02 July 2017

Boston's habituation to illicit trade

[T]he repeal of the Stamp Act and the loss of income to the Exchequer only intensified the problem of funding the colonies, containing the French and supporting both a military infrastructure and legal system (of customs officials, judges and governors) needed to underpin parliamentary sovereignty. The young Chancellor of the Exchequer, Charles Townshend, supported by Prime Minister Grenville, came up with an alternative solution in the form of the 1767 Revenue Act. The so-called 'Townshend duties' imposed an import tax (rather than the Stamp Act's direct tax on indigenous produce) on all glass, paper, lead, paint and tea shipped into the American colonies. And these new taxes came with a Board of Customs Commissioners designed to end Boston's dockside grey economy and finally put the imperial finances on a stable footing. Needless to say, the duties were met with an indignant response. Because for all of Samuel Adams' protestations of constitutional propriety and lawfulness, the Boston economy was in fact heavily dependent upon illegal smuggling and the avoidance of duties. 'We have been so long habituated to illicit trade that people in general see no evil in it,' Thomas Hutchinson censoriously commented. He estimated that some three-quarters of the consumer goods brought into America were done so illegally. And the high-yielding crates of Chinese tea were amongst the most regularly smuggled goods.

In Boston, the imposition of new taxes on established imports instantly politicised the waterfront, and, with it, Boston's relationship with the mother country. Within a matter of weeks, the customs officials, the Royal Navy and the tax collectors who patrolled the wharves and jetties metamorphosed from an irksome but necessary bureaucracy to the aggressive arm of a foreign government. The British Empire imperceptibly shifted from an enterprise of which Boston was a part to something approaching an oppressive, occupying force.

- Tristram Hunt, Ten Cities That Made an Empire, London, 2014, p.55-56.  

See also:
History: The peculation of Benjamin Franklin, 8 February 2016
History: Benjamin Franklin's plan to colonise New Zealand,  7 December 2015
History: When John Peel met JFK, 8 May 2017
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