By Elijiah McGuire-Berk
On Sept. 25, the C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience, Mt. Vernon, and the Guilder Lehrman Institute of American History held a reception for its annual George Washington Book Prize. The prize, established in 2005, is an award given to the best book about the American founding era. The $50,000 award is the nation’s largest prize for American history.
This year, Nick Bunker was the winner with his book “An Empire on Edge: How Britain Came to Fight America.” The book covered many topics regarding America and England in the 18th century, but its main focus was on how the history of finance led to the American Revolution.
Washington College President Shelia Bair opened up the evening by introducing the award, which is given to “well written books that contribute to a broad public understanding of the American past and that often resonate with the issues and challenges of the present day,” she said. Bair said that Bunker’s book is “history at its most vivid.”
Director of the C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience Adam Goodheart intoduced Bunker, who studied at University of Cambridge as well as Columbia University. He worked as both an investigative and financial reporter and as an investment banker.
“An Empire on the Edge” is his second book. The BBC called it “utterly absorbing and full of color,” and The Times called it enthralling. The book was also chosen as a finalist for the 2015 Pulitzer Prize in history.
Speaking about his book, Bunker explained that it takes place not only in Britain and America but, that it covers regions such as China where the East India Company acquired tea. The book itself concentrated on the economic aspect of the American Revolution.
He pointed out a little-known historical coincidence between the American Revolution and the British Industrial Revolution. At the same time as the Boston Tea Party when Britain had a monopoly on tea, there was also the lesser-known Calico Act, which, since 1720, gave Britain a monopoly over silk and other textile fabrics. As Bunker said, “Until the 1770s, it was impossible to spin any cotton in England to make cotton yarn.” This law came into play in 1769 when a cotton-spinning machine was patented. In 1774, the inventor of the machine went to the Howe brothers, a British Army/Navy duo, to try and get the acts repealed. It happened at the same time as the Coercive/Intolerable Acts passed after the Boston Tea Party. Needless to say, cotton production soared while the price dropped.
This was only one of the many aspects of the British Industrial Revolution that happened at roughly the same time as the American Revolution. Bunker cited 18th century economist Adam Smith as a man who saw the connection between these two events. Smith had claimed that British colonies were an extension of Britain’s unfair business practices geared to selective monopolies.
Bunker then went on to explain the economic model of the old British empire and claimed that it wasn’t the American colonists that had it the worst (save for the slaves) but rather the British laboring classes who had a higher tax burden than the American colonists. He said, “It shouldn’t have been a Boston Tea Party. It should’ve been a tea party involving the laborers of London or Liverpool. It should’ve been a Liverpool Tea Party.”
Following Bunker’s address, he sat down with Goodheart to answer questions about the book and his work as a journalist.