Newsletter #50: The Economics of the American Revolution, with William Hogeland

By Mack Penner

In his interview with Dig guest host Astra Taylor, William Hogeland makes the case that the American founding and its associated conflicts were grounded in the economic problems and class alignments of the day. From this premise, we can see the early history of the United States from perspectives that, in mainstream accounts, can be difficult to access. Over the course of the interview, the case for a class-based analysis of the founding is drawn in contrast with naïve, overly individualized accounts that, especially in the age of Hamilton: An American Musical, are all around us.

The revolutionary-era conflicts that Hogeland narrates did not just set future political-economic trajectories. They also occurred alongside rapid economic change in America. The historian Allan Greer, for example, notes that there were three key ways the revolutionary era marked an economic upheaval, especially with regard to property. For Greer, the late eighteenth century saw major intensification of indigenous dispossession, the rapid formation of a real estate market in land (“making land a fungible asset as never before”), and the arrival of an “ideology of private ownership” with a firm grip on the American political imagination.

The American Revolution unfettered settler economic power. During the Revolution, westward migration and land settlement reached heights not seen before. This was no coincidence. As Greer puts it, the intensification of these dynamics was “partly due to the progress of white male democracy, which transferred political power into the hands of settlers and speculators.” In other words, the political and economic power over which Hogeland’s subjects fought in places like Pennsylvania was, in part, the power of dispossession and further settlement. Greer quotes the historian Stuart Banner, who observed that as the revolutionary war drew on, “the conquest of Indian land came to be a primary reason for fighting.” Defeating the British meant paving the way for dispossession on American terms.

Listen to this week’s episode of The Dig here.

Where the British had been inclined to dispossess indigenous land in a formalized way, featuring ostensibly voluntary treaties, the revolutionary United States sought a more straightforward mechanism: just buy it. The doctrine of “preemption” gave the national government the exclusive right to acquire indigenous land by purchase. In a point that jibes with Hogeland’s analysis, Greer suggests that the class interests of the Founding Fathers played a role in this development, even if the urgent fiscal requirements of the new republic were the more significant force. Of course, land could not always be straightforwardly bought, and as a result, violence lubricated this colonial commerce at every turn.

As we gauge the meaning of revolutionary-era debates and clashes in the youthful United States, remember that the intensity of those debates was partly because their outcomes rendered advantage in settler-colonial developments that established what Greer calls a “pecuniary interest in genocide.”

Further Reading and Listening

Allan Greer’s book is Property and Dispossession: Natives, Empires, and Land in Early Modern North America. It’s a great book — and far from the only great book that Greer has published over the years.

If you want to follow the threads of this newsletter further west and into the nineteenth century, read William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West. It’s one of the best history books I’ve ever read.

In The Dig’s archive, check out Dan’s interview with Paul Frymer from 2018. Both topically and in the spirit of doing history in a way that knocks down common assumptions and interrogates inherited narratives, it is a fine complement to Hogeland’s interview.