The Marketplace of Revolution Chapter 6: Strength Out Of Dependence
It’s 1763. The French and Indian War is over, the British emerge victorious. They gain Canada. Some gain a confirmation of their religious beliefs, viewing the conflict as a religious war between Protestants and Catholics. British soldiers who fought in America come home to tell tales of colonial wealth. As we know, their tales were not exaggerated – colonists developed an acute addiction to luxury in the 1740’s, and were eager to show off to the British soldiers, able because of the soaring wartime economy. British officials, already grumbling that the Americans hadn’t financed their fair share of the war, develop a new strategy…
1764. Parliament passes the Sugar Act. A year later – they initiate a duty collected by government officials on various papers used in business and legal affairs – The Stamp Act. From this side of the Atlantic, all seems reasonable. But let’s jump to the other side of the water to see what we find…
An America slowly sinking deep into depression. The soldiers have left. The economy sags. The Sugar Act fuels a fear that colonists have held for quite some time – that the British view them as second class citizens. The act has a bit of an economic effect as well, as along with the tax on sugar, it includes a ban on trade with the French Caribbean – a lucrative market for the colonists. Then, when Parliament passes the Stamp Act in March, 1765, relations between them and Britain change irrevocably.
Let’s go to the founding fathers to gauge their reaction. Here’s a now shameful one from co-founder of the land of the free, John Adams: “We won’t be their negroes,” he begins, continuing to say that God never intended white men “for Negroes… and therefore never intended us for slaves… I say we are as handsome as old English folks, and so should be as free.”
Here’s one from John Hancock, who took an economic stand on the measure. He writes in October 1765 to a London firm with whom he traded: “I have come to a Serious Resolution not to send one Ship more to Sea, nor to have any kind of Connection in Business under a Stamp… I am Determin’d as soon as I know that they are Resolv’d to insist on this act to Sell my Stock in Trade & Shut up my Warehouse Doors & never Import another Shilling from Great Britain… I am free and Determined to be so & will not willingly and quietly subject myself to Slavery.”
Riots broke out in several cities. Houses were torn down. Mobs burned effigies of government officials.
The merchants reacted. Their historically unprecedented response – non-importation agreements. New York merchants were the first to act, meeting in October, agreeing to cancel all import orders until Parliament repealed the act. Within six weeks, Philadelphia, Albany, Boston, Salem, Marblehead, Newburyport, Portsmouth and Plymouth had all followed suit.
But don’t become too amazed at how these merchants organized and sacrificed for the idea of “no taxation without representation.” One major justification was that such a measure could help reduce long-standing debt obligations to their British suppliers while allowing them to unload previously un-sellable inventory. Furthermore, the tactic was to create a strain on the British manufacturing industry, causing manufactures to lay off workers who would then hopefully rise up in support of the American cause. In other words – cripple and impoverish Britain’s working class. As one writer callously put it: “Such a measure might distress the manufactures and poor people in England, but that would be their misfortune. Charity begins at home… and besides, a little distress might bring the people of that country to a better temper, and a sense of their injustice toward us.”
Though most northern merchants weren’t supportive of the non-importation agreements, there was no noticeable drop in the price of British imports, and Britain’s working class didn’t rise up as the Americans hoped, some English groups did lobby Parliament for repeal of the tax for fear of economic ruin, and the non-importation agreements were largely effective.
A pivotal moment in the crisis came on February 11, 1766, when Benjamin Franklin, living in London at the time, was called to testify before the House of Commons. He paints a very vivid picture of the colonies, accentuating the economic benefits they held for Britain. As he says, colonial obedience never depended on “forts, citadels, garrisons, or armies.” But the Americans “were governed by this country at the expense only of a little pen, ink, and paper. They were led by a thread.”
He cited various statistics: “In 1723, the whole importation from Britain to Pennsylvania, was about 15,000 Pounds Sterling; it is now near Half a Million.” - estimating that the figure would continue as the American population doubled over the next 25 years.
But, as he also says, “I do not know a single article imported into the Northern Colonies, but what they can either do without, or make themselves.” And when asked what will be the consequences if the act is not repealed, he says, “A total loss of the respect and affection the people of America bear to this country and of all the commerce that depends on that respect and affection.” American pride, he says, which used to be “to indulge in the fashions and manufactures of Great Britain” was now “to wear their old cloathes over again, till they can make new ones.”
March 18, 1766, within weeks of Franklin’s testimony, the Stamp Act was repealed. The addiction to luxury continued. Americans flocked back to the market. Franklin quickly sent a British-made gown to his wife living in America, with an attached note expressing relief that no one would have to walk around wearing old unstylish clothes.
And though appeals to develop American manufacturing persisted, like this one: “Our enemies very well know that dominion and frugality are closely connected; and that to impoverish us is to enslave us. Therefore, if we mean still to be free, let us unanimously lay aside foreign superfluities, and encourage our own manufacture. SAVE YOUR MONEY AND YOU WILL SAVE YOUR COUNTRY!”
And this one: “Let the manufactures of America be the symbol of dignity, the badge of virtue, and it will soon break the fetters of distress. A garment of linsey-woolsey, when made the distinction of real patriotism, is more honorable and attractive of respect and veneration than all the pageantry and the roves and the plumes and the diadem of an emperor without it. Let the emulation be not in the richness and variety of foreign productions, but in the improvement and perfection of our own.”
Franklin’s statement on the subject remained true – America did not have enough poor people willing to subject themselves to the wage slavery required for a successful manufacturing industry.
I’ll leave you with this highly prescient thought from a 1768 colonist: “America, after many revolutions, and perhaps great distresses, will become a mighty empire.”