John Pickering on “Equitable Commerce” (1847)

John Pickering, The working man’s political economy: founded upon the principle of immutable justice and the inalienable rights of man; designed for the promotor of national reform. Cincinnati : Stereotyped in Warren’s new patent method by Thomas Varney, 1847.



A work bearing the above title, published by Josiah Warren, New Harmony, Indiana, has lately appeared before the public. The work professes to be, “A new development of principles for the harmonious adjustment and regulation of the pecuniary, intellectual and moral intercourse of mankind, proposed as elements of new society.” The author of this work, and myself, appear to have the same object in view, namely, to show the means by which the producers of wealth may secure to themselves the free use of the elements, and the products of their own labor, or their equivalents. I feel it, therefore, a duty I owe to my fellow men, to take some notice of his work.

If Mr. Warren has solved the whole problem of man’s moral, social, and political relations, then my remarks will be supererogatory. But if he has not, and I should be so fortunate as to throw some light upon the subject, I shall consider myself as amply rewarded by the reflection, that my humble efforts have not been exercised in vain. I disclaim all desire or intention of injuring Mr. Warren, my only object being a development of truth; and of this, surely, the gentleman will not complain, especially when he considers that we are both engaged in the same righteous cause. He must, therefore, consider me not as an enemy, but as a friendly co-worker. Let all persons read both sides; then judge for themselves, as I am perfectly willing these observations may go for what they are worth: truth, being stronger than error, will, therefore, prevail.

I cheerfully indorse all that Mr. Warren has said in regard to governments having utterly failed to accomplish the end they have pretended to have had in view, namely, the security of person and property—the history of governments in general being but the history of the legal methods of committing the most glaring outrages and violations of right and justice. Money, also, in consequence [166] of being accumulated in the hands of the few, has been converted into a terrible engine of tyranny and oppression. This, no one will deny. In order to cast off the shackles imposed upon us by the means of government and money, Mr. Warren proposes to reject and disregard both, which is as impossible to do, as it is to refuse to breathe the atmosphere which surrounds us. Nothing would please dishonest law-makers and public rulers better, than for the honest producers to become disgusted with the use of the ballot-box, and permit their lordships to do all the voting. This is the very thing they want; and, to prove this, let the reader turn to Judge Hall’s address, page 51 of this work.[1] But for the producers to do this, would be as injudicious as would a shepherd who should draw off his sturdy watch dogs from guarding his flock of sheep, when he knew, at the same time, that a gang of hungry wolves were watching for a favorable moment to fall upon and destroy them. No, no, producers of wealth; in the ballot- box lies your only hope. No attempt to step aside from the influence of government, would be as inconsistent as an individual who, having in his house a set of lawless rowdies, tearing and breaking his property to pieces, should say to them,—Gentlemen, I insist on individual sovereignty, and therefore have the sole right to control my own person and property, and will not submit to your injustice;—then creep under the bed, leaving the rowdies a clear board.

Shall we reject the use of money, because governments and a crafty few have used it for evil purposes? This is a strange conclusion to come to, surely. With the same propriety we might reject almost everything that is calculated to promote the happiness of man. For what infamous purposes have governments and the crafty few made use of iron, in the form of warlike implements; by the use of which, men have been set to butcher each other by thousands upon thousands, and the earth made to flow in rivers of blood? yet this is no reason why we should reject the use of it.

Gold and silver, like all other substances, are capable of being used for good or for evil; and, so soon as the mass of the people understand the real nature of them, they will be used for good, and the happiness and well-being of mankind will be promoted by the use of them; but so long [167] as the mass are ignorant of the subject, gold and silver will be made use of by the crafty few, as an engine of extortion, tyranny and oppression. Mr. Warren says, page 37:

“As we cannot carry flour, shoes, carpentering, brick-work, store-keeping, &c., about with us, to exchange for what we want, we require something which represents these, which representative we can always carry with us. This representative of property should be our circulating medium. Theorists have said that money was this representative, but it is not.”

Demagogues have told us that it is; but not those who understand the subject. Further, he says:

“A dollar represents nothing whatever but itself, nor can it be made to. At no time is it any demand on any one for any quantity of any kind of property or labor whatever.”

Suppose that, instead of using the word dollar, we say one ounce of silver, we shall understand the subject better; then, if one ounce of silver is at no time a demand on any one for property or labor, neither is a bushel of wheat. But if a bushel of wheat is a demand for as much labor as it costs to produce it, then is an ounce of silver a demand for as much labor as it costs to produce it, both, on an average, being of about the same commercial value. An ounce of silver is the embodiment of the quantity of labor necessary to produce it, like the wheat in that respect; but the silver, being much less weighty, much less bulky, and will last much longer, is, therefore, much more convenient to carry with us, instead of “flour, shoes, carpentering, brick-work, store-keeping, &c.,’ to exchange for other products of labor. An ounce of silver is positive payment; it is not necessary to inquire who is the issuer of it, where does he live, what is his character, state of his health, &c., which would be the case when we receive a “labor note.” Neither is it necessary to stamp upon it—”Not transferable.” Again Mr. Warren says:

“At one time a dollar [or an ounce of silver] will procure two bushels of potatoes; at another time, three bushels; at another time, four. It has no definite value at any time.”

The same can be said of a bushel of wheat; it will [168] generally purchase from three to four bushels of potatoes, without the intervention of money; yet I have seen the time when a bushel of wheat, or three of Indian corn, would not purchase one bushel of potatoes; yet the farmer who raised and sold the potatoes at this high price, was not so well paid for his labor as when he got but one-fourth of the price, or, in other words, one-fourth the quantity of other products of labor. Therefore, (according to Mr. Warren’s philosophy.) a bushel of wheat “represents nothing whatever but itself; nor can it be made to. At no time is it any demand on any one for any quantity of any kind of property or labor whatever.” But the true philosophy in regard to this matter is this: A bushel of wheat is the embodiment of the quantity of labor necessary to produce it, and it is precisely the same thing in respect to an ounce of silver, or a dollar. Either of them, therefore, is positive payment for something that has cost the same amount of labor; not a promise, obligation, nor representative; but bona fide property, each in its peculiar form, and are justly equivalent in exchange for the same amount of property in another form. The idea that money is only a representative of property, is, therefore, a delusion, and works more mischief and confusion in the affairs of mankind, perhaps, than any other error. The fluctuations in the commercial value of the various products of labor, arise from various causes, and which mostly exist .in the nature of things, and although may be considerably counteracted by intelligence, prudence and foresight, cannot, perhaps, by human wisdom, be entirely removed.

Those products of labor which are most liable to rot, or destruction, are, in direct proportion, subject to fluctuation, in all cases where the demand has been either over or under supplied; and this consequence cannot be prevented, whether we estimate those products immediately by the quantity of labor embodied in them, or remotely by money, which retains, without loss, to a much greater length of time, the original quantity of labor bestowed upon its production, than any other thing.

Gold and silver having the natural property of retaining the quantity of labor originally invested in them much longer than property in any other form, is one of the principal reasons why they are a more appropriate circulating medium than any other thing, notwithstanding what Mr. [169] Warren says to the contrary. Neither does money “represent robbery, banking, gambling, swindling, counterfeiting, &c.,” as he says, than does “a labor note,” which is a thing that bears the suspicion of fraud upon the very face of it, and is, in itself, a perfect absurdity. A circulating medium not transferable!! This is just like the wagon a man made “for to go,” and it would have went “for to go,” if the maker of it had not nailed all the wheels fast to the axle trees. Mr. Warren seems not to be aware that all the products of labor derive their exchangable value from the quantity of labor required to produce them—gold and silver included—and that the natural tendency of exchangable value (or price) is to gravitate toward the cost of production; and men never would have conducted their exchanges on any other principle than equal amounts of cost. If governments had not made private property in the elements legal, nor had interfered with the personal operations of individuals, the mere instincts of Nature would have prevented it. All this I have fully demonstrated, as I am confident, in the seventh chapter of this work, to which I refer Mr. Warren, hoping he will read it carefully and critically; and if the principles there laid down are not agreeable to truth, it is a duty he owes to the public, and a compliment due to myself, for him to expose and make manifest the errors and fallacies thereof.

At page 76 of his work, he gives “a picture” of a “Labor Note,” the first line of which reads thus: “Not transferable”; next, the following mottoes: “Cost, the limit of Price,” “Labor for Labor.” Now, this is only saying the same thing twice over; but is, nevertheless, the announcement of a great and important truth; and, as I have said before, if governments had not usurped the ownership of the elements, thereby checking the natural operation of free competition, mankind never could have conducted their exchanges on any other principle,—it is the natural, therefore the just, no matter whether they had used money or not. History informs us, that the original intent of stamping money was merely to indicate the quantity (by weight) and the fineness of the metal composing the pieces, the object being merely to save the time and labor necessary to weigh and assay it every time it changed hands.

Next on the note, these words appear, namely: [170]

“Due the bearer, —, one hour’s labor in house rent, or twenty pounds of corn.”

In regard to this note, Mr. Warren remarks—

“This addition to the note enables us not only to compare one labor with another, but it gives the signer of it an alternative, in case it is not convenient for him to give his labor on demand. There can be as many of these alternatives (all being equal in value,) as the responsible person chooses to attach to his note.”

Now, the whole announcement amounts to nothing more than this,—that if one man owes another a debt, and it is not convenient to pay in his own services, he can pay in something else of equal value; that is, if the creditor is willing to receive it. All these things were well known long before the invention of “labor notes”; but is it not strange that the gentleman would exclude from the “alternatives” gold and silver? Surely it is; especially when we consider that gold or silver is the almost everlasting embodiment of the labor necessary to produce it, and is positive payment, while a “Labor Note” is payment for nothing; it is but a promise to pay, at some future time, if the drawer happened to live long enough, never got sick, and was perfectly honest. Truly, the ingenuity and refinement of this credit system beats the banking system all hollow; a bank note at least being transferable, though, like the “labor note,” it is payment for nothing; and the making of it a substitute for gold and silver, as a circulating medium, is one of the most outrageous violations of right and justice that has ever been imposed upon poor credulous man. Mr. Warren says, “we want a circulating medium that is a definite representative of a definite quantity of property.” Further, he tells us that the drawer of a “labor note” may insert in it any alternative he chooses (provided they are equivalents.) Now, suppose he should insert in it, “at one time, a man; at another, a monkey; then a gourd”; then say of it, “a picture that would represent” such things, “would be just as legitimate and fit for a portrait, as a “labor note” is fit for a circulating medium.” This is what Mr. Warren says of “common money”; but the logic of the argument is much more applicable to a labor promissory note, than that [171] money which contains within itself, everlastingly embodied, the quantity of labor originally invested in it, and is bona fide payment. A circulating medium having the last mentioned property, is much preferable to any representative whatever. Mr. Warren proposes that labor notes be put in competition with money, and thinks that they will finally supersede the use of it.

This will take place when people discover that the promise of a thing which is dependent upon various contingencies, is preferable to the positive possession of it, and I am confident the skulls of the people are too thick to be susceptible of imbibing such a transcendental idea—it is so far above the comprehension of common minds. So the possessors of “filthy lucre” need not be alarmed at the sight of a “labor note,” the mass being too stupid to take advantage of its own wonderful power and influence.

Mr. Warren says, page 73, that when the system of Equitable Commerce, which he advocates, is put into operation, such a power will be started into existence, which will be perfectly irresistible, and that all the deep-laid plans, the wordy warfare, and the bitterest hostility of the strongest opposers of reformation, “must become as chaff before the wind,” &c. Again, same page,—

“No one can sell house lots for five thousand dollars, while any one will sell them of equal value for five dollars.”

“No one can sell coffee for sixteen cents a pound, where any one will sell it equally good for ten cents.”

“No one can get five dollars per hour for visiting the sick, when another, whose services are equally valuable, can be obtained for an equivalent.”

“No lawyer can get a hundred dollars per hour, when another will do the business as well for an equal amount of labor.”

Here are four declarations, the truth of which no rational person would attempt to dispute,—they are all in accordance with the laws which govern our, nature. But there is another side to this subject; and here follows four other declarations, which are equally true, and are equally in accordance with the laws which govern human nature.

First. No one will sell house-lots for five dollars apiece, when he can just as easily get five thousand for the same. [172]

Second. No one will sell coffee for ten cents a pound, when he can just as easily get sixteen for the same.

Third. No one will take one equivalent for an hour’s service, when he can just as easily get from a hundred to a thousand for the same amount of service.

Fourth. No lawyer will take an equal amount of labor in exchange for his own services, when he could just as easily obtain five hundred times that amount! He would be an idiot if he did, and so would all the rest.

Now, is it possible that a sane individual would seriously make such a strange proposition to mankind? The proposition lies before me, in the book. But stranger still are the inducements held out to draw people into the adoption of these arrangements.

We are gravely told that “any number, of any profession, (which is likely to be wanted,) can be qualified in from two to three years.” And what is the reward offered for this two or three years’ expensive devotion to intense study, loss of time, &e.? He shall have the privilege of receiving one five-hundredth part of the reward he could get outside this enchanted circle. Will men thus make martyrs of themselves? Experience says no, most emphatically.

Where, then, is that great army of martyrs to come from, that can accomplish the result contemplated by Mr. Warren? The rich can never have a motive to embrace these arrangements; the poor may; but where is the necessary capital to come from? “Labor notes” are not capital. Capital is labor already performed, and condensed into some permanent form. But a labor note is but a promise to perform some labor at some future time, dependent on various contingencies, and, therefore, can neither do the offices, nor enter into competition with capital, no more than can common promissory notes payable in money.

Let the reader now turn back and examine those four pair of declarations, which are all true; look at the cans and the wills in deadly array against each other; examine them carefully and critically, and tell us, if he can, by what means those discordant elements can be amalgamated and formed into a system that will carry on the commercial concerns of mankind successfully and harmoniously, and, at the same time, shield and protect the down-trodden producer from the overwhelming and oppressive influence of money and governments even supposing it to be only [173] among a select few, determined to step aside from general society, and agree to put in practice the labor for labor principle.

We shall, perhaps, be told that such a result can be accomplished by the intervention of “labor notes.” Let us suppose a select few gather themselves within a certain circle, but surrounded outside by the worshippers of “filthy lucre.” Let them issue their labor notes; what will be the consequence, premising, however, that no one is pledged or obligated to act, in any particular manner, different from what their interests would prompt them, all being “independent sovereigns”? Now, will not these sovereigns act like other men? Surely they will. Now, suppose one of them has a wife or child taken sick, and must have a nurse, and one is not to be had within the pale, he will, therefore, be obliged to get one from among the Philistines. All within the pale having a sovereign contempt for the use of money, it is not likely any money could be had to pay the nurse with, when through with her job. Now, how does he pay her? with a labor note, promising to give as many hours of his own labor as she served him? Surely it could not be less; having laid it down as a rule, that anything less would be injustice, he would not do that, surely. Would it not be very natural, that if this “independent sovereign” should happen to have labor notes drawn by others, would lie not, rather than give his own, give them? This would certainly be all very natural; there could be nothing criminal in it. If we pay in money, it makes no difference from whom we receive it—a dollar being but a dollar; an hour’s labor being but an hour’s labor. The nurse would, no doubt, be glad to take it, especially if she knew the value of it; because, among the Philistines, she could get an advance of two or three hundred per cent. above what it cost her; consequently, some day the independent sovereign who drew the note, would be called upon by a man of the outer world, and be compelled to devote his physical energies to the purpose of promoting some cannibal scheme of speculation. So in drawing his “labor note,” he had only set a gull-trap to catch himself!

Now, suppose a great many such transactions take place—none looking to the final result—what will be the consequence? In the course of time, they will discover that [175] they have only been betraying one another into the hands of Satan, the common enemy; caught in their own toils; brought back to that very state of bondage from which they had fled, having fondly anticipated that the circulation of “labor notes” would not only enable them to abundantly supply their wants, but likewise shield them from all harm. Whoever, therefore attempts the practice, is fated to be disappointed. It must be evident, that labor notes circulated beyond the limits of the co-operators, can work nothing but injury to those within; and within the pale they are perfectly useless, because all the internal intercourse can be carried on just as well without as with them, by keeping accounts against each other; and when the parties settle, those who may be in debt pay up the balance, either in money, or labor, as the parties could agree. For the truth of this statement, I appeal to Mr. Warren himself.

Here I must put a query to him, and he may either answer or not, just as he thinks fit. I have no desire to interfere with his “individual sovereignty.” In the year 1833, a small experimental community of some half dozen families, (Mr. Warren and myself included,) was established, for the purpose of carrying out the labor for labor principle, and from the start the use of “labor notes” was proscribed by the associates; and during the whole time I staid there, which was about three years, I believe, I never saw a labor note pass between any of the parties. We had ceased the practice of “equitable commerce” long before I left. Now the query is this,—Why were the “labor notes” suppressed? To speak figuratively—was it to prevent the saints from having the power of delivering their associates into the hands of the cruel Philistines? or was it not?

I am not anxious to have this query solved on my own account, but for the benefit of those who read his book. I have been asked the question by some of them; they want to know; and no man is better qualified to solve this little mystery, than Mr. Warren himself.

Another thing the readers of Mr. Warren’s book want to know, is, why, in that “picture” of a “labor note,” that is capable of representing, with the greatest truthfulness, almost everything under the sun, he has placed in the most conspicuous part of it, the words “not transferable”? Is it [176] to prevent the evil just now spoken of? or is it not? If it is, then why not put on the appropriate words, Not to circulate; then nobody would be deceived or deluded by it. But if it is not, why fasten a dead weight to it, sufficient to sink it in public estimation, so as to render it perfectly useless? Furthermore, is it right to attempt to palm upon our credulous, good feeling, and honest-intentioned fellow men, a circulating medium bearing upon the face of it a declaration forbidding people to use it for that purpose? It is plain to be seen, that if people did so use it, it would be at their own risk; for the drawer of it, by this dexterous manoeuvre, would absolve himself from all legal responsibility. “Prove all things; hold fast that which is good,” is an excellent maxim, and a good rule of action. Reformers generally, on discovering that most of the evils which mankind suffer, are attributable to the power and influence of money and government, have been desirous of casting off, at once, the slavish chains that fettered and bound them. It is no wonder, then, that they have eagerly grasped at anything that had the appearance of ennabling them to pass at once from a state of injustice, oppression and misery, into one of justice, freedom and happiness. They have been sensible to the misery around them; they have beheld the promised land at distance, and have sought to reach it by the shortest possible cut, thereby overlooking the only available and practicable means by which the passage can be effected; and the very simplicity of the only practicable means is, perhaps, the principal’ reason why it has been so difficult to discover. It has been in accordance with the above view, that Mr. Warren proposes to make this short and pleasant passage by means of his “labor notes”; but this vessel will never carry us across the mighty gulf. He has been obliged, by the nature of things, to load her so heavily, that if we do but analyze the cargo, and observe well the build of the craft, all thinking persons will be convinced she would sink at the moment of leaving the shore.

Mr. Warren says, page 69: “By dispensing with governments, we shake off the greatest invaders of human rights—the very nightmare of society.” This is true; nothing could be more so. But government is not like a garment, that can be thrown off’ at pleasure, without injury to the body which it covers; but is more like the skin, [177] which, to strip from the body, would produce instant death, and to do this ourselves, would be nothing less than suicide. Therefore, to throw off the shackles of government at a blow, is impossible; it can only be done by degrees, by the prudent use and management of the very instruments by which we are tortured, and which enthusiastic, though well-meaning reformers, contemptuously reject and despise altogether, namely: money and governments. By these means, our progress will be certain and sure; when a step is once gained in this way, from it we cannot retrograde, but must move forward to the next in order. This course being in conformity to the immutable laws of Nature, is the only course we can pursue with any reasonable prospect of success. And whoever attempts to reform society by any other method, is fated to suffer chagrin, mortification and disappointment.

The individual operations and interests of mankind are so intimately and inseparably connected and interwoven, and our dependence so mutual, that continual close personal contact is absolutely unavoidable; it therefore behooveth us to make this contact as pleasant and as agreeable as possible, by scrupulously respecting the rights and feelings of each other, and exercising charity to the utmost. Let us endeavor to smoothe the thorny path of life, make the best use we can of the world while we are in it, and, for our final deliverance from the bondage of tyranny and oppression, let us cheerfully, patiently wait.

How is it possible for us to strike off at once those galling chains that so intimately connect us with money and governments? When it must be evident to all, that those who have heretofore controlled those irresistible engines, have fastened their grappling irons upon our property, and their tenter hooks into the flesh of our bodies, into the marrow of our bones—aye, even unto our very heart strings, and to sever these at a blow—could but cause certain, instantaneous death. Therefore, the only course left for us to pursue, is to cut off one at a time, by means of the ballot-box; give the patient (the body politic) time to recover from the operation; then strike off another; and so continue on, until the individual man stands forth unshackled and free; then he can afford to be just, be virtuous and good; therefore, happy. Cheerfully, patiently wait. We may [178] then begin to think about the individual sovereign of man; not till then.

One of the greatest natural curiosities of the world is, that the truth in regard to our moral, social and political relations, has been so near to us, that our mental vision has been completely blinded and confounded by its very nearness like the Irishman who declared he could not see the town for the houses. Let us, therefore, one and all, open our eyes, our ears, and our understandings,

Mr. Warren, in conclusion, says, page 74:

“It is hoped that some who are capable of correct reasoning, will undertake to investigate, and (if they can find a motive,) to oppose Equitable Commerce and thereby discover and expose the utter imbecility , the surprising weakness of any opposition that can be brought against it.

In compliance therefore, with said invitation, the foregoing observations are offered as a specimen of the exposure of “the utter imbecility, the surprising weakness of the opposition that can be brought against” the contents of his book; not against “Equitable Commerce,’ but against the introduction of “labor notes” as a circulating medium. And the motive that prompted them, was a desire to prevent the spread of error and delusion, and promote the cause of truth. And of this, Mr. Warren would be the last man in the world to complain. “They are presented for calm study and honest inquiry; and, having placed them fairly before” him and “the public, I shall leave them to be estimated by each individual according to the particular measure of his understanding, and shall offer no violence to his individuality, by any attempt to restrain or to urge him beyond it.” As to controversy, I am ready for that in any shape or form.


Cincinnati, Ohio, “ U. S. A.,” August 4th, 1847.

Addenda—As some objections have been made to some parts of this chapter, a little explanation is necessary. At page 172, after the query, “Will men thus make martyrs of themselves?” add, in the aggregate; the reader will then have a correct understanding of the author’s meaning. We all well know that individuals, sometimes under the influence of a new imbibed idea, become infatuated, and, under that influence, are very apt to do things which their “sober second thoughts” would by no means approve of. Under such circumstances, then, it cannot be truly said that they act in accordance with the laws of human nature, but are mere aberrations thereof. Add the same to each of the four preceding declarations.

[1] Working Man’s Political Economy.

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