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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Saturday, August 01, 2020

Non-Importation from the Beginning

On 1 Aug 1768, the merchants of Boston agreed to non-importation as a way to pressure London into repealing the Townshend duties.

Their agreement stated:
The merchants and traders in the town of Boston, having taken into consideration the deplorable situation of the trade and the many difficulties it at present labours under on account of the scarcity of money, which is daily decreasing for want of the other remittances to discharge our debts in Great Britain, and the large sums collected by the officers of the customs for duties on goods imported; the heavy taxes levied to discharge the debts contracted by the government in the late war; the embarrassments and restrictions laid on the trade by the several late Acts of Parliament; together with the bad success of our cod fishery this season, and the discouraging prospect of the whale fishery, by which our principal sources of remittances are like to be greatly diminished, and we thereby rendered unable to pay the debts we owe the merchants in Great Britain, and to continue the importation of goods from thence:

We, the subscribers, in order to relieve the trade under those discouragements, to promote industry, frugality, and economy, and to discourage luxury and every kind of extravagance, do promise and engage to and with each other as follows:

That we will not send or import from Great Britain this fall, either on our own account, or on commission, any other goods than what are already ordered for the fall supply.

That we will not send for or import any kind of goods or merchandise from Great Britain, either on our own account, or on commissions, or any otherwise, from January 1, 1769, to January 1, 1770, except salt, coals, fish-hooks and lines, hemp, duck, bar lead and shot, wool-cards, and card-wire.

That we will not purchase of any factors, or others, any kind of goods imported from Great Britain from January 1, 1769, to January 1, 1770. That we will not import on our own account, or on commission, or Purchase from any Who shall import from any other colony in America, from January 1, 1769, to January 1, 1770, any tea, glass, paper, or other goods commonly imported from Great Britain.

That we will not, from and after January 1, 1769, import into the province any tea, paper, glass, or painters’ colours, until the Acts imposing duties on these articles have been repealed.
The Townshend Act actually taxed lead as well, but that was such an important commodity for manufacturing and military defense that this agreement specifically allowed importing it.

There were a lot of disputes in 1769 over other details of that agreement. Did merchants have to follow it to the letter if they adhered to its spirit? What about goods for the army? What about goods that non-signatories in other towns asked someone to ship in? What about, say, books?

Generally the merchants of Boston stuck to these terms, though printer John Mein was happy to point out exceptions, especially any taken by the merchants who promoted the boycott.

As the end of the year 1769, and the end of the formal agreement, approached, the Boston Whigs added pressure on all merchants to renew. In the new year they singled out importers as “obstinate and inveterate Enemies of their Country.” The large public meetings became clear that the elite merchants who had first drawn up the agreement in August 1768 were no longer in charge.

In the spring of 1770, the North American colonies got word that Parliament was repealing the Townshend Act—mostly. The tariff on tea was to remain, and that alone brought in enough revenue to provide salaries for lots of Customs officers and other royal appointees in the colonies.

The merchants of the major ports started to discuss whether they should keep up non-importation, modify the terms, or go back to business as usual. Philadelphians met in April and May 1770 and decided to send a letter to Boston opening up the idea of change. Newport’s merchants went ahead and dropped the boycott in May. New York’s committee of inspection started polling the business community in June and suggested a “General Conference of the Merchants on the Continent” to come up with terms everyone could live with.

Boston’s merchants, or at least a group speaking for them, met on 7 June and declared that any change to non-importation would show “a levity of disposition probably injurious to the common cause.” They pressured the merchants of Portsmouth and Newport to renew their commitments to the boycott.

That campaign was undercut by a letter from London claiming that in the first six months of the year £150,000 worth of goods had been shipped to Boston. A writer in the 14 June Pennsylvania Gazette wrote, “the conduct of the Boston people was not as consistent as could be wished.” Nonetheless, the merchants of Newport rescinded their previous rescinding.

In New York, the merchants’ committee circulated a survey or ballot with one question:
Do you approve of a general importation of goods from Great Britain, except tea and other articles which are or may be subject to a duty on importation, or do you approve of our non-importation agreement continuing in the manner it now is?
Reportedly, most respondents wanted change. The committee sent that news to Philadelphia and Boston, asking for the response of the committees there. Meanwhile, New York’s Sons of Liberty protested any idea of change, but they weren’t in charge as in Boston. Communities around New York also supported continuing non-importation.

On 9 July, the New York committee took these responses in mind and organized a vote, ward by ward. The result was a victory for relaxing the boycott. Immediately the city’s merchants sent orders for everything but tea off on the London packet ship, the Earl of Halifax. Then they sent letters to the other ports, breaking the news. As far as the second-largest port in British North America was concerned, general non-importation was over.

TOMORROW: Boston’s reaction.

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