A Republic of Wool: Founding Era Americans’ Grand Plans for Sheep

Food & Lifestyle

March 21, 2017
by Brett Bannor Also by this Author


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Only 1,457 pounds of wool? George Washington was astonished. He had 568 sheep, so that meant the recent shearing at Mount Vernon and his other farms yielded an average of just over two and a half pounds of wool per animal. Washington was not home to supervise the process; it was June of 1793 and he was in Philadelphia beginning his second term as President of the United States. He learned the details of the shearing through a letter from his farm manager, Anthony Whitting. The President’s response detailed exactly why he was so distressed by the news:

From the beginning of the year 1784 when I returned from the Army, until Shearing time of 1788, I improved the breed of my Sheep so much by buying, & selecting the best formed, & most promising Rams & putting them to my best Ewes—by keeping them always well culled & clean—and by other attentions—that they averaged me … rather over than under five pounds of washed wool each.[1]

What could be causing the dramatic reduction in the productivity of Washington’s sheep?  The President implied that insufficient attention had been paid to selectively breeding the animals.  Showing a disdainful aspect of Virginia plantation life, Washington also reminded Whitting to be mindful of “the roguery of my Negros.”[2] It was the enslaved doing the actual shearing; Washington snarled that in the past they had skimmed wool for themselves between the shearing and delivery of the fleeces.

In no way was Washington unusual in his attention to sheep and their husbandry. All through the Revolutionary and Founding eras, men of considerable distinction extensively discussed and wrote about sheep. For them this was not simply a matter of running an efficient farm. Sheep in the new nation were closely tied to economic policy and the promotion of republican virtue. The founding generation even saw a productive flock of American sheep as a matter of national security.

A world dependent on wool

In Washington’s time, wool was the dominant fiber for fabrics, particularly for durable and cold-weather wear. Furs could also provide warmth, but wool was inherently more sustainable, since sheep didn’t have to be killed to yield fibers and flocks could be selectively bred to produce desired characteristics. Furthermore, by the end of the seventeenth century, the fur trade in Britain’s Atlantic colonies was already in serious decline due to over-harvesting.[3]

Considering wool’s importance, it is understandable that when the British first colonized North America they imported sheep, which had originally been domesticated in the Old World. But while other imported livestock such as cattle and hogs prospered on American shores, sheep did not. In the uncultivated lands of the New World, sheep tended to forage in thickets where the wool was torn off their backs by briars and thorns. Worse, the sheep fell easy prey to wolves. It is not surprising then that sheep did best on islands such as Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, where the wolves could most readily be extirpated.[4]

These prosperous insular flocks notwithstanding, when the Americans began to quarrel with the mother country in the 1760s there was a shortage of sheep in North America. Thus, the colonists were dependent on Great Britain for their wool clothing and blankets. They knew this. And so did the British.

“We will use our utmost endeavors to improve the breed of sheep…”

It is likely the mood in Parliament was tense on February 13, 1766, when Benjamin Franklin was called on to answer questions about the American colonists’ opposition to the Stamp Act. In Franklin’s papers, the session is referred to as his “examination” before the House of Commons, but really it was more of an interrogation. Franklin was peppered with inquiries, some particularly hostile. “Do you think it right that America should be protected by this country, and pay no part of the expense?” a questioner demanded.[5] “Are not the lower rank of people more at their ease in America than in England?” another asked of Franklin, pointedly and probably rhetorically.[6]

Showing the importance of sheep in the trans-Atlantic politics of the time, Franklin also was called on to answer several specifics about the state of these livestock in America. Isn’t the wool in the northern colonies of bad quality because of the severe winters?[7] And don’t the harsh winters require the people there to provide fodder for their sheep for many months?[8] Isn’t the wool in the southern colonies also poor, being coarse and really only a kind of hair?[9]

Franklin answered the sheep questions as best as he could, although he clearly was out of his realm, as some of his replies were noncommittal. But when asked the very general question “Can [the people] possibly find enough wool in North America?” Franklin confidently asserted that they could:

They have taken steps to increase the wool. They entered into general combinations to eat no more lamb, and very few lambs were killed last year. This course persisted in, will soon make a prodigious difference in the quantity of wool. And the establishing of great manufactories, like those in the clothing towns here, is not necessary, as it is where the business is to be carried on for the purposes of trade. The people will all spin, and work for themselves, in their own houses.[10]

Franklin’s appearance in Parliament did not alleviate the worsening relationship between Britain and the colonies, and in September 1774 the First Continental Congress assembled to determine a unified American action. The assembly quickly decided that the most effective means of expressing their resolve was to no longer import goods from Britain or its possessions, nor export goods to them. This policy was promulgated in a declaration called the Articles of Association.[11]

If the colonies planned to give up all British goods, that meant no more British woolen cloth or clothing. What would the Americans do to alleviate that foreign dependency? The seventh article of the Association addressed this important matter:

We will use our utmost endeavors to improve the breed of sheep, and increase their number to the greatest extent; and to that end, we will kill them as seldom as may be, especially those of the most profitable kind; nor will we export any to the West Indies or elsewhere; and those of us, who are or may become overstocked with, or can conveniently spare any sheep, will dispose of them to our neighbors, especially to the poorer sort, on moderate terms.[12]

Article seven is a particularly vivid expression of virtue, a quality the founding generation often stressed was vital for the success of a republican government. Historian Gordon Wood has defined virtue as “the willingness of the individual to sacrifice his private interests for the good of the community.”[13] The delegates to the First Continental Congress, many of whom were men of some means, were asserting that it would be improper to take advantage of a wool shortage to get top dollar for surplus sheep; in tough times, virtue commanded that extra animals be dispersed “on moderate terms.”

Prominent among American Loyalists who advocated reconciliation with the crown was Samuel Seabury, the first American Episcopal Bishop. In a ninety-page pamphlet written in December of 1774 under the pseudonym “A.W. Farmer,” Seabury mustered every argument he could think of against the actions of the recalcitrant Americans; not surprisingly, he brought up the matter of sheep. “Continue the non-importation” Seabury warned:

“… and the first winter after our English goods are consumed, we shall be starving with cold. Kill your sheep ever so sparingly, keep every weather as well as ewe, to increase the number and improve the breed of sheep; make every other mode of farming subservient to the raising of sheep, and the requisite quantity of wool to clothe the inhabitants of this continent, will not be obtained in twenty years: if they increase only as they have done, not in fifty.”[14]

A “weather” —now spelled “wether”—is a male sheep that has been castrated.

Given the timing of Reverend Seabury’s tract, written just two months after the Articles of Association were signed, it is natural to assume that his warning of colonials “starving with cold” was a response to article seven of the Association. Actually there was another catalyst: Seabury was in the middle of a pamphlet war with a brash nineteen year old who yearned for American independence: Alexander Hamilton.[15] In defending the non-importation policy of the Continental Congress, Hamilton asserted in an earlier pamphlet that British wool was not needed in America. Writing under the pseudonym “A Friend to America” he boasted “We have sheep, which, with due care in improving and increasing them, would soon yield a sufficiency of wool.”[16]

In this battle of booklets, the squabble about sheep was just one of the many points debated by Seabury and Hamilton. As events would show, however, Reverend Seabury had a far better understanding of America’s wool vulnerability.

The Sheep of War

For American colonists, having sheep on coastal islands protected them from wolves but left them vulnerable to another predator: the British Navy. As the war progressed, the British targeted sheep at Martha’s Vineyard – where a September 1778 raid took nine thousand of the valuable animals – and elsewhere along the coast.[17] Given the American need for wool, these were military actions analogous to bombing oil fields or refineries in modern wars.

The British sheep incursions had the desired effect; wool shortages were felt even before the disastrous September 1778 raid. Nine months prior to that, from his Valley Forge headquarters General Washington dashed off a grim letter to the American Board of War detailing on how meager the supplies had become for his troops that cold, disheartening winter. One shortage particularly concerned the General:

As to Blankets, I really do not know what will be done. Our situation in this instance is peculiarly distressing. I suppose that not less than from 3 to 4000 are now wanted in Camp—Our Sick want—Our Unfortunate men in captivity want.[18]

The men on the Board of War obviously knew that the lack of blankets was a direct effect of the shortage of wool and the lack of imported woolen goods. Washington was expounding on the natural outcome of America’s sheep deficit.

When we picture the soldiers at Valley Forge shivering in the frigid winter air due to threadbare clothing and lack of blankets, we should recall what Reverend Seabury had warned about “starving with cold.” The failure to adequately equip the American troops is often seen as a problem with the supply system—a shortage of funds to purchase provisions plus a dearth of wagons and suitable roads.[19] But when it came to wool goods there was a more basic problem—America just did not have enough sheep. Nor did it have sufficient manufacturing facilities to turn whatever domestic product existed into enough clothing and blankets for all the troops.  On top of all their other wartime difficulties, the colonials faced a wool crisis.

Postwar Wool—as Hamilton Would Have It

In spite of its sheep shortage, America prevailed in the war. Peace may have come, but winters were still cold, and citizens of the new nation continued to need wool. There was wide agreement that the United States should continue its efforts “to improve the breed of sheep” as the Articles of Association had put it. But there was disagreement in two key areas. Should government policy promote sheep farming, or did this need to be left to the private virtue of gentlemen? And should Americans strive to produce only enough wool for essential domestic use, or consider full scale manufacturing to provide fancier clothing and even a commodity for export?

During a debate on revenue at the Constitutional Convention of 1787, Pennsylvania delegate Thomas Fitzsimons declared that he was against taxing American exports at that time, but that he thought the federal government should have the power to tax exports in the future, when America became a manufacturing country. According to James Madison’s notes on the convention, Fitzsimons then “illustrated his argument by the duties in G. Britain on wool &c.”[20]  The delegates speaking immediately after Fitzsimons did not challenge his assertion that America would become a manufacturing nation, nor did a thorough discussion of wool policy follow. (It would not have been surprising if this had occurred.) But loud voices would soon be raised concerning what role, if any, the American government should play in the world of domestic and imported wool.

The Constitution crafted by Madison and the other delegates instructed the President of the United States to recommend to Congress “such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”[21] When President Washington did that for the first time in January of 1790, the former general used his State of the Union Address to suggest that the legislature turn its attention to America’s need for self-sufficiency as a matter of national defense:

To be prepared for war is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace …. (The) safety and interest (of a free people) require that they should promote such manufactories, as tend to render them independent on others, for essential, particularly for military supplies.[22]

A week later, the House of Representatives passed a resolution instructing the Secretary of the Treasury to prepare a report consistent with Washington’s recommendation. The House, like the President, framed the matter in terms of national security, stressing that the goal was “the encouragement and promotion of such manufactories as will tend to render the United States independent of other nations for essential, particularly military supplies.”[23]

Neither Washington’s speech nor the House resolution said anything specific about wool. But given the highlighting of military supplies by both the Executive and the Legislative branches, it is not surprising that when Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton presented his Report on the Subject of Manufactures to Congress, a discussion of wool was included.  Hamilton had, after all, served as Washington’s Aide-de-camp during the Revolutionary War.[24] He wrote: “The extreme embarrassments of the United States during the late War, from an incapacity of supplying themselves, are still matter of keen recollection.”[25] Hamilton remembered that shortage of blankets.

Historians have discussed the influence of Adam Smith’s An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations on the Report on Manufactures.[26] References to sheep and their wool figure prominently in Smith’s treatise—it could scarcely be otherwise in a eighteenth century volume on economic policy written by a Briton. From his study of Smith’s book, Hamilton was exposed to some striking minutiae of the wool trade. He read about an archaic unit of measure for wool called a “tod;” which was equal to twenty-eight pounds of English wool and which, back in 1339, sold for around ten shillings.[27]

More significantly, reading Wealth of Nations would expose Hamilton to Smith’s criticism of the protectionist wool laws of his homeland. Smith lamented that Great Britain’s wool manufacturers had for many years convinced Parliament that the prosperity of the nation depended on a thriving wool industry. As a result of this successful lobbying, Parliament had passed some very harsh legislation to prevent exportations of either live sheep or their wool.  A law enacted in Queen Elizabeth’s time punished a first sheep exporting offense by making the offender forfeit all his goods forever, imprisoning him for a year, and cutting off his left hand. A second offense led to the death penalty. Later, during the reign of Charles II, the law was expanded to ban the exportation not just of live sheep, but also of sheared wool. The severe penalties were also applied to the new act. “For the honor of the national humanity,” Smith solemnly wrote, “it is to be hoped that neither of the statutes were ever executed.”[28] Even if there had been no capital punishment, however, the economic sanctions alone were effective deterrents.

Parliament also prohibited the exportation of wool from Ireland to any country other than England, and permitted duty-free importation of wool from Spain.[29] The effects of these actions, Smith reported, had caused an artificial depression in the price of wool in Great Britain, such that its value at the time he wrote Wealth of Nations was less than it had been in the fourteenth century.[30] The capitalist Smith concluded that an absolute prohibition on the exportation of wool was not justified, but that a significant tax on exports would be sound fiscal policy.[31]

Hamilton hoped to put some of Smith’s ideas into practice in America. Envisioning the United States becoming a factor in the international market, Hamilton recommended in Report on Manufactures that Congress offer financial incentives to assist the development of a wool manufacturing commerce to rival Britain’s.[32]

While Hamilton did not have the hands-on experience with sheep common among the founders, his report briefly addressed the state of the live animals required to power his proposed wool manufactures.  He praised the condition of Virginia wool, asserting that it was the nation’s best because “Virginia embraces the same latitudes with the finest Wool Countries of Europe,” by which he meant Spain in particular.[33]  Hamilton also backtracked a bit from his argument with Reverend Seabury seventeen years earlier.  While he still lauded the concept of American farmers working hard towards “raising and improving the breed of sheep” Hamilton conceded that U.S. wool might never be improved enough “to render it fit for the finest fabrics” for which the nation would still depend upon foreign imports.[34] In the short term Hamilton got this backwards; almost two decades later it would be common fabrics—not the finest ones—that were particularly vulnerable to dependency on Britain.

In any case, the effort was for naught. Unconvinced by Hamilton’s arguments on wool or any other commodity, Congress shelved his report.[35]

Where in the Constitution that Hamilton helped formulate did he find justification for the United States government offering premiums and bounties to support the wool trade? He argued that this was authorized congressional power “To lay and collect Taxes … for the common Defense and General Welfare of the United States.”[36]  That is a rather broad reading of the General Welfare clause, and Hamilton’s expansive interpretation would be challenged by his frequent rival, Thomas Jefferson. It is striking that the political and constitutional disagreements between Hamilton and Jefferson extended even to policies regarding sheep.

Postwar Wool—as Jefferson Would Have It

Thomas Jefferson’s friendship with James Madison led him to often candidly share his feelings with the younger Virginian.[37] In a letter written in 1810, when Madison was the sitting President and Jefferson the recently retired one, Jefferson confessed his irritation with the profits made by the sellers of Merinos, a breed of sheep particularly prized for the quality of their wool:

I have been so disgusted with the scandalous extortions lately practiced in the sale of these animals, and with the description of patriotism and praise to the sellers, as if the thousands of dollars apiece they have not been ashamed to receive were not reward enough… No sentiment is more acknowledged in the family of Agriculturists than that the few who can afford it should incur the risk and expense of all new improvements, and give the benefit freely to the many of more restricted circumstances.[38]

In reading this, we are reminded of the First Continental Congress, three and a half decades earlier, promising that those who could provide sheep to their poorer neighbors would do so on moderate terms. Jefferson’s use of similar language demonstrates that the concept of public virtue still held a warm place in the heart of this revolutionary.

Jefferson’s letter suggested a solution to the “scandalous extortions.” He proposed an elaborate scheme for selective breeding of Merinos so that he and Madison, as virtuous Virginia gentlemen, could see that their state was well stocked with these valuable sheep, provided free or at a reasonable cost.[39]

A good deal of insight into Jefferson’s political philosophy can be gleaned by noting not what he wrote in the letter, but what he did not write. There is no mention of any type of legislation—either federal or state—to regulate the sale of Merinos, nor any plan for taxation that might curtail the selling practices Jefferson so despised. No, to Jefferson the way to end inflated Merino sales was not through government action, but through the private actions of noble, civic-minded men.

Another letter from Jefferson concerning sheep is even more pointed in this regard. Early in his second term as President, Jefferson wrote to J. Phillipe Reibelt, a French immigrant he sometimes purchased books from. Jefferson wished very much for more Merinos to be imported from Europe, but, he declared, “Congress could not, by our constitution give one dollar for all in Spain, because that kind of power has not been given them.”[40] Even though the Constitution gave Congress authority “To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States …” and even though wool and woolen goods were clearly items of commerce sorely needed in the United States, for Jefferson this was not a sufficient nexus to permit Congress to purchase sheep from overseas.[41] Given this strict construction of the Constitution, it is unsurprising that Jefferson also said nothing about wool as a military necessity, which might arguably authorize purchase of Spanish Merinos under his own executive power as Commander in Chief.

Legal historians commonly contrast Jefferson’s argument for a strict construction of the Constitution that would disallow a national bank with Hamilton’s advocacy of a looser construction that would authorize it.[42]  Their differing views on wool demonstrate that the two men were no less at odds in their constitutional interpretation when it came to America’s sheep. Hamilton declared that the General Welfare clause enabled Congress to financially aid the development of wool manufactures; Jefferson believed that no provision even gave Congress authority to acquire additional sheep necessary to produce the wool in the first place.

Jefferson did not, however, mean to imply that since Congress could not act that there was no way to bring Merinos across the Atlantic. As in his later letter to Madison, Jefferson emphasized to Reibelt the significance of the personal virtue of gentlemen. “It is probable that private exertions will transplant & spread [Merinos],” following this statement with the proud remark: “I have possessed the breed several years, and have been constantly distributing them in my neighborhood.”[43]

But even if Jefferson had conceded a constitutional power to purchase sheep or to regulate wool, he would still have disagreed with Hamilton over the scope of the new nation’s wool business. While Hamilton saw the development of woolen manufacturing in the United States to rival that in Britain as a positive good, Jefferson deplored such a possibility. Often he expressed his hope that America would remain an agricultural land rather than an industrial one. “While we have land to labor … Let our work-shops remain in Europe,” he pleaded in his book Notes on the State of Virginia.[44]

To that end, Jefferson stressed his agrarian view that sheep should primarily provide homespun garments, not factory made ones. In a letter to John Adams, he painted a blissful picture of his native Virginia:

Every family in the country is a manufactory within itself, and is very generally able to make within itself all the stouter and middling stuffs for its own clothing & household use.  We consider a sheep for every person in the family as sufficient to clothe it…”[45]

Jefferson did, however, follow that remark with a reservation. He admitted that while homespun woolens would do for everyday wear, they were not suitable for Sunday best. “For fine stuff,” he told Adams “we shall depend on your Northern manufactures.”[46]

Since Jefferson thought that one sheep was needed to clothe one person in the family, it is tempting to expand this and assume the same ratio would hold for the nation at large.[47] Other estimates, however, viewed one sheep per person as insufficient. In 1791, Connecticut legislator William Hillhouse opined that it would take one million sheep just to provide clothing for the people of Connecticut’s nearly 240 thousand people, a ratio of more than four sheep to every person.[48] In the 1840s Kentucky judge Adam Beatty nearly split the difference, calculating that the United States needed around two and a half sheep for every human.[49]

Of course, it is simplistic to dwell merely on the raw number of stock when the amount of wool produced per “improved” sheep is so significant. As George Washington bellowed in the letter to his farm manager, there was a world of difference between a flock averaging five pounds of wool per animal and a flock averaging two and a half pounds—and this is without even considering the difference in quality of fiber depending on the breed or condition of the livestock.[50] What is clear is that when Jefferson wrote Adams in 1810, America lacked sufficient flocks to meet anyone’s notion of the necessary sheep-to-human ratio. The census conducted that year counted over 7.2 million people. But the young nation likely had fewer than 5 million sheep.[51]

It is significant that in his correspondence with John Adams on the need for one sheep per family member, Jefferson referred to “northern manufactures” rather than British ones. This letter was written in January 1812, a few months before quarrels with Britain would once again erupt in war. In the years that led up to the conflict, again the matter of American wool shortage would come to the forefront.

Banning British Wool—or at Least Some of It

Joseph Nicholson’s survey of potential non-British sources for wool did not look promising, as the Maryland Congressman conceded when he shared his findings on the House floor in February of 1806. Nicholson told his colleagues that neither Germany, Holland, nor any other place on the European continent could provide goods in the amounts Americans consumed. “With coarse woolens,” he unhappily concluded, “we are supplied altogether from Great Britain, and we cannot procure them elsewhere.”[52]

As Nicholson spoke, Britain was at war with Napoleon’s France. As a consequence of the hostilities, British ships seized goods on American ships to keep them out of French hands. The British also boarded United States ships to impress seamen believed to be Royal Navy deserters. Angered by these actions, considered an affront to America’s official position of neutrality, Congress debated banning British imports in retaliation.[53]

In light of America’s dependence on British wool, Congressman Nicholson argued that it would be nonsensical to enact a complete embargo. Prohibit all imports, he warned, and “… we shall be laughed at by Great Britain and all other European powers for adopting a system altogether impracticable, because we cannot adhere to it.”[54]

Nicholson then floated an idea. While he had declared in his speech that the “coarse woolens”—those worn by Americans of ordinary means—could only be acquired from Britain, he hastened to add that there were other options for “those who moved in the higher walks of life.” This being so, he suggested the ban not of all British woolens, but only the import of expensive ones.[55]

And that is precisely what happened. In April of 1806 Congress passed an embargo prohibiting the import of a number of British goods. The list included a total ban on several items used for clothing—articles of leather, silk, and hemp – but the legislation only banned “woolen cloths whose invoice prices shall exceed five shillings sterling per square yard” and “woolen hosiery of all kinds.” The act also prohibited the import of all “clothing ready-made.” [56]  Americans could still get from England cheap wool, not already assembled into garments. Only the well-off who favored British-made clothing would have to change their consumption habits.  The United States had by this time developed a small domestic manufacturing industry to provide some high end wool to those who could afford it—especially if out of patriotism they insisted on American-made.[57]

The half-hearted regulation of wool in the 1806 Embargo Act stood as stark acknowledgment that three decades into its founding, America still lacked enough sheep to be self-sufficient. This was forty years after Benjamin Franklin had stood before Parliament and assured them their North American colonies were taking strong steps to increase the wool. It was thirty-two years after the Articles of Association pledged to do the utmost to improve the breed of sheep—after banning import of all British wool, not just the expensive stuff—and the same number of years since Alexander Hamilton in his pamphlet bragged that America would soon have a sufficiency of wool. The 1806 Act was twenty-eight years after George Washington wrote in despair of the lack of blankets at Valley Forge. It had been fifteen years since Hamilton presented his Report on Manufactures, encouraging Congress to financially support the development of factories turning out wool clothing.

Yet, in spite of the intentions, hopes, and efforts of some of the most influential men in American history, the dawn of a second war with Great Britain—the world’s wool merchant—still found the USA with too meager a sheep flock to put garments on the backs of all its citizens. This was soberly put by Robert R. Livingston of New York, a member of the Second Continental Congress who served with Jefferson, Adams, and Franklin on the committee that drafted the Declaration of Independence. In 1809 he published a small, widely read book entitled Essay on Sheep. There, Livingston noted that the human population of the United States was rapidly increasing—but the nation “does not grow one-fifth of the wool necessary for its own consumption.”[58]

Flocks in the Founder’s Future        

It would be a mistake, however, to think that the dream of founding Americans for an expanded sheep population never came true. After the passing of the Revolutionary generation the flocks steadily grew, spurred in large part by the country’s western expansion. In 1879, the United States produced four-fifths of the wool that its industry required.[59] Britain’s wool economy also expanded; within a century of claiming Australia in 1770 that colony was the world’s largest wool producer.[60] By the late nineteenth century, the rising numbers of sheep in both America and Australia insured that virtually the entire English speaking world had become what the Founders envisioned—a vast Republic of Wool.


[1] Christine Sternberg Patrick, The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series vol. 13 (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2007), 9.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Eric Jay Dolin, Fur, Fortune, and Empire: The Epic History of the Fur Trade in America (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2010), 103.

[4] Virginia DeJohn Anderson, Creatures of Empire: How Domestic Animals Transformed Early America. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 110, 147-48. In contrast to the colonial situation, wolves had been eradicated from England by the fifteenth century; see Keith Thomas, Man and the Natural World: Changing Attitudes in England 1500-1800 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983), 273. Of the elimination of English wolves Thomas writes: “It made English sheep-farming less labor-intensive, for shepherds no longer had to guard their flocks by night … or lock them up in stone sheepcotes …”

[5] Leonard W. Labaree, ed. The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, vol. 13, January 1 through December 31, 1766 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1969),133.





[10]Ibid,140. As T.H. Breen has shown, the popular notion of American self-sufficiency in their consumption of goods during the colonial, revolutionary, and early republic years is largely incorrect; see generally The Marketplace of Revolution: How Consumer Politics Shaped American Independence (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004).

[11] Richard R. Beeman, Our Lives, Our Fortunes & Our Sacred Honor: The Forging of American Independence 1774-1776 (New York: Basic Books, 2013), 155-162.

[12] Journals of the Continental Congress 1774-1789, vol. 1 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1904), 78.

[13] Gordon S. Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787 (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1998), 68.

[14]  Samuel Seabury, A View of the Controversy between Great Britain and Her Colonies (New York: James Rivington Press, 1774), 57-58; emphasis in the original.

[15] See Wayne Lynch, “Reverend Seabury’s Pamphlet War,” Journal of the American Revolution (July 9, 2013).

[16] Alexander Hamilton, “A Full Vindication of the Measures of the Congress, &c.,” in Harold C. Syrett, ed. The Papers of Alexander Hamilton, vol. 1, 1768–1778 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1961), 55 (hereafter Hamilton Papers.)

[17] L. H. Butterfield and Marc Friedlaender, eds., The Adams Papers, Adams Family Correspondence, vol. 3, April 1778 – September 1780 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1973), 97.

[18] Edward G. Lengel, The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, vol. 13 (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2003), 111.

[19] e.g., John Ferling, A Leap in the Dark: The Struggle to Create the American Republic (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 217.

[20]Max Farrand, ed. The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787 vol. 2 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1911), 362.

[21] United States Constitution, Article II, section 3.

[22] Annals of Congress, Senate, 1st Congress, 2nd Session (1790), 969.

[23] Annals of Congress, House of Representatives, 1st Congress, 2nd Session (1790), 1095.

[24] John Ferling, Jefferson and Hamilton: The Rivalry that Forged a Nation (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2013), 67-68.

[25] Hamilton Papers vol. 10 (1966), 291. Hamilton also stressed that foreign commerce was at risk due to America’s lack of a navy.

[26] See editorial notes, Hamilton Papers vol. 10 (1966), 230-340. Other Founders were similarly influenced by The Wealth of Nations; see Forrest McDonald, Novus Ordo Seclorum: The Intellectual Origins of the Constitution (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1985), 128: “Most public men in America acquired at least a passing acquaintance with the work, almost all praised it, and many gave it thorough study.”

[27] Edwin Cannan, ed., The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith (New York: Bantam Classic, 2003), 312, (hereafter The Wealth of Nations)

[28] The Wealth of Nations, 822-823. On capital punishment in Britain for sheep crimes, a remark in John Adams’ diary for September 28, 1787 is interesting: “In the afternoon, a man was convicted of stealing a couple of sheep; for which he was fined 30 shillings. Parsons, said in England he would have been hung, but I a little doubt.” By “Parsons” Adams meant John Murray, minister of the First Presbyterian Church in Newburyport, MA. The Adams Papers, Diary of John Quincy Adams, vol. 2 (1981), 296.

[29] The Wealth of Nations, 313.

[30] Ibid, 827.

[31] Ibid, 830.

[32] Hamilton Papers vol. 10 (1966), 332.

[33] Ibid, 295. In stating that Virginia’s wool was as good as Spain’s simply because the two places sit on similar latitudes, Hamilton was expressing an imperfect view of climate that was common until a few decades later when Alexander von Humboldt synthesized meteorological data. See Andrea Wulf, The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015), 177-179.

[34] Hamilton Papers vol. 10 (1966), 332.

[35] Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton (New York: Penguin Books, 2004), 378.

[36] United States Constitution Article 1, section 8; Hamilton Papers vol. 10 (1966), 302-303.

[37] See generally Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg, Madison and Jefferson (New York: Random House, 2010).

[38] J Jefferson Looney, ed., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Retirement Series, vol. 2, 16 November 1809 to 11 August 1810 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), 388-390.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Thomas Jefferson to J. Phillipe Reibelt, December 21, 1805,Founders Online, National Archives, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/99-01-02-2859.

[41] United States Constitution, Article I, section 8.

[42] e.g., Kermit L. Hall, William M. Wiecek and Paul Finkelman, American Legal History: Cases and Materials, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 105-107.

[43] Jefferson to Reibelt, December 21, 1805.

[44] Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, William Peden, ed. (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1954), 165.

[45] Jefferson to John Adams, January 21, 1812,” Founders Online, National Archives, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/99-02-02-5743.

[46] Ibid.

[47] A discussion of how the amount of wool needed to clothe Americans was related to the number of enslaved is beyond the scope of this article, but Jefferson kept careful account of blankets and clothing distributed to his enslaved; see generally Robert C. Baron, ed. The Garden and Farm Books of Thomas Jefferson (Golden, CO: Fulcrum, 1987).

[48] Hamilton Papers vol. 9, 332-334. The figure for the population of Connecticut is from the 1790 U.S. Census.

[49] L.A. Morrell, The American Shepherd; Being a History of the Sheep (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1863), 152. Beatty clarified, however, that his figure included wool for carpets and blankets as well as clothing.

[50] John L. Hayes, “Origin and Growth of Sheep-Husbandry in the United States,” Journal of the Executive Proceedings of the Senate of the United States of America, 45th Congress, 3rd Session (Ex. Doc. No. 25), 30-31, notes that when the number of sheep reported are compared to the pounds of wool reported in the mid nineteenth century censuses there are major discrepancies. This makes it impossible to say for certain to what degree sheep were producing more wool due to “improvement.”

[51] The figure of fewer than five million sheep is my own.  I have been unable to ascertain how many sheep the U.S. had at any point in the Revolutionary and Founding eras.  An 1888 report by the United States Treasury Department estimates that in 1810 there were about ten million sheep in the country (Anon., Wool and Manufactures of Wool (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1888) XLII.) The report admits that this estimate is “of doubtful accuracy” and the source is of this figure is unclear. The 1810 census attempted to count sheep, but only five states and one territory submitted returns. These totaled 1,584,652 head of sheep, ranging from a reported 1,000 in the Michigan Territory to 618,223 in Pennsylvania. For America in 1810 to have 10 million sheep, the number of animals not reported in the other twelve states and several territories in existence at the time, plus possible undercounts from the states reporting, would have to total nearly 8.5 million. The possibility of this is remote. I have accordingly—and conservatively—cut the 1888 Treasury Department estimate in half. Note that by writing that there were probably no more than 5 million sheep I am by no means asserting confidence in this figure—it is possibly still too high.

[52] Annals of Congress, House of Representatives, 9th Congress, 1st Session (1806), 450.

[53] Gordon S. Wood, Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 639-646.

[54] Annals of Congress, House of Representatives, 9th Congress, 1st Session (1806), 450-451.

[55] Ibid.

[56] “An Act to prohibit the importation of certain goods, wares, and merchandise,” United States Statutes at Large, 9th Congress, 1st session (1806), 379.

[57] Margaret Byrd Adams Rasmussen, “Waging War with Wool: Thomas Jefferson’s Campaign for American Commercial Independence from England. Material Culture 41 (2009), 17-37, esp. 29-31. Note, however, that as a result of my research I disagree with Rasmussen’s assertion that “At the outbreak of the Revolution in 1776, the United States was already self-sufficient with the coarse, homespun variety of woolen cloth that was produced in cottage industry,” 19.

[58] Robert R. Livingston, Essay on Sheep (New York: T. and J. Swords, 1809), 136.

[59] John L. Hayes, “Sheep-Husbandry in the United States,” 4.

[60] Wool and Manufactures of Wool, XLV.


  • The detail and scholarship that goes into the writing of articles like this make JAR an indispensable source of all things pertaining to the American Revolution. I eagerly look forward to each and every article. Thank you, Mr. Bannor, for a well-researched and well-written work.

  • Fabulous resource. I have raised Maine Island sheep and demonstrated wool crafts for over 35 years. This is special for the references I can add to my Colonial farmer and spinner presentation. Very well done! Also liked the one on Hemp at Mt Vernon.

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