Thursday, 16 September 2010

A Miracle of Merchants

You wanna talk miracles in Philadelphia? Well, how about this miracle: a scholarly book by a security analyst for Paine Webber with a Ph.D. in history from Harvard, about “merchants and economic development in revolutionary Philadelphia.”
That’s the subtitle for Thomas M. Doerflinger’s A Vigorous Spirit of Enterprise (University of North Carolina Press, $32). Trade cycles can be fun to read about? I’m afraid that’s my verdict—and I’ve always agreed that, give or take a few John Kenneth Galbraiths, economics is the most dismal of sciences.
How does Doerflinger do it? For a start, he’s got a fine eye (not to forget ear) for liveliness culled out of old manuscripts. You’ve all heard endlessly, maybe even ad nauseum, about Stephen Girard. But have you ever watched him put down a fellow merchant with whom he was feuding?
Once, when he squabbled with Jacob Ridgway over a piece of property, Jacob huffed: “I could buy and sell you,” to which Stephen tartly riposted: “I could buy you, Mr. Ridgeway, but I do not think that I could sell you again.” Ha, marvelous. We’ve slud a long slide down the slippery slope of Bore in our fulminations. Oh, to be young and witty in Rev. Philly.
But banker one-liners do not a good solid book on our collective past make. They do up the tastiness of the subject, nevertheless, Chapter six, on the Federalist reaction to the economic shocks of the Revolutionary War, is the most germane for the Big Miracle of the Constitution.
The war, we learn from Doerflinger, so disrupted the economic and political framework of Pennsylvania that the formerly politically apathetic merchant community transformed itself into an articulate interest group. At the state level, they battled the radical Presbyterian faction, which had seized power in 1776 and nationally tried to expand the powers of the national government, especially its power to tax.
Radical Presbyterians? Yes, folks, the formally reigning Anglican / Quaker alliance had been either shakily neutral or outright Tory. (Remember the old arithmetic—one third patriots, one third loyalists, one third straddling the fence?)
“The merchants’ opposition to British encroachments on American liberties, Doerflinger explains, “though sincere enough, was tempered by compelling countervailing considerations, including their transatlantic connections and attachment to the empire, their deep suspicion of Presbyterian influence in the Revolutionary movement, and the benefits they deriving form the general economic prosperity of the prewar period. For all these reasons, the merchants had ultimately been more obstructionist than supportive of the Revolution; they were too pragmatic, materialistic and elitist to lead the drive toward independence.”
But these very traits made them ideal agents for transforming a Revolutionary idea into a functioning state. The Scotch-Irish Presbyterians from the Western counties were the core of the Constitutionalist Party. Underrepresented before 1776, the trans-Susquehanna folks had disproportionate leverage in the new unicameral legislature that gave each county an equal number of seats, until 1779.
They even hyped their eastern power by enacting test acts—you had to pledge loyalty to the State of Pennsylvania before you could vote, effectively disenfranchising Quakers and German Pietists.
Perhaps the most visible evidence of religious / economic strife was the transformation of the Anglican / Quaker dominated College of Philadelphia to the University of Pennsylvania in 1779—with a whole new board of Presbyterian trustees. They claimed the former college had discriminated against Presbyterians and had never foresworn allegiance to the King of England.
The push and shove of political, economic and religious factions really gives life to Doerflinger’s exegesis of the evolving commercial life. For a fresh start on a high-IQ celebration of the Constitution, I recommend it without reservation to editorial writers, local politicians, national statesmen—veritable and self-described.
Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, December 30, 1987

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