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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Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Henry Knox: “the only things which I desire you to send”

In November 1774, Henry Knox wrote to his main London book supplier, Thomas Longman (1731-1797), about the effects of Parliament’s Boston Port Bill and Continental Congress’s Association, or boycott of goods from Britain.

First of all, those measures meant Knox wasn’t enclosing any money. In March, the London stationery firm Wright & Gill had reminded Knox about an overdue bill and threatened to add 5% interest to the balance. Knox paid that invoice, as the firm confirmed in July. But that left him less money for Longman:

I am sorry it is not in my power to make you remittance per this opportunity, but shall do it very soon. This whole Continent have entered into a General non-Importation agreement until the late acts of Parliament respecting this Government, &C., are repealed, which will prevent my sending any orders for Books until this most desirable End is accomplished. I cannot but hope every person who is concerned in American trade will most strenuously exert themselves in their respective stations for what so nearly concerns themselves.

I had the fairest prospect of entirely balancing our account this fall, but the almost total stagnation of Trade in consequence of the Boston Port Bill has been the sole means of preventing it, and now the non-consumption agreement will stop that small circulation of Business left by the Boston Port Bill—I mean the internal business of the province. It must be the wish of every good man that these unhappy differences between Great Britain and the Colonies be speedily and finally adjusted—the influence that the unlucky and unhappy mood of Politicks of the times has upon trade, is my only excuse for writing concerning them.

The Magazines and new publications concerning the American dispute are the only things which I desire you to send at present, which I wish you to pack together well wrapped in a brown paper as usual.
The Continental Association actually prohibited the import of “any Goods, Wares, or Merchandises whatsoever,” with no exception for magazines and political pamphlets. Most likely the committee-men who promoted that boycott didn’t really care about the publications Knox asked for; they might even have been among his customers.

Nonetheless, this is another example of Knox as a young businessman seeking practical middle ground. He stuck to the boycott mostly, but not totally, and (contrary to what some biographers have written) he didn’t champion or help to enforce it.

After the war, Knox tried to pay off his Longman bill. He made one big payment but, land-rich but cash-poor, didn’t retire the whole debt before he died in 1806.

TOMORROW: The value of playing both sides.


Chris Hurley of Woburn said...

Making one's own exception to non-importation was done by at least one town as well. Woburn agreed with one exclusion written in, a church bell. I am supposing they had already ordered it.

J. L. Bell said...

Another thing a number of people did was to place orders just before the non-importation period took effect. While within the letter of the Continental Association, they nonetheless provided their London merchants with extra business, often in the same letters in which they wrote about how important it was for the British economy for Parliament to repeal the laws.