Sunday, December 03, 2006

The Marketplace of Revolution : Post Mortem

Breen’s book significantly illuminates various aspects of the American Revolution. The most important lesson is that our country was founded by several disparate groups uniting and gaining political power through their mutual addiction to luxury, an unprecedented phenomenon.

The prologue to the “path to revolution” tale, consequently, begins in the 1740’s. To recap, during this decade the colonists began furiously importing and consuming British goods. No single reason can explain this puzzling change in commercial activity, though some factors include a mysterious surge in nationalism that swept the British Empire, economic prosperity due to King George’s War (the American Theater of the War of Austrian Succession), the continuance of vendue sales which allowed less wealthy colonists to acquire luxury goods, and the opening of numerous “Scotch shops” in the Chesapeake region in which country-dwelling colonists could exchange tobacco for imported luxury items.

This commercial trend continued and escalated during the French and Indian War – the true catalyst for the conflicts of the next three decades. The British acquired France’s Canadian colonies (at the urging of Benjamin Franklin, who assured them through a meticulously-argued pamphlet that colonial union and rebellion was a distinct impossibility), which necessitated a unique plan to finance the security of the newly-acquired American empire. The solution came from soldiers who served in America, who brought home tales of extravagant American luxury.

Parliament enacted the Stamp Act in 1765. The colonies, already suffering a post-war depression and holding suspicions that the English viewed them as second-class citizens, reacted violently. They formed rioting mobs, which tore down houses of government officials while burning their images in effigy. The merchant community united to develop a historically unprecedented tactic – the non-importation movement. They created this malicious plan to cripple England’s impoverished working class, while serving their own interests to unload previously un-sellable merchandise and hopefully reduce their debts to British sellers. Parliament called Benjamin Franklin to testify in the matter, and in a performance completely reversing his argument of ten years earlier, he testified that American colonists would continue to unite together in opposition of the legislation.

Parliament repealed the Stamp Act in 1766, only to replace them with a new attempt at the same financial strategy: the Townshend duties (a tax on goods such as glass, paint, paper and tea). Colonists, outraged, banded together to generate lists of British items they would not buy, signing their names as a public show of solidarity. Merchants, now unwilling to take the reigns of resistance, suffered coercion and punishment by extra-legal authorities if they dared to sell any enumerated items. Slowly over the course of 1769 and 1770, the merchants were coerced into signing non-importation agreements, which consequently hurt them economically. When the New York merchant community, eager to end non-importation, publicized the results of a poll showing that the majority of the city’s residents desired an end to the boycott, the results were speedily and falsely discredited by the movement’s supporters.

The colonist’s coercion of the merchants lead to their intended goal in March, 1770, when Parliament repealed all the Townshend duties except for one on tea. Colonists, eager to resume feeding their luxury addiction, rushed back to the marketplace, consuming 300,000 pounds of tea a year, Townshend duty included.

In 1773, when Parliament passed the Tea Act in an attempt to bail out the struggling East India Tea Company, colonists once again resisted, refusing to buy or even unload the merchandise. In Boston, colonists decided to throw the tea into the sea. Parliament’s response was the Boston Port Act. Colonial response was the First Continental Congress, which agreed on a complete trade embargo with Britain.

Breen’s tale ends here, but the road to revolution was not at this point inevitable. It would slowly become so with the outbreak of violence in 1775, and King George’s rejection of the colonists’ Olive Branch Petition (coupled with his declaration of a state of rebellion in America) later that year. Then, in 1776, in move designed specifically to boost military recruiting efforts under the guise of a moral cause (much like the Edict of Milan and the Emancipation Proclamation), independence was declared. Thus, we have our country, founded on a very morally ambiguous and economically complex movement that was our revolution.


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