Saturday, November 13, 2010

Mein Wars - Part Two

   Prior to continuing with the war between John Mein and the merchants behind the Non-Importation Agreement, we should take note that in two separate issues of the Boston Chronicle on 27 February and 2 March 1769, Mein wrote two blistering anti-slavery essays which did little to endear him to certain of the Boston merchants. Opposition to slavery was growing in Massachusetts and members of the Massachusetts House regularly attempted to to abolish slavery, but these attempts floundered as recently as 1767. The Boston town meeting regularly supported the anti-slavery measures but the council and the assembly disagreed and they were never enacted. Samuel Adams, John Hancock, James Otis, John Rowe, and Thomas Hutchinson were among the town's slaveholders. (There is no information indicating that Dr Church owned slaves and I sincerely doubt that he did.) Boston newspapers of the period are full of advertisements about slave sales or runaway slaves.
   Part of the opposition to these anti-slavery bills came from slave traders and their allies. Since the late seventeenth century, New England had been more heavily engaged in the slave trade than any other region. By 1767, however, the slave trade was in decline but the economic facts of life were that New England relied heavily on the "triangular trade" with the home country and the West Indies for its economic prosperity; and the islands of the West Indies could not prosper without slaves to work the plantations. In 1768, New England exported goods valued at 89,000 pounds to Great Britain and imported goods valued at 441,000 pounds. It was trade with the West Indies that balanced out this trade deficit and provided the cash to maintain this very complex economy. In Boston, slaves were often sold directly off ship. Among the public taverns used, at one time or another for slaves sales since there was no public market, were The Royal Exchange, The Crown Coffee House, the Bunch of Grapes Tavern, and the Sun Tavern. It should be noted that after 1740, the importation of slaves into Boston declined dramatically.

Crown Coffee House

   The greatest obstacle to ending slavery, however, was the lingering colonists' fear of Africans. Like other British colonists, few Bostonians were free of  prejudice and their assumption that Africans were inferior and a potential danger to whites. Even John Adams resorted to racial prejudice to oppose the Stamp Act, when, writing as "Humphrey Ploughjogger" he wrote "Providence never designed us for Negroes, I know, for if it had it wou'd have given us black hides, and thick lips, and flat noses, and short wooly hair, which it han't done, and therefore never intended us for slaves." The occupying British forces challenged Boston sensibilities on slavery and race. British officers were not above prodding slaves to revolt against their masters but, most importantly, the sight of  British troops flogging soldiers for various offenses stirred the blood of Bostonians. For the the British used drummers of African-Caribbean descent to administer these floggings right in the middle of Boston Common. Bostonians were not strangers to public floggings but the occupying forces turned their world upside down with black men flogging whites. This role reversal stirred racist fears.
   It should be noted that approximately five percent of Boston's residents in the 1760s and 1770s were "Negroes and Mollatoes."

1768 Watercolor of British Troops on Boston Common
    In the August 21, 1769 issue of the Boston Chronicle, John Mein published three of John Hancock's ships' manifests and Mein identified Hancock as the importer of five bales consisting of "100 pieces [of] British Linen," - a prohibited commodity under the Non-Importation Agreement. This was another Mein attempt to point out the hypocrisy of the merchants involved in the Non-Importation Agreement, and, if true, a telling blow. Recognizing the seriousness of the accusation and unwilling to wait for the next edition of the Boston Gazette to issue a response, William Palfrey, Hancock's chief subordinate, published a response three days later in the Massachusetts Gazette. Palfrey wrote that he was taking on the responsibility of defending his employer since Hancock was "out of the Province." "The man who seeks the Welfare of his Country cannot fail to render himself obnoxious to those who are using every Artifice in their Power to enslave it," said Palfrey. Mein was perpetrating a misunderstanding and trying to mislead people who are "Ignorant of the Nature of British Manufactures." The 100 pieces of British linen were, in fact, 100 pieces of "Russian duck," an exempted textile. Further, British customs officials frequently labeled "duck" as "linen" in the cockets (custom house documents given to a shipper to certify that his goods have been entered and the duty paid) they signed. Taking no chances that readers might note that Thomas Gray's imports in the same manifest were described as "Russia Duck", Palfrey had several "gentlemen" inspect the invoice and three of the bales, and he declared, under oath before a justice of the peace, that all five bales were Russian duck.
   Mein retaliated by printing the entries of "British Linen" attested to by George Haley, Hancock's business associate in England, and customs officials in England and Boston, slyly inquiring as to whom one should believe. "This affair then at present rests between Mr Hayley, a Merchant in London of great character and extensive business, and Mr William Palfrey, clerk to Mr. Hancock," Mein rhetorically concluded. Hancock wanted no more of this. A month later, he instructed his British agents to prevent all goods "except Coals, Hemp, Duck, & Grindstones being put on board any of my vessels." With that instruction, Hancock was finally in full compliance with the Non-Importation Agreement.
   Mein had hoped to discredit his opponents, but inadvertently his disclosures strengthened the Non-Importation Agreement by forcing compliance. If he went after Hancock, no one was safe.
   In the next skirmish, Mein takes the gloves off and escalates his rhetoric.

                                                                    To Be Continued


  1. I found these first two Mein articles quite interesting. Obviously well researched and something not normally found in many school books of today. One has to admire Mein's feistiness in this period. I hope this blog eventually discusses in as great as detail the various people and groups, such as the Sons of Liberty, and their influence on the Revolution.ardions

  2. Your articles are fascinating. I've been researching this and it has been so difficult to learn what it was all about. Thank you for your expertise.