Cathy Matson
Peter Onuf

A Union Of Interests

Some congressmen advocated greater freedom for American merchants overseas while promoting protectionist policies and restraints on trade at home. Another group of delegates, sensitive to widespread popular agitation for greater economic freedom, recognized the potential for conflict between international free traders and smaller merchants, farmers, and domestic consumers. These delegates doubted that foreign powers would treat the American states with the magnanimity anticipated by free traders. There was also good reason to suspect that some congressional proponents of international free trade were motivated by selfish interests. The profitable activities of Robert Morris, Silas Deane, and their associates raised serious questions about the proper relationship between private commerce and the public good. Excessive reliance on free trade and private enterprise left Congress at the mercy of merchant speculators who charged exorbitant, unregulated prices for commercial services and goods. Finally, the wealthy merchants who benefited from doing business with and for Congress were notoriously hostile to the state paper notes and currency systems that had proven so useful to so many Americans. Henry Laurens charged that many international wholesalers made 'patriotism the stalking horse to their private interests.' Roger Sherman and John Armstrong agreed.

The greatest danger, these and other congressional critics warned, was that undue emphasis on the prospects of worldwide free trade would distract attention from the exigencies of war and the new nation's vulnerable international situation, both of which made limited commercial regulations essential. Some congressmen also thought that the states should be the guardians of economic freedom properly defined and regulated. The state governments were better equipped to check the excesses of private profit seeking and the tendencies toward dangerous liaisons with foreign nations. The states could also respond more flexibly to the changing requirements of a war stretching across many distinct regions.

As long as calls for virtuous self-sacrifice remained compelling and congressmen continued to defer to the authority of the states, disagreement over economic policy in Congress remained muted. Whether delegates emphasized the centrality of international commerce and foreign relations or insisted on the primacy of diverse, local interests in the domestic economy, they all agreed that the Revolution required a greater sense of public obligation and a willingness to sacrifice private interests. Congressmen feared that pervasive private profit seeking (in their own ranks as well as in society at large) would unleash anarchy and licentiousness—the manifest, material expression of destructive, anti-social 'passions.' Congress thus appealed to the sovereign states to suppress those insidious elements which, 'in repugnance to every principle of public virtue and humanity, [and] instigated by the lust of avarice,' were 'assiduously endeavouring, by every means of oppression, sharping, and extortion, to accumulate enormous gain to themselves' at the expense of the poor and dependent inhabitants.

Republican moralists argued that when private interests combined to form collectives of interest in parties or factions, selfishness gained a wider and more dangerous scope and influence. During the imperial crisis, these warnings had been directed primarily at the old colonial elites and had helped inspire broad popular participation in the movement for independence and the war which followed. Now, republican language could be aimed either at 'interested' factions in the patriot leadership or at the 'expectant capitalists'—the humbler farmers and traders, particularly in the interior, who sought to rise in station and reap the benefits of economic freedom promised by the Revolution. Republican commentators feared that the poor example set by some congressmen would encourage the popular 'rage to loose the ties which bind us in orderly commerce': the pursuit of selfish interest by rural entrepreneurs, they claimed, was too often justified in the 'name of liberty.' Even worse, the idealized republican yeoman too often proved to be among the most rapacious and greedy patriots, not the most virtuous.

The difficulties of defining the proper limits of economic freedom became apparent when observers focused on the currency and debt questions raised by wartime mobilization. Although few Americans questioned the necessity of paper currency, republican commentators were quick to underscore potential dangers and abuses of an 'artificial' medium of exchange. At first republican strictures generally were addressed to the 'little men'—the misguided farmers and small traders—who failed to appreciate the dangers of private debt or paper money inflation. By 1779, however, critics were also railing against the prominent revolutionaries who exploited the 'excessive liberalitye of commerce' for their private advantage; these speculative and financial wizards were often likened to the 'mushroom gentlemen,' the bankers, brokers, and banditti who flourished during England's financial revolution. Private enterprise—at least among these suspect groups—frequently led to 'licentiousness,' 'peculation,' 'greed,' 'fraud,' and general 'deceit against the government and the public good.' The Revolution required more self-denial and greater solicitude for the public welfare. But, as one self-styled republican proclaimed, it was doubtful whether Americans had 'sufficient virtue to support their liberty.' So long as Americans pursued their selfish interests heedless of all moral and political obligation, there seemed to be little hope of achieving the 'happy mediocrity' of property in James Harrington's influential prescription for Oceana.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.