Thursday, August 13, 2015

Reflecting on “Money I Have None:” Colonial Rhode Island’s Tradition of Negotiating Their Taxes and the Coming of the American Revolution"

"Money I Have None," the revision of the paper I presented at the New England Historical Association in the spring of 2013 ("₤200 Indet more then is Due Me:" Taxation and Negotiation in Colonial Rhode Island) is now up on Christian McBurney's Online Journal of Rhode Island History,

As I was about to graduate after defending and submitting my MA thesis (with revisions) in 2011, I realized I needed to do more work on my C.V., which was practically non-existent at that time. I began trawling through the vast collection of notes for my MA thesis, looking for a story I could tell in about 10 double-spaced pages. There was a vignette I had developed in my MA thesis from some intriguing and perhaps unique sources that I literally stumbled across while looking for something else -- actual property lists generated by colonial-era taxpayers on the eve of the American Revolution (for an example of one these property lists, see image embedded in the tweet below). I thought a paper focusing on these might make a decent presentation at NEHA, especially since the tax records for those years also include some unique information regarding these same lists. I remember discussing this possibility with my thesis advisor Ron Dufour in the spring of 2012, as I was preparing to graduate. He was concerned that the topic "wasn't sexy enough," that it might be rejected or perhaps even worse, only attract a small handful of attendees at the conference. Which led me to post this slightly snarky tweet poking my advisor while I was responding to NEHA's CFP:

Fortunately, the topic was "um, yes" sexy enough to get accepted for the New England Historical Association's Spring 2013 Conference, and there was a decent turnout for the session at the conference. Entitled "Eighteenth-Century Political Economy," I was paired up with two other public historians, one presenting a biography about John Fisher's exploits during the American Revolution, and the other examining the effects of the Treaty of Utrecht on trade in northern New England. During his comments, session chair Dominic DeBrincat said my paper brought to light key procedures regarding colonial tax assessment, but suggested I try to make more explicit the links between the how local taxes were assessed and collected and the issues related to imperial taxation that boiled over in the American Revolution.

Granted, there were a lot of things I would have liked to have included in the NEHA paper -- it's amazing how being very strictly limited to a 10 page paper and a 20 minute presentation forces an economy of words -- a lot of interesting points are lost on the cutting room floor because there is simply no room, no time, for them. Still, his point was well-taken. Even in my MA thesis where I was not up against a 10 page limit, that point was lost in a sea of details, and it should have been the denouement of the NEHA paper.

That was the main revision I made in the new article -- to argue more forcefully that the top-down non-negotiable imperial taxation system put the British Empire on a collision course with Rhode Islanders locally assessed and negotiated tax system. Taxation without representation, or "virtual representation" (as British PM George Grenville referred to it) and away from Britain's long-standing policy of salutary neglect combined with Britain's 1751 currency regulations were anathema to Rhode Island's political economy. Local property-holders accustomed to negotiating their taxes either face-to-face with a tax assessor or justice of the peace, or through democratic localism -- viz-a-viz a majority vote at town meetings directing their deputies in the General Assembly -- were baffled and angered by the new taxation regime. These changes in tax policy, piled upon a new monetary policies that stressed Rhode Island's economy and a stricter policing of Atlantic trade, were cause for Rhode Islanders to first burn the H.M.S. Gaspee and then join the American Revolution. That point is made very clear made in this version of the paper.

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I recall reading (here and here) that outside of one's family and academic committee, most theses and dissertations are read by no more than three or four people. A depressing fact, given how many years and how much effort it takes to write one (in my case about seven summers, since I was a part-time graduate student and full-time teacher, and the only time the repositories of primary sources were open coincided with my work hours). Reciting "₤200 Indet more then is Due Me" to a roomful of historians at NEHA in 2013 probably enlarged the audience for that particular aspect of my thesis tenfold. But publishing it on Christian McBurney's blog has opened up opportunities to reach a comparatively vast new audience. The analytics seem to be down at the moment, but the last count I saw my paper on Small State Big History had been "viewed" over 60 times in less than a month of being posted. Even this humble blog has had (as of today, August 13, 2015) 31,121 views (!) in its four-year existence. As the anonymous author of the blog 100 Reasons NOT to Go to Graduate School points out:
"Typically, it takes months of research, writing, and revision to produce a journal article that will be seen by fewer people in its author's lifetime than will visit this blog in an hour."
Another point well-taken. If the purpose of public history is to reach and educate as much of the public as possible, then blogging would seem to be one of the best platforms today for that purpose. As a teacher for many years, I have passed along some modicum of historical lore to somewhere between two and three thousand individuals I've had as students. It is humbling to imagine that with the single act of starting this blog (which was also part of my plan to build up my C.V. in 2011) I have reached ten times as many people in four years as I have as a teacher for over 25. Similarly, posting 140-character history blurts on Twitter (in lieu of blogging about everything I find interesting here) has had a similar (if unpredictable) expansion of audience, as well as opening myself up to an entire network of historians (the so-called #Twitterstorians), and opportunities such as HistoryCamp.

Other opportunities to reach new audiences with this story of colonial taxation have presented themselves. As a smallstatebighistory author, I was invited to be interviewed by Bruce Newbury on the local talk radio station 1540 AM WADK Newport last month, and the station archived the interview as a podcast (which you can listen to here). Next Monday evening, several writers for the Online Journal of Rhode Island History (including Robert Geake, Russ DeSimone, Maureen Taylor, Tim Cranston, and myself) have been invited to Smith's Castle in North Kingstown for a panel discussion. We will be talking about our areas of historical interest related to our articles, our experiences writing history, and the future of writing vis-a-vis blogging.

It this last point, the significance of blogging (a key piece of what has become "digital history") that should be at least as interesting to talk about with these historians as discussing the finer points of Rhode Island History, particularly given that our audience at next Monday's roundtable will likely be only a fraction of the viewers we have had online. Blogging -- is it the future of public history? Given falling metrics for museum visits and declining membership in historical societies, it may very well be.

Somewhere near obsession...

Somewhere near obsession...