Newton reinvents himself

Jonathan Rée

  • Newton and the Counterfeiter: The Unknown Detective Career of the World’s Greatest Scientist by Thomas Levenson
    Faber, 318 pp, £9.99, August 2010, ISBN 978 0 571 22993 2

Towards the end of 1688 the Dutch Republic tried to bounce Britain into war with France by main military force. The chief plotter was a scion of the royal house of Orange-Nassau and nephew and son-in-law to the British king, but he had none of the poise and magnificence that were supposed to go with a royal pedigree. William, Prince of Orange was a mousy, middle-aged sociophobe, famous for combining blatant adultery and sanctimonious piety, and loved by no one except, maybe, his docile wife, Mary. But he was a skilful practitioner of the political arts, and over a period of twenty years he had won himself a battery of quasi-monarchical powers throughout the Dutch provinces. He thanked God for sending the wind that sped him and 15,000 Dutch soldiers to Torbay on the auspicious date of 5 November; but he also took care to smooth the path of providence by means of a web of alliances with dissident members of the British ruling class.

Some time before the invasion William altered his mission from policy change to regime change: he now intended to take the throne for himself and his consort Mary before leading Britain into war. He expected to do so with the overwhelming support – ‘19 parts out of 20’, he reckoned – of the people of England, Scotland and Ireland; but his judgment must have been warped by ambition. James was not unpopular, and he had proved an effective ruler during his three years in power, in spite of having two Dutch-sponsored rebellions to put down. He had shown that he was not averse to violence, but on the whole his subjects respected him as their duly anointed ruler, and he was revered by many as the last surviving child of the martyred Charles I. If he inspired distrust, it was not for the way he governed but for his open commitment to Roman Catholicism.

Ten years before, he had faced attempts to exclude him from the succession, fuelled by rumours of a Popish Plot, and when he eventually became king he dismayed the hierarchy of the Church of England by removing barriers to Catholic preferment, while offending parliamentarians by insisting on his God-given right to act on his own authority. But the resentment of bishops and politicians did not entail hostility from the population at large, and Dryden was able to present him as a ‘second Constantine’, soothing the wounds of Church and state with his ‘healing balm’. This testimony might be considered biased, coming as it did from the poet laureate, but the Declaration of Indulgence of 1687, in which James granted ‘freedom of conscience’ to all his subjects and a right to ‘meet and serve God after their own way and manner’, had been welcomed not only by Papists – a considerable constituency, especially in Scotland and Ireland – but also by tens of thousands of Quakers and other non-conformists.

During the weeks when William was rallying his forces in the west and leading them towards the capital, James could still count on the support of London’s crowds, and his warning that if William took power he might prove ‘a worse man than Cromwell’ played well with them. But James was prone to ominous forebodings, and when the crisis came his courage deserted him. On 18 December he allowed himself to be shuffled off to Rochester by a band of Dutch guards, leaving William to take over his palaces and prerogatives at the head of a foreign army.

Crowds filled the streets, as they had to, to admire the spectacle of revolution; and with the English army banished from the capital they amused themselves by harassing Papists and ransacking their chapels. Fearing political chaos, the lord mayor led a group of civic and religious leaders in pledging allegiance to the occupying forces, but even in the flush of victory William’s advisers were uneasy. ‘The treatment the king met with from the prince of Orange,’ as one of them put it, ‘moved compassion in some who were not very fond of him.’ In February 1689 a Convention Parliament decided to interpret James’s flight as abdication, but the archbishop of Canterbury refused to officiate when William and Mary were crowned in Westminster Abbey two months later.

The irregular British succession excited frenzied commentary abroad. In France, William was denounced, predictably, as a ‘new Cromwell’, an enraged Puritan plotting an international assault on the true Church. The Vatican, on the other hand, quite liked the prospect of a curb on the arrogance of France, and Spain concurred with Rome. In the Dutch Republic the coup was hailed as a triumph, especially as William and Mary had made a concession to republicanism by accepting the Act Declaring the Rights and Liberties of the Subject, later known as the Bill of Rights. Back in London, the ascendant section of the political class wrote the events of 1688-89 into history as the Glorious Revolution, and that, on the whole, is how they have been preserved in British political memory ever since.

The new king did not get much of a political honeymoon. You did not have to be a counter-revolutionary to resent Parliament’s decision to pay the Dutch government £600,000 for their pains in ‘fitting out an armament to support king William, and bringing him over’. And you did not have to be a Catholic to feel affronted by the Anglican privileges enshrined in the Bill of Rights, or to wince at triumphalist denunciations of James and his ‘divers evil counsellors’. Quakers and other non-conformists had lost their champion too, and no one could miss the fact that William’s reprisals against insurgents and recalcitrants – in Ireland on the Boyne and in Scotland at Glencoe – were at least as savage as any that could be held against his predecessor. From the beginning William was seen as a fanatical outsider, nursing ‘so great an antipathy to the English that he could be willing they were all knockt o’th head and our country repeopled with foreigners’. He did not miss a trick in turning himself, as Jonathan Israel once put it, into an object of ‘national detestation’.

The only comfort he could offer his subjects was the exhilaration of war. Within a few days of the coronation, the English fleet engaged the French off the coast of Ireland, and at the end of the year William brought Britain into alliance with Spain, the Dutch Republic and the Holy Roman Empire to prosecute a concerted campaign against France. But his navy was humiliated by the French at Beachy Head in July 1690, and things didn’t improve much when he took personal command of land operations in Northern Europe. The army grew from 25,000 men in 1690 to 100,000 by the time of the siege of Namur in 1695, but victory seemed as far away as ever. William’s revolution was beginning to look vain rather than glorious; and the worst of it all was the expense.

Britons had grown used to profligate monarchs getting into debt for the sake of their palaces, courtiers and wars; but the new regime gave birth to a new monstrosity – the National Debt. A levy of £1.6 million ‘towards the Carrying on a Vigorous Warre against France’ had been authorised by Parliament in 1691. When that proved insufficient, several million more were conjured up by means of government bonds, and the creation of the Royal Bank of England in 1694 allowed the debt to grow even further, though William still had to plead with the bankers of Brussels to lend him cash to pay his restive troops at Namur.

The economic consequences of William’s war form the background to the curious story of a counterfeiter and his nemesis that Thomas Levenson tells in his racy new book. Finance was not, in those days, a very abstruse mystery, and economics was not yet an abstract science: the crisis of the 1690s turned not on the metaphysical niceties of credit but on the quantity and quality of the country’s silver coins. William had been dealt a difficult hand. The national stock of sixpences, shillings, half-crowns and crowns fell into two groups, the old and the new, each with a total face value of around ten million pounds. The old coins, dating from before 1662, had been made by brawny ‘master moneyers’ in the Mint workshops at the Tower of London, chopping slices from a silver rod and striking an image on both sides using a hammer and die. Apart from being easy to counterfeit, these hammered coins had become seriously degraded, partly through ordinary use (many were more than a century old) and partly through deliberate tampering: the manufacturing process left a fringe beyond the imprint of the die, and anyone with clippers or a file could shave a little silver off a hammered coin. By the 1690s, most old coins had lost about a third of their original substance.

In 1662 the Royal Mint went over to a new method of manufacture. Samuel Pepys, who was one of the first to make a tour of the new workshops at the Tower, was enchanted by his glimpse of a pioneering form of mass production. He watched perfectly uniform discs of assayed silver pouring out of horse-powered presses; he saw them locked into machines that engraved a pattern on the edge and added the defiant legend decus et tutamen (‘ornament and safeguard’ – milled coins would be proof against clipping and filing); and he saw them slipped under mechanical hammers that struck deep impressions on both sides with a clarity and precision that the strongest old-style moneyer could never have matched. ‘They say that this way is more charge to the king than the old way,’ Pepys wrote, ‘but it is neater, freer from clipping or counterfeiting … and speedier.’

The new British coins, beautifully minted with a full measure of fine silver, were a source of national pride; but they were also a national folly. They were harder to counterfeit than the old ones, but just as easy to melt down, either to forge old-style coins at a higher face value, or to create bullion that could be sold overseas at a premium. The Mint set an extra trap for itself by issuing a run of high-value coins struck not from silver but from the finest African gold, popularly known as guineas. They were originally meant to be worth 20 shillings, but they had no explicit denomination and were soon trading at 21 or 22. By the time William was pleading for cash to pay his troops in Flanders, guineas were worth 30 shillings, offering a mute but implacable commentary on the value of the British coinage. It was a hard problem; but something had to be done.

One of the first to look into the issue was John Locke, who had always been a committed supporter of the Revolution. After spending most of the 1680s in political exile in the Dutch Republic, he had returned to England in triumph in February 1689. William immediately asked him to be his ambassador to Brandenburg or Vienna, or anywhere he liked, but Locke respectfully declined. He was nearly sixty and frail through asthma, and, though not the marrying type, had a dream of settling for the first time into a comfy domestic routine. He had also decided to bring out his long-gestated Essay Concerning Human Understanding and wanted to stay in London to see it through the press. In any case he did not feel suited to the life of a diplomat. ‘I know no such rack in the world to draw out men’s thoughts as a well-managed bottle,’ he said, and if the king wanted an effective ambassador he had better look for ‘a man of equal parts that could drink his share’, instead of an abstemious old philosopher who might well be the ‘soberest man in the kingdom’.

Locke soon found some less intoxicating ways to serve the revolution. Apart from winning philosophical glory for his country with the publication of the Essay in December 1689, he accepted a part-time post as commissioner of appeals in excise, and undertook an inquiry into the government’s financial predicament. There was general agreement that the pre-1662 currency had to be phased out; the question was what should replace it. Sir William Lowndes, the Treasury secretary, maintained that the only way to sustain the supply of money was to create a plentiful new coinage with a reduced silver content. Locke disagreed, pointing out that silver was ‘the Instrument and Measure of Commerce’ not only in Britain but throughout ‘the Civilised and trading parts of the World’. To suppose that the value of coins was ‘arbitrary’, he went on, and to maintain with Lowndes that the Mint could blithely make ‘a Penny or a Shilling lighter or heavier’ in order to satisfy the requirements of British commerce was like imagining that a shortage of cloth in the army could be remedied by changing the definition of the yard. Drawing on principles that appeared to him to ‘have their foundation in Nature’, Locke clinched his argument by noting that ‘an equal quantity of Silver is always of equal value to an equal quantity of Silver.’

To many observers, it appeared that Locke had Protestant piety on his side as well as common sense. The idea that coins owed their value to the images stamped on them rather than the quantity of metal they contained had an air of iconolatry about it, and Locke’s allies denounced the project of ‘Adulterating the Coin of this Kingdom’ as a ‘wicked contrivance’, or ‘the Popish Plot Reviv’d’. Parliament came down on Locke’s side: from May 1696 the old coins would be worth no more than the metal they were made of, and in the meantime the great engines at the Mint would keep turning night and day as old coins were melted down and reminted at full weight.

Given that it was going to take the silver from three old shillings to make two new ones, Locke’s policy was bound to lead to a painful cash-crunch. The historian and Mint official John Craig, writing in the middle of last century, noted that the scheme’s only achievements were to stifle commerce and squeeze the poor, at a cost of £5 million to the Treasury. The ‘great recoinage’, in Sir John’s opinion, was not only a financial folly but a ‘social crime’.

To make matters worse, the disaster had been foreseen not only by Lowndes, but also by a cheeky young jack-of-all-trades called William Chaloner. Chaloner was a well-known figure in the streets of London, horribly stingy one day but magnificently wealthy the next, and he had somehow persuaded the government to accept him as a freelance adviser on monetary policy. In 1693 he appeared before a parliamentary committee with a proposal for reminting the national coinage so that it would become ‘morally impossible to Counterfeit it’. The following year he published a punchy paper arguing that to persevere with ‘coyning our money the Instrinsick Worth’ would be a double catastrophe: not only ‘a great charge to the King’, but ‘an impoverishment of the Nation’ as well. He humbly petitioned the government to ignore Locke’s advice and order new coins with only two-thirds of their nominal metal content, and proposed a mobile Mint to service remote parts of the country. As disaster loomed, he issued a final warning: ‘The Subjects will want money to Commerce and Trade withal, and to pay the King’s taxes,’ he said, but his advice went unheeded.

Chaloner was vindicated by events, but had little chance to savour his victory. He was suspected of knowing more than he should about the Mint, and spent three long periods in Newgate Prison before being prosecuted in March 1699: he was accused of coining crowns, half-crowns and French pistoles, condemned in a matter of minutes, and hanged at Tyburn two weeks later. A pamphlet called Guzman Redivivus: a short view of the life of Will Chaloner did its best to turn the unlucky entrepreneur into a literary hero – an incarnation of the Spanish picaro Guzmán d’Alfarache, the original lovable rogue.

Guzman Redivivus told the tale of a provincial nailer’s apprentice who came to town and set up as a ‘Piss-Pot prophet’ with a special gift for tracing stolen goods – an easy trick, when he was himself the thief. But before long he gave up ‘the petty Rogueries of Tricking single Men’, and turned to ‘imposing upon a whole Kingdom’ instead. Chaloner became known as the counterfeiter who was paid by the government for advice on preventing forgery, and the fraudster who got £1000 from the Bank of England for denouncing a scam that he had devised himself. He swindled the nation even as he ‘pretended himself to be busy’d for the Good of the Publick’, and continued ‘very sawcy’ when facing his Old Bailey jury; but on this occasion his high spirits did him no good, and the manner of his departure to the gallows (‘he bellow’d and roar’d worse than an Irish woman at a Funeral’) knocked some lustre off his name. But he had lived in grand style, and would never be forgotten for his boldness in denouncing his betters as ‘connivers (at least) at many Abuses and Cheats’, and also for having the nerve to lay accusations of malpractice against ‘that Worthy Gentleman Isaac Newton Esq.’

No one could read about the life and death of William Chaloner without suspecting that there may be more to it than meets the eye. Was he as guilty as he was made out to be, or was he framed as a result of an unwise choice of enemies? And what of the supposed relationship with Britain’s greatest mathematician? It is tenuous and poorly documented, but Levenson has got excited about it, and it provides him with a peg from which to hang a straggly tale.

Isaac Newton? The founder of modern science; the man recognised by his contemporaries – and ever since – as the greatest natural philosopher the world has ever seen? What had the man who had brought order to the cosmos to do with crime and punishment, the flash world of London’s gin houses and tenements, bad money and worse faith?

Newton is no stranger to history in the style of the rip-roaring novel, or what might be called the historiette. He was an obscure Cambridge don in his early forties when he published Principia Mathematica in 1687, and it brought him unexpected fame. Locke read it in exile, and in his Essay two years later described himself as a mere ‘under-labourer’ to ‘the incomparable Mr Newton’. Alexander Pope outbid Locke a few years later with his verdict that ‘God said “Let Newton be,” and all was light,’ and Voltaire could hardly open his mouth without praising ‘the mighty Newton’. Levenson promises to explain how a man supposedly ‘beyond the passions and chaos of daily life’ became obsessed with Chaloner and pursued him single-mindedly to his death.

Newton was not sure what to do after publishing Principia. He undertook some alchemical experiments, but at the same time he toyed with the idea of moving to London and reinventing himself as a fashionable gentleman with a stake in the revolutionary cause. He was not without political experience: back in 1687, when King James attempted to secure a Cambridge degree for a Catholic monk, he interrupted work on his galley-proofs in order to join a delegation to the Lords Commissioners at Westminster. ‘A mixture of Papists and Protestants in the same University can neither subsist happily nor long together,’ he argued, and in the end the king had to accept defeat. The following year, after James had fled the country, Newton represented his university in the Convention Parliament and spent most of 1689 ingratiating himself with the new political elite in London, and making friends with Locke. But when Locke secured him the offer of the mastership of Charterhouse School, at £200 a year with lodgings and a coach thrown in, he took offence and drafted an indignant response which was never sent. Or, as Levenson puts it, ‘Isaac Newton, in a state of annoyance, began a letter. He drew out a sheet of paper, loaded his quill with ink, and began to write. He filled a page, read it, and paused.’

Newton’s refusal of the help offered by Locke was a harbinger of the famous ‘distemper’ that immobilised him in the summer of 1693. ‘I beg your pardon for saying I would see you again,’ he told Pepys that September: ‘I never designed to get anything by your interest, nor by King James’s favour, but am now sensible that I must withdraw from your acquaintance, and see neither you nor the rest of my friends any more.’ Realising that his reasoning might appear obscure, he added that ‘I am extremely troubled at the embroilment I am in, and have neither ate nor slept well this twelve month, nor have my former consistency of mind.’ A couple of days later he sent an equally delirious apology to Locke: ‘Being of opinion that you endeavoured to embroil me with women & by other means,’ he wrote, ‘I was so much affected with it as that when one told me you were sickly & would not live I answered twere better if you were dead.’ ‘I desire you to forgive me this uncharitableness,’ he added, ‘for I am now satisfied that what you have done is just & I beg your pardon for my having hard thoughts of you for it & for representing that you struck at the root of morality.’

Locke bore no grudge against Newton, and persevered in helping him towards a new life in the capital. In 1695 Newton joined him on a committee advising the government on the currency crisis, and despite disagreeing over the question of maintaining the intrinsic value of the coinage, Locke recommended him for the post of warden of the Mint when it fell vacant the following year. This time Newton did not hesitate to accept. He had been assured that he could treat the job as a sinecure, but that was not what he had in mind, and he soon made himself over as an exceptionally conscientious administrator. He lived at the warden’s house in the Tower, and in his first two and a half years he increased the output of the Mint twenty or thirtyfold, till it was turning out hundreds of thousands of coins a week. By then he had moved to a fashionable address in Jermyn Street, where he relaxed into the sociable habits of a powerful and very prosperous gentleman (he was earning around £1500 a year), continuing to manage the Mint with exemplary efficiency till his death more than three decades later.

The responsibilities of the warden included the prosecution of counterfeiters, and after some initial reluctance Newton set about the task with grim meticulousness. He built up a network of informers and, to extend his legal reach, got himself commissioned as a magistrate in Middlesex and each of the Home Counties. His name came to be feared in the London underworld, and he was gratified by the opinion of a Newgate prisoner that ‘the Warden of the Mint was a Rogue and if ever King James came againe he would shoot him.’

In 1698 Chaloner made a submission to Parliament complaining that ‘some of the Mint’ were scheming to ‘take away his life’ to prevent him exposing corruption at the highest level. His allegations were taken seriously, but as Levenson sees it, he was making a terrible mistake in implicating the new warden. ‘Only months removed from the life of a Cambridge philosopher’, as he puts it, Newton had ‘managed incredibly swiftly to master every dirty job required of the 17th-century version of a big-city cop’. Did the superannuated scientist recognise Chaloner, subconsciously, as his doppelganger, another yokel on the make, a ‘direct rival’ to his own ‘mastery over metal’? Did he take unnatural pleasure in tormenting his suspects? Levenson does not doubt it. ‘No one should ever say that Isaac Newton was passionless,’ he says: when confronted with Chaloner, his anger ‘was never more intense’, and he would not rest till he could see his dark plebeian twin swinging from Tyburn tree.

It would be hard to dissent from Levenson’s theory that ‘the real Newton was a human being.’ But it’s not clear why, if we want to verify Newton’s participation in our common humanity, we should have to postulate a taste for savage vendetta. There is no evidence that Newton was more interested in Chaloner than in dozens of other suspected counterfeiters (he brought no fewer than 28 to trial at the Old Bailey); and if Newton was happy in his second career it could be that he was simply relishing the pleasure of effective political action, rather than getting in touch with his inner sadist. Like his good friend Locke he was wholly committed to the revolution, and he was glad to do what he could to defend it by strengthening the national currency. Newton’s political judgments may be open to question, but he need not be belittled for his laborious pursuit of the public good as he saw it.