economic history

New Article, New Project: The Articles of Confederation

Articles of ConfederationThe editors of the Journal of Early American History have published my article "Trade, Diplomacy, and American Independence: Cuyler, Gansevoort & Co. and the Business of Trade During the Confederation Era" in their latest edition. I came across the papers of Cuyler, Gansevoort & Co. during my volunteer work at the Albany Institute of History and Art. In exchange for building a finding aid for the Ten Eyck/Gansevoort Papers (MG2), I had the opportunity to be the first scholar to look at the collection. I had hoped that the papers would contain information for my book project AMERICA'S FIRST GATEWAY: ALBANY, NEW YORK AND THE MAKING OF AMERICA, 1614-1830. Instead, the collection led me to my second book project: The Articles of Confederation.

The Ten Eyck/Gansevoort collection contains many of the papers from Cuyler, Gansevoort & Co., an import-export firm that conducted business during the Confederation Era. The correspondence between Jacob Cuyler, Leonard Gansevoort, and their trading partners reveal the hope and perils of conducting domestic and foreign trade during the first years of American independence.

The idea for my second book project came as I wrote the historiography section, which I opted to place toward the end of the article as not to breakup the story of Cuyler, Gansevoort & Co. Few books discuss the Articles of Confederation on its own terms. Merrill Jensen wrote two books on the subject between 1940 and 1950. Since Jensen's work, scholars who discuss or investigate the Articles look upon the government as a stepping stone to the Constitution of 1787.

My future book will not claim the Articles of Confederation as a successful government. My article below uses a case study to discuss the diplomatic and economic weaknesses of the government. Instead, my book on the Articles will investigate the government and its making within the context of the American Revolution. I am sure it will take great interest in the regional debates surrounding the formation of the government because I am fascinated by the diversity of American culture and how the United States functions despite Americans' cultural differences.



Finding Your Next Book or Where Do Ideas Come From?

ideabulb.gifWhere do book ideas come from? As a first and second year graduate student, I was obsessed with this question. I spent an inordinate amount of time wondering how my professors came up with great article, book, and dissertation topics.

On numerous occasions I asked them where they got their ideas and they all replied: "you read.”

Needless to say, their answer left me unsatisfied. I felt like I read a lot, but no fantastic ideas seemed to come to me.

Still, I accepted their answer and moved my mental energies on to research papers, exams, and my dissertation.

In this post, you will discover how I finally began stumbling upon ideas and how my second journal article topic has turned into my second book topic.

Spoiler Alert: I came to my newfound ideas by reading.


Cuyler, Gansevoort & Co.

I volunteered at the Albany Institute of History and Art during my last few years of dissertation work. I spent my time in the library where I answered visitor/researcher questions and created finding aids for collections.

Leonard Gansevoort

One of the collections I created a finding aid for had never been used by another scholar. (Exciting, I know!) The collection had come from an old Albany family who had moved to the island of St. Croix. The papers had been mouldering in an attic and contained family and business papers and correspondence from the Ten Eyck family. I found the correspondence of Cuyler, Gansevoort & Co among these papers.

Cuyler, Gansevoort & Co. opened a mercantile firm in Albany in 1783. It comprised a partnership between Jacob Cuyler and his brother-in-law Leonard Gansevoort. The firm exported New York lumber, ashes, and naval stores and imported West Indian produce. They sold their imports wholesale to country traders.

Cuyler, Gansevoort & Co. experienced many problems. They couldn’t collect debts—foreign or domestic—and they experienced difficulties accessing and prospering in the Atlantic marketplace.

These merchants' letters fascinated me, but I could not fit the story they told into my dissertation. Unable to let the story of Cuyler, Gansevoort & Co. rest, I wrote a conference paper for the American Historical Association annual meeting (2013) and then turned my paper into a journal article.

The article, “Trade, Diplomacy, and the Consequences of American Independence: Cuyler, Gansevoort & Co. and the Business of Trade During the Confederation Era” will appear in the July 2015 issue of The Journal of Early American History.


Confederation Period Vexations

Turning my conference paper into an article did not prove to be an easy feat. The letters I found clearly depicted the trials and tribulations American merchants experienced during the Confederation Era, but I had a hard time locating secondary sources that could help me contextualize my story.

Nearly all of the available literature on early American history covers the colonial period, the American Revolution, and then fast-forwards from the Revolution to the new nation under the Constitution of 1787.

Articles_of_Confederation_13c_1977_issueThere is a dearth of information about American life and the economy of the new United States between 1783 and the mid-1790s.

There is also a gap in the literature about American government under the Articles of Confederation.

If scholars mention or discuss the Articles of Confederation at all, they do so because they see it as a steppingstone to the Constitution. This interpretation bothers me. The framing of the Constitution was not inevitable.

When the Continental Congress drafted the Articles of Confederation in 1777 and the states ratified them in 1781, Americans did not know that they would write the U.S. Constitution in 1787.

It took a lot of hand wringing and “Why hasn’t anyone written about this?!” screams inside my head before I recognized that I hadn’t just stumbled upon a hole in the historiography, I had found a chasm.

As I polished my article, I realized that my brain isn't going to let me leave this topic alone: It wants to help close this historiographical fissure.

My next book project will be on the Articles of Confederation.

It will be the first book to seriously look at the United States’ first government since Merrill Jensen’s [simpleazon-link asin="0299002047" locale="us"]The Articles of Confederation: An Interpretation of the Social-Constitutional History of the American Revolution, 1774-1781[/simpleazon-link] (1940) and [simpleazon-link asin="0930350146" locale="us"]The New Nation: A History of the United States During the Confederation, 1781-1789[/simpleazon-link] (1950).


Finding Your Next Book Project

It took me five or six years to realize that my professors had been right: You get new project ideas by reading. As you read primary and secondary source documents and become more well-versed in a particular period of historic study you realize what makes an interesting story and where opportunities to contribute to the literature exist.

Honestly, I thought my second book project would be about one of the other four or five other ideas that I have written down over the last few years. All of my ideas have come from primary sources and my inability to contextualize them with the existing secondary source literature.

I am excited about my next book project and I am champing at the bit to continue the work I began with my article. However, before I can start my second book, I really need to finish my first one.

I am using my desire to get back into the archives and investigate a new aspect of the American Revolution as motivation to finish AMERICA’S FIRST GATEWAY.

Until I finish, Merrill Jensen’s books will continue to “burn holes" in my desk.

Book Burning a Hole in Desk

Share Your Story

Have you found reading the best way to come up with new research project ideas? Has some other activity inspired you?


Rethinking French and Indian War Profits

Albany-map-1758-1050x700How much money did the merchants of Albany, New York realize from the French and Indian War? In this post you will discover the exciting new information I found during a recent research trip to the American Antiquarian Society and why I am rethinking French and Indian War profits.


Charges of Great Profits

New England merchants and soldiers, New York City merchants, and traders from abroad complained that the merchants of Albany had discriminated against them during the French and Indian War (1754-1763).

They charged the Albanians with excessive taxation and with creating an unwelcome environment. They also claimed that the merchants of Albany had reaped great profits from the war.

Secondary sources about the war contextualize and moderate these assertions. The secondary sources claim that the profits of the war began in London and trickled down to merchants in major American seaports like Boston, Philadelphia, and New York City before they reached inland cities like Albany.


The Business of Military Supply

The War Department requisitioned supplies and contracted with large London mercantile firms to provide them. In turn, the London firms engaged large American houses, like those owned by the DeLanceys of New York City and the Franks of Philadelphia, to receive, acquire, and disperse those provisions.


Often provisions contracts between London merchants and large American firms charged American merchants with acquiring perishable foodstuffs closer to the front. Sometimes the American firms engaged trusted contacts in settlements closer to the front lines to fulfill their agreements for perishables and to deliver London-sent goods to locally stationed commissaries. More often, they sent factors (usually junior partners) inland to facilitate their military contracts.

John Bradstreet 1764Available records make it impossible to quantify how much profit Albany merchants made during the French and Indian War.

Scattered documents show goods that some Albany merchants imported during the war. They also provide a glimpse of how much money the British Army spent in Albany to hire laborers, build bateaus, and provide other services. For example, in 1758, John Bradstreet needed 1,500 bateaus for the campaign against Ticonderoga. He infused £19,251:15:1/2 into the Albany economy by purchasing lumber, naval stores, and labor to build them.


How Much Did Albany Merchants Profit from the War?

Although available documents make it impossible to quantify how much Albanian merchants profited from the war, I have never doubted that some of them must have made a fortune.

However, a recent research trip to the American Antiquarian Society has prompted me to rethink my assumption. My trip to the AAS put me into contact with the letterbooks of Cornelis Cuyler, one of Albany’s wealthiest merchants.

Cornelis Cuyler made his money the old-fashioned way: inheritance, marriage, and business.

The eldest surviving son of Johannes Cuyler and Elsie Ten Broeck, Cuyler inherited both the family fur trade business and the elite status that came with the “ancient” Albany-based names of Cuyler and Ten Broeck. He became a third-generation fur trader, a trade that required him to interact with Mohawk and other Haudenosaunee or Iroquois peoples and travel into “Indian Country.”

Plan of Ft William HenryCuyler’s efforts and keen sense of the trade enhanced the family business and wealth, as did his marriage to Catharina Schuyler, the youngest daughter of Albany Mayor Johannes Schuyler and Elsie Staats Wendell Schuyler. (Schuyler, Wendell, and Staats are also surnames that belonged to elite Albany families.)

Cuyler’s letterbooks provide ample evidence that he understood the fur trade and how to leverage his familial connections to trade in Albany and abroad; Cuyler knew how to buy (or trade) for furs, where and when to sell those furs (London or Amsterdam), and how to use the proceeds to purchase English and Dutch manufactured goods, or goods from the West Indies, who to contact to smuggle the Dutch goods into New York, and how to sell them at a profit in Albany.

Cuyler's letterbooks reveal that knowledgeable and established Albany merchants profited early in the war, but not after 1756.

In 1755, Cuyler purchased £100* worth of textiles, clothing, and metal goods to sell to British soldiers, colonial militiamen, or for use in the fur trade. Additionally, Cuyler discussed how he provisioned sick and wounded soldiers at Lake George, advanced money to representatives from various colonial war committees, and rented property to an out-of-town commissary.

Fort FrederickI have not been able to locate Cuyler’s account books, but his letters show someone with few complaints until April 1757.

On April 7, 1757, Cuyler wrote to his relative and factor in Boston, Jacob Wendell, “Every thing here is @ Present Stagnated.”

On the same day, he wrote to his eldest son Philip in New York City, “Everything here is Stagnated with us” and that all of the profit went “to the People from New York” who “Supplys the Regulars Troups.” Cuyler commented on the unfairness of the situation: the merchants of New York City made all the money “& we have all the Burdon. I have at present 6 men & an Officer Billeted upon me that is Besides the Officers Servant.”

Cuyler’s letters reflect frustration at the military supply system. Unable to make money in military supply, Cuyler and his son invested in risky privateering ventures. Cuyler disliked the risk associated with privateering, but he invested in one or two ships anyway; he held a 1/16th share of one privateer.



Cornelis Cuyler’s letterbooks provide evidence that the people of Albany profited from the war, but not necessarily to the extent that the accounts of New England and foreign merchants have led us to believe.

Albany merchants who wanted to get rich from the war invested in risky schemes like privateering because partnerships with New York City firms did not always work out.

Cuyler’s letters indicate that more often than not New York City merchants like the DeLanceys removed Albany merchants from the profit chain. They hired New York City men or sent their sons to handle the supply contracts.

Cuyler’s letterbooks represent just one source. I plan to look for others, but few account and letterbooks from Albany during the French and Indian War period remain thanks to time and the New York Capitol fire of 1911.

Still, Cuyler’s letters provide insight into why the Albanians resorted to enforcing the ancient practice of “freedoms” (a license that all persons not born in Albany had to purchase in order to conduct trade in the city) and why they petitioned the New York Assembly, Governor, and Council to enact a law that would permit them to tax transient merchants. (The New York Assembly, Governor, and Council passed the requested law.)

Cuyler's letterbooks also suggest that the Albanians guarded their chances to profit because the trials and tribulations brought on by living in close proximity to British Regulars year-round caused many Albanians to feel entitled when it came to profiting from the war. Any profits the Albanians earned came at the price of hosting and housing the British Army.

* relates that £100 sterling in 1755 was worth approximately $13,500 in 2013.

Drawing of Fort Frederick courtesy of the Albany Institute of History & Art



Why Colonial America Suffered from a Currency Shortage

While reading up on the economy of colonial America, I finally discovered why the American colonies suffered from a specie or currency shortage. (Something I had always wondered about, but lacked the time to research.) The English government banned the exportation of its sterling coins to the colonies. The Crown prohibited exportation of its coin because in addition to subscribing to the mercantilist idea that colonies should send wealth too their mother country, not vice versa, the English economy experienced periods of inadequate coin. (The Bank of England helped to rectify this problem after its firm establishment in 1715.)

Economic historians attribute the English currency shortage to two causes:

Ship1. Culturally, the English people valued gold more than silver and as a result English merchants seized every opportunity to trade away silver coins to countries with higher silver exchange rates. Although the trade in silver increased merchants' buying power, it also removed most of the nation's small coin from circulation. This proved to be a major problem. England had plenty of gold coins in circulation, but most English people could only afford to use silver coins. Therefore, the English government banned the exportation of sterling coins to its colonies, in part, because it needed to keep small coins in circulation at home.

Hammered-coins-300x1722. Prior to 1695, the English economy suffered from a debased silver currency. Two kinds of silver coin circulated in the seventeenth-century English marketplace: hammered and milled. English Treasury employees minted hammered coins by hammering the treasury’s official die (usually a depiction of the reigning monarch) into a sheet of silver. As a result, these coins tended to be thin, irregular in shape, and have a good sized blank border around the imprinted design. The English people preferred hammered coins because they could "clip" the metal around the coin's irregular edges anytime they needed to make change; both the coins and their “clippings” served as legal tender. “Clipping” caused the coins to lose weight and therefore their face value. As a result, the English people valued the coins by measured weight, or tale, instead of their minted value.

King-Charles-ShillingThe Treasury tried to stop "clipping" by introducing milled coins, which received their design from a mechanical press. Aside from manufacturing thick coins with a high relief design, the press also produced uniformly circular-shaped coins because it cut-off the excess metal around the coin’s design. This mechanized cut left a milled, or reeding, pattern around the coin's exterior edge. The coin’s thickness and its patterned edge prevented people from tampering with the metal content of the coin. As coin "clippings" enabled people to make exact change, the English disliked milled coins because they could not be clipped. Of course, merchants preferred the milled coins for their export trade.

Until the Crown sorted out its home currency problems, it could not deal with those of its colonial economies.