Silver Buckles and Signed Contracts: The Changing Decorum of Lending in Virginia Communities

Sunday, January 8, 2012: 8:50 AM
Huron Room (Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers)
Bonnie Martin, Southern Methodist University
In May of 1772, Nicholas Green gave slaves “Celina, Sith, Tom and, Charles all so four feather beds and furniture and one pair of shoe Buckles” to John Green, a Gentleman, and perhaps a relative, for £200.  What on its face claimed to be a sale was probably not a pure transfer, but a pledge to secure a loan.  Nicholas provided John virtual possession of the slaves and personal property “by the delivery of the Buckles in the name of the whole.”  In other words, Nicholas professed his good faith with a symbolic gesture that met the expectations of community lending networks. 

This elegant little contract captures a midpoint in the spectrum of decorum for debt among Virginians.  In the 1740s and 1750s, some Virginians were still following an older social etiquette, using a recorded promise to pay to secure debts.  By the 1760s and 1770s, most Virginians had shifted to deeds of trust.  By the nineteenth century, poetry had solidified into pragmatic, short statements with few echoes of the call and refrain of the eighteenth-century document style. 

Diverse in decorum, the purpose of all these documents remained the same: to encourage borrowers, while reassuring lenders.  Whether personal honor or personal property was pledged, the decorum of law was used to bolster community confidence—or sometimes to reveal the dissolving confidence of the community in certain borrowers.

This paper draws on a database of approximately 4000 credit transactions in Virginia during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  It will discuss how Virginians in community networks of credit experimented with various legal debt decorum to maintain local harmony, while still ensuring repayment. Virginians shifted from a preference for personal promises to material collateral.  The latter provides the deepest connection of this paper to the papers of the other two panelists.