Anyone who has led a discussion on the economy or trade or globalization in this country has faced the question, Should I buy American? Sounds simple enough. But this turns out to be a tough question to answer, even if you are squarely set on helping US workers live in dignity. First, from toys to televisions, many products are no longer even assembled here. Furthermore, a lot of the goods made here are produced under abysmal working conditions. Some imported goods are made by workers whose rights are respected. You might ask the audience: Is a car made in Ohio by a Japanese company better than a bicycle made in Taiwan by a US company?
Yet buying American, as University of California historian Dana Frank’s illuminating history reveals, has been a rallying cry for millions in this country ever since Paul Revere and his cohorts, faces blackened, boarded the ships of the East India Company monopoly and clogged Boston Harbor with 90,000 pounds of imported tea. Frank shows how, in the decades and centuries that followed the famous tea party, the movement has always had a fascinating cross-class composition: Wealthy entrepreneurs joined with workers to wrap themselves in the American flag of consumption. One result of this multiclass alliance from 1773 to the present, as Frank points out, is that “as often as not, their visions of the just economy” are “in conflict with each other.”
This book is a monumental effort of archival work and extensive interviews that is as insightful on race as it is on class. Frank’s early history is particularly fascinating and fun. Few who read American history books know that “a Buy American campaign gave birth to the United States of America”: As early as 1764, groups began pledging to give up imported clothes, cheese, jewelry, furniture, mustard and candy, not to mention tea (local herb tea sales jumped).
Students at Yale swore off foreign liquor. Indeed, by the early 1770s, all colonies save New Hampshire (“Live Free or Die” has deep roots) had passed resolutions to cease purchases of imported clothing. Patriotic rituals like well-attended public spinning bees were the rage across the colonies. Sales of all sorts of foreign goods plummeted. The struggle for economic independence laid the groundwork for the war for political independence.
Yet as Frank reveals, the very US entrepreneurs who led the boycotts went on to set up the first large-scale factories, paying starvation wages, to replace imported clothing. The other population forced to produce the domestic clothing was literally in slavery, including slaves owned by George Washington.
Frank’s most important contribution is to expose, at each historic stage of the Buy American movement, who gained and who lost, and what economic interests might have motivated participants. Thomas Paine and Paul Revere, great patriots for sure, were skilled craftsmen who could hardly compete with mass-produced goods emerging from the Industrial Revolution in England. Nonimportation has always produced profits for merchants turned hoarders, price gougers or smugglers. And, indeed, boycott leaders George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and John Hancock on occasion quietly imported boycotted goods. The Constitution, which abolished interstate tariffs and created a giant free-trade zone out of the United States, helped these merchant interests and served as a launching pad for imperial expansion to the south and west.
For all the populist rhetoric that surrounds protectionism, Frank makes a strong case that its most ardent supporters in American history have been domestic entrepreneurs who often have been among the worst exploiters of workers. On the other hand, she shows that a part of the free-trade movement has consisted of progressive trustbusters who opposed protection for large-scale domestic monopolies. Her point is to show that there have always been big business interests on both sides of the debate; a corporation’s position depends on whether it needs protected markets, cheap imports or access to export markets. In 1892 steel magnate Andrew Carnegie demonstrated vividly how protectionism doesn’t necessarily translate into benefits for workers. That year, he lowered wages at his big Pennsylvania steel plant in the wake of the raising of steel tariffs. When workers balked, Carnegie’s manager shut down the plant and hired 300 Pinkerton detectives to bust up the workers’ union.