Abstract. The idea that economic motivations are involved in almost every endeavor of human beings from religion to politics is nothing new. There is evidence that such motivations were an important dynamic in the start up to the American Revolution. Such evidence is often downplayed or overlooked in order to stress the nobler and grander designs of the Founding Fathers, many of whom were men of wealth or influence who had something to gain by independence. This is not to denigrate the intentions of the Founders but merely to point out that economic motivations were an important factor in their decision making, even if nobler aspirations were emphasized for public consumption and for history’s approval.
“Yet, there is no doubt that the overwhelming majority still hoped for reconciliation with the Crown. Many at first rallied around a proposal put forth on September 28 by Joseph Galloway of Pennsylvania. Galloway, a loyalist at heart, saw the delegates as divided into two camps: one (“men of property”) standing for American rights, seeking a remedy of wrongs but intent on avoiding sedition and violence; the other (“Congregational and Presbyterian republicans, or men of bankrupt fortunes, overwhelmed in debt to the British merchants”) bent on independence.”
After carefully reading Charles Beard’s An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the
United States I became fascinated by the economic implications of the founding of the United States of America. Certainly, the men who led the way were men of influence and position. The question becomes, to me, twofold. First, what did they have to gain by pushing for independence once that course was settled upon, and two, was their quest for independence strongly motivated by economic considerations?
While the answer to the first question would require a thorough study of the finances of the men who are considered the founders of our country from John Hancock to George Washington which would be a work worthy of several volumes, the second might probably be best answered by their own statements, particularly private correspondence to family members, friends, and plantation and farm managers. Each of these efforts alone would require a significant investment in time to thoroughly examine each founder’s indebtedness, business interests, and stated plans for future business efforts as well as their personal and business correspondence.
But, another question of more immediate interest to me and possibly suggesting an answer that precedes the efforts to answer the larger questions comes to mind when considering such realizations of what the founders had to gain or lose by independence. What did people of the time believe motivated the desire for independence once that course was decided upon? Were there angry rumblings among the people who remained loyal to Great Britain, rumblings like there are today when someone says, “if it makes no sense, there’s a buck in it”?
As I was reading with interest about the buildup to the Revolution in the Delmarva Peninsula where I spent the first happy years of my life, the region of my father’s birthplace, I ran across some interesting statements. For instance, in one paper that gave me some terrific insight and many things and references to consider I read, “The poorer classes saw the Revolution as a "rich man's war," and asked themselves why should they fight for the elite, or support the government when they had no stake in the conflict?”
As the author made his case concerning the activities of the Loyalists on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, known as the Delmarva Peninsula because it contains all of the state of Delaware, part of Maryland, and a small section of Virginia, he pointed out how many of the lesser gentry and of the common people viewed the drive for Independence as a sort of Civil War pushed by men of means and standing desiring to be free of the confines of duty to the British Empire and seeking to pursue a course of action which would support their own financial standing and success.
Again, the author of the article I was reading said other things that gave me pause to think on this topic, including the following paragraph;
“The gentry's efforts to restrict the franchise and limit office holding illustrates a phenomenon peculiar to the American Revolution. In contrast to Marx's dialectic, where the oppressed proletariat led the revolution, or the middle class in the French Revolution, the American Revolution was shaped primarily by the gentry. They had led the initial protests to break away from Great Britain. On the other hand, the "middle class" and the poor often opposed the belligerent policies of the revolutionary government, remaining either neutral or aligning themselves with Great Britain. In prewar Maryland, the gentry, true to English tradition, assumed political leadership in the colony. Their greater wealth and higher level of education made them ideal leaders. Lesser men could not afford to participate in government because property requirements and the lack of salary for such service discouraged them from doing so.”
As I pondered the ramifications of these statements and reflected on the fact that most of the men of the founding generations who had large estates and land would probably have been in debt I recalled that it is common knowledge and stated in many sources that Thomas Jefferson, for one, was always in debt.
Some authors write like the idea of an economic advantage to independence only came to the Founders late in the game, as if it was something they had not considered. Pauline Maier writes, “By April 1776, however, William Henry Drayton observed that the British had constrained American manufacturing, while the new government of South Carolina actively encouraged it.”
Would it not be logical for men of such great intellect and learning to have weighed in the balance the economic advantages and disadvantages to them of independence? Are students of the Revolution afraid that having such considerations tarnishes the memory of these men? Americans have always had a love/hate relationship with wealth. We all want it but are quick to attack the character of those who already have it and seeking to preserve it or expand on it for some reason seems to downgrade the perceived personal character of the wealthy in the popular mind. Although almost all Americans would love to enjoy the benefits of great or even moderate wealth it has become common to impugn the morals of those who acquire it as having had to do something dishonest or exploitive to obtain it. This has been a common practice of thought, at least since the time of the social upheavals of the 1960’s.
However, colonial extra-legal governments of the Revolution limited participation to the class that possessed wealth and excluded the common man, a type of monopoly of power and money that has a common thread all through American history. There is a thread of inconsistency to all human actions and no less significant in this case is the conflict of fighting to be free to rule one’s own life but excluding others from that basic freedom as well as demanding a respect for rights from the British that one is not willing to grant to one’s fellows.
So, I find it no great stretch of the imagination to consider that there were serious economic motivations and considerations taken by powerful men in deciding whether or not independence was a prudent option to consider and how best to exclude those who would probably not see it their way. I think it naïve to believe that only noble political ideals, matters of principle, and ideology motivated the men who risked all to declare and fight for our independence from Great Britain.
Finally, let me just say that the call for freedom for the free white man while many thousands of African-Americans were still to be kept in chains alone begs the issue of an economic motive to the call for independence.
I fully realize that these thoughts are not consistent with the mainstream historical study of the American Revolution. I believe that Pauline Maier expresses the commonly accepted wisdom concerning the benefits of declaring independence when she dismisses economic considerations as having never been strongly attached to the desire for independence and says afterwards, “The strongest advantage Independence brought was political…”
I do think, however, that it would be a great and interesting study to do for the Revolution what Charles Beard did for the Constitution and examine balance sheet by balance sheet and man by man before independence was declared to see who owed what to whom and who might have benefited the most from independence. I am interested perhaps to pursue that line of investigation at some point myself.
Bobrick, Benson. Angel in the Whirlwind: The Triumph of the American Revolution. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997.
Maier, Pauline American Scripture, Making the Declaration of Independence.
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997.
Neville, Barry Paige. “For God, King, and Country: Loyalism on the Eastern Shore of Maryland during the American Revolution, “ International Social Science Review 84, Issue 3/4,(2009):135-156.