The founding conservatives: how a group of unsung heroes saved the American Revolution

By David Lefer , written on June 22, 2013

From The News Desk

On a warm day in late summer, the delegates of the Constitutional Convention sat by the banks of the Delaware River to witness America’s future. They had yet to resolve some of the most contentious political questions facing them -- the judiciary, the presidency, and slavery -- but the fresh air and festive occasion were a welcome respite from the tense, sweltering atmosphere inside the State House. As they picnicked on meat pies and watermelon slices, the delegates beheld a rumbling twelve-oared machine bobbing in the water before them. It was a steamship, one of America’s first technological innovations, and John Fitch, a war veteran, frontiersman, and silversmith, had come to Philadelphia to demonstrate his invention. The former lieutenant hoped to persuade the delegates to include some form of intellectual property protection in the Constitution. He also wanted to raise capital.

Crowds of onlookers erupted in cheers as Fitch shoved off from the Front Street Wharf and began chuffing against the current. His paddles, modeled after the Indian war canoes that had ambushed him in the Ohio River Valley, rose and fell at each turn of the axletree, propelling his forty-five-foot skiff at nearly three miles an hour. Black smoke belched from the boat’s chimney, the first industrial pollution the city had ever seen. It has never been established exactly how many of the delegates attended the demonstration, but likely it was a majority. “There was very few of the convention, but called to see it,” Fitch noted in his diary. Several reportedly took turns riding the rattletrap vessel, and James Wilson surely took special interest in this show of technological ingenuity. He was a part owner of Fitch’s company and one of three delegates who had begun investing in industrial manufacturing.

The delegates were impressed by the power of Fitch’s device. America was a land of swift, expansive rivers and would soon have need of such devices to conquer the interior of the continent. The day after Fitch’s demonstration, the Connecticut delegate William Samuel Johnson wrote to present “his compliments to Mr. Fitch.” Assuring “him that the exhibit yesterday gave the gentlemen much satisfaction.” Johnson promised that he “and no doubt other gentlemen will always be happy to give him every countenance and encouragement in their power which his industry and ingenuity entitles him to.”

Fitch’s timing could not have been better. Only four days before his demonstration, the convention had begun discussing the intellectual property clause. How much Fitch influenced the wording of the Constitution is uncertain, but there is no doubt many of the delegates had already begun debating the rapid advance of technology and manufacturing. Fitch’s invention was a vivid reminder that the document they were fashioning had to address America’s changing economic landscape, as well as its governmental framework.

Nobody articulated the importance of these changes better than Tench Coxe, a 31-year-old Philadelphia merchant who had served as secretary to the Annapolis convention the year before. One of the most astute men of the founding generation, Coxe was a self-educated economist. For years he had collected and combed economic data, teasing out trends that pointed ineluctably toward the growth of machine technology. Only by balancing agriculture with industrialization, Coxe argued, would the nation’s economy grow and a “more exalted state of civil society” be attained. He was convinced that only Congress could help American manufacturing flourish, especially in the face of European competition.

Though not a delegate himself, Coxe was determined to influence the framing of the Constitution. On May 11, as the representatives were trickling into Philadelphia, he addressed the Society for Political Enquiries at Benjamin Franklin’s home. The society’s fifty-odd members listened enthusiastically to his speech, “An enquiry into the principles, on which a commercial system for the United States of America should be founded... [and] some political observations connected with the subject.” Afterward Coxe had it published and “inscribed to the members of the convention.”

One of Coxe’s gifts was his ability to appeal to both sides of the political spectrum. His positions on industrialization were fundamentally conservative, but by couching his thoughts in the rhetoric of republicanism, even agrarians like Jefferson and Madison gravitated toward his ideas. Side by side, agriculture and industry would make America strong.

If the United States were ever to become independent of Europe, Coxe argued, it was vital to develop machines that “by wind and water” created “pig and bar iron, nail rods, tire, sheet-iron, sheet-copper, sheet-brass, anchors, metal of all kinds,” and not least, “gunpowder.” New innovations needed to be encouraged. Some Americans were already inventing powerful new technologies. At the same moment Coxe was addressing Philadelphia’s leading citizens, Oliver Evans, a self-taught Delaware farmer, was building the world’s first automatic production line at his water mill. Like Coxe, Evans was a “visionary enthusiastic,” imagining within his lifetime steamships plying the nation’s waterways and overland steam engines carrying passengers between Philadelphia and Boston in a single day.

Among those most caught up in Coxe’s mesmerizing vision was James Madison. In August he and Charles Pinckney of South Carolina rose before the convention to propose turning Coxe’s ideas into law. Under the constitution, Congress would be empowered to issue patents, reward technological advancements, and promote “commerce, trades, and manufactures.”

Conservatives fully supported such measures and lobbied for more. As they saw it, the Constitution would not only ensure social stability but also nurture and safeguard American business interests, a crucial first step for turning the nation into the financial and industrial powerhouse they had long envisioned. For American conservatives, business and politics were often intertwined. There was no guarantee their plans would succeed, however. With debate turning back to more controversial political issues, the convention now threatened to splinter apart. Should that happen, they knew, the United States likely would too.

[Excerpted from David Lefer's The Founding Conservatives: How a Group of Unsung Heroes Saved the American Revolution:]

[Image Source: Wikimedia]