Chair's Message

Light From a Black Hole

At our December meeting, Richard Buel Jr., author of In Irons, Britain's Naval Supremacy and America's Revolutionary Economy, charmed Round Tablers with his candor while fascinating us with his erudition. He called his subject an historical ``black hole'' -- something very much like its outer space counterpart -- invisible, impenetrable, but nonetheless there. The problem was not only the the near evaporation of the American economy from 1775-1783 but also the disappearance of any data for these crucial years.

For a decade and a half, Buel searched in England and America, turning up rare and often muddled records, such as the account books of a miller on the Brandy wine. But he gradually pieced together a portrait of an economy in agony, shrinking under the impact of the British blockade to barely thirty percent of its prewar size. Congress, with no power to tax or regulate, was unable to replace the colonial economy, which relied on exporting surplus grain and corn to purchase imported goods, with a national economy. The result was a margin of victory that was horrendously ``thin.''

Improbable partial rescuers were the French expeditionary force under Rochambeau, which paid hard money for the food it consumed, and the Spanish decision to allow Americans to ship grain to hungry Cubans. This sparked an economic revival of sorts in 1781-2. But there was still not enough money to pay both the soldiers and the contractors who fed them. Guess who got paid first?

It was fascinating to hear a distinguished scholar explaining his sources and conclusions about a topic that has been so little understood -- and yet was vastly important to the outcome of the Revolution. Round Tablers went away enlightened -- and perhaps a little sobered by the grim details of the war that was fought inside Dick Buel's black hole.

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    Dave Jacobs