Read AUTHOR’S PREFACE of The Complete English Tradesman, free online book, by Daniel Defoe, on

The title of this work is an index of the performance.  It is a collection of useful instructions for a young tradesman.  The world is grown so wise of late, or (if you will) fancy themselves so, are so opiniâtre, as the French well express it, so self-wise, that I expect some will tell us beforehand they know every thing already, and want none of my instructions; and to such, indeed, these instructions are not written.

Had I not, in a few years’ experience, seen many young tradesmen miscarry, for want of those very cautions which are here given, I should have thought this work needless, and I am sure had never gone about to write it; but as the contrary is manifest, I thought, and think still, the world greatly wanted it.

And be it that those unfortunate creatures that have thus blown themselves up in trade, have miscarried for want of knowing, or for want of practising, what is here offered for their direction, whether for want of wit, or by too much wit, the thing is the same, and the direction is equally needful to both.

An old experienced pilot sometimes loses a ship by his assurance and over confidence of his knowledge, as effectually as a young pilot does by his ignorance and want of experience ­this very thing, as I have been informed, was the occasion of the fatal disaster in which Sir Cloudesley Shovel, and so many hundred brave fellows, lost their lives in a moment upon the rocks of Scilly.

He that is above informing himself when he is in danger, is above pity when he miscarries ­a young tradesman who sets up thus full of himself, and scorning advice from those who have gone before him, like a horse that rushes into the battle, is only fearless of danger because he does not understand it.

If there is not something extraordinary in the temper and genius of the tradesmen of this age, if there is not something very singular in their customs and methods, their conduct and behaviour in business; also, if there is not something different and more dangerous and fatal in the common road of trading, and tradesmen’s management now, than ever was before, what is the reason that there are so many bankrupts and broken tradesmen now among us, more than ever were known before?  I make no doubt but there is as much trade now, and as much gotten by trading, as there ever was in this nation, at least in our memory; and if we will allow other people to judge, they will tell us there is much more trade, and trade is much more gainful; what, then, must be the reason that the tradesmen cannot live on their trades, cannot keep open their shops, cannot maintain themselves and families, as well now as they could before?  Something extraordinary must be the case.

There must be some failure in the tradesman ­it can be nowhere else ­either he is less sober and less frugal, less cautious of what he does, whom he trusts, how he lives, and how he behaves, than tradesmen used to be, or he is less industrious, less diligent, and takes less care and pains in his business, or something is the matter; it cannot be but if he had the same gain, and but the same expense which the former ages suffered tradesmen to thrive with, he would certainly thrive as they did.  There must be something out of order in the foundation; he must fail in the essential part, or he would not fail in his trade.  The same causes would have the same effects in all ages; the same gain, and but the same expense, would just leave him in the same place as it would have left his predecessor in the same shop; and yet we see one grow rich, and the other starve, under the very same circumstances.

The temper of the times explains the case to every body that pleases but to look into it.  The expenses of a family are quite different now from what they have been.  Tradesmen cannot live as tradesmen in the same class used to live; custom, and the manner of all the tradesmen round them, command a difference; and he that will not do as others do, is esteemed as nobody among them, and the tradesman is doomed to ruin by the fate of the times.

In short, there is a fate upon a tradesman; either he must yield to the snare of the times, or be the jest of the times; the young tradesman cannot resist it; he must live as others do, or lose the credit of living, and be run down as if he were bankrupt.  In a word, he must spend more than he can afford to spend, and so be undone; or not spend it, and so be undone.

If he lives as others do, he breaks, because he spends more than he gets; if he does not, he breaks too, because he loses his credit, and that is to lose his trade.  What must he do?

The following directions are calculated for this exigency, and to prepare the young tradesman to stem the attacks of those fatal customs, which otherwise, if he yields to them, will inevitably send him the way of all the thoughtless tradesmen that have gone before him.

Here he will be effectually, we hope, encouraged to set out well; to begin wisely and prudently; and to avoid all those rocks which the gay race of tradesmen so frequently suffer shipwreck upon.  And here he will have a true plan of his own prosperity drawn out for him, by which, if it be not his own fault, he may square his conduct in an unerring manner, and fear neither bad fortune nor bad friends.  I had purposed to give a great many other cautions and directions in this work, but it would have spun it out too far, and have made it tedious.  I would indeed have discoursed of some branches of home trade, which necessarily embarks the inland tradesman in some parts of foreign business, and so makes a merchant of the shopkeeper almost whether he will or no.  For example, almost all the shopkeepers and inland traders in seaport towns, or even in the water-side part of London itself, are necessarily brought in to be owners of ships, and concerned at least in the vessel, if not in the voyage.  Some of their trades, perhaps, relate to, or are employed in, the building, or fitting, or furnishing out ships, as is the case at Shoreham, at Ipswich, Yarmouth, Hull, Whitby, Newcastle, and the like.  Others are concerned in the cargoes, as in the herring fishery at Yarmouth and the adjacent ports, the colliery at Newcastle, Sunderland, &c., and the like in many other cases.

In this case, the shopkeeper is sometimes a merchant adventurer, whether he will or not, and some of his business runs into sea-adventures, as in the salt trade at Sheffield, in Northumberland, and Durham, and again at Limington; and again in the coal trade, from Whitehaven in Cumberland to Ireland, and the like.

These considerations urged me to direct due cautions to such tradesmen, and such as would be particular to them, especially not to launch out in adventures beyond the compass of their stocks, and withal to manage those things with due wariness.  But this work had not room for those things; and as that sort of amphibious tradesmen, for such they are, trading both by water and by land, are not of the kind with those particularly aimed at in these sheets, I thought it was better to leave them quite out than to touch but lightly upon them.

I had also designed one chapter or letter to my inland tradesmen, upon the most important subject of borrowing money upon interest, which is one of the most dangerous things a tradesman is exposed to.  It is a pleasant thing to a tradesman to see his credit rise, and men offer him money to trade with, upon so slender a consideration as five per cent. interest, when he gets ten per cent. perhaps twice in the year; but it is a snare of the most dangerous kind in the event, and has been the ruin of so many tradesmen, that, though I had not room for it in the work, I could not let it pass without this notice in the preface.

1.  Interest-money eats deep into the tradesman’s profits, because it is a payment certain, whether the tradesman gets or loses, and as he may often get double, so sometimes he loses, and then his interest is a double payment; it is a partner with him under this unhappy circumstance, namely, that it goes halves when he gains, but not when he loses.

2.  The lender calls for his money when he pleases, and often comes for it when the borrower can ill spare it; and then, having launched out in trade on the supposition of so much in stock, he is left to struggle with the enlarged trade with a contracted stock, and thus he sinks under the weight of it, cannot repay the money, is dishonoured, prosecuted, and at last undone, by the very loan which he took in to help him.  Interest of money is a dead weight upon the tradesman, and as the interest always keeps him low, the principal sinks him quite down, when that comes to be paid out again.  Payment of interest, to a tradesman, is like Cicero bleeding to death in a warm bath; the pleasing warmth of the bath makes him die in a kind of dream, and not feel himself decay, till at last he is exhausted, falls into convulsions, and expires.

A tradesman held up by money at interest, is sure to sink at last by the weight of it, like a man thrown into the sea with a stone tied about his neck, who though he could swim if he was loose, drowns in spite of all his struggle.

Indeed, this article would require not a letter, but a book by itself; and the tragical stories of tradesmen undone by usury are so many, and the variety so great, that they would make a history by themselves.  But it must suffice to treat it here only in general, and give the tradesmen a warning of it, as the Trinity-house pilots warn sailors of a sand, by hanging a buoy upon it, or as the Eddystone light-house upon a sunk rock, which, as the poet says, ’Bids men stand off, and live; come near, and die.’

For a tradesman to borrow money upon interest, I take to be like a man going into a house infected with the plague; it is not only likely that he may be infected and die, but next to a miracle if he escapes.

This part being thus hinted at, I think I may say of the following sheets, that they contain all the directions needful to make the tradesman thrive; and if he pleases to listen to them with a temper of mind willing to be directed, he must have some uncommon ill luck if he miscarries.