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The Fifth Biennial Colloquium: Money, Power, and Print: Interdisciplinary Studies on the Financial Revolution in the British Isles, 1688-1776

 

We gathered in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in mid-June—as always, we managed to ensure there was a major international soccer competition on TV to help keep some of us focused on getting the sessions done on time—and we convened in one of the casemates on the north side of the Citadel, once the bastion of British military power in maritime Canada. It all felt very eighteenth century, albeit that the structure is essentially nineteenth century in origin.

                We kept, by and large, to the tried and true format of the previous four meetings, but this time we had decided on fewer papers and so had more time to discuss each of them.  One goal of MPP from its inception, a goal not always as well met as we might have hoped, has been to remind participants that the debates we discuss took place in a context broader than most of us have time to address in its entirety. And so this time we began, after the opening formalities, with a discussion of Alexander Pope’s “Of the use of riches: an epistle to the Right Honorable Allen Lord Bathurst,” (London, 1732[/33]) and John Gay’s “A panegyrical epistle to Mr. Thomas Snow, Goldsmith, near Temple-Barr: Occasion'd by his Buying and Selling of the Third Subscriptions, taken in by the Directors of the South-Sea Company, at a Thousand per Cent” (London, 1721), a discussion in which we were introduced to the idea of thinking about the meter and cadence by listening to some reggae. We were reminded that there was a time when iambic pentameter and heroic couplets were an integral part of any educated person’s core vocabulary.It’s not necessarily that we might wish to return to those days; but we should bear in mind that what we need today to explain might once have been taken for granted, and vice versa.  The question of one participant to the suggestion that the opening discussion might look at how heroic couplets were deployed in early C18th literary convention—what’s a heroic couplet?—served as an initial reminder that genuine interdisciplinary conversation requires as much thought about what others know as about we don’t know.  As one long-time participant put it, in another but similar context, “"this is what makes MPP so useful."

Having considered the poet-essayists, we later thought about the economist-essayists David Hume and Malachy Postlethwayt, reading respectively their "Of the balance of trade," Discourse V in Political Discourses (Edinburgh, 1752) and "Of the encrease and decrease of real money in a state, and of the price of commodities; with a comparison between France and England in relation to the latter, more minutely, considered," Letter IX in Great-Britain's True System (London, 1757 ). These two tracts, a little later in our period than many of us are familiar with, served to bring those of us familiar with literature and its devices back to the idea that while clarity of expression is not always related to clarity of thought, an argument that is difficult to follow might not be the result of willful misdirection by the author. Sometimes, lack of clarity might indicate either that the author was working through some ideas that had yet to be settled within an intellectual framework or that we are approaching the texts with the benefit of 200+ years of commentary not about the text itself, per se, but about the validity if the ideas expressed therein. And it just might be, we discovered, that, read in this light, authors such as  Postlethwayt have been largely forgotten not on their merits but on the basis of who seems in retrospect to have got it right. It’s instructive to read Hume, for example, to see not so much what he got right as how he managed successfully to articulate an argument that many at the time would have found confusing and objectionable.

Interestingly, we found ourselves treating the authors much the same way as we respond to modern intellectual ideas, far more comfortable with what we know, or think we know, than not; so it was that messers Gay and Postlethwayt received far less attention than Pope and Hume. It might be that it is easier to discuss the more famous of the authors because one has more idea what they are about. Admitting to finding Postlethwayt confusing, or Gay’s poem rather heavy going, might have run the risk of exposing our own lack of familiarity with material we assume others know well, so we focused instead on Pope and Hume. Yet both Gay and Postlethwayt were widely read and discussed at the time. It might be we risk reading events through today’s perceived canon of what mattered then witho;ut pausing to reflect on the accuracy of our own assumptions.

                As always, we were reminded of the importance of considering how texts, whether “literary” or “didactic,” were read then, and the assumptions that would have been brought to those readings. Authors were not always fully upfront about exactly why they had decided to put pen to paper (literally) and there was no guarantee that those responding to publications had read them in the spirit in which they were intended, if they had read them at all. Nonetheless, as the papers presented at this, the fifth, biennial gathering made clear, and as the discussions and additional insights offered by participants demonstrated,  it is possible to get closer than perhaps anticipated to an understanding of the broader picture by, well, by looking at the broader picture.

                From the first of the papers discussed in Halifax, we learned for the first time, most of us, that much more thought had gone into the subject of converting from a cash crop that was, literally, a cash crop, to something more sustainable in the long run. We were surprised by the argument that colonial paper money plans were not by design inflationary taxes upon the creditors in those colonies and might instead have been, in their best moments, systems of tax anticipation or tax smoothing. Once one recognizes this, other questions that were being asked begin to make more sense. Once one has a system in place that is systemic and anticipatory, after all, one can begin to talk about how society might be shaped by the appropriate implementation of that system. This was a theme that has run through many of our sessions—the tension between fiscal and monetary policies in theory and the actual results of those policies being implemented. In Halifax, our final paper not only demonstrated the increasing professionalization of the Irish revenue service but offered many of us insight into the paradoxical role played by the presence of army units in towns, for army units brought with them specie and regular pay days, which led to predictable spending. And so even as pamphlets bemoaned the increasing importance of money rather than land, bemoaned the loss of the old ways, worried about a  standing army, there was an accompanying cry for developing practices to be more widely distributed and better managed.

                Over time, we have developed a reputation as a congenial and thoughtful group, not always an easy combination to achieve. We are helped in that regard by a balance of returning participants and new-comers, and by returning participants generous enough to come without benefit of getting feedback on their own work but willing to listen, share, and encourage. And at each gathering, there is a moment when a phrase clears up for everyone what it is we have been grappling with. Some of us see the light because the very concept is new to us, or has never been shown to apply to our particular interest, and others are enlightened when they realize a concept or idea they take for granted has yet to make its way into other disciplines. So it was in when non-economists were introduced to the “fallacy of composition” problem of extrapolating from family budgets to national ones. Those of us who hadn’t heard the phrase suddenly understood how much easier our struggles to explain ourselves would have been if we had grasped the language with which to make our case, and those of us who dropped the phrase into everyday conversation suddenly understood the cause of at least some of those blank faces. Collectively, we kicked ourselves, wondered what we had been doing with all those hours we spent trying to make ourselves understood, and immediately started re-conceptualizing approaches we would take henceforward to our own work. These are not small matters, nor are they easily arrived at, and it is just such moments that give this biennial gathering a purpose beyond the simple exchange of papers.

                Other indications of success come in such moments as the announcement, “I have charts; I have graphs” as a participant seeks to reassure us all that the interdisciplinary ambitions of the project have informed a very useful consideration of a topic others might have passed by had they chanced upon it in some other capacity. The bibliographies generated by the previous MPP gatherings demonstrate exactly how much the value of these events is that we each individually have the opportunity to encounter and then make constructive use of ideas and discussions. We hope the Halifax Bibliography further promotes such reading and writing.

                One struggle throughout the history of MPP has been how to generate work that is genuinely interdisciplinary, that is, work that considers material from a variety of  social, economic, and cultural sources and examines them as expressions of a debate that was itself at times ill-defined and confusing, rather than explaining one discipline’s way of approaching a question to participants from a different background. That said, if we look back on what we have accomplished so far it’s not insubstantial, and later this year we’ll be posting to the web site a bibliography of works by participants published since their first involvement with the group. We think you’ll be impressed, and perhaps a little surprised, by the quality and variety of the work.

Money, Power, and Print continues to introduce participants to ideas, concepts, and source material they might well otherwise have failed either to find or to appreciate. The degree to which that goal has been met will be put to the test in Leuven, Belgium, in 2014 at what was once the Irish College, when the three co-conveners of “Money, Power, and Print: Interdisciplinary Studies on the Financial Revolution in the British Isles, 1688-1776” do something they haven’t done since we first met in Regina and bring their own, very varied, work to the table. In part, we hope to demonstrate what we have learned since Regina, and in part we hope to demonstrate more clearly exactly what we had in mind when we first met in Regina.

MPP has turned out to be a worthy undertaking. It is our hope that the tenth anniversary gathering in Leuven will help move the project forward without us losing any of the collegiality, conviviality, and collaboration. We hope you might consider joining us there.

 

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Christopher Fauske,
Sep 17, 2012, 10:20 AM
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