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In Irons

In Irons: Britain`s Naval Supremacy and the American Revolutionary Economy

Richard Buel
Copyright Date: 1998
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 416
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  • Book Info
    In Irons
    Book Description:

    A sailing ship that becomes stalled with its bow to the wind is said to be "in irons." In this groundbreaking examination of America`s Revolutionary War economy, the phrase is an apt metaphor for the inability of that economy to free itself from the constraints of Britain`s navy. Richard Buel Jr. here investigates for the first time the influence of Britain`s navy on the American revolutionary economy, particularly its agricultural sector, and the damage that Britain inflicted by seizing major colonial centers and denying Americans access to overseas markets.Drawing on documents newly culled from American, British, and French archives, the author shows how the French alliance, naval operations in the Atlantic and Caribbean, military operations in North America, and the policies of state and continental authorities contributed to the collapse and then revival of the revolutionary economy. Buel places the American economy in international context and discusses how both Spain and France created the conditions-though sometimes inadvertently-that bolstered the economic survival of the infant republic.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-16077-2
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-vii)
    (pp. viii-ix)
    (pp. x-xiv)
    (pp. 1-4)

    Few colonial Americans were surprised by the outbreak of hostilities in the spring of 1775. Though more lamented than welcomed the approach of armed conflict, no informed colonist could have mistaken the potential for war that existed from the summer of 1774 onward. Certainly those harboring peaceful illusions should have abandoned them after the “powder alarm” of September 1. Following rumors that British troops, recently reintroduced into Boston, had shed American blood in their seizure of gunpowder stored in the Medford magazine, twenty thousand New England militiamen marched eastward from the interior.¹ When they learned that the rumors were false,...

    (pp. 5-29)

    War shattered the assumptions that Americans had made about the economic and manpower advantages they would enjoy in a showdown with Great Britain. Folklore has romanticized the army as a small and embattled band of patriots neglected by a society whose liberty it tried to defend. The army took the initiative in creating this image, which shifted responsibility for the length of the war onto other shoulders. Lack of public virtue, apathy, and the poor organization of civilian support plagued the revolutionary army.¹

    Folklore has passed on an equally romanticized though less distinct image of the revolutionary economy. Most people...

    (pp. 30-52)

    Why did key agricultural surpluses that American farmers had routinely produced in the late colonial period become unavailable in the late 1770s? One possibility is that the wartime diversion of men from the farm to the armed forces curtailed production. Only when the soldiers returned from the army could normal production resume. Another possibility is that the market failed to attract agricultural surpluses when and where they were needed. Both the availability of labor and the operations of the market contributed to the ups and downs of revolutionary agriculture. However, the force levels of the army suggest that manpower shortages...

    (pp. 53-76)

    The revolutionaries responded to the impact that the military mobilization of 1776 had on the revolutionary economy by creating a “permanent” army—one in which men enlisted either for three years or for the duration—in 1777. Congress took this action as an economy measure, in part to eliminate the effect that rotating short-term enlistees through the ranks was having on agricultural production. Members of Congress also realized that their efforts to create a national market with the continental currency would not free them from dependence on European sources of supply in clothing and arming the Continental Army. In the...

    (pp. 77-106)

    Developments during 1778 underscored that the new nation’s best defense against the economic dislocations brought on by the Revolution lay in its own exertions. From the very beginning Congress had realized that opening American ports to foreign vessels would not be enough. The harbors also had to be fortified. Congress accordingly recommended that each colony provide for the defense of its deep-water ports. Most responded by immediately building new fortifications or by strengthening existing ones. Where ports lay on important river systems, like Philadelphia and New York, revolutionary authorities tried to limit enemy access by creating floating chains, underwater chevaux-de-frise,...

    (pp. 107-133)

    More deadly to American merchants than the loss of their ships and cargoes to Britain’s naval power was the enemy’s ability to seize major ports on the North American coastline. This, together with the continued depreciation of the continental currency, throttled the potential of the revolutionary economy and dramatically limited the revolutionary leadership’s options in carrying on the struggle.

    America’s principal ports evolved as anomalies on the colonial landscape. Only a fraction of the North American colonial population resided in towns of more than 2,500 persons. The “urban” sites that did develop were scattered throughout the British settlements, apparently without...

    (pp. 134-157)

    In 1778, Britain sent the Carlisle Commission to America to head off the Franco-American alliance through a negotiated settlement to the conflict. When it became clear that such a settlement could not be reached, the departing commissioners threatened the Americans with a more destructive form of warfare. That autumn the Royal Navy raided Bedford, Massachusetts, and Egg Harbor, New Jersey. European intelligence sources warned Americans to expect far worse in the next campaign.¹

    The eighteen months from autumn 1778 to spring 1780 were the darkest of the Revolution. Many had hoped that Britain—in the face of the new alliance...

  12. 7 The Seeds of Recovery
    (pp. 158-185)

    Rochambeau failed to produce the immediate victory that both the United States and France had hoped for. Nonetheless, his arrival was a turning point in the war. Politically, it sent the heartening message that France intended to stand by the new nation.¹ And while Rochambeau’s army remained on the continent, its need for provisions—together with purchases by individual soldiers—revived the economy of the neighboring region.

    Eighteenth-century European armies expected to be paid in hard coin. The French expeditionary force had, accordingly, brought a sizable supply of specie to America. Americans recognized that the French army would not stay...

    (pp. 186-211)

    Farmers in the mid-Atlantic states soon realized their dreams of profiting from the Caribbean trade. They were aided by Pennsylvania’s October 1780 election, which brought the state’s Republican faction a greater role in running the government. At the same time, a violent hurricane swept the islands, sinking two British ships of the line, severely damaging nine others, and destroying or disabling thirteen lesser-armed vessels. With Britain’s power weakened in the Caribbean and its naval force in northern waters blockading Rochambeau in Newport, American ships could more safely sail to the West Indies from the Delaware and Chesapeake regions. The hurricane...

    (pp. 212-239)

    How significantly did the 1780–81 recovery in the Delaware and northern Chesapeake region affect the outcome of the Revolution? Whether there was a surplus of grain in the vicinity had little direct influence on France’s decision to attack British General Cornwallis in the Chesapeake rather than General Clinton in New York. The comparative ease in gaining naval access to the Chesapeake, together with the limited amount of time that French Admiral de Grasse felt he could spare for North American operations, were more critical.¹ For a full year before the seven-week siege of Yorktown during the autumn of 1781,...

    (pp. 240-256)

    Only peace could resolve the many economic problems Americans struggled with during the Revolutionary War. Only peace could halt the wanton destruction of property and allow Americans to rebuild what had been lost. The cities that had been raided or occupied by the enemy bore the most visible signs of suffering, but desolation was everywhere.¹ Virginia encouraged its counties to tabulate the damage that each had suffered during the war, including losses arising from “obstructed Commerce.” At least one county complied, listing among other things the abduction of slaves “during several invasions of the British forces.”² It is impossible to...

    (pp. 257-262)
    (pp. 263-270)
  18. Notes
    (pp. 271-386)
  19. Index
    (pp. 387-397)