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A Vigorous Spirit of Enterprise

A Vigorous Spirit of Enterprise: Merchants and Economic Development in Revolutionary Philadelphia

Thomas M. Doerflinger
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  • Book Info
    A Vigorous Spirit of Enterprise
    Book Description:

    A social, economic, and political study of Philadelphia merchants, this study presents both the spirit and statistics of merchant life. Doerflinger studies the Philadelphia merchant community from three perspectives: their commercial world, their confrontation with the Revolution and its aftermath, and their role in diversifying the local economy. The analysis of entrepreneurship dominates the study and challenges long-standing assumptions about American economic history.

    eISBN: 978-1-4696-0127-4
    Subjects: Economics, Business, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-2)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 3-8)

    In 1834 a nineteen-year-old lad on leave from Harvard College boarded the Boston shipPilgrim,bound for California. After a perilous, exhilarating voyage around Cape Horn he was put to work on the deserted beaches near Santa Barbara, stacking heavy cowhides on his head, wading barefoot into the Pacific surf, loading the hides onto a small boat, and ferrying them out to thePilgrim,anchored three miles offshore. The work was demanding and the hours were long, but not too long to prevent this Brahmin deckhand from spending his Sundays touring California’s mainland. What he found was a land of...

  5. PART I The Character of the Merchant Community

    • 1 Social Structure and Recruitment
      (pp. 11-69)

      When he came to Philadelphia in 1776, Stephen Girard was another disreputable foreigner—blind in one eye, unable to speak polite English, alienated from his father, and in debt to businessmen in his native Bordeaux. A mariner by training, he did have some useful business skills and connections, but that was about all: no sizable capital, no apprenticeship with a major firm. Girard did not shake off such disadvantages easily. For six chaotic years during the Revolution he traded in the middle states and the Caribbean with no great success. In 1782 his total net worth amounted to only £2,280,...

    • 2 The Articulation of the Merchant Community
      (pp. 70-134)

      In 1775 Philadelphia’s overseas trading area described a wide arc, sweeping through the Atlantic from the Caribbean to the Azores and Madeira, on to the Iberian Peninsula, then northward to England and Ireland, and finally back across the ocean to New England. The massive tropical archipelago known as the West Indies was a botanical gold mine worked by adventurers from many nations—England, France, Spain, Holland, and Denmark. Here black slaves and their white masters had hacked out of the jungle valuable fields planted with sugar, coffee, cocoa, cochineal, and other crops. These exotic commodities were far too lucrative for...

    • 3 Enterprise and Adversity
      (pp. 135-164)

      The expanding wealth of the merchant community and the considerable opportunities available to newcomers that we have seen may easily create the impression that prosperity and success accompanied most mercantile careers. Indeed, such a view finds support in several prominent strains of historical analysis. Urban historians often write of the “rise” of Philadelphia, a noun that calls to mind the effortless ascension of a balloon or the skyward drifting of a plume of smoke. Social historians contrast the expanding fortunes of Philadelphia wholesalers with the modest resources of the average citizen and the near-destitution of the lower classes. Business historians...

  6. PART II The Revolution

    • 4 Reluctant Revolutionaries
      (pp. 167-196)

      In December 1769 the wealthy Philadelphia merchant Henry Drinker relayed the latest political news to his partner, Abel James, who was visiting England. The American boycott of British manufactures, undertaken earlier in the year to protest the Townshend duties, was still in effect, Drinker reported, but its demise was imminent. The boycott was cutting into mercantile profits, and Drinker knew that “Interest, all powerful Interest will bear down Patriotism.” Echoing the familiar republican rhetoric of the day, the merchant lamented that “Romans we are not as they were formerly, when they despised Riches and Grandeur, abode in extreme poverty and...

    • 5 The Shock of War
      (pp. 197-250)

      When the war that they had stubbornly resisted finally arrived, Philadelphia merchants found that their darkest fears were confirmed. Many merchants suffered from harsh persecution during the conflict, and all were financially imperiled by the shock of war. The years of conflict were confused and chaotic, and no less traumatic were the brief boom and subsequent depression of the 1780s. Not until 1789 did Philadelphia’s economy return to the solid commercial prosperity enjoyed between 1769 and 1775. The Revolutionary period was a time to retrench and improvise, to scramble for survival in a world at war. But even here many...

    • 6 The Federalist Reaction
      (pp. 251-280)

      By rupturing the economic and governmental framework of colonial Pennsylvania, the Revolution transformed the political apathy of the merchant community, turning it for the first time into an articulate interest group. Only a handful of merchants became active politicians, but these leaders pursued goals supported by the trading body as a whole. At the state level, they battled the radical Presbyterian faction that had seized power in 1776, and in national affairs they attempted to expand the power of the central government, particularly its power to tax. Toughened and tutored by a decade of bitter controversy and strategically situated in...

  7. PART III Merchants and Economic Diversification

    • 7 The Entrepreneurial Efflorescence
      (pp. 283-334)

      The decade and a half after 1776 witnessed an extraordinary efflorescence of mercantile innovation in the Delaware Valley. Banks were established, trade with China and the settlements of the Mississippi Valley was begun, and southern tobacco temporarily became an important export commodity. Extensive speculations in public securities and wilderness lands were undertaken, and a novel transportation project was completed. Traders also plotted to import the revolutionary cotton-spinning technology recently developed in England. And after 1788, Philadelphia’s trade with the various parts of the Atlantic basin rapidly grew to an unprecedented volume.

      It might seem paradoxical that a business community rocked...

    • 8 American Economic Development and the Case of Philadelphia
      (pp. 335-364)

      Although Philadelphia was exceptionally prosperous during the second half of the eighteenth century, the entrepreneurial character of the city was fundamentally the same as that of other major ports. The similarities between New York and Philadelphia are especially clear. The economic function of the two ports was similar, and they both possessed expanding, heterogeneous trading communities.¹ By the 1750s, these communities included a number of influential Irish merchants as well as important Jewish and Quaker traders. Since the pre-Revolutionary English suppliers of dry goods to New York included the same great export firms that served Philadelphia, both cities were inundated...

  8. Appendix The Commercial World of Revolutionary Philadelphia
    (pp. 365-382)
  9. Bibliography
    (pp. 383-398)
  10. Index
    (pp. 399-413)