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.

Follow by Email


Tuesday, November 03, 2015

John Huske on “an inland tax” for North America

As shown yesterday, on 1 Nov 1765 Bostonians hung an effigy of John Huske from Liberty Tree. Most histories say this was based on the mistaken notion that Huske had proposed the Stamp Act in Parliament when in fact he had opposed it.

I’ve found two profiles of Huske online, one built around his political career in Britain and the other in the Franklin Papers and thus more focused on his links back to America.

A lot of Bostonians knew Huske. He was a son of Ellis Huske, postmaster of Boston and chief justice of New Hampshire. He was named for an uncle who became a prominent general. After being born in Portsmouth, the young Huske moved to Boston for schooling and to begin his career in business.

In 1748 Huske headed to London to make his fortune. He seems to have done that in several ways over the next two decades, losing his money an equal number of times. He also went into politics, attaching himself to Charles Townshend. His campaigning in the district of Hull in 1757 prompted a letter to a duke that said:
Mr. Huske finding that he could make no impression even upon the mob which I had secured, and which he expected great matters from, thought it yesterday most prudent to retire which saved us the trouble of throwing him into the Humber
In 1763, Huske finally got elected to the House of Commons from Maldon.

As a native of America and a merchant doing business with the colonies, Huske often spoke in Parliament about American policy. Some people were more impressed than others. Horace Walpole called him “a wild, absurd man.” He had a lot of ideas, but he wasn’t close enough to the Grenville administration for most people to pay attention to them.

In March 1764, George Grenville and his ministers first proposed a Stamp Tax for North America. Charles Garth, an agent for South Carolina, reported on Huske’s response:
The chancellor of the Exchequer at first proposed it as a measure to take place this sessions, but Mr. Alderman [William] Beckford and Mr. Huske signifying their wish to have the colonies apprized of the intention of Parliament, Mr. Grenville readily acquiesced, declaring it was far from his inclination to press any measure upon any part of the dominions without giving them time to be heard, should they have objections thereto.
Thus, rather than proposing the Stamp Act, Huske actually helped to delay it for a year.

In August 1764, Huske sent a letter to his brother-in-law Edmund Quincy, Jr. (1726-1782), who published it in the 29 Oct 1764 Boston Gazette. It was a reply to “the Committee of Merchants in Boston” who had addressed him about the state of trade the previous February, and was long enough to take up a full page of the paper.

In that letter Huske lamented the Sugar Act and warned that a Stamp Act was likely to pass in Parliament’s upcoming session. He asked the Massachusetts merchants to send any him information he could use to argue against it: “why the provincial stamp did not succeed with you and at New-York;…with every reason you can assign against the establishment of a general stamp duty throughout America.”

Huske blamed “the indiscreet conversation of some Americans, who deny the rights of Kings, Lords and Commons, to impose such a tax on America.” Raising that argument had forced the ministry’s hand, he suggested; the only way for them to confirm Parliament’s sovereignty across the whole Empire now was to enact just such “an inland tax.”

Huske then went to grumble about “the principal author and abettor of this mushroom policy” becoming known “as the person to whom the colonists are indebted for the postponing of the Stamp duty.” He wrote opaquely about “the other undiscerning American he has drawn into the adoption of his sentiments,” and of yet “another Gentleman” whom Americans saw “as their honestest, ablest, firmest, and most successful friend.” All that suggests there was a lot of jockeying, and some backstabbing, among the men in London who claimed to represent American interests. Huske obviously wanted his Massachusetts correspondents to give him more credit for the Stamp Act’s delay.

However, Huske had apparently made his own proposal for raising revenue in North America. According to James Harris’s notes on parliamentary speeches, on 31 Jan 1764 Huske had “proposed an entire new bill of his own—a capitation tax, I think—to be extended through Scotland, Ireland and America.” That’s another term for a poll tax, and it would have hit every free adult male on top of the colonies’ own poll taxes. A few days after that speech, someone wrote to Boston warning that Huske was not “standing an advocate for his injured Country” but had “officiously proposed…a tax on the Colonies.”

Thus, although John Huske was an opponent of the Stamp Act, he was a proponent of imperial taxes on American colonists. Indeed, his proposal would have directly affected more householders than the Stamp Act. Bostonians were receiving contradictory messages from Huske and other correspondents in London, which might have reinforced an existing idea that he was an ambitious, devious man who could play to both sides.

So was it fair or unfair for Bostonians to hang Huske in effigy from Liberty Tree?

No comments: