Debasement of the Coinage from
The Labor Problem
by Richard Theodore Ely, James A. Waterworth, Fred Woodrow – 1866
Debasement of the Coinage – The infamous act which destroyed resistance to the enforcement of the statutory wages was the debasement of the coinage, begun under Henry VIII and continued under the Protectorate.
Debasing the currency is the last and gravest political crime a government can commit against its people. It is especially a crime against the laborer, whose margin of income over expenditure is of the smallest. Up to this time the penny in which his wages were paid contained 11.1 grains of pure silver. In 1543 Henry debased it to 8.3 grains; in 1545 to 5 grains; in 1546 to 3.3 grains; and under Somerset’s protectorate it was further debased in 1551 to 1.6 grains! In those days of slow and imperfect communication it was some time before the fraud began to operate on prices, and the laborer was the last to perceive how he was being robbed. Slowly but surely, however, the workman found that his wages were losing their purchasing power. One can imagine the terror of the ignorant laborer as he saw the value of his money disappearing, till at last the vile trash which represented his week’s wages would not purchase two days provisions. This was an enemy be could not fight. The lately prosperous and independent workman found himself a beggar, and his children starving. Wherever he turned for relief he met only disappointment. The desolate halls of the monastery mocked his misery. Its hospitable ambry was empty, its hearth-stone cold. In his cottage, lately so joyous, he saw only starvation and despair. Men who had hitherto been industrious and honest now roamed the country either as open robbers or as “sturdy beggars.”
Savage laws were enacted to repress these crimes. By the first Edward VI. it was enacted that the landless and destitute poor be reduced to slavery, branded, and made to work in chains. An act was passed prohibiting “all confederacies, and promises of workmen concerning their work or wages, or the hours of the day when they should work.” Any violation of this statute was to be punished: for a first offence by a fine of £10, or twenty days imprisonment; for a second offence by a fine of £20, or the pillory; for a third offence by a fine of £40, the pillory, the loss of the left ear, and judicial infamy. This statute was not repealed till 1824.