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‘Buy American,’ the Founding Fathers said

The current uproar over the uniforms for the United States’ Olympic team being made in China should not have surprised Americans. Last Christmas season, I went shopping for a present for my wife, and discovered that in Brooks Brothers’ Manhattan flagship there were no women’s clothes that had not been made in China.

About five years ago, the AFL-CIO did a study and determined that the cost of manufacture for a garment made in the U.S. by unionized labor was only a few dollars more than the cost of a similar one made in China, Malaysia or Bangladesh. The reason major retailers such as Brooks chose to manufacture clothing abroad, the AFL-CIO concluded, was to fend off discount retailers poaching customers.

Whether to make here or buy from there, I’ve discovered, deeply concerned our Founding Fathers in the run-up to the Revolutionary War.

Beginning in the 1750s, American colonists began to realize that Great Britain was taking from the American landmass and people all sorts of crops, natural resources and partially-manufactured goods, and selling to colonists completed goods such as linens, farm implements and bound books. Laws said, for instance, that all tall, old-growth trees could only be cut down and sold, at controlled prices, to the British government for use as masts for their ships — they could not be used by colonists for their own vessels. Exploitation, pure and simple.

The American colony’s reaction to the exploitation was a movement for “home manufacture.” In Lakeville and Salisbury that meant doing more than producing the bulk form known as “pig iron” — it meant turning pig into useful implements. Because the Northwest Corner was remote from most governance, iron-masters here got away with it. But it was illegal.

So were contemporaneous spinning bees in Providence, Boston and other major cities, marathons in which women would get together and spin thread for “homespun.” Adams, Jefferson, Franklin and other leading lights were all for home manufacture as the route to economic independence. An ad for a spinning bee in Boston crowed that we ought to have no more of “foreign superfluities.”

General Thomas Gage, commander of the British troops in North America from 1765 on, reported the increase in American home manufactures to London as a serious threat. It horrified Gage that every American home would soon boast a spinning jenny. In 1765, Parliament over-reached by passing the Stamp Act. Two years later, it was the Townshend Duties, equally as onerous. These forbade many sorts of manufactures here, and taxed others, and imports, to pay the salaries of judges and governors so they could be independent of the colonists and therefore enforce rules even if colonists didn’t like them. These acts led directly to the Boston Massacre of 1770 and the Tea Party of 1773.

Benjamin Rush, Philadelphia physician and politician, later a signer of the Declaration of Independence and the man who urged Tom Paine to write his pamphlet and gave him the name for it, “Common Sense,” stated in a 1775 address that “a people ... dependent upon foreigners for food or clothes, must always be subject to them.” Manufacturing at home, Rush contended, was the only sure way to economically sever the colonies from continuing dependence. Adam Smith, in his famous 1776 book, “The Wealth of Nations,” opined that restrictions on manufactures struck many Americans as being “impertinent badges of slavery,” and disturbing evidence of Parliamentary malice toward the colonies.

Today, the need to do away with “foreign superfluities” seems to me all the more imperative.

Many people agree, but they ask: What can we do?

The simple answer: Buy American.

I don’t mean that we should be xenophobic or not buy things made in a specific country, such as China. Rather, and wherever possible, we should be more discriminating purchasers. The U.S. contains the largest group of deep-pocketed consumers in the world. China and India have more people, but we have more to spend, per capita. We should throw our economic might around. As the Founding Fathers might have suggested, we must use our collective and individual purchasing power to Buy American, and thereby encourage American manufacturing and increase the number of jobs available here.

It’s a patriotic thing to do.

Salisbury resident Tom Shachtman has written more than two dozen books and many television documentaries.