Today’s post accompanies “Revolutionary Committees and Congresses,” episode 153 of Ben Franklin’s World and part of the Doing History 2: To the Revolution! series. You can find supplementary materials for the episode on the OI Reader app, available through iTunes or Google Play.
by William Huntting Howell
Ask any revolutionary: there’s an enormous gap between the idea of systemic cultural change and its actual implementation. How do you get the guy who’s just trying to, like, make barrels over here to co-sign something as world-rending as a revolution? For American patriot factions in the 1770s, the burden of bridging the gulf between ideology and practice fell in large part on Committees of Safety. From their inception as enforcement mechanisms for the Continental Association’s mass boycotts of British consumer goods, Committees of Safety were all about the material effects of ideas. They were the ones insisting that it wasn’t enough to merely think poorly of British treatment of the Colonies—you had to perform that disapproval for your neighbors or else risk public censure. The whole point of a Committee of Safety, in other words, was to make it clear to ordinary people that potentially abstract questions of international diplomacy were also concrete problems that they had to care about in their everyday lives.
We see one such committee making connections between big ideas and small, local actions in “The Process of Refining and Extracting Salt-Petre, According to the Method Practised at the Provincial Works in Philadelphia,” a pamphlet issued by the Pennsylvania Committee of Safety in early 1776. The occasion for the publication was rather straightforward: along with sulfur and charcoal, saltpeter was an essential component of gunpowder. In 1774, the Crown had banned the export of gunpowder to the colonies; various workarounds—buying through cutouts, smuggling, etc.—had not been enough to meet demand, especially with the advent of a Continental Army in 1775. Committees of Safety, at the behest of the Continental Congress, set about collecting the stuff to be processed in the powder mills that Congress was commissioning at roughly the same time.
The text itself is rather unassuming—eight pages, mostly given over to fine technical detail—but it has a lot to tell us about how the ideologists of Revolution made their play for individual hearts and minds. Most pointedly, it claims that concrete domestic and abstract geopolitical concerns are inextricable. However far you might imagine yourself to be from a battlefield, the war will not be something that will only happen somewhere else—it’ll actually be right there in your dooryard.
Indeed, that’s right where the pamphlet begins. Because saltpeter is derived from nitrogen-rich earth, “The Process” starts out with a detailed description of where one might find soil most likely to offer the best yield.
“Saltpetre, or Nitre, is found in a large quantity in different materials, sometimes mixed and incorporated with stones, and in earths which are exposed and open to all weathers; but the most common places where it is found, is in the earth which forms the floor either of sheep, horse or cow stables and sheds, in old out houses, in cellars, and under barns where any animals usually shelter, or any other covered place where any animal or vegetable substances mixed together with earth have been collected and laid a long time” ().
The stuff can be had anywhere, in other words, but insofar as it is a byproduct of human habitation over time—the everyday corporeal processes of people and their domesticated animals, especially urinating and defecating, charge the earth with nitrogen—the ideal saltpeter mine is the backyard. The Committee’s emphasis here on the local and the prosaic is partly a way to lower the bar to participation in the project, but it’s also an argument for the household as the proper site for patriot resistance: the critical resource for throwing off Crown tyranny is right there at the edge of the domestic space, in the old privy hole, under the trash heap, or next to the manger, if only you’ll care to look.
The same thing goes for the instructions for turning earth from the yard into raw material for munitions—and geopolitical power: everything is completely homely. The descriptions of the refining process are quite detailed, but the Committee frames each step in it as “easy” (3)—the sort of thing that an ordinary American had done in other contexts a million times. “Take a tub or tubs” (4) and fill it with earth and water; after letting this stand for half a day, draw off the water from the bottom and then “take any kind of boiler” (4) and boil it down to one-fifth of its previous volume. Next, “Prepare yourself with a cask” (4) lined with straw and ashes for straining the lye that remains. Then, “Having any kind of vessel, either of metal, wood, &c so long as it is large enough” (6), let the strained lye cool and crystallize, etc.
The generic quality of objects and actions is key here: there’s nothing remotely special about the stuff you need (whatever is lying about will work just fine) and no fancy operations to undertake. Boiling, skimming, straining, and letting stand are revealed to be the skills essential to the cause of American liberty. Indeed, the Committee insists that making saltpeter should in no way disrupt regular household management: “The foregoing process…is simple, and may be practiced in families without any additional expence of fuel, or even of labour, as it only requires the oversight of any person in the evening, after the work of the day is concluded” (7). Materializing the patriot idea need not require special sacrifice, only a simple reallocation of attention.
Having thus made its case for making saltpeter at home, the pamphlet concludes by turning to the larger moral and political truth that this humble chemical process indicates. That is, it derives an explicit ideological framework from a backyard recipe rather than overlaying an ideological framework onto one.
“The Committee need not remark to any intelligent and sensible man in the province the indispensable necessity there is of instantly providing ourselves with large quantities of gun powder when the quarrel between the mother country and the colonies is drawing to a hasty decision by arms… But thanks to Almighty God, we have those means and resources within ourselves, which, if not shamefully neglected and overlooked, will confound all [of Britain’s] artifices and conspiracies; the principal of these is the knowledge of making salt-petre, by which we may in a very short time, if it is practiced by every family in the country, who are surrounded by abundant materials for the purpose, be relieved from the necessity of depending on a precarious supply of gun powder, purchased at a ruinous expense in foreign countries” (8).
Put another way: the straightforward domestic procedure we’ve just laid out for you is itself indisputable evidence of divine approbation and the inevitability of American claims to independence. Arguments aren’t even required: “any intelligent and sensible man” can see that we don’t need other countries, and can do everything ourselves. In this final calculus, to make your own saltpeter is to celebrate the wisdom and munificence of the Almighty over the “artifices and conspiracies” of man, because it recognizes the peculiar natural gifts that God has made to those resident in America. Unless it is “shamefully neglected and overlooked,” the situation of the American home thus naturally and irrefutably argues for the idea of rebellion. The strength of the patriot cause will not be in the armies but in “every family in the country” soaking dirt from the trash pile in whatever tub comes to hand.
William Huntting Howell teaches in the English Department at Boston University. He is the author of Against Self-Reliance: The Arts of Dependence in the Early United States (Philadelphia, 2015) and the co-editor of Frank J. Webb’s The Garies and Their Friends (Peterborough, Ontario, 2016); he is currently at work on a book about American occasional writing before the Civil War.