Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Mein Wars - Part One

   The Townshend Acts of 1767 was the British Government's second attempt to raise revenue from her American colonies and were enacted after the colonies had successfully resisted the Stamp Act taxes. These acts also met with fierce opposition in the colonies and, in Boston, erupted in violence when the British authorities seized the sloop Liberty and her cargo. The Liberty was owned by John Hancock and its seizure was only prompted when the British Navy sent one of its frigates into Boston Harbor to support the authorities. In addition, General Gage, in New York sent two regiments of British troops, numbering 700 men into Boston on October 1, 1768, and six weeks later sent an additional two regiments totalling 500 men. Any colonial response to the Townshend Acts had to take into account these troops, now billeted in Boston, and drastically altering the political situation but also daily life as now there was approximately one British trained regular for roughly every thirteen men, women and children in Boston. Intimidation of of customs agents, for example, was no longer possible. Reluctantly, colonial merchants and traders agreed to stop importing British goods but limited the subsequent "Non-Importation Agreement" from January to the end of December 1769 and exempted a few commodities.

British Troops Disembark in Boston 1768

  Boston's merchants prepared in advance for the forthcoming agreement. Some stockpiled goods during late 1768 and planned to gouge customers as these goods became scarce. Some already had large inventories and intended to profit. Thirteen of the 143 Boston import businesses in Boston initially refused to sign the Non-Importation agreement. Among these were the Governor's sons and John Mien. As the agreement came into force and, as is so frequent in times of crisis, the burden of sacrifice did not fall equally on all. There was rising discontent with the provisions of the agreement and compliance with it. In response, the merchants, on April 21, 1769, formed committees to investigate the level of compliance with the agreement. The committees reported that six or seven of the 211 signers of the agreement had acknowledged infringements. The merchants association then voted to publish the agreement in Boston newspapers and to reinforce their non-importation pledge. The Sons of Liberty reinforced the merchants with an article in the Boston Gazette advocating that people cease all transactions with the violators of the agreement. Handbills were distributed throughout the town naming those who persisted in engaging in prohibited trade.
  It was at this point that John Mein, although not named as one of the violators of the agreement, entered into the fray. Precisely why he did so cannot be determined, but he proved to be a formidable force. After the incident with Edes and Gill in January 1768, the Customs Board, seizing an opportunity to enlist an ally, now gave Mein and Fleeming a contract to supply stationary, and, in the middle of Mein's war with the merchants, made him a sole supplier. The partners were paid a total of L819 down to April 1775 (this included payments to Fleeming after Mein fled Boston.). While this may have influenced Mein, what probably motivated him was an instinctive aversion to someone bullying him. He had resisted similar pressure during the crisis over the Stamp Act and though threatened that "the Crisis was now arrived, in which neutrality was criminal," he bluntly asserted his right to run his affairs as he pleased.
   John Mein leaped to the defense of the alleged culprits by challenging the integrity of the signers of the Non-Importation Agreement. Mein, who had acquired the manifests of ships from Great Britain that had docked in Boston since January 1st, reported that 190 people had imported large numbers of trunks, bales, cases, hogsheads, casks and other containers of goods on 27 different ships. He knew the identity of the importers but would not reveal them. It was a clever piece of propaganda. Mein did not state that the items were in violation of the agreement or that they were imported by the signers of the agreement but it made the people of Boston who were complying with the agreement wonder just who might be making money off of their misfortune. The success of the agreement rested on the trust of merchants and consumers. One week after Mein's article appeared, the merchants answered the charges by saying that they had already taken corrective action and Mein had distorted the facts.
   And so the matter stood for the next month and a half as half the British troops departed Boston and Gov Francis Bernard prepared to defend his position. Fewer merchants and shopkeepers had merchandise to sell but their advertisements did emphasize their compliance with the agreement. The merchants then chose to strengthen the agreement and extend it until all the Townshend Acts were repealed. Those who breached the accord would have their names published in Boston newspapers. An additional provision of the agreement would have consumers pledging not to purchase from violators. Only a few importers refused to bend and, on August 14, 1769, their names were revealed to the public. John Mein was one of them.

Boston Gazette September 4, 1769

   Believing that he had been unfairly characterized as an importer, Mein roared back his response through the pages of the Boston Chronicle. He defended his own actions, attacked the perceived hypocrisy of his attackers, and in issue after issue during the following months published the cargo manifests of ships that had arrived from Great Britain after the Non-Importation Agreement went into effect the previous January 1st. In the first article on August 17th, Mein explained that in his multiple roles as printer, bookbinder, and bookseller he employed seventeen people, "fourteen of whom live under my own roof." Whenever possible, he purchased paper from manufacturers in Milton, but they could not fully accommodate his requirements. As a result, some of the paper he acquired came from Great Britain. No more than L20 worth of materials he used in his bookbinding business came from outside of Massachusetts. A civilized people, he argued, required access to books and since books had to be imported from Great Britain, he should be praised, not condemned, for fulfilling this requirement for civilization. Mein's bottom line was that if was forced to sign the Non-Importation Agreement, he would have to layoff most of his workers, and they would become destitute and then a burden to the town.
   Mein struck a chord with struggling Bostonians and they must have resented being caught between the rock of British tax policy and the hard place of the pressure exerted by the Boston merchants and the Non-Importation Agreement. But the daily presence of the British Army as well as the detested agents of the British Customs and Excise Agencies reminded most Bostonians just who they were and whose people they were. Mein, a recent immigrant from Scotland, had not married into a Boston family like his partner John Fleeming and had not integrated himself into Boston society. He, and most of his fellow Scots in Boston, remained unswervingly loyal to the Crown.
   The manifests Mein published proved to be a great threat to non-importation. Mein detailed the cargoes of ships by importer, types of import, and quantities of goods. Three of the six members of the merchants' steering committee and five of twenty four members of other merchant committees were listed in the first two and a half weeks of published manifests alone. Before he was through, Mein printed hundreds of names, including forty-six who attended the Sons of Liberty celebration that August.
   The initial response to Mein by the merchants association was quite feeble since they failed to respond directly to the insinuations that these manifests contained illicit cargo. Their failure to directly confront Mein made them seem unconvincing to the townsmen. Yet, the merchants were having some success as Richard Clark and Son capitulated. In addition, the Boston auctioneers, all of whom had to be licensed by the town and one of whose members was Benjamin Church Sr, the good Doctor's father, agreed not to sell any goods in defiance of the agreement.
   The war between Mein and the merchants now proceeded to get even hotter as Mein and Boston's most prominent merchant, John Hancock, went after each other.

Front page of Boston Chronicle, August 21, 1769 with ships' manifests
                                                                  To Be Continued.

1 comment:

  1. I think Mein's manifests are an interesting glimpse into just what items were being boycotted by the non-importation, and what people were really wanting from Britain.

    Thanks for sharing, I really enjoy this blog.