Ornamental Separator

The Price of Freedom

How Americans took economic matters into their own hands to sustain a revolution

Revolutions are very difficult to launch. They are much harder to sustain. This is especially true when the burdens of resisting traditional authority compel ordinary people to make greater sacrifices than they had originally anticipated.

It is a common story. The major revolutions that have transformed the modern world — the French and Russian revolutions, for example — have had to confront the challenge of maintaining popular support when the odds of success seemed uncertain.

American revolutionaries faced the same problem. In 1776, the prospect of mounting resistance to Great Britain inspired widespread enthusiasm. Eager volunteers whom Thomas Paine described as “sunshine” patriots came forward in impressive numbers.

But the excitement soon faded. The Declaration of Independence marked the beginning of a conflict that lasted seven more years. Although George Washington may have been a brilliant commander, the Continental army recorded few significant victories. Rhetorical appeals to liberty and rights lost the capacity to mobilize a people grown weary of war. And the economic realities began to become clear.

Recognition of the difficulty of maintaining revolutionary commitment raises significant questions about the American experience. Why did ordinary people throughout the country not betray their own cause? Faced with adversity, why did they keep faith in the promise of independence?

The answers yield a fuller understanding not only of how Americans managed to sustain their revolution but also how, in communities throughout the country, they created a new political culture based on the will of the people.

The Economic Realities of War

The gravest threat to the success of the Revolution occurred in 1778 and 1779. The peril came in the form of debilitating inflation, the sort that has undermined the stability of governments in nations such as Argentina and the Weimar Republic, Germany’s government between World War I and the rise of the Nazi Party. Early in the Revolutionary War, Congress authorized printing large sums of paper currency, and although the money initially held its own, it soon plummeted in value. The phrase “not worth a Continental” reminds us just how serious the problem became for ordinary Americans.

It required 40 Continental dollars to equal the buying power of a single silver dollar, inflation that deeply affected people reliant on the marketplace for food. Soldiers on fixed wages could not support their families. One minister observed: “How lamentable is it to hear a poor woman, with half a dozen small children, whose husband is in the army, complaining that she can not procure a shirt for a poor half frozen child.”

The reaction of American revolutionaries to double-digit inflation was both creative and unexpected. They might have blamed the Continental Congress for their suffering. Or they might have grumbled about international exchange rates. They did neither.

Instead, the people turned inward, asking whether their own economic behavior and that of their neighbors had been responsible for the collapse of the nation’s currency. At the beginning of the war, they insisted, revolutionaries had demonstrated a commendable willingness to sacrifice for the common good. But for complex reasons, the initial solidarity dissolved and a surge of selfish individualism had dramatically undermined an earlier commitment to cooperation.

An Opportunity for Extortion

As conditions became increasingly dire, ordinary people began asking who precisely was responsible for the sad state of affairs. Who was putting the Revolution at risk?

Some commentators chastised Americans for succumbing to the lure of consumer goods. In their view, inflation exposed a moral failing: Thoughtless revolutionaries had wasted money on luxuries, had driven up the prices and were now paying the bill. One New Jersey writer lamented how rare it had become to encounter “a steady and firm attachment to the glorious cause of freedom.” What had gone wrong? “The allurements of pleasure, and the universal rage for money, have almost bereaved us of our senses,” the writer mused.

The moral explanation for the nation’s economic crisis ultimately proved unpersuasive. Most Americans concluded that self-indulgence in the marketplace was only part of the problem. A far more dangerous threat to independence came from real enemies living in their midst who viewed the war as an opportunity to profit from the sacrifices made by their neighbors.

These were not Tories. These were respected persons who loudly proclaimed their patriotism. But then, when the price for basic household goods rose dramatically, they took advantage of private schemes to make money. As a contributor to the Pennsylvania Packet wrote, at the beginning of the war everyone had proclaimed unity, pledging uncompromising support for a shared political goal, “and no one then even dreamt, that our struggles against the common oppressor would involve us in mutual oppressions of each other, of the most pernicious and heinous nature.”

Revolutionaries accused their opportunistic neighbors — they labeled them “locusts and canker-worms, in human form”— of a number of different economic crimes. They accused them of being speculators, engrossers and profiteers; they condemned monopolizers and forestallers. Some terms harked back to the late Middle Ages when officials struggled to establish a just price for basic market goods. For most Americans, the exact details of the malfeasance did not matter since by whatever name it was clear that an insidious group of domestic enemies was practicing extortion.

Americans Fight Back

This practice took various forms, but fundamentally the enemies of market stability — those people who refused to honor Continental currency at face value or trade goods at a just price — aimed at maximizing profits without any thought to the welfare of ordinary buyers and sellers. A widely accepted definition of such behavior explained that “oppression consists in taking the advantage of the necessity of others to extort from them an unreasonable price for the necessaries of life; and is an offence against the laws of reason and morality; and is inconsistent with the righteous and beneficent rules of christianity, and resembles the infernals [inhabitants of hell] whose character is to devour one another.”

In Massachusetts the Rev. William Gordon advised Americans, “If men in this day will not be content with a livelihood, and will make themselves fortunes, immense fortunes, out of the distresses of the people, I say, let the curse of Heaven fall upon their substance, their unhallowed gains.”

Most Americans were not prepared to wait for heaven to bring about economic justice. In town after town, revolutionaries took the matter into their own hands. The responsibility for monitoring prices and wages generally fell to the members of local committees of safety, sometimes called committees of inspection and observation. The Continental Congress was not involved. Voters selected men to serve on these local enforcement groups, and their mandate was clear. As one newspaper proclaimed, “REMEMBER that the old spirit of opposition to the stamp act, that first originated in Boston, and sounded the alarm bell through the Continent, is not yet smothered, but shall soon burst, with an unabating vengeance, on the heads of monopolizers. . . . By Heavens it shall not die. VoxPopuli.”

The challenge of exposing extortioners was harder than most of the committeemen anticipated. They had to review in detail changes in prices and wages for a period of years going back to the start of hostilities. Often the records needed to make such calculations did not exist. Sometimes the committees had to rely on the hazy memories of storekeepers and artisans.

The tedious process included interviewing witnesses about such things as the cost of nails or carpentry work. A Salem, Massachusetts, committee debated whether it should require less money to bury a child than an adult, who might weigh much more. Another local Massachusetts committee, this one in Newburyport, established fair prices for cheese “manufactured in America,” “Turkeys, Dunghill Fowls and Ducks, to be sold only by the pound,” “Liver-Oyl, by the barrel,” and “DINNERS at Taverns...of boiled or roast meat...exclusive of wine.”

The effort moved forward even with the competing demands of war. According to a piece in the New-Jersey Gazette, “It will be necessary that the said committees inform themselves as minutely as possible of the current prices of all things within their respective States, and of the causes of the different prices of the same articles in different places.”

The Call to Act in Williamsburg

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)

The Will of the People: The Revolutionary Birth of America

T.H. Breen is the William Smith Mason Professor of American History (Emeritus) at Northwestern University and a James Marsh Professor-at-Large at the University of Vermont. He is the author of a number of books on colonial America, including his most recent, The Will of the People: The Revolutionary Birth of America, published in 2019 by Harvard University Press. In it, Breen explores community efforts to sustain the revolutionary cause during the late 1770s, preserving a political culture based on the rule of law. Among his other books is The Marketplace of Revolution: How Consumer Politics Shaped American Independence.

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