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Uncommon Sense

By oieahc · November 17, 2020

An argument over seven years in the making

WMQ 11 min read

By Asheesh Siddique

In 2013, while I was a PhD candidate making my first foray into research on a dissertation about administrative knowledge practices in the early modern British empire, I stumbled across a curious and cryptic set of notes in an obscure file at the UK National Archives at Kew Gardens. The file, TNA, CO 318/2, is ambiguously titled in the archives’ catalogue as “Correspondence, original- Board of Trade, 1627-1807,” and upon calling it up via the National Archives’ famously swift document ordering system, I found that it contained a hodgepodge of miscellaneous files that a clerk had assembled in 1807 out of the papers of the Board of Trade, the body largely responsible for managing the voluminous incoming and outgoing administrative correspondence of the early modern British empire in the Atlantic world from the late seventeenth century until the end of the American Revolution. Included among these files were a set of what appeared to be curious notes: the clerk had compiled sets of numerical tables of the populations of various islands in the West Indies over the course of the late seventeenth and eighteenth century. Where had these numbers come from? The clerk’s annotations provided clues: next to one table, for example, the author of the document indicated that the numbers had come from a set of written answers from colonial officials to queries sent to them by the Board of Trade in 1720 asking about the conditions of trade, population, and settlement.[1] The queries, I came to understand, were part of a system through which administrators sought to enforce norms of good governance within the empire by soliciting written evidence from imperial officials on the ground that local practices of rule conformed with metropolitan expectations of bureaucratic conduct – a subject that I explored earlier this year in an article in the Journal of British Studies. But there was still a missing piece of the puzzle: why, I wondered, in 1807, did officials think that these decades-old numbers about the political economy of empire were worth extracting out of old documents contained in the imperial archive? And what were they using these numbers for?

“Correspondence, original- Board of Trade, 1627-1807,” UK National Archives

My effort to answer these questions led me eventually to write the article that appears in October 2020 issue of the William & Mary Quarterly. In “The Archival Epistemology of Political Economy in the Early Modern British Atlantic World,” I excavate a largely forgotten but important form of political economic reasoning that prevailed in the early modern world: deriving economic ‘facts’ based on the authority of their inscription in bureaucratic documents produced by government officials and contained in the archives of imperial states – including the clerk whose notes I discovered at the National Archives, who turned out to be a particularly important practitioner of this epistemology of political economy, George Chalmers. As I discuss in the essay, Chalmers – who served as the Chief Clerk of the Office for Trade, the office that succeeded the Board of Trade after the end of the American Revolution – was among the last practitioners of this archival form of political economic reasoning, one that gave way in the early nineteenth century to a mode of thinking of the ‘economy’ as knowable through ‘scientific’ laws rather than archival paperwork, a form of knowledge increasingly conceived of as closer to theoretical physics or mathematics than history. The article builds off my current book project, a history of the role of archives as tools of governance and policy-making in the early modern British empire, and an exploration of why archives eventually came to be seen as sites of historical research rather than administration. “The Archival Epistemology of Political Economy in the Early Modern British Atlantic World” provides part of the answer: by the end of the eighteenth century, new epistemologies not predicated upon archival knowledge came to supersede the precedential forms of reasoning that had rooted truth-claims about policy matters in their status as inscribed in authoritative documents written in the past.

Seeing the article in print, it’s almost too easy to forget just how long, circuitous, and difficult the road from research to publication actually was! I spent much of the seven years from my initial discovery of the notes to the present publication of the article puzzling over just what to make of what seemed for a long time like impenetrable numerical markings made over 200 years ago! I was fortunate to have the opportunity to test out and refine some of my initial hypotheses in February 2018, when I gave the first version of the paper at the University of Southern California Early Modern Studies Institute’s Martens Economic Forum on new histories of political economy in early modern Atlantic world empires held at the Huntington Library in California alongside the authors of the other articles that appear in the WMQ’s October issue. Feedback from the conference led to further archival investigations over the summer of 2018 and the eventual submission of the essay to the Quarterly in early 2019. The initial submission, admittedly, had some significant weaknesses, ones that the astute anonymous reviewers for the Quarterly noted in their feedback. Most problematic in the eyes of the perceptive reviewers was that I had not contextualize Chalmers’ clerical practices appropriately – in his attempt to argue that political economic ‘fact’ was grounded in archival documentation, was he simply a singular figure, or was he representative of a broader pattern of reasoning?

It’s always frustrating when an article doesn’t take in peer review, but fortunately the reviewers saw enough merit in my initial submission to recommend a decision of “reject with the option to resubmit” – the WMQ’s version of the classic ‘revise and resubmit.’ Equally important, they provided provocative and productive suggestions that guided what became my almost top to bottom rewrite and revision of the article, which included significant further research into broader attitudes in early modern political economic thinking on the role of archives as sources of knowledge. With the reviewers’ comments in hand, and guided by the extensive, detailed editor’s letter from Joshua Piker pointing to the most important comments to address, I was able to revise the article into a version that was accepted upon a further round of peer review. The quite simply amazing editorial and copyediting process, guided by the work, care, and suggestions of Meg Musselwhite, Carol Arnette, and the OI’s graduate student editorial apprentices, decisively and significantly enhanced the final product – it was an extraordinary privilege to work with the OI staff, whose thoughtfulness, attention, and rigor in editing and production is unmatched!

It’s stunning to step back and take stock of the eight year journey from initial archival find (2013) to publication (2020) – and to me, it is a reminder of the unique temporality of scholarship among the various facets of life as a historian in the academy. The labor of teaching and academic bureaucracy occurs on well-defined time scales – the twelve weeks of a semester, the two hours of a seminar, the seventy five minutes of a department meeting, and the two or three months of summer ‘break’ spent writing or in archives. But producing publishable scholarship takes years of research, writing, and revising, and its requirements rarely fit neatly into the calendrical confines established by PhD funding limits, job market cycles, and tenure clocks. As stress-inducing as the discrepancies can be, especially for junior scholars, the experience of researching, writing, and rewriting my WMQ article has cemented for me the truth that producing good scholarship simply can’t be rushed – and that its vital that the academy structures its professional expectations around these realities.  

[1] TNA, CO 318/2, IMG_2072, shared link to the file available here:

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