of Usury, and the shameless contrivances of the money-traders, these he would attribute to the follies of others, or to his own genius.

This sage on the wealth of nations, with his pithy wisdom and quaint sagacity, began with two hundred pounds, and lived to view his mortgages, his statutes, and his judgments so numerous, that it was observed his papers would have made a good map of England. A contemporary dramatist, who copied from life, has opened the chamber of such an Usurer,–perhaps of our Audley.

—- Here lay
A manor bound fast in a skin of parchment,
The wax continuing hard, the acres melting;
Here a sure deed of gift for a market-town,
If not redeem’d this day, which is not in
The unthrift’s power; there being scarce one shire
In Wales or England, where my monies are not
Lent out at usury, the certain hook
To draw in more.

This genius of thirty per cent. first had proved the decided vigour of his mind, by his enthusiastic devotion to his law-studies: deprived of the leisure for study through his busy day, he stole the hours from his late nights and his early mornings; and without the means to procure a law-library, he invented a method to possess one without the cost; as far as he learned, he taught, and by publishing some useful tracts on temporary occasions, he was enabled to purchase a library. He appears never to have read a book without its furnishing him with some new practical design, and he probably studied too much for his own particular advantage. Such devoted studies was the way to become a lord-chancellor; but the science of the law was here subordinate to that of a money-trader.