MacAulay and the Public Sphere, or Why it’s good to get distracted once in a while

Over the past weeks, I have been writing a great deal about a Scottish tobacco merchant by the name of Alexander MacAulay, my beloved failure. But those of you familiar with my main research activities, or perhaps even those merely familiar with the name of my research blog, may be wondering: What does MacAulay have to do with the public sphere? The answer is nothing, and everything, but most of all, a combination of the two.

A few years ago, I had a conversation with one my my students about research, namely, how he went about writing essays. He explained that he would go to the university library about a week before the essay was due and obtain every book he could find on the topic. Over the next three or four days, he would take extensive notes from these books and journals, usually lengthy transcriptions. After he was satisfied that he had enough raw material, he would spend two full days (he emphasised this point quite strongly) writing his essay before handing it in on Monday morning.

I asked him why he didn’t start earlier than one week before the submission date, perhaps a month or so. He explained that he simply did not have time. He had essays for other modules, which were due before mine and therefore required his attention first. He believed, as many of my students and many of my colleagues, that you could only effectively work on one research project at a time. He could not start essay B until essay A was complete. But, he emphasised again, when he did begin, he gave it his full attention.

There is of course merit in giving a project your full, undivided attention. But there is also merit in allowing yourself to be distracted. This summer, I have been steadily transcribing key articles and reprints in The Glasgow Advertiser, an effort that will help me explain how Georgian press networks functioned. As I did so, I came across a summary of parliamentary debates regarding the tobacco trade and the effect of the conflict with France upon it. It had very little (if anything) to do with my project, but I thought it might be a good primary source for my module on the Atlantic World, either for the seminar on Plantation Economies or the one on European Politics and the Atlantic world.

I placed the transcription into Evernote, which I use to organise my research and teaching materials. Having already opened the folder, I decided to take a break from my research to complete the seminar reading list for Plantation Economies. I scanned through a number of articles on the tobacco trade, which I have collected over the years from various other modules and research projects, to find one that might serve as an accessible introduction for my students. I came across Robertson’s ‘Scottish Commerce and the American War of Independence’ (1956). The title seemed apt, but I could not remember precisely what the argument had been, so I sat down to re-read the text. After a short while I came across the following note:

In December 1774, exports were still further curtailed by the enforcement of the non-importation and non-consumption clauses of the Continental Association.

At that particular moment, I could not recall which agreement Continental Association, a shorthand description, referred to. Turning to my furtive friend, Wikipedia, I came across the following note:

The Association set forth policies by which the colonists would endure the scarcity of goods. Merchants were restricted from price gouging. Local committees of inspection were to be established in the colonies by which compliance would be monitored, through strong-arming local businesses. Any individual observed to violate the pledges in the Articles would be condemned in print and ostracised in society “as the enemies of American liberty.”

My mind flashed. I knew that had heard this phrase before. I quickly flicked through long-archived files in the deepest recesses of my PC to find a paper I had written during my taught masters programme in 2005. My instinct was correct. Six years ago I had written a paper on Alexander MacAulay, a Scottish tobacco merchant in Virginia who had been accused, in court and in the press, as being ‘inimical or disaffected to the liberties of America.’

Six years ago, as a 22-year-old researcher fresh out of my undergraduate programme, I had not understood the meaning implied and had, wrongly, assumed MacAulay had made some Loyalist remark in the wrong company and this had landed him in hot water. He had not. He had violated the Continental Association by carrying on his retail trade in British goods (an interpretation buttressed by a number of other documents that I had also not fully understood at the time). This fundamentally changed my interpretation of MacAulay’s experiences. He had not suffered from poor timing as I once argued, but rather was attempting to fill a market niche that had only recently opened. The Glasgow Advertiser could wait a few weeks. MacAulay deserved his day in historical court.

Thus, for the past two months I have been furious revising and refining my research on MacAulay and the Scottish tobacco trade. This research has led not only to finding an excellent article for my seminar on plantation economies, but also encouraged my attendance at the Imperial Relations conference last week, at which I had several wonderful conversations regarding my Atlantic World module as well as possible new sources for Demography and the Public Sphere.

As MacAulay’s day in the public (or at least academic) sphere approaches, I am very thankful that, at least once and while, I let myself get distracted.

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