J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, April 05, 2012

Henry Knox: “I beg some directions about your tea”

People writing about Henry Knox after the Revolutionary War said that he was always an ardent Whig. However, in sources from the early 1770s, his political views aren’t so pointed. There’s no evidence he was involved in any of the Whigs’ political organizations, such as the North End and South End Caucuses. He wasn’t on town committees. Attorneys on both sides of the Boston Massacre trials called him to testify.

Of course, Knox was still only in his early twenties, and thus not in line for political leadership yet. But he’s also not linked to the Boston Tea Party, a rare distinction for a Boston Patriot of his age.

Knox did have a significant encounter with the tea trade, which had major political implications after 1773. On 28 July 1774, New York printer James Rivington (shown above, from the collections of the New-York Historical Society) told him that he’d sent four chests of Hyson tea for Knox to sell on consignment. That tea had been landed without any duties paid, Rivington added, meaning both that it was illegal and that selling it wouldn’t mean paying the tea tax. (That letter was published by the Massachusetts Historical Society in 1928 and is now in the collection of the Gilder-Lehrman Institute.) On 15 August, Rivington wrote that more tea was on its way.

Knox’s earliest biographer, Francis S. Drake, wrote of this episode: “Knox declined the commission, and in September Rivington orders its delivery to a Mr. Palfrey.” (William Palfrey was a business associate of John Hancock.) Later Knox biographers—Noah Brooks, North Callahan, and Mark Puls—similarly wrote that the young bookseller refused to sell the tea, presenting that as evidence of his steadfast support for Whig political platform.

However, Cyrus Eaton printed Knox’s letters on the subject in his 1865 History of Thomaston,…Maine, and they present Knox’s reluctance as based on business, not politics. They also show that he kept trying to sell that tea discreetly for months.

On 4 August, Knox told Rivington:
I received yours of the 28th of July, and am much obliged to you for your kind recommendation of the Officers of the 23d [Regiment], but am extremely sorry for your mistake in consigning Hyson Tea to this place. I have conversed with the first tea dealers in town, who say this is the dullest time for it they ever knew, and that 100 lbs. would supply the probable demand for a twelvemonth.

The person who informed you about the price is also mistaken, as my informers say they would be very glad to take $3 per pound for theirs which is exceedingly good. Souchong tea would have answered much better than Hyson—but as they are both entirely out of my way I should be well pleased to have nothing to do with them. If by any good Fortune the ship should be detained till this arrives, by all means take it out.

The Gentlemen of the army and navy brought their Tea with them, as they were informed it was not to be had here; and a report of its being scarce has occasioned great quantities to be poured in from the neighboring seaports.
Two weeks later, Knox wrote again about the difficulty of selling tea. He never refused the business on political grounds. On 29 September, Rivington did tell Knox to deliver the tea to Palfrey, but on 15 October he was still asking the bookseller “to get as much above twenty shillings for the Tea as you possibly can.”

As late as 6 Feb 1775, Knox reported to Rivington:
I beg some directions about your tea. I have tried every person in this town who usually deals in it, but have not been able to succeed. One chest I sold to my particular friends at the rate of 12s. sterling per pound, but have not been able to sell one ounce to any other persons. Pray give me your speedy commands about it. As the Provincial and Continental Congresses have determined to suspend the use of it after the first of March, it will be too great a risque for me to vend any of it after that time, altho’ I should be glad to do every thing in my power to serve you.
Knox was eager to adhere to the Patriot boycotts, and his other letters of the time expressed opposition about the Boston Port Bill. But the tone of Knox’s pre-war letters was far from radical, and he seemed more concerned with business than with politics.

COMING UP: Knox’s marital politics.

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