"Auctioneer of Offices": Patronage, Value, and Trust in the Early Republic Marketplace
Abstract

Abstract:

In 1818, newly elected Pennsylvania governor William Findlay claimed he was promoting economic opportunity when he used patronage appointments to manipulate the business partnerships of Philadelphia's auctioneers and to secure loans for his brother. Within a year, however, the Panic of 1819 exposed the fragility of American credit connections and raised uncertainty over the costs of economic opportunity. Philadelphia businessmen demanded an inquiry into auctioneer licenses that revealed deep ambivalence toward the use of patronage in the American marketplace. On the one hand, patronage ties remained essential to business, providing capital investment, connections, and a mark of approval in a world of strangers. On the other hand, businesspeople in the Early Republic had adopted a more democratic definition of patronage: support of competitive businesses by a wider public. Auctioneers, who were both traders and agents of the state, embodied this tension and became a focal point in the ongoing debates over the proper degree of freedom in the marketplace. Auctioneers promised their public patrons open bidding and low prices. Yet they possessed no clear credentials or expertise to justify public trust and their activities publicized social and economic problems of value. Previous work has focused on patronage as part of personal business networks; this article, highlighting the economic and cultural importance of auctioneers, demonstrates the concept's wider relevance in early nineteenth-century America. Pennsylvania's auctioneer scandal underscored the economy of relationships in an age praising political autonomy.