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Newton: the Man 30-39

An Attempt at Bribery

That Newton was as simple as a child appears to me to be absurd. He was no Laputan mathematician who required to be always accompanied by a ``Flapper.'' The reorganisation of the Mint, at a time when jobbery and corruption were notoriously rampant, required a man; and a man who would see that his orders were carried out! That corruption was, as I said, rampant, is evident from even Newton himself having been offered a bribe. The would-be bribers clearly thought that to succeed with Newton it was necessary to bid very high. He was therefore offered £6,000; upon which Newton ordered the bearer of the offer out of his office - as described by Brewster.

The Purchase of Silver

It may be noted that what Newton was asked to do would perhaps not be considered dishonest by some people, since there would have been no loss to the Exchequer. It was to ``show preference in the purchase of silver.'' It was obviously ``unfair'' and ``unjust'' to show preference to anyone; and Newton, with his lofty ideas of justice, naturally considered it a bribe to act unjustly, and indignantly refused.

A Man of the World

De Morgan's view of Newton's character (Newton: His Friend: and His Niece, 1885) is, I think, much more accurate than Macaulay's; though even he is, I think, sometimes (doubtless unintentionally) a trifle unjust. He starts with the admission that Newton was not ``human perfection.'' He continues: ``He was not a simple-minded man in the sense propounded: he was not like the old philosopher who knocked his foot against a stone while he was looking at the stars. Though not learned in human nature, he was very much a man of the World; he stuck to the main chance, and knew how to make a cast. He took good care of his money, and left a large fortune, though very - even magnificentIy - liberal on suitable occasions, especially to his family.''

In another place de Morgan says (loc. cit.): ``The scientific fame of Newton, the power which he established over his contemporaries, and his own general high character, gave birth to the desirable myth that his goodness was paralleled only by his intellect.

A Straw in Amber

``That unvarying dignity of mind is the necessary concomitant of great power of thought, is a pleasant creed, but hardly attainable except by those whose love for their faith is insured by their capacity for believing what they like. The hero is all hero, even to those who would be loth to pay the compliment of perfect imitation. . . . The time will come when his social weaknesses are only quoted in proof of the completeness with which a high feeling may rule the principal occupation of life, which has a much slighter power over the subordinate ones.

``We look on the errors of great men as straws preserved in the pure amber of their services to mankind.''

The Loss Incurred

Up to the present we have seen nothing against Newton's moral character in his dealings with the South Sea Company, nothing of what Seward calls ``the indulgence of a passion which rendered the character of this wonder of humanity imperfect''; nor even what de Morgan would have referred to as ``a straw preserved in pure amber.'' I have shown how Newton acquired his £5,000 of ``Capital Stock,'' and we have sworn evidence that he had that exact amount when he died, in 1727. Newton, in fact, only did what any good business man would have done; with the exception that a banker, say, would probably have sold his stock at once, at a price not less than 600, thus realising a gain of £21,000.

Newton, on the other hand, did not sell his stock, and so incurred a loss of about £4,000 on the balance.

Income Analysed

But, it has been argued, Newton must have made money out of the South Sea Bubble, since he could not out of his income alone possibly have saved the £32,000 which he left. The case is very considerably worse than this, since if, as I have shown, he lost £4,000 by this South Sea Stock, we must add this to the £32,000; and Nemon, we are told, gave Mrs. Conduitt's daughter £4,000 not very long before his death. Let us go into this question vcry carefully and try to ``bolt it to the bran.''

College Career

When Nemon went to college he had only £80 per annum from his two small properties. He, clearly, was unable to save anything out of this. Later, he became a fellow of his college, and I will assume that the fellowship was worth not more than £20 per annum. He may possibly have also made a little by teaching. He later became Lucasian Professor, and this professorship has been estimated to have been worth about £100 per annum. The exact amount is unimportant here, as I will assume that he saved nothing during the time he was at Cambridge; although Chalmers¹ says that with £200 per annum Newton could not have been considered a ``poor man.''

Warden of the Mint

In 1696 Nemon was appointed Warden of the Mint. The salary was stated by Charles Montague, when offering him the post, to be worth £500 or £600. Let us again be conservative and put it at £500. Since he still retained his professorship and, I will assume, his fellowship, his income would now be £700 per annum. Again, I will assume that he saved nothing, but that any ``surplus'' he may have had he gave away. I am thus, apparently, making the case as impossible as I can!

Master of the Mint

In 1699 Nemon became Master of the Mint, when his salary (according to Brewster and others) was between £1,200 and £1,500 per annum. He was Master for twenty-eight years, during two of which he retained the ``Lucasian emoluments'' (but of this I will take no notice), as well as £80 derived from his private property. Now, how was it possible for him to have saved £40,000 out of this in only twenty-eight years? It was impossible!

This, apparently, hopeless impasse comes from our having assumed that his income as Master of the Mint was under £1,500. Tt was, as a matter of fact, very considerably more than this!

Newton's Income

But, it may be said, Brewster derived this figure from what Conduitt had said; and Conduitt was certainly in a position to know the facts. This is so; Conduitt did, apparently, say this - but probably without due reflection, for we know that he (Conduitt) declared, on oath, that Sir Isaac's income was as follows :

Salary as Master of the Mint . . . £600
Salary as Assay Master . . . . £60
Total Salary £660

Besides this, however, Newton received as ``profits of the coinage'' one shilling and tenpence per pound weight of gold minted, and threepence farthing per pound weight of silver minted.

Profits Assessed

During the period January 1st to March 20th, 1727, his profits were:

For Gold minted . . . . . . £303 17 6
For Silver minted . . . . . 3 5 9 ¾
Total . . . . . . 307 3 3 ¾

The period January 1st to March 20th was seventy-nine days. Hence his ``profits'' for the year may be taken as £1,418. This added to his ``salary'' makes his income £2,078 per annum; which is very considerably over £1,500. To this, again, we must add the £80 from his property, thus making his income about £2,158.

£2,078 a Year

There is no reason for supposing that the quarter in which Newton died was an exceptional one. On the contrary, it appears much more probable that during the early years, about 1700 (when Newton was more vigorous), the Mint was working at higher pressure. I will be conservative and suppose that £2,078 was Newton's average income from the Mint, during all the twenty-eight years.

The Sworn Estate

In order to be accurate, Newton's sworn Estate was as follows :

£14,000 Principal Stock in the Bank of England, valued at 126½ per cent, with a dividend of 3 per cent on Lady Day . . . . . £18,130 0 0
£5,000 Capital Stock in the South Sea Company, valued at 104 . . . 5,200 0 0 £5,000 South Sea Annuities, at 97½ with a dividend of 2½ per cent on Lady Day . . . . . 5,000 0 0
Cash in hands of Mr. Conduitt . 1,711 0 0
Cash found in ``Scruters'' . . 78 9 3
Money lent on note of hand . . . 201 4 0
Subscription to Pemberton's book . . 12 12 0
£30,333 5 3 ¾
To this we must add:
Lost on South Sea Stock . . . 4,000 0 0
Given to his great-niece . . . 4,000 0 0
Paid £500 for the translation of Opticks (£100 for each of the translator's five children) . . . . 500 0 0
Paid Pemberton for editing the 3rd Edition of the Principia . . 200 0 0
Total . . . . £39,033 5¾

Total Income

Now let us look on the other side of the account. We have seen that Newton's income when Master of the Mint was £2,158. Let us still be conservative and assume that he spent £1,158 per annum (probably equivalent to about £3,500 to-day) and saved only £1,000 per annum. Certainly from the ``inventary'' I should say that this expenditure was considerably over the mark, since there appears to have been no approach to any grandeur in his house, where everything was on a modest scale. Let us thus assulne that Newton saved £1,000 every year, and that this money remained at 5 per cent compound interest. At the end of the second year his savings would be £2,050, and at the end of the third year £3,102, and so on. A very simple calculation will show that at the end of twenty-eight years Newton would (if my arithmetic is correct) have saved £40,569! This will cover the other side of the account and leave a surplus of £1,500. Thus Newton1 at the time of his death must have had an income of over £4,000 per annum. In this calculation I have assumed that the interest was paid annually. if paid biennially (as is more probable) the amount would be a little larger.

The Assertion of Gambling

I hope that the foregoing will explode, once and for all, the absurd story that Newton, in his old age, gambled from ``greed of gain.'' There is nothing in his dealings in South Sea Stock which in the very least justifies such an assertion: an assertion made by writers who, apparently, were too lazy to study the question carefully. I have shown that he had an opportunity of gaining over £20,000, and that he would not avail himself of it. That, certainly, looks like the reverse of ``greed.''

Royal Society Subscription

Let me conclude this argument by drawing attention to a fact which is not generally known (it never having been published), and which has only just been brought to my attention. On the 13th July, 1720 - exactly fourteen days earlier than Newton's note to Dr. Fauquier - there is a Royal Society' 5 Council resolution which reads as follows:

``Ordered that the Treasurer be empowered and directed to subscribe the six hundred pounds [? per ann.] Lottery Annuities which the society hath in the Bank, into the South Sea.'' [Emphasis added.]

Wollaston's Comment

If Dr. Wollaston had known of this entry, would he have worded the end of his letter, referring to Newton's transaction, in the strong manner that he did? Or, are we to consider tliis also as ``an instructive instance of the soundest understanding being liable to have its judgment perverted by the appearauce of enormous profit''?


Nothing appears to be known of the price at which the Royal Society acquired this South Sea Stock; but Wollaston's letter says that its price was ... ``during July ... 900 ... 930.'' We have seen that Newton acquired his stock at about 180. The ``Lottery Annuities'' appear to have been a kind of gambling counter, whilst the ``South Sea Annuities'' were, undoubtedly, ``Consolidated National Debt'' - I suppose the very earliest English ``Consols.''

``Greed of Gain''

If we are therefore to consider that Newton was actuated by a mad ``greed of gain,'' what words are we to use for the action of the Royal Society's Council? If Newlon's action was wrong, we see that he was only following the example that the Royal Society set him a fortnight earlier I

But why did Newton refuse to sell his stock, and so make a huge profit? Why, as a stockbroker would put it, did he not ``take his profit''?

Unhallowed Gain

We cannot suppose that Newton was ignorant of this possibility, since, as we have seen, he referred to ``the madness of the people.'' It would he wildly absurd to suppose that he wanted to gain more than £20,000, and so was waiting for a further rise. The only explanation left is that he did not consider this an honest way of making money; that it would have been ``unhallowed gain''; that it was nearly equivalent to ``taking money out of some one else's pocket'' that, in short, it was closely allicd to what lawyers call ``stealing by finding.''

Newton's Honesty

Thus we may say (paraphrasing de Morgan) that Ne~.ton's honesty - certainly ``his financial honesty'' - was ``paralleled only by his intellect.'' The only name I would couple with Newton's in this respect is that other glory of English science, Michael Faraday.

Hatred of Jobbery

If it should be thought that I am prejudiced and that my explanation is too fantastical, let me quote again from de Morgan's Newton: His Niece: and His Friend:

``There is a record somewhere of Swift being employed by the Tory Government to carry to Miss Barton a proposition for Newton's consideration, that he should retire in favour of one of their friends upon a pension of £2,000 a year. Newton, whom a job repelled at a higher rate than the inverse square of the distance . . . sent back that they might have the place, but he would not have a pension.''

Notwithstanding all this, we must admit that Newton was fond of money-making and was very careful in keeping it. We find in one of his small account-books, dated 1659, such entries as:

``Lent to Agatha . . . . . £0 11 1
Lent Gooch . . . . . . £1 0 0''
and even more suggestive:
``Income from a glasse and other things to my chamberfellow . . . £0 0 9''

Transmutation Possibilities

There is also the well-known letter to Mr. Aston, when Newton was about twenty-six years of age. This letter is rather pompous, reminding one of Polonius's advice to Laertes, so that one could almost wish that it were not genuine. De Morgan has dealt with this (rather severely but, I think, justly) on one aspect of it, in his review of Brewster's Memoirs of Newton; and I only wish to refer to ``general heads for inquirys or observations,'' No. 9. Speaking of ``extracting metals or minerals out of their oare'' he says :

``And if you meet with any transmutations out of their own species into another . . . those, above all, will be worth your noting, being the most luciferous, and many times lucriferous experiments in philosophy.''

``Lucriferous'' Philosophy

This shows that Newton considered that philosophy should be made ``lucriferous,'' if possible; and also that he believed in the transmutation of metals. His library confirms this view, since there were many books relating to the transmutation of metals by different methods. This was also Brewster's view, since he says: ``We have not been able to discover the results of Mr. Aston's inquiries, but whatever they were they did not damp the ardour of Newton in his chemical researches, nor extinguish the hope which he seems to have cherished, of making, `philosophy lueriferous,' by transmuting the baser metals into gold.''

Plain Living

Newton, though extremely generous to others, appears to have spent very little on himself in the ``Inventary'' we find that his ``wearing apparel woolen and linen one silver hilted sword and two canes,'' were only valued at £8 3s. 0d. Considering the style people dressed in at that time, and allowing that Newton had only two suits, there would be little value left for underclothing, boots, etc. This looks a little like ``one set on and the other at the wash.''

The Cellar

His cellar contained only cider in bottles and ``a parcel of wine,'' its total value being only £14 16s. 6d. - and we must remember that he held the official position of Master of the Mint. It seems probable, therefore, that Newton drank cider ordinarily, and out of a mug - as they do to this day in Brittany.

Abbé Alari's Visit

Brewster relates how ``The Abbé Alari, the instructor of Louis XV, and the friend of Bolingbroke, spent two months in London in 1725. He paid a visit to Newton, of which the following flippant and apparently incorrect account has been given by a friend: `He visited the University of Cambridge, and the great Newton, who enjoyed, at that time, in the Capital of England, the general esteem of Europe, and 50,000 livres of Salary as Master of the Mint!' ''

Charge of Stinginess

The salary here quoted appears to be about correct, though the way in which it is referred to is certainly rather flippant. The account goes on, 3nd says that the Abbé went to Newton's house at nine o'clock in the Morning. ``The Abbé . . having made himself very agreeable, was asked to dinner. The repast was detestable. Newton was stingy, and gave his guests wines of Palma and Madeira, which he had received in presents.''

Fiery Wines

After making suitable allowances for exaggeration and flippancy, it is evident that the worthy Abbé did not approve of Newton's "cooking," and (not unnaturally) did not care for his fiery wines - which were, quite possibly, received from his friends as presents.

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