Williamsburg left a detailed record of its efforts to restore market fairness. The town, of course, had a history of resistance dating back to the Patrick Henry–led militia’s march in 1775 to demand the return of gunpowder then under the control of the colony’s last royal governor, Lord Dunmore. That incident was resolved without violence when it was agreed that the gunpowder would be paid out of royal accounts.
By 1779 the political landscape had changed. The challenge had become how best to control runaway inflation. On July 14, an appeal went out to area residents calling for the formation of a committee capable of dealing with a plague of “monopolizers, forestallers, and engrossers” as well as addressing “the avarice and extortion of individuals.” The notice included a reminder that now, more than ever, the crisis required “the timely and spirited exertions of the independent and patriotick friends of their country.”
Why, the Williamsburg group asked, had a revolution that began with such high expectations gone so badly off course? In answering this question, a local newspaper provided a summary view of the nation’s recent history. At the beginning of the conflict with Great Britain, the Americans had faced not only “a very powerful and well appointed enemy” but also “traitors nursed in the bosom of their own country.” The revolutionaries had performed well over four years — better than might have been expected — but after the nation proved that it could hold its own on the battlefield, it found that it had to deal with an even more alarming foe.
These new enemies aimed at nothing less than the destruction of the financial integrity of the United States. They had done so by encouraging a “spirit of extortion.” The only hope to remedy the situation was the immediate creation of “a committee of fifteen freeholders . . . chosen by the inhabitants of the city, who shall be called a committee of inspection and observation, the majority of whom shall have power to act. The duty of which committee shall be to inspect the conduct of the inhabitants of this city, and inforce obedience to such resolutions as from time to time shall be agreed on by the general town-meeting.” The organizers of the Williamsburg effort pledged that its committee would communicate with other committees and would work to expose “to the publick” anyone who violated its regulations “as inimical to the rights and liberties of America.” And somewhat ominously, the members insisted that their aggressive efforts to crush extortion posed no threat to the public since “the virtue of the people at large can easily redress what the laws cannot reach.”
It is not surprising to learn that these local efforts — however well-intentioned — were not able to effectively remedy the problem. Crafty merchants found ways around the local regulations. Desperate to obtain household goods, cold and hungry people paid inflated prices in full knowledge that they had paid too much.
But this is not a story of failure. To dismiss the work of the committees as naive or ineffectual would be wrong. Indeed, they may have saved the Revolution.
After 1778, a huge number of ordinary Americans unexpectedly spoke up, protested special privilege and served on committees that gathered information. A renewed sense of revolutionary participation was the key.
The impressive number of men who served on the local committees may have been unable to control inflation or save the Continental currency, but their activism — their confidence that their own efforts mattered — helped greatly to sustain the Revolution. A colonial rebellion had in fact evolved into a genuine revolution. After all, what made the Revolution truly revolutionary was the growing determination of newly empowered Americans to endorse a social contract based on solidarity rather than on unbridled economic individualism.
Image: This early Continental currency, a $20 bill, was printed in 1775 on marble-edged paper that Benjamin Franklin supplied, illustrating the expectation that the money would retain its value. (Colonial Williamsburg Collections, Gift of the Lasser Family)