Geranium Farm Home     Who's Who on the Farm     The Almost Daily eMo     Subscriptions     Coming Events     Links
Hodgepodge     More or Less Church     Ways of the World     Father Matthew     A Few Good Writers     Bookstore
Light a Prayer Candle     Message Board     Donations     Gifts For Life     Pennies From Heaven     Live Chat

Ways of the World

Carol Stone, business economist & active Episcopalian, brings you "Ways of the World". Exploring business & consumers & stewardship, we'll discuss everyday issues: kids & finances, gas prices, & some larger issues: what if foreigners start dumping our debt? And so on. We can provide answers & seek out sources for others. We'll talk about current events & perhaps get different perspectives from what the media says. Write to Carol. Let her know what's important to you:

Monday, July 07, 2008

The American Revolution and the Common People

The American Revolution raises up ordinary people. We use the present tense here, even though the Revolution formally took place more than 200 years ago, because the event continues to impact American and world society today.

Last year for Independence Day, we described the extraordinary and historic significance of common people in America through an essay on a Pulitzer Prize history book, The Radicalism of the American Revolution by Gordon Wood. This has turned out to be a "popular" Ways of the World article. The counter of visitors to this website, down at the bottom there, keeps track of where visitors have been just prior to coming to Ways of the World. If they arrived via a search engine, we can see the relevant list of search results. “The Radicalism of the American Revolution” has been the single most frequent subject. So clearly, this idea about the social character of the Revolution is a noteworthy one. Readers' interest has encouraged us to explore it further.

Two Revolutions and Consumer Spending
We encountered T.H. Breen, economic history professor at Northwestern, and his work, The Marketplace of Revolution. Breen enlightens us more on the significance of ordinary people – even women – in establishing the climate for Independence. They formed ad hoc associations, they developed means of communication among the various colonies from New Hampshire to South Carolina and they changed their personal spending habits in their everyday shopping in order to loosen economic dependence on the Mother Country. As Breen elucidates, it is one thing for propertied and educated leaders to develop high-sounding themes about liberty and independence, but quite another for common folk to see how those play out in their daily lives and how the success of those notions depends on people’s own actions.

The mid-Eighteenth Century also marked the onrush of the Industrial Revolution. Many often think negatively of that historical development as the new production methods it brought are seen as depersonalizing and demeaning of labor. There is another side to it, of course, and without debating the first point, we cite a substantive, unimpeachable benefit. The Industrial Revolution reduced the costs of merchandise so much that working class people could afford a better lifestyle. For the first time ever, for example, young women outside of nobility might enjoy a nice, ready-made lace-trimmed dress. The vast majority of folks could now eat off quality dishes and have a knick-knack or two to decorate the sitting room. It was the beginning of “consumer spending”: no need to make your own pottery, you could go down to the dry-goods in the village and buy some. They quickly got accustomed to this and enjoyed their newfound selections and abilities to choose among varieties of each new thing. However, local manufacturing was in its infancy, and much of what people bought was imported from Britain.

Paying a War Debt Out of Americans' Pockets – Without Asking Them
These years also saw the French and Indian War, 1756-1763. Britain won this encounter, but spent huge sums doing so and ran up considerable debt. Since the London Government now saw a need to maintain troops in the American colonies, it only seemed logical to pay on the debt and the army expenses with revenue collected here. Fees and duties through first the Stamp Act and then the Townshend Acts were thus imposed. It did not, though, seem logical to give the Colonists voice in how this revenue might be raised, and besides, it was said, even though no colonist sat in Parliament, the people were “effectively represented” through the Members who served the districts in England from which the goods were shipped – or some such pretext.

The Grass-Roots Origin of Protest
Colonists had already been skeptical about whether the Imperial Government regarded them on the same standing with residents of Britain itself, and these unilaterally imposed taxes convinced them that they were indeed perceived as only second-class citizens. A resolve then developed to avoid paying the levies. Earlier laws dictated that all shipping in and out of colonial ports had to pass directly through British ports, so technically, everything that arrived in America was an import from Britain. Some goods were specified in the Townshend duties, paper, glass, “painters’ colors” and tea, among others. In order to avoid the duties, then, people had to refrain from buying these items. Initially they appealed to the merchants to stop stocking them, but this evoked only a half-hearted effort. Final consumer demand was the key. An unprecedented inter-colony, grass-roots endeavor was needed and people realized this.

The result was a precipitous drop in British sales to the Colonies, in some places by as much as two-thirds. Ordinary people, besides cutting their spending, wrote letters to the editor of their local newspaper describing their restraints and urging their neighbors to join in a boycott. The papers were circulated elsewhere, and soon, folks in other communities could read that people far away were active in the consequent non-importation movement. The movement took on momentum. Official colonial assemblies were often under the thumb of the Royal Governor, so people formed “non-governmental organizations” [have I heard that term somewhere else?] to establish enforcement procedures, often resulting in bad publicity for community residents known to be indulging in the taxed merchandise. A new procedure emerged, the “subscription”, a document resembling a petition, to which people signed their names, pledging not to purchase the specified goods. Everyone could sign this public document, an historic and innovative approach: property owners, the high-bred, but also the “man on the street” – and his wife and daughter!

Indeed, in this program of non-importation, it was largely up to the women, who did most of the shopping after all, to carry it out. Some took this responsibility quite seriously and through public statements cajoled the men that they should do the same. The men, in turn, were apparently taken aback by this forward, critical attitude on the part of the womenfolk, hardly in keeping with their usual stereotypical frivolity.

Even the Upper Classes Had To Follow
While everyone could participate in these actions, it was also the case that no one could be above participation. At one point, Thomas Jefferson, in the initial construction of Monticello, ordered windows from a British concern, 14 pairs, complete with glass sashes. Only when he was notified of their imminent arrival did he realize what an awful statement this purchase would make. He appealed to the local “Virginia Association” and apologized for this oversight, and he refused delivery of the windows. As Breen emphasizes, being able to write potent words about the grievances of the colonists would result in a protest that falls flat if the author himself doesn’t uphold the community spirit in his own actions. Jefferson learned a personally expensive lesson. [Why have we not heard this story before? Maybe you have?]

The Unification of an American Spirit
This entire episode, through the Boston Tea Party (December 16, 1773) and its painful aftermath, had a substantive impact on the people of the American colonies. In fact, while the punishment for the destruction of the tea in Boston Harbor was formally imposed only on Boston, other communities shared feelings with that city. Breen quotes resolutions passed by local governments and town meetings in Huntington, Long Island, Queen Anne’s County, Maryland and Caroline County, Virginia, for three, with statements such as “the cause of Boston, in its consequences, [is] the common cause of America”. Thus it was that the individual colonies, Breen says, “had begun to think continentally . . . . a decade of protest in the [consumer] marketplace had forced them to define themselves as not fully British. Indeed, in defiance of parliamentary taxation, they increasingly saw themselves as Americans.”

T.H. Breen, The Marketplace of Revolution: How Consumer Politics Shaped American Independence. New York: Oxford University Press. 2004.

Similar sentiments from another Gordon Wood piece, this a brief and highly readable summary of the entire Revolutionary period.
Gordon S. Wood, The American Revolution: A History. New York: The Modern Library, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group. 2002.


Post a Comment

<< Home

Copyright © 2003-Present Geranium Farm - All rights reserved.
Reproduction of any materials on this web site for any purpose
other than personal use without written consent is prohibited.