Abstract: Money and Crisis: Rethinking the Transition to Capitalism with the Stamp Act Crisis

Andrew Edwards


Most American historians agree for good or ill that the American Revolution itself was a watershed moment in the development of American capitalism, an ''explosion of economic and popular energy'' that wiped away not only British sovereignty but also the mercantilist structures of value and exchange that had come with it. The dynamics associated with this ''explosion,'' however, remain inadequately understood. This essay will suggest one way that the American Revolution and the transition to capitalism it initiated could be tied together in a more satisfactory account. The debates surrounding the Stamp Act Crisis of 1765 offer an overlooked insight into the interplay among sovereignty, money, and power in the minds of the Revolutionaries and the structural forces at work around them. A new reading of these debates suggests that the Crisis itself was about making money, quite literally: The debate, in essence, is about which governing body, Parliament or the colonial assemblies, defined value in the colonies, about the sovereign relationship between money and power. Debates around the Currency Act of 1764 are well known, but historians have overlooked how the Stamp Taxes themselves threatened to disrupt colonial definitions of value in real and revolutionary ways. The latter debate suggests that when Americans seized control of their political destiny they were also struggling for the right to constitute their own regime of value and exchange, a regime, once constituted, that they would then extend across the North American continent and beyond. Freedom, these debates suggest, was about more than political self-determination; it was, to a surprising degree, about making money: about defining value in society. Likewise, the Stamp Act Crisis shows how money, ''the palladium of liberty, the band of gentle dependence among freemen,'' could easily become about power. The conflict around the Stamp Act suggests, then, that the American transition to capitalism in the Revolution was, at least in part, about creating an American capitalism defined by Americans for their own ends, and that freedom was as much about value as it was about values.