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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Sunday, August 02, 2020

Non-Importation to the End

In the summer of 1770 the Boston Whigs were dealing with the challenge of mixed results. As young printer John Boyle recorded in his chronicle of events on 10 June 1770:
An Act of Parliament is received for repealing part of an Act for granting Duties upon Glass, Paper, Painters Colours, &c

The Duty on Tea is to be continued.
Was this partial repeal of the Townshend Act enough of a victory to call off the non-importation boycott? The Whigs decided it wasn’t. One aspect of Whiggish thinking is a fear that any compromise with an oppressive government could start a society on a slide into political slavery. So they couldn’t accept taxation without representation on a commodity like tea, even though enjoying it depended on the global reach of the British Empire.

But New York merchants could accept that compromise. As I discussed yesterday, despite heavy criticism from that city’s radicals and from nearby towns, the leaders of non-importation in New York voted to end their pact on 9 July. That not only made the North American boycott less effective, but it also meant New Yorkers would be the first to profit from pent-up demand for British goods.

Bostonians still had hope of a further repeal by Parliament, but on 22 July more news came. Merchant John Rowe (shown above) wrote in his diary:
Capt. Smith of the Nassau arrived from London & gives an accot. of the Prorogation of the Parliament the 20th of May without Repealing the Duty on Tea—the people I hope will have Virtue enough never to make use of it as Long as the Duty is demanded.
The Boston Whigs called a public meeting on the afternoon of 24 July. This wasn’t an official town meeting, nor a meeting of the merchants like Rowe, but a gathering of “the Body of the Trade”—anyone doing business in Boston.

But first, Rowe reported, the Whigs started with a public demonstration:
just before some of them Proceeded through the streets with Dr [Thomas] Young at their head, with Three Flags Flying, Drums Beating & a french Horn—Thos. Baker carried one of them, for which he is much Blamed by me—The meeting today will I believe prove very Prejudicial to the Merchants & Trade of the Town of Boston.
As usual, Rowe was trimming back and forth politically. That month he had a private meeting with Lt. Gov. Thomas Hutchinson, who offered Rowe a commission. Two days later Rowe met with Samuel Adams, William Molineux, Dr. Joseph Warren, and Dr. Young, the most radical Whig leaders, who were recruiting for another committee. Rowe kept away from both offers, still not choosing a side.

The Whigs’ own description of their event appeared first in the 26 July Boston News-Letter:
THERE was as full a Meeting of the Trade Tuesday last, at Faneuil-Hall, as ever was known, to take into Consideration the Reports relative to the Defection of New-York, and what Measures were necessary to be pursued for re-shipping the Goods which had been stored as being imported contrary to the Merchants Agreement.——

At this Meeting a Letter was read from four Persons in New York,…informing that a Majority of the Inhabitants of New-York were for an Importation of Goods, and that many Orders had been actually forwarded; but as this Intelligence was not sufficiently authenticated, as the said four Persons had not even declared themselves to be authorized to be this Information either by the standing Committee or any other Body, said Letter was regrad as designed to impose upon this and the other American Colonies, and to induce them to break through the most salutary Plan of Non Importation, upon which the Security of our invaluable Rights and Privileges so much depend.——

It was therefore Voted unanimously, that the said Letter in just Indignation, Abhorrence and Detestation, be forthwith torn into Pieces and thrown to the Winds as unworthy of the least Notice: Which Sentence was accordingly executed.
In essence, the Boston Whigs shouted, “Fake news!” No one should believe that report from New York, they suggested. To be sure, they also voted to send a message to New York’s committee exhorting them to make people countermand any orders sent to Britain, so the Whigs must have believed at least some of this news.

The Body then agreed to stick to the non-importation agreement “against all Opposition and every Discouragement whatever.” Organizers claimed that local merchants who had agreed to store their goods until the boycott ended “have already given Orders for their being immediately trucked to the Vessel provided for that Purpose,” so they were in for the long haul.

The report for the News-Letter concluded by declaring, “There never was greater Unanimity or more Spirit discovered for the general Interest of America than at this Meeting.”

TOMORROW: Protesting too much.

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