Monday, October 24, 2005

Below is the second paper written for the social history class, on a less odious book than the first. The essay brings across Mintz's whole argument pretty well, which is essentially that antebellum reformers were liberals just like "gilded age" reformers, progressives, and then the ultimate "reform" liberals, the Square, New, Fair Dealers. Unfortunately Mintz shows little or no regard for how much that term has shifted in meaning in American political and intellectual history and plays down significantly the immense differences between various American reform movements. All this while frantically searching for a definition of liberalism and never seeming to find one that he likes and can stick with.

The “Liberal” Tradition: Steven Mintz’s Moralists and Modernizers

The subject of antebellum reformers is one of variety and complexity as historian Steven Mintz is able to convey in his brief account of their activities, Moralists and Modernizers. The essential argument that Mintz makes in a worthwhile attempt to fit these reformers into the larger narrative of American reform movements is that his tripartite subdivision of reformers into “missionaries,” “humanitarians,” and “liberationists” were all “firmly based in the American liberal tradition.”[1] The question that should immediately com to mind is: What American liberal tradition? Mintz is seeking an alternate explanation of the actions and goals of antebellum reformers in contrast to the two extremes of either calling the reformers crass manipulators of the poor to entrench capitalist rule or angelic do-gooders who did no wrong. Mintz’s use of the term “liberal” and the various definitions he attributes to it provides an interesting though confusing and largely ineffective way of explaining the antebellum reform phenomenon.

The objection here is not that Mintz seeks to place antebellum reformers within an American liberal tradition because it is liberal, but rather that the definition of that term is subject to so many meanings, particularly across time, that Mintz’s attempt to tie antebellum reformers to all reform movements in American history under this rubric is akin to squaring a circle. Mintz cannot seem to settle upon a consistent definition in his epilogue where even he acknowledges the problem of multiple meanings for the term “liberal.” This problem still exists today where outside of North America and England the political designation “liberal” still means what it meant everywhere in the nineteenth century, an ideology of freedom in the marketplace and the area of political rights.

Mintz comes up with his first definition in juxtaposition to the other definitions out there by saying that “[Liberalism] refers to an impulse to ameliorate the harsher aspects of capitalism through collective efforts at reform and a willingness to use the government as an instrument of social betterment.”[2] This definition of liberalism seems to relate more to late nineteenth and early twentieth century progressives who used the state for all sorts of “reform” schemes rather than reformers in the antebellum period. Of course, all of this depends on which reformers one is referring to. Is one talking of abolitionists who had no choice but to use the state since they were combating an unjust state policy or is one referring to mutual aid societies that did not rely on the state at all?[3]

Mintz muddies things up further by defining the “liberal” goals of antebellum reformers as seeking “to broaden individual rights, foster fulfillment or the salvation of the individual, and eradicate those institutions and customs that obstructed individual self-determination and improvement.”[4] These do not seem to be goals that would make the so-called “harsher” aspects of capitalism, whatever these are (again, a difference needs to be drawn between groups that were dealing with market dislocation, like mutual aid societies, and those dealing with things like alcoholism and slavery which existed before the growth of capitalism), any less harsh, let alone require or imply the use of the state. With this reformulation of liberalism, Mintz seems to be contradicting what he claims, earlier in the book, is the purpose of the reformers, that being “to assert that the country needed a new ethical and moral vision to replace the ethos of selfishness and individualism that dominated American society in the years before the Civil War.”[5] The contradiction between attempting to supplant individualism while nearly all of one’s goals are based on individual achievement and success is obvious. Lumping every conceivable adherent of “liberalism” regardless of the many and real differences in the definition of that term over time only confuses any real continuum that may exist in the intellectual history of American reformers.

As if these two definitions are not enough, Mintz offers a third set of goals and aspirations when he writes that the “antebellum reformers’ goals—to place limits on acquisitiveness and exploitation, establish basic standards of human dignity and justice, and renew the ideals of the Declaration of Independence.”[6] “Limits on acquisitiveness” sounds more like the rhetoric of modern day environmentalists than the antebellum reformers that are supposed to be the subject of his book. Attempting to place this widely varying group of people as part of a “liberal” continuum within the context of modern politics or to impose modern politics onto this group of people separated from us by more that just 144 years of history is too daunting a task of intellectual history that Mintz simply cannot perform in the limited space he has allotted himself. He brings up an interesting point by tying the Declaration of Independence to the antebellum reform movements, which is obvious in the case of women’s rights and the anti-slavery movement, but far less so in the temperance and public school movements. An explanation of how exactly all of these supposedly related movements “renewed” the ideals of the Declaration of Independence would have been useful and perhaps provided an underlying way of actually making the case that these movements were, indeed, part of the same intellectual tradition, whatever one ends up calling it.

Even with all of these objections to Mintz’s argument it should not be inferred that he makes no sense at all. One can certainly detect elements of classical and modern liberalism in the antebellum reformers. Yet some of these reforms movements, like the temperance and anti-slavery movements, defy such an explanation. Whigs and Democrats could belong to both movements or oppose both for numerous reasons, a fact illustrated by the demise of the Whig party and the Democrats splintering in the election of 1860 with respect to slavery. Mintz’s attempt to navigate between the poles of utter cynicism and utter worship of these moralists and modernizers may be the correct way of viewing their many efforts and achievements, but his attempt to force them into an “American liberal tradition” comes across as contradictory and confused as that term is in the scope of American political and intellectual history.

[1] Steven Mintz, Moralists and Modernizers (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995), xviii, 155.
[2] Ibid, 154.
[3] In his book From Mutual Aid to Welfare State, historian David Beito describes the demise of non-governmental mutual aid societies to that strain of the American liberal tradition that Mintz is perhaps referring to when he describes the willingness of antebellum reformers to use the state to ameliorate the harsh effects of capitalism.
[4] Mintz, Moralists and Modernizers, 155.
[5] Ibid, 11.
[6] Ibid, 156.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Book Recommendation
Today I am recommending Drew McCoy's The Last of the Fathers which is a very thought provoking account of James Madison's retirement years. This is an interesting subject because he was the only major founding father still alive after John Adams and Thomas Jefferson both died on July 4, 1826. He would see the political struggles of the next decade and be drawn into them in various ways, but mainly through his role as mentor to three of the younger generation, William Cabell Rives, Nicholas Trist, and Edward Coles. The ways these three men carried Madison's ideas into the middle of the nineteenth century and their relationship with the Sage of Montpelier are fascinating. The final chapters on Madison's personal struggle with slavery are really very well written and shed light on how he had developed his thinking on the subject from a young man desperately searching for a way to be free of Virginia slave society to a retired gentleman of Virginia's planting elite. Reads surprisinly fast for a scholarly work of history. As far as I know this is the only book written specifically on this very important, if little known, period of Madison's life.

Below is an article I wrote for my class on Atlantic Revolutions. It is about the roles played by the Committees of Safety established during the American Revolution. My take is that these committees, while tied into the revolution, were attached to a pre-revolutionary mindset that promoted things like property confiscation, price controls, and other measures not normally associated with the American Revolution. The purpose of the article is to respond to other historians who have presented the American Revolution as two revolutions, one of the people manipulated and thwarted by the conservative founding fathers who led the second, presented almost as a mere change in leadership. This theory I obviously do not agree with and I think this issue of committees presents an interesting way to explore this historiographical question.

Last Stand of Tradition: The Role of the Committee in the American Revolution

As the possibility of armed conflict seemed more and more likely in the summer and fall of 1774, American colonists began to form themselves into committees, largely for the purpose of communicating with their aggrieved compatriots. These committees of correspondence would evolve, along with the escalating situation, into much more expansive, powerful, and important bodies that would eventually usurp most political authority at the local level.[1] At their zenith of importance in the first years of the American Revolution, before most of the colonies adopted constitutions to establish themselves as independent states, these committees would exercise their considerable authority in two principal areas; loyalist control and market interference usually in the form of price controls. When new constitutions came into being in the former colonies, these committees either disappeared or were delimited in their powers, particularly their incursions into the marketplace. That the committees often acted in league with local mobs in respect to loyalist treatment and market price mechanisms ultimately assured their demise. The committee in the American Revolution represented the remaining vestiges of the traditional political order inherited from Europe, which the Revolution ended up overturning.

When the minutemen of Lexington met their British adversaries in the first skirmish of what would become the American Revolution, Massachusetts was already a state of numerous committees, including the primary Boston Committee of Correspondence, Safety, and Inspection. In the months before the Continental Congress made independence and revolution a formal certainty, the local jurisdictions throughout the colonies began the arduous task of revolutionary governance through the ubiquitous “Committee of Safety.”[2] The first task of these committees was to make sure those loyal to the British, the Tories, did not hamper the revolution. In some areas, like the counties around New York City, this was impossible due to overwhelming Tory majorities, but in most counties the numbers were more even or favoring the patriots. [3]

In Virginia, a young James Madison had been elected to the Orange County Committee of Safety at the close of 1774. Throughout 1775 the future author of the U.S. Bill of Rights reveled in squashing the free speech of Tories in rural Virginia. One of Madison’s biographers relates the tale of one Reverend John Wingate,

He [Madison] took part in the humbling of the Revered John Wingate, rector of St. Thomas Parish in Orange County, for his refusal to surrender to the committee some “seditious” pamphlets in his possession. They were, he said, his personal property and could not be taken from him legally. The committee nevertheless seized the “execrable” documents and burned them before the militia. Madison then gloated that the clergyman, “finding his protection to be not so much in the law as the favor of the people, is grown very supple and obsequious.”[4]

In another instance, Madison commented on a parson who had refused to preach on one of the fasting days declared by the Continental Congress, “I question, should this insolence not abate if he does not get ducked in a coat of Tar and surplice of feathers and then he may go in his new Canonicals and act under the lawful Authority of Gen. Gage if he pleases.”[5] Clearly, the revolutionary moment could easily inflame the passions of even the most reserved or legally aware of the founding fathers.

It is important to note that instances of committees or even mobs killing any suspected loyalists are very difficult to find.[6] In Albany County, where there existed a fairly even distribution of patriots and Tories,[7] historian Edward Countryman tells us that “People in the City of Albany were drinking the King’s health as late as 1779 and one evening in 1777, as Burgoyne’s army was approaching, 300 loyalists gathered in the town of Schenectady.”[8] With such hostility to the revolution it is no surprise that as early as May, 1776 the Albany Committee received a letter from the New York City Committee of Safety telling them “to disarm the more dangerous of such Persons as are disaffected to our Cause.”[9] Two days after this letter was received the committee was notified that Daniel Litts had “Cursed, the Committee, beat and abused Susannah Nagel, and spoken disrespectful of the Whigs” for which he disarmed and made to “enter into Bond in the penalty of forty pounds for his future good behaviour.”[10]

In June of 1776 the Albany Committee decided that it had had enough of six Tories who were “notoriously disaffected to the measures pursued by the Friends to American Liberty.”[11] The committeemen wanted to be rid of them altogether, not by execution, but by being “removed under Guard to Hartford in Connecticut and that a Letter be wrote to his Honour Gov[ernor] Trumbull requesting him to dispose of them in his Colony as he shall think proper.”[12] This outlet for troublesome Tories was used again for a further twenty-six prisoners being held by the Albany Committee in the weeks immediately following the Declaration of Independence.[13]

In the ensuing months, the Albany Committee began to approve the confiscation of the property of these “disaffected” individuals to be used to pay for their maintenance while in jail or to support the committee’s activities.[14] Such actions occurred throughout 1777 until the Tory menace receded into the background and more pressing domestic issues arose. Even later controversies over merchants, prices, and hoarding were greatly colored by the experience of the early phases of committee governance and the fight against “disaffected” fellow Americans.

The committees were typically elected bodies and thus relied on zealous patriots not only for public support but, more importantly, to detect violations of Continental Congress boycotts, committee edicts, and to ferret out counter-revolutionary thought.[15] This relationship worked both ways however, as the committees would find out. The populace, once given such widespread powers, was reluctant to cede them back to the committees or even the newly constituted authorities once they came into existence. While this problem was displayed in the battle against Toryism, particularly its later phase of property confiscation, it was more apparent in the desire for market regulations and price control measures.

In his work, The American Revolution, Countryman lays out the basics of this public desire as it appeared throughout most of the northern colonies,

Merchants who played the market of held back goods and speculators who depreciated the currency became “monopolizers” and “hoarders.” Crowds, often made up largely of women, gathered and acted out the rituals of popular price setting that people of their time knew so well. Hearing that a trader had a supply of tea or salt, the crowd would visit him and offer a price its members thought just.[16]

Of course if the trader rejected this effort to set the price, he could expect his shop to be trashed with the only bright spot being that (usually) the crowd would leave behind the “just” price for the goods they took from him, but not the money needed to repair his place of business.[17] Caught up in the revolutionary fires of 1776-1777, most committees acquiesced or even encouraged this behavior as in the case of the Albany Committee, which was “fixing prices and jailing merchants for profiteering” in 1776 and “putting embargoes on needed supplies, setting prices, punishing hoarders, and regulating distribution” in 1777.[18] When moderation and rejection of these policies began to occur later in the revolution the committees “could find themselves targets [of the crowds] instead.”[19]

Before getting to the reaction and condemnation of revolutionary leaders against these market incursions is it important to get some idea of what these incursions were and how they exacerbated the very problems they were designed to eliminate. Writing from Loudoun County, Virginia, Nicholas Cresswell recorded in his journal,

Wednesday, January 8th, 1777. This is a most unhappy country. Every necessary of life is at an extravagant price, some of them indeed is not to be had for money. Poor people are almost naked. Congress or Committee of Safety or some of those infernal bodies have issued an Order that every one that is fortunate enough to be possessed of two coats is to give one to their naked soldiers. Grain now begins to bear a good price, owing to such great quantities being distilled and the small proportion that is in the ground. I am persuaded there will be a famine very soon as well as a War.[20]

Without the detailed and comprehensive economic statistics compiled on the American economy since the days of the Great Depression it is often difficult to reconstruct economic conditions in eighteenth century situations particularly confused revolutionary ones, but Cresswell does hint at some developments. For instance, he mentions that some of the necessaries of life could not be purchased with money, suggesting a great deal of inflation or expected inflation impacting the market in a very negative way. The fact that a small amount of grain was in the ground may be a reference to the existence of price ceilings discouraging further surplus production of grain.

Figure 1
(There would be a graph here demonstrating the effect of a price ceiling on a market with nifty arrows and such illustrating the creation of a shortage. Could not manage to get it onto the blog so you must imagine what it looks like. Got it? Yes, good. No, too bad)

Figure 1 shows exactly what occurs when price ceilings are imposed on the marketplace; they create a shortage, either through lack of production, or as was the case in the American Revolution, the practice of hoarding until the price could either be freed of the ceiling or until the ceiling rose sufficiently. Another reason for hoarding would be to reserve one’s product for the black market of free prices as opposed to the legal market of the price ceiling. In the debates in the Continental Congress over whether to offer support to New England price controls, Benjamin Rush pointed out that “The merchants, it is true, sold their rum, sugar, and molasses at the price limited by the committee, but they charged a heavy profit upon the barrel, or the paper which contained the rum or the sugar.” Unless the American revolutionaries were willing to place the whole price system under committee control which Dr. Witherspoon concisely dismissed in saying “If we limit one article, we must limit every thing, and this is impossible,” they could never hope to contain prices without also accepting the specter of mob enforcement.[22]

The inflation of the revolution along with price controls on various goods caused all sorts of odd and wildly varying price fluctuations. Benjamin Rush ranked the inflation caused by the Continental Congress and the individual colonies as the prime enemy, “The extortion we complain of arises only from the excessive quantity of our money.”[23] Those already producing under price controls looked in desperation to their committees to control the prices of every other good as was the case of the gunlock makers of Philadelphia, who petitioned their Committee of Safety in December of 1776. In their petition the gunlock makers said,

At the commencement they had materials to procure which were new and uncommon; hands to instruct who were strangers and unlearned, and even those to purchase at double their value; steel to provide, in which article their loss is manifest to their acquaintance. Still hoping that their perseverance would surmount every difficulty, they continued with labor and assiduity. Notwithstanding which, they now find it impossible to subsist, as their most painful endeavors bear no proportion to the present rate of things. Files are now double what they have been, and some treble; vices, double; steel, scarce any to be found good; thirty to forty shillings advance on one hundred bushels of coal; journeymen’s wages still rising; your Petitioners limited; and the enormous price of every other necessity too well known to trouble your Honors with a repetition.[24]

In response to inflation the New England states enacted legislation “that made paper legal tender in private and public transactions, set price ceilings for a host of domestic and imported goods and labor, and outlawed withholding from the market.”[25] It was these moves that sparked the debate in the Continental Congress where John Adams opposed the actions with comments which sound like a modern economist, “Perhaps I may here speak against the sense of my constituents, but I cannot help it. I much doubt the justice, policy and necessity of the resolution. The high price of many articles arises from their scarcity. If we regulate the price of imports we shall immediately put a stop to them forever.”[26]

Despite the best efforts of committees to placate traditional notions of fair pricing through price ceilings while also attempting to prevent the predictable hoarding response of producers, merchants continued to resist. We know this because the accounts of how those who continued to hoard or refuse to sell at set prices were dealt with are around to be read today. Countryman relates an interesting story from Boston where “a figure who called himself ‘Joyce, Jr.’ led crowds of up to five hundred people that carted monopolizers around town and enforced price controls.”[27] Resistance to these measures continued up until the leaders of the revolution turned their attention away from winning the military phase of it to securing what they thought the war had been fought for.

As early as the middle of 1777 the counter-attack against price controls was already well underway in Massachusetts and other New England states prompted largely by the alarm of men like Adams and Rush in the Continental Congress. Barbara Smith describes this counter-attack by starting with the Boston merchants who “rallied to carry the May town meeting against price controls.” The merchants pointed out that the laws operated “directly opposite to the Idea of Liberty” and began making explicit the connection between liberty and free trade. By the fall, the price controls were repealed in Massachusetts and New Hampshire with further portents against these measures brewing in other colonies.[28]

As alarming as the efforts to control prices were to those leading the revolution at the national level were, it was the willingness of local committees and eventually the state legislatures to print money backed with nothing as legal tender for debt payments which was their principle economic objection when the fight over the constitution became the focus in the late 1780s. The committees were largely reversed in their efforts to control prices, making their usefulness to those crowds which invoked their authority when demanding “just” prices negligible at best. The rhetoric of “monopolizers” and “hoarders” could never have been adopted by men like Washington,[29] Adams, or even Madison who by 1781 was in the Continental Congress complaining of the irresponsibility of the states and the Continental Congress itself in printing money.[30] Without the help of speculators like Robert Morris it is hard to fathom how Washington could have gotten much needed supplies that the Continental Congress could simply not pay for.

Historians of the committees of the American Revolution are largely concerned with their rise in the early phase of the revolution and their subsequent downfall at the hands of merchants and revolutionary leaders. Barbara Smith writes, “By 1780, it had become clear that neither Congress nor the states would pursue price control policies; both, moreover, would discourage popular political forms. By 1780, the Revolution had changed.”[31] Countryman has echoed this sentiment in broader terms, writing, “It [the constitution] marked not only the end of the Revolution but also a reaction against it.”[32] In a way this idea is undercut by these historians own focus on continuity of tradition in respect to mob activity and price controlling. The Revolution was proclaimed for freedom and liberty, fought to secure the inalienable rights of man including “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” In the moment of declaring independence the Continental Congress rejected the traditional notion of collective rights in favor of the enlightenment ideal of individual rights, implicitly at the very least.

After the first and most precarious years of revolution were over the Patriots began to realize that their ideals needed to be implemented in practice, regardless of traditional norms. In Providence, Rhode Island, the town meeting unequivocally condemned price ceilings and anti-withholding laws, saying these laws “render a Man’s House and Store liable to be opened and searched in a Manner most ignominious and unworthy of Freemen.”[33] In New York the provincial congress similarly condemned the traditional practice of taking tea from merchants who would not accept “just” prices. The congress pointed to what the revolution was about, “In a free country no man ought to be divested of his property, but by his own consent or the law of the land.”[34] One should not view the fall of committees and the fall of pre-revolutionary market relationships as the failure of an alternate American Revolution and the beginning of a conservative counter-revolution, but as the logical fulfillment of the revolution’s ideals as stated from its beginning.

[1] See Edward Countryman, The American Revolution (New York: Hill and Wang, 2003), 107; Ralph Ketchum, James Madison (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1990), 63; and Gordon S. Wood, The Radicalism of the American Revolution (New York: Vintage Books, 1993), 213.
[2] Ketchum, James Madison, 63.
[3] Edward Countryman, “Consolidating Power in Revolutionary America: The Case of New York, 1775-1783,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Vol. 6, No. 4, Interdisciplinary Studies of the American Revolution (Spring, 1976), 650-651.
[4] Ketchum, James Madison, 63.
[5] Madison quoted by Ketchum, James Madison, 63.
[6] Wood, Radicalism of the American Revolution, 214.
[7] Countryman, “Consolidating Power,” 651.
[8] Ibid, 652.
[9] Minutes of the Albany Committee of Correspondence, vol. 1, 8 May 1776, compiled by James Sullivan (Albany: The University of The State of New York, 1923), 399.
[10] Ibid, 10 May 1776, 403.
[11] Ibid, 13 June 1776, 445.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Ibid, 26 July 1776, 503.
[14] Ibid; 14 May 1777, 753; 15 May 1777, 756; 28 May 1777, 770; 13 June 1777, 793.
[15] Barbara Clark Smith, “Food Rioters and the American Revolution,” The William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd Ser., Vol. 51, No. 1 (Jan., 1994), 15.
[16] Countryman, The American Revolution, 138.
[17] Ibid.
[18] Countryman, “Consolidating Power,” 660-61.
[19] Smith, “Food Rioters,” 18.
[20] Nicholas Cresswell, Journal, January 5-17, 1777, The American Revolution, ed. John Rhodehamel (New York: The Library of America, 2001), 264.
[21] If the price were set above the market price (where the supply and demand curves meet) it would be a price floor and cause a market surplus. The question of how these regulations actually effect the market depends on how far above or below the market price the artificial price is placed.
[22] From the Diary of Dr. Benjamin Rush of debates on price controls in the Continental Congress on February 14, 1777, The Spirit of Seventy-Six, ed. Henry Steele Commager and Richard B. Morris (Edison, NJ: Castle Books, 2002), 782-784.
[23] Ibid, 782-83.
[24] James Walsh and Samuel Kinder on behalf of the gunlock makers of Philadelphia to the Philadelphia Committee of Safety, December, 1776, The Spirit of Seventy-Six, 777.
[25] Smith, “Food Rioters,” 19.
[26] From the Diary of Dr. Benjamin Rush of debates on price controls in the Continental Congress on February 14, 1777, The Spirit of Seventy-Six, 784.
[27] Countryman, The American Revolution, 138. See also Smith, “Food Rioters,” where Joyce, Jr. is identified as a member of the Committee of Safety, John Winthrop.
[28] Smith, “Food Rioters,” 22.
[29] That being said, Washington could get riled up over the prospect of those who purposely tried to bleed the congress dry when selling vital war supplies or even necessaries to the public, commenting to Joseph Reed in 1778 that “No punishment in my opinion is too great for the Man who can build his greatness upon his Country’s ruin.” The Spirit of Seventy-Six, 804.
[30] James Madison to Philip Mazzei, July 7, 1781, The Spirit of Seventy-Six, 795-96.
[31] Smith, “Food Rioters,” 25.
[32] Countryman, The American Revolution, 203.
[33] Smith, “Food Rioters,” 22.
[34] Ibid, 24.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Posting Comments

As some may have noticed a rather annoying person has been posting link-filled comments lately, prompting me to reconfigure the way comments will be handled on this blog from now on. If you wish to be a commenter on this blog please e-mail me your blogger id and I will put you onto the approved list. Sorry for the sudden formalities, but some people like to ruin it for everyone.

Alexander Marriott