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, October 08, 2020

“Considering the Non-importation Agreement to be broke”

By this week in October 1770, 250 years ago, the Boston Whigs knew that the North American non-importation movement had collapsed.

As I discussed back here, early that month the Boston Gazette printed a letter from Philadelphia reporting that some of that city’s merchants were proposing a public meeting to discuss the boycott of goods from Britain.

With most of the Townshend duties repealed, and merchants in some smaller ports already importing, the Philadelphians felt they should declare victory and get back to business. 

Philadelphia’s radical Whigs tried to keep the movement together. But, as the city’s non-importation committee described in a letter dated 25 September, and published as a broadside, the merchants ready to import called their own meeting at Davenport’s tavern. The 135 men who turned out chose Thomas Willing to chair the meeting.

The Boston Gazette reported the results in the 4 October issue. Here are the questions put to that gathering and the body’s answers:

First. Are you of Opinion, that the Non-importation Agreement, as it now subsists, should be altered?

Which was determined by a great Majority, in the Affirmative.

Second. Are you of Opinion that the Alteration proposed, should be to open the Importation of Goods from Great-Britain, and other Parts of Europe, except Teas, and such other Articles as are, or may be subject to Duties for the Purpose of raising a Revenue in America?

Which was determined by a great Majority in the Affirmative.
Some men at the meeting evidently felt they shouldn’t act without discussing the situation further with colleagues in Boston and New York, which of course would take more time. But the majority felt there had been enough discussion already. If people wanted to get their orders to London before winter made sailing harder, they had to act now.

Third. Whether it will not be for the Reputation of this City, to consult the other Colonies, before any Breach is made in the present Agreement?

Which was determined in the Negative.

Fourth. Whether the Agreement is deemed to be broke or altered?

Agreed that it is altered only.
Charles Thomson (shown above) then spoke for several other members of the Philadelphia non-importation committee (including Thomas Mifflin) to say that, regardless of the last vote quoted above, they considered the agreement now “broke.” They opposed that change and would no longer serve on the merchants’ committee.

This news from Philadelphia, and similar reports from New York, told the Boston merchants that maintaining the boycott would have little political effect in London and would leave them at a business disadvantage on the continent. So they might as well start importing, too.

Parliament had kept the tariff on tea, and that revenue was still going to the Customs service and to salaries for royal officials in the colonies. Diehard Whigs like Samuel Adams therefore still saw a dire threat to colonial self-government.

American Whigs officially continued to promote a boycott on tea from Britain for the next three years, even before the Tea Act of 1773. That’s one reason why citizens looking back on pre-war politics recalled tea as the problem rather than all the other goods on the non-importation list. But Customs house figures show that ships brought a great deal of tea in from Britain during those years. Americans found it really hard to give up caffeine.

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