Monday, November 27, 2006

The Marketplace of Revolution Chapter 4: Vade Mecum

Vade Mecum, a Latin phrase that roughly translates to “go with me”, was a common name for eighteenth century guidebooks. Breen intends this chapter to be his own little Vade Mecum, guiding the reader through the economy of the time period.

He first brings us to the tobacco industry. It was, of course, the cash crop of the Chesapeake region, and the product through which founding fathers Washington and Jefferson acquired wealth. Seemingly, the steady demand for tobacco on the world market meant that any man with a bit of land and some slaves could make a decent living. However, Breen also delves into the volatility of the tobacco industry. Widely fluctuating prices lead to an unstable economy, so much so that in times of severe depression, armed revolts against royal authorities of Virginia were not uncommon.

Breen also tells us of a change that took place in the tobacco industry in the 1740’s that contributed to the massive influx of British goods that flooded the colonies – a bizarre economic phenomenon that begs any explanation that can be found. Before the 40’s, most tobacco farmers sold their product to agents in London who would take care of the shipping and resell it. Then, when the 40’s rolled around, the Scots successfully attempted to get in on the action. They targeted small planters, opening up “Scotch stores” in America, which collected tobacco and, in return, supplied the planters with British imports. Let’s not underestimate the impact of these stores. From the mouth of a 1742 colonist: “there are 25 stores within 18 miles round which is 13 more than at Mr. Johnson’s death [in 1740] and 4 or 5 more expected next year.” This new system brought British goods to impoverished country-folk who otherwise wouldn’t have access to such lavish items, fueling the addiction that would, twenty years later, result in the colonists having enough power to influence policy through commercial boycotts.

The significant question, though, is this: In what way were colonial governments involved in economic affairs. By exploring this issue, we can track how disruptive the crown’s policies were when Britain became more heavily involved in the 1760’s. We can also get a glimpse of the economic policy of our country in its infant state. As far as the tobacco industry was concerned, there were government-operated warehouses and agencies that tracked prices on the world market, but there were two main areas of government regulation: peddling and vendue sales.

Peddling was regulated by most colonial legislatures and, oddly enough, made illegal in the Massachusetts Bay colony. Vendue sales, events resembling something between a modern flea market and an auction, more than peddling, were a significantly more controversial topic. The auctions allowed shopkeepers to unload merchandise they were otherwise unable to sell while simultaneously allowing poorer colonists to purchase goods they would otherwise not be able to afford. However, keepers of larger stores complained about the unfair price competition, and moralists complained about the auctions’ ability to fuel people’s addiction to luxury. Fun words from Benjamin Franklin, from a story he wrote in which one character advises others against the dangers of the vendues: “Here you are got together at this Vendue of Fineries and Knickknacks. You call them Goods, but if you do not take Care, they will prove Evils to some of you.” And he continues: “Many a one for the Sake of Finery on the Back, have done with a hungry Belly, and half starved their Families.”

No one seemed to be aware that the luxury addiction would lead to a massive rise in political power. Perhaps because the boycott had not yet been invented. However, in the coming chapters we shall see the coming of the revelation, and the utilization of the tactic to the colonists’ full advantage…


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