Academic journal article Journal of the Early Republic

"Auctioneer of Offices": Patronage, Value, and Trust in the Early Republic Marketplace

Academic journal article Journal of the Early Republic

"Auctioneer of Offices": Patronage, Value, and Trust in the Early Republic Marketplace

Article excerpt

Patronage appointments were a perquisite of power for early nineteenth-century governors. It was therefore not surprising that Penn-sylvania governor William Findlay spent the early months of 1818, his first in office, commissioning flour inspectors, clerks of the court, and harbor masters. Findlay also sifted through at least 40 applications from men who wanted to be licensed auctioneers. The auction business had grown significantly with the end of the War of 1812, as a flood of imported goods followed the reopening of trade relations between the United States and Great Britain. British exporters, eager to find quick ways to dispose of a backlog of fabrics, furniture, tools, and wine, con-nected with commercial auction houses in the major seaports of the new United States. The volume and value of their trade gave auctioneers substantial access to money and influence-both commercial and politi-cal-and so demand for state licenses was high. On April 1, Findlay announced the seven men he had chosen, and the auctioneers reported to the Recorder of Deeds, swearing to execute faithfully their new responsibilities, including selling fairly and collecting state and federal duties on sales. At their sides, new business partners signed bonds, pledging the financial backing to cover sums the new auctioneer had to turn over to the state.1

What appeared to be a promising commercial beginning turned dark within a year. The American economy, gripped by a contraction of credit, was sliding into its first national financial panic as banks failed and tens of thousands of people lost work. In Pennsylvania, Governor Findlay and his secretary of the commonwealth were charged with corruption for their patronage of the auction business. Through testimony revealed in Pennsylvania's House of Representatives and on the pages of local newspapers, a tale of influence peddling and extensive manipulation of auctioneer partnerships spilled out to a public deeply conflicted about the intersection of the state, politics, and the marketplace.

Was patronage an appropriate model for business relationships in a democracy? The Committee of Inquiry charged with investigating the governor was unsure. As representatives collected testimony about how auctioneers were chosen, how business partnerships were formed, and how employees were selected, their questions revealed fundamental disagreements about character and credentialing in the marketplace. Many Americans, influenced by revolutionary republicanism, decried patronage as an unjust tool of the old order. To their minds, patronage meant unqualified individuals who received lucrative government jobs from influential friends. Such individuals had no place in a liberal market where competition rewarded skill. Others saw patronage as a potentially positive force in the American economy. If wielded by elected governments, patronage in the form of financial support for worthy American businesses could serve the public good just as European aristocrats' funding of artists and philosophers had served theirs. At the same time, "patronage" was gaining ground as a business term, and its associated discourse of granting favors, supporting friendship, and pledging service had become a common way to describe relationships between buyers and sellers in general. Retailers thanked customers for their "patronage," remaking an old term to define relationships in a changing economy and assert the affective facets of commerce.

The Pennsylvania auctioneer scandal tripped over the various meanings of patronage in confronting the problems of trust and value in the marketplace. In the context of the 1819 financial panic, Americans wondered how to reconcile their desire for stability with their desire for free and open competition and whether the government properly had a role in bringing about that balance. Auctioneers, standing at the intersection of changing ideas about politics and markets, became an explosive test case. …

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