Colonial American Trade



In 1769 the merchants of New York, Philadelphia, Annapolis and other places had renewed their nonimportation leagues with vigor; and Washington, at Mount Vernon, assisted by his neighbor, George Mason, had matured the plan for such an association which, as we have observed, he laid before the Virginia House of Burgesses when they reassembled after they had been dissolved by Governor Botetourt. That patriot afterward wrote to his correspondent in London, from whom he ordered goods: "You will perceive, in looking over the several invoices, that some of the goods there required are upon condition that the act of Parliament imposing a duty on tea, paper, &c., for the purpose of raising a revenue in America, is totally repealed; and I beg the favor of you to be governed strictly thereby, as it will not be in my power to receive any articles contrary to our nonimportation agreement, which I have subscribed, and shall religiously adhere to, and should if it were, as I could wish it to be, ten times as strict." Mason wrote to Washington: "Our all is at stake; and the little conveniences and comforts of life, when set in competition with our liberty, ought to be rejected, not with reluctance, but with pleasure."

In view of the movements in America, the British Parliament hesitated. They perceived that the colonies were forming a more formidable combination against British commerce and manufactures than any before; and some of the more sensible men in Parliament urged the repeal of the tea act, and so end the controversy. "So favorable an opportunity," they said, "may never recur." But Lord North replied: "We will not consent to discuss the question because of the combinations in America. To do so would furnish a fresh instance of haste, impatience, levity, and fickleness. I see nothing uncommercial in making the Americans pay a duty on tea."

North was only the echo of the monarch, who swayed this minister with a perfect control. The king had made it an inflexible rule never to redress a grievance unless such redress was prayed for in a spirit of obedience and humility. He was also determined to assert the right of Parliament to tax the colonies, and insisted that one tax must always be laid to keep up that right. So the king and his pliant minister clung to the duty on tea. Hills-borough, under the direction of North, sent a Circular to all the colonies, in which a promise was given that no more taxes for revenue should be laid upon them, and that the duties upon paper, painters' colors and glass should be taken off by a repeal of the law levying them. It was believed that this concession would satisfy the Americans, forgetting that a principle broader and deeper and more vital than any statute law was at the bottom of the discontent in the colonies. British statesmen and publicists of the aristo-cratic party demurred at this concession. Dr. Johnson, then a pensioner of the government and afterward author of the tract entitled Taxation no Tyranny, growled out his dissatisfaction in the coarse expression: "The Americans are a race of convicts, and ought to be thankful for anything we allow them short of hanging." And the short-sighted Hillsborough, exaggerating the sentiments of the monarch, said: "We can grant nothing to the Americans except what they may ask with halters around their necks."

The Circular sent to the colonies was wrung from the reluctant ministry by fear of a revolt at home. The capital of the kingdom was then fearfully shaken by a violent political excitement that filled thoughtful minds with dread. John Wilkes, the irrepressible political writer, had suddenly returned from exile, and was elected a representative in Parliament by the voters of Middlesex. The king desired to keep him out of Parliament, and the pliant House of Commons refused to give him a seat. The people were aroused by great indignation because of this interference with their rights. Wilkes was chosen to be a magistrate of London, by a large majority; and again the voters of Middlesex elected him to represent them in Parliament. Again the Commons kept him from his seat by voting the returns null and void, without the shadow of a fact to warrant the action. A third and fourth time he was elected by overwhelming majorities, and each time, the Commons, under the influence of the king, and in violation of the seminal principle of representative government, denied him a seat in the House, and gave it to his opponent at the hustings. Their plea was that Wilkes was an outlaw.

This deadly blow, as the people regarded it, at one of the dearest rights of the British subject, moved the public mind of the kingdom most powerfully, and added thousands of intelligent men to the list of friends of the Americans, the vital principle of whose resistance to the government was the sacred right of representation as an equivalent for taxation. Mobs appeared in London and various parts of the kingdom, vehemently protesting by great violence against the outrage upon popular liberty. In these demonstrations many lives were lost. The houses of crown-officers were attacked, and even the palace of Whitchall, the residence of the king, was seriously menaced by a vast concourse of people, shouting, "Wilkes and Liberty." The populace were restrained from violence, and possibly from the murder of the king, by the interference of the Royal Guards. To this political agitation was added that which was caused by the distress, real and prospective, of the merchants and manufacturers of England, created by the nonimportation leagues in operation in America. These causes combined pressed the English people, at that time, to the verge of revolution. They were taught by current events to regard their king as a foe to popular liberty, and a willing usurper of the rights of the people; and attachment to the crown was greatly weakened.

Hillsborough's Circular had not the least effect upon the Americans except to stimulate them to more determined resistance. The repeal of some of the obnoxious acts would be a partial relief from taxation; but so long as the duty on tea was retained, the principle involved remained the same. While a tax for revenue in the smallest degree was imposed upon the Americans, their real grievance was not redressed, and they stood firm in their attitude of resistance. They worked the engine of nonimportation with great vigor. The exports from England to America which, in 1768, had amounted to almost $12,000,000 (of which amount tea represented $660,000), in 1769 amounted to only a little over $8,000,000, the tea being only $220,000. Pownal, the immediate predecessor of Bernard as governor of Massachusetts, showed, in a speech in Parliament, that the total produce of the new taxes for the first year had been less than $80,000, and that the expenses of the new custom-house arrangements had reduced the net profits of the crown revenue in the colonies to $1,475, while the extraordinary military expenses in America amounted, for the same time, to $850,000. Yet the stubborn king and his pliant minister insisted upon retaining the duty on tea, to save the royal prerogative, and keeping up an expensive military establishment to enforce its collection! Samuel Adams was doubtless right when he publicly declared, on the arrival of the repeal of the stamp act: "The conduct of England is permitted and ordained by the unsearchable wisdom of the Almighty for hastening the independence of these colonies."





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