All Commentary
Thursday, January 1, 1981

On Usury Laws

William Cullen Bryant (1794-1878) was born in Cummington, Massachusetts. He was the young Republic’s first distinguished poet, best known, perhaps, for his youthful composition, “Thanatopsis.” He was also a journalist, editor, and reformer of the 19th century liberal variety. His Poetical Works and Complete Prose Writings were collected and edited shortly after his death by Parke Godwin.

This piece is excerpted from an item in the New York Evening Post, September 26, 1836, reprinted in Joseph L. Blau, ed., Social Theories of Jacksonian Democracy (Indianapolis: Bobbs Merrill, 1954), pp. 208-10.  

The fact that the usury laws, arbitrary, unjust, and oppressive as they are, and unsupported by a single substantial reason, should have been suffered to exist to the present time can only be accounted for on the ground of the general and singular ignorance which has prevailed as to the true nature and character of money. If men would but learn to look upon the medium of exchange, not as a mere sign of value, but as value itself, as a commodity governed by precisely the same laws which affect other kinds of property, the absurdity and tyranny of legislative interference to regulate the extent of profit which, under any circumstances, may be charged for it would at once become apparent.

The laws do not pretend to dictate to a landlord how much rent he may charge for his house; or to a merchant what price he shall put upon his cloth; or to a mechanic at what rate he shall sell the products of his skill; or to a farmer the maximum he shall demand for his hay or grain. Yet money is but another form into which all these commodities are transmuted, and there is no reason why the owner of it shall be forbidden to ask exactly that rate of profit for the use of it which its abundance or scarcity makes it worth—no reason why the laws of supply and demand, which regulate the value of all other articles, should be suspended by legislative enactment in relation to this, and their place supplied by the clumsy substitute of feudal ignorance and worse than feudal tyranny . . . .

Such attempts have always been, and always will be, worse than fruitless. They not only do not answer the ostensible object, but they accomplish the reverse. They operate, like all restrictions on trade, to the injury of the very class they are framed to protect; they oppress the borrower for the advantage of the lender; they take from the poor to give to the rich. How is this result produced? Simply by diminishing the amount of capital, which, in the shape of money, would be lent to the community at its fair value, did no restriction exist, and placing what is left in the most extortionate hands . . . .

But usury laws operate most hardly in many cases, even when the general rate of money is below their arbitrary standard. There is an intrinsic and obvious difference between borrowers, which not only justifies but absolutely demands, on the part of a prudent man disposed to relieve the wants of applicants, a very different rate of interest. Two persons can hardly present them selves in precisely equal circumstances to solicit a loan. One man is cautious; another is rash. One is a close calculation, sober in his views, and unexcitable in his temperament; another is visionary and enthusiastic. One has tangible security to offer; another nothing but airy one of a promise. Who shall say that to lend money to these several persons is worth in each case an equal premium?

Should a person come to us with a project which, if successful, will yield an immense return, but, if unsuccessful, leave him wholly destitute, shall we not charge him for the risk we run in advancing his views? The advocates of usury laws may answer that we have it at our option either to take seven per cent or wholly refuse to grant the required aid. True; but suppose the project one which is calculated, if successful, to confer a vast benefit on mankind. Is it wise in the legislature in such a case to bar the door against ingenuity, except the money lender turns philanthropist and jeopards his property, not for a fair equivalent, but out of mere love to his fellow man?

The community begin to answer these questions aright, and there is ground for hope that they will ere long insist upon their legislative agents repealing the entire code of barbarous laws by which the trade in money has hitherto been fettered.