Betsy Ross Flag - Network Design

Protocols of Liberty: Communication, Innovation, and teh American Revolution [Book Banner from Title Page Image] Betsy Ross Flag - Network Design
William Warner [Author Name]
The University of Chicago Press [Publisher Name]
Overview [Link]
Introduction [Link]
Chapter 1 [Link]
Chapter 2 [Link]
Chapter 3 [Link]
Chapter 4 [Link]
Chapter 5 [Link]
Chapter 6 [Link]
Conclusion [Link]

Pownall’s Administration of the Colonies as a Newtonian System

LINK: Administration -- Reforms and Resistance -- Thomas Pownall

LINKS: Pamphlets -- Thomas Pownall -- Boston Committee -- First Continental Congress -- Pennsylvania Convention -- Thomas Paine

Thomas Pownall's ambitious pamphlet, The Administration of the Colonies (1764-1777), was a contribution to the debate about the best way to secure Britain's Atlantic empire after the Seven Years War. Whigs argued that Britain's possessions composed a unique "empire liberty" because its 'empire', or power, when compared with other empires (like that of the Spanish or French) was the effect of free trade guaranteed by a strong navy. However, in his years serving as governor of Massachusetts, Pownall saw that 'free' trade of a more banal sort (i.e. 'smuggling in violation of Britain's navagation acts) produced anagonism to the British system of trade and affiliation among colonies that might pose a challenge to Britain's empire. To correct these problems, Pownall built a Newtonian's conceit so that Text Box: Title Page of Pownall's Administration of the Coloniesa new alignment of the (administrative) system of government with the (natural) system of trade produces a striking new object, the British Empire. "Great Britain, as the center of this system, of which the colonies by actual union shall become organized, not annexed parts, must be the center of attraction to which these colonies, in the administration of every power of their government, in the exercise of their judicial powers, in the execution of their laws, and in every operation of their trade, must tend. They will remain under the constant influence of the attraction of this center; and cannot move, but that every direction of such movement will converge to the same. And as it is not more necessary to preserve the several governments subordinate in their respective orbs, than it is essential to the preservation of the whole empire to keep them disconnected and independent of each other, they must be guarded by this union against having or forming any principle of coherence with each other, above that whereby they cohere to this center, this first mover. They should always remain incapable of any coherence, or of so conspiring amongst themselves, as to create any other equal force which might recoil back on this first mover."  (Pownall 1993, 34-35, italics original) Thomas Pownall offers the solar system, as understood by Newton, as a plausible model for what the British Empire is. But shorn of its dependent clauses, the first sentence of this passage is structured by a double imperative: “Great Britain… must be the center of attraction to which these colonies…must tend.” The analogy between empire and the solar system performs certain conceptual work. First, it insists upon a hierarchy between metropolitan “center” and the colonies in their “subordinate” “orbs;” second, it characterizes that hierarchical relationship as arising from the nature of things (comparative mass, gravitation, the course of the planets) rather than through coercion; finally, the system’s coherence depends upon the remote attractive forces of the “center” remaining “constant” and efficacious.
            However, the gravitational analogy that Pownall develops to describe the ideal state of the empire immediately discloses another possibility: subordinate orbs might “form a principle of cohesion with each another” such that they displace the priority of Britain as “first mover.” After all, Britain’s priority in trade does not derive from her being a “prime mover” in either the Aristotelian or Christian sense as the origin and continuing source of motion. Instead, British political and commercial centrality is an artifact of history, and is therefore reversible, for example by the development of an “equal force which might recoil back on this first mover.” To avoid this possibility requires administrative and political cunning: administrators in Whitehall must keep “the several governments subordinate”, “disconnected and independent of each other,” and “guarded …against having or forming any principle of coherence with each other.” In “An Inquiry into the Rights of the British Colonists,” Richard Bland calls attention to the oppressive implications of this passage. Bland wonders how the “principle of coherence” of the colonies, which “lie united to each other in one tract of country, and are equally concerned to maintain their common liberty,” is to be “prevented?”(Bland 1983, 85) Bland then uses Pownall’s alignment of natural and political philosophy against him: “If he will attend then to the laws of attraction in natural as well as political philosophy, he will find that bodies in contact, and cemented by mutual Interests, cohere more strongly than those which are at a Distance.” Bland then wonders what “system of administration” Pownall plans to use to counteract the natural unity of the colonies: “military force, “the Jurisdictions of Courts of Admiralty,” the debilitating harassment of “overbearing Taxgatherers?” (85-86)
Text Box:  Illustration from Newton's Principia, 1726              In the eighteenth century Newton was widely celebrated for having lain bare the until-then secret laws that govern nature. To do so he had used writing, diagrams and mathematics to compose a system, that is a genre of writing, that reconciles many discrete parts into a single whole. (Figure 2.10) Pownall’s use of Newtonian theory of gravitation suggests that he is attempting to do the same for colonial administration. In the system that Newton describes necessity is reconciled with beauty, and a few relatively simple laws explain the curiously complex operation of the universe. Pownall is clearly fascinated by the analogy to Newton that is everywhere implicit: that the colonies are to the parent country as planets are to the sun. Even today, colonial studies often use the terms “center” and “periphery” without acknowledging what is wishful and euphemistic about this orbital model of empire. Part of the rhetorical finesse of Pownall’s argument comes from the way his representation of the celestial mechanics of the British Empire shades from a description of what is into a prescription of what ‘must’ be done. Pownall’s use of Newton’s theory suggests that if administrators will simply adopt these reforms, they will give the British Empire the regularity, coherence, and permanence of the solar system.
            However, Pownall, no less than Bland, is aware of the unhappy possibilities implied by the Newtonian conceit. Along with British Whigs like Edmund Burke and American Whigs like Benjamin Franklin, Pownall grasped the vast scale, the potential wealth, the productive potential, and the dynamic population growth of the colonies of British America. Pownall, like his long-time friend Benjamin Franklin, warned his British readers that there is nothing to prevent Americans from producing the manufactured goods that they now imported from Britain. Pownall insists that his policy recommendations are not a “visionary” scheme, but an “absolutely necessary measures of uniting the Colonies to Great Britain as parts of the realm.” (36) As a warning to those shaping imperial policy, Pownall torques his Newtonian conceit so that it opens a very different possibility, a catastrophic shift in the gravitational forces that hold the system together. "The center of power, instead of remaining fixed as it now is in Great Britain, will, as the magnitude of the power and interest of the Colonies increases, be drawn out from the island, by the same laws of nature analogous in all cases, by which the center of gravity in the solar system, now within the sun, would, by an increase of the quantity of matter in the planets, be drawn out beyond that surface. (37)  Against this fundamental shift in powers, Pownall ends warning against the futility of some “true modern politicians,” who “from their own narrow temporary ideas of a local center, labor to keep that center in Great Britain by force against increasing powers, which will, finally, by an overbalance heave that center itself out of its place.”(37) Such a displacement might appear as inevitable as an “island” no longer ruling over a continent, as natural, in other words, as a revolution in the solar system.

For an analysis of the centrality of the genre of the “system” in the long eighteenth century, see “Mediated Enlightenment: The System of the World.” (Siskin and Warner 2010, 164-172) Many Enlightenment thinkers sought to extend Newton’s powerful method from natural to moral and political philosophy.
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