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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Friday, April 06, 2012

James Rivington: “for fear of hurting your interest”

Yesterday I quoted from the correspondence of Boston bookseller Henry Knox and New York printer James Rivington. Their professions made them natural business associates, with Knox selling what Rivington printed.

Eighteenth-century booksellers and printers didn’t confine themselves to selling printed matter. In his second latter to Knox, dated 26 June 1774, Rivington asked the younger man if he wanted to be the Boston agent for “Maredant’s Antiscorbutic Drops.”

In June 1774, Knox married Lucy Flucker, daughter of the royal secretary of Massachusetts. Soon after hearing that news, Rivington sent three letters, longer than any previously, congratulating the young bookseller on his marriage. At the same time, Rivington:
  • told Knox that he’d recommended his shop to officers of the 23rd Regiment of Foot (the Royal Welch Fusileers), then being transferred from New York to Boston.
  • sent him four chests of contraband tea to sell.
In October Rivington offered to host Henry and Lucy, whom he’d called a “most beauteous bride” and an “amiable Lady” (I don’t think they’d met), when they visited New York.

In that city, Rivington was already known in mid-1774 as a pro-Crown printer, though he still did jobs for Patriots as well. I suspect he thought that Knox’s marriage would draw the young bookseller into the Loyalist party in Boston. So he was throwing business in Knox’s direction.

On 1 December, Rivington sent Knox 300 copies of a Patriot pamphlet by Philip Livingston (shown above) titled “The Other Side of the Question; or, A Defence of the Liberties of North-America: In Answer to a Late Friendly Address to All Reasonable Americans, on the Subject of Our Political Confusions.” He told Knox that he hadn’t enclosed the original, Loyalist pamphlet:
The friendly address I do not send to you for fear of hurting your interest, it was forwarded to me by [Boston printers] Mills & Hicks to be printed, my reasons for not troubling you with these very warm, high seasoned pamphlets, is that your very numerous friends, on the patriot Interest, may be greatly disgusted at your distributing them; but if you are not so very nice as I apprehend from the state of your interest &c and are willing to have these sort of articles I will secure them for you from time to time. A piece is printing, in the Hudibrastic stile which will sell but I greatly fear you will not like. Pray explain yourself on this head directly, for I mean to shew every expression of my attention to you.
Thus, although Rivington recognized that Knox’s “interest” and “very numerous friends” were on the Patriot side, he dangled the prospect of business selling Loyalist material. Undoubtedly that would have pleased Lucy’s father, Thomas Flucker, and his colleagues in the royal government.

I don’t think Knox’s response to this invitation survives. When he discussed politics in earlier letters, his tone was moderate and his positions were Whig but not radical. He tried to maintain friendly ties. The only hint that Knox might become a Loyalist was his marriage with the financial prospects it brought—but apparently that was enough for Rivington to send out feelers.

COMING UP: The value of Knox’s position.


Joseph M. Adelman said...

Thanks for discussing the links between Knox and Rivington.

From my reading of Rivington's correspondence and business records, I tend to see him as a more opportunistic businessman than I think you indicate here. Yes, he surely thought that Knox's marriage might make a business arrangement more profitable. He supported the Loyalist cause, but he also attempted to trade pamphlets on both sides with the Bradfords in Philadelphia, for example, and to organize business ventures jointly among the New York printers.

That is, I think he gave more weight to the possibilities for business connections than he did to political affiliations.

J. L. Bell said...

I don't think anyone can read the scholarship on Rivington without recognizing that the man seized his opportunities!

Indeed, at this moment I see both men as struggling to maintain their business viability as the political situation made life much harder. Though New Yorkers had started to see Rivington as a Tory, he did print Livingston's Patriot pamphlet and send it to Knox for sale.

I view Rivington as doing what most of us do, viewing Knox through his own eyes. Knox's best economic opportunity in late 1774 probably appeared to lie in allying with his wife's rich, well-connected family. So even as Rivington sent Patriot pamphlets, he also let Knox know he could send Loyalist ones as well, and they could do glorious business together.

Knox's reply to that offer doesn't seem to survive, but we do know he was still corresponding with Rivington about the New Yorker's contraband tea in early 1775. So the Boston bookseller was still trying to keep business alliances alive as well.

John L Smith Jr said...

My other favorite patent medicine of the time (unsure if Rivington handled the distribution of if Knox sold it) was "Dr. Ryan's incomparable Worm-Destroying Sugar Plums"... just another cure-all that didn't withstand the test of time and scientific scrutiny.