The Marketplace of Revolution Chapter 3: Consumer's New World
This chapter begins with something that I feel may have been a point of departure for the entire book – Edmund Burke’s 1775 speech before the House of Commons appealing for a peaceful resolution to the crisis in America. Burke’s argument is almost entirely an economic one. He cites the data compiled throughout the century by the Inspector-General of Imports and Exports, showing that the colonies were vital to the empire’s economic security. He coins a couple phrases, as well, that have become common verbiage for historians of the time period, those being the “salutary neglect” first instituted by William and Mary after the Glorious Revolution, and the description of Great Britain as an “empire of goods”.
The notion of Great Britain as an “empire of goods” is vital to this book, and equally vital to fully understanding the revolution that lead to the founding of our country. A fact often lost when people look at this time period is that Great Britain viewed itself as a completely new and different kind of empire. The English felt uncomfortable even calling their country an empire, a term which brought to mind images of Rome, which was built on a foundation of military conquest. This empire was based on freedom and sound economic policy that lead to commercial prosperity for all.
Though it may not seem to be so since England was waging war on its European neighbors almost constantly during their entire colonial period, the overriding view of citizens of Great Britain was that the England of the eighteenth century was vastly different from the monarchs who ruled in medieval times. We find such rhetoric on both sides of the Atlantic. Here’s what a New York writer had to say in the 1760’s: England had “laid the foundation of the greatest Empire that ever existed: An Empire the more glorious, as it was not to be founded on the ruin and destruction of our own Species, but what is in the highest degree laudable, the cultivating and peopling [of] an immense wilderness.”
Here’s some more rhetoric from John Dickinson, in his 1768 pamphlet Letters from a Pennsylvania Farmer: In the old days colonies were established “by warlike nations to keep their enemies in awe; to relieve their country, over-burthened with inhabitants; or to discharge a number of discontented and troublesome citizens… in more modern ages, the spirit of violence being in some measure… sheathed in commerce, colonies have been settled by the nations of Europe for purposes of trade. These purposes were to be attained, by the colonies raising for their mother country those things which she did not produce herself; and by supplying themselves from her with things they wanted. These were the national objects, in the commencement of our colonies, and have been uniformly so in their promotion.”
This chapter also explores the state of England’s manufacturing industry. Here’s an interesting bit from a pamphlet on the advantages of the Glorious Revolution: “Another undeniable Instance of the Advantage which has accrued to this Nation by the [Glorious] Revolution is the vast Increase and flourishing Condition of our Manufactures; and if Industry is a Characteristic of Liberty, I may venture to affirm that no country in Europe can at this day produce such glorious Proof of being in Possession of this valuable Blessing as Great Britain,”
And more from an economic philosopher of the time: “Industry hath its foundation on liberty, and those men, who either are actual slaves, or have reason to believe their freedom precarious, will never succeed in trade; which thrives and flourishes most in climates of liberty and ease.”
Quite in contrast to Benjamin Franklin’s analysis in the previous chapter – that a successful manufacturing industry depends on impoverished people willing to submit themselves to wage slavery. However, we receive perhaps a more honest description from Joshua Johnson, who traveled to England to survey the country’s leading industrial towns. He discovered the bizarre system, developed probably a couple hundred years earlier, in which peasants would receive raw materials from agents, assemble goods themselves, then return the completed products at the end of the week for a small wage, one which could barely support them. In other words, Franklin was right.
Overall, the colonists viewed their relationship with England as mutually beneficial. However, they sometimes seemed to take a defensive tone on the topic, seemingly suspecting that the English may view them as inferior. The Navigation Acts of the 1600’s fueled this mutually beneficial relationship, though they remain quite mysterious to me. They seem to be a blatant indicator of the colonies’ subservience and inferiority, though they were seemingly accepted and obeyed almost uniformly. The two main purposes of the Navigation Acts were these: 1) Limit overseas trade to English ships manned by English sailors to prevent the Dutch from trading in the Americas and to encourage the training of sailors who could later be impressed into the military. 2) Deny colonists access to European markets, so that all goods coming in and out of the Americas had to pass through England. And it was not until the 1760’s, when these acts were re-enforced, that colonists expressed negativity toward them. Though colonists happily obeyed them prior to the 1760’s, they seemed to view the re-enforcement as some kind of exclamation point to the taxes they viewed as unconstitutional, accentuating their inferiority.