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Toolbox Library, primary resources thematically organized with notes and discussion questionsOnline Seminars, professional development seminars for history and literature teachersBecoming American: The British Atlantic Colonies, 1690-1763
Becoming American: The British Atlantic Colonies, 1690-1763
Theme: GrowthTheme: PeoplesTheme: EconomiesTheme: IdeasTheme: American
Theme: Economies

3.
John Greenwood, Sea Captains Carousing in Surinam, ca. 1752-1758
Merchants
- Merchants satirized in poetry: Ebenezer Cooke, "The Sot-Weed Factor," 1707
- Merchants satirized in dialogue: Lewis Morris, Dialogue Concerning Trade, 1726, excerpts (PDF)
- Merchants satirized in art (PDF)
  • - John Greenwood, Sea Captains Carousing in Surinam, oil, ca. 1752-1758
  • - George Roupell, Mr. Peter Manigault and His Friends, ink drawing, ca. 1760


The rise of a "merchant class" was a signifying trait in the transformation of pre-Revolutionary America. It generated a spectacular increase in trade, money flow, consumer goods, power opportunities, colonial pride, imperial status—and popular resentment. "It is too strong to say that in eighteenth-century America, personal profit substituted for community good," notes historian Jon Butler. "But it is not too strong to note how steadily eighteenth-century colonial merchants won wealth and status . . . Resentment against the great merchants' power and wealth sometimes exploded into popular discontent."1 Here we consider depictions of merchants in poetry, dialogue, and art. Merchants aren't always the "bad guys" here—so what are they? What are the satirists satirizing?
  • Merchants satirized in poetry. A well-known though rarely read (in full) poem of the period is Ebenezer Cooke's "The Sot-Weed Factor," often designated America's first satire. A "sot-weed factor" is a tobacco merchant, and the protagonist of the poem is a young tobacco merchant, newly arrived from England to do business in Maryland. When he feels cheated by a tobacco trader, he heads to a lawyer to sue, deeming both incompetent. While the poem satirizes the colonials, the poet aims its sharpest ridicule at the English elite who dismissed Americans as backwater simpletons. Note Cooke's depiction of the colonial merchants' naïveté, rambunctious energy, and drunken camaraderie.
    • - Ebenezer Cooke, "The Sot-Weed Factor," poem, 1707.

  • Merchants satirized in dialogue. Feuding politicians in New York colony often expressed their positions in satiric prose, lambasting their opposition with acerbic on-the-mark wit. Among them was Lewis Morris (Senior), supreme court judge and later governor of New Jersey, who composed his Dialogue Concerning Trade in 1726 while the assembly was debating controversial taxes and duties on imported goods. In the dialogue, set among travellers in a roadside tavern, Morris depicts himself as the "Countryman"—representing the party of wealthy landowners in the Hudson River Valley—who challenges the Merchant to defend his profits and policies, especially price-setting. In twenty-first-century language, their interchange would seem quite familiar.
    • - Lewis Morris, Dialogue Concerning Trade, 1726, excerpts.

  • Merchants satirized in art. The richest man in North America in the mid 1700s was Peter Manigault of South Carolina, his wealth estimated at $3,000,000 in today's value. He and his fellow merchants and planters of Goose Creek, South Carolina, made the region near Charleston home to the highest proportion of wealthy households in British North America.2 In a drawing from the 1760s by an acquaintance, Manigault is depicted with friends in witty after-dinner camaraderie. More rowdy than witty is the group of Rhode Island merchants and sea captains depicted in a tavern in Surinam (a major trading center in the Caribbean on the north coast of South America) by John Greenwood, a Boston portraitist in Surinam who was commissioned by the men to paint the group portrait.3 What do the artists convey about the merchants, planters, and sea mariners? Which drawing is more satirical? Why?
    • - John Greenwood, Sea Captains Carousing in Surinam, oil on ticking, ca. 1752-1758.
    • - George Roupell, Mr. Peter Manigault and His Friends, ink and wash drawing on paper, ca. 1760.

How are women, Indians, and slaves depicted in these works? How far do the satirizations extend? (27 pages.)


Discussion questions
  1. What aspects of the colonial American merchant elite—and of colonial America overall are satirized—in the works?
  2. In each work, exactly what or who is being satirized?
  3. What is the implied attitude of the creator of each piece? of the subjects to their depiction?
  4. To whom is each satire addressed? What audience is intended for each work?
  5. Drunken camaraderie is often depicted in these works. Why?
  6. How are women, Indians, and slaves depicted in these works? How far do the satirizations extend?
  7. Note instances where the satires reveal veiled respect more than open contempt. When does this occur? Why does satire work in these cases?
  8. Since both visual depictions were created with the knowledge and support of the subjects, are they works of satire?
  9. Historian Jon Butler writes that "eighteenth-century colonial merchants and planters created and inherited wealth so vast that their predecessors scarcely could have comprehended it." How would seventeenth- century colonials have responded to the eighteenth-century wealth depicted in these works?
  10. How would you describe the group dynamics in these works? Do they indicate a rising "class war" mentality in the colonies? [Don't answer "yes" too fast.]

Framing Questions
  •  What were the local, regional, and global economies of pre-revolutionary America in the 1700s?
  •  How did they influence the colonies—their self-determination and sense of the future?
  •  How did they shape the lives of individuals—free, bonded, and enslaved?


Printing
Cooke, "The Sot-Weed Factor": 20 (with notes)
Morris, Dialogue Concerning Trade:  5
Greenwood & Roupell images:  2
TOTAL 27 pages
Supplemental Sites




1 Jon Butler, Becoming America: The Revolution Before 1776 (Harvard University Press, 2000), pp. 69, 73.


2 Michael J. Heitzler, Goose Creek: A Definitive History, Vol. I: Planters, Politicians, and Patriots, 1670-2003 (The History Press, 2005), pp. 86-87.


3 Slavery and Justice: Report of the Brown University Committee on Slavery and Justice (Brown University, 2006), p. 27.



Images:
- John Greenwood, Sea Captains Carousing in Surinam, oil on ticking, ca. 1752-1758, detail. Saint Louis Art Museum, Museum Purchase, 256:1948. Reproduced by permission.
- George Roupell, Mr. Peter Manigault and His Friends, ink and wash drawing on paper, ca. 1760, detail. Winterthur Museum, 63.73. Permission pending.


*PDF file - You will need software on your computer that allows you to read and print Portable Document Format (PDF) files, such as Adobe Acrobat Reader. If you do not have this software, you may download it FREE from Adobe's Web site.





ECONOMIES
1. Commerce I   2. Commerce II   3. Merchants
4. Consumers   5. Planters   6. Servitude








TOOLBOX: Becoming American: The British Atlantic Colonies, 1690-1763
Growth | Peoples | Economies | Ideas | American


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