Thursday, July 5, 2012

How Life Was Great in 1776 – But What Historian Thomas Fleming Leaves Out in his WSJ Opinion Piece

Hint:  It’s a Part of History We Would All Like to Forget, but Cannot

The editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal are a wonderful read, wonderful that is if one is looking for propaganda supporting ultra Conservative positions.  And every now and then an apparently respected academic makes an appearance promoting WSJ values.  This week it was historian Thomas Fleming’s turn.

Mr. Fleming is unknown to us, but his credentials seem  valid, certainly good enough to support his writing about how life was in 1776.

Mr. Fleming is a former president of the Society of American Historians. This article was adapted from his e-book, "What America Was Really Like in 1776," recently published by New Word City.

 And with the 4th of July holiday still in everyone’s memory, a description of how the economy was in 1776 is certainly a subject of interest to those of us interested in economics.  So let’s see what Mr. Fleming has to say. (for some reason what Mr. Fleming has to say on the on line edition of the WSJ is different from what he had to say in the print version).

First of all, the economics of 1776 was pretty good.

What a nice time - But Not for all

Those Americans, it turns out, had the highest per capita income in the civilized world of their time. They also paid the lowest taxes—and they were determined to keep it that way.

Hm, the first hint of spin.  A case can be made that the colonists' opposition to taxes was not that they were levied, but that they did not have a say in how taxes were levied.  But Mr. Fleming’s spin is far more aligned with the ideology of the WSJ so that may be why it is in there.

And life was pretty good for women.  They were living the American dream and owning and operating businesses.

Another American tradition beginning to take root was female independence. The wife of Sueton Grant ran her husband's shipping business in Newport, R.I., for more than 30 years after his death in 1744.

As a teenager, Eliza Lucas began experimenting with various plants on her father's Wappoo Creek Plantation, near Charleston, S.C. Soon she was raising indigo, which became one of the most profitable crops in the South.

Philadelphia's Lydia Darragh, America's first female undertaker, operated her business for almost a decade before the Revolutionary War began. During the war she was one of George Washington's most successful spies.

Hm, notice how Mr. Fleming cleverly leaves out things like the fact that women in many cases could not own property, could not enter many professions and did not have the right to vote until the early 20th century. 

And Mr. Fleming celebrates the middle class that existed in 1776,

But unlike most other countries, America in 1776 had a thriving middle class. Well-to-do farmers shipped tons of corn and wheat and rice to the West Indies and Europe, using the profits to send their children to private schools and buy their wives expensive gowns and carriages. Artisans—tailors, carpenters and other skilled workmen—also prospered, as did shop owners who dealt in a variety of goods

although his description of the middle class sounds an awful lot like an upper class. 

But the really striking thing about the article, which glorifies the great economic conditions of America at that time is the very convenient omission of one very critical point.  America at the time of the revolution had been a country with African slaves for over 150 years!  Part of the wealth of America, indeed in many ways a large part of the wealth and prosperity of America was the result of slavery and slave labor. 

Yes, America may have been relatively prosperous in 1776, and for people who write in the WSJ it is very convenient to leave out the fact that a country can have a rich and prosperous economy for some if a large part of the work force is composed of slaves.  As a noted historian Mr. Fleming is surely aware of this, and it is tragic that he did not take the opportunity to at least mention it in his WSJ piece.  But then, given the editorial ideology of the Journal, maybe that would have meant his piece would never see the pages of the WSJ editorial section.

1 comment:

  1. Fleming's most incendiary opinion: the Colonists revolted because "They concluded that the British were planning to tax the Americans into the kind of humiliation that Great Britain had inflicted on Ireland."

    Of course, this is right out of the Conservative playbook. Taxes are "humiliating", a taking of property by force, and fundamentally un-American. Taxes are evil.

    Yet as the DPE says, the Colonists did not fear taxation; they feared taxation without representation. That's why the Declaration of Independence includes "imposing Taxes upon us without our Consent" as a grievance, not "imposing humiliating taxes" or "taxing us too much." (Of further note, the line about taxes is the 16th item on the Declaration's list of grievances. A cursory reading of the other grievances shows that the "politically minded men" of the day had a lot more on their minds than taxes.)