Open main menu
This page needs to be proofread.

steadily work together to narrow the realm of chance and extend that of foresight. But there remain certain events which may disturb all anticipations, and in spite of any man's best wisdom and effort may deprive him of the fruits of his labour. These are mainly of two classes: (1) damage to property by the great forces of nature, such as lightning and hail, by the perils of the sea and by fire; (2) premature death. A useful life has an economical value. But no skill can make certain its continuance to its normal close. In the reasonable expectation that it will last until a competence is gained or the family ceases to be dependent, young men marry; but some will die too soon, and in the aggregate multitudes are left destitute. Both classes of loss are alike, in that they fall on individuals in the mass who are not known beforehand nor selected by any traceable law. But the sufferers are ruined, while the same pecuniary loss, if distributed over the whole number, would be little felt. Wherever the sense of community has existed this has been discerned, and some effort made to act upon it. Thus in feudal Europe it was customary for the houses of vassals to be restored after fire at the cost of the estate. In England in the 17th century the government practised a method of relief after accidental Hres. When such a loss was proved to the king in council, the chancellor sent a king's brief to churches, sheriffs and justices, asking contributions, and trustees for the sufferers administered the funds collected. But under the last two Stuarts gross frauds resulted, and the system fell into disrepute and disuse. At best, the voluntary relief provided by charity after losses are incurred is but sporadic and irregular. Insurance begins when the liability to loss is recognized as common, and provision is made beforehand to meet it from a common fund. The efficient organization of communities or groups for this purpose is an essentially modern achievement of social science. But the history of the conception in its formative stages is extremely obscure.

Its first appearance in business life is often sought in the marine loans of the ancient Greeks, fully described by Demosthenes. Money was advanced on a ship or cargo, to be repaid with large interest if the voyage prosper, but not repaid at all if the ship be lost, the rate of interest being made high enough to pay not only for the use of the capital, but for the risk of losing it. Loans of this character have ever since been common in maritime lands, under the name of bottomry and respondentia bonds. (See below, Marine Insurance.) But the direct insurance of searisks for a premium paid independently of loans began, as far as is known, in Belgium about A.D. 1300. During the next century the risks of insurance for the usual voyages between London and European ports were carefully considered, and customary rates became established. In his address in opening Elizabeth's first parliament in 1559, Sir Nicholas Bacon said, “Doth not the wise merchant in every adventure of danger give part to have the rest assured?” In 1601 parliament created a commission to decide disputes under contracts for marine insurance, and the preamble of the act (43 Eliz. ch. 12) expresses the best thought of the British mind in that day upon the subject. Thus the business of marine insurance was intelligently and wisely practised three centuries ago. But the underwriters were private persons, acting independently, so that the insured lacked the benefit of large aggregations of capital to make his contract safe; while the insurer, who took one or a few risks, was without the security of large averages and might be crushed by an exceptional loss. A partial remedy was gradually reached in London. Men who had capital to employ in this hazardous business used to meet at fixed hours when shipowners and merchants could negotiate with them. The higgling of the open market, in view of all the circumstances of each risk-as the character and condition of the ship, its crew and cargo, the length and route of the voyage, the season, the current rate of interest and profits-determined the rate of premium; and when this obtained general assent, the written agreement was signed by each underwriter for that part of the risk which he assumed. Towards the end of the 17th century these meetings were held in Lloyd's coffee-house, and their simple practice gradually grew into the complete and complicated system of marine insurance now general. The underwriters together evolved rules and improved methods, but continued for generations to insure severally, without corporate powers or common responsibility, so that the name Lloyd's became throughout the commercial world the symbol of marine insurance. More recently the name has been adopted in the United States by associations of private or individual underwriters as distinguished from insurance corporations.

Although the underwriters at Lloyd's often considered and assumed other than marine risks, and made contracts some of which were merely wagers on public or private events, there is no record of insurances by them against ire on land. But fire insurance, it is vaguely known, had previously been practised, in a crude form, in several European cities. In 163 5, and again in 1638, citizens of London petitioned Charles I. for a patent of monopoly to insure houses at the rate of one shilling yearly for each £20 of rent, the association to repair or rebuild those burned, to maintain a perpetual fire-watch in the streets, and to pay £200 yearly towards rebuilding St Paul's cathedral until finished. The attorney-general approved the project, but in the disorders of the kingdom it was forgotten. The Great Fire of 1666 revived interest in the subject, and led to practical measures. In May 1680 a private fire office was opened “at the back side of the Royal Exchange” to insure houses in London, by assuming the risk of loss to a fixed amount for a fixed premium, namely, 2§ % of the yearly rent for brick houses and 5% for frame houses, the rent being always assumed to be one-tenth of the value of the fee. The estimates of the promoters are interesting. In the fourteen years since the Great Fire 750 houses had been burned in London, with an average loss of £200. A fund of £40,000 subscribed as guaranty was to be increased by £20,000 for every 10,000 houses insured, and the interest of the fund alone therefore might be expected to meet all losses and leave a surplus. Thus the security was perfect and the promise of profit great. Meagre as was the basis of facts for the calculations, and crude as was the statistical method employed, the insurance offered met a general want and the business grew rapidly. Within a year a strong demand was heard that the city of London should itself insure the houses of its citizens, and the common council voted to do so at lower rates than the fire office. But the courts put a speedy end to this movement, holding that the charter conferred on the city no power to transact such business. Thus the socialistic theory that insurance is properly a branch of government is almost as old as the business itself, though it has never found favour or been practically tested on a large scale in Great Britain or America.

The next notable step in the evolution of modern methods was the organization of mutual insurance associations. In 1684 the Friendly Society was organized. Each member paid a small entrance fee for expenses, made a cash deposit as a reserve for emergencies, to be returned at the end of his term, and agreed to meet equitable assessments for current losses. Payments were computed on the assumption that one house in 200 is burned every fifteen years. The rivalry between the proprietary and the mutual systems began at once, and has continued till now. In 1686 “the Fire Ofhce at the back side of the Royal Exchange" petitioned for a patent of the fire insurance policy and a monopoly of its issue for thirty-one years. The Friendly Society opposed the grant. The most eminent lawyers for both were heard by the king in council, and on the 30th of January 1687 King James II. decided the case. No charter was grantedj but the Fire Office might continue its business, having a monopoly for one year. Thereafter the Friendly Society might for three months sell policies, but must then suspend for three months, and so on for alternate quarters. But the Fire Office must pay the ordinance service for its work in extinguishing fires, the amount to be fixed for each fire by the king. This was the first appearance of the plan, so widely prevalent in after years, of imposing on insurance companies the support of fire departments; that is, of taxing the prudent who insure to protect the reckless

who do not.