Affable Failures: Alexander MacAulay, Kin-networks and the Eighteenth-Century Bubble Market (Part 2)

…continued from Monday, September 5th…

Though he left Virginia, MacAulay did not stay away long. In March 1777, a school boy in London was entrusting a letter to his mother to the westbound merchant. MacAulay’s appearance in London, rather than Scotland, suggests that he was attempting to develop contacts with those firms still engaged in the Chesapeake trade. A retailer, after all, needs a wholesaler. It was through these investigations that he probably met the Jerdone brothers, who had been placed under the care of a London merchant for their safety and education during the conflict. Having decided to return to Virginia, MacAulay offered to deliver letters from the boys to their mother in Louisa County, near his brother in Hanover Town. He arrived in the summer of 1777 and set about rebuilding his business with the gratitude of the Jerdone matriarch safely secured.

Over the next few years this Jerdone connection flowered. The eldest daughter was married to the Virginian merchant Georgie Pottie, with whom Patrick had maintained a friendship during his brother’s absence. The second eldest daughter had married George Braikenridge, whom later became MacAulay’s business partner and dear friend. As for the third eldest daughter, Elizabeth, MacAulay was able to win her heart for himself, though his unsettled situation prevented him from asking for her hand in marriage. With his beloved’s younger sisters already married into the planting class, and her brother taking over the family plantation, MacAulay had developed a network ideal for carrying on the tobacco-sundries trade. Indeed, for the rest of his life, MacAulay’s business affairs would be shaped by his Jerdone connections.

Yet, although this network provided him with many opportunities, the war with Britain had reduced the Virginian trade to a fraction of its former glory. Instead, the place to be was occupied New York. In 1780, MacAulay & Co. sold its one-fourth of a lot in Hanover Town and moved north. MacAulay had once stated that his British connections prevented him from taking direct action against the British in the colony. This seems to have been more widely accepted in the streets of New York than in Hanover. Here, providers and consumers alike knew not to let political alliances get in the way of supply and the demand for British good continued, if not grew. The bubble was growing, and MacAulay, as with his tobacco venture, joined in whole-heartedly.

A few years later, MacAulay reappeared in Virginia, but not on business. His time in New York was evidently well spent and he was ready to ask Elizabeth to be his wife. In his diary, he refers to their honeymoon night as ‘far more sweet in my opinion than even that of Romeo and Juliet.’ They then immediately made their way to New York, via Yorktown, visiting his business partners (now brothers-in-law) to wish them farewell. They waited for some weeks at Yorktown, unable to purchase conveyance at a reasonable fare, owing to wartime demand. MacAulay, however, was certain that the war would formally end any day and that the captain would be forced to offer them a fair price. Indeed, after a pleading letter to the Governor explaining his urgent need to return to his business in New York, they were able to continue on their way.

The comment about the war is particularly interesting in that MacAulay fully recognised that occupied New York would soon be vacated. The bubble that many historians assume he was taking part in, supplying the British military, was about to burst. Instead, he must have felt that his New York venture would continue despite the peace. Indeed, with his Jerdone connections in Virginia, supplying steady consignments of tobacco, and in Bristol, through Braikenridge’s brother-in-law George Weare, MacAulay was well placed to feed the insatiable American appetite for British manufactures, and was probably wholly unconcerned about the removal of the British Army. If Americans demanded British goods in war, they would continue to demand them in peace. Sadly, this did not turned out to be wholly accurate. The conclusion of the war sent Britain’s industrial centres and America’s agricultural community into a hyperactive whir and both markets became hopelessly flooded. The post-war depression ruined many imprudent merchants and the prudent ones quickly retired. MacAulay had not been trading long enough to retire comfortably, so he quickly cut his losses and re-evaluated what was best for his small but growing family; and that, it seems, was to return to the safety of his Jerdone connections in Virginia. The pity of this bubble is not that he joined it too late but that he left it too early. Had he managed to sit out the post-war depression he would have been far better placed in New York than Yorktown. When steady Anglo-American trade resumed in the nineteenth century, it was the northern ports that attracted British manufactures, and it was they who acted as middlemen for the planters in the south.

MacAulay returned to the York River in the autumn of 1784. He purchased a small plantation and resumed his cargo trade with Braikenridge and his planter in-laws. Yet, for the next five years, his interest seemed to lie primarily in developing an ever wider network of friends. Although he still consigned tobacco alongside his retail trade, MacAulay quickly introduced his young brother-in-law to Donald & Burton in Richmond, who became his primary shipper. Instead, MacAulay spent a great deal of time managing the business affairs of his brothers-in-law in Richmond and providing avuncular care to Jerdone by double-checking his plantation accounts and settling his legal battles. Indeed, as Jerdone had a much healthier purse than MacAulay, he made particular efforts to introduce the young planter to up and coming Virginians such as Robert Morris. To spend so much time away from his retail business suggests that he had grown weary of ‘playing the drudge’ in business and was looking for his next bubble. That his interests soon turned to land and internal improvements was not only understandable but what so many others were doing in the wake of the revolution. Thus, MacAulay devoted his energies in the reclamation of the Great Dismal Swamp.

…to be concluded Friday, September 9th…

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