The Turbulent Life of a Merchant in the Revolutionary Era The following paper, through the mind and words of a fictionalized character, examines the crucial issues and various changes the imperial relationship between Great Britain and its North American colonies underwent in the mid-to-late eighteenth century. Drawing upon various historical events and enactments, the story of Gerald Gardner, a Bostonian merchant, will try to synthesize these events and provide a reflection upon the American Revolution from the point-of-view of those who shared his line of work.
While the following opinions expressed display the feelings and attitudes of one man, the same cannot be applied historically to all of the merchant class. The characters and opinions are fictional, however, the historical events, legislation, and enactments are not. Gerald Gardner began working in the trade industry at some point near the year 1750, finding favorable conditions under which his business could flourish. His job involved him both selling and shipping to overseas markets while also buying and importing goods he could then sell in the colonies.
Although British law required “that certain products of the colonies, such as tobacco, rice, indigo, when exported should be taken only to England or to another English colony” and “that the colonies purchase European manufactures only through England”, Gardner paid little heed to these laws (Morgan, 10). That did not mean he did not engage in trade with the mother country, since England had the world’s most advanced industry and normally the best prices. But Gardner saw the Navigation law as intending to “promote the economic welfare of the empire in general and of the mother country in particular” (Morgan, 10).
He was neither interested in nor motivated by the gains of the empire; he was simply focused on his personal well-being. Thus, in order profit largely, he often bought and directly imported shipments of beautiful and valuable textiles from Holland and France, which under English law, was forbidden. To do so, Gardner paid customs officers to look the other way upon receiving these shipments. Well aware of the lax, ineffective Navigation Act enforcement, the customs officers engaged in these deals knowing they were unlikely to be punished for them, much less have them be discovered by superiors (Morgan, 11).
Gerald Garner built himself quite the name in the business world, shipping raw materials to and buying manufactures from England, while also illegally purchasing French and Dutch textiles directly from the respective nations rather than through England. Purchasing directly from France or Holland cut out the middleman, England, who would have charged them for a higher price. Life was well for Gardner. He had amassed quite the personal fortunes; he had trading connections throughout Europe.
But the comfortable lifestyle he had grown to enjoy would soon suffer major changes, when, in 1763, Britain began to reform its failing imperial administration. The antiquated British imperial system, already costing substantially more to operate than it rose in revenue, now faced another enormous economic problem, funding its acquisitions gained from the Seven Years’ War. The government in London needed money badly, considering the size and scope of its new North American territories and also its large debt amassed in funding a seven-year war.
To raise the badly needed revenue, the Privy Council Of England on October 4, 1763, Britain began to tackle the revenue problem by reforming its customs service. Citing its essential problem “that the Revenue arising [from America] is very small and inconsiderable having in no degree increased with the Commerce of those Countries, and is not sufficient to defray a fourth Part of the Expence necessary for collecting it,” the Order provided measures to enforce the Navigation laws (Greene, 14).
Britain appointed many new officers, gave out strict instructions and regulation to those new and existing officers, and established accountability amongst enforcement. The officers now were required to report any wrongdoing whether it would be illegal commerce or the acceptance of a bribe by one of their own. The reform also ordered the officers “to transmit exact Accounts of the Imports and Exports in their several Districts, of the state of the Revenue, and of the illicit Commerce with other European States” (Greene, 15).
The reform of the customs service would ensure no financial transaction would go unaccounted for and provided the manpower to meet that objective. A year later in 1764, the passing of the Sugar Act provided for arbitrary vice-admiralty courts to be established for the purpose of overseeing enforcement cases (Greene, 24). The reforms in trade policy may not have drastically changed the lives for many colonists, but for a merchant like Gerald Gardner they ushered in extravagant changes. Gerald Gardner, in a December of 1763 diary entry, reflects upon the life changes the customs reforms forced him to undergo. The newly enacted customs regulations have had a most detrimental effect upon business. The original reforms back in 1763 and the Sugar Act of the following year have provided for what seem to me unlawful searches and seizures of ships and cargo. Violators of the law have had their ships and cargo taken by the British who in turn sell the assets. The proceeds are divided into thirds split evenly amongst the English treasury, the governor of the respective colony, and lastly the officers responsible for prosecuting the individual. These prosecuting officers are quick to accuse violators, for they know the British law protects them.
The provisions of the Sugar Act protect the officers from any damage suits as long as they provide probable cause for the seizure of one’s vessel. Since the newly established vice-admiralty courts are subject to the decisions of British officials themselves, they are most likely to accept this probable cause for the fact that the empire will benefit from it (Morgan, 38). The law, enacted in 1763, requires that “proof thereof shall lie upon the owner or claimer of such ship or goods, and not upon the persons who seized the said ship or goods” (Greene, 24). I have seen the British customs officials exploit this system time and time again. Customs will follow certain lax policies for a good deal of time and then quickly and unexpectedly change the regulations and immediately bust my contemporaries who are unaware of the sudden practice changes. Some of my fellow merchants have lost their ships and cargo in this fashion. Others may have proven their innocence, but were forced to pay legal and court fees amounting to more than the cost of their ships themselves! (Morgan, 38-39). My fear of facing the harsh penalties led me to reform my own personal business practices.
I no longer deal with the French or Dutch. The same textiles I had once directly bought from them I now have to buy from the British at a higher price. Even my own personal belongings are counted as cargo forcing me to pay even higher customs duties (Morgan, 39). It is safe to say business is bad. The profit margins I used to make have diminished, and the duties I pay have increased. My personal wealth and income is down, but I press on. My new business connections in Britain still have me trading, but recent conditions have myself failing while the empire gaining financially at my and my contemporaries’ expense. Signed, Gerald Gardner. Parliament, in the course of the years leading up to the Revolution, passed legislation intending to furnish revenue from the colonies. The Stamp Act of 1765, the Townshend duties, and the Tea Act of 1773 all angered the colonists, inspiring them to undertake measures to act in denial in Parliaments’ right to tax, which indirectly effected merchants such as Gerald Gardner. The Stamp Act, although repealed soon after its induction, levied a tax on printed documents and the Townshend duties placed direct taxes up glass, lead, paper, paints, and tea (Morgan, 34).
The colonial merchants responded by agreeing not to import British goods until the taxes had been repealed (Morgan, 35). The merchants resorted to such a measure since the colonists simply were not buying goods with such heavy taxes imposed upon them. Another consequence arising from the obnoxious taxes enacted by Parliament was the rise of domestic goods. People throughout the colonies “reaffirmed their fondness for homespun and their detestation of foreign luxuries,” while the “newspapers were filled with optimistic reports of the progress of American manufactures” (Morgan, 35).
For merchants such as Gerald Gardner, the situation was grim. Britain put merchants in a tough spot. By British law, merchants were required to purchase their supply from Britain. But Britain also put hefty taxes on these goods, influencing the colonial consumers to not purchase them. Essentially, the British government forced merchants to purchase from them while also turning off the merchants’ consumer base through unjust taxation. The Tea Act of 1773 only made matters worse. Before the Tea Act, the East India Company could not directly sell its tea to retail merchants.
The company sold the tea instead to English wholesale merchants who would then sell it to an American wholesale merchant. The Tea Act, however, allowed the East India Company to sell directly to retail merchants, eliminating whatever profits that the American and English wholesale merchants could have made (Morgan, 58). And as the colonists moved closer towards independence, the merchants were dealt another mighty blow, the establishment of non-importation agreements. Set up at the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia, the nascent Colonial Association forbade importation of British goods, while also banning xportation after September 10th, 1775. When independence from Great Britain was finally declared in the summer of 1776, Gerald Gardner saw his business prospects vanish before his eyes. He summarized these turbulent times in another journal entry written sometime in 1777. “The events of the past decade and a half have been turbulent to say the least. The Stamp Act and the Townshend Duties led to a sharp decrease in sales. No one justifiably wants to purchase goods with such a large duty placed upon them.
We merchants responded by enacting our own non-importation agreement, but the lack of imports led to the rise of domestic, homespun goods. Therefore, I lost a good amount of business resulting from Parliament’s taxation. The Tea Act completely banished me from the tea trade with its establishment of the East Indian Company as a monopoly. Although the act claims to benefit the colonies by establishing a lower price for tea, I foresee that once all the other merchants are put out of business, the Company will raise both the price and tax of tea considering they will be the sole supplier of it (Morgan, 59).
The final blow to my business came through the declarations of the First Continental Congress. The non-exportation and non-importation agreements ended my career as a merchant in the colonies. Since British law required I buy manufactures only from them and the First Continental Congress forbade me from importing these goods, I simply had no customers to sell to. Thus I embarked on a trip to live in Nova Scotia. Although I saw Britain as responsible with its unjust taxation without representation for the colonies declaring its independence, I could not and did not want independence to arrive.
For us merchants, it marked the end of trade. Our livelihoods depended upon our business with British citizens. Many of our trading partners in Britain simply did not want to deal with colonies in rebellion. Many of my fellow merchants with whom I remain in correspondence with that are fortunate enough to remain in business, have had a very hard time finding new trade routes around the British naval forces now stationed here in North America (Morgan, 98). Furthermore, I criticize Thomas Jefferson and his Declaration of Independence.
His claim that government needs to protect the “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness” contradicts what actually happened to merchants. Thomas Jefferson claimed, “all the tranquility, the happiness and security of mankind rest on justice or the obligation to respect the rights of others” (Jayne, 136). The Declaration of Independence, while freeing the masses from the hands of Parliament, paid my rights no respect. In fact, it impeded my pursuit of happiness. The business necessary for pursuing my happiness was abruptly cut when America severed its ties with Great Britain. Signed, Gerald Gardner. It is in Nova Scotia where Gerald Gardner stayed for the rest of his years. There would simply be no business to be found for an import merchant such as himself. The non-importation agreements of the years prior had inspired in the colonies an urge for self-sufficiency (Morgan, 120). Valuing thrift, the colonies realized that the nation “should husband its resources and not spend its money on things it could make for itself” (Morgan, 120). But, he also realized the need for a national regulation of trade, which the Articles of Confederation did not provide for.
Differing tariffs amongst the states would lead to better domestic manufacturing in some states, but worse for others whose high tariffs may have turned off potential customers. Furthermore, as an experienced merchant, he realized the dangers of using paper money. Paper currency violated the sanctity of a contract. He had before in his years of trade suffered from the effects of paper currency. Gardner had engaged in deals only to be paid back at face value in currency worth a fraction of what it was worth when the deal was first made, causing him to lose money (Morgan, 99).
Additionally, differing paper money laws amongst the new states made intrastate trade impossible. For example, Rhode Island required the use of paper money, which “depreciated until it was worth no more than seven or eight cents on the dollar” (McDonald, 175). While Rhode Island required the use of paper currency, Massachusetts forbade it. Thus, trade amongst the two states was virtually impossible. A new, central government was needed to regulate and establish national trade policies in order to ensure financial prosperity for the nation.
The overall prosperity of the merchant class declined as the North American colonies moved toward independence from Great Britain. Originally, merchants engaged in trade with whom they pleased, disobeying rules of the lax Navigation Act enforcement. The customs reforms and the Sugar Act forced merchants to comply with the harsh rules and to pay the various new duties imposed. Parliament, through its taxation of the colonies, inspired the non-importation agreements made by the colonists thereby halting business for many merchants.
And with independence, the trade ties between colonial merchants and businessmen in Britain had been cut. Although many merchants were scrutinized for remaining loyal to the king, remaining loyal was in their best self-interest. Losing business with those in Britain would result in a smaller income, which in turn allowed them to accrue less property, hampering their pursuit of happiness. In order to preserve the “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness” guaranteed in the Declaration of Independence, the merchants of the era had to ironically remain loyal to the king.
Works Cited Greene, Jack P. Colonies to Nation, 1763-1789: A Documentary History of the American Revolution. Vol. 2. New York: Norton, 1975. Print. Jayne, Allen. Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence: Origins, Philosophy, and Theology. Lexington: University of Kentucky, 1998. Print. McDonald, Forrest. Novus Ordo Seclorum: The Intellectual Origins of the Constitution. Lawrence, Kan. : University of Kansas, 1985. Print. Morgan, Edmund Sears. The Birth of the Republic: 1763-89. 3rd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1992. Print.