Oracles of Empire: Poetry, Politics, and Commerce in British America, 1690-1750

Oracles of Empire: Poetry, Politics, and Commerce in British America, 1690-1750

by David S. Shields

This innovative look at previously neglected poetry in British America represents a major contribution to our understanding of early American culture. Spanning the period from the Glorious Revolution (1690) to the end of King George's War (1750), this study critically reconstitutes the literature of empire in the thirteen colonies, Canada, and the West Indies by

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This innovative look at previously neglected poetry in British America represents a major contribution to our understanding of early American culture. Spanning the period from the Glorious Revolution (1690) to the end of King George's War (1750), this study critically reconstitutes the literature of empire in the thirteen colonies, Canada, and the West Indies by investigating over 300 texts in mixed print and manuscript sources, including poems in pamphlets and newspapers.

British America's poetry of empire was dominated by three issues: mercantilism's promise that civilization and wealth would be transmitted from London to the provinces; the debate over the extent of metropolitan prerogatives in law and commerce when they obtruded upon provincial rights and interests; and the argument that Britain's imperium pelagi was an ethical empire, because it depended upon the morality of trade, while the empires of Spain and France were immoral empires because they were grounded upon conquest. In discussing these issues, Shields provides a virtual anthology of poems long lost to students of American literature.

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Oracles of Empire

Poetry, Politics, and Commerce in British America, 1690â"1750

By David S. Shields

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 1990 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-75299-0


The Literary Topology of Mercantilism

During the first decades of the seventeenth century, Spanish imperialists conceived and established national economic self-sufficiency—autarky—by organizing a global network of subordinate principalities, colonies, territories, and zones of domination. The desire for self-sufficiency arose from political ambitions of ancient vintage, a legacy of the great classical empires. The global economic modus was Spain's creation. Or perhaps it was an English innovation, for the first theoretician of autarky in Spain was the English mariner, Antony Sherly, whose Peso Político de Todo el Mundo (1622), addressed to the duke of Olivares, laid out on the widest possible canvas the method by which the resources of the world might be exploited to the benefit of Philip III's imperial dominion. Sherly's vision, composed out of practical considerations for the imposition of economic coherence upon the welter of territories that had fallen under Spanish sway, became, during the middle decades of the seventeenth century, the imperial program of his native country. There in a mutated form it became the doctrine of imperial administration called mercantilism.

Mercantilism was the economic policy that governed the commerce of the First British Empire, which unraveled with the American Revolution. This policy assumed an extensive protected market wherein the imperial center ("the metropolis") produced manufactured goods and exchanged them for raw resources to an ever-expanding network of trading outposts and colonies. Imperial projectors envisioned a global trading network producing limitless supplies of gold and silver. The Board of Trade in London administered the trade, restricting exchanges between colonies and foreign states, and between colony and colony. To compensate for the lack of free trade and the privilege granted the central metropolis, the mercantile scheme ensured a secure market for all goods produced in the provinces. To keep the system firmly in place, the British government inhibited the development of a manufacturing economy in the hinterlands.

Mercantilism came into being during the early seventeenth century less as a coherent economic ideology than as a concretion of ideas and practices. When discussed, it lent itself more readily to symbolic representation than to elucidation as a scheme of economic principles. Indeed it was only with Adam Smith's critique of mercantilism in The Wealth of Nations that a comprehensive, systematic account of mercantilism was assayed in economic terms. During the seventeenth century, poetry became an effective vehicle for popularizing the iconology of imperial trade. Animated by British patriotism, poets first employed mercantile images and themes during the Anglo-Dutch wars of the seventeenth century. Dryden perfected the mode in his poetry on the affairs of state. British American poets grasped its utility during the decade following the Glorious Revolution. By the 1720s its imagery dominated American verse about empire.

An iconology—a scheme of symbolism employed in literature and graphic arts—evolved to illustrate the mercantile program. A brief survey of mercantile topoi will introduce more detailed investigations of the imagery of British American empire.

We begin with the most potent and comprehensive image—the "empire of the seas." The doctrine of a maritime empire maintained by global control of the trading lanes derived from English musings on the rise of the Dutch to trading preeminence. Raleigh and John Smith both distilled lessons from the Dutch experience, which they then applied to their colonial ventures. Furthermore, Bacon explored the role of maritime dominion in the expansion of empire in his Advancement of Learning. Bacon argued that trade rather than territory constituted the more peaceful and economical way to national prosperity. Consequently, colonization efforts should be undertaken not to conquer territory from native populations (Bacon explicitly rejected the imperial projects of Spain in the New World and of Britain in northern Ireland), but to establish secure bases from which to dominate commerce with a people.

The notion that maritime dominion should be global came about largely as a result of the religious interpretation of the economy of providence. After the discovery of the New World, theologians speculated about God's intention in distributing commodities about the earth in such a way that no single country possessed a sufficiency of what it needed or desired. They concluded that commerce taught man his need for his fellow being. Anne Bradstreet stated the belief in the last of her meditations: "God hath by his prouidence so ordered, that no one Covntry hath all Commoditys within it self, but what it wants, another shall supply, that so there may be a mutuall Commerce through the world."

England asserted mastery over this commerce (thereby usurping God's intention) in the name of an atavistic ambition—a revival of the ancient urge to seize glory by world domination. Nursed by generations of classically educated enterprisers, the atavistic myth proclaimed London the New Rome and Britain's expanding territories the new Roman empire. Just as the old Roman imperium justified world dominion by promoting the benefits of the Pax Romana, the New Rome rationalized its empire of the seas by declaring the benefits of "the Arts of Peace" resulting from British superintendence of world trade.

Britain devised an elaborate apologetic for its mercantile empire. It promoted the benefit of British laws, much as the Romans did the imperium. It prophesied the rising glory of London (Augusta) and its provincial capitals in terms of both material wealth and aesthetic refinement; the prophetic myth is generally termed the translatio studii. It featured a comparison to demonstrate the ethical animus of Britain's empire: the morality of British trade was held up against the depravity of Spanish conquest, a depravity the conquistadors confessed in the Black Legend; or it was contrasted to the "Gallic perfidy" of France.

The mystique of British law suffused the rhetoric of mercantilism. This mystique manifested itself in the translatio libertatis, the myth of the westward spread of Britain's legal liberties. The legend found its quintessential expression in James Thomson's poem Liberty (1736), of which the American poet and imperial administrator, Dr. Thomas Dale, said, "I have seen some parts of Thompson's Liberty, I take him to be the Homer of our Island."

The legal mystique also found expression in the cult of the contract. The morality of British trade derived primarily from its grounding in contract. Over the course of the eighteenth century, imperial morality mutated as the understanding of the nature of the contract evolved. At first, North America's Indian tribes were envisioned as the superintendents of New World resources. The benefits of European civilization would be bestowed upon the Indians in return for the medicines, metals, and foodstuffs they controlled. As decades passed the contract altered, becoming an exchange of native land for cloth goods, metalwares, and alcohol. This mutation marked the shift away from a purely mercantile vision of empire to a mixed model in which expanding colonial bases consolidated ever-greater expanses of territory, obtained by purchase rather than by conquest. The colonies became Britain's primary partners in the trading contract, while the native populations became ancillary concerns. While many writers commented on this shift, Rev. William Smith in Indian Songs of Peace offered the most comprehensive literary exposition of the revised imperial program. Written instruments stood warrant over exchanges between the metropolis and both colonists and Indians, testifying to the autonomy of the trading partners; these were the provincial charters on one hand, and the Indian treaties on the other.

Entrepreneurs and poets imagined the global economy in terms of profusion. Common belief held that each land harbored a surplus of some commodity that could be exchanged. In promotional literature colonial territories invariably appeared as cornucopias of commodity or potential commodity. Indeed, this article of faith proved so potent that Rev. James Sterling of Maryland in his Epistle to Arthur Dobbs, the projector of the Northwest Passage, imagined the arctic wastes harboring marketable goods ripe for exploitation.

Say; Necessaries grow in steril Lands,
To answer simple Nature's prime Demands.
Ev'n there some Superfluities are made;
That Arts and Elegance may spring from Trade.

The poets of commerce conceived of a world blessed with a superfluity of products. Furthermore, as the implications of trade impressed themselves into poetic thought, they provided a new discursive dress for the ancient project of conceiving metamorphoses. The poets envisioned a world wherein the characteristic things and appearances of places had changed or been exchanged. Colonies, for example, were transformed from places of intrinsic value whose wealth was constituted in native resources (the presentation in exploratory literature) to regions capable of producing whichever of the world's consumer items suited the demand of the empire—silk, wine, coffee, tea, chocolate. The image of colonies as transmutable regions of exchange value (the locus of consumer wishes, if you will) prevailed during the heyday of mercantilism, the 1720s and 1730s, the era of "George's Peace." Invariably, however, the amorphous potentiality that the rhetoric of trade lent to the American colonies condensed into the reality of economic monocultures. In the southern colonies particularly the fantasies of cornucopia gave way to a literature reflecting the staple system—a discourse pervaded with the theme of production and the mystique of land. The economic necessity that forced the literature of commerce to change over the course of the colonial era was the shortage of labor.

From a global perspective one did not deem resources scarce or valuable. Labor and manufacture imbued commodities with value. In exchanges, therefore, manufactured goods were weighted more favorably than raw materials. Yet the scarcity of labor affected the New World side of trade more than it did the Old World. This scarcity led to the institution of chattel slavery and indentured servitude to stabilize a work force. Forced labor by unskilled workers demanded that tasks be simplified and rationalized. The constitution of the work force as much as the demand of the markets encouraged the adoption of the staple system of agriculture in the New World even before Cromwell legislated the mercantile system into being. The Acts upon Trade and Navigation were a ratification of a practice designed to secure the efficiency of trade in perpetuity. Yet the creation of effective staple economies did not occur until late in the imperial era—in the 1750s in the Carolinas and the 1760s in Georgia.

With Virgil's Georgics providing models and Dryden's translations supplying a language, British and British American poets in the 1750s began celebrating the creation of an agricultural civilization in the New World founded on the staple system: Charles Woodmason's "Indico" (1758), James Grainger's The Sugar-Cane (1764), and George Ogilvie's paean to rice culture, Carolina; or, The Planter (1776), documented the rise of the staple system. At the same time they spoke to the moral dilemma of mercantilism: that its empire of trade had resorted to trafficking in souls to increase Augusta's wealth and render her colonies profitable.

Besides the specter of slavery, the imperial contract was haunted by the phantom of luxury. As the wealth of Augusta increased, theory held that the brokers of empire fell increasingly under the sway of decadence. Wealth corrupted. Leisure nurtured debility. The fulfillment of material ambitions only gave rise to further ambitions, until all sense of proportion was subverted by an avaricious hunger for gain. In the colonies, too, the dangers of luxury obtruded. As the benefits of trade made the provincial capitals great, the cities became morally imperiled. George Herbert in his apocalyptic prophecy, "The Church Militant," supplied the dialectics of the translatio imperii a half-century before luxury began to touch British America in any significant way. When slavery and luxury combined, the danger of moral corruption became peculiarly intense. Thus Charleston, the West Indies, and the Chesapeake region assumed dire significance in the geography of imperial morality.

As a counterweight to the peril of luxury, mercantilism embraced the cult of virtue. The roots of this cult took hold in the fertile ground of Reformed Christian piety—the famous "protestant ethic." Yet a thoroughly secularized version of the cult of virtue, bolstered by the "pagan moralists," had been elaborated by the 1720s. A factor's reputation for trustworthiness was counted to his credit. Industry, frugality, timeliness, enterprise, and all the other qualities Franklin recommended in his "Advice to a Young Tradesman" became the fruit of moral probity.

As an adjunct to the cult of virtue there developed a rhetoric of worthy authority. Generated during the Glorious Revolution around William and Mary and developed into the Augustan myth applied to the House of Hanover, it insisted that monarchial adherence to the protestant faith stood proof of a monarch's justice. Because colonial charters were issued by the authority of the crown, and because the empire's sole constitutional consistency lay in crown authority, the image of worthy authority assumed peculiar prominence in British America. It would lead to odd expressions of loyalty in unexpected places, such as the pious Roger Wolcott's panegyric to dissolute Charles II for issuing the charter of Connecticut to John Winthrop II.

A subsidiary development in the rhetoric of worthy authority was the creation of cults of personality around William Penn and James Oglethorpe, the two persons most concerned in the expansion of British America subsequent to the Glorious Revolution. The eighteenth-century vision of "the ethical empire" owed much to the propaganda surrounding the creation of Pennsylvania and Georgia. A shared distinctive feature of both schemes had been the philanthropic invitation to European refugees of religious oppression, English debtors, and sturdy beggars to find economic redemption in the New World. The correlation of authority and philanthropy remained a feature of the mercantile thinking until it was eclipsed by the military hero-worship of the Seven Years' War.

The culminating topos of the mercantilist program was the notion of America's moral compensation for its undeveloped state. The wealth and economic privilege of England's manufacturing centers would not be the New World's, but in its place would be the greater simplicity, happiness, and virtue of American life. The life of agricultural production ensured the superior morality of Americans, because it put them in immediate contact with the supreme "source and monitor" of morality, Nature.

Mercantilism enjoyed a lifespan of approximately a century, from 1650 to 1750, before its internal contradictions and the force of circumstance caused it to succumb. The most troublesome of the contradictions for British Americans was that posed by the privilege of the imperial center in trade, for this ran counter to the promise of equitability extended by all contracts. In practice, the London factors proved fickle purchasers of staple goods; the prices for commodities were surprisingly volatile. American producers and merchants advocated free trade and the abolition of metropolitan privilege with increasing vehemence over the eighteenth century. London resisted any alteration of the imperial arrangement, so the Americans increasingly ignored the legal requirements. They became smugglers.


Excerpted from Oracles of Empire by David S. Shields. Copyright © 1990 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

David S. Shields is associate professor of English at the Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina.

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