In which we see that it's one thing to win one’s independence militarily, and another thing to keep one’s independence financially.
All right, kids: so the Revolution is over. What happens now?
—Isn’t that something you’re supposed to tell us?
— You’re the teacher, aren’t you?
Is that my job, Emily? To tell you what happens?
—What do you think your job is? Tell me that, Mr. ask-all-the-questions.
My job is to help you figure out what happened. By which I mean help you figure out. Help you figure out. Help you figure it out.
—What are we supposed to do? Guess?
—Oh c’mon. You can be so frustrating, Mr. K.
Well, that’s part of the job, too: to frustrate your desire for easy answers. Right now I’m less interested in giving you information (though I will do that eventually) than asking you to think. It’s 1784 now. The Revolution has ended. So, yes, Emily, I’d like at least one of you to take a guess: what do you imagine is going on in the country? What kinds of issues do you think the American people are dealing with?
—They’re probably wondering what they’re going to eat for breakfast.
Well, yes, Ethan, they probably are. And where to you think that breakfast is going to come from?
Well, McDonald’s farm, maybe. Because virtually all breakfasts are coming from farms. That’s what virtually everybody does for a living. But it’s not easy. Why not? What are some of the issues the country is dealing with?
—Money. That’s always an issue, right?
Yes, Kylie. That’s true. But how is it an issue?
—Well, there’s never enough of it, right?
Yes. But why not?
Yes. Debt to who?
—Not the British! They just fought the British!
Actually, Kylie is right, Ethan. For one thing, under the terms of the Treaty of Paris, the Americans are supposed to pay back the property of the Tories that they confiscated. For another, the Brits are kinda the only game in town. They’ve got the big banks that have been loaning lots of money—and charging lots of interest. And they’re the ones who are exporting any number of items (like tea, remember?) that Americans love to buy. But you’re also right, Ethan, in that the Americans owe other people, too. Like the Dutch. Who came through with a big loan during the Revolution that the U.S. government now has to pay back. So money is indeed an issue. What else is?
—Wait. Before you get to that. You’re telling me that Old McDonald on his farm is worried about how he’s going to pay back his loan to Great Britain while he’s eating his breakfast?
Doesn’t sound so plausible when you put it that way, Ethan, I admit. Actually, if you’re a rich planter like George Washington, that’s exactly what you’re thinking about. Well, no—not George Washington. Washington has actually worked very hard to break his dependence on the banks by redirecting his Mount Vernon estate away from export commodity crops like tobacco and making it more self-sufficient. Thomas Jefferson, yes. He was chronically in debt. Too much the shopper. Wine and books. An absolute addict. It’s true that most people aren’t thinking about the problem in quite this way. But the people who govern ordinary people, or the people who own them, are worried about such matters, and are coming up with strategies like taxes to deal with the financial problems the war has caused, so in one way or another it really does filter down to a lot of peoples’ breakfasts.
—How does any of this matter to a slave?
Well, Brianna, it may affect what kind of work a slave does, and if and when she gets sold. Let’s go back to Washington for a second. He had hoped to make Mount Vernon viable without slave labor. He was told by his managers he couldn’t do it—it wouldn’t work financially, and his peers would be very angry.
—Why would they care?
Because it would create peer pressure on them to free their slaves. And because having free black people around would make it harder to manage slavery, which is why most people who were freed were ordered to leave slave states. In the face of this resistance, Washington remained a slaveholder to the end of his life, after which he freed his slaves (actually they were to be freed after his wife’s death, but she freed them before that). In the meantime, he decided he would not sell a slave without that slave’s permission. They tended to stick around. Washington managed his financial affairs well. Jefferson did not. Jefferson’s slaves were never freed.
I’m straying a little bit from the topic at hand, though. Again, the debt issue was personal. But it was also a matter of public concern. And just as different individuals managed their affairs more and less well, so did different states. The state of Virginia, for example, didn’t have much debt. Connecticut did. Why do you think that would matter?
—Because they would have different ideas about what they needed to do.
Right. And how many states were there, Sadie?
Which meant how many different state governments?
—Yeah, but there was one big government, right? The United States government.
Yes, Jonah, that’s true. But the federal government wasn’t that powerful. The states were jealous of their powers. This is reflected in the way people talked: they said, “the United States are,” not “the United States is.”
—The United States are a nice place to visit.
—Lots of things sound weird to Sadie.
—That’s because lots of things are weird. Like you, Ethan.
—Mr, K., Sadie is objectifying me! She called me a “thing!”
—Obviously that’s because she’s secretly in love with you.
I can see you’re crushed by Sadie’s objectification, Ethan. Lets keep our eye on the ball, kids. The point is that having thirteen separate governments made it hard to do pretty much anything: pay back debts, conduct foreign policy, order a pizza.
—I can see it now: I’d like an “American”: Pepperoni, peppers and anchovies.
—I hate peppers!
—What’s wrong with peppers?
—What’s “American” about pepperoni?
I guess I asked for this with the pizza reference. But you are illustrating my point. It was very difficult to coordinate just about anything when you needed thirteen different parties to agree.
—Was there anything they actually could agree on?
Well, there were a few things, Yin. We’ll get to them. And why there weren’t enough them.
Next: Rebelling against the Revolution