“Barbarities, Extortions and Monopolies”

American colonists’ protest against the 1773 Tea Act involved more than just the Boston Tea Party; and it was provoked by more than just a tax. What sharpened the edge of colonial frustration was the short shrift given to American business interests in the balancing-act of imperial administration—and the triumph, by contrast, of the East India Company. American merchants and smugglers were the big losers in a larger effort to bail out the struggling corporation. As John Dickinson put it in his second “Letter from the Country,” the British policy aimed “not only to enforce the Revenue Act but to establish a monopoly for the East India Company, who have espoused the cause of the ministry; and hope to repair their broken fortunes by the ruin of American freedom and liberty!”[1]

Drawing the connection between British policy and the activities of the Company in India itself, Dickinson showed that a commercial empire by no means meant a peaceful or beneficent one. “They have levied war, incited rebellions, dethroned lawful princes, and sacrificed millions,” he wrote, “for the sake of gain.” They had enacted “the most unparalleled barbarities, extortions and monopolies, stripped the miserable inhabitants of their property, and reduced whole provinces to indigence and ruin.”[2] Playing on racial as well as political insecurities, Dickinson imagined a similar process unfolding in America. Corporate profit, commercial lobbying, and state power, he saw, had something to do with liberty and misery alike.

In his recent book, So Great a Proffitt: How the East Indies Trade Transformed Anglo-American Capitalism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010), James Fichter argued that the Americans’ experience with the East India Company, and their repulsion against monopolies in particular led them to launch a different approach to the organization of commercial empire, and thus to inaugurate the free-trading spirit of American capitalism. Where once the imperial state had been at the center of things, the boundary between government and private enterprise often invisible and always blurred, the anti-monopolist Americans fundamentally altered that relationship, removing the state from the economic sphere. That, rather than the constitutional recasting of the state itself, was the revolution that made modern capitalism possible.

What’s striking to me, though, is just how much Americans didn’t take that attitude in their unfolding response to British policy in the 1770s. As unjust as they thought the East India Company’s privileges were—along with other particulars of the regime—the delegates at the First Continental Congress avoided condemning the system of imperial commercial control, and came nowhere near advocating laissez-faire. In fact, just the opposite. As news of the Coercive Acts arrived in spring 1774, ordinary Americans began to organize a resistance that embodied the fusion of economic and political power. Boldly stated in the Suffolk Resolves and approved by Congress in the Association, the anti-imperial movement instituted boycotts, price controls, and even a mandated program of sheep-breeding. Quite apart from forging modern capitalism, the resistance effort echoed the empire itself by turning commerce to strategic ends.[3]

This is one reason I think the 1780s are so important. It was at that point that American elites, who had gone along with the Association (with whatever misgivings) in 1774, and who had pledged their fortunes as well as their lives in 1776, began to really develop positions that would separate the political and economic spheres. By the time the controversy over the Bank of North America’s charter emerged in Pennsylvania at mid-decade, for instance, James Wilson was able to quote Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations at length, while arguing for the inviolability of contract and corporate property.[4] The opponents of popular politics fought hard on the battlefield of ideas to establish a wall of separation, protecting the power of property from the sovereignty of legislatures. In doing so, they helped make modern capitalism possible.

Relations of property and economic power always depend on the state in the end—among other things, it prosecutes trespassers, enforces contracts, and for decades hunted down fugitive slaves. Elites in the 1780s and beyond understood how vital that state power was, and how important to keep it out of the majority’s reach. The federal constitution helped to do just that. But perhaps more importantly, the way they framed the limits of political power deeply influenced American ways of thinking. In 1773 and 1774, those same limits didn’t apply (though of course there were others, including those to do with gender and race). Economic power still lay in the realm of politics. And politics, for a moment, lay in the hands of the people.


[1] Rusticus [John Dickinson], “A Letter from the Country, to a Gentleman in Philadelphia,” broadside, Philadelphia, November 27, 1773. Also, see The Writings of John Dickinson, ed. Paul Leicester Ford (Philadelphia: Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1895), 1:459.

[2] Ibid., 460.

[3] See T.H. Breen, American Insurgents, American Patriots: The Revolution of the People (New York: Hill & Wang, 2011) and David Ammerman, In the Common Cause: American Response to the Coercive Acts of 1774 (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1974).

[4] James Wilson, Considerations on the Bank of North America (Philadelphia, 1785). The Wealth of Nations, published in 1776, was Smith’s own attack on monopolies, rent-seeking, and the imperial commercial system itself.

3 responses

  1. Pingback: The Honourable John Company | Exodus: Movement of the People

  2. “The opponents of popular politics fought hard on the battlefield of ideas to establish a wall of separation, protecting the power of property from the sovereignty of legislatures.” Yes BUT: they also authorized legislatures to charter corporations wielding governmental powers. Rather than a wall of separation, that is essentially a one-way route for power to flow from legislatures to private parties,


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