In Irons: Britain’s Naval Supremacy and the American Revolutionary Economy, by Richard Buel, Jr., Yale University Press, $35.
Richard Buel’s painstakingly researched, fact-based analysis portrays how extremely narrow America’s victory was in its struggle for independence. The title, In Irons, refers to a nautical term meaning a wind-stalled sailing craft, a metaphor for the American economy after the British blockade had settled in on the rebellious colonies. The reader comes away with several strong impressions: the effectiveness of the Royal Navy’s performance during the war, the weakness of the American forces fighting for independence, and the vital importance of the French to the war’s eventual outcome.
While the Royal Navy’s blockade never completely shut down American trade, it was sufficient to bring the U.S. economy to its knees. At some stages of the war, the British had reduced American maritime shipping to roughly 20 percent of its prewar traffic. This drastic reduction would not have been so critical had it not been for the trade items that the Founding Fathers needed to carry on their fight. George Washington’s army could count on few supplies of salt, medicine, textiles, gunpowder, or arms that were not imported. Certainly there was some domestic production of all these items, but the author details a convincing story of a terribly disjointed and contentious relationship between Congress and the states as well as a chaotic and sometimes nonexistent finance and supply system.
Buel cites numerous examples of internal American resistance to the revolutionaries and the steady collapse of the United States economy from 1776 until the spring of 1780. While the Royal Navy was not seizing American shipping, Loyalist American privateers were disrupting the few shippers risking the blockade in an increasingly desperate attempt to support Washington’s army and supply population centers standing for independence. Simultaneously, hard currency all but disappeared and a barter economy emerged. While this system allowed for a rudimentary form of commerce, it prevented the implementation of a system of taxation necessary to support an army.
But the Revolution was saved by France–barely–and in more ways than one. The brilliant 1781 defeat of the Royal Navy off the Virginia coast and the successful siege of Lord Charles Cornwallis’ forces at Yorktown were not the only reasons for victory. The book shows the American economy, particularly that of New England and the middle Atlantic region, began to recover in the summer of 1780. Buel explains this phenomenon and the French contribution, namely expanding credit and bringing hard currency to America in the form of their soldiers’ pay.
Ultimately, America’s survival may have had as much to do with some French soldiers who had money to burn as with the bravery of embattled Patriots.